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
‘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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Obviously, we all gravitate towards books which body forth and reinforce our own opinions, beliefs, prejudices - because they articulate what we feel. While it is salutary to have one’s complacencies challenged, it is also gratifying to know that we are not alone – especially if one considers oneself to be in a minority.
To quote Wittgenstein himself, as recounted by his Irish psychiatrist friend and former student, Maurice Drury:
“You must always be puzzled by mental illness. The thing I would dread most, if I became mentally ill, would be your adopting a common sense attitude; that you could take it for granted that I was deluded.”
I find the following passage from Wiggtenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard to be among the most moving and insightful in all of modern literature. I particular like the use of anaphora with the phrase ‘so-called mental disease’, and the observations on the use of language as a fortification against truth, rather than as a means of arriving at it, reflections which would have pleased the great philosopher himself.
‘In the last twenty years of his life, my friend had to be admitted to the mental asylum Am Steinof at least twice a year, always at short notice and always under the most terrible circumstances, or, if he was staying in Upper Austria when he was overtaken by one of his attacks, which grew more and more frequent as the years passed, he would be taken into the Wagner-Jauregg Hospital, near Linz. He had been born and brought up in Upper Austria, near the Traunsee, where he had right of domicile in an old farmhouse that had always belonged to the Wittgenstein family. His mental disease, which ought properly to be termed a so-called mental disease, manifested itself very early, when he was about thirty-five. He himself did not talk about it much, but putting together all I know about my friend, it is not difficult to form some idea of its genesis. Even as a child Paul had a predisposition to this so-called mental disease, which has never been precisely classified, having been born mentally sick, already suffering from the so-called mental disease that was to afflict him all his life. Until the day he died, he lived with this so-called mental disease just as naturally as others live without it. It furnished the most depressing evidence of the helplessness of the medical practitioners and of medical science in general. This medical helplessness of the doctors and their science led time and again to the wildest designations for Paul’s so-called mental disease, though naturally never to the correct one; all these designations for my friend’s so-called mental disease repeatedly proved incorrect, not to say absurd, cancelling one another out in the most depressing and disgraceful fashion. The so-called psychiatric specialists gave my friend’s illness first this name and then that, without having the courage to admit that there was no correct name for this disease, or indeed for any other, but only incorrect and misleading names; like all other doctors, they made life easy for themselves – and in the end murderously easy – by continually giving incorrect names to diseases. At every end and turn they would use the term manic or depressive, and they were always wrong. At every end and turn they would take refuge (like all doctors!) in yet another scientific term, in order to cover themselves, to protect themselves (though not the patient). Like all other doctors, those who treated Paul continually entrenched themselves behind Latin terms, which in due course they built up into an insuperable and impenetrable fortification between themselves and the patient, as their predecessors had done for centuries, solely in order to conceal their incompetence and cloak their charlatanry. From the very start of their treatment, which is known to employ the most inhuman, murderous, and deadly methods, Latin is set up as an invisible but uniquely impenetrable wall between themselves and their victims. Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science. All my life I have dreaded nothing so much as falling into the hands of psychiatrists, beside whom all other doctors, disastrous though they may be, are far less dangerous, for in our present-day society psychiatrists are a law unto themselves and enjoy total immunity, and after studying the methods they practiced quite unscrupulously on my friend Paul for so many years, my fear became yet more intense. Psychiatrists are the real demons of our age, going about their business with impunity and constrained by neither law nor conscience.’
THOMAS BERNHARD (1931 – 1989) grew up in Salzburg and in Vienna, where he studied music. In 1957 he began a second career as a playwright, poet, and novelist. The winner of many of the most prestigious literary prizes of Europe including the Austrian State Prize, the Bremen and Buchner prizes, and Le Prix Seguier, he has become one of the most widely translated and admired writers of his generation.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water – or to go out to work again. Well, I did warn you that 7 books would not be enough, and said it would probably be more like 7x7. However, as I also mentioned, I don’t have access to my full library at the moment, so this has been largely a memory exercise. Maybe I’ll just keep going until I run out of steam. Or how’s about I do half now, half later, when my library is restored to me? Let’s play it by ear.
‘Is literary greatness still possible? … One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.’ Susan Sontag, 2000. (Full articles linked below.)
That quotation is from a review of Vertigo, but each of Sebald’s four major prose fictions, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz are essential. For me, it was a toss up between the last two, but really it could have been either. Sontag cites the influence, among others, of Thomas Bernhard, but I would add Beckett (both of whom we will get to presently). The psycho-geographic peregrinations of the narrator of Rings around Suffolk remind me of the musings of a Beckett tramp, as do the faded aristocrats he comes across, living in one room of a mansion they can no longer afford to maintain.
Incidentally, I see Sebald as a bridge between the German World War Two experience, and the flowering of Krautrock in the late p’60s/early ’70s. Sebald anatomises the guilt, groups like Can, Kraftwerk and Neu celebrate the liberation.
I sometimes wonder why I have read so much, when I have forgotten so much. I have not forgotten Sebald, but I can’t wait to read his books again.
This debut novel by Andrew Miller was a life-saver for me. In the early ’90s I spent a career-five years in severe chronic pain, as a result of a medical procedure, and it took a very long time before I was believed by the medical establishment, as I was dismissed with the glib conclusion that ‘It’s all in his head.’
In this tale of a successful 18th century surgeon born with congenital analgesia (i.e. he cannot feel pain, or pleasure), Miller explores the problem of pain, and its paradoxes, in finely wrought prose. It’s also a great yarn. Like the best historical fiction, it resonates with contemporary times, without being anachronistic. Being written in the present continuous tense helps. Miller has written several more novels since, but none which has such a personal resonance for me.
Monday, 8 June 2020
This is not so much a favourite book recommendation as a favourite author recommendation. I have long been an avid admirer of the work of A. L. (Alison) Kennedy. At fifty-four, she has published ten novels and six collections of short stories, among other things. Is it possible to be too prolific? Maybe, but pretty much everything she has written is worth checking out. So, which one to choose? Everything You Need is probably her best novel, but I could change my mind about that tomorrow. So why not start at the beginning, with her debut collection of short stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains? I was bowled over at the inventiveness of this collection when it came out. She’s tremendously good on the body – if her characters feel pain or – for that matter – pleasure, you’ll know exactly what it felt like. Also hugely compassionate.
Links to some reviews I wrote below.
Not strictly fiction – although I note the remit stipulates only ‘books’, not novels – this is an anthology of Sontag’s early, ground-breaking essays (From Against Interpretation: Simone Weil; Against Interpretation; Notes On Camp; Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson; On Style. From Styles of Radical Will: The Aesthetics of Silence; The Pornographic Imagination; Godard. From Under the Sign of Saturn: Fascinating Fascism; Under the Sign of Saturn; Syberberg's Hitler. From On Photography: The Image-World. And Writing Itself: on Roland Barthes). While she also wrote fiction (this book also includes extracts from her early experimental works, and she penned two rather more conventional novels in her older years), she was always a far better essayist and cultural commentator than she was a novelist.
As the article I wrote for the Dublin Review of Books (linked to below, and which itself grew out of a shorter book review I did for the Sunday Independent, before I fell out with them) indicates, she was ‘a formidable influence on my intellectual development’, as her books ‘spoke to me of a contemporary and capacious sensibility, so at variance with the narrow and at times downright prissy academic criticism we were prescribed at college.’ It is almost impossible to imagine now, but in the early ’80s UCD or Trinity didn’t even have a Film Studies department, and popular music was certainly not thought worthy of sustained academic analysis. Movies and rock’n’roll were just for kids, and they’d soon grow out of it. It was impossible to envisage that Bob Dylan, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones would one day come to be seen as major cultural figures. Along with her hero Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag did more than most to evolve the democratisation of culture we take for granted today. She opened a door in my head that made it possible to see that, if you were possessed of a strong enough sensibility, and were sufficiently knowledgeable, you could write about anything – literature, music, film, theatre, visual art, sport – and make connections between disparate things. Unfortunately, this has not always served me well in my own career, as in journalism, newspapers and magazines still like you to be ‘the books guy’ or ‘the music guy’, or ‘the film guy’, etc. The vice of specialisation.
She wrote so many great books – some, such as Illness As Metaphor or Regarding The Pain Of Others, beyond the terminal point of this collection – that choosing one is difficult, and a sampler is probably the best way to go. Besides, it was my introduction, and I cherish it still.
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
What? A novel about socio-political upheaval which does not take ideological sides? Or rather, implies that political ideology is not the most important factor in determining a country’s historical development. Nothing less than the origin story of modern Italy, encapsulated in the declining fortunes of one aristocratic family, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard is built around a central paradox. It is also one of the most beautiful, profound and important novels of the 20th century.
As Jonathan Jones has written:
Perhaps it is not surprising, given its concentration on class as a social and cultural force, that some of The Leopard's most dedicated fans have been Marxists. Gramsci had seen the problem of the backward, non-industrialised south as fundamental to modern Italian history. The Marxist (and aristocratic) film director Luchino Visconti was already fascinated by the themes of The Leopard before he came to film it in 1963, and indeed, even before it was published in 1958. But it has also attracted much opprobrium from leftists, for questioning the class system only to more powerfully reinstate it.
Just as Machiavelli's Prince is a rich concoction that does not resolve itself into a “theory”, still less ideologies, of left or right, Lampedusa's myth is not rational. Or Marxist. In his most forthright speech, Lampedusa's Prince says what he really thinks; and it is stranger than anyone could have expected.
In trying to explain to a Piedmontese envoy why he will not join their Senate, the Prince specifically rejects the idea that feudal class structures and a backward mode of production explain what is wrong with Sicily; people have told him this is the theory of “some German Jew whose name I can't remember.”
Because there has been feudalism everywhere, Sicily is more peculiar and perturbing than that. It is the centuries of invasions, the landscape and climate that have crushed ambition and hope.
“This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments to the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us... All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.” The Prince claims that Sicilian sensuality is a love affair with death; that a desire for the grave obsesses the island's culture and will seep out of Sicily to poison the new Italy.
“Our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our languor, our exotic vices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again.”
Lampedusa's Sicily is a place where the optimistic, progressive, rational forces of history as viewed in the 19th century - the march of liberal democracy and of socialism alike - get lost in baroque back streets at midnight. As a myth, as a fiction of history, The Leopard will continue to ensnare minds, and not only in Italy. Lampedusa’s despair is not so different from that of today's world, with its shrunken political expectations. We are all Sicilians now.
To quote from the book, p. 132:
‘To strip the Western literary or art-historical tradition of criticism would be to decimate our cultural capital (no Berger on Picasso, no Benjamin on Baudelaire). All that has ever been written about jazz, on the other hand, with the exception of musicians’ memoirs and the odd jazz-inspired novel (Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is a masterpiece), could be lost without doing any but the most superficial damage to the heritage of the music.’
On the other hand, as David Thomson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, this ‘May be the best book ever written about jazz.’ When I finished reading it, I wanted to go out and buy multiple copies as Christmas presents for all my closest musical friends. Keith Jarrett agrees, apparently:
‘The only book about jazz that I have recommended to my friends. It is a little gem with the distinction of being 'about' jazz rather than 'on' jazz. If closeness to the material determines a great solo, Mr. Dyer's book is one.’
It’s not as though jazz is necessarily my favourite genre of music (although I tend not to classify music by genre anyway), but I appreciate brilliantly cogent and evocative writing about any type of music – and that’s a rare enough commodity. Having said that, for reasons too complex to go into here, jazz is perhaps the most difficult genre to write about in those terms, and also, paradoxically, the genre which lends itself most readily to truly creative criticism. It other words, it’s relatively easy to do badly, but quite difficult to do well. This book does it more than well. It makes it look easy. It’s the tits.
My friend Deirdre Irvine, owner of The Open Window Gallery in Rathmines, has 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 writes: ‘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.’
The trouble is, the more I think about it, I know Lucky 7 is pretty much an impossibility, so it’s probably going to be more like Magic 7 x 7. I will be labouring under a slight disadvantage, as most of my library is in storage at the moment, so this is very much painted from memory. Also, as a sometime professional book reviewer, I may not always be able to refrain from the ‘no reviews’ stipulation. So, here goes…
Obviously and inevitably, let’s start where it all begins. With the exception of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, no Ulysses, no modernist novel. Ignore everyone who has ever told you it is ‘too difficult’. It’s rollicking great fun. Like Shakespeare, like Beckett, like David Foster Wallace, Joyce has been kidnapped into an academic industry, and developed Stockholm Syndrome. If you are still confused, or are looking for explanations, I would recommend Richard Ellman’s wonderful short primer, Ulysses By The Liffey, which nimbly and schematically sorts out the mythological apparatus, i.e. the Homeric parallels. But really, you don’t need to know any of that.
Apart from upping everyone’s game for the next one hundred years, it was about where I was from. Wouldn’t that make you proud? What’s not to like?