Recent Arrivals: Biography, Memoir, Guide, Poetry

Of all the many reasons to read Philip Larkin, this collection includes Aubade, an abysmally bleak yet sublime poem that I think I must now learn by heart. The edition includes an introduction by Martin Amis, a novelist of the second-order but a sophisticated critic.

After the exemplary prose of Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye, this time a work that contains autobiography and reflective meditations.

The Life of Ibn ‘Arabi continues my exploration of mystics inspired by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Book of Communities.

Agamben’s work fascinates me for its range of references and its enigmatic nature. I’ve been slowly making my way through Homo Sacer and was pleased to stumble across this book that explores many of the figures he engages with.

A hint to put it aside

It is intriguing why we sometimes persist with reading a novel past the point when we discover a lack of concern for its characters or its way of observing the world. Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff, translated by Katy Derbyshire, is written in brisk, elegant prose but around the midpoint, despite its admirable qualities, I decide to put the book aside and move onto something else.

A bookish narrator that reads Beckett and Lowry kept me going longer than expected, together with the odd references to Greek myth, and a curiosity to find out why a supposedly secondary character, the chauffeur Rumen (“Rumen is our Hermes”) Apostoloff is important enough to bear the story’s title.

But on this reading I go no further, with just a moment to drop off a passage from an enjoyable chapter with the narrator’s insomnia.

Tonight there’s no rain and I can’t get to sleep again. Perhaps I’m in too much of a good mood to sleep. Reading doesn’t help this time, certainly not by this dim and dingy bedside lamp. I’ve got Koba the Dread with me, a gruesome but excellent book about Stalin, and I took the sentence The laughter should have stopped around then as a hint to put it aside. It won’t be of any help to me tonight. I normally pick up a Martin Amis book in the evening and don’t close it until I’ve finished it the next morning. Then I read it at a slower pace again later.

Fallen Literary Heroes

Prabuddha Dasgupta: Longing

A roll of fallen literary heroes: John Updike, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, further back to Robert Heinlein and Paul Theroux, now, perhaps, joined by Haruki Murakami. Writers whose work once replied to inner urgent whispers, now induce a gelid indifference. Is it that the stream of human events, deaths, loves, sadnesses, journeys, alters our literary needs so that once cherished books cease to offer cathartic release? Or is our literary sensitivity attuned by a higher nutrient diet, purged by Samuel Beckett, J. M. Coetzee and Virginia Woolf? Who are your fallen literary heroes?

My Late Discovery of Hitchens’ Essays

It was only after his death that I begun to read Christopher Hitchens. Unconsciously I had ignored his work, associating him with the fraternity of English bloviators that were his friends: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.

I’m reading his last book of essays Arguably and, though they are not without a familiar pomposity, quite enjoying them. As a proficient essayist Hitchens is able to interest me in subjects as diverse the early nineteenth century Barbary Wars (the first US ‘War on Terror’),  Benjamin Franklin’s wit and the death penalty.

Though only a quarter of the way through this 788 page volume I am so far hooked, not only by the diversity of subjects, but the penetrating quality of his well-researched essays. His Nabokov and Newton essays are so far my favourites. Here’s a taster of the Nabokov, a review of Lolita, which succeeds in offering me new insight into a well-loved fiction.

Once you start to take a shy hand in the endless game of decoding the puns and allusions and multiple entendres (the Umberto echoes, if I may be allowed) that give this novel its place next to Ulysses, you are almost compelled to agree with Freud that the unconscious never lies. Swinburne’s poem Dolores sees a young lady (‘Our Lady of Pain”) put through rather more than young Miss Haze. Lord Byron’s many lubricities are never far away; in the initial stages of his demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thin soft cheek a parent’s kiss,” and when we look up the lines we find they are addressed to Harold’s absent daughter (who like Byron’s child and Nabokov’s longest fiction, is named Ada). Humbert’s first, lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not unrelated to Byron’s first wife, Anna Isabella, who was known as “Annabella,” and she has parents named Leigh, just like Byron’s ravished half-sister Augusta.

Saul Bellow’s Hunger for the Universal

At Bellow’s memorial meeting, held in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, two years ago, the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed on non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian McEwan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal.

From Christopher Hitchens’s review (2007) of two Library of America collections of Bellow’s fiction. In Arguably this easy is entitled Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator (pages 62-63).

Though I’d agree with the central premise of McEwan’s position, I’d couple Bellow and Philip Roth as heirs to European classicism.

Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee

Literary essays by novelists are rarely worth reading. Coetzee, like Woolf and Kundera, is an exception. Inner Workings is compiled from five introductions by Coetzee to contemporary editions of works by Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett and Hugo Claus, together with 15 essays for The New York Review of Books.

Two-thirds of the book deals with the literary achievement of the generation of cultured Jewish writers that emerged from the wreckage of the House of Hapsburg (with Walser, Musil and Celan my high-points). The last third is primarily post Second World War British and American writers, and a few contemporaries.

Unlike some novelist-turned-critics, Martin Amis leaps to mind, Coetzee’s reviews are courteous and balanced, no histrionic name calling, but with the wit to place a writer firmly under scrutiny. I mostly concur with his implication that Walter Benjamin was a political poseur who frequently reached beyond his ability to sustain a project, but I cannot claim any deep reading of Benjamin.

To add depth to his criticism, Coetzee provides historical context. As an adept in the English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages he is also uniquely able to comment on the translators’ craft. Although praising Michael Hofmann for the expression, poise and precision of his English, he has concerns about his translations of Joseph Roth.

A rewarding set of essays from one of the major writers of our day – I’ve already ordered the set of essays that precedes this collection.

Despair

Three chapters into Nabokov’s Despair, one of three Nabokov novels described by Martin Amis as immortal, and I once again I am thrilled with the sheer brilliance of the writing. Where Nabokov is taking his German chocolate manufacturer Hermann I am uncertain but the whiff of madness, the hint of sulphur is palpable.

As ever with Nabokov one must examine carefully every phrase, each word, for few writers toy with their readers to the same degree. Hermann is an unreliable narrator, as he reveals early in the story:

A slight digression: that bit about my mother was a deliberate lie. In reality, she was a woman of the people, simple and coarse, sordidly dressed in a kind of blouse hanging loose at the waist. I could, of course, have crossed it out, but I purposely leave it there as a sample of one of my essential traits: my light-hearted, inspired lying.

Nabokov pulls in the reader, not just an observer but an active participant as voyeur:

Tum-tee-tum. And once more-TUM! No, I have not gone mad. I am merely producing gleeful little sounds. The kind of glee one experiences upon making an April Fool of someone. And a damned good fool I have made of someone. Who is he? Gentle reader, look at yourself in the mirror, as you seem to like mirrors so much.

As Nabokov said of Good Readers, “In reading, one should notice and fondle details. . . . We must see things and hear things, we must visualise the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people.” Of course this is never more true than with Nabokov. The pale blue butterfly alights on the thyme for a purpose.