Sunday, 30 September 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (Sep)

9. Arthur Rimbaud — Collected Poems

My forays into the canonical French poets continues with Rimbaud’s collected works. Poems 1869-1871 collects his “early” verses—all politicised fury, snotty swagger and clunky line breaks. Assorted Scribbles (not its real title) collects his vulgar heretical rants, cheeky fantasies and anti-other-poet slapdowns. A Season in Hell reads like the ravings of a melodramatic teenager after his first dumping in the McDonald’s car park. Illuminations is an incredibly mature, visionary work of symbolist poetry that influenced most French poetry that came after, the American Black Mountain poets, and (sort of) Bob Dylan and (definitely) Patti Smith. And this. And this. This volume from Oxford Classics contains the parallel French text, which is useless to me, but might be useful if you . . . speak French. (But then why would you need the English text?) Wondrous.

10. Charles Dickens — Little Dorrit

Having not fallen fully under the sway of Dickens’s longest, Bleak House, we’re back to the savagely impressive corkers with this satirical and tender effort from the Immortal Blighty Scribe (IBS—unfortunate acronym). On a less grandiose scale than the preceding tome, Little Dorrit is much quieter, funnier, more powerfully affecting novel throughout than BH. In two parts, Poverty & Riches, the novel charts the progress of Amy Dorrit, (the token spirit of purity and goodness), and her family from Marshelsea debtors’ prison into a shaky life of infinite riches and never-ending Italian holidays. Central to the novel is her father William, who replaces his memories of destitution with violent hauteur, and whose mental collapse is rendered with masterful swings of wrenching drama. Clenham is the more complex, reticent hero, almost frustratingly dim in spots, but no less than impeccable on the moral scruples front. Apart from a sudden gallop into action-packed melodrama in the last 100pp or so, and a byzantine final-reveal sequence to out-Lost Lost, Little Dorrit goes straight atop the essential-Dickens pile, along with all the others. [And a final warning to Oxford World’s Classics: if you make your fonts any smaller, I will send in the midget assassins].

11. Howard Jacobson — Zoo Time

Are you a suicidal novelist clinging to the hope the power of your debut novel will knock the socks off people who have read it all before, know nothing new has been written post-1980, and will reap you enough profit to quit that grinding office job you haven’t got yet because it’s a recession and no one works anywhere doing anything? Then boy howdy, is this not the novel for you! A scathing satire on the state of contemporary publishing, Jacobson is brutally honest about the futility of it all, and also reassuringly humorous about our slow sad slump into suicide at the same time. Panacea for those quiet nights sobbing into your laptop.

12. Fyodor Dostoevsky — Humiliated & Insulted

A bracing early novel from the most unflinching of the Russian Titans, (The) Humiliated & Insulted is the only Dostoevsky novel with a writer-as-narrator, but not the only based on autobiographical material. Vanya is an up-and-coming literary talent whose first novel—cough not Poor Folk cough—has been critically lauded. He is chummy with Natasha, who is overly chummy with the indecisive blithering imbecile Alyosha, who can’t choose between marrying Nat or a less-attractive Countess with a large fortune. His father, the Prince Valkovsky, the villain of the novel, wants to get his seedy mitts on the money to spend on debauchery and immorality of disgraceful proportions (although nothing you wouldn’t see outside an Essex pub on a Friday night). Toss into this the mercurial orphan Nelly who the narrator takes pity on, and you have an extremely gripping and wrenching novel from a writer who you always forget is so damned entertaining. Ignat Avsey’s controversial translation of The Brothers Karamazov (which he re-titled to The Karamazov Brothers) was not entirely lauded for its sympathy to the Russian original. But this is a very readable, decent translation, albeit with the odd Anglicism and Americanism creeping in here and there.

13. Percival Everett — Glyph

A sublime satirical romp, as if Ishmael Reed had been reincarnated as an angry young grammatologist. Glyph features the nine-month-old mute intellectual Ralph, whose ability to write lucid, illuminating responses to his parents’ requests sends a local doctor spinning with career resentment and rouses the sinister forces of the American government, eager to use the silent poop machine as a robotic appendage of espionage. Told in short, punchy chapters with headings cribbed from Derrida and Barthes (who appears as a character), and full of dazzlingly inventive high-theory spoofery (or homage?), the novel is a wonderfully comic exploration of the world within the word and how literary theory both replenishes and dismantles the possibilities of literature.

14. Mikhail Lermontov — A Hero of Our Time

An early Russian novel, arbitrarily patched together, but still regarded as a canonical work in the Steppes and the Westies. Pechorin is the titular hero, the time being 1840, and the hero being ironical. The most engaging part of the novel is the long epistolary Mary section, an early stab at a society tale mixed with a bracing duel scene. The other parts seem sloppy attempts to reproduce the Walter Scott tradition in a Russian idiom, especially with the spurious preface larks and the chopping and changing of narrators. As a whole, the work is compelling and entertaining but by today’s standards requires a stronger cohesion and purpose. If this were the 1840 Goodreads, my star rating might be five, but alas, we can criticise an older work for what it’s lacking as the novel had already evolved lightyears ahead of this in 1840, if not in Russia, certainly France, England and America.

15. Don Delillo — White Noise

So White Noise seems to divide people entirely on matters of literary style, which is understandable. Once you accept the skewed reality of Delillo’s world, which isn’t particularly hard to do, you can take pleasure from the “unrealistic” dialogue and the surrealistic happenings as they happen, surrealistically. Otherwise, this is a straightforward book “about death”—theme-wise, this about as simple as they come. Delillo’s style for me was incredibly original, utterly engrossing and extremely funny and pleasurable for the duration, especially during the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ section, when it passed from highbrow social satire into something dreamlike and beautiful. Into ‘Dylarama’ the story becomes more Bergmanlike in its warped moribundity and builds to a sensationally lurid and haunting climax. Then again, your experience may differ—it’s that sort of book.

16. Philip Roth Sabbaths Theater

Nerves of steel are required for this 450pp assault on decency, indecency and all things neither decent nor indecent, but which probably involve sexagenarians masturbating a teenage girl’s knicker drawer. Mickey Sabbath is a monster with an unstoppable capacity for sex, lechery and outright molestation, plus a proclivity for sledgehammering all relationships between human beings who aspire to behave like semi-respectable grown-ups. Like Simon Lynxx in D. Keith Mano’s Take Five, he has a convenient knack for speaking in extremely unlikely literary sentences at a level of polished erudition no Harvard graduate-cum-Oscar Wilde descendant could possibly achieve, and is also such a prick of such catastrophic prickliness, your patience and tolerance levels are pushed to absolute snapping point—at no point would this man’s painful death be anything less than welcome. Instead of being locked up within five minutes for being a dangerous sexual deviant, Sabbath has reached his mid-sixties with a backlog of lovers with whom he has fulfilled all his perversions, and is currently lamenting the death of his East European fantasy lover and his sacking from professor of puppetry. A grotesque comedic reverie (and revelry), Sabbath’s Theater should be read as little more than an audacious, linguistically explosive piece of outré comedy. If you read it as a serious novel, you will no doubt aspire to strangle Mr. Roth. 

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