The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.3

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

Burgess has been deemed a monstre sacré (by someone unimportant), which, of course, he is. Has been said to write with “a badness at once so surprisingly defiant and so exceedingly obvious” (by someone else ridiculous). It is this defiance and this haughtiness that make his reviews so bloody enjoyable.

Burgess cared greatly about language, and, with it, language’s herculean guardians; it’s male mothers: Nabokov, Hemingway, and Wilde. He wrote consistently on brothers Vladimir and Ernest, and, though Oscar was not so prolific within Burgess’ work, consideration of this third review of a great literary man makes a nice collection.

They are all men, of course. As a friend of mine quipped recently (and accurately), “the only woman Burgess ever writes about is his first wife”. He often focuses on masculinity. He discusses Hemingway’s manly stature, his sportsmanship, hairy chest, and cojones. He notes Wilde’s similarly manly stature, his manly drinking ability, and, of course, his manly love. He once even cited Hemingway’s plain style as “emasculated” in fact as “the medium preferred by the most vauntedly masculine of writers” (appreciation of the word vauntedly well due).

Burgess speaks of each man in complimentary terms, though one may definitely sense some self-defensive reluctance. Years earlier in an interview with John Cullinan he denounced Nabokov as “unworthy to unlatch Joyce’s shoe” however it seems that over time Burgess grew a profound admiration of him. Perhaps longing for the bygone dandy. Needless to say, he produced innumerable writings on Nabokov, even stretching to say that he was “one of the few living writers I honestly admire and would, had I the equipment, like to emulate”. But it wouldn’t be a Burgess review without jabs such as this one: “He’s not afraid of being snobbish, which is a good thing because now he can afford it.”

We can easily deduce that Burgess had a soft spot for Hemingway, writing even more prolifically on the American writer than the aforementioned Russian. In the same Cullinan interview, he states that Hemmingway had a “curious freshness of vision”. In this article, previously unpublished, he repeats a lot of sentiments from other commentaries, but we get a more personal look in. He speaks of Hemingway as of an old friend.

The Wilde review (well, the Ellmann review, I guess) feels much more detached than the previous two, but we still experience a charming, while rational, air of respect. Burgess’ language is lovely and flowery in this one as though emulating Wilde’s own style. Words like “refulgent” knock into their partners, “imperial” in this case, prompting conscious, homonymic investigation in the reader – or at least, in me. His playfulness extends to the title of the piece: “Wilde with all Regrets”, which subverts the title of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Wild with all Regrets”. Owen’s title in turn lends its words from the Tennyson Poem “The Princess”. The line reads “Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;” Considering Owen’s address of the poem to Siegfried Sassoon, together with Wilde’s homosexuality, we can assume that Burgess has enjoyed an educated little laugh. Oh, Mr Wilson, how clever you are. He calls Wilde “a great subject”.

But as he speaks of these men, I cannot help but perceive empathy fuelled by self-preoccupation. This is how I read too, so I don’t mind. When he speaks of Nabokov’s dandyism, the great struggle of originality that bequeathed itself upon Hemingway, the glitteriness of Wilde – it just sounds as though he is speaking of himself. Ever the aesthete, he defends not Nabokov’s dandyism but his own. Discussing Hemingway he says, “but life is life, and fiction is fiction, and it is sometimes dangerous for them to touch”. Really, John?! Was it dangerous for you? Burgess is known for “effortlessly reinventing” his past “or at least giving some of it a more satisfactory shape” in the same way that he accuses Hemingway. I think that he felt a kind of connection with these guys through language. In Urgent Copy he writes that self understanding requires “a concern with language” and that “only through the exploration of language can the personality be coaxed into yielding a few more of its secrets”. And perhaps he is revealing his own secrets by engaging with these writers.

Language is definitely of top concern in these three articles. He believed that language and wordplay should be of top concern to anyone. In the Hemingway piece, he quite greatly questions, “How can you explain to the great public that one of the most important things in the world is to invent a new way of saying things?” We really hear Burgess shouting not for Hemingway’s but his own, and, in fact, all writing. He defends Wilde as “unforgettable”, Nabokov as a transformer of language. So these men, these towering manly men, are also pillars of language – or it may be that they break those pillars with their huge manly fists. Yes. And Burgess wants them broken too. Some of the most poignant points made in these pieces are more of a hammer to the roots of literature than a comment on the writers themselves. Take this for example, “nobody cares about style, language, the power of the word.” I want to say that Burgess recognized lost brothers in his fellow writing men, and expressed a communal sigh on their behalves. He talks mainly about their lives outside of Literature, as he so condemns others for doing, and yet manages to say so much about the state of Literature as a whole.

Burgess identifies one main obstruction for his three boys: Scandal. The sodomy, the censorship, the suicide. The sin! And I think that he felt that a kindred scandal had been attached to him. Burgess says that this focus on the scandal of a writer’s life “continues to get in the way of sober appraisal of his literary achievement”. He certainly distanced himself from his own scandal, dare I speak the words, A Clockwork Orange. He wants Wilde “cleansed of scandal” and perhaps he sees himself as similarly dirty with notoriety. Perhaps we should engage with writing on its own terms. He may be arrogant and chauvinistic, and he may have a habit of mixing his dates up, but it seems that Burgess tried to adopt the role of valiant, though uncompromising, protector and defender of great literature.

– Blair James

Reviews covered

Last of the Literary Dandies

A Very Blasphemous Fallacy (Previously Unpublished)

Wilde With All Regret

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Childhood on the Prairies

Keith Erwin Brower – Chronicles of the Glen: Childhood Anecdotes at Poplar Glen Farms (Friesen Press, 2017)

There is a long tradition, in both fiction and non-fiction, of writing about childhood on the Canadian Prairies. Perhaps most notable are William Kurelek’s A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer. Keith Erwin Brower’s Chronicles of the Glen is a welcome addition to this tradition. The book is a series of recollections about Brower’s early childhood on Poplar Glen Farms – a small family farm in eastern Alberta. There’s a natural ease to the writing and, no doubt, these stories were told and retold to children and grandchildren long before they were committed to paper. Each story carries a youthful fascination with the world. It’s infectious and as readers we share in the unfolding sense of discovery that each chapter brings.

The Canadian Prairies are defined by their seasons. There are blazing hot summers and prolonged, freezing winters. The depth of each season and their transition into one another provides a current that runs throughout the book: from the vulnerability of a small farm during a winter blizzard to picking wild mushrooms in the fertile soil of the barnyard following a summer rainstorm. Spring was a time to witness new life, whether among the livestock or in the wild. And weekly family walks through the surrounding pastures and forests were a key part of learning about nature as a child. To grow up on a farm is to grow up alongside animals and some become recurring characters in Brower’s book. There are the workhorses Lexi and Flicka, Teko the bull and Mona the mischievous dairy cow who nonetheless has a fondness for children.

Chronicles of the Glen depicts life in rural Alberta in the early 1950s. An important aspect of this book is the sweeping social and technological changes that Brower witnesses in the mid-twentieth century. The workhorses are eventually replaced with tractors, herd sires with artificial insemination and static threshing machines with combine harvesters. Yet, within all these changes Brower also describes the continuing ‘fine art’ of farming – from laying fences and building construction to rigging machinery for multiple uses. There’s a craft and ingenuity to it all. And as Brower illustrates each story these everyday practices (as well as everything else) are brought to life in his unique visual style.

Poplar Glen Farms is about 5km northwest of Wainwright, Alberta. I know the place well. My mother was born there and – full disclosure – Keith Erwin Brower is my uncle. I have many fond memories of the farm: rolling down the grassy slope in front of my grandparents’ house as a child, hockey games on the frozen pond in the sheep pen and playing in the fields and forests with my cousins. The crunch of snow underfoot while walking between houses on a crisp and starry winter night will be an abiding memory of Christmas on the farm. Throughout my childhood I had an ongoing internal debate over whether pasteurised milk or unpasteurised milk tasted better. I called them ‘town milk’ and ‘farm milk’. I’d think over the merits of each whenever I sat for breakfast around my grandparents’ table with a glass of ‘farm milk’ in hand. There’s no debate now. ‘Farm milk’ is the clear winner . . . I’m retreating into my own memories here. . . Reading this book by Uncle Keith is a reminder of the indelible link between place and memory in shaping who we are.

The town of Wainwright, Alberta was once home to Buffalo National Park which operated between 1909 and 1939. It was a state-backed attempt to preserve the plains bison (or buffalo) which were facing extinction at the opening of the 20th century. An initial herd of around 700 was brought in from Montana and within three decades the park had produced over 40,000 buffalo. However, Buffalo National Park became a victim of its own success as disease and starvation spread among the expanding herd within the bounded Park area. As Europe lurched into another war the Park was wound down and the site converted into a military base. The preservation of the plains bison speaks to a wider history of the Prairies. It’s a history wrapped up in colonialism and the devastation of peoples and cultures and wildlife. While the seasons continue to pass with seemingly eternal regularity, the Prairies have also witnessed three centuries of irrevocable change. The plains bison, for instance, will never migrate across the North American continent again. The literature on this history is as expansive as the Prairies themselves. My own reading is limited – a drop in the ancient ocean that once covered the area. Irene Ternier Gordon’s A People on the Move: The Métis of the Western Plains offers insight into the everyday life of the Métis Peoples over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries – including the practical, cultural and eventual political significance of the plains bison. And Grant McKewan’s biography of John Ware details the life of one of Alberta’s most famous cowboys. John Ware was an African-American slave who, following the American Civil War, herded cattle across North America and eventually took up residence in what is now Alberta. Both these books depict a key period of transition in the history of the Prairies: after colonisation but before the expansion of the railway and wider settlement. Significantly, both books are also primarily based on oral history and testimony passed down through generations. Such shared stories form part of the connective tissue of the cultural history of the Prairies, whether as the living memory of pre-colonial Canada or as witness to lives lived in changing times. Brower’s book is another thread in this social fabric.

There is a certain power to childhood stories. They bring a simplicity to otherwise complex situations. And they are often imbued with a sense of awe. The title of Brower’s book is a clear reference to The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. It’s a series of novels about children who discover an alternate, magical world. Narnia is full of adventure, excitement, danger and laughter. Yet, in Brower’s Chronicles of the Glen we’re reminded that such adventures don’t always need an imaginary realm. They are often right in front of us, in the here and now. Chronicles of the Glen is about the wonder of childhood and, ultimately, the joy of living.

References:

Kurelek, W., A Prairie Boy’s Winter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973)

_________, A Prairie Boy’s Summer (Toronto: Tundra Books, 1975)

Brower, J. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939 (Athabasca University Press, 2008)

Gordon, IT, A People on the Move: The Métis of the Western Plains (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2009)

McKewan, G. John Ware’s Cow Country (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1973)

Lewis, CS. The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: Harper Collins, 1994)

– Mark Rainey

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

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

New Old Sincerity, Real Depth

Sally Barrett – A Life’s Work (Red Ceilings Press)

Apparently sincerity is back. The icy ironic sheen of postmodernity is thawing. A group of academics are feverishly putting titles to this – little flags planted on this spring landscape with their names on them – the titles include ‘the New Depthiness’ and ‘Metamodernism’.

Tim Vermeulen describes how he envisions what he calls the ‘New Depthiness’ by saying ‘I am thinking of a snorkeler intuiting depth, imagining it — perceiving it without encountering it.’ He bases this on a viewing of Season 3 of Girls in which ‘just because I feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there’, a Radiohead song lyric, was suddenly inverted for him into ‘just because it isn’t real doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.’

Via this remote control epiphany Vermeulen launched a new movement within arm’s reach of the roasted peanuts. Adam Kelly of the University of York has called it ‘the New Sincerity’ via David Foster Wallace trying to break out of the alienated postmodern condition into a kind of authentic being.

That these ‘paradigms’ emerge from reading Foster Wallace, watching Season 3 of Girls or listening to Radiohead hasn’t stopped the more excitable academics from taking Metamodernism on as if it were a solid object.

Academic papers are already being produced and passing muster: For instance, ‘Metamodernism as we perceive it’ by Dali Kadagishvili (2013) begins ‘Metamodernism is a new moment in philosophy, art, literature, fashion, photography, economics, politics and other spheres of human activities…’

Lauren Gardner (2016) then launches ‘Metamodernism’ as a ‘A New Philosophical Approach to Counseling’ and Michel Clasquin-Johnson depressingly aims us (2017) ‘Towards a metamodern academic study of religion and a more religiously informed metamodernism’.

Rasa Vasinauskaitė (2015) claims that the paradigm alters ‘cultural contexts, concepts of the perception of the world and its reality’ that the paradigm ‘of postmodernism is being changed by the theories of post-postmodernism, metamodernism, or new realism…’

Personally I think they are all struggling. Ordinary people have been sincere forever. Yes, that sincerity is cracked with contradiction, and always has been – long before postmodernity was announced – but ordinary people have been sincere forever.

Sincerity is not an objective place, it is a subjective one, a place of feeling. Black music – modern R&B for instance – has always been sincere. It’s why Flight of the Conchords find it so funny, because it jars with the default world of irony. Therefore in the north of England black music and the white working class came together in northern soul. It was partly about feeling in a brutalised place.

Richard and Sally Barrett are both northern and I admire their writing so much because they unpretentiously tell us how they feel to an extent that might make some squirm. Indeed, on the back blurb here, Sarah Faith worries that Sally Barrett’s sheer honesty might destabilise her, make her more vulnerable. I think the opposite is the case.

In these poems, in this collection by Sally Barrett, everyday anxieties are mined, those voices in the head are translated to the page so faithfully that they almost become universal. They are not universal anxieties, but the way simple worries tend to inflate must be recognisable to anyone who is fully human:

I WISH RICHARD WOULD GO TO THE OPTICIANS
What if his eyes get worse and then
He can’t see to read and kills himself
He once told me if he was blind
He would top himself
I hope he doesn’t

These poems stay in your head and expand as the days roll on, they illuminate the whole landscape we live in, how the crappy flats we inhabit and the rubbish food we eat are all part of the impossibility of full lives and untroubled relationships. How the past eats us. They are direct and real and they investigate what it is to exist in a compromised and troubling place without any recourse to Derrida.

That there is an expensive AHRC investigation into Metamodernism and the ‘New Sincerity’ for two years is hilarious when these two are working right under their noses.

I am not being anti-intellectual – and I take the core of Derrida’s work seriously too – I am just pointing out bad intellectual endeavour. All you have to do is leave the theoretical slum, just get out more. You might want to buy this book too.

– Steve Hanson

Candles and Cabbage

Martina Evans – Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet, 2018) 

Martina Evans’ latest poetry collection takes the form of two dramatic monologues. Set in Mallow, County Cork, 1919 and Dublin, 1924, they mark the two foundational conflicts of the Irish Republic: the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. They also tell a tale of women’s experiences across two turbulent generations.

Both speakers are sceptical of political causes. The first, Kitty Donavan, is made so by necessity. Her dressmaking business is being shunned by the locals for taking business from the British Army. Her daughter too is in love with the young, one-armed socialist, Captain Galway. Kitty is cursed with migraines and relies on the doctor’s laudanum “tonics”. The opiates alternately cushion her from the violence and, caught between doses, emphasise her need.

Kitty’s work provides a language for her suppressed anxieties. Working, her “scissors swim like a dolphin with relief”. They trace “the crown & the letters of Royal Red”, all the while listening to the young rebel Eileen Murphy talk of the future Irish State. No more Royal Red, she says, the post boxes and the uniforms will all soon by green.

I’d imagined something magnificent like

A pure Peacock hue until she showed me

The colour on a bachelor’s gate

On the road to Quartertown. Pure disgusting.

A horrible dark green like an old leaf

Of cabbage you’d see a snail on top of.

Evans’ verse is tightly packed with images, but loose enough in its metre to read naturally. One can take the book at a running pace and enjoy a story with deep emotional beats, or slow the pace and reflect on the careful choice of wording. It’s not a symbolic poem, but its images – a peacock hue, a bachelor’s gate – are not chosen by accident.

Violence is always around the corner in Kitty’s Mallow. Soldiers shot in the guts, the Tans beating innocents on the street corner. As it builds to a terrible climax, Kitty barricades herself in. It is Eileen Murphy, the young rebel, who escapes the first poem. Her sewing skills, taught by kitty, make her the fastest sock darner in the IRA.

The second voice, Miss Babe Cronin’s, is more direct than Kitty’s. She is less evasive about her evasion. A stenographer; Babe’s language is clean, but she can’t help but listen. The “open tap of propaganda” from Eileen Murphy’s mouth, “nice looking in spite of the man’s black cap”, eventually turns her head. She starts running packages for the pretty young rebel girl.

Once again Evans’ turns an arresting image to great descriptive purpose:

…A fair haired girl with

Plaits down to her waist handed it over

But when she smiled at me, weren’t her two

Front teeth missing? In that church with the girl

Dressed all in white among the white candles,

It was an awful shock to see her gums.

As if the door of hell opened, I knew

Full well it was a firearm…

The bitter ironies of the civil war carry through the second poem, contrasting the Independence conflict in the first. The armies of the Irish Free State hold British guns, while the rebels speak Gaelic and carry the crucifix. Both sides are buried in their respective traditions. Both carry dogma.

For the women caught between the sides there are the old certainties of men and men’s folly. Men bring danger and adventure, fire and fear. This is perhaps why Evans picked the counterintuitive title; “Now We Can Talk Openly About Men”. The cover, pink and rather twee, seems to have been designed based upon this title alone. I can’t help but feel there are more appropriate colours out there – perhaps dark green and pure disgusting?

Overall, it’s a gripping read. The poetry is both pacey and touching by turns. The personal voices carry you along with them. Reading, you are inside the conflict, scurrying between brief moments of reflection. I will be surprised if awards aren’t won for what Evans has achieved here. A smart concept brilliantly realised.

– Joe Darlington