Thursday, 29 November 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Nov)

This month: several re-reads for pleasure and reappraisal. Some non-fiction meanderings, essays and the like, and back on-course on the avant-garde choo-choo.

1. Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade

The 999-line poem ‘Pale Fire’ in Nabokov’s overpraised novel Pale Fire has never been taken seriously as a defining lyrical masterwork but more a ludic/parodic exercise in sly snark and icy affect. This enormous boxset from Gingko Press extracts the poem from the novel and presents the work in a rustic 50s style chapbook and a series of handwritten Shadean index cards. In a side panel of this black felt box (with illustrations by Jean Holabird) a second chapbook ‘Reflections’ presents two essays from Brian Boyd (Vlad biographer) and R.S. Gwynn (poet of note) who argue the case for the piece as an artistic marvel, and contextualise the affair in the shadow of Eliot and Frost and their delusions of canonical posterity. Yvor Winters (who?) is thought to have been the ‘inspiration’ for John Shade. An interesting deluxe item that, sales-wise would have benefited from including the Kinbote material, but aesthetically would have undercut the purpose. For hardcore Pale Fire or Nabokov nuts only.

2. Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire

Pale Fire presents a 999-line poem from murdered poet John Shade, followed by an unreliable commentary (and earlier intro) from his stalker and apparent chum Charles Kimbote. The commentator takes an arch tone to his union with shade, exaggerating and distorting his position in the poet’s life, and uses the space to expand on the history of his homeland Zembla in lieu of discussing the poem’s content. Upon a first reading I found the book something of an extended academic titterfest, albeit larded with the usual Nabokovian puzzles for militant close readers, and upon a second read, my opinion hasn’t changed much. The digressions on Zemblan kings and princes are (intentionally, but so what?) long-winded and dreary, and the line-by-line commentary, although amusing in places, doesn’t particularly dazzle except as a series of Vlad set-pieces, like a looser Pnin, albeit with more formal ingenuity. The poem isn’t supposed to be a spoof of bad poetry, according to Vlad biographer Brian Boyd in this boxset special edition. It ain’t half bad.

3. Laurence Sterne — The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

This edition from Visual Editions expands upon, or at least emphasises, the typographical fancies Sterne deployed for his maddening nine-book digressive epic. Combining black and red font effects (all the dashes and chapter titles are in red), with unique artistic stunts (the infamous black page is replaced by a strikethrough design, various font frolics are exaggerated in amusing ways, and one page includes a ‘moisture’ effect using semi-laminate bubbles over the text), the book isn’t perhaps as radical as it appears, but it mainlines some creativity into otherwise bland Penguin or OUP editions. Other effects include Slawkenbergius’s tale printed on a parchment-like gray background (in red font!), a folded page which has to be ‘closed’ to read the text on the other side, and an enhancement of Sterne’s barmy plotline squiggles that attempt to map a coherent path for the book. The edition is lacking in explanatory notes, meaning a new reader interested in keeping up with the Latin, Greek and French asides, or the avalanche of obscure references that come thicker and faster as the book—um, progresses?—digresses, will need to have a Penguin or OUP edition handy. (I read this constantly flipping back to the OUP ed for notes—eventually I gave up). Tristram Shandy, as you will discover, may be a book of digressions and wild goose chases, but it demands Zen-like concentration for both the scholasticism and the difficult 18thC English. I hope to prove a better reader on the second spin. Michael Winterbottom made the film with Steve Coogan.

4. Charles Dickens — The Mystery of Edwin Drood

An incomplete Dickens novel is like a half-finished jigsaw. How do you rate a half-finished jigsaw? This fragment, being Dickens, actually comprises about 1.5/3 of the intended work, but still isn’t enough to want to invest oneself emotionally and intellectually in the characters and plot happenings (for me, anyway). In this instance, it may be wiser to skip the book and head straight for the recent BBC adaptation (much as it pains me to recommend TV over text). Still: not without its usual charms and flourishes, howevs. Now I have reached the end of my serialised Dickens quest, let me now pointlessly rate the works from favourite to not:

Little Dorrit. Sumptuous, heartbreaking . . . not an unmemorable moment.
2—Our Mutual Friend. Melancholy, dark, haunting and murderous.
3—David Copperfield. The reason first-person narratives are no longer required.
4—Nicholas Nickleby. Extremely funny, rollicking picaresque-esque number.
5—A Tale of Two Cities. Exceptionally moving and bloodthirsty historical novel.
6—Oliver Twist. Captivating child protagonist, fabulously vicious twists.
7—The Pickwick Papers. Dickens does straight comedy to much merriment.
8—The Old Curiosity Shop. Scariest villain and cutest child fatality.
9—Bleak House. Complex, powerful and yes, a wee bit overlong in places(!)
10—Martin Chuzzlewit. His second best comedy, starring the brilliant Pecksniff.
11—Dombey and Son. Extremely tense, extremely meandering. But good.
12—Barnaby Rudge. Satire and history together in a messy, bloody epic, with parrots.
13—Great Expectations. Beautiful childhood reflections, less successful in adulthood.
14—Hard Times. Sublime character Gradgrind in choppy, hectoring effort.
15—The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Unfinished.

5. David David Katzman — A Greater Monster

A Greater Monster is an audacious, ambitious antinovel that takes the form (at a guess) of a continuous hallucinatory trip through the depths of the imagination. The unities of time are doused with fourteen pints of lexical petroleum. Linearity, plot logic and coherence are torched on the bonfire in favour of language that uses typographical innovation to mimic the helter-skelter loopiness of the unconscious. Language doesn’t escape the sousing—here, wordplay is permitted a little pas de deux before Katzman violently beats his words around the cursives with sticks. Starting in the past then switching into the future tense, the novel puts all its faith in the rhythmical wave of words: sentences are clipped and speedy, frantic and free. The image-driven and action-led surrealism is unrelenting and will test or polarise the readership.

To what extent the typographical stunts are entirely relevant to the Greater Aesthetic Purpose, or exist merely in and of themselves, is up for debate. But the range of artful deviations on here is delightful: snaking and spiralling sentences, first person pronouns exploding in your face, hands and busts reaching out the page, all sorts of kerning and spacing shenanigans, plus, most impressively, 75pp of beautiful black-paper illustrations. Katzman’s commitment to the book as both an evolver of language and a work of visual art shines through. Although
A Greater Monster (it seems) wants to be read linearly, it opens itself to random reading and the reader’s immersion in the delicious word-waves. Perfect for those seeking their next blast of brain-stretching oddness and loving wordbendery.

6. Gilbert Sorrentino — Little Casino

A short spectacular novel that forms part of an unofficial trilogy along with A Strange Commonplace and the posthumous The Abyss of Human Illusion we might label the “retirement” trilogy (GS having previously, and quietly, taught at Stanford until the late nineties). In a series of vignettes, Sorrentino dredges up the ghosts of his Brooklyn past for a typically sardonic, extra-specially perverse cockeyed slant at humanity and its failings. A warm-hearted and sometimes sentimental book, Little Casino is comfy in its artifice, with self-commentaries added to each chapter for further cranky or equally moving comments. Among the more amusing pieces is ‘Epistolary Associates’ where a woman criticises a letter sent by an ex-lover for not jolting her “into taking a fresh view of our relationship . . . your recollection of what we ‘had’ together seems, I’m afraid, rather flat.” The chapter concerning a vicious marital argument ‘The Tomato Episode’ is especially amusing when read by Sorrentino in this interview and podcast from the Lannan Foundation (sadly not filmed). The only video footage available of Sorrentino, seemingly, is him discussing Hubert Selby in the DVD It/ll Be Better Tomorrow.

7. Gilbert Sorrentino — Aberration of Starlight

Sorrentino’s sixth work of fiction plants an unexpected but apt quotation from Brian O’Nolan after the final page: “The meanest bloody thing in hell made this world.”

Aberration of Starlight
is one of Sorrentino’s most bitter, scathing and unflinching novels (and perhaps the closest he came to ‘realism’ in content only) in his hefty canon. Split between four characters—a son, his mother, her lover and a father—the book probes into the “psychopathology of everyday life” (Freud ref but also a short story by Gilb) with a series of structural scalpels and stylistic callipers. Making use of letters, fantasies, internal monologue, question-and-answer, dialogue and memory fragments (all this is on the blurb—don’t panic), Gilb summons up the burning contempt, sexual repression and overall heartbreak at the heart of this painfully “real family.” Billy, the “cockeyed” child, hopes that Tom, her mother’s philandering lover, will replace his absent father, while their poisonous old prick of a grandfather can’t stand to imagine his daughter as a sexual being or having his virility challenged by a younger man. The story is beautiful, painful, darkly humorous and melancholy. And tough, damn tough:

“He wasn’t prepared for her anger and spunk in talking back to him, and what did Bridget being sick all that time have to do with her letting this man be her escort, he’d like to know that, and could she tell him that? With a pair of high-heeled shoes meant for a girl of eighteen, not a mother who’d been married in the church at a high nuptial mass and in the eyes of God was
still married. She sailed right by that and tore into Helga, that backbiting dutchie she called her, can’t you see what’s as plain as the nose on your face? That sauerkraut-eater has, oh don’t deny it, she has grand plans for you, oh my, grand. Why, you talk about people, pardon me, the antiques here, think about Tom and me, Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Don’t you think they can all see that woman setting her cap for you? And she’d say anything to play up to you, anything she thinks you want to hear, by God, she’ll say it, in spades. He didn’t mean to—maybe he didn’t actually say it—but he forebade her to go out with that sly article and her face got as white as her shoes. She said she’d do as she damn well pleased! With a bleached blonde of a tramp he was seen, a whore! he said, and blushed. That’s the kind of man who’s taking you dancing! Worse than that greaseball of a husband of yours, and bejesus he doesn’t even have a bit of ass on him! By God, it’s one of the wonders of the world that the man can manage to sit down. She was holding the door open for him and wiping tears from her eyes. Oh Poppa, she said, what a spiteful thing to say, what a spiteful, mean thing to say to your own daughter.” (p192-3)

8. Hubert Selby Jr. — The Demon

The seventies were seemingly the most productive decade for Hubert Selby, whose short bibliography shows how torturously he composed his tortured (but never torturous) novels and stories. The Room was published in 1971, followed by The Demon in 1976 and Requiem For a Dream only two years(!) later. With his two masterpieces behind him—Requiem and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)—Selby’s work was extremely sporadic and, apparently, subpar. Publication dates suggest this novel occupied him for half a decade, despite Requiem being the superior work, but it’s by no means a patchy effort. The Demon is a “psychological drama” (as TV schedulers say) following the progress of sex-addicted Harry from his womanising years, his attempt to shimmy up the (unconvincing) corporate ladder, to his slow transformation into a serial killer. The prose is typically simple, using Selby’s familiar punctuation style and exhausting run-on sentences. He spends a little too long on the build-up for the climax to have the same devastating wrecking-ball-in-the-guts feeling as his two masterpieces. Arguably, Selby’s depiction of home life is far too cardboard to be wholly satisfying here. His strength as a writer was a profound understanding of what drives people to extremes and the tormented tangles we get ourselves into. (It is hinted that Harry could ‘free’ his demon by simply confessing all his nefarious acts—hmm, probably not, eh Hube?)

9. Flann O’Brien — Further Cutting From Cruiskeen Lawn

The Best of Myles is the only Myles na gCopaleen collection needed in one’s personal library, end of discussion, rubber-stamp it, commit it to posterity, do it and dust it. This edition and its non-Dalkey partner The Hair of the Dogma mop up morsels from the Cruiskeen Lawn columns that might be of some interest to the reader jonesing for historical Irish trivia or who can’t get enough of Myles’s hilarious but eventually tiresomely wacky voice. I can imagine how exciting flicking through The Irish Times and arriving at Myles’s column would have been circa 1940-1966—here, the effect is diluted through a surfeit of out-of-date material on Irish politics, topical debates and other parochial concerns or esoteric oddities. In other words, all the best material is in The Best of Myles. Clue’s in the name.

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