Contemporary and Deliberate

In response to my list of most-read authors Kevin of Interpolations asked a great question:

Any authors who haven’t written five books yet that you think might eventually make your list?

I thought a lot about the original list [I forgot Nicholson Baker so added him to that list], particularly those authors I consider favourites though I’ve only read three or four of their oeuvre. But I like Kevin’s question, specifically about those authors that haven’t yet written five books. The “haven’t yet written” rules out many more prolific or established contemporary authors. It also excludes authors like Jim Crace and Justin Cartwright, that have written more than I appreciated.

It’s difficult and uncertain to compile. I will take “five books” to mean five novels (short stories and poems excluded). I realise that stretches the definition but hey ho. These authors give me enjoyment and I would in all likelihood “buy-on-publication,” regardless of critical reaction:

  1. Yiyun Li
  2. Tom McCarthy
  3. Zadie Smith
  4. Anne Michaels
  5. Adam Thirlwell
  6. James Wood

It would be fascinating to see who would make your list.

Stoner By John Williams

I started Stoner at my hotel in Limassol but mostly read Stoner on a flight from Cyprus-London. Inspired by several references at Anecdotal Evidence I bought the book last year. Boarding the flight, an administrative cock-up separated me two seats behind my family. Guilty joy, the possibility of an uninterrupted five hour reading jag. Even the twenty minute circling of Heathrow, awaiting a landing slot, failed to irritate me as I reread the final few pages.

The style of John William’s 1965 novel reminds me a little of Frank Norris’s McTeague. As Patrick Kurp accurately says in his post “Published in the decade of V. and Portnoy’s Complaint, Stoner must have seemed at the time like a musty anachronism to many readers. In fact, 41 years later, it has aged beautifully.”

Stoner is the story of a man from a dirt-poor farming family who falls in love with literature and becomes a teacher of English at a Missouri university.

Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realised the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

With the possible exception of Harold Bloom, do we not all share these sentiments occasionally?

William’s depiction of Stoner’s stony-hearted wife and their dismal marriage is chilling. The evolving relationship with his daughter as she matures is heart-breaking. But although the story is sad, Williams allows a glimmers of redemption in the transforming ability of love and friendship.

It contrasted with my reading in the same holiday week of Adam Thirlwell’s Politics and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, novels that both make use of postmodern contrivances to challenge the form of the novel. John William’s Stoner is a reminder that, however exciting and glitzy such experiments are, they are no substitute for good writing. The novel is flawless and gets my complete recommendation.

 

As John McGahern comments in his introduction:

There is entertainment of a very high order to be found in Stoner, what Williams himself describes as “an escape into reality” as well as pain and joy. The clarity of the prose is in itself an unadulterated joy.

. . . . . . . . .

If the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely that of love, the many forms love takes and all the forces that oppose it. “It [love] was a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance.

I read the New York Review Books edition and have ordered Butcher’s Crossing.


One final excerpt of this memorable book:

As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself; and as he was aware of that, he moved outward from himself into the world which contained him, so that he knew the poem of Milton’s that he read of the essay of Bacon’s or the drama of Ben Jonson’s changed the world which was its subject, and changed it because of its dependence on it.

Politics by Adam Thirlwell

Of Granta’s twenty ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ from 2003, Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell offer the greatest promise as writers testing the form and finding an evolving and distinct style.

Thirlwell’s debut novel Politics is a study of relationships. A sexually explicit opening chapter presages other reasonably hard-core set-pieces. (It’s not a book to read while sitting beside a stranger on a commuter train.) After the eye-opening first section, the narrator explains:

This book is not about sex. No. It is about goodness. This story is about being kind. In this book, my characters have sex, my characters do everything, for moral reasons.

This comical examination of the minute actions, thoughts and emotions of the three central protagonists is intertwined by the metafictional commentary of the unnamed narrator. I enjoyed the occasional historical digressions, notably into the life of Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam, the plays of Oscar Wilde, Bollywood films, Bulgakov in Stalinist Russia and Bauhaus architecture. I have a predilection for digressive stories. Less enjoyable is Thirlwell’s colloquial dialogue, e.g. “‘Yeah no igzacly’, said Nana. ‘You’re not men to. Because it’s meaningless.'”

There are more accomplished writers using postmodern techniques to play with form, Calvino comes immediately to mind but there is enough promise to continue reading Thirlwell’s work. Biblioklept is reading Thirlwell’s next book The Delighted States (published here as Miss. Herbert or at least so my copy is titled), which I am looking forward to reading some time soon.

Rested and Read

Unlike my usual exploratory holidays, this last week was spent unashamedly enjoying being outdoors in the sun: tennis, swimming, archery, badminton, even some football and lots of reading. After a long English winter, to sit by a pool and read for hours on end was a luxury.

It was an heterogenous selection of paperbacks that accompanied me to Cyprus:

  1. David Foster WallaceThis is Water
  2. Adam Thirlwell – Politics
  3. Tom McCarthyRemainder
  4. Penelope Fitzgerald – The Blue Flower
  5. John Williams – Stoner

Each of the novels merits a brief blog post of its own.

The first book on the list, DFW’s This is Water subtitled Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, is the text of a  commencement address given to the 2005 graduating class of DFW’s alma mater. For motives unknown the publishers Little, Brown have presented the book one sentence per page as a series of aphorisms. The format is annoying but the text is worth reading; DFW unpacks “the old cliché about the mind ‘being an excellent servant but a terrible master.'” As he explains, “This, like many clichés, so lame and banal on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.”

And I submit that this is the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.