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thorold pursues Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime in Q2

Club Read 2017

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Apr 1, 9:25am Top

It's the first of April, so time for a new thread (Q1 thread was here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/243644).

My reading in Q1 was very rewarding, but the numbers look a bit disappointing compared to last year in terms of number and range of books read, with almost everything being either for the RG Benelux thread or my solo voyage into Milton territory.

In Q2 I'm looking forward to the usual outdoor distractions (walking, cycling, sailing, etc.), as long as we get a decent spring. There's also my ten-year Thingaversary coming up on Easter Monday. I'm expecting to be deep in the forest "Somewhere in Germany" on that day, and the shops will be shut anyway, so I'll probably postpone the requisite book-buying spree a few days. (I have some interesting plans for the beginning of Q3 too, but more about that later...)

Reading plans: as usual I'm not going to commit myself too far. Project Milton is still running. I've got a few more books about Milton on the TBR pile or on order, and I'm not expecting to run out of material for a few more weeks, at least. After that, who knows? But I am quite taken with the idea of doing a similar in-depth look at another Famous Poet I don't know much about - maybe one of the Romantics...?

The Reading Globally group has a theme read on travel writing by writers from outside Europe and North America, which should be interesting (thread here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/254046). I haven't got much lined up for that yet, but I'm working on it.

Q1 was surprisingly crime-free, something that should be corrected as a matter of urgency. There's plenty of material for that, and other things, on the TBR. But I'm not going to stress myself out cleaning up the TBR shelves now: all being well, I should have plenty of time for that later in the year.

Edited: Apr 4, 8:14am Top

Breakdown of my reading for Q1: 20 books read in all, half of them in Dutch. In Q1 last year I read about 50 books. Obviously Milton, Het verdriet van België and The way we live now were the big time-eaters:

Edited: Apr 2, 8:34am Top

So, true to form, I start with a book that has nothing to do with anything I'm busy with right now. Mainly because I wanted to use up an audiobook credit and it caught my eye on Scribd after bragan mentioned it favourably.

How we got to now: six innovations that made the modern world (2014) by Steven Johnson (USA, 1968 - )
audiobook, read by George Newbern


I obviously didn't pick the most favourable way to encounter Johnson. As the tie-in book of a TV series, this is obviously limited by the need to comply with all the structural clichés of 45-minute documentary episodes, and you don't get the same sort of freedom to explore ideas in depth that you would in something written purely as a book. And the publishers don't see why any sane person would listen to the audiobook rather than watching the original show, so they make that in the cheapest way possible. The reading is so dry that I assumed "George Newbern" must be a conventional alias publishers use for a text-to-speech engine, but it turns out that he's a well-known voice actor with a Wikipedia page and everything. Who must have done so many audiobooks that he can read them without engaging with the text in any way at all...

So much for the form. As to the content, it's fairly unobjectionable. Some of the science is simplified to the point where it's borderline misleading, and some of the leaps he makes are too extreme, for instance in the chapter on Time, where he jumps straight from the 16th century to the 19th, leaving the naive reader with the impression that it must have been Galileo's pendulum clock that enabled ships to determine longitude. But those are constraints due to the need to fit everything in to a TV show. The producer obviously told him they could shoot on location in Pisa or Greenwich, but not both. But apart from that kind of issue, it all seems to be quite correct and uncontroversial.

Obviously, this isn't a book that's addressed at readers who already know a little bit about the history of technology: most of the stories he tells here are very familiar ones, and there was very little that I hadn't already met many times in other places. After six chapters I caught myself thinking that we'd had just about all the usual suspects except Albert Einstein and Ada Lovelace - imagine my surprise when Ada turned up in the Conclusion after all! Johnson's discussion of how innovation comes about is rather more interesting than the actual examples he brings in, but it's all very anecdotal and not developed enough here to be really worth reading this book for. He has written another book devoted to that topic, of course. The other inevitable topic in books about the history of technology is "unintended nasty consequences of progress" - that's something Johnson touches on a few times here and there, but again he doesn't really get the chance to develop it.

Apr 3, 2:41pm Top

Bummer. I was quite interested before this review. Think i'll pass now. As for the audio, there are lots of bad readers out there.

Apr 3, 3:20pm Top

>4 dchaikin: Maybe you could try his earlier book - without the TV constraints, he might well be worth reading. For a semiotician, he does seem pretty well informed about science and engineering.

Edited: Apr 7, 10:41am Top

Reading Gerard Reve's Op weg naar het einde (see the Q1 thread), in which Angus Wilson appears as a friend of Reve and as a literary figure, reminded me that I've been meaning to have another go at Wilson for years. He's one of a small number of writers that I know I should like, and usually do when I actually get around to them, but for some reason am reluctant to pick up (Iris Murdoch is another one like that). It's probably the same effect as those foods that you were put off from by an unfortunate childhood experience...

The middle age of Mrs Eliot (1958) by Angus Wilson (UK, 1913-1991)


Angus Wilson worked in the British Museum Library before starting to publish stories and novels in the 1950s. Apart from his books, he's well-known as one of the very few gay public figures brave enough to get directly involved in the campaign for "homosexual rights" in pre-Wolfenden England, and also as co-founder with Malcolm Bradbury of the famous UEA Creative Writing course.

The middle age of Mrs Eliot was Wilson's second novel. It inverts the central idea that most literary plots are based on, by taking as its central characters two people in their early forties - Meg Eliot and her brother David - who are in happy, loving relationships at the start of the book but are both confronted with the challenge of having to find a way to live without their partners.

There's an obvious level of irony in the way the conventional, smart, attractive barrister's wife Meg falls apart much more spectacularly, and with far less support from her friends, than the alternative, gay, lefty, pacifist, failed-literary-scholar-turned-garden-centre-proprietor David. But it isn't expressed anythng like as crudely as that, and Wilson cunningly manages our sympathetic engagement by shifting the viewpoint from one sibling to the other as we advance through the story. There's a lot of very English defining of exact social gradations: the flashy London circles Meg and Bill move in initially; the shabby-genteel setting of Meg's "lame-duck" widow/divorcée friends; David and Gordon in their patrician radicalism in Sussex; their workers and neighbours. All with interesting frictions when they rub together, and all sorts of awkward cultural non-overlaps.

And there's a certain amount of literary self-mockery going on, too: David's slightly sterile academic interest in the novels of the 1780s; Meg's annoying but sometimes rather revealing tendency to see herself in terms of literary heroines (Mrs Dalloway in the opening chapters, Maggie Tulliver when she moves in with her brother; Emma when she becomes aware of her destructive compulsion to interfere in other people's lives...). Clearly we're not supposed to take any of it 100% seriously, but Wilson does come up with some quite interesting glimpses into the ways that the complexities of social life collide with the complexities of human emotions.

(And, not least, this is a fifties novel in which a gay central character is portrayed as a mature, responsible human being whose sexuality is neither driving him to destruction nor making him a figure of fun to the reader, something that might seem rather trivial sixty years on, but must have been a big deal at the time.)

Apr 7, 8:17pm Top

Oh, I got a copy of that from a library sale! I'm so happy to hear what a treat I have in store.

Apr 8, 7:48am Top

>6 thorold: wonderful review. I have his No Laughing Matter on the monstrous tbr. It sounds like I should track down a copy to read in the near future.

Apr 8, 7:56am Top

>6 thorold: yes, terrific and enjoyable review.

Edited: Apr 8, 1:01pm Top

>7 ipsoivan: - >9 dchaikin: Nice to see that that one sparked something off. I ought to re-read a few more as well. But mention of the TBR does remind me of the seven unplanned books that came home with me from the charity shop last week...

Anyway, back to Milton. This is the book I kept trailing in my Q1 thread, which took such an astonishingly long time to cross the North Sea. Odd to see that Hill was so close in age to Angus Wilson - I wouldn't have guessed that.

Milton and the English Revolution (1977) by Christopher Hill (UK, 1912-2003)


Christopher Hill was one of the group of brilliant young Marxists who stirred up the study of history in Britain in the years around the second world war. His main interest was in the English Revolution of the 17th century, and especially in the many different flavours of radical and heretical ideas that bubbled to the surface during that turbulent period. During the sixties and seventies he wrote most of the standard books on the subject - his The world turned upside down is still in print and thus presumably also still on syllabuses after 45 years. Hill spent most of his academic career at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was Master from 1965 to 1978.

Milton and the English Revolution is thus very much an historian's view of the poet. He wants to put Milton firmly in the context of his own time, and goes to some trouble to show us how much Milton's unconventional political and theological ideas (actually, in the 17th century there's not much point trying to separate politics from theology) reflect and overlap with similar ideas that were being expressed by people in the radical underground - the Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, Quakers, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men, Seekers, and all the rest. It's interesting to put this side-by-side with Kerrigan's The prophetic Milton, which I was reading a couple of weeks ago, and which was written at about the same time. Both Hill and Kerrigan assign more or less the same set of heretical beliefs to Milton, but Kerrigan shows how he would have reached them by following a logical line through patristic theology and Calvin; Hill points out where he could have picked them up in pamphlets, tavern-talk and reports of court cases. And presumably they are both right, since Milton clearly did have all those authorities at his fingertips and also clearly associated with many people who were at least sympathetic to radical ideas. Hill's general conclusion is that Milton, taking his protestantism to its logical conclusion, took ideas from wherever he found them and tested them against his own conscience. He seems to have used the text of the Bible as a safety net to avoid falling into complete antinomianism, hence a lot of the points where Milton doesn't seem to take things to their full conclusion (e.g. his insistence on stating that Eve is inferior to Adam even though all the language he uses about her makes us feel that he doesn't quite believe that).

One really interesting thing for me was Hill's reminder that Milton did live in a world where there was always some sort of censorship going on (how much and what it was trying to stop varied widely during the decades of Milton's writing career, of course). Expressing ideas considered blasphemous, heretical, or politically inexpedient could easily land you in jail (or worse). Milton was obviously an expert political propagandist, and Hill suggests that we need to look carefully at what Milton wrote at different points in his career in the context of what he could say, and of whom he was trying to persuade. His passionate sincerity is always clear, but he isn't necessarily saying everything he might have wished to. At least some of what would otherwise look like puzzling changes of mind in the political pamphlets do seem to make perfect sense when we realise the constraints they were written under. This also explains the apparent discrepancies between Paradise Lost (published commercially in English in Milton's lifetime) and De Doctrina Christiana (written in Latin and set aside for posthumous publication, then forgotten in a cupboard in the Record Office for 150 years...).

As always, Hill is a lively and articulate writer, although you are bound to lose track from time to time of which sect was which (I've always thought I'd like to be a Muggletonian, just for the sake of the name...). Well worth a read if you're interested in the period and already know your way around Milton a bit.

Apr 8, 2:52pm Top

Muggletonian? - so, muggles are real afterall.

Very interesting about Hill, and i'll keep this in mind for when I do get to Milton. Hopefully this lifetime. I'm curious what is significant in De Doctrina Christiana.

Apr 8, 3:57pm Top

>11 dchaikin: The Wikipedia page on Muggletonians is fun. Apparently no-one realised that they still existed until the last member died in 1979 and left the sect's archives to the British Library. And they formally cursed Sir Walter Scott...

Full disclosure: I haven't read De doctrina, I'm going by what others say about it. Amongst other things, Milton didn't believe in the Trinity and the immortality of the soul, which would have been enough to get him burnt at the stake if he'd lived a generation earlier. Or put in prison in his own day.

Apr 8, 6:33pm Top

Both Christoper Hill and Kerrigan sound fascinating -- as does what you say of Milton, at a time he's coming more into focus for me. I read book one of Paradise Lost once and felt I needed to know more of the Bible, plus a sense, somehow, maybe from other parts known, sometimes of denseness in his writing that could have been challenging to what I was seeking in poetry, and seeking for my own and seeking to move away from...simplistic I know. But last year (I think) I read L'Allegro and loved it - such another side to him, a younger man I think. I have read some of his sonnets too. But then also in falling in love with The Prelude which is so often not just influenced by it but in dialogue with Milton, responding, honing lines and ideas into his response. I put off reading your posts thinking to keep them until I was ready (silly idea), but I think they are going to help me as hors d'oeuvres and pointers too to some more reading, one day...but the man himself mustn't be put off in that way I was.

Apr 8, 7:53pm Top

>12 thorold: Formally cursed Walter Scott -- the horror! I read the Wikipedia page which was fun indeed, leading me to think it was a spoof, until I got to the quote from the sainted E P Thompson.

>10 thorold: I also had placed Hill in a younger generation. Interesting.

Apr 9, 7:01pm Top

When I read your review of The middle age of Mrs Eliot I felt sure I had read something by Angus Wilson, but when I checked it was a book by Colin Wilson (no relation). However there was a connection because Angus Wilson encouraged and helped the young Colin Wilson to get his book The Outsider, Colin Wilson published.

Collecting your recommendations and excellent reviews on Milton for when I get to him.

Apr 10, 5:22am Top

>13 tonikat: The Prelude is another of those poems I've always been a bit scared of attempting. After seeing your comments on Wordsworth, he is definitely on my list of possible next steps after Milton. But Blake seems to be cropping up a lot too. L'Allegro is Milton in his 20s, PL in his 50s (give or take a decade or two). Knowing your way around the Bible definitely helps, but the key passages for all three of the major poems are quite short, and most Milton editions are heavily footnoted, so you can read up as you go along. Anyway, if we all waited until we were primed and fit to pick up all the references in PL without looking anything up, no-one would ever read it!

I know what you mean about the denseness of Milton's writing in PL, but a lot of that is just a matter of becoming familiar with his idiom. At the surface level, his language is usually remarkably clear and precise. It's just that the images he uses are so often fighting with or at least redirecting the surface meaning. Milton was obviously a very clear, rational thinker, but he was also always very strongly emotionally involved in what he was writing, and I think that kind of duality comes across in PL very strongly. One of the next Milton books on my pile is Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin, which seems to be all about the fight between what the reader expects from PL and what we actually get, so probably more on that later.

Edited: Apr 10, 4:51pm Top

With a longish train trip in front of me on sunday, I decided it was time for a bit of crime, so I picked up a long-term resident of the TBR shelf:

A surfeit of Lampreys (1941 - US title "Death of a peer") by Ngaio Marsh (New Zealand, 1895(?)-1982)


Ngaio Marsh was involved in the theatre all her life as actor, designer, director and producer, and only seems to have taken up crime writing quite incidentally. But - outside her native New Zealand, at least - she's remembered chiefly for her 32 novels featuring Chief Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard.

Marsh is probably the one of the 1930s "queens of English crime" that I've read least of. Her work doesn't have the inescapable ubiquity of Agatha Christie, and it doesn't seem to have any characteristics that particularly grab me in the way that a Dorothy L. Sayers novel would. This book, her tenth, attracted me a bit more than the two or three others I've read, but I still found the whole experience a bit bland.

It's a good old-fashioned English detective mystery, with everything you could want in terms of butlers, peers, housemaids, a running joke about Shakespeare, an unconventional murder weapon, and a plot that requires you to study a plan of the building to make sense of who was where at the time of the crime. A marquess is found dead in the lift after visiting his Micawberesque younger brother, Lord Charles Lamprey, and Chief Inspector Alleyn is called in to investigate. Although published in wartime, it's set - and was presumably written - in the London of '38 or '39, when war was still something looming on the horizon. The plot hangs together as well as these things ever do, the Lampreys and their many children are entertaining, in a disarming-upper-class-charm kind of way, and there is a certain autobiographical conviction to the passages where the point of view shifts to the young New Zealander Roberta Grey, but there are also some rather poorly-written scenes with lower-class characters. And Alleyn never quite becomes human enough to be an interesting detective. Pleasant, but nothing special.

Afterthought: Probably the one really fun thing about this book is the way the US publishers decided their customers would be too dim to enjoy the Henry I reference in the British title...

Apr 10, 8:20pm Top

I've always wondered why Ngaio Marsh is less popular/frequently-read than other Golden Age detective writers, useful to see the comments in your review!

Apr 11, 8:10am Top

>18 wandering_star: Yes, I certainly wouldn't write her off (and I've only read two or three books out of the 32, as I said) but I've not yet found anything in her books that makes me say "I must read more by this author".

Apr 19, 2:14am Top

Quick update (more later) after my Easter holiday, which I spent - as I often do - with a cousin who lives in the depths of the German countryside. Lots of walks in the woods, rather more up and down than you get in Holland (!) and quite a bit of rain. But fun, and relaxing. With the help of a longish train journey, I had time to finish a couple of books. I stopped off in Köln on the way back and visited a few bookshops, but only actually bought three new books, so I can't quite be said to have completed the celebration of the ten year Thingaversary yet...

Edited: Apr 19, 11:34am Top

Unusually for me, I reacted to a newspaper review and pre-ordered this one (as an ebook). I'm interested in Hall for lots of reasons - as a Caribbean intellectual he fits in with the reading I was doing last year for the RG Caribbean thread, he popped up on numerous occasions during my studies with the Open University, and he was at Merton just a few years before my father and was taught by all the same people there.

Familiar stranger: a life between two islands (2017) by Stuart Hall (Jamaica, UK, 1932-2014), "with" Bill Schwarz

(oddly, neither LT nor Wikipedia seems to have a photograph of Hall, so you'll have to make do with the cover photo - he's the one on the left)

Stuart Hall grew up in a middle-class family in Kingston, Jamaica, came to Britain on a Rhodes Scholarship in the early fifties, and stayed on for the rest of his life as an academic and left-wing political critic. He was one of the founders of cultural studies as an academic discipline (at Birmingham University) and later became what the Guardian once called "the progressive insomniac's icon" through his prominent role as (emeritus) professor of sociology in the Open University, in which he appeared in many late-night TV lectures and seminars.

Familiar Stranger - a slightly odd mixture of memoir and heavyweight cultural analysis - is an account of his life up to the point where he moved to Birmingham in the mid-1960s. There's a lot about the history and social structure of postcolonial Jamaica and where his particular kind of family fitted into that, and also about the experience of Caribbean people as migrants to England, mixed in with more personal memories of his own experiences and the people he knew, which of course gets especially interesting when he gets on to his days as a postgraduate student when he was editing the New Left Review and mixing with everyone who was anybody in CND, the communist party and the left wing of Labour. As you would expect, there are some very thought-provoking insights about the cutural legacy of colonialism and slavery and the condition of emigrant, but there's disappointingly little analysis about what went wrong with the British left. Perhaps that will be in the next volume.

According to Bill Schwarz's introduction, the book is the fruit of some 20 years of discussions and interviews between the two of them and was planned from the start as a collaborative effort (Hall was a big collaborator and rarely published anything as sole author). However, Hall died before they had really nailed the structure of the book, and the publishers vetoed the planned dialogue format and asked Schwarz to recast it as a first-person "ghosted autobiography", which presumably explains the slightly clumsy jumps between quite personal reminiscences and heavyweight academic prose that is clearly crying out for (absent) footnotes. Probably not everybody's taste, and I doubt that this will be in the Christmas bestseller charts, but definitely interesting.

Edited: Apr 20, 2:58am Top

Time for another dose of Nestor Burma:

Fièvre au Marais (1958, Mayhem in the Marais) by Léo Malet (France, 1909-1996)


This is the third of the Nouveaux Mystères de Paris series, set in the Marais (representing the third Arondissement for the purposes of the series), a district that was much less trendy in the late fifties than it is now. We get the usual hyper-active and corpse-infested kind of plot, a new and very splendid instance of the blonde femme fatale (this one in glorious snakeskin shoes), and the necessary touches of local colour: an illegal pawnbroker-slash-fence, a backstreet foundry, and the not altogether death-defying Cirque d'hiver. Not to mention a buried-treasure subplot drawing on the area's medieval history. And a teddy-bear and a pair of frilly knickers...

As usual, it's all about Nestor Burma's ironic asides to the reader and his gloriously absurd similes, with only the magnificently sensible Hélène to keep him on the rails (and revive any blonde that happens to faint - not once but twice - in his office). Great fun, as long as you don't attempt to take it seriously.

Edited: Apr 20, 3:11am Top

...and some slightly more elevated French literature:

La Place (1983; A man's place) by Annie Ernaux (France, 1940- )


A short, beautifully clear and (superficially) simple analysis by a daughter of the way she perceives and perceived her father's life, across the generation- and class- gap that divides them.

The father was a Normandy peasant boy, born before the First World War, who has managed to work his way up to become the proud owner of a small café-grocery; the daughter has grown up in the forties and fifties to go to university and become a teacher of literature, and thus automatically middle-class, with quite different tastes and values from her working-class parents. Her obvious admiration for her father's toughness and determination is mixed up with her guilt about the patronising element that comes into her view of his attitudes and aspirations. And of course it's all complicated by her memory of the affectionate moments they shared in her childhood, and her sadness at witnessing his illness and death. Superb writing, and a topic I found very interesting because there are so many echoes there of the way people of my parents' generation related to their working-class parents.

Apr 19, 11:02pm Top

This last one, by Ernaux, sounds really good. Probably not available in English. ??

Edited: Apr 20, 3:12am Top

>24 dchaikin: There is a translation - it's our current book club choice and one of our main requirements is that the book is available in all the languages we need, including English, German and Italian (although most people seem to have decided to risk reading it in French, since it's short and relatively uncomplicated linguistically).

It seems to be La Place in the UK and A man's place in the US - I'm not sure if those are two different translations as well.

After looking properly at WorldCat: The translation by Tanya Leslie has the title A man's place. What confused me is that there is also a Routledge publication under the title La Place, but that's a student edition of the French original with notes and introduction in English.

Apr 21, 1:16am Top

I seem to have been reading three French novels at once, each for quite different reasons. This one I started to read chiefly because I got fed up with seeing it sitting on the TBR shelf where it's been since September 2009. After all this time, I only have the vaguest idea of why I might have bought it. Part of the book does overlap geographically with Fièvre au Marais, albeit some 20 years on, so there is a kind of connection:

Les Dames de France (1977) by Angelo Rinaldi (France, 1940-)

Rinaldi is a French literary journalist who was born in Corsica and has been publishing novels since 1969. He was elected to the Académie Française in 2001.

Les Dames de France was Rinaldi's fourth novel. The narrator, Antoine, recollects his childhood in a Corsican town (presumably Bastia), where he grew up with his mother Alida - proprietor of the "Dames de France" store - and her young sister Léna, so close to him in age that she was more like a big sister than an aunt. Léna continues to live with him when he moves to Paris to explore its gay underworld and build up a career in real-estate, and she writes an unsuccessful novel about their joint childhood called Les Dames de France. In the present of the narrative, Antoine is trying to get over Léna's recent death.

The book uses a recursive, self-consciously Proustian technique to burrow via these three main layers of time into Antoine's memories, which often made it feel rather over-written, but there are some very entertaining and effective bits of description, particularly the extended account of a dinner-party given by the Malaspina sisters, at which the whole of middle-class Corsica's closeted LGBT community seems to be present. I wasn't so happy with the final section, set in a Corsican-run gay sauna in the Marais: Rinaldi is oddly reticent about using sexually-explicit language, and there's something not quite right about a description of a pre-HIV orgy in a steam-room where not one of the participants appears to possess a penis. You might legitimately conclude that what is going on is nothing more than a big group-cuddle. Maybe that was censorship or an attempt to avoid alienating mainstream readers, but with a few decades of hindsight it just looks silly.

Edited: Apr 25, 3:03pm Top

I felt I ought to post something to mark the Tenth Thingaversary (last week), but holidays and things got in the way.

Anyway, a few numbers, because numbers are always interesting somehow, aren't they?

When I joined LT in 2007, I catalogued about 2500 books in the first couple of months, so that's probably more or less how many I owned then. I didn't catalogue anything I had read before joining LT which wasn't in my library in 2007. And e-books hadn't really started to be relevant then.

Ten years later, I have 3605 catalogued, of which 3147 are paper books on my shelves and the rest are either paid e-books or books I've read but don't own (library, Scribd, free e-books, borrowed from friends, etc.).

That means that the number of books on my shelves has been growing by on average about 63 books a year (not counting early childhood), a rate that has been only slightly higher since I joined LT than it was before. Which is reassuring - given that I'm exposed to all sorts of seductive bookish influences through being on LT, you might expect the rate of buying to go up, but I think what's really happened is that I now do less hoovering up of interesting looking titles I happen to find in secondhand bookshops and more purposive ordering of books. Not entirely coincidentally, the availability of browsable bookshops has gone down quite considerably in my area in recent years.

In the ten years, I've thus added about 1100 items to my catalogue. I've reviewed 1032 books, so that's probably about the number I've actually read (some of those will be re-reads of books acquired before 2007, of course; there will probably also be a few things I've used but not bothered to review - maps and guidebooks, for instance). I currently have 121 on the TBR shelf, and I think there would have been around 40 or 50 when I joined LT, so there's been a small excess of acquisition over consumption, but it's still quite manageable by bibliomane standards.

Out of curiosity I did a rough count of the number of "thumbs" on my reviews - that comes to about 0.8 thumbs per review, with about half having at least one thumb. The stats don't tell me how many of those are opposable thumbs, so I don't know whether I have achieved a degree of prehensility...

As far as categories go, almost exactly half my books (1793) are tagged "fiction". Going by tag-count the biggest single category in "non-fiction" is still poetry (313), followed by biography/memoirs (209), railways (202) and history (155). Travel, literature and science are all close behind. But some of those categories are not mutually exclusive...

The language distribution has indeed changed quite significantly - overall my library is currently 83% English, 8% German, 4% each French and Dutch, and the remaining 1% mostly Spanish with bits and pieces of other things. But it was 91% English in 2007, and it's 65% English for the books added in the last ten years. Definite progress!

Apr 26, 7:53am Top

>27 thorold: This is super interesting! What a rich reading life you are having. And you have so many hard copy books on your shelves, I always love that.
Congratulations, looking forward to your reviews in ten years to come!

Apr 28, 2:50am Top

A BBC piece by Benjamin Ramm (whom I've previously only come across as an indignant critic of the Lib-Dem Party leadership) on "Why you should re-read Paradise Lost", which actually turns out to be a very nice, compact introduction for people who haven't read the poem: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170419-why-paradise-lost-is-one-of-the-worlds...

The only thing I would take issue with is the misleadingly out-of-context blurb from Dr Johnson.

Edited: Apr 28, 4:22am Top

...and meanwhile, I've finished another book on Milton:

Surprised by sin: the reader in Paradise Lost (1967) by Stanley E. Fish (US, 1938 - )


Stanley Fish is of course one of the most ubiquitous American humanities professors of his generation - I've always assumed, possibly unfairly, that he must have been the original for David Lodge's Professor Morris Zapp - whose writings are liable to be somewhere on the reading-list of just about any course where postmodern approaches to language, literature, law, religion, history, you-name-it, have to be discussed by students who can't read French.

Back in the sixties, Fish was teaching medieval literature at Berkeley when he unexpectedly found himself having to give a lecture-course on Milton to cover for a colleague who'd gone on sabbatical. Ever since, he's been a leading figure in the vast American Milton industry. I also have his more recent and much fatter How Milton works (2001) on the TBR shelf, and will no doubt get to it eventually.

Surprised by Sin - the title is an obvious dig at C.S. Lewis, whose Introduction to Paradise Lost was one of the books that had led to the post-WWII rehabilitation of Milton - is one of those "you've all been making this too complicated: what it's really about is this..." books. Which would normally mean that it is (a) annoying and (b) misguided. To some extent it is both of those things, but it's also a book that no-one quite manages to ignore, even whilst disagreeing with it. Fish's central thesis might be a wilful oversimplification, but the evidence he marshals for it and the methods of analysis he uses really force you to read the book and pay attention to the details. Every other more recent work I've looked at so far has picked up at least one or two of the things Fish spotted in the text of PL and has taken them on in a new direction.

What every critic of PL has to deal with are the famous instabilities of the text, all the points where the poem's explicit message (as expressed e.g. in the voice of the narrator or of an authoritative character like God or Michael) fights with the less orthodox ideas that the language of the poem is suggesting to us. Most critics either assign these to Milton's subversive subconscious or tell us that they are radical ideas slipped into the text in deeply encoded form to avoid the censor; Fish argues that Milton is using a pedagogic trick that involves deliberately allowing his fallen readers to jump to the wrong conclusion, then correcting them and making them think about why they are so easily led into error, and thus ultimately giving them a better understanding of the significance of the Fall to our human existence. The Australian expression "trap for young players" sums it up perfectly...

It's a plausible argument, and it has the big advantage (in lit-crit terms) that it is self-contained, starts from the known perspective of the reader rather than the unknowable one of the author, and works without any need to bring in biographical evidence to support assumptions about what the author "intended". But it also has the big disadvantages that it relies on a completely arbitrary set of assumptions about the doctrinal position the poem is supposed to be promoting, and that it totally ignores the historical context in which the poem was written and published. And (since I'm reading this for pleasure and not as a scholar, I'm allowed to be subjective) it's totally at odds with the picture of Milton I've built up in my own mind. He is just too complex and contradictory a figure, with too many different sets of ideas playing a part in his life, to have invested the effort of dictating a 10000 line poem that reduces to a simple pulpit trick and a two-line message about faith and blind obedience to the commands of God.

I'm still glad I've read it, and there are definitely things I've learnt from it about how to read Milton (the book is worth it just for the discussion of the word "wand'ring"!), but I would be wary of taking it as the last word on "what PL is about".

Apr 28, 4:27am Top

>28 Simone2: Thanks, Barbara!

Apr 28, 10:23am Top

>27 thorold: Congratulations on your tenth! I must say I love these kind of stats you give. The increase in non-English language books must be especially heartening. Even reading in translation as I unfortunately have to, authors from other worlds offer such possibilities for thinking otherwise than whatever the norm around us may be.

Apr 28, 2:23pm Top

>32 SassyLassy: Thanks! - Yes, I get a lot of pleasure out of reading books in other languages, and it does encourage me a bit to try writers I might otherwise overlook. It doesn't always work - sometimes I run aground and have to put a book aside for a while, but it is one of those things that gets more rewarding the more you do it. It just needs a bit of courage to tackle the first novel in a new language...

Apr 28, 3:26pm Top

...but meanwhile, here's another English book! This is one I only came across because someone suggested it for our book club in the office. A bit out of my normal range, and probably not something I would have picked up on the strength of a synopsis either:

The Sympathizer (2016) by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnam, USA, 1971- )


Viet Thanh Nguyen came to the USA as a small child with his parents, refugees from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. He teaches at the University of Southern California, and The Sympathizer, which won many awards including the 2016 Pulitzer for fiction, is his first novel.

I haven't read much on the Vietnam War and its consequences - other than The quiet American - but if you'd asked me, I would have guessed that there must have been stacks of postcolonial novels written over the past forty years or so retelling the story from a Vietnamese point of view. It seems such an obvious thing - probably the most visible colonial conflict in most of our lifetimes, and one that has left almost as big a footprint in US culture as Algeria did in France. Judging by the fuss everyone is making about this book, however, it looks as though no-one can have had a serious go at it before Nguyen. All credit to him for taking it on, then!

The result comes out a little bit like a Vietnamese version of 2015's high-profile postcolonial novel, Meursault, contre-enquête. But pumped up to a decent American length, and with a lot more heavy weapons, naturally. It's still very much a novel written by an academic, full of complicated allusions to other books. The opening, as the Guardian review points out, is a pastiche of the famous opening of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, later on (amongst much else) we get echoes of Graham Greene and a chapter-length send-up of the shooting of Apocalypse Now (which I've never seen, but Nguyen helpfully lists half a dozen books about it in his bibliography).

The narrator somehow keeps forgetting that he's supposed to be a junior army officer and starts giving the reader seminars on postcolonial theory. This is a little odd to start with, but you get used to it, and it doesn't really distract (I'm much more used to professor-talk than army-officer-talk, anyway - I'd probably find the latter distracting). He makes a lot of good and relevant points about how the experience of colonialism damages a society, but most are very familiar, and the plot devices he uses to put his nameless narrator in a position to experience them seem more than a little over the top (he's not only a CIA-trained South Vietnamese officer spying for the Viet Cong, but also the illegitimate Eurasian child of a French priest and his 13-year-old Vietnamese maid...).

Nguyen is at his best in the big set-piece scenes - the evacuation from Saigon, the film-set, the torture and interrogation sequences. And perversely, these are the ones where he is free to write like an American and put aside his postcolonial principles for the sake of some graphic violence and a few loud bangs. In between times, the book tends to wander a little bit, but there are also some nice smaller-scale bits of writing.

There's a better, less American, postcolonial novel on Vietnam waiting to be written, evidently, but until it is, this one will do pretty well. Probably doesn't deserve quite as many awards as it's received, but still not a bad attempt.

Edited: Apr 29, 2:09pm Top

Foolishly, I took this little book with me with me on the train today instead of my e-reader: it turned out to be a novella disguised as a novel by the use of wide margins and large print, and it only lasted me the outward journey. Not a complete disaster, because I would have gone to sleep after a couple of pages anyway, having spent an energetic day in the fresh air, but it's always a bit scary to go through an out-of-book experience...

La pipe de Maigret (Maigret's Pipe; separate publication of the novella originally published together with "Maigret se fâche" in 1947) by Georges Simenon (Belgium, France, etc., 1903-1989)


At the end of an unusually quiet day at the Quai d'Orsay, Maigret discovers that his favourite pipe has gone missing. Not the sort of thing a Great Detective likes to publicise, naturally! It takes him a little while to reconstruct the events of the day, but after a sleepless night he's pretty sure what must have happened, and this gives him the motivation to look more closely into the case of the widow and her son who came to him with a rambling and unlikely tale of strangers getting into their house when they were out. Which is just as well, because - surprise, surprise! - there is something serious behind that story after all.

A very average sort of Maigret story - nothing really special apart from Maigret's mild embarrassment about the missing pipe. The widow and her feckless son are a brilliantly condensed rendering of the essence of Simenon's "hanging on to respectability by the skin of their teeth" characters, but that is something he has done so well so many times that we don't really even notice it.

Something that always amuses me in the earlier Maigret books (and obviously still applied when he wrote this one in 1945) is the way the police hardly ever have cars of their own available, but go everywhere by bus or cab. This one concludes with two policemen, two witnesses, and the arrestee all having to squeeze into one taxi for the trip back to the city! (Earlier in the story, Maigret had noted with resigned annoyance that the investigation had taken him over the boundary and he wouldn't be able to get his fare reimbursed any more...)

Edited: May 1, 5:07am Top

Since I had to reshuffle my shelves a bit recently to make some extra space for the TBR, I've been trying to clear a few more things off it. This novel proved better value than the Maigret: it kept me busy for a train journey and a couple of evenings at home:

What I loved (2003) by Siri Hustvedt (US, 1955 - )


This is the fourth novel by Hustvedt (of six, to date) that I've read. In her day-job, she's an academic with a particular interest in psychiatry and the visual arts (and their interconnections), subjects that come up a lot in her fiction.

(Reading this book also reminded me that I've still not read anything by Hustvedt's husband, Paul Auster - I ought to correct that some time...)

What I loved reads disconcertingly like a revival of the ageing-male-Jewish-New-York-professor novel meme of the fifties and sixties (Saul Bellow and co.). The narrator, art historian Leo Hertzberg, is recording a phase of his life in which he has lost or been rejected from just about every connection that he has invested emotional energy in: his wife and son, his close friend the artist Bill Wechsler, and Bill's son and two wives. And through an incurable eye disease he's even lost his ability to look at pictures other than in memory's eye.

But this isn't a novel about Leo. He's there as an observer and reporter, and as a kind of calibration standard for the normality of his reactions to the things that go on in his life. What we are interested in are all the other characters around him, who react to emotional stress in much more varied ways. Especially, the three main female characters and the artists Bill and Matt, who are all characterised to the reader chiefly through the projects they are working on, but also the mentally-ill brother and the teen-from-hell... Along the way, we get a certain amount of emotional bashing ourselves, as well as some fairly demanding discussions about aesthetics and the role of fashion in both psychiatry and the New York art world.

I didn't enjoy this quite as much as The burning world and The summer without men, but it's still a very impressive novel. Recommended!

May 1, 2:07pm Top

>27 thorold: but I think what's really happened is that I now do less hoovering up of interesting looking titles I happen to find in secondhand bookshops and more purposive ordering of books. Not entirely coincidentally, the availability of browsable bookshops has gone down quite considerably in my area in recent years.

Interesting comment - I certainly feel the same way. Living in France and not comfortable with reading books in French ( I probably read 2/3 a year and of course I should read more), book browsing in shops does not have the same appeal. Since Librarything and online book shops my book buying has been much more purposeful and the result is I read almost everything I buy within six months.

noted your reviews of Surprised by sin and The Sympathizer. I think that the chances of you gaining prehensility have reduced since Librarything seems to have taken the thumbing of books off the front page of most peoples home profile and the whole thing has become a lot less fashionable (I have thumbed the reviews I have mentioned above, because every little bit helps as the old lady said as she wee'ed in the sea)

Edited: May 1, 4:04pm Top

merry thinganniversary (belatedly) - we're almost the same LT age. I found your thoughts on the last ten years very interesting and prompt more in me. But most of all I am most impressed by your completion rate and small surplus of unread books. I'm an amateur.

I also enjoyed your review of Surprised by Sin. Strangely this view of what he may be doing resonates with what I just wrote about what George Bernard Shaw on Great Expectations - perhaps. But I do favour straightforwardness and something in any such trickiness, if anyone is up to it, suggests a knowingbestness I'd find unattractive. But I can't say anymore until I read some more Milton. Again I feel I must read more (in general).

Interesting about thumbs up for reviews, I've not done it in past (or much) but doh of course it must help the reviewers and I do sometimes look at them. Its interesting we don't have thumbs up for comments in threads, but maybe that is not a path to go down.

May 2, 2:18am Top

>37 baswood:
Well, I can't claim that it's ever been hard to find English books in the Netherlands! Even now, we still have a dedicated English-language bookshop in The Hague. And most mainstream Dutch bookshops devote a decent chunk of their shelf space to English. (Their choice in French or German is likely to be pretty minimal, though.)

But a lot of the big bookshops here disappeared or shrank significantly a couple of years ago when the two biggest chains merged and then got into financial problems. And of course, those that are left have to focus on stocking books that will sell quickly, so browsing becomes less and less interesting.

>37 baswood: >38 tonikat:
I rather like the low prominence given to thumbing: it would be a shame if LT turned into the sort of place where we were all competing to be most popular. It's a pleasure to see that someone has clicked on the thumb from time to time, but the expectation is that no-one will, and that's fine. Multiple thumbs seem to come largely by chance, mostly for joke reviews or for longer reviews of moderately popular books. If I happen to post a review shortly before an English translation is published, that helps a lot, too!

May 2, 7:50pm Top

>6 thorold: there is the review that sent me to Mrs. Eliot! Thank you! I read the novel last week, and think it will likely be one of my favourites of 2017.

May 2, 7:52pm Top

>10 thorold: I think we must have twinned libraries. First The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot and now Hill's book on Milton! Must look it out.

May 3, 2:39am Top

>40 ipsoivan: >41 ipsoivan: Good to hear! Especially since Mrs Eliot was essentially just a random diversion for me. I must get to (re-)reading a few more of his.

If you do track down a copy of Hill on Milton, I hope you don't have to wait as long as I did for it to turn up.

May 3, 8:31am Top

I had it on my shelf... but now can't find it. I fear it may have gone in one of my periodic purges. Drat.

Edited: May 3, 8:54am Top

>43 ipsoivan: Hmm. If it had been a particularly rare book, that might be an explanation for the extreme "postal" delay, but I can hardly imagine that it would have been worth their while to send someone all the way from Fife to Canada to burgle your library for an old literature textbook. A pity, really: you could have a lot of fun with the literary cat-burglar Buchan-alias-Tweedsmuir dodging the Mounties to snitch the most exotic of Canadian incunabula and send it back to his masters in their top-secret book-laundering lair on the shores of the Forth...

May 4, 8:59am Top

Well, that may explain it. Actually, it is becoming more probable the more I think about it.

Edited: May 8, 4:15am Top

This is one that I have been meaning to read forever, and which has been on my TBR since 2011. The main thing that has been putting me off is that I knew the French was going to be tough. It was, in spots, but nothing I couldn't handle...

La Disparition (1969 - A void, 1992) by Georges Perec (France 1936 - 1982)


(The scan doesn't do the cover justice - the title is embossed white-on-white, so it's almost invisible if you look straight at it. )

Perec was one of the most famous members of the Oulipo experimental writing group. He worked in a science research library, and sadly died very young from lung cancer. His other works I've read include La vie, mode d'emploi - a novel in which no time elapses during the story and everything happens simultaneously. But he's also celebrated as the person who wrote a 300 page novel that manages to avoid using the letter "e".

Oulipo was mostly about writing with arbitrary constraints, and this book is mostly - no, it's probably fair to say wholly - known through its constraint. Writing without that particular glyph is tricky, but - obviously - not wholly impractical. GP also did a contrary trick in 1972 with Les Revenentes, a story that omits all non-consonants apart from that glyph that is missing from this book.

So why? Is it only a schoolboy trick to show you can do it, or did it add anything artistically? As far as I can work out - and this small trial is assisting with sharing that - constraints mostly work by blocking off such boring, standard ways of saying things as you might put into your normal work without thinking. A constraint is a way of pushing you as author to find original ways to put your thoughts into words. But it could also pull you towards things in your subconscious that you didn't know you would want to say. I think that's why GP brings in Albanian bandits, giant carp, bath-tubs, zahirs and so forth. In a way, it is just a fancy variant of what is going on in your mind if you pick a strict form such as haiku, tanka, ottava rima, ghazal, cinquain, and so on.

GP took a basically silly plot, a kind of parody of a whodunnit, in which a high body count and a lot of missing back-story that turns up during discussions play a big part. It also has a lot of word-play, palindromic paragraphs, parody of famous authors, a summary of Moby-Dick, and a lipogram within a lipogram. But you would not pick this book up for its story: it is always GP's linguistic acrobatics that grab you. So many spots at which it looks as though it can't work without violating his constraint, but GP always has a way out in mind. What a star, and how sad that his output was cut short so young!

* * *

OK, enough already with the lipograms. You have to do it when you review this book, if only to find out for yourself how hard it is. But it's best left to the experts. It isn't any easier in French - in principle, English should be the easier of the two, really, with a richer store of synonym pairs and fewer consistent grammar and spelling rules. In French, there are some things that are effectively ruled out altogether: adjectives for feminine nouns, for example, or the second and third person plural forms in most tenses of verbs. Perec had to do a few tricks to ensure that his characters could address each other using the informal "tu" (2nd singular),since the more usual formal "vous" always leads you to "-ez" endings. (In English, of course, you would rule out the past participle for all regular verbs.)

The constraint dictates the form of the book in other odd ways, too. For example, none of the usual French mealtime words passes the constraint, so you have to cheat - Perec steals lunch and collation. Characters also sometimes have the affectation of saying Thank you in English. And the Moby-Dick pastiche can't say baleine (whale) or bateau/navire (boat/ship), which results in a few complications...

And you notice how I allowed myself to be drawn into saying that La Disparition is an entirely frivolous book, because that's where the constraint led me. That's not entirely true: it definitely has a darker side. Perec's father died on war service and his mother in a concentration camp, so you have to stop and think when you realise that this is a book about children who have lost or been separated from their parents, and where a relentless, invisible killer is progressively wiping out everyone with a certain mark on the forearm. It is a joke, but it's a pretty black one.

May 7, 11:33am Top

>46 thorold: Well done! I didn't know the word lipogram.

May 8, 4:09am Top

>47 FlorenceArt: I knew it, but always assumed that the term had been invented by Oulipo - I just looked it up to check and saw that it goes back at least to the 18th century, probably the 17th. The OED has a first citation from 1711; the TLF has one from 1620 (as adjective in "vers leipogrammes") and another from 1726 as noun.

Edited: May 12, 8:58am Top

TBR shelf again, but this one comes from the "travel" section:

Old Glory (1981) by Jonathan Raban (UK, US, 1942 - )


Raban is one of a bunch of (mostly British) writers who contributed to a mini-boom in literary travel-writing in the 1980s, obviously a highly-respected writer who has won all sorts of prizes, but somehow I managed to overlook his books completely until I accidentally came across the wonderful Coasting and Passage to Juneau a couple of years ago. He grew up in Norfolk, the son of a country vicar, strong-armed (by his own account) Philip Larkin into mentoring him at Hull, and taught at Aberystwyth and UEA before becoming a full-time writer. According to Wikipedia he is now living in Seattle.

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before.

It's obviously no coincidence that Raban gives the young woman he lives with for a few weeks in St Louis the name "Sally" - this is first and foremost a book about the author's long fascination with Huckleberry Finn and its narrator's ability to slip away from sivilising influences in the nick of time. Raban might be disappointed by the detail of the 1979 America he finds in his journey down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to the Louisiana swamps, but he never loses his fascination for the scale of the country and the possbilities for lighting out that it offers.

The river itself is a major character throughout the book - it's striking how much, here as in his other travel books, Raban has to say about water. There are paragraphs and paragraphs of description of how the water looks and sounds, and how it moves under different conditions. Eddies, swirls, risers, chutes, confluences, washes, waves, reflections, bubbles - you name it, he finds something to say about it. Oddly enough, most authors of books on rivers and the sea only tend to make rather fleeting references to the element they are travelling on, but in Raban it is always present. Even when he's on land and merely catches a glimpse of the river in the distance, he takes the trouble to tell us something about what the water is doing.

When he's not writing about the water, he also has some pretty interesting things to say about the towns and cities he stops in, and the people he meets there. Speech and its quirks apparently matter a lot - he takes a lot of trouble capturing the eccentricities in the way people talk to him and using them to make his characters come alive. This sometimes comes over as a little bit too Mark-Twainish, but he's usually careful to avoid sounding like a patronising Englishman making fun of simple Americans (except when he catches himself acting just like the patronising Englishman and indulges in a bit of self-mockery). He perhaps isn't quite sufficiently aware of how much he succumbs to the Huck Finn temptation to search out the oddest characters in every place he visits, but as this is one of the most entertaining aspects of the book, we needn't complain about that too much.

There's a lot of America going on in the margins of the story - it's the autumn of 1979 and many of those he talks to are busy with the Iran hostage crisis and the run-up to the Reagan-Carter election. The apparently irreversible decline of the inner city, the parallel loss of the economic relevance of riverside small towns, and the growth of fake history tarted up for the benefit of short-term tourists are all recurrent topics. There's a nice irony in his finding the most vapid example of the last of these - "Tom Sawyer's fence" - in Hannibal, where a local businessman points out to him that the whole tacky Mark Twain souvenir business is irrelevant to the economy of the town, which really depends on a massive grain-processing plant. In Memphis, he spends some time with the campaign team of a black mayoral candidate (Judge Otis Higgs), trying to make sense of relations between races in the modern South. Needless to say, he doesn't find any easy answers to that question, but what he does have to say sounds sensible.

May 14, 9:28am Top

In the manner popularised by baswood, an image as taster for what's coming next:

May 14, 12:09pm Top

One of the pleasurable - but also slightly alarming - things about this wonderful connected age is that you can go from thinking "it's about time I read..." to being a few euros poorer and halfway through the Foreword in the time it takes a pot of rice to cook. Which is what happened to me on Friday evening with this book, which was discussed by Stuart Hall (see >21 thorold: above) and has also come up in several articles I've read in the last few days. It's another of those texts I remember using as a student, but never got around to reading from start to finish.

Mythologies (1957) by Roland Barthes (France, 1915-1980)


Roland Barthes (who turns out to be yet another near-contemporary of Angus Wilson!) was arguably the most influential figure in literary studies of the 20th century. And quite possibly one of the best-looking as well. If you took a literature course any time in the last 40 years or so, you've certainly cited him in a few essays, and you probably recognised the image in >50 thorold: above...

Mythologies (1957) is one of Barthes' first major works, following on from Le degré zéro de l'écriture of 1953 and taking its ideas beyond literature into the area of culture in general. If you have only come across it in the form of excerpts before, its structure is a little unexpected: part one "Mythologies", which takes up about two-thirds of the book, is a loose and rather random-looking collection of around fifty short essays on themes taken from contemporary culture, and we don't get into the brain-frying theoretical analysis until part two "Le Mythe, aujourd'hui". When, of course, we realise that the essays in part one are there precisely as real-world examples of the kind of analysis you can do with the techniques he discusses in part two.

The essays draw their subject-matter from all kinds of different areas, mostly steering clear of "literature". The pieces on professional wrestling, the Tour de France as an epic, strip-tease, the new Citroën DS, and detergent advertisements are probably the most famous, but we also get pieces on current murder trials, photography, wine vs. milk, steak & chips, Garbo, Brando, Einstein's brain, jet pilots, Billy Graham, and much more. Just at present, there is a special resonance in the pieces about the populist leader of the time, Poujade (Le Pen père started out as a Poujadist) and the way his particular type of ideology works. Everyone confronted with the current type of populist imbecility should read "Poujade et les intellectuels" and decide for themselves whether there is anything new under the sun...

The essays are for the most part a straightforward, easy read, and lull you into a slightly misleading sense of security, but of course your brain has to start working sooner or later, at the latest when you get to part two. To be fair, it's not quite as tough as you might suspect: Barthes writes very clearly, without much in the way of jargon, and he builds his ideas up in easy stages, starting out from the basics of semiology as set out by Saussure. What he means by a "myth", it turns out, is the extra, culturally-defined layer of meaning that co-exists with the literal meaning expressed by a sign. He uses two famous examples, a sentence from a Latin grammar (which stands as an example of a particular construction, not for its literal meaning) and the Paris-Match cover he came across at the hairdresser's whilst having his highlights done (>50 thorold:), which shows a young black soldier saluting, and which he decodes as conveying messages about colonialism and militarism. He would probably be highly amused that those messages have now been pushed into the background for most people who see this image today by their awareness of its importance in the history of semiotics! There's a very interesting discussion about the extent to which the two meanings of the sign coexist (Barthes uses the metaphor of the revolving door to illustrate how you can't fully see both at once).

Needs a lot of digging into, but definitely worth spending a weekend on.

A few phrases that caught my eye:

On modern poetry: "...il est certain que sa beauté, sa vérité viennent d’une dialectique profonde entre la vie et la mort du langage, entre l’épaisseur du mot et l’ennui de la syntaxe."

The scope of myth: "Tout peut donc être mythe? Oui, je le crois, car l’univers est infiniment suggestif."

Images versus text: "L’image devient une écriture, dès l’instant qu’elle est significative : comme l’écriture, elle appelle une lexis."

Literature: "Le langage de l’écrivain n’a pas à charge de représenter le réel, mais de le signifier."

Ideological function of myth: "Le mythe ne nie pas les choses, sa fonction est au contraire d’en parler ; simplement, il les purifie, les innocente, les fonde en nature et en éternité, il leur donne une clarté qui n’est pas celle de l’explication, mais celle du constat ..."

Edited: May 19, 7:42am Top

...and so to my more immediate reason for refreshing my vague student memories of Barthes. This novel came out a couple of years ago, but I only really became aware of it when I saw the reviews for the recently-released English translation:

La septième fonction du langage (2015; The 7th function of language) by Laurent Binet (France, 1972 - )


Laurent Binet teaches modern literature in Paris. In 2010 he won the Goncourt first novel prize with HHhH, an historical novel about the assassination of Heydrich. He has also published a non-fiction account of François Hollande's election campaign, Rien ne se passe comme prévu.

La septième fonction du langage is a playful, self-referential satirical academic conspiracy-thriller in the same general tradition as the novels of Umberto Eco (and many, many other professors-who-write-novels). But Binet scales the game up a couple of notches by taking the real names and public personas of 1980s intellectuals and politicians as the basis for most of his characters, and by introducing enough real events into the story to make us believe - initially at least - that we are in one of those historical novels that operates in the possible but unlikely interstices of recorded historical events. We know that Roland Barthes was injured in a road accident in 1980 and subsequently died in hospital. But what if the accident had been staged by the Bulgarian secret service...?

It turns out, of course, that there's a highly-dangerous document that must be prevented from falling into the wrong hands. However, the one-page doomsday formula in this particular case is not the work of some crazed physicist or mathematician, but a secret annex to Roman Jakobson's six functions of language. President Giscard entrusts Commissaire Bayard and his postgrad sidekick Simon Herzog with the quest for the elusive 7th function through the mysterious thickets of French, Italian and American academia. But apart from the Bulgarians and Mitterand, all sorts of other people start getting involved (the Japanese, a mysterious secret society, the maffia, a prominent French-Bulgarian psychoanalyst, etc., etc.), and it all gets gloriously complicated, especially when all the main characters come together for the inevitable academic conference...

But then we start to see things in the novel that we can't resolve with recorded history. A fictional character from another writer's works presents a paper at the conference; a philosopher whose real-life counterpart still had another quarter-century to live is brutally murdered. Could it be that this is all just fiction, as both the narrator and Simon Herzog start to ask themselves? (Of course, we knew from the start that it is all just fiction, but to enter into the novel is to suspend that knowledge - or is it...?)

Although this is a lively, entertaining book with a lot of very funny digs at the absurdities of the French élite ca. 1980, it does steer pretty close to the margins of good taste at times. I have trouble seeing the Bologna station bombing and the personal tragedy of the Althussers as fit subjects for comedy, for instance. But I'm sure that Binet is introducing that kind of subject-matter advisedly, and using it as part of his plan to make us think about how fiction really operates. Would we have the same emotional reaction if Louis Althusser were some remote, historical figure in a novel set four or five centuries ago? Hmmm.

I couldn't help wondering how a novel like this gets on with the libel laws. Obviously no intelligent reader could seriously consider that the author intended the reader to think that the real Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian sleeper agent, that the real John Searle murdered the real Jacques Derrida, that the real Philippe Sollers is a pretentious imbecile, or that the real Michel Foucault took drugs and hung about in gay saunas (well, OK, probably no-one would quibble with that last one...). But I don't suppose a clever lawyer would have any trouble arguing that those associations were damaging. I wonder if they had to tone down the English translation?

May 19, 9:43am Top

>49 thorold: very interesting review, I've not read any Raban, but am interested how a person would persuade Phillip Larkin to mentor them, not least by strong-arming him.

>51 thorold: I bought a copy recently - Barthes has increasingly interested me - I think the reason I bought it was mainly as I am sure I saw a comment from him about how language itself is inherently fascist, an idea that interests that could interest me a lot (as I tend to try to temper such a thought with ideas of how it is used and understood, but at the time I read of this I saw possible truth in what he said). Must try and actually read it, but the first chapter is wrestling, hmmm.

>52 thorold: this was another reason I bought Mythologies - I read a translation of an excerpt with Foucault and bought this book, it's Eco-ness appealed, and the idea. I've only read a couple of chapters - I started to wonder about ethics as you suggest. Then I heard Binet interviewed on R3 and this use of people, some of whom are still with us, does seem to have caused some waves, a friend of Barthes especially apparently was upset, but yes it does seem all a piece with those times and thinkers, he thought Kristeva too clever to be upset. My wanting to read it suddenly felt a bit seedy and in search of a literary fix of some sort, a reminder of other ways, in these different times.

May 19, 10:43am Top

>53 tonikat: Raban/Larkin - he talks about it in Coasting, where he has a reunion with Larkin during his stop in Hull. Apparently Larkin normally avoided any contact with poetically-inclined students, but Raban just kept on bothering him until he agreed to read some of his stuff, and eventually they became friends.

Mythologies - the wrestling isn't the most interesting. No harm in skipping it and starting with something else, I don't think the order of the essays is crucial. You should definitely read the one about the child-prodigy-poet where he discusses whether we can define either childhood or poetry.

I realise that I said nothing at all in my review of Mythologies about Barthes' ideas on the way that myths are inherently conservative (I don't think he quite says "fascist", but he does say that they normally work to reinforce the values of bourgeois society). That omission probably means something...

I heard that R3 interview with Binet trailed, and then forgot to listen to it. I should check if it's still available on the web.
I think you're right about "literary fix" - Binet does a lot of spoon-feeding, it's not a book that makes you work hard.

(Incidentally, thinking about the wrestling essay made me realise why Binet puts in so many tennis references - it's another little nod to Mythologies, like the DS and the Poujadism references.)

Edited: May 19, 3:32pm Top

>54 thorold: Found the Binet interview - it's the first item in Free Thinking from last Thursday, 11 May, still available online (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08p52dm#play).
And that led me to the five-part series of The Essay on Barthes, also from last week. The last two, by Andrew Gallix and Michael Wood, were especially interesting. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06pxdzh)

So, that's this evening used up, and I now feel I need to read a lot more Barthes...

May 19, 4:04pm Top

...looking again at the Guardian review, I was amused to see Lauren Elkin picking up a detail I also commented on in my review and coming to the opposite conclusion "Readers who are familiar with Foucault will still be a little startled to find him being fellated in a gay sauna on page 45." Maybe it would have been less startling on page 46? Or in the street?

Edited: May 19, 5:56pm Top

>56 thorold: no comment

>55 thorold: I didn't know of the essay, will have to catch that now

>54 thorold: - very interesting about mythology as conservative. There is a feature of conservatism that seems to me to be about a certain reading of the way the world is, almost a sort of the birds and the bees...that resources are scarce, rare and not available to all...for some reason, and I say this in the loosest way, I associate this with watching the films of Clint Eastwood which sometimes seem to examine this way the world is (sometimes?) and what counts in it....and this is a very different way of seeing the world than seeing the progress humans have made and the things they are capable of and of what they can achieve to mutual good through cooperation, the values of the left. I may be unfair on Clint E, many another film may give similar messages...and I can't deny the validity of reminding us of the bad eggs that would always spoil an omelette of the type the left suggests, but I tend to see accepting the right's terms of the game is also continuing it on those terms.

Mythology I have been thinking about a lot and it does seem to explain the way the world is from the various ways we can find it -- and no it is not all free and easy, instead we become invested in it and some specific terms. So I can see some conservatism to that . . . but could also see that even then a myth may then liberate and within the proper understanding of its terms of the world may in fact allow for liberal or left ways forward? I don't know -- must read this and asap. Having typed what i did, could i see Marx as a kind of analytic myth...it sets out the way it sees the world in a way based on numbers too, but it does offer an analysis (in fact is it a conservative (small c) analysis to project the collapse of capitalism, given its expansion and destruction of previous modes of production?). Oh hang on, I have a headache coming on, will read Barthes...all in, wrestling first.

Edited: May 20, 3:04am Top

>57 tonikat: Don't forget Jeanette Winterson - "My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't matter what." That was probably meant as an allusion to Barthes as well, I realise only about 30 years after first reading it...

One thing I picked up from the collected wisdom of Radio 3 last night is that you have to make sure you take citations from Barthes in their context and know how he is defining his terms. The 'death of the author' clearly doesn't mean that there is no need for new texts, just as 'language is fascist' doesn't mean that it is impossible to make revolutionary statements. What it seems to be about is a reminder that systems of representing the world are rooted in the dominant ideology, and that you can bring that built-in bias into the foreground by studying the way signs work, but you can't get rid of it. Or is that watering him down to the point where he isn't saying anything at all?

Needs more thought!

Edited: May 20, 3:35am Top

>53 tonikat: >54 thorold: From Jonathan Raban's Coasting (1986):
He had been kind to me when I was a student at Hull. I had discovered within a couple of weeks of my arrival that Philip Larkin, who was, as far as I was concerned, the university's only ornament, had worked out a thousand ways of escape from undergraduates who wanted to talk poetry to him. I wanted to talk poetry to him, and like everyone else I was politely rebuffed. I got myself elected to the council of the students' union, and invented a Library Committee, whose only member was myself. The function of the Library Commit tee was to meet the university Librarian once a month ("Couldn't you make that once a term?") and discuss things like opening hours, fines and longer loans. On my first entry to his office, disguised as a Library Committee, Larkin had taken out his handkerchief and waved it, saying "White flag". The formal business of each meeting was summarily dispatched by Larkin. ("Stay open an hour later? In the winter term? Oh, I couldn't do that. All my girls would get raped on their way home.") The conditions of his treaty with me were strict: poetry was out, but we could talk about novels and jazz. I treasured these visits, past the security arrangements of his two secretaries; they were the only tutorials for which I was punctual, and Larkin himself seemed to extract some gloomy enjoyment out of discovering how little I had actually read.

I can't even begin to imagine myself aged 18 or 19 buttonholing a distinguished poet. I must have passed John Fuller on the stairs quite frequently, but I was painfully shy in those days and it never occurred to me to seize the opportunity. That's obviously how Raban got to be an unscrupulous literary exploiter of everything interesting in his own life and I didn't...

May 27, 3:30pm Top

After a couple of false starts with other books, I remembered that I'd been meaning to read some more Javier Cercas:

El Impostor (2014; The Impostor) by Javier Cercas (Spain, 1962 - )


Although Cercas has lived most of his life in and around Barcelona, it turns out that he was actually born in Extremadura, so he's not "really" Catalan.
He's a very well known writer, thanks to Soldados de Salamina and Anatomía de un instante, both of which I read a few years ago. Much of his work delves into modern Spain's complicated relationship with its recent past.

El Impostor is Cercas's second-most-recent work - an English translation is due out in late 2017. His latest novel is El monarca de las sombras (2017).

El Impostor is a "non-fiction novel" - something of a Cercas speciality, although he gives the credit for inventing the form to Truman Capote - tracing the career of Enric Marco Batlle, a Catalan metal worker whose claim to be a concentration camp survivor was unmasked as false in 2005, after he had been lecturing and giving interviews about his experiences for many years and was head of one of the main Spanish organisations for former prisoners of the Nazis. As a writer, Cercas is naturally fascinated by the idea of someone who has turned his entire past into a work of fiction.

To comply with the First Law of Spanish Literature, Cercas is obliged to draw a parallel with Cervantes, but it turns out to be a very fitting one. Marco has conveniently reinvented himself as the victim of Nazi terror at just the same age as Alonso Quijano turned himself into the knight-errant Don Quijote, and that leads Cercas neatly into his idea that Marco is really a kind of universal Spanish ultra-conformist - anarchist during the Second Republic; quietist under Franco; a retrospective anti-fascist after the end of the dictatorship, etc. He only differs from his peers in his narcissistic desire to get himself into the photo, which leads him to exaggerate all these tendencies to the point where they get him into trouble. (A lot in the book reminded me of Woody Allen's Zelig. And some things of another more recent American narcissist...)

As in Soldados de Salamina, the "Javier Cercas" who is trying to write the book is as important a character in the story as the ostensible protagonist. As the narrator points out to us, the only evidence we have that this is actually a non-fiction novel comes from the "Cercas" in the book, and we have no way of knowing how far he represents the real Cercas who is actually doing the writing out of our sight. Either or both of them could easily be lying to us, and other than looking up the Wikipedia page on Marco (which is probably all taken from the novel anyway...) there's not much we can do to check. And of course it doesn't actually matter at all to us whether what Cercas is telling us really happened whilst he was writing the novel, although it might well matter to Cercas himself.

Interesting, and well-argued. I really enjoy the way Cercas writes. But in this book he is possibly just a tiny bit too long-winded. Even his favourite narrative trick of showing us a passage of text that we've already seen in a different context and making us read it differently gets a bit tedious after the fourth or fifth time...

May 28, 2:32pm Top

...and a lazy Sunday gave me the chance to clear another one from the TBR shelf.

The old devils (1986) by Kingsley Amis (UK, 1922-1995)


Kingsley Amis was probably the best-known of the young British writers of the immediate post-WW2 period, achieving a huge international success with his 1954 campus novel Lucky Jim. He published books in just about all conceivable styles and genres, but he's best-known for comic social realism laced with lots of booze and adultery. I've read maybe five or six of his books, but none of them ever really grabbed me as much as Lucky Jim did.

Amis's 1986 Booker winner is clever, entertaining and very sharply observed, obviously written by a master craftsman who knew exactly what he was doing. Really superb in its technique, but I found it disappointingly predictable on a larger scale. The jokes about Welsh provincialism, the fake mysticism of the Dylan Thomas cult, the tackiness of 80s Britain and the indignities of old age are really just an excuse for Amis to unleash his grumpy-old-man side; the booze-and-adultery gets rather tedious; the plot about a settled community being disoriented by the return of its absent celebrities has been done many times before... If anyone else had written this book it would have been nothing more than a Welsh Last of the summer wine pastiche - Amis is a good enough writer to take it a few levels higher than that, but he only barely gets away with it.

May 30, 4:28pm Top

I read Tous les matins du monde just over a year ago, and decided that I needed to read some more Quignard. One novel further in, I still have the feeling that I'm only scraping the surface. Obviously I need a bit more rosin on my bow...(*)

Les solidarités mystérieuses (2011) by Pascal Quignard (France, 1948 - )


Perhaps I'm being unfair to the French, but from a quick and haphazard browse around the web, I get the impression that Quignard is seen more as a writer to discuss than as one to read. Critics are particularly sniffy about his decision to withdraw from frivolities like music, novels, giving interviews and his day-job in publishing to focus on the multi-volume project "Le dernier Royaume", for the first part of which he won the Goncourt in 2002. And in fact he does still write novels from time to time, this being one of them:

Les solidarités mystérieuses looks from a distance rather like a simple romantic tale about a woman who returns to live near the village where she grew up and hooks up with her childhood sweetheart, whose wife is not amused. Add Claire's brother Paul, who's in love with the local curé, stir in a lot of Breton weather and a few standing stones, a fire and an accident at sea, make a point of not talking about how the parents and younger sister died, and you have a plot that Name that book would be proud of.

But of course that's not what this book is about, any more than its cross-channel counterpart is about Meryl Streep walking up and down the Cobb at Lyme Regis. The corny plot elements are subtly but very firmly undermined by awkward little continuity "errors". The wrong amount of time passes between two overdetermined fixed points - or it passes the wrong way; different POV characters see different versions of the story that can't quite be resolved; key events are left unexplained; the real landscape around Dinard and Saint-Énogat is described in such detail that you feel you could easily follow it on a map, but then he inserts a village that doesn't and couldn't fit in anywhere near where he puts it. And so on.

What we do get are a series of short, lyrical, very sensual scenes, long on sight and sound and smell and texture, but mostly short on well-defined narrative content. When you add them up, they start to form a complex, not quite consistent view of the characters of Claire and Paul and the world they live in, in the same sort of way that the poems in a collection start to build up a picture in your mind of the poet, but there's nothing like narrative closure going on, and you could probably read the book in a dozen different ways quite legitimately.

It should be frustrating, and I've very little idea what - if anything - it's "really about" (other than promoting the Breton tourist industry...), but I enjoyed Quignard's unusual but rather poetic style very much. Interesting. And another holiday destination to add to my list.

(*) Sorry, as I write I'm listening to Quignard's old crony, Jordi Savall. Easy to get distracted.

Edited: May 31, 5:26am Top

>62 thorold: I must try him, Tous les Matins has been in view for a while due to the movie, maybe that'd be a good place for me to start.

(thank you for that quote about strong-arming Larkin - likewise at that age I would not have thought like that, in fact at my age i still would not)

Jun 1, 2:14am Top

This is a new novel that I brought back from my last trip to Germany - I think a big part of the impulse to buy it was feeling guilty about my initial reaction to seeing it on display - "he can't still be writing, surely...?"

Statt etwas oder der letzte Rank (2017) by Martin Walser (Germany 1927 - )


Martin Walser (no relation to the Swiss writer Robert Walser) grew up in the picturesque tourist village of Wasserburg on Lake Constance. He was among the first of the new writers "discovered" by Gruppe 47, attending their meetings from 1953 on. He has something of a reputation for speaking his mind at the wrong moment, and got into trouble in 1998 for a speech in which he criticised the way - as he saw it - Germans were exploiting the cult of historical guilt for modern political ends. Politics aside, he's well-known for his feuds with critics - most famously Marcel Reich-Ranicki, pilloried in his novel Tod eines Kritikers - and his special interest in the dialects of the region where he grew up.

Out of his vast output, I've only read his 1957 first novel Ehen in Philippsburg, his celebrated 70s novella Ein fliehendes Pferd, and his my-childhood-in-the-3rd-Reich novel Ein springender Brunnen (1998).

Statt etwas oder der letzte Rank, published just sixty years after Ehen in Philippsburg, is Walser's most recent novel. It feels very much like a book written by someone who doesn't need to worry much any more about what his readers think - rather formless, a collection of short meditations, poems and anecdotes that make up a composite picture of a narrator who seems to be an elderly literary figure torn between the joys of Beckett-like staring at a blank wall and the real-world distractions of flirting with the young women who want to interview him or have him lecture to their students. It's all beautifully done, of course, if not necessarily in the best possible taste, and it seems to add up to something. What, I'm not completely sure, but part of it is certainly about the conflict between intellectual freedom and the pleasure of agreeing with those around us; part of it is about the problems and pleasures of working with words - the Statt etwas (instead of something) in the title refers to the semiotic reality that a word is always acting "instead of" the thing it stands for. And der letzte Rank? - as the epigraph, from Grimm's dictionary, tells us, a Rank in south-German is a twist or turn made by prey escaping from a predator. So presumably he thinks Mr Reich-Ranicki is still after him...

Edited: Jun 1, 3:43pm Top

...and while I'm at it, here's another book by a Gruppe 47 veteran that I've been dipping in and out of for the last couple of months:

Gedichte 1950 - 2015 (2014) by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Germany 1929 - )

A mere youngster compared to Martin Walser, Hans Magnus Enzensberger has even more of the characteristics of the high-profile German intellectual, famous for always being in the foreground when there's a camera or a microphone around, and usually with a political opinion that's at ninety degrees to those of the other intellectuals around him. Inter alia, his legend includes a Quixotic attack on the all-powerful Spiegel and FAZ in the fifties, borrowing Khruschev's swimming trunks and sheltering Baader-Meinhof terrorists on the run in the sixties, and supporting the US side in the first Gulf War.

But that's all short-term stuff. What matters about him is his work as editor of a couple of now-legendary literary magazines and the bibliophile series "Die Andere Bibliothek", through which he was able to promote numerous previously-unknown writers (most famously W.G. Sebald), and of course his gloriously rebellious lyric verse, which has been hitting its targets with precision, fluency and wild originality for well over half a century.

Enzensberger seems to be determined that the "Selected Poems" he leaves for posterity should be his own choice, and consequently he has to keep reissuing new versions of it, updated to include the last two or three collections. I have the "1950-2015" version, which rather oddly seems to have been published in 2014. Logically it should thus have included some poems he was planning to write later, but more prosaically it turns out that it concludes with three new poems not previously published.

There's a huge range of subject-matter and forms, although free-verse predominates. There are poems about current affairs, renaissance painters, the weather, language, love, the author's nose, you name it. And he can find the ridiculous in anything. A superb parody of legal language ("Vorschlag sum Strafrechtsreform") is followed two pages later by an Audenesque celebration of the wonders of shit ("Die Scheiße"). A book everyone who reads German should have on their poetry shelf (only to replace it by the "1950-2020" version, when that comes out, of course!).

Edited: Jun 8, 3:43pm Top

Back to the serious writer who's probably been taking up more of my time than any other over the past three or four years. This was a book it took me quite a while to get into, but really started to get its hooks into me over the weekend, so probably four weeks for the first half and four days for the rest...

Frost (1963; English translation by Michael Hoffmann, 2006) by Thomas Bernhard (Austria, 1931 - 1989)

This was Bernhard's first novel, following on from two collections of lyric verse and some musical collaborations with the composer Gerhard Lampersberg, and was really his breakthrough work as a prose writer, bringing him to the attention of the critics and winning him a couple of major prizes and quite a few important enemies (always a mark of success in Bernhard-land).

The narrator is a medical student, who has been given the rather unlikely assignment by his supervisor, the surgeon Strauch, of conducting an extensive undercover observation of Strauch's brother, a painter. The brother has burnt all his paintings, abandoned his life in Vienna, and gone into a Wittgenstein-like retreat in the obscure and impoverished mountain village of Weng, where he is staying in a run-down pub. The narrator tracks the painter down and soon finds himself recruited to go on long walks through the snow with him (Weng is clearly a place where it's always winter and never Christmas) and listen to his increasingly bleak and Bernhardish thoughts about his mental and physical state, the villagers, the landscape, Austria ("...the bordello of Europe..."), the arts, and death by disease, accident, murder and suicide.

It's a little bit looser and less intensively musical than mature Bernhard prose, and it uses unexpectedly conventional layout devices like paragraph breaks(!) and chapters, but you can see where it's headed. There's plenty of the usual scathing and very black humour, doctor-bashing, general misogyny, impatience with dullwittedness, and contempt for Austrian folksiness mingled with pleasure in the oddities of Austrian language. One of the main characters is the Wasenmeister, the person responsible for disposing of animal cadavers in the village (roughly equivalent to "knacker" in English). Not a word you will find in many modern dictionaries! Needless to say, he turns out to be in cahoots with the disreputable landlady of the pub.

Not a book that is likely to encourage many tourists to visit rural Austria, and probably best avoided if you are liable to depression, but otherwise well worth our time, like everything else I've read by Bernhard. And a fascinating glimpse at how he got to his mature style.

Jun 10, 4:52pm Top

This one is a book someone else proposed for our book club (yes, it does happen occasionally - I have to learn to grin and bear it...) by a writer I hadn't come across before, although I probably should have, given that he was on the Booker shortlist and won all sorts of other prizes:

Harvest (2013) by Jim Crace (UK, 1946 - )


Jim Crace worked for the BBC and as a freelance journalist before becoming a novelist (he seems to have given up journalism after a larger-than-usual row with Murdoch's Sunday Times). His novels tend to be political allegories with unspecific historical settings.

I perhaps came to Harvest with the wrong idea, doing pretty much what Crace said in his Guardian interview he was afraid readers might do, i.e. judging it on its merits as an historical novel. Which, it has to be said, are few. Because he obviously wants to avoid making either the place or the time where the story is set too specific, he leaves a lot of information vague and contradictory. In theory, I can see the point of this approach, but while I was actually reading the book I found it made it difficult for me to engage properly with the story and characters, because they simply didn't fit.

This is a story about a village whose landowner is planning to enclose the common land for sheep. That is a very familiar and specific meme in left-wing British historical writing, and there are hundreds of novels, poems, paintings and non-fiction accounts of burning cottages, greedy landowners, and starving, landless peasants trudging off to get the boat to America. Probably the most famous single example is Oliver Goldsmith's "The deserted village" (1770), which most of us will have read at school. So, whatever Crace refuses to say, we still expect to be somewhere between the mid-18th and the mid-19th century. For lots of good reasons, the story would have to do a lot of special pleading to be anywhere near plausible in any other historical period, so why not just put it where it belongs?

The big casualty of this refusal to commit is the first-person narrator, Walter Thirsk. He tells the story in the historic present tense, which is fine for a 21st century novel, but looks very strange when you're trying to imagine him writing 250 years ago, when narrators simply didn't do that. It doesn't help that the narration is in a vaguely old-fashioned, somewhat pedantic and over-lyrical style, which doesn't really fit with Walter's background as an uneducated manservant/cottager. Fine if he were meant to be a retired natural history teacher (or even Oliver Goldsmith!), but he's clearly someone who's never been to school. I can easily understand why Crace didn't want to give him a fake rustic voice, something that's almost bound to get you into trouble, but surely it would have been far simpler to side-step the whole problem and have a third-person narrator? As it is, he just isn't plausible as a narrator at all.

The other problem with Walter is that he is too limited a person to have any real insight into any of the other characters, as a result of which they all come across as mere generic types, the sort of thing that would work in a simplistic YA novel but doesn't really have any place in a serious book for grown-ups.

This all leaves the politics - which ought to be the added value its 21st century perspective should give the book over "The deserted village" - looking rather thin and predictable. The villagers have allowed their xenophobia and suspicion of incomers to distract them from the real economic threat facing them. OK, lesson learnt. Now what? Sorry - that's where the book stops, Crace isn't going to help us any further...

Judging by what other reviewers say, this might be a book that works well for you if you come to it without any preconceived historical ideas about enclosures and English social history. But if you are constantly trying to fit it in with what you know, it keeps tripping you up, and you end up frustrated and disappointed.

Edited: Jun 10, 6:17pm Top

>67 thorold: -- thanks.

I'm sorry deleted earlier comment cos what do I know. I read a Guardian article on him. Maybe I will read him to see.

The thing about being concrete is interesting to me, and the gains made from doing it. Can understand the wish to play with it too though, but risky.

Jun 11, 1:03am Top

>68 tonikat: Yes, the Guardian made him sound like a really interesting writer. Maybe if I'd read that first, I would have come to the book expecting something else, and liked it more? But I've never been all that interested in fantasy/dystopian stuff to start with, and I think that's where you would have to be coming from.

Edited: Jun 11, 7:04am Top

Yes, I don't mean to argue at all, I can see what you're saying very much and if I read it it would be very much with what you say in mind. I'm thinking of the idea of culture industry and where we are told something is something, a product of a certain sort but what we find (in the novel, when we go to the cinema) may not be what we thought we'd been told. I just deleted my comments as I don't know and am trying to keep my being opinionated in check. What I was saying is that it is tempting to be non specific in time, for me the influence of the 70's maybe or even Beckett, but he if non specific is very specific in many ways.

Jun 11, 10:38am Top

>70 tonikat: I'm getting more and more intrigued about your deleted post which I didn't see :-)

Edited: Jun 11, 11:36am Top

While I didn't get on well with Harvest because it was something different from what I took it to be, this next book is one that I enjoyed despite it being exactly what it says on the tin. Admittedly, it's been on my TBR since May 2009, so it obviously did take me a little while to get around to it...

City of Night (1963) by John Rechy (US, 1931 - )


This is American writing from the great era of the typewriter that never sleeps, when to use apostrophes in "don't" and "can't" would have been irredeemably square, and when writing "youngman" as a compound noun and arbitrarily capitalising random adjectives (adjectives are profuse, even superabundant, in this book) was a sure sign that you were someone who could swap authentic jive talk with the best of them. It would be unfair to blame Rechy for any of those things, any more than you can blame him for the bombastic images that angrily open each chapter with the impact of a panting animal. I did blame him for all of those things when I started reading the book, of course, but I got over it surprisingly quickly, because they turn out to be completely irrelevant to what makes this quaint survivor from the early days of LGBT writing such a wonderful treat.

Rechy's unnamed narrator travels from city to city in fifties America, selling his body on the streets and in the gay bars, and telling us in fascinating and vivid detail about the characters he meets in what was still "the strange twilight world of the homosexual": the hustlers and drag queens, their clients, the fag-hags who hang around them, the vice cops, barkeepers, and all the rest. In the process, the narrator - who obviously sometimes is Rechy, with his typewriter stashed away in his room at the Y, and sometimes isn't - explores his attitude to his own sexuality, and unpicks what it is that drives him to live a life in which men have to demonstrate their desire for him by giving him money, but he doesn't allow himself to desire anything except sexual release.

Described like that, it sounds cold and anthropological, but Rechy obviously does have far more empathy for the people he describes than he allows his narrator to show, and he brings them to life very vividly on the page. And as a reader, you can't help getting involved with the fate of the Professor, Miss Destiny, Chuck, Chi-Chi and the rest of them. We even find ourselves engaging with the pathetic would-be-Nazi leather queen Neil for a few pages...

No surprise that this book was a big commercial success despite uniformly negative reviews in 1963, but a pleasant surprise to see that it's managed to retain at least some of its charm half a century later.

Edited: Jun 13, 3:14pm Top

I finished two books that don't really have anything in common at all over the last couple of days....

Expert sailing skills (2012) by Tom Cunliffe (UK, 1947 - )


Tom Cunliffe is a well-known British sailing instructor and journalist, author of many textbooks and guides.

This book is one that came up in my recommendations on Scribd - it turns out to be a selection of Cunliffe's advice articles written for Yachting Monthly, giving his views on a variety of practical questions, some of which you might never have dared to ask - how to sail as a couple without putting your relationship in danger; some of which you might hope never to need to ask - what to do in case a casualty has to be airlifted off your boat; and most of which you have certainly faced many times and got as many different answers to - how to get that extra quarter-knot of speed out of your sails, how best to manage mooring lines, how to avoid looking like an idiot in a lock...

The advice, as you might expect, is bluff and straightforward, and as far as I could judge it all looks sensible and practical. The writing is a bit less attractive than the content - there's a bit too much old-fashioned journalistic quaintness ("it behoves...", "what betides", etc.) and a lot too much tedious hearty male yacht-clubbishness and old-sea-doggery (stopping the crew's rum rations, going off to the pub for a few pints, etc. ). But that's forgivable - I've yet to encounter anyone who has worked for any length of time as a trainer who doesn't have a supply of tedious stock witticisms, myself included.

Probably a bit too miscellaneous to be a really useful reference book, but I should think it's a book most sailors will learn at least one or two useful things from.

Jun 13, 3:30pm Top

and (insert clever segue here)...

Aufsätze (1913, Essays) by Robert Walser (Switzerland, 1878-1956)

The wonderful and rather odd Swiss writer Robert Walser (no relation to Martin of >64 thorold: above) has cropped up a few times in my threads before, and will continue to do so, I trust, until I get entirely fed up with autocorrect forever turning him into "Walter".

Walser started out as a novelist, but he's really best known today (Jakob von Gunten aside) for his shorter works. Aufsätze was his first collection of short pieces to be published in book form. It appeared at a time (1913) when the initial success of Walser's novels had faded, and he was showing signs of losing confidence in his own abilities. This was also the moment when he moved back to Switzerland from Berlin. The book was a modest success and got rave reviews from some influential critics, including Max Brod, who also reported that Kafka had been very enthusiastic about it.

Walser chose the schoolish title "Aufsätze" in a typical self-deprecatory ploy - in fact the fifty or so pieces collected here are a mix of stories, fables, prose-poems, letters, paraphrases of Great Literature, criticism and journalistic description. Other than their length, the only obvious thing that they have in common is a subversive tendency never quite to be what they look like. When he's writing about the theatre, Walser always remembers to bring the house-lights up at some point; when he's masquerading as his patron's 12-year-old daughter he makes sure to turn the knowing naiveté just half a notch too far to be plausible; when he's writing as himself he slips in little jokes which are clearly parodies of the little jokes a self-deprecatory writer would slip in when writing about himself. Even a simple-looking account of a busy Berlin fast-food establishment manages to slip in some profound existential doubts in between the hyperbole about beer-fountains and sausage-mountains. Brod talks about Walser's style as "freedom in its highest form", the opposite of the schoolish, and it's not hard to see how he came to that conclusion - without ever quite putting aside the layer of unassuming modesty, every piece here manages to push the language out in a different direction and take you by surprise in a new way. A book to read slowly and come back to, more than once.

Edited: Jun 16, 3:17am Top

... And back to French crime, inevitably. I read the first book in this series in 2014, on the recommendation of someone who knew that one part of my job is handling customer complaints. Since then I haven't got around to any more, but they have been slowly piling up on my TBR shelf as they turn up in the charity shop. I started reading this when I realised that there were three unread Pennacs on the shelf, but there are still three, because I found another one yesterday!

La fée carabine (1987; The fairy gunmother) by Daniel Pennac (France, 1944 - )


Daniel Pennac(chioni) is another schoolteacher-turned-novelist, who, aside from the international success of his comic crime fiction, has made a name for himself in children's books, TV and bandes dessinées. He's also a big promoter of oral storytelling. As an army child who grew up on a series of military bases, he's very interested in France's relationship with its former colonial empire, something that comes up a lot in his books.

La fée carabine is the second book in the Malaussène saga - Benjamin finds himself mixed up in another criminal investigation, and more than likely to be wrongly accused, with a serial-killer cutting the throats of old ladies in Belleville. Meanwhile, Benjamin's girlfriend the investigative reporter Julia is on the trail of a gang of drug-dealers who specialise in supplying elderly addicts. And it's not at all clear whose side the police are on...

Pennac avoids the trap of repeating all the jokes from the first book by putting a lot less weight on Benjamin's family and his job as a professional scapegoat, although both are still there, of course, and still very funny. A lot of the story focusses on a couple of new characters, Inspector Pastor, a pullover-knitting policeman of almost Adamsbergish vagueness, and his cunning - but possibly schizophrenic - old colleague, Inspector Van Thian (alias the widow Ho). And there's also a new Malaussène sibling, a baby named - with good reason - after a First World War battle...

Lots of sharp comments about modern French society, a strong message about our common need for humanity, tolerance, love and storytelling, and plenty of jokes. Very enjoyable, but you shouldn't come looking for a technically perfect detective story - for that, Pennac would have to overcome his fondness for taking us by surprise by breaking the rules at inappropriate moments.

Edited: Jun 18, 6:17am Top

By an odd bit of serendipity, last week's pile of books brought home from the charity shop included two otherwise unrelated short books that turned out to be about the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. I've been to Istanbul (in 2002, a couple of years before Geert Mak), and I have a couple of books about it on my shelves, but it's not a subject I would go out specifically looking for. Anyway, I thought I might as well read the two acquisitions back-to-back:

(1) De Brug (2007; The Bridge) by Geert Mak (Netherlands, 1946 - )


Geert Mak is a well-known Dutch journalist and author of non-fiction. I've read a number of his books, including his magnificent exploration of change in a Frisian village since 1945, Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd, and In Europa, his vast and pessimistic survey of the continent at the end of the 20th century. His writing usually sits somewhere close to the the journalism-history side of the triangle travel/journalism/history. What I didn't know until looking him up on Wikipedia is that he's not really a historian at all, but started out in the 1970s as an academic lawyer.

De Brug was the 2007 Boekenweek gift, and it's written to the typical Boekenweek length of around 100 pages. Unusually, it was released simultaneously in both Dutch and Turkish versions.

Over the course of a year, Mak got to know some of the vendors, beggars, anglers and others who spend their working lives on Istanbul's Galata Bridge, the 1km long link over the Golden Horn. He tells their stories, sensitively but undramatically, and interweaves them with insights into the complicated history of the city and the way the bridge fits into that, dipping into the works of both Turkish and Western writers along the way. Amongst other things, he tries to analyse the reactions of the people he meets to the Danish cartoons scandal and the murder of Theo van Gogh, which happened during the course of his field-work. His conclusion is that it's all got more to do with notions of honour and self-respect than with directly religious feelings.

Not the definitive book on Istanbul, of course, and it doesn't claim to be, but a nice introduction that goes a bit further under the skins of the locals than you would be likely to get as a casual tourist.

(2) Parle-leur de batailles, de rois, et d'éléphants (2010; No English yet) by Mathias Enard (France, 1972 - )


Mathias Enard is a French Arabist who lives in Barcelona. Before starting to write novels, he published several translations of Arabic and Persian literature. He's won numerous literary prizes, most recently the 2015 Goncourt for Boussole. That and his 2008 one-sentence novel Zone have been translated into English.
This is the first of his books that I've read. I bought it mostly on the strength of the intriguing title, which turns out to be a paraphrase of Kipling's advice on telling stories to the young.

Enard uses the historical novelist's traditional exemption from Occam's Razor to speculate about something that could have happened, but almost certainly didn't. What if Michelangelo had accepted an invitation from the Sultan to go to Istanbul in 1506 and design a bridge for him? As Enard admits in his note, the evidence is at best circumstantial, but it might explain one or two unexpected bits of (possibly) Byzantine and Ottoman influence in his later work. And anyway, it's amusing to think about the great renaissance man struggling to come to terms with a culture and a project that were both well outside his previous experience.

Enard makes two characters fall desperately in love with Michelangelo, only to be baffled by his aversion to sensuality, and surrounds the building project with a typically Ottoman court intrigue that the sculptor entirely fails to notice until he wakes up to find a murdered assassin in his bedroom.

An entertaining little book, with some interesting sidelights on cultural clash and what the glories of the renaissance might have looked like to outsiders. Possibly some of the more sensual passages steer a bit too close to having your orientalist cake and eating it, but it's a modest enough book for us to let him get away with it.

Jun 22, 5:39am Top

I started a couple of big thick books at the weekend, but I'm not making much progress - it's a bit too warm at the moment to focus on long, wandering sentences in Spanish, and real life is distracting me a bit as well...

So here's another little book that's been waiting for me since before I established a proper quarantine zone for TBRs. Judging by the price written inside the back cover (guilders crossed out, euros put in) I probably bought it in sometime around 2001. I read it now in connection with the RG "travel writing by non-European, non-North American writers" thread, which is about to end. But this one from a writer who's at the opposite end of the postcolonial literary spectrum to Stuart Hall...

A passage to England (1959) by Nirad C. Chaudhuri (India, UK, 1897-1999)


Nirad C. Chaudhuri was a well-known Bengali intellectual, a writer, editor and literary journalist who had worked for the independence activist Sarat Chandra Bose in the thirties, but later became rather critical of the politics of post-independence India, an attitude that often left him marginalised and - probably unfairly - branded as "pro-British" in later life. He moved to the UK in the 70s, and must have been yet another of the prominent people I don't remember bumping into in the supermarket when I lived in North Oxford in the early 80s...

Chaudhuri was educated in Kolkata at a time when the curriculum was heavily weighted towards British literature and history: he probably knew the works of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Spenser and Sidney much more intimately than most of his contemporaries who had been through the British school system, not to mention being on familiar terms with Horace, Virgil and Racine. He quotes Hardy or Grey's Elegy at the drop of a cowpat, and takes his ideas of country-house tourism from Elizabeth Bennet's holiday in Derbyshire. But he obviously also knows what he's talking about when it comes to Hindu culture and history. He's clearly not a socialist of any kind, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in caricaturing himself as something like a 1950s embodiment of Kipling's Babu.

You would imagine that it must have been quite a shock for someone like that to arrive in England for the first time in 1955 as the guest of the British Council and the BBC, and find himself in the world of the Welfare State, British Railways and the National Trust (not to mention Angry Young Men and Anthony Eden). But he robustly resists any temptation to be disenchanted by what he finds. He's on holiday and he's determined to have a good time. And he takes a huge pleasure in discovering that the English are still just as enthusiastic about their cultural heritage as he is, even if they don't always know very much about it. He is happy to pay his half-crown at Knole, Kenwood and Penshurst Place and to see Sir Laurence doing Twelfth Night at the Old Vic. He notices non-obvious things about England that are strikingly different from India - how silent the British are, and how few of them you see out in the open; how much more difficult it is to judge social status from the way people dress, talk and act; how the softer light makes the effect of depth stand out more in what you see; how coy the English are about anything to do with making money and how open they are about sex. But he doesn't complain - in fact, he criticises Indians who go to England and then moan about how no-one spoke to them on the Underground - he enjoys digging into the differences.

In an odd way, the book that this most reminded me of is A.G. MacDonnell's semi-fictional account of 1920s England as seen by a young man from the wilds of Aberdeenshire, England, their England. Chaudhuri isn't quite so funny or so sentimental, but he's essentially putting forward the same conclusion, that although the English differ in surprising and sometimes disconcerting ways from what you would expect having only met them in books, those practicalities aren't enough seriously to upset the myth of Englishness that everyone subjected to a colonial education has been fed from an early age.

Group: Club Read 2017

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