Wednesday, October 3, 2018

the Ink Trade by Anthony Burgess

Reviewing the reviews of Anthony Burgess

For those whose idea of sheer bliss is reading literary reviews in their favourite newspaper on a rainy Sunday afternoon, (maybe followed by an invigorating nap curled up on the sofa), this book helps you to conjure exactly that pleasant feeling again and again.

The Ink trade is a collection of sixty excellent literary reviews published between 1961 and 1993 in numerous journals and papers. Reviews of those very novels that excited us in the last decades of the previous millennia and on top of that written by Anthony Burgess, pen-man “par excellence”, a peer reviewer so to say, for he was both writer and a prolific reviewer at the same time. His reviews are understandably different than those by academics like Davenport, Kenner or Kermode.

Burgess is the man who is famous for his “..clockwork Orange", infamous for the opening line in his "Earthly Powers” and enormous for his entertaining biographical dyptique "Little Wilson ..." and "You’ve had your time". He is a brillant writer, clever, witty and with a sharpened quill.

I've always had a special affection for Burgess. With his “Here Comes Everybody” and his "shorter and edited Finnagans Wake”, it was he who “explained” Joyce and Eliot to me, at a young age where neither my secondary school teachers nor my reading experience could have helped me.

Reading reviews of books already read, reminds us of the joy we experienced when reading them for the first time, when we were 30 or so years younger. But it is titillating to compare our own weak riminiscences with Burgess take on the same book. He discusses Burroughs’ Naked Lunch for instance, Desolation Angels by Kerouac, Lowry’s Volcano, Nabokov’s nymphe, Hemingway’s cojones and Eco’s rose. There is also ( Noblesse oblige ) a lot on Eliot’s Waste land and Joyce’s Dublinaria.

In some cases Burgess reminds us of books we might have passed by, forgotten or totally misssed. In my case Evelyn Waugh for instance, whose titles I hurriedly jotted down, a bit ashamed I must confess.

The format of the review makes this collection an easy reading, freeing time for the thinking and the enjoying. For enjoying is what it is all about. Burgess famously was a brillant word craftsman. Working like a goldsmith he embelishes his text with exquisite handpicked words, looping filigreed sentences and shiny marvels of expressions.

Some people take antidepressants to chase anxiety away. I read a Burgess review and have sweet dreams.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

...a river of allusion which runs hard upon a love story beneath.

Near the end of The Bughouse, his brilliant book on Ezra Pound, Daniel Swift reflects on the reading of Pound’s Cantos and on his own fascination with the “impossible poem”.

I recognize what he says about the Cantos in my own love affair with Joyce's Ulysses and other Modernist masterpieces.

"When we read late Pound we wade through a river of allusion which runs hard upon a love story beneath. This is the grand tension of this impossible poem. Capaciousness - the welcoming in of all sorts of voices, sources, modes and interference - is the Cantos great gift of poetry, but it is equally its damage. It is so tempting to read only for those fine lyrical refrains, and to overlook the bitty, argumentative interference to read, that is as magpies, picking at the pieces; but we may not. For the Cantos do not permit a simple opposition between poetry and history, or beauty and politics, or between reading as a poet or reading as an academic. Instead we must ferret out the footnotes, must consult the guides and speak with the scholars, before we can make any sense of them. The Cantos ask of us this care; that we expend our time in their unpacking.

This is however a trap. For the Cantos are an artwork which demands forty years of attention – many have devoted their working lives to precisely this – and once a reader has expended such care, he or she is bound to assume that its object has been worthwhile. It is the care which ennobles the subject, and this is how Pound converts literary critics into disciples.

It is not possible to be a casual reader of the Cantos".

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Perfect bookshelf

The Perfect Bookshelf

Gljufrasteinn, the House of Halldor Laxness

The House of Laxness visited May 2018

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Rick Harsch : Skulls of Istria

Pieter Claesz : Vanitas

Rick Harsch's truly excellent “Skulls of Istria” is a book that deserves to be read. This thin novel with less than 150 pages and only 6 or 7 chapters demands but a minimal effort and time investment, say an afternoon read, a few hours on the plane, for what I consider a huge return.

The story too is very readable. I mean by that, that from the first page, the author grabs your attention, you are sucked into the narrative and before you know it, captivated, you keep on reading. Or listening…, for that is what you actually do, you listen to a narrator babbling away while he drinks glass after glass of a local spirit.

The narrator, a self - exiled American academic, a mock historian he calls himself, speaks to the reader from his regular watering hole, a sea front bar in the Slovanian city of Piran. He has taken refuge from the terrible Burja, a legendary storm-wind that rages outside over the Adriatic Sea.

As his voice drones away, occasionally interrupted by his regular trip to the bar’s toilet to relieve himself, you install yourself in comfortable passive listening. But that may be a dangerous lapse of attention for you should listen carefully; close reading is required. The story the historian tells might after all not be as innocent as it is narrated and the steady downing of brandy might not only help the narrator to find his words but maybe also give him the necessary courage to proceed.

The American is basically and safely speaking to himself, for the other person at his table appears to be dead drunk and the other people present in the bar mind their own business playing cards. Anyway, nobody is eavesdropping, and we start following the narrative…

From innocent and funny anecdotes about the excesses of the Burja wind, the storyteller comes to tell us bits of the very violent history of the area, mingling it with his own confessional story of how he washed up in this coastal Istrian town. The man’s story consists of different threads that loop and snake around each other : the reason of his self inflicted exile, his relationship with his traveling companion, his passion for a gypsy women and his desperate search for a historic topic for a book he wants to write.

All this is recounted in a succulent flow of words, full of puns, clever wordplays, literary trouvailles and newly chiseled porte-manteau words. Not only does the narrator’s story turn out to be more than just interesting, it is darkly sarcastic and funny too.

As the reader starts to unravel the separate threads of the narrative yarn, a Hitchcockian structure appears that increases the worrisome mood permeating the pages of the book. The historian seems to have forgotten that what is the past today was the actuality of yesterday. In an area with a history of violent ethnic war, this is a warning not to miss.

Hell under one’s feet, might be but just a drop away.

A must read.