Wednesday 30 December 2020

Favourite Books #30

I have long been an admirer of the at once vibrant yet tremendously subtle writings of Ali Smith, and plan on getting stuck into her ‘Seasons’ quartet over the holidays (ha! ‘holidays’), now that it is completed. An earlier tome well worth checking out is 2005’s The Accidental – which owes something to Pasolini's 1968 film Teorema, in that the arrival of a charismatic stranger into a middle class family home has a profound effect on each member of that family. It also cleverly plays with multiple voices and points-of-view. A treat. 

Friday 11 December 2020

Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu

Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu


Desmond Traynor


To say that this album has received overwhelmingly negative reviews would be perhaps the most monumental understatement of the now nearly 12 year old century (apologies, but the hyperbole is sanctioned by Lou Reed’s own pre-release assertion to the effect that, ‘It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever’ – a statement which, in itself, despite how far you gauge Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek, might go some way towards explaining the widespread derision the project has been greeted with).  

  Most of the opprobrium focuses from the outset on the inherent incompatibility of the participants, and then continues, self-fulfillingly, to cite spurious examples of how Reed and Metallica sound not so much as though they are not on the same planet, but not even in the same room. All tosh, of course. Lou, after all, once claimed to have invented heavy metal, and contrary to what some of these know-all detractors would have you believe, I don’t think he was talking about the largely atonal Metal Machine Music, which I agree has little to do with the genre. More likely he had in mind 1974’s Rock’n’Roll Animal and 1975’s Lou Reed Live, both products of the same December 21st, 1973, concert at Howard Stein's Academy of Music in New York, where Dick Wagner’s and Steve Hunter’s humbucker-equipped guitars pump out the power chords and riffage in a way that has served as a template for the more melodic side of metal ever since. Indeed, the Loutallica versions of ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘White Heat/White Light’, performed when the two first got together at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert in 2009, owe more than a little to those mid-70s predecessors. (It is a testimony to how great a song ‘Sweet Jane’ is that it can run the gamut of genre interpretation from these raucous arrangements to the Cowboy Junkies’ hushed campfire rendition, which Reed has called, ‘The most perfect realisation of that song I’ve ever heard.’) And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the interminable noise guitar work out ‘Like a Possum’, from 2000’s Ecstasy. Metallica, meanwhile, have more often than not cast themselves as the thinking person’s (let’s not be gender-specific about their fan base) hard rockers.  

 The source material is late 19th century Munich playwright Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box (the latter more well-known to contemporary audiences via G. W. Pabst’s 1929 silent film classic of the same name, starring bad girl Louise Brooks), which relate the story of a free-spirited stripper who becomes a social climber only to wind up a prostitute murdered by Jack the Ripper, whose uninhibited and amoral lifestyle bring tragedy to herself and those associated with her. Lulu is, incidentally, much in the local ether at the moment, between 3epkano’s live soundtrack for Pabst’s film at the IFI, and Camille O’Sullivan’s show The Lulu House at the recent Dublin Theatre Festival. 

  So, are the results of this collaboration as dire as they say? Absolutely not (and you saw that rhetorical answer/response coming a mile off, didn’t you?). ‘Brandenberg Gate’ kicks off proceedings, with ‘small town girl’ (as James Hetfield harmonises) Lulu arriving in the big smoke and soon tiring of her factory shifts, setting the agenda with ‘I’m just a small town girl who wants to give it a whirl/While my looks still hold me straight’. Lou gets to establish Berlin atmospherics, which hark back to his masterpiece of that title, by name-dropping obvious cultural reference points. A further agenda is set in ‘The View’, and continued throughout, most pointedly in ‘Little Dog’ and ‘Dragon’, which is Lulu’s zeitgeisty Nietzschean rejection of the conventional value system, especially the life goals expected of ‘decent’ women: ‘There is no more time for guilt/Or second guessing/Second guessing based on feeling’.

  Lyrically, BDSM is the recurring metaphor in all of Lulu, affording Reed the opportunity for a generational update on themes first explored all those years ago on the VU’s debut ‘Banana’ album, in ‘Venus in Furs’.  If lines such as ‘Pumping Blood’’s ‘I swallow your sharpest cutter like a coloured man’s dick’, or ‘Mistress Dread’’s ‘I beg you to degrade me/Is there waste I could eat?’, or ‘Frustration’’s ‘To be dead, to have no feeling/To be dry and spermless like a girl’ leave you nauseous, then this probably isn’t your idea of sexual recreation. One suspects the Marmite principle is going to apply with this one: there will be few neutrals. Disc 1 is written largely from Lulu’s perspective, while Disc 2 seems to be an angrily impotent (and impotently angry) male response, although point-of-view can be nebulously interchangeable, with first Disc closer ‘Cheat On Me’ the most reflexive of the bunch. The sadist needs the masochist as much as vice versa, and Lulu’s submission is a form of dominance.

  Musically, many of the songs begin with acoustic and/or orchestral tinkering before launching into full-blooded rockers. ‘Little Dog’ stays that way for its duration. As one who doesn’t listen to a whole lot of metal, I’m struck by how much, like blues, it uses the flattened fifth, or so-called Devil’s Note, for its effects. It’s not all super heavy either: ‘Iced Honey’ is straight, melodic barroom rock’n’roll, while 19 minute finale ‘Junior Dad’, a meditation on the disappointments of domesticity from the male point-of-view, shares tonal affinities with ‘Street Hassle’ and Songs For Drella’s ‘A Dream’, even if it goes on a lot longer.  

  Why all the hostility, then? I can only hypothesise that it stems from good old-fashioned snobbery, straight and inverted. One detects a sniffy assumption amongst the taste-making cognoscenti that poet and legendary art rocker Reed shouldn’t be demeaning himself by slumming with these raggedy, not-quite-house-trained, plebeian thrashers; while, from the other side of the fence, the notoriously conservative metal audience, who subscribe to a faith built upon simple pieties, don’t like to see their heroes getting all artily above themselves and up themselves. (One would think, however, that their worldview would be reinforced by a morality tale of a ballbreaking, never mind heartbreaking, femme fatale who comes to a bad end.) Pointing out the limitations of either case of tunnel-vision need not detain us here. One also suspects that a fair proportion of the naysayers may not have even given the discs a whirl, assuming from the outset that the whole shebang is an elaborate postmodern joke. Personally, I detect no irony in either of the collaborators’ professed admiration for the other.

  Not that Lulu is perfect, mind, not by a long chalk. Quite a few tracks are too long by half, particularly on Disc 2, seeking to bludgeon the listener into submission with the kind of dominance that depends on relentlessly lengthy repetition rather than genuinely inventive intensity. Pushing 90 minutes when an hour would have sufficed, the cliché about how an average double album would have been a great single album could certainly be invoked here. Also, Reed’s lyrics, for all that they may seek to, and arguably even successfully do, epater le bourgeois, too often come across as half-baked, repetitious, and lack a narrative arc. These considerations aside, Lulu is, while not quite the best thing either party has ever done, certainly the best new material either has come up with in some time, and deserves more of a hearing than the critical scorn it has been met with will probably allow it to receive.   

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Favourite Books #29

Watching recently The Plot Against America, David Simon’s and Ed Burns’ excellent TV series adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of American alt-history, reminded me of the rich vein of form that Roth hit at the turn of the century, including the loose trilogy American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). Reading these books, I get the same feeling I get as when I listen to an album like John Cale’s and Lou Reed’s Songs For Drella: this guy knows how to write a novel, just as these musician/songwriters know how to make a record. They’ve been doing it all their lives. They know how these things work. No matter how complicated the work may get, there is an internal structure and simplicity to them that carries them through.

The Human Stain is another novel I used to teach. We always came back to the same question: is there something noble in Coleman Silk’s defiance, or is he just an arrogant old white (heh!) male, past his sell-by date? Maybe both…

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Favourite Books #28

‘Does Milan Kundera Still Matter?’ and ‘How important is Milan Kundera today?’ were two headlines from articles which appeared in 2015, when Kundera’s last novel, The Festival of Insignificance was published. Which is kind of funny, as he was all the rage in the ’80s, when you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a copy of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being or The Art Of The Novel sticking out of people’s pockets. A critical and popular success, as they say.

Personally, I loved this novel, and I read everything else he had published up to that point (as I tend to do, when I find a writer I really like). When I used to teach Contemporary Fiction, I alternated all his novels on the syllabus from year to year, just to keep things interesting for myself. His essays are also informative and illuminating.

Like Beckett, he is something of a transitional figure between High Modernism and Postmodernism, in that he has all the scholarly knowledge of the European Classicist tradition behind him, but rather than (re)producing epics, realises he can only function as an artist through fragmentation – a radical remaking of everything that went before, which he still nevertheless holds dear. (Kundera’s declaration, ‘The history of music is mortal, but the idiocy of the guitar is eternal’, from The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting, has always struck me as especially fuddy-duddy, when juxtaposed with what was then regarded as his formal experimentation and innovation.)  

If his reputation has taken a tumble in the intervening years, it is mostly at the hands of feminist critics who (quite accurately, if not entirely justifiably) take issue with his constant deployment of ‘the male gaze’. But what widely successful male novelist of that era (e.g. Mailer, Roth, Coetzee, Amis, Foster Wallace – hey, why not let’s go right back to Joyce and Beckett too?) has not come in for a retrospective bashing from the ladies? But all the young, straight white males who now signal solidarity with the sisterhood by disdaining these ‘problematic’ scribes will one day be Old White Guys themselves, if they live long enough, and inevitably Dead White Males sooner or later.    

A not bad film adaptation directed by Philip Kaufman (1988) also exists. Not as good as the book, though.


Monday 9 November 2020

The Queen's Gambit

I know it’s been dissed a bit in some quarters, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit. I can see that it starts out brilliantly and finishes up rather conventionally, and maybe there was not enough story to sustain 7 x one hour episodes. But who cares, when the production values are so high, the design so beautiful, and it looks so good? Yes, Anya Taylor-Joy may spend a lot of time later on swanning around looking glamourous until it appears her character Elizabeth Harmon is serving as nothing more than an elegant clothes-horse for expensive fashion items, and her easy defeats of opponents may become a bit predictable (although she encounters tougher challenges as she reaches the summit), but I was still rooting for her all the way – especially in the heavily male-dominated world of competitive chess. Besides, her glamour is just a critique of the notion that a woman can’t be super smart and a knockout at the same time (a criticism addressed in her relationship with French model Cleo anyway). Look, I just plain liked the fact that the whole series stood on its head the often geeky, nerdy, buttoned-up image of high-level chess, and managed the not inconsiderable achievement of making chess look sexy. And I know that’s a bit like praising immaculate record production when the songs are naff, but in this case the material is not, in my opinion, naff at all. 


So many things I liked: the subtlety with which her amorous relationships with men (and women) were handled, everything understated; the Cold War atmosphere, which EH effectively disrupts in how she behaves after her triumph in Russia; the perfectly captured sense of stifling domesticity and thwarted ambition women suffered under in the ’50s, personified in the character of stepmom Alma (and also EH’s own birth mother); EH telling the good ladies of the Christian organisation which has been sponsoring her to take a hike when they want to use her as a propaganda tool – why? “Because it’s fucking nonsense?” (note the raised, interrogative, intonation); the sense it conveyed of what many top players – solitary, obsessive types – have spoken of as the appeal of chess, that they feel safe when playing, because it reduces the outside world to the sixty-four self-contained squares on the board. Finally, who doesn’t like a story of an orphan making their way in the world, overcoming adversity when the odds are stacked against them?


I’m no grandmaster (in fact, I’d be one of the amateurish guys Elizabeth Harmon would have blown away with bored, dismissive ease at the start of her career), but maybe you just need a passing interest in and appreciation of the game in order to fully enter into the JOY of the series. I could have watched it all day – and night. My kind of girl (although of course she’d break my proverbial heart).

Thursday 5 November 2020

Favourite Books #27

And we think the postmodern novel came along sometime after the Second World War? Think again. First published serially between 1759 and 1767, Tristram Shandy remains as unconventional now as it was then. It gives us little of the life, and few of the opinions of its writer/protagonist, the hapless Tristram. Hell, he doesn’t even manage to get himself born until Volume III, and the story terminates when he is four. He realises he will never have enough time in the rest of his life to tell the story of his life, so prone is he to digression and exactitude. He is engaged in a race against time which he is bound to lose, if it takes him a year to write about a day in his life. “A COCK and a BULL – and one of the best of its kind I ever heard.”

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Favourite Books #26

During the first lockdown in March (ah! those halcyon days!) my friend Deirdre Irvine, owner of The Open Window Gallery in Rathmines, kindly asked me to post the covers of 7 books, with no reviews, as part of a challenge to create a library of great classics. Deirdre wrote: ‘It was difficult choosing one book over another and leaving swathes of beloved authors behind. But, now I nominate Des Traynor to take the baton and run. He has been known to read a few books, so I look forward to seeing his choices.’ I stopped at 25. As we are in the midst of another lockdown now, at least until the end of November, I’ve decided I’ll press on. Will I reach 30? 50? Most of my library is in storage still, which makes this a more difficult task, but I’ll see what I can do. Note: I didn’t adhere to the ‘no reviews’ stipulation.


A Roland Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag, who did so much to popularise Barthes’ work in the Anglophone world. A compilation is the ideal introduction (although I’d previously enjoyed the accessible and witty Mythologies). Just look at the table of contents to get a flavour of the material covered in these essays:


Table of Contents


  Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes by Susan Sontag p. vii

Part 1      

  On Gide and His Journal   p. 3

  The World of Wrestling   p. 18

  from Writing Degree Zero   p. 31

  The World as Object   p. 62

  Baudelaire's Theater   p. 74

  The Face of Garbo   p. 82

  Striptease   p. 85

  The Lady of the Camellias   p. 89

  Myth Today   p. 93

  The Last Happy Writer   p. 150

  Buffet Finishes Off New York   p. 158

  Tacitus and the Funerary Baroque   p. 162

Part 2      

  from On Racine   p. 169

  Authors and Writers   p. 185

  The Photographic Message   p. 194

  The Imagination of the Sign   p. 211

  The Plates of the Encyclopedia   p. 218

  The Eiffel Tower   p. 236

  Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives   p. 251

  Flaubert and the Sentence   p. 296

  Lesson in Writing   p. 305

Part 3      

  The Third Meaning   p. 317

  Fourier   p. 334

  Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers   p. 378

  from The Pleasure of the Text   p. 404

  from Roland Barthes   p. 415

  from A Lover's Discourse   p. 426

  Inaugural Lecture, College de France   p. 457

  Deliberation   p. 479


My copy is covered in pencil underlinings – the sure sign of a riveting read. (George Steiner: “An intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.”) ‘Flaubert and the Sentence’ is a particular favourite. (‘For Flaubert, the sentence is at once a unit of style, a unit of work, and a unit of life; it attracts the essential quality of his confidences as his work as a writer.’) But so are the extracts from The Pleasure of The Text and A Lover’s Discourse – which I went on to read in full, along with my own personal favourite, the last book he published before he died, Empire Of Signs.

Saturday 12 September 2020

Diana Rigg RIP

Here's a piece I wrote for The Irish Independent circa 1996. I remember at the time features editor Marianne Heron telling me that I needed to be more famous before I could start writing features like this. Hmmm.

The Avengers television series is exactly the same age I am, debuting in January 1961, and it has always held a special place in my affections. According to RTE’s autumn schedule yet another rerun is imminent, so it seems timely to ask: what is it about the programme that accounts for its continued and enduring appeal?

    The Avengers began life as a vehicle for Ian Hendry, a popular actor whose own programme Police Surgeon was not proving to be a hit. His character, Dr David Keel, was aided by fellow investigator John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, a mysterious undercover agent who became increasingly suave, wielding a steel-rimmed bowler hat and a brolly which hid a rapier. While the show started off as a crime thriller series with tough, gritty storylines, it found a new style after Hendry's departure, and the arrival of Honor Blackman's emancipated anthropologist Catherine Gale. I'm too young to remember her contribution (I was still in nappies), but my elders tell me the character stunned early sixties audiences with her stylish leather outfits and her ability to handle herself in a fight. The Avengers' popularity soared, and it became a ratings winner for ITV.

    But it was with the arrival in 1965 of Blackman's replacement, Diana Rigg, as Mrs Emma Peel, the wife of a missing pilot, that the show first came to my childhood attention. Steed and Peel's adventures grew more bizarre than those which went before, as they encountered karate-chopping killer robots and vegetable monsters from space. The Rigg/Macnee episodes are the most oft-repeated and fondly remembered, typified by their inventive, sci-fi tinged storylines, their crazy villains and eccentric characters, and the intriguing, understated (but all the more powerful because of that) sexual chemistry between the two leads. The show was camp before anyone, except Oscar Wilde or Ronald Firbank, knew what camp meant, and it helped to extend the realms of fantasy fiction on the small screen. It is no coincidence that both Blackman and Rigg went on to star in what were at the time the most extravagant of latter day big screen fairytales, the Bond Movies, Blackman as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, and Rigg as Contesse Teresa di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (the only woman to ever get the action hero up the aisle).

    On a personal level, what was it about Rigg's Mrs Peel that made her my four-year- old self's first screen goddess? Apart from the obvious fact that she was great looking, I must have figured that she was my kind of girl because when she wasn't busy beating up baddies without batting an eyelid, she was usually to be found relaxing by dipping into a hefty volume on astrophysics. She also seemed completely unruffled, no matter how big a jam she found herself in. When Rigg left the series in 1967, I sent her a card wishing her well for the future, and was rewarded with an autographed photograph in return.

    After Rigg's departure, Macnee's new partner was Linda Thorson, a Canadian fresh out of drama school, who became Tara King. Now operating under orders from their crippled boss, Mother, the duo took on strange cases involving highly improbable threats to national security, but the show had passed its halcyon days for me and started to go downhill, and I began to lose interest.

    The series was cancelled early in 1969 but was revived briefly for two seasons as The New Avengers in 1976 and 1977, when it reached its nadir. Macnee returned as Steed alongside Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit, a younger man contrived to appeal to younger women, and Joanna Lumley as Purdey, a too traditionally feminine woman to cut it as an Avengers girl. Lumley has since proved, with Absolutely Fabulous, that her forte lies more in comedy.  But as a product of the sixties, a decade it could be said it helped to define, The Avengers could not be rehashed to suit the seventies.                                                                                               

    Aside from her stint as a Bond babe, Diana Rigg moved on to pursue a career as a 'serious' actress, playing Regan in the BBC's production of King Lear, and Lady Dedlock in their Bleak House. Most recently she has been in Ibsen's Master Builder and Brecht’s Mother Courage at the English National Theatre.

    It was only as I got older that I realised my earliest object of screen desire, my first fantasy fodder, was actually more than 20 years my senior. But she's captured forever as she was then, pristine and timeless, in those at once innocent and knowing adventures with Macnee from the mid-sixties.

    Now where did I put that photograph?



Monday 3 August 2020

Favourite Books #25

I'd recommend this tome to anyone who wants a greater understanding of the historical context on the current situation in the Middle East (and Far East).  

Thursday 30 July 2020

Favourite Books #24

For such a funny and formally inventive writer, Donald Barthelme managed to evoke with wistfulness the everyday sadness of much of contemporary life. His stories were so original that I find it hard to credit that so many of them were first published in The New Yorker, where it is in any case difficult to get published at all, but in addition to which the literary values are decidedly traditional. I’ve read Forty Stories, and from it, many times. I haven’t read its predecessor Sixty Stories, but I hope to do so before I die. And also to reread yet again Forty Stories.   

Saturday 18 July 2020

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Utopia Avenue

By David Mitchell
Utopia Avenue is a happy book about a happy band. After all, they are called Utopia Avenue. Not that things were always so rosy during their rapid rise along the rocky road to rock’n’roll stardom.
  When we first meet Gravesend-bred blues bassist Dean Moss, he gets mugged, loses his bedsit and his job serving behind the counter in a cafe, all within the space of a few hours. He also has ongoing issues with an alcoholic, abusive father. Oh, and he’s just been kicked out of the band he was in, the politically hardline Battleship Potemkin. Home counties folksinger Elf Holloway is going through a bad breakup from her garrulous Australian boyfriend Bruce – who also happens to be the other half of her performing duo. Virtuoso Hendrixesque guitarist Jasper de Zoet is the ‘illegitimate’ scion of a wealthy Dutch family who, in a characteristic call-back to one of Mitchell’s previous novels, 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, suffers from schizophrenia/demonic possession (delete where applicable), and has spent time in a psychiatric institution in Holland, after being hidden away as a boarder at a posh English Public School. Their drummer, gruff Yorkshire man Griff Griffin, a sticksman who learned his trade on the northern jazz circuit, is – as the only non-songwriting member of the ensemble – very much the shadow man of the group, although he does endure a personal tragedy of his own.  In addition to the four performers, also integral to the set up is mild-mannered, gay, Canadian manager Levon Frankland, who has the vision to put the band together in the first place. A failed musician, his background is that he is estranged from his Christian evangelical family back home in Toronto because of his sexuality.
  Set mostly in and around Soho in 1967/1968, the epicenter of Swinging London, with subsequent sorties to Italy, New York and California, the narrative features walk on appearances by many of the great and good of the time, including, but not limited to (deep breath): Sandy Denny; John Martyn; David Bowie; Marc Bolan; Syd Barrett; Allan Ginsberg; Mick Farren; Brian Jones; Steve Marriott; Jimmy Savile; Francis Bacon; Humphry Lyttleton; Lucian Freud; John Lennon; Jimi Hendrix; Leonard Cohen; Janis Joplin; Frank Zappa; Jerry Garcia and various members of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. This recurring conceit can amuse or annoy in equal measure, depending on one’s attitude, or even one’s patience.
  From foundational texts like Don DiLillo’s Great Jones Street, through Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on to Sway by Zachary Lazar and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, right up to more recent essays in the sub-genre like Toby Litt’s I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay, Joseph O’Connor’s The Thrill Of It All, D. J. Taylor’s Rock and Roll Is Life and David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device, the list of novels set in the rock music milieu is already long, and getting alarmingly longer. It is almost coming to seem as though it is a rite of passage for every novelist worth his salt to attempt one. But this is hardly surprising: any band that last any length of time – real or fictional – is a soap opera waiting to happen. What mostly differentiates Mitchell’s foray is the nostalgic aspect occasioned by the fact that all of this happened in a period now firmly fifty years ago. Also, rather than being written from one character’s perspective, as a pseudo-memoir, Mitchell employs multiple points of view. This is facilitated through the cute structure he uses: every chapter is titled after one of the band’s song titles, which are laid out in the order they appeared, Side 1 and Side 2, on each of the band’s three albums; the chapter is written, albeit in the third person, from the viewpoint of whichever member wrote the song. The only exception is a short afterword composed by Elf in the present day.
  The novel is very good at hinting at the difficulties of being a woman in an otherwise male group, or indeed of being a female solo artist, in the late ’60s. Similarly, it also alludes to the vicissitudes of being gay when homosexuality was still illegal. It accomplishes all of this without indulging in the smug, retrospective moral superiority so common in historical revisionism. Despite the new-found freedoms of the era, sexism and homophobia were still almost taken for granted, according to Utopia Avenue the novel – but not in Utopia Avenue the band. Remarkably, considering they were mostly manufactured by their manager, the level of camaraderie and cooperation between the players is almost too good to be true. While he does receive one joint songwriting credit, it is difficult to believe that Griff would be happy being a virtual session man in his own group, especially when one considers the huge disparity in income which would ensue between him and the three songwriters of the group. There is also remarkably little ego friction between those three. The incident where Dean, off his face on coke at their showcase gig at L.A.’s famous Troubadour venue, plays badly but is covered for by his bandmates, speaks to the bonding within the group, but might well incur more wrath in a real life scenario.
  It is notoriously difficult to capture the thrill of playing music, much less describe the music itself, in prose, but Mitchell succeeds for the most part, although he does rely on quoting lyrics as much as musical expertise to get this point across. Despite the idealisation of the band’s internal workings, this is an enjoyable read for anyone who likes music and is interested in the period. ‘Utopia’ is, after all, ‘no place’, and remains an aspiration even if it is by definition unrealisable in reality.

First published in The Irish Times. The link is below. Slightly longer version above.

Friday 17 July 2020

Favourite Books #23

He’s no stylist (at least in translation), and his more pedantic passages of data can rival the Marquis de Sade for inducing boredom, but he does hold a mirror up to a society which disdains to see the uglier parts of its reflection. Is he an Islamophobe, a misogynist, a misanthrope? Maybe. But as I used to tell my students, none of his targets should take it too personally: he is an equal opportunity hater. As Jason Cowley wrote in the New Statesman:

Platform is certainly full of witty, unhinged attacks against Islam – characters are introduced for no other reason than to deliver page-length denunciations of true believers. But Muslims ought not to be unduly offended. Houellebecq is a writer of perpetual attack. Protestants, capitalists, liberal-leftists, the revolutionary generation of 1968, the French, les Anglo-Saxons, hippies, Frederick Forsyth -- all these are among his targets. There is considerable comedy in Houellebecq's wild misanthropy. There is also a peculiar poignancy.’

Most of his novels are worth reading: Atomised is a take down of narcissistic hippie culture; The Map And The Territory is a take down of the art world; Platform, our representative, is a take down of sex tourism. It takes the machinations of capitalism, when applied to the global tourism industry, to its logical end:

"Therefore, you have several million westerners who have everything they could want but no longer manage to get sexual satisfaction... On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing, who starve, who die young, who live in conditions unfit for human habitation and who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality."

Guess what happens. Enjoy.

Saturday 4 July 2020

Favourite Books #22

Are friends allowed? I first met Éilís Ní Dhuibhne when I wrote a laudatory review of this short story collection, first published in 1997 (link below). She contacted me to say thanks. Myself and my wife Jane subsequently became friends with her and her husband, Bo. That’s a long time ago now – but it feels like nothing at all. Of course, I’ve written negative reviews of Irish writers who’ve then shunned me from a great height. It’s all so obvious and predictable, really. Would the ones I wrote negative reviews of now be bosom buddies if I’d written positive reviews of them? Who knows? But that’s not the way life went.

Read the review to find out what’s so good about he book. Meet Éilís Ní Dhuibhne to find out what a good person she is.

Friday 3 July 2020

Favourite Books #21

Speaking of Mr. Burroughs… Most people reach for Junkie or Naked Lunch when asked for their favourite Burroughs’ book. (Perhaps these are the only Burroughs’ books they’ve read, or even heard of!) I favour the Red Night trilogy, especially the concluding tome, The Western Lands. Despite, or because of (I don’t know which) the influence of Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, this is a singular work by a singular man with a singular vision, which I regard as a late masterpiece. The Old Writer tries to write his way out of Death. It is a blueprint for immortality.

Favourite Books #20

Touted at the time as the female answer to William Burroughs – which, of course, she was not, that was just a convenient and lazy tag. However, what was clear was that we were no longer in Jane Austen territory. What a relief.

Friday 26 June 2020

Favourite Books #19

Still getting my head around this one, thirty years later. An imaginative tour de force, however, and Dog Woman: what a character. Puritans beware.

Monday 22 June 2020

Favourite Books #18

‘Where the Love Laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.’

Men don’t read women writers, runs the standard accusation. I have always considered myself relatively gender-blind when it comes to fiction. Yet I have to admit that 15:2 is not a great ratio in my previous 17 selections. Time to redress this gender imbalance then, with some positive discrimination, if not quite a gender quota. Of course, Arundhati Roy doesn’t require any kind of head start, because of her biology, nor would she appreciate such special pleading.

As for this novel: I love India, and this exquisitely beautiful and devastatingly heart-wrenching novel deftly mixes historical injustice with personal tragedy. Essential, really.

Sunday 21 June 2020

Favourite Books #17

Want to know what it was like to be a hapless GI abroad in London during The Blitz? Furthermore, one who discovers that V2 rockets are striking at the sites of his previous sexual trysts? That’d be enough to make anyone a bit paranoid. And that’s just the first section.

When I used to teach Contemporary Fiction it was always advisable to put Pynchon’s briefer  The Crying Of Lot 49 on a course instead of Gravity’s Rainbow: students won’t read long novels. (Similarly with David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men ahead of Infinite Jest.) But give this tome a go sometime, when you’ve got the time. Its sweep of contemporary history is chilling, and funny.

Saturday 13 June 2020

Favourite Books #16

Today we have what is known in the music business as a ‘twofer’. Julian Cope has been through a few different incarnations in his musical career, from post-punk, indie, psychedelia-drenched colourist to a bid for mainstream Bonoesque superstardom, before settling into his niche as a crusty activist and modern antiquarian. Although frequently condescended to in the music press as ‘Dear Julian’, and painted as an incompetent acid casualty (this is a man who once, after all, appeared naked (we presume) under a shell on the cover of an album entitled Fried)

Cope’s was usually the first number dialled whenever a music magazine editor wanted a musician to write an article. He is clearly made of stronger psychic stuff than Syd Barrett or Skip Spence were. Although sometimes highly subjective and often containing outrageous and unverifiable claims, he has the scholar’s depth of knowledge if not always the patience to hunt down solid evidence for his declarations. Mostly importantly, he has the enthusiast’s infectious love of his subject. His explorations of the nascent ’60s/’70s rock scenes, first in Germany and subsequently in Japan, are seminal. They provide essential reading for anyone wishing to broaden their horizons beyond the contemporary Anglo-American (and Irish) musical environment.

Friday 12 June 2020

Favourite Books #15

Speaking of Irish writers… John Banville has written a shedload of great novels. The Newton Letter is perhaps his most perfect. It is also his shortest, which means you can reread it as soon as you’ve finished it the first time, and try to see if you can work out how the magic trick was done.

Thursday 11 June 2020

Favourite Books #14

File this one under ‘inevitable’ too, along with Ulysses. Having done a Master’s degree at one point in what is quaintly termed ‘Anglo-Irish’ Literature, I made it my business to read pretty much everything Beckett ever wrote, and kept a journal about my reading. Although I am fond of some of the more arcane corners of Beckett’s prose (Watt is an insane, singular masterpiece, and Company is oddly affecting), there is really no other choice than the Trilogy to represent Beckett. Of course, everything by Beckett is ‘singular’. Richard Ellman called his work ‘sui generis’. The marvel for me is how adventurous, and written without any fear of consequence, and certainly not written in expectation of any commercial success, so much of 20th century modernist and postmodernist fiction was. Today, visual artists, and even musicians, seem to have a much greater freedom which is not extended to prose writers, to be ‘experimental’. It is difficult to conceive that novels such as Beckett wrote, or any of the nouveau roman writers (consult John Calder’s back catalogue), would see the light of day today, unless it was independently. We have gone backwards into the future.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Favourite Books #13

Much is made of the endlessly reflexive structure of this narrative (who invented whom?), and it is certainly the most brilliant satire of academic wrongheadedness and pedantry, but it is ultimately a novel about obsession, whether born out of profound emotional grief, or sheer maniacal delusion. The witty and revealing epigraph, from Boswell’s Life Of Johnson, really tells you all you need to know to get started:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

Given to me initially as a gift, as it happens, from the loving daughter of a highly-respected art historian academic.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Favourite Books #12

Very ’70s, I suppose. Long hair, denim, lava lamps, incense, beads. Hallucinogenic drugs. Odd that such a staid, conservative, erudite character as Borges, a man who essentially spent his life in a library, would find trippy flower children as his western constituency. It is perhaps difficult to imagine now, as we look through the lens of experience at past naivety, how many doors in people’s heads Borges opened. Stories and novels didn’t have to be about made-up characters being manipulated over the course of a pre-determined narrative. They could be about ideas, concepts, often taken to a reductio ad absurdum. They could, to borrow a phrase of Borges himself, ‘treat metaphysics as a branch of fantastic literature.’ I’ll have some of that, thank you.

Favourite Books #11

Novels about novels. A novel about the reader(s), the writer, the reading and the writing, and the strange relationship between them. A story containing the beginnings of ten other possible stories. A mystery story about the pursuit of unfinished stories. It all sounds terribly clever, doesn’t it? Well, it is.

PS I also love Calvino’s Invisible Cities. And his criticism, collected in The Literature Machine, is also an eye opener.

Favourite Books #10

Speaking of Wittgenstein…then there’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson (1988).

As David Foster Wallace wrote in a piece for Salon in 1999, ‘Overlooked - Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels >1960’:

W’s M is a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism. A monologue, formally very odd, mostly one-sentences. Tied with Omensetter’s Luck for the all-time best U.S. book about human loneliness. These wouldn’t constitute ringing endorsements if they didn’t happen all to be simultaneously true — i.e., that a novel this abstract and erudite and avant-garde that could also be so moving makes Wittgenstein’s Mistress pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.’

Wallace also wrote a wonderful essay on the novel, ‘The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress’, which is available in his non-fiction collection Both Flesh And Not, and is linked below.

Incidentally, Markson also wrote a great chapter-by-chapter, full-length study of Under The Volcano (choice #2, remember?) called Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano, which is well worth seeking out. The good guys, and girls (should) stick together.