The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.2

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

A good review can bear a little preamble. It can tell some home truths, and sustain a little storytelling of its own.

The role of the reviewer, as m’colleague Steve Hanson made clear in the first of these Burgessian reflections, is primarily to entertain the reader. The charming delineation of a work’s positives and the witty rebuke of its negatives provoke a particular pleasure; the exercise of the critical faculty in the cultivation of taste, as Addison might put it.

But there is an additional pleasure to be gained from what this volume’s editor, Will Carr, has grouped under the heading “journalism”, and that is the joy of intelligence unbound by rigour. The strictures of academic writing and review strike out a large portion of what really makes literature enjoyable: the anecdotes, the sensations, and the unsupportable opinions. The review has no such strictures.

Burgess was a great yarn spinner, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The Ink Trade offers us a collection of anecdotes that are so funny, insightful or memorable that a reader will enjoy them in spite of their very likely apocryphal nature.

The young Samuel Beckett, Burgess would have us believe, walked around Paris in shoes so tiny that they damaged his feet; all to impress his hero, James Joyce. Joyce was apparently so proud of his small feet that he regularly boasted about them.

This is the same Beckett who preferred the sports pages to poetry and who, in Burgess’ mind, not only became a naturalized Frenchman but was always, in fact, a Frenchman. A child of the Huguenots, Burgess tells us, who only happened to be born in Ireland, and whose Protestantism dragged him back to his true homeland as soon as he had graduated from the (also Protestant) Trinity College.

We learn too of Shakespeare meeting Cervantes. If the King’s Men travelled to Valladolid as part of the peace delegation of 1605, and the writer of the Quixote had also been at court then, by pure coincidence, the two great founders of modern literature would have met.

They would, of course, have spoken in Arabic; Cervantes learning it as a slave and Shakespeare picking it up on a trip to Tangier with the Earl of Southampton. Perhaps they theorized about a great author who would write of this meeting in centuries to come? It is just as likely.

To defend Burgess against the charge of bullshitmongery, he is usually very clear, when slipping into the anecdotal mode, to make the reader aware of this. His tone of address brings the reader in, puts a linguistical arm around them and assures them that this part of the review is just between ourselves; a bit of after dinner gossip that the bores at the university would rather us not share.

The success of Burgess’ journalistic voice is its ability to move between the informal and the insightful with very little friction. Reading the collection, you will encounter narratology, insights into character, musical theory, phonetics and a wealth of psychological, historical and cultural knowledge which reinforces his personal reveries and reflections.

This is perhaps why I can disagree with Burgess’ opinions a solid third of the time while also thoroughly enjoying the way in which he expresses them.

In the essay “The Academic Critic and the Living Writer”, published in 1986, Burgess reflects upon academics as being the true allies of creative writers, where critics, reviewers, journalists – whatever you want to call them – are mercenary jackals, only out for blood. To share an anecdote of my own, I was once informed that Burgess regularly attended symposia about his own works, and enthusiastically took notes as academics interpreted his novels. They, he conceded, knew better how to analyse the work; he only knew how to create it.

In the modern era, however, I feel the tables have turned. Literary criticism as it appears in the journals, and as imposed by the peer-review system, favours the political dismantling of writers’ work and careers over the appreciation of its form and beauty. Our literary theory is often more slogan than aphorism.

If we are to begin appreciating authors again, it might be that a return to reading reviews (ideally those by authors, rather than aspiring politicians) will help us to rekindle the dying flame of aesthetic appreciation. There is certainly something in The Ink Trade which encourages you. Burgess’ generosity abounds from the page such that we, too, as readers, respond with generosity, even when he’s clearly talking rubbish.

Carr has achieved a heroic feat in the editing of this book. From the vast mountain of Burgess’ non-fiction writing he has curated a selection that is intensely readable, pleasantly eclectic, and balances the published and the unpublished in such a way that those who have read all of Burgess’ previous collections will enjoy this book as much as the newcomer.

After summing up the book at hand, the reviewer should then end on a pithy statement. Such would be fitting; to walk in Burgess’ shoes. Let us hope that they fit.

– Joe Darlington

Advertisements

A Christian Mingle

Patricia Lockwood – Priestdaddy (Penguin, 2018)

I must begin this review with an admission of bias. I believe in the gospel of Lockwood. I have accepted her as my personal Lord and rhymester.

Reading her first collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black (2012), was what first allowed me to write proper poems, and to judge what good modern poetry was. Before then, my literature degree had me peering up a high mountain with Milton waving down from the top. Those poems span me around and showed me how the rest of the world is poetry too.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014) was when Lockwood really arrived. It was the breakthrough album, complete with a hit single, “Rape Joke”, which went viral in the summer of 2017. I became a minor Patricia Lockwood lending library that summer, trying to gain converts by butting into every conversation and waving pamphlets.

Thanks to amazon-related bungling I missed the opportunity to review Lockwood’s 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, before its release. Now that a new paperback edition has just been released by Penguin I finally have my chance to pass off a glowing review as objective reportage. (Perhaps I’ve already blown my cover…)

Priestdaddy is a memoir dealing with Lockwood’s eccentric family, her love of language, and her relationship with the Catholic Church. Her father, she tells us, watched The Exorcist one too many times while on a submarine patrol in the Navy, fell down some stairs and saw God. First becoming a Lutheran minister, he would marry and have five children before converting to Catholicism. For those curious, that’s how you end up having a Father for a father.

The way Lockwood describes her father is in keeping with her poetic style. She exaggerates for comic effect, emphasising his guitar noodling and penchant for clotheslessness to a cartoonish extent, only for her then to surprise the reader with touching moments of parental care and his dedication to the priesthood. Waking at 3am to help people in trouble, supporting his family through their various trials, having the Last Rights Kit hanging by the door, always ready; you get the sense of her father being a good man, albeit one who is an enemy to trousers.

The supporting cast overall is strong. You grow to love her paranoiac mother with pro-life coathangers in her dresser (“The Midwest, contrary to popular opinion, does not lack a sense of irony. It might have too much of one”). Jason, her husband, plays the role of baffled outsider well, although there’s not a huge amount of their story in the book. Lockwood is much happier telling the story of how she lost her virginity to a swimming pool than she is in dealing with her own romances. One could be forgiven for thinking she only married him because he wrote the line “the milk bottles burst like scared chickens” in a poem once. Though it is a good line.

The memoirs travel loosely between the present of their writing and memories. It feels digressive in a personal way, like a long conversation between friends. If there is arrangement, it is through symbol. Swimming, submarines, cheap wine, asses; a shifting, personal iconography develops to parallel that of the immovable Church.

Which brings us to language. Lockwood’s poetry depends on the capacity of simile to outstretch metaphor. The terrifying beast that Christine Brooke-Rose always capitalised, “The Copula”, should technically only compare and not replace. A metaphor says something is something else, while Lockwood usually only says that it is like. Her genius is in the excesses to which she can then take her imagery thanks to them only being likenesses.

Describing the moment of religious calling when a man knows he is destined for the Church, Lockwood writes, “I think of that Buster Keaton stunt where the wall collapses and he finds himself standing in the open window of the upper room, not merely unharmed but chosen. After that, you must live the rest of your life differently, carrying that open window around with you always”. I find that image captivating. The thing that being chosen is like seems so much more real than the thing itself; not just more apt, or easier to understand, but more palpable.

Maybe these images are lapsed-Catholic in origin? Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism showed itself in his emphatic symbols; big, heavy red rocks and hollow men that are hollow men. He declares his images. Booms them with Gospel certainty. Lockwood, by contrast, has let The Copula into her heart. The wine isn’t blood, but if you want to really understand it, then it is. Poetry is the magical process by which things are compared with other things with such passionate intensity that, for the reader, they actually transform.

The most exciting moment of the book for me came with Lockwood’s description of linguistic synaesthesia, the “plasma” spilling out of words. We are told that “’sunshine’ had a washed look, with the sweep of a rag in the middle of it. The world ‘violinist’ was a fig cut in half. ‘String quartet’ was a cat’s cradle held between two hands”. I don’t really understand this bit, but that’s only because “sunshine” is so obviously a low buzz, “violinist” the sound of a knife and “string quartet” is like a bag full of nuts and bolts shaking around. Or I guess I do understand it. Too well.

More than anything, Priestdaddy is a touching read. It is a hymn to American kookiness and a rejoinder to Tolstoy’s claim that all families have to be happy in the same way. I hope that it does well, but not so well that Lockwood gives up poetry for prose. She is a unique voice.

– Joe Darlington 

And why wouldn’t I show him how like butter I was?

André Aciman – Call Me By Your Name (Atlantic Books)

With all of the press surrounding the new film adaptation directed by Luca Guadagnino, I thought I should revisit André Aciman’s beautiful book Call Me By Your Name. Several months have passed since I set out to write this review, and I think this adjournment is a testament to that beauty of Aciman’s work. I often find it difficult to write about things that I love.

The film, of course, is beautiful in its own respect. It is very visual, where the book is entirely insular. However, despite existing from and within inside the protagonist’s head, the novel itself achieves such impressive visual stimulation. It is no wonder that Guadagnino made the decision to focus on the outside rather than the inside. As reader, we are privy to all the things that in the film are left unsaid. They are left unsaid because they are in fact unsaid – they are thought and felt. And for me, the incessant and passionate divulge of Elio’s thoughts and feelings is wonderful.

This work presents the devastating infiltration of passion and desire with such poignancy and veracity. Love; the way it rushes in and out; like waves. I could be sat in the Italian sun. There is romance in every word. Aciman conveys the energy and dedication of infatuation in a way that I have never come across before. The wholeheartedness and wholemindedness of love. He creates such familiarity with the feeling that one would do anything for the object of their longing, “from ice to sunshine”.

The desperate wondering that we might have all experienced is so genuinely translated. We feel the violence of Elio’s obsession with Oliver: “Fire like fear, like panic, like one more minute of this and I’ll die if he doesn’t knock at my door”. We feel the impossible pace of feeling, so wonderfully expressed.

This portrayal of a young love offers so much as an examination of the essence of humanness. How everything changes in the light of love. There is a delightful voice created throughout, with abundant poetic offerings on every page – “that foot in the water – I could have kissed every toe on it”.

We follow Elio through the different stages of obsession, the indignation, and the denial. He tells us “I didn’t even care for him or his shoulders or the white of his arms. The bottom of his feet, the flat of his palms…” and it is perfect. We don’t believe him and he doesn’t believe himself. We see the wonderful uncertainty of adolescence, of self discovery. “I want to know your body, I want to know how you feel, I want to know you, and through you, me”. There is a beautiful, almost pederastic, resistance between the two. The life and death absoluteness of it all, the “mournful silence” and the “I don’t know how I’d have survived another day like this.”

While writing, now that I am finally writing, I realise I am still yet to say anything worthwhile. I am tempted to simply make a list of quotes from the book. Aciman is a wonderful writer, and his words resonate with me. Son of Nabokov. Dream machine. The book is just so beautiful. Just read it, please. A review couldn’t touch it.

– Blair James 

The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.1

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

This book pulls some previously uncollected as well as unpublished Burgess reviews into one volume.

Orwell once described the reviewer as ‘pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.’ So here I am, tipping a half of something smooth and costly – in the eternal sense – down the sewer right in front of you – a review of a book of reviews.

In fact, Manchester Review of Books – being Manchester Review of Books – might give you a few pints of it and send you home tipsy. Several of our reviewers are covering this, Burgess is important to us, and to the city.

When I was an undergraduate a housemate had a dictionary with a quote from a review on the inside of the dust jacket: ‘This is a fine dictionary’ it said, and it was signed Anthony Burgess.

We thought it was hilarious, it seemed to be evidence of completely fickle hackwork for what might have been called, in the early 60s, ‘payola’. But this book stands that group of cheeky undergrads absolutely corrected.

Burgess was a notorious reviewer, make no mistake. At times the practice took a large percentage of his time and work. But this is not hackwork.

The introduction here does discuss whether or not Burgess took this form of critical writing seriously. He once claimed he was stopping, then didn’t. He was sacked for reviewing his own book in the Yorkshire Post, or rather a pseudonymous Enderby title.

That review kicks off this collection, and I actually believe Burgess when he says he thought the editor was in on the joke – it’s much more than self-deprecating as a review.

He actually urges his readers to avoid the book more than to buy it, although perhaps in a way which recommends its cruder aspects to certain readers.

Burgess’s reviewing was promiscuous. He took on assignments for Country Life that led to an understanding of all kinds of things he wouldn’t otherwise seek out, stable management, embroidery.

But Burgess explains this as the stuff of novelists, the detail, the authenticity fuel. He also covered Levi-Strauss for Country Life, get that – because nobody else wanted to – leading to a serious interest in his work and to the novel M/F.

The review here titled The Corruption of the Exotic is offered as evidence that Burgess was interested in Levi-Strauss before that Country Life article, although you have to peer in and squint to really see it.

Burgess’s assignments were in some ways his second university, although he gloats about being one gig away from a completely free city of food, theatre, cinema, and I guess the unspoken Burgess essential ingredient, booze.

The review of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano is great, it makes me want to read all the other Lowry (I haven’t, only UTV). The Lowry review also contains one of Burgess’s many final sign-off lines: The single sentence diamonds.

Here it is ‘industry and longevity are no substitute for genius’ and a few reviews later ‘only the very bad writer is always absolutely sure of the value of what he is doing.’

So true.

But the Lowry review is chilling at this point in history – in 2018 – as Burgess cracks the relationship between the doomed ex-pat of the novel, dissipated and bent on death, the nihilist and ‘the choice that Europe, in the thirties, had already made.’

The war in Spain, Germany, and the colonial entropy. Orwell seems to hang over this point and Orwell emerges again during Burgess’s take on Why I Write, although this piece contains no nod to Orwell whatsoever.

It is a lesser fragment, clearly the start of something larger that was never finished. But at the end of the day, Burgess is always excellent as Burgess.

It actually doesn’t really matter if you’re interested in the book under review or not. He always has a pithy digression and cultural supplement to pop in your mouth. He has a juicy bit of gossip and a rootle around down the armchair for some historical artefacts.

It doesn’t really matter where you are in this book either, you can open it and ‘just start’. You could just buy this book as an introduction to great culture, full stop.

It could easily serve as intelligent holiday reading, and I don’t mean that as a slur, although doubtless AB would have taken it as one.

Or, alternately, ‘this is a fine dictionary’.

– Steve Hanson

Suspect Language

Evelyn Schlag – All Under One Roof, translated by Karen Leeder (Carcanet, 2018)

A pig in a poke.

Some sayings have lost their original reference points. They are carried in our speech like dead bodies, lifted along by the living words that crowd around them, their feet dragging on the floor.

Now imagine a translator. They are tasked with changing words and phrases for their closest foreign relation. How do they react when they find one of these corpses being carried along? Or perhaps, not corpses, but living dead. Phrases no longer signifying but still working, moving, and evoking responses from others…

I put it to you that once infected with poetry, all language takes on this zombielike appearance. It seems at once itself and other, but soon that otherness takes it over, consumes its original meaning. The rose that is sick ceases to be a rose at all. Words have become suspect.

I offer these observations as a result of reading Karen Leeder’s new translation of Evelyn Schlag’s poetry. The poems are in some ways difficult, but by the same measure they are deeply engaging. Especially if, like me, you enjoy ambiguity and enigma. The poems are set in the concrete world, but their language turns our minds away from it.

Interior lighting in a globogod. Tongulator

to the first floor. Not looking no one in the

eye. Sinking faces long since swilled way. Not

in the market for friends. Nameless plankton the

lot of them shopperplankton drifting. The season’s

innocent colours have arrived like never before.

Neologisms and a disregard for punctuation are typical of Schlag’s writing. She sometimes lets sentences drift too long, sometimes – as in the shopperplankton lines above – she joins a series of unfinished subclauses to make new, short units of sentencelike meaning. This effect, described by Leeder in her introduction, has been carried over into English. Our loose English grammar can incorporate such devices, however, and so I find myself overcompensating in my grammatical expectations. I’m trying to be German about it all.

The question, I suppose, is whether you can translate a broken grammar. If so, can you translate it so that it reads in the same way? I don’t expect that you can. I suspect that there’s something else here going on.

So too with Schlag’s imagery. We are promised the concrete, shown the fantastic, and left to decide our own level of literality:

                  Sufi and Versailles. Gateway to fresh-squeezed apple juice.

                  Police direct the traffic somewhat with a scarf and cigarette.

                  At night little sledges career across the roofs.

I find the words compelling, the poetry addictive. But I am filled with suspicions. Am I bringing too much of myself to the images? Have I replaced reading with presuming? Is “direct the traffic somewhat” an inelegant translation of elegant German, or inelegant German translated elegantly?

Maybe this is why I avoid poetry in translation.

Yet it is Evelyn Schlag’s poetic style itself that exploits language’s haunted qualities. Its ultimate inability to differentiate physical objects from metaphors, or metaphorical objects from physical presences.

                  In the Euro tunnel on the great west track

                  the glasses tremble on the table. I think of bats

                  and their tiny spit. For sticking speech marks

                                    back when they’ve fallen off

                  quotations. It’s fine it’s fine. The little witches…

For language clear and uncluttered, Schlag’s poetry still asks you to double back often, to re-read and then perhaps to read on with the sense still partially unfixed. You must read it with a clear head, the better to appreciate the poetic fuzz that covers its words.

Sometimes the best pigs are purchased in pokes. One must trust that what’s in the bag is really there, and that it is what it says it is. Poetic language, especially in translation, is a suspicious thing; shifting and circumspect. Schlag’s poetry is captivating for its very embrace of the unfixed and the slippery. Leeder’s translation does tremendous work carrying this through to English.

As these translated poems show, there are no frictionless borders in language. We must come to love our friction.

– Joe Darlington

To read or not to read

Alejandro Zambra – Not To Read (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

This is my first exposure to the Chilean writer and critic Alejandro Zambra who – as translator Megan McDowell explains – would much rather talk about Nicanor Parra than Garcia Marquez, and based on this introduction I am hoping to be able to read a hell of a lot more of him.

This is a great introduction, too, with its short sections. But each mini essay has a depth and purpose other writers would struggle to fit into a chapter. That Zambra does this with a breezy and sometimes cheeky style is kind of miraculous.

I see parallels with Nicanor Parra, when Parra writes that it’s really all the same if god exists or not, Zambra seems to have the same mix of gravity and levity.

‘Against Poets’ presents a picture of the archetypal bard starting out and then reaching mid-life, ‘they didn’t decide to become poets just so they could be forty years old’ he writes, with irreverence, but at the end concludes that these people are the saviours of the world. Again, gravity and levity fuse.

Via this short, humorous piece we get a sense of the longer tradition of poetry, as something to settle into, a thing of temporality that started before you and will go on after you. I sense this book – already far more well known outside Britain – has the same function. As Megan McDowell explains ‘we write to multiply ourselves’, in a search for a collective spirit.

The text is crystal clear and fresh, a thing of joy. The titles invite you in with their everydayness, ‘Other People’s Mail’ for instance and ‘In Praise of the Photocopy’. In the latter piece Zambra mentions Barthes and there’s a sense of Barthes refreshed in the style and brevity of these short essayistic pieces, Mythologies particularly.

The piece that bears the title of the collection is wonderful. Zambra takes pleasure in all the books he will never read, all the things he won’t have to read.

This assumption, sort-of lurking under the surface of academic life, ‘if only we could read everything’ is exposed for what it is, impossible and not actually desirable. I am coming out and saying that I will never read Giddens’ two volumes on historical materialism, since I got as far as the bit that completely rubbishes surplus value from out of nowhere.

I am now enjoying the fact that I will never read them. It glows in me like a secret.

But Zambra goes on to expose the reviewers who don’t finish books they review. I can tell you this smugly because I got that far and so can prove I have been there by writing it into this review. Which of course tells you nothing about my reviewing practice…

This is a book for writers and readers and I suspect that Fitzcarraldo is a publisher for writers and readers.

Long may Fitzcrraldo continue, I cannot find a single flaw in what they do, from the choice of text to publish and the design, right down to the way the paper smells.

This is one of their best titles. A thing to be thrust into rucksacks, battered and then treasured for generations.

– Steve Hanson