Josipovici’s Insight

Although I have read Barnes and McEwan fairly extensively, I find myself agreeing with Josipovici’s argument:

Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

The insight of that analysis is precise and powerful.

Josipovici also summarised my own recent response to Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man:

While great novels deal with complex events beyond the full understanding of both the characters and the reader, too many contemporary works follow traditional plots with neat endings, he said.


Referring to graduates, like McEwan, of the University of East Anglia’s famous creative writing course, Josipovici said: “They all tell stories in a way that is well crafted, but that is almost the most depressing aspect of it — a careful craft which seems to me to be hollow.”

Its all a tad depressing having two favourite authors lowered from their pedestals, but Josipovici describes the process of disillusion with considerable insight. The criticism is timely. I have been pondering what serious novel I can read with any conviction after reading Ulysses. Joyce’s book makes so much that I planned to read paler by reflection.

I am looking forward to reading Josipovici’s forthcoming What Ever Happened to Modernism?

Dubliners by James Joyce

There are a few artists capable of consistently constructing powerful short stories: Chekhov, Turgenev, Hemingway; contemporaries include Julian Barnes and Julie Orringer.

My Joycean summer enables me to add another to my list, though in completing Dubliners, I have completed Joyce’s short story collection. The stories in Dubliners stand shoulder to shoulder with Chekhov’s oeuvre. Is there a weak story in the fifteen that make up Dubliners? After the Race perhaps, but it may open up on future readings. My favourite three, this time around, in ascending order would have to be: Araby, The Sisters and The Dead. There is sufficient subtlety and depth in the stories to repay many readings.

Twenty years ago I was fortunate to spend part of my education in Dublin. At that time, the city and, in many ways, the people that Joyce portrayed in Dubliners were recognisable. Given Joyce’s apparent manifesto in Dubliners, to portray the city in all it’s iniquity in order to “lead to the spiritual liberation of the city”, it is arguable whether he would feel sufficient progress has yet been made. But perhaps that edginess is what is required to make great cities.

The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields

What then remains, but that we still should cry
Not to be born, or being born, to die?

Francis Bacon

Like Reality Hunger, many of the best bits of David Shields earlier (2008) book are the numerous quotations. This was a whimsical purchase. A day or two after reading Reality Hunger, I spotted The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead on the LRB shelves and decided to continue my reader relationship with David Shields.

I am torn about the book. On several occasions I almost abandoned it, was tempted to throw it away. To be honest, the book which deals in a frank way about birth, ageing, physical and mental decay, death and mortality succeeded in shocking me. It catalysed me to think (however briefly) about how I live, my relationships with my wife and daughter, with friends. This is clearly A Good Thing, what we hope from literature.

The book is distressing, though there are flashes of dark humour. I found David Shields, the narrator, profoundly irritating as he veered between boasting and regretting the passing of his sports-jock days and whining incessantly about his numerous physical and mental complaints.

The writing is clunky, mixing quotations, lists and short essay-like chapters. This theme is covered more intelligently by Julian Barnes in Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It wasn’t a waste of time but I will not be keeping or rereading the book.

A later chapter consists entirely of Last Words and was the first time I’ve come across this sad but funny one:

Lady Astor, the first woman member of British Parliament, surrounded by her entire family on her deathbed, said, “Am I dying, or is it my birthday?”