Saturday, 28 July 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (July)

1. Charles Dickens — Martin Chuzzlewit

Clipped Review:

Brill. Dickensian. Not ne plus ultra but close enough. More complex villains and heroes than precedents. Sublimely comic, including one hilarious scene of begging and bitching Chuzzlewits desperate for the old man’s loot. Best name: Sweedlepipe. Messy, sprawling and less structured in parts. Especially the last 40pp. But divine all the same.

A Pecksniffian Digression:

I work part-time at a homeless shelter and I always recommend Dickens as a panacea to ail the suffering hearts of those poor feckless wretches without deeds or property to their names that reside in the scummiest marshlands my dear ancestors that came from the bogs as wouldn’t see fit to wallow in. “My dear wastrels!” I entreat to those broken spirits as would soon pick up a book as embrace their fellow men with tearful laments of their mutual hardship, “Dickens is a noble cure for the wailings and lamentations of such as mendicants as yourselves, and the paltry sum I ask from you in return is as nothing as the soulful nutriments to be derived from the adventures therein. As I often say, what matters more to man, the trifling bread and water that keeps us in temporary sustenance but offers no solace in those dark nights when we prostrate ourselves at God’s heavenly feet, or deep lasting spiritual food to set us on our ways up and to our fortunes?” Sometimes these poor souls have the rascal folly to denounce my generosity as two-faced, but I look beyond such lowness and avail myself with their money to a well-earned slice of lamb cutlet with Ms Tippet’s special sauce, followed by a pint or two of Mr Swaddlecob’s pure English ale. Real food indeed! God bless the wretches!

2. Emmanuel Bove — My Friends

Yes. Hell and expletive yes. As ever, other reviewers have capably articulated my thoughts for me, so there’s no reason to read this when you can read Geoff Wilt, Knig-o-lass, Jimmy, Adam Florida and Mark Zero’s fine reviews (on Goodreads). I won’t provide links, since they’re easily findable by looking above (or below) this sparse paragraph. All I can say is: heartbreaking and melancholy, perfectly realised, the real deal. Universal. Read it. But don’t listen to this after.

3. Roland Topor — Joko’s Anniversary

This novella is readable as either a witty black comedy, a surreal satire of Stalinist systems, or a pre-Palahniukian exercise in empty upchuckery. All three seem to be in evidence. For background info on Topor, please consult Nate’s review, and for an entertaining (if unhealthy) account of the bloodier aspects (with analysis), consult Knig-o-lass’s review (on Goodreads). For my thoughts, please consult the next few sentences. Topor’s skill at surreal humour is first-rate: he establishes the parameters of his world clearly and doesn’t lapse into bland anything-goes-absurdism. But the graphic nature of his satire sits uneasily within the tone of the first half—making the gruesomeness seem heavy-handed as satire, undercut by the continual line of surreal winking mischief that runs throughout. The elements don’t really cohere, but fortunately the brutality doesn’t lapse into the splatterlaughterporn of the execrable Eat Him if You Like (no link provided on purpose), which has hints of Topor, without the wit or skill. Overall—on a par with that other unread Gallic scoundrel, Mr. Boris Vian.

4. Charlotte Brontë — Shirley

Tackling Brontëism #4 — Shirley

Shirley is Charlotte’s sophomore slump. Her Kill Uncle. Her You Shall Know Our Velocity. Her Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. And so on. I don’t care how cute Mr Rochester is, this novel is a deeply vexing mess. Firstly, there are several plotlines and not one has the urge to intersect. The rebelling miners plot launches the novel in tandem with the idle curates poor-versus-rich plot, then dribbles away with the introduction of the second plot: Caroline’s crush on Mr Moore. This plot is soon replaced by the late appearance of Shirley, the most interesting character in the novel, whose bland friendship with Caroline stems the flow of Shirley’s androgynous awesomeness. This too dribbles away with too many pastoral scenes, misplaced polemics, increasingly tedious extended dialogues and domestic trivialities. The novel feels aimless and incompetent without recourse to the tropes of a form (i.e. gothic romance tropes) like Charlotte used in Jane Eyre, so bumbles along at a grinding pace offering succour in all-too-infrequent scenes of tension or conflict between Shirley and others, which soon peter out into dreary ten-page dialogues or ruminations studded with biblical references. I managed up to 392pp, which is three-quarters—if any devotees of this book want to fill me in on the last quarter please do. Disappointing! Next one, Vilette.

5. Roland Topor — The Tenant

An effective horror tale from the ‘Groupe Panique’ polymath. For an amusing summary and sassy shtick, see this tenant. For a personal account in loving lower case, see this tenant. For more on Topor, see this tenant. For a long review in Persian, see this tenant. For 100 reasons to kill yourself right now, see the author. For a review by a man called William Van, see this future corpse. For a review by an extremely popular GR member, see this mad blinking eye twitching inside a bandaged head. For my review, come to my neighbourhood.

6. Thomas Hardy — Under the Greenwood Tree

Hardy’s third novel is about a string band that gets replaced by a sexy female organist. After that, about how the sexy female organist is pursued by three suitors and she chooses the poor, handsome one. How do students write theses on this shit? I have two ornamental degrees and I can’t think up anything useful to say about this extremely slight, simple novel. Except, I tried Thomas Hardy’s approach to courting at the speed dating last night. First woman: I wonder if you would do me the honour—no, the convenience, of marrying me. Response: No. Second woman: If it’s no trouble, I would like to install you as my spouse. Response: Drink poured on head (crème de menthe, with dandruff flecks). Third woman: I have decided to take a wife. You meet my needs. Response: Testicles kicked into the next village and served as meatballs on the platter of an unsuspecting toddler. Fourth woman: Marry me? Response: Sure, on one condition: you demonstrate a pair of functioning testicles. Ah—life’s little ironies. This book is simply nice, let’s not pretend otherwise.

7. William H. Gass — A Temple of Texts

If you care passionately about literature, especially literature published by Dalkey Archive, these essays will yield Aeolian harps of amazement, banjos of bliss, castanets of cheeriness, didgeridoos of delight, euphoniums of ecstasy, fiddles of fortune, guzhengs of giddiness, harmonicas of happiness, igils of idolatry, jew’s harps of joyousness, kazoos of kittenishness, lyres of lovespurts, mandocellos of magnificence, nose flutes of niceness, oboes of oooohess, piccolos of pleasure, quinticlaves of quiddity, reed organs of rightness, sackbuts of sensuality, tubas of totalfuckingwowness, vuvuzelas of veryfuckingamazingness, wurlitzers of wowwowwilliamgassness, xiaos of x-marks-the-spot, yodellers of yespleasemoregassness and zugtrompettes of zilovewilliamgassnessosity. His essays in here range from superlative prefaces on Alasdair Gray, Rabelais, Erasmus, Stanley Elkin, Robert Coover and Flann O’Brien, as well as personal reminiscences of his time with William Gaddis, Elkin and John Hawkes. His piece ‘Fifty Literary Pillars’ is Gass’s personal canon of essentials (compiled here via Nathan) and ‘The Sentence Seeks Its Form’ and ‘In Defence of the Book’ are outstanding essays on the craft of the poetic, perfectly euphonious sentences Gass considers tantamount to fellatio from Audrey Tatu on a waterbed. Throw in some pieces on Rilke and one or two philosophical digressions and you have £10 well spent. Essential.

8. J.M. Barrie — Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter & Wendy

Peter Pan or, How one man’s repressed paedophilia captured children’s imaginations for a century, was a cheery wee book. My reason for reading this as an adult? I have not grown up. I remain frozen in childhood. Whenever I find myself in adult surroundings, like an estate agent office, I wiggle in my chair and fight back the urge to say things like “how can you do that, pretend to wear the suit and act all grown up?” as I suck on my lollipop. Yes. Your humble reviewer might be able coast through a Dickens in a few days, but when it comes to social interaction he’d be better off in the crèche. Anyway, I found both books a disappointment. I’m in Team Alice, not Team Pan. Does this still enchant kids? I wonder. The recent Jason Isaacs version was nice. It’s late. I ramble.

9. Jean Cocteau — The Holy Terrors

First, Cocteau’s sumptuous, surreal little pearl of a novella, in peerless translation from Rosamond Lehmann. Next, Gilbert Adair’s affectionate rip-off The Holy Innocents (spot the pun). Next, Bernardo Bertalucci’s film The Dreamers, with a screenplay by Gilbert Adair. Next, Gilbert Adair turns his screenplay (or re-edits his original novel) into a novelisation of The Dreamers. Not a dud in the bunch. An Olympic relay of sultry, challenging art. What better?

10. Tom Mallin — Dodecahedron

The teensiest Tom Mallin revival has “sprung up” on GR via Declan, via Knig-o-lass, via Nate, and now via me. According to his son’s Italian Blogger website, Mallin wrote nineteen novels and over thirty stage and radio plays, in addition to his prolific work as an artist/painter, all before his fiftieth birthday. Thomas Pynchon, now in his late seventies, writes one book approximately every decade and can’t paint shit. Who is the real postmodern hero here? This one from 1970 is more capably summed up in the reviews of the aforementioned revivalists, so let me waste no words drooling a plot synopsis. My mind immediately leapt to late Calvino in terms of the geometric structure, but content-wise the book has more in common with Hubert Selby, Jr. than fantastical formalists. Mallin seems to have his own distinct aesthetic from bunkmates B.S. Johnson and Ann Quin, and as a trivial point, his excessive repetition of his character’s name within the tale has spread into the sorts of whimsical fables MFA graduates publish in Seems New But Isn’t Quarterly—he’s influenced a whole generation of people shit-scared of pronouns. I wonder if Mallin killed himself, completing the triangle of unread-novelist suicides with Johnson and Quin. Seems almost too ridiculous to be true. Are there any avant-garde Brits from the sixties who didn’t off themselves?

11. Benjamin Constant — Adolphe

Constant’s two books in English translation are first-person accounts of his dalliances, sort of Confessions of an Aesthete Under Napoleon the Great, starring Robin Askwith (see Manny for details). His other, The Red Notebook, a 60pp-odd fragment of an abandoned autobiography, is published by Oneworld Classics and hints at the Flaubert forerunner Constant could have been. This one is a “fictionalised” (i.e. names are changed) account of his romp with Madame de Staël, written in the matter-of-fact prose of someone who can’t believe his luck, committing the truth to posterity purely for the bragging rights. As you would.

12. Janice Galloway — Foreign Parts

First, that pathetic excuse for a cover. With this cover, the publishers are saying: “Look! This isn’t a fragmented experimental narrative at all! It’s a light and airy road trip about two crazy ladies discovering their place in the world! It’s not difficult or challenging at all! Beach read! Beach read!” Nice try, Vintage. But Galloway’s second novel is an ambitious narrative flitting between first, second and third POVs, set in holidays past and present. Within these separate narratives, her language closely mimics the internal monologue of her characters Cassie and Nora as they embark upon a desperate voyage into middle age, along the lost highways of their sexuality and female identity, creating a breathtaking and claustrophobic portrait of two complex, literate women struggling (perhaps) with latent homosexuality. Galloway is arguably the strongest female voice in modern Scottish fiction (except Ali Smith) and this novel showcases the breadth of her technical expertise and defiantly original take on the female experience. As far as covers go, the Dalkey Archive edition cover is, naturally, the truest (if not the prettiest).

Secondly, to the six people who “reviewed” this novel unfavourably, no. Sorry, but no. You are not getting away with your lazy, half-cocked dismissals. Rebecca: Galloway is not chicklit. In chicklit books overbearing women with unlikely positions in advertising dream of being fucked senseless by Rochesters with their own TV companies. This is a passionate, witty and moving account of two people who, yes, “became like lesbians with each other by the end” (or, rather, Cassie’s sexuality comes to the fore throughout the trip, leaving her friendship with Nora suspended on a dark note). Comparing the novel to Brokeback Mountain is like comparing a delicious lemon parfait to a mouldy slice of rat-nibbled brie left round the bins. Take a cold shower.

Virginia Proud. To quote: “the journey itself was so blah that it didn’t add to the plot at all.” The journey is the plot—the rhythms of their trip (the practicalities, observations and snippets of small talk) creates the emptiness, frustration and camaraderie that drives this novel. The fragmentation was, to an extent, reminiscent of Michel Butor’s dizzying road trip Mobile, spliced with Ann Quin’s descent Tripticks, refracted through readable, cosier lens of modern lit-fic. If you were “waiting for Rona to kill Cassie in her sleep,” why didn’t you write that ending? Perhaps send to Mrs Galloway, c/o the Proud lady?

Caitlin King. So wrong I barely know where to begin. Try telling a roomful of hardcore feminists all they need in their lives is to be pumped with some penis (or vaginas) to solve their problems and you’ll be a popular dish in the room, best served cold. Next: not all armpits are stinky, not since the invention of showers and deodorants. Clearly, you’re missing out on a whole world of armpit-centred sensuality. Sweat has been a sensual trigger since people started humping in caves. It’s only our modern preoccupation with grooming that has repulsed people against the body’s natural, beautiful odours. Everyone out there, please lick your lover’s armpit tomorrow. You’re in for a treat.

Daisy, you said: “I couldn’t keep track of the characters (and there are only 2!)” Well done! Have faith in yourself, you did it, there are TWO characters in this book! Tomorrow, we learn the letter K! As for this book’s audience being “a white feminist poet in her late twenties,” I am a white non-feminist non-poet in his mid-twenties and I thought this book was swell. You must work in book marketing departments. Geraud: it’s “getting” on each other’s nerves, not “going.” More detail in your review, please. Psirene: “cutting edge hip Ireland writer.” A little tip for you. Never ever confuse Ireland with Scotland. You will be hastily sacrificed at the altar of Seamus McMullan O’Flaherty.

No comments:

Post a Comment