Tuesday, 28 February 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Feb)

1. Michel Butor — Mobile

An exasperating caffeine rush of a novel, predating the Beats in their attempts to capture the mescaline cyclone of a trip around America. In 1959, leading French avant-garde writer Michel Butor brummed around the States (one hopes in an open-top Cadillac), collecting titbits of information for use in this freewheeling collage novel. Butor stitches state names, trivia, long Thomas Jefferson passages, and all manner of inscrutable arcana to capture an America before the most miraculous decade in its history. One recurring topic is black segregation—reports from historical accounts of slavery, mixed with Jefferson’s unreliable views, and repeated accounts of fifties ingrained racism evoke the storm that would erupt with Martin Luther King. A marvellously engaging and eccentric novel, completely batty, strangely affecting and weirdly funny. There goes my stock of adverbs for the week. Read me!

2. Honoré de Balzac — Colonel Chabert

A litmus test for the betrothed—would you, after your man’s been killed in the latest war, pronounced dead and buried, and after you’ve married again and had children, take your man back when he turns up haggard and pauperous on your mansion doorstep? (Yes, this happens at the end of Tom Hanks’s Castaway, minus the mansion, but Balzac got there first in this novella). Well, WOULD YOU? When the bedraggled Colonel finally falls in with some solicitors who help his case, he hopes for once and for all he can reclaim his wife and fortune. Unfortunately, he married a former prostitute who’s less than chuffed the Colonel is on the scene and does her damnedest to suppress him and keep him a peasant in the bogs. Balzac’s typically poisonous writing is in full flood here in this quickie—one longs for a longer, meatier story. WILSON!!!!

3. Harry Mathews — Armenian Papers: Poems 1954-1984

A selection of high-class poetry from Harry Mathews, who is both an arch stylist from Princeton (from American nobility, no less) and an OuLiPo prankster capable of some sublimely erudite versifying. Sometimes his unforgiving (and smug) elitism impedes one’s pleasure in his novels, with the tedious bourgeois minutiae of The Journalist being a good example. Or the inscrutable structures and games in his early books, such as Tlooth. This collection demonstrates both parts of his character, and naturally, the OuLiPo centrepiece (a love poem re-imagined in thirty different forms), was the scene-stealer for me. The title poem is a cycle written in homage to the missing work of an Armenian monk—intriguing for those who like that sort of intellectual backslapping. (What about the poor folk, Harry? What about the starving kids, Harry? Hmm?)

4. Gustave Flaubert — Three Tales

I have the fire department coming around later for a lecture on electrical safety. Apparently, my unplugging policy needs revising. For fifteen years of my life, I never unplugged a single plug (even in multisockets) and encountered no raging conflagrations in my boudoir (except in the bed—wink wink). But now everyone’s telling me what a buffoon I was! That you must ALWAYS unplug your appliances at night in case spontaneous friction occurs and the whole neighbourhood burns to a crisp! So, looking forward to that. I bet no one out there in GR land obsessively unplugs all lamps and computers and kettles before going to bed. Madness. Anyway, this book. ‘A Simple Heart’ is a delightful tale, if a little stiff and downbeat. ‘Legend’ is a bracing historical fiction, and ‘Herodias’ is the most insufferable slab of dullcake I’ve ever eaten. I’m off now to unplug this computer, and all the others in the village. Update: FIRE! UNPLUG EVERYTHING! SMOKE, FLAMES, DEATH! SAVE YOURSELVES!

5. Robert Alan Jamieson — Da Happie Laand

At some point in my early twenties, I decided all Scottish writing was obsessed with nationality, identity and history, and scowled at all those novels that arrived on the scene dripping with Scottishness—the usual suspects Irvine Welsh, Alan Bissett and Ian Rankin. Since then I have met several Scots writers whose work deals extensively with Scots history, what it means to be Scottish in Scotland looking back on Scots history, and Walter bloody Scott, and found them seriously amiable chaps. Some have even become mentors! So I made an attempt to re-engage with the modern Scottish novel.

This novel slightly skewed my expectations, since it details at length with the spurious history of Zetland, a settlement off the New Zealand coast, where impoverished families emigrated from the Shetland isles in the 1800s. (Zetland is in fact a borough in Sydney, Australia). But the narrative proper takes place in Shetland and centres around a ‘lost sheep’ looking for his missing father. The first-person-present narrative provides the novel’s plot-pulse, while the history adds intrigue and depth to a novel concerned with . . . nationality, identity and history. Is there any escaping this recursive loop, O Scots Quillholders?

In fairness to Mr. Jamieson, the novel is written in bracing Queen’s English, with the occasional patch written in an invented New Zealand-Old Scots hybrid dialect, and straddles the line between detailed historical puzzles (who knows what’s invented and what’s genuine?) and a dark, personal tale of a man and his lost father. Both narrative threads spool into one another, gradually coming together in a subtle, disturbing way. A moody, entertaining and readable Scots novel about Scottish identity, nationality and history. (At long last!)

6. Georges Perec — Things: A Story of the Sixties & A Man Asleep

Things: A Story of the Sixties predates all those tiresome novels about corporate-culture ennui, Ballardian death of affect, and dehumanisation through advertising and leaves them weeping into their MaxPower V9 toasters-cum-dildos. What a heartbreaking and beautiful novella! Oh Georges, is it really so sad? Perec narrates from a distance, leaving his characters Sylvie and Jérôme to fumble through a blank lower bourgeois existence, besotted with appliances and desperate to shimmy up the ladder without accepting their place as adults. By piling up descriptions, razor-sharp character analysis and cultural scene-setting, Perec captures the painful loneliness of upwardly mobile corporate life—his writing glitters with perfect, wrenching subtlety and humour. Oh Georges, Georges, Georges! And then there’s A Man Asleep, a beautiful exploration of complete disengagement from the culture, written in energetic second-person prose, chock with penetrating insights into man’s desire to escape the terror and horror of everyday life. An absolutely magnificent duo of novellas—epochal, strange and powerful.

7. Marie Redonnet — Candy Story

Redonnet levers her fiction into gear with the crank of computational affectlessness, rendering her work seemingly devoid of shape, liveliness or narrative spark. But it’s there. So this seemingly arbitrarily generated occurrence happens to a seemingly arbitrarily generated character and then another seemingly arbitrarily generated occurrence happens to another seemingly arbitrarily generated character, matter-of-factly reported by the narrator, who then has sex with someone who calls her Candy. Then another seemingly arbitrarily generated occurrence happens to a seemingly arbitrarily generated character and then another seemingly arbitrarily generated occurrence happens to another seemingly arbitrarily generated character, matter-of-factly reported by the narrator, who then has sex with someone who calls her Candy. And so on. It’s only 96 pages. If someone would like to present me with an academic paper on Redonnet I’ll revise this knuckleheaded review, but for now I can only guess at her behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings. For balance, I love her novels Hôtel Splendid and Forever Valley.

8. Émile Zola — The Ladies’ Paradise

Life in an 1860s Paris megastore. As capitalism staggers around on its bunioned feet, waiting for the next self-perpetuating excuse for sickening human greed and useless backbreaking timewasting bullshit in pursuit of Capital to relieve its burden, it’s time to question what we want from an economic system here in the West. A completely equal distribution of funds is impossible since people are cash-hoovering greed machines who will stab their mothers to get a bigger pie slice. Communism is unpopular due to its fascist tendencies. Perhaps we could try kindness, generosity, wealth-sharing and self-sustaining communities? Stop laughing. The Ladies’ Paradise explores the viperous world of ladies’ retail and the nascent capitalist machine. Bitching and hating and desperation and greed and corsages. That’s the fashion world for you. Denise is Zola’s pure-hearted ingénue who, rather implausibly, and clumsily, enchants the evil chauvinist Octave Mouret with her dowdy virginal loveliness. After a long struggle, she becomes the belle of the megamall, and tames the old beast by refusing to surrender her maidenhead. Nowadays, to get that kind of career traction, you have to humiliate yourself on The Apprentice. The novel is festooned with elaborate descriptions of store displays, which go on and on until we get the bleeding point, and the POV is schizo even by Zola’s standards, but the whole work is admirably ruthless. So: death to capitalism! All hail have-a-tenner-on-me-ism!

9. Janice Galloway — All Made Up

Original review:

I actively dislike novels about writers’ schooldays, about their early inurement to bullying through their book-munching habits, how reading Virgil at twelve opened them up to a world of bookish intelligence while all the other losers languished in meaningless office drudgery. All this while the great author sits ruminating from his study in Morocco, sipping sherry and having his toes waxed. Now: this isn’t a novel but a memoir, so demurely sidesteps the first charge, commencing to calmly commit all the offences stated in the remaining clauses—Galloway licks up Latin, bites down Bartók, huffs on Homer. All this while her vicious, resentful sister systematically tries to crush her spirits at every turn, and her daft old mother trots out strangleable platitudes from her backward auld peasant mooth. The sequel to This is Not About Me, this book covers Janice’s high school period—periods, boys, motorbikes, classical music and all-out tribal warfare—and the prose has a lyrical, stoical voice that for me failed to mask the heartbreaking bleakness of this adolescence, the grainy old photo of this bygone era: an era best surrendered to historical indifference. If you’re Scottish, give this a bodyswerve.


This book left me sullen and moody, with an additional heart-heaviness I can’t quite understand. Here’s a numerical attempt to explicate this feeling. 1) This memoir takes place in a bleak coastal town of Saltcoats in the late 1960s and 1970s. I used to take holidays in a bleak beach area called Blackness (pronounced Black Ness), so perhaps the deeply evoked sense of dreary, empty silence touched me through some embedded recall of this childhood time. 2) I am a sap for nostalgia. I pine for events that happened several days ago, my heart gets heavy about the passing of time and the fleetingness of life. This memoir might simply have tweaked the clitoris of my nostalgia. 3) The world Galloway describes made me lament on how my own teenage years paled in comparison, since we shared working class upbringings (albeit hers in viler circumstances, bleaker times, with far worse people), and she bloomed into a fighting toreador, while I limped along slowly through long days of torpor and social anxiety. 4) I always wish my own past went differently, despite Woody Allen’s epithet about doing the same things over again. I love a regret I can gnaw on for a week. 5) This was simply an extremely powerful book that got under my skin. She should get an Oscar.

10. Nicholson Baker — The Anthologist

How true it is a poem should rhyme! For who among us prefers lemon to lime? Baker defends the rhyming verse, in prose both chaste and terse. Paul Chowder discusses meter, rests and beats—but he’s no bleater, pest or Keats. For those au fait with his minimal writings, buy this today for liminal sightings. Who says poems should be lucid? Why, that’s all froems and booshid! So: let’s go. Erudite essays on Fenton, Teasdale and Millay, so good you should buy it to-day. Can I keep this up for the whole review? I almost certainly can, but that I will not do. Baker is such fun he’s my number one (STOP IT), I love his quirky blirky fun (STOP IT NOW), and this one’s a bun of fun under the hot July sun (SHUT UP). I like Nick Baker. (He’s not a Quaker).

11. Nicholson Baker — U & I

Oh this is absolutely sublime! Baker, Baker, candlestick maker! But. I have a little problem dishing out a terse, considered and witty review, howevs. Reason? I read so much there is SIMPLY NO TIME to write all these reviews. Look, I have a life! Don’t believe me? Well . . . you’re right, I’m clearly not a high-flying fashionista (tweed is cool, right?), but I have OTHER THINGS TO WRITE! I’m supposed to get cracking on a synopsis for a new novel this weekend, and it is currently 21.43 GMT. This is UNACCEPTABLE! Goodreads, you are sapping me! OK, here’s a box of adverbs for you: this is the best Baker I have read. Ineffably, windingly, smugly, warmly witty, fabulously sneaky, cheeky and heartfelt. I still think Updike represents an old-school Harvard upper middle-class WASP gloatingness (and perhaps Baker does too?), but this man (Baker) writes pedantically pleasurable sentences of cuddly hilarity, erudition and wonder. If you’ve read Updike, please tell me which novels to CONSIDER reading. I must go and procrastinate further.

12. David Markson Springers Progress

At some point David Markson seems to have become physically unable to write linear sentences, stifled by the anxiety of influence, or the agonising labour of such a well-trodden enterprise, and his failure to do so. Eventually, his novels would break down into nuggets of trivia, lost forever to the bookish world of highbrow literary allusiveness that engulfed most of his postmodernist friends. This novel is written in a berserk shorthand that flits between a sardonic narrator, a close third-person narrator, and long passages of stylised dialogue—all packed tight with literary allusions, direct quotes, clever wordplay, Latin snippets, and all manner of flighty lexical indulgence. The plot is Moss-thin: a writer has an affair with an attractive woman whose arse he admires. Thus begins a novel that groans with cringing sexual puns and romps, a borderline sexist agenda, and an almost intolerable series of staged comedic dialogues that go nowhere. This technique condenses the long-winded indulgence in similar novels of the 1970s, making it harder to soup through than a horny Roth or a panty Updike. Original and fun nonetheless.


  1. very much interested in reading Colonel Chabert. balzac and i haven't really had a chance to be properly introduced and this sounds like an easy read, one that can help me familiarize myself with his style.

    and to answer your question: i wouldn't take him back.

  2. From the three Balzacs I've read, he seems to spend twenty pages meandering before he starts the story. But once he gets started he's the man. I also rate Eugenie Grandet.

    And: you're mean.

  3. a lot of people think i'm mean.

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