Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

For a whimsical purchase one Sunday afternoon, I’m pleased with the rich provocations in Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From, a collection of powerful essays written for the New York Review of Books.

Parks’s clear incisive discussion of contemporary criticism, translation and literary convention is uncommonly fresh, but it is the essays on literary globalisation that strike me with greatest intensity. These essays, in particular, makes some of the stakes clear of a relentless pressure to make novels attractive to a global audience. I quote a passage here from his essay Writing Adrift in the World:

Perhaps the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.

I’m surprised not to have come across Parks’s essays before. His essays share the passion and flair I associate with Joseph Epstein, Zadie Smith (a better essayist than novelist) and Geoff Dyer.

Parks also leaves me with a tantalising list of reading suggestions to look into, including an earlier collection of his own essays.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

Circumnavigation and Coetzee’s Foe.

One mild summer in the late eighties, with limited resources and no compelling responsibilities, I set out to circumnavigate the 11,073 miles or about 17,820 kilometres that make up the coastline of Great Britain.

At the time my only foray outside of London and the south of the country had been on an aeroplane diverted to Birmingham airport due to fog at Heathrow. The single thrill of this inconvenience took place on the return train to London, en-route to boarding school, when my train passed through the small town of Leighton Buzzard. One of my favourite songs from a few years earlier had been Saturday Night (Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees)  sung by The Leyton Buzzards, who went on to greater renown as the pop group Modern Romance.

Provoked by a desire to see the country of my birth I walked a little, but mostly hitchhiked, following the coastal roads. This odyssey became the prototype of similar journeys from north to south, then east to west in Ireland, and across the top of North Africa.

On this trip around Great Britain I slept mostly in small harbour side inns, always with a sea view of sorts, but occasionally in bus stops, or sheltered by seaside groynes and, on one occasion, on a park bench. A touch clichéd, but I felt a wanderer’s imperative.

I discovered many things about the country and myself: Gregg’s bakeries sell different delicacies country-wide, discovering these regional specialities became a mission; people who picked me up from the side of the road for both long and short runs were mostly staggeringly kind and generous; it was rare to even see a car (and very, very windy), let alone hitch a lift on the eastern and northern coastal roads of Scotland. What I found in eastern Scotland, perhaps the highlight of a trip that was terrific and terrible in equal part, was the wind lashed village of Lower Largo, birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Lower Largo.
Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Lower Largo.

This afternoon I finished reading JM Coetzee’s Foe, which uses Defoe’s book as the metatextual framework to explore the ontological status of fictional characters, the nature of authority and language, all themes that Coetzee goes on to question in later novels. As always with Coetzee, as with Beckett, it is as though the writer published fully formed mature novels from the first instance. There is no sense of the writer having to develop their craft in full gaze of readers, as Zadie Smith has described.

“Reading the Girls” List Version 1.3

About a fortnight ago I asked for help. In response to writer Maureen Johnson’s convincing polemic against the way that publishers and critics present female writers I asked, “Can you add to the list of female writers I ought to be reading?”

Johnson listed several that revealed new possibilities:

Edna Ferber, Diana Wynne Jones, Kate Chopin, Patricia Highsmith, Miles Franklin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Robinson, Lorrie Ann Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edwidge Danticat.

In the comments to my post, readers made some great suggestions. These are too good to be buried in comments, so I list them below. There’ll be some we know and love, and others that offer an opportunity for discovery.

  1. Annie Dillard
  2. Francine Prose
  3. A. S Byatt
  4. Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Nicole Krauss
  6. Valerie Martin
  7. Helen Oyeyemi
  8. Marilynne Robinson
  9. Zadie Smith
  10. Eudora Welty
  11. Clarice Lispector
  12. Catherine Rey
  13. Nadine Gordimer
  14. Simone de Beauvoir
  15. Aphra Benn
  16. Phillis Wheatley
  17. Herta Muller
  18. Sigrid Undset
  19. Katherine Anne Porter
  20. Shirley Jackson
  21. Shirley Hazzard
  22. Shirley Ann Grau
  23. Baroness Blixen (Isak Dinesin)
  24. Rebecca West
  25. Beryl Markham
  26. Elspeth Huxley
  27. Jennifer Egan
  28. Elinor Lipman
  29. Georgette Heyer
  30. Gail Scott
  31. Lydia Davis
  32. Aimee Bender
  33. Carole Maso
  34. Ingeborg Bachmann
  35. Marguerite Duras
  36. Rosalind Belben
  37. Amelie Nothomb
  38. Olive Moore
  39. Evelyn Scott
  40. Helen DeWitt
  41. Joanna Scott
  42. Alice Munro
  43. Cynthia Ozick
  44. A. M. Homes
  45. Janice Galloway
  46. June Akers Seese
  47. Marguerite Young
  48. Susan Daitch
  49. Rikki Ducornet
  50.  A.L. Kennedy

Thank you so much for those suggestions: Kevin of Interpolations, wrappedupinbooks, Jen of Being in Lieu, verbivore of Incurable Logophilia, Emily of evening all afternoon, Steven Riddle of A Momentary Taste of Being and jaimie.

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.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

In Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind, Smith contrasts Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and uses both to consider two possible directions for the contemporary novel. I’ve never read Netherland, discouraged by the gushing superlatives that accompanied its release. Remainder appeared more interesting, eulogised here by Smith:

The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side-road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchard, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard. Friction, fear and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions-yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity. So it is with Remainder. The Re-enactor’s obsessive, amoral re-enactions have ancestors: Ahab and his whale, Humbert and his girl, Marlow’s trip downriver. The theatre of the absurd that Remainder lays out is articulated with the same careful pedantry of Gregor Samsa himself. In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternative road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.

How could I resist? The book accompanied me on my spring sojourn to the sun, read mostly poolside, washed down with an occasional Brandy Sour.

A traumatic, disabling accident leaves an unnamed, wealthy protagonist in need of greater authenticity. He obsessively enacts and re-enacts situations from his past, scenes within memories, all on a grand scale. It is a deeply amoral story, carefully structured with a unembellished prose that gives an almost hypnotic effect (that could have been the Brandy Sour). I read the novel, torn between admiring the technique and wondering how it would reach a conclusion. Disappointment set in in the last section, the final enactment was unsatisfactory, too trite. Almost certainly I will reread and perhaps manage to understand Smith’s conclusive sentence.