‘He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.’
– James Joyce
‘He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.’
– James Joyce
The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood Jonathan Cape 2015
“I find that my memory is always yeasting up, turning one-minute moments into loafing, 10 minute reveries.” – James Wood
Which is not a bad thing to do over the summer break, all things, somewhat leisurely, considered.
Especially if the yeast is also the stuff contained in a nice lager. Cheers, everyone.
This review has in fact been sitting in the draft folder for nearly a year* – in a completely unplanned way, I seemed to have a lot of books about books, and they were all damn good, often better than the books they were about.
The main post at the time was this, involving Clive James, amongst others.
Wood is similarly analytical and, like James, in a determinedly non-theoretical style. He might though, in fact, refute the “analytical” tag: a lot of the criticism he most likes is ‘not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate reader description’.
That rang a ding of appreciative recognition with me: the basic question of ‘what’s it like?‘ can be over analysed, and certainly over-theorisied.
It is, he says, ‘a way of writing through books, not just about them…. One has the great privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing:
‘When Coleridge writes of Swift that he “had the soul of revelation but dwelling in a dry place”, or when Henry James says that Balzac became so devoted to his work that he became a kind of “Benedictine of the actual”; when Pritchard laments that Ford Maddox Ford never fell into that “determined stupor” out of which great artistic work comes – these writers are producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in the so-called “creative” work.
‘They are speaking to literature in its own language.’
He muses that our life stories have no shape or more accurately nothing but its presence until ‘it has its ending; and then suddenly the whole trajectory is visible’.
Julian Barnes has similar thoughts in some of his recent writing, prompted in his case by a funeral, and it takes the old brain down some channels of thought which move away from literature and onto religion, or at least questions of a ‘what’s it all mean??????!!’ nature.
There is, Woods says, a struggle within a novel between present and past, instance and form, free will and determinism, secular expansion and religious contraction.
‘Authorial omniscience has such a fraught history: the anxiety is partly a theological one and has the unresolved nature of the theological argument. The novel seems foreverrunable to decide whether it wants to revel in omniscience or apologise for it, foreground or foreclose it. Should the novelist intervene and interrupt or withdraw into impersonality and frigid indifference?’
The most important part of the book is the middle part entitled Serious Noticing , beginning with comments on the Chekhov story called “The Kiss” which focuses on just that, at length, and the different perspective two parties had on that kiss. Wood expands into writing about noticing: Chekhov, he says, ‘appears to notice everything’.
Details in ‘The Kiss’ represent a point in that story where “form is outlived, cancelled, evaded.
‘I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them.’
* A lot of these posts are first drafted at odd hours, when trying to get back to sleep after dealing with various family health things. There’s about 120 odd half/three-quarters written drafts in the folder. I suppose everyone needs a hobby.
Bob Dylan gets a Nobel. For literature, just in case you were thinking it’s for economics or anything.
I’m in the rather large camp which believes St Zimmy’s songs were best done by other people. I don’t like his singing much – his style, especially in his better-known songs from the ’60s, is very sneering, very off-putting.
And like others, I’m sure, I’ve heard too many bad buskers hooting ‘how does it FEEL???’ too many times not to feel a certain weariness.
I’ve only ever owned one Dylan album – Blood on the Tracks, which became the soundtrack for one of the numerous, not particularly happy, road trips I did around the North Island back in the ’80s.
It is, to be fair, pretty good, and ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is one of the great ‘Track One, Side One’ songs of all time.
More recently, I downloaded a few of the mono mixes of some of his famous songs from the mid-60s.
Yeah, they’re good. But Dylan is a bit like the Beatles. We’ve been saturated in adulation for the “genius” of these “icons” for so long the colour and flavour has kind of leached out of them. It’s kind of difficult to tell if they’re really that good any more. Besides, I’m of an age group that grew up after they were already towering eminences, great cultural gods. The urge to lay about these icons with a hammer is never far away – or at least, to point out these Emperors might not have been naked but they did have many of the less personally admirable aspects of emperors down the ages.
And the Nobel? For literature? Dylan’s influence is huge but it’s musical rather than literary. It doesn’t feel right, somehow.
Dylan himself once said the band who did his songs best was Manfred Mann. The Dylan Disciples – of whom there are many- have always maintained this was one of the Bobsters’s great jokes.
And finally: William Shatner does Mr Tamborine Man. As only Bill S & his singing hairpiece can.
August 9 is Book Day in the United States. Scanning the news bulletins beaming out of that strange and excitable outlier* from the rest of the English-speaking world, it’s difficult not to conclude that a quiet sit down with a long book for a week or two would do American citizenry a power of good.
New Zealand doesn’t have a Book Day. We probably should. We have days for lots of things, including public holidays for provinces which haven’t existed since 1876, and for the birthday of a monarch on a day which isn’t actually her birthday.
We should be able to manage a Stay In Bed & Read Day – sometime around mid-winter, say.
Or – for Wellingtonians, anyway – whatever day the Downtown Community Ministry Bookfair is held. This is like a festival of second-hand books, and people queue in the rain for it (yes, seriously. In how many other cities in New Zealand do people queue in the rain for second-hand books?? ).
A few months back I stumbled across a bunch of Companion Library books at a second-hand bookstore in Petone. I don’t know the history to the Companion Library series, but I know it was a cheap way to get ahold of some of the great classics.
They were available on some sort of hire purchase plan, I think. They were via mail order, and you got one every couple of months or something similar. There was no actual ‘front’ and ‘back’ to each volume – each volume had two books, and you flipped them over and read in from each end.
They were cheap – all the books were well out of copyright, and I bet even for their cheapness someone was making a packet out of them. The first one my folks got for us was Alice in Wonderland, and I can’t for the life of me remember what was on the other side of that volume.
Had a huge effect – I had vivid dreams anyway, and here was a tale about a very vivid dream.
The volumes I read most often was the one which had Grimms Fairy Tales on one side and Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales on the other. Wore that one out. More vivid dream fodder, of course, with more than a touch of menace. And in the case of the Hans Christian Anderson stories, menace with moralism.
Aesop’s Fables was also a fave – and I notice now, looking back, that like the Grimms/Andersons volume, it was short stories. The thing I remember most about the Aesop’s Fables was discovering the origin of a few phrases (‘Oh, so *that’s* where “sour grapes” and “dog in a manger” comes from!’).
I presume the Companion Library has long since been discontinued. You can get all these on Kindles now. Probably for free or as close as makes no difference.
Anyway, Happy Book Day, wherever you are, and Happy Reading, on any day and any device.
*included especially for Steve Braunias
‘ I am most inclined to set my own work in the tradition of the modern British comic novel, which as we all know started with James Joyce’s Ulysses but has improved since.’
– Malcolm Bradbury
Never trust them: trust only the novelists, those deeper bankers who spend their time trying to turn pieces of printed paper into value, but never pretend that the result is anything more than a useful fiction.
‘…. I am a writer, not a critic: I like my fictions to remain fictions.’
-Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Rites of Exchange’
‘By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism. The concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience. It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.’
T E Hulme
Comedy is not generated by a writer who sails to her desk saying, “Now I will be funny”. It comes from someone who crawls to her desk, leaking shame and despair, and begins to describe faithfully how things are. In that fidelity to the details of misery, one feels relish. The grimmer it is, the better it is: slowly, reluctantly, comedy seeps through.‘
Hilary Mantel on Elizabeth Jane Howard
‘We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be on the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love and therefore scarcely rational at all.’.
My first introduction to Clive James, apart from a snippy reference to a review at the start of one of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs*, was his television shows in the 1980s. Have to confess I wasn’t a fan. The shows seemed a mix of cheap laughs and often a slightly sleazy air. Not my cup of tea.
They was also his poem on the Charles and Diana wedding, which quite embarrassing.
Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s I came across a piece of his about poet Philip Larkin, who I just had discovered.
It was like finding that Krusty the Clown was, in real life, Montaigne**. It was perceptive, it showed things I hadn’t noticed, it was witty, humane,intelligent.
Dammit , it was good.
James is now dying of leukemia, and it is this death sentence which hangs over much of his latest works – it is there, of course, in the title, with its dark pun.
And he is not going quietly: commendably though, rather than rage he is writing, writing, against the dying of the light.
Some people parade their learning. In the past James has tended not so much as parade his knowledge: he’s been more inclined to take his on night manouvres with the Panzerdivision. If he could draw a reference to a sesquipedalian continental writer, or some obscure Russian, all while peeling the spuds, it seemed he would do so at the drop of a quotation mark.
Life, and the wisdom which comes with not only experience but the ability to learn from experience, has seen him tone this down.
A bit. The learning is still very much present: one of the favourite recent additions to my bookshelves is his magisterial Cultural Amnesia, which is full of obscure byways and is one of those books of learning which are a joy to dip into from time to time.
But he has learned not to overdo it.
“The critic should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful'” he comments towards the end of Latest Readings. Theres a rueful, if implicit, acknowledgement of follies of younger years there.
The critic should also, of course, send you off to check out his subjects. On the strength of reading James – not only here, but more recent pieces in the Guardian – I’ve had another bash at Conrad. Apart from “doing” Heart of Darkness at Uni, I have read little of his work. I picked up ‘Nostromo’ at a second hand store in Auckland, back in Uni days in the late ’80s but struggled with it and it was a book which was, amongst others, wiped out in The Great Sandringham Road Leaking Roof Catastrophe of 1992.
But when James writes, as he does here, that he first read it full of admiration for both Conrad and himself: Conrad for his moral scope and himself for his endurance in actually managing to read the thing, it struck a chord with me.
“Perhaps to induce self-esteem in the reader had been one of the author’s aims. There are those who believe that Wagner made Siegfried so wearisome because he wanted the audience to admire themselves.”
He has more time for Conrad now – and on James’ recommendation, I’m currently about half way through Under Western Eyes. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it reminds me of some of William Golding’s later writing. It’s hard work, but its also difficult not to persevere. There is something about it which draws the reader on – well, this reader, anyway.
James quotes Samuel Johnson, approvingly, on the way language changes and notes the man famous, amongst other things, for writing a dictionary wrote as if language is an ever-changing thing. Johnson was not trying to resist this, but make sure that as it changed it did not become corrupted.
“That our languages and perpetual danger of corruption cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found? The present manners of the nation would deride authority and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.”
All he needed to add was that unless you can criticise yourself you’re not a writer, James adds.
James remains impressed with Anthony Powell: and, sorry, but I’ve never managed to get beyond a few dozen pages with A Dance To the Music Of Time, despite having several bashes at it. But I loved James’ characterisation of Powell’s writing which, he says, ‘sometimes piled on the subtlety to the point of flirting with the evanescent’.
This is, I think, the crucial attributes of a great critic: the ability to write enjoyably about something the reader may not like and may even have no interest in. (In the New Zealand context, Diana Wichtel – like James, a television critic – in the Listener falls into this category. I enjoy reading her columns about tv programmes I have never watched and have no intention of doing so).
And on Larkin – who features, as he so often does, in James’ work, – he defends the poet against the backlash which followed the Andrew Motion biography in 1993 and the revelations Larkin was, in his private life, something of a porn-loving creep.
As James writes now,
‘The turmoil of his psyche is the least interesting thing about him. His true profundity is right there on the surface, and the beauty of his line. Every ugly moment of his interior battles was in service to that beauty.’
He is right about the first claim. I am not so sure about that last sentence though. Sometimes the point of Larkin is where the ugly moments obtruded on the beauty, especially in some of the ‘High Windows’ collection, not to mention some of the works which were left unpublished until after Larkin’s death.
Mention of Larkin brings me to Robert Dessaix’s memoir, What Days Are For.
I’ve never heard of Dessaix, but the title is the first line in a Larkin poem and when I saw it on the pile at good ol’ Unity Books, I swooped.
The poem, in full, is here:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
It has been one of my favourite poems since coming across it sometime in my 20s. It’s message seems to me to be you have to live the life you have got: ‘days’ does not refer to a 24 hour period but a much more broad thing, they are simply ‘where we live’.
The last four lines are marvellous. There is something risible about the image of the priest and the doctor. The ‘doctor’ here, I am sure, is not a medical person but an academic, an ideologue.
And like the priest, the ideologue comes running over the fields, all flapping coat and wagging finger, telling us how to solve the question of life with their pat answers.
Dessaix – like James, an intellectual Australian – wrote the book while recovering from a medical mishap and pondering the Meaning Of It All.
His life appears somewhat abstract: he has a (male) partner and their life together, as depicted in the memoir, appears to be very much of the mind. It is in some ways enviable but in other ways there seems something curiously airless and un-grounded about it all.
Which is not to say his book is not a thought provoking and enjoyable read.
He ponders a visit to the sub-continent, wonders about the attractions of India and in particular its religions have for well heeled Westerners.
He writes of “middle-aged women with Alice in Wonderland hair from Melbourne and Milwaukee…in search of the spiritual moment that will last a lifetime (to misquote Casanova)” – a few men and crushed linen pants and no socks, Suede and scarves, but mostly woman.
‘What is the attraction of Indian religions for Westerners? What is it the cast the spell? It’s got something to do with the way they can claim not to be religious as such I suspect. “Oh it’s not a religion it’s a way of life “– how many times have I heard that?’
He also points out acidly the gods of the region are a long way from the Judao-Christian God – at least, a long way from the watered down version of God taught in many churches.
He doubts anyone would speak of ‘love’ in a Kali Temple in the way the term would be used in a Christian church. Gods and the Indian imagination are much more ferocious, he writes.
There is not the message that all will be well (Dessaix puts this in italics) which is familiar to the sort of Protestant churches he recalls from his youth.
One of his companions who has a Tamil background suggest that this sort of thing and what he calls lovingkindness (again the italics are his) is a bit middle-class and sentimental when applied to any sort of God. Lovingkindness along with disinterested courtesy and altruism, is, he argues a western luxury, born of economic security.
The Greek gods ‘had no time for mercy or compassion either: Zeus and its progeny are as stony heart as earthquakes and thunderstorms.’
But then so is the God of much of the old and new testaments. While Dessaix quotes almost rapturously Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians
‘though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity I am become sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing’.
he also points out the stony judgementalism of much of the Bible – and not just the Old Testament, either.
‘On Judgement Day, if I’m not mistaken, on his right hand will stand those who gave them something to eat and drink when he was hungry and thirsty, gave them close to put on when he was naked, and visited him when he was sick and imprisoned… On his left however will stand those who gave you nothing to eat or drink, did not close, and did not visit him when he was sick and imprisoned. They will be cast into everlasting fire. This now seems a bit over the top. He was about to be betrayed and killed when he made that threat, and he knew it, so he was understandably a little overwrought, but all the same the punishment does not seem to fit the crime.’
He muses this diatribe is not about just being nice to each other anymore than Hinduism is, although it largely was when he was growing up. It is about seeing Truth face-to-face, and the need to be empathetic in doing so.
‘… Go out of the way to put yourself into the shoes of others, unlock your heart as you look into their ears, and do whatever you can to ease their wretchedness. And in blessing you will be blessed.’
There is a whiff of Hindu Darshan, in this, he notes.
There are other – often highly tangental but nevertheless enjoyable – asides.
Dessaix defines a masterpiece as a book you’ve never quite finished reading, which strikes me as being uncomfortably, if amusingly, accurate.
He suggests romantic love as being ‘often barely sexual at all when it first strikes, except very late at night and very early in the morning’ which doesn’t strike me as being particularly accurate at all, but then, we all have our own different experiences in this area.
He visits Damascus in Syria, sits at a cafe, sipping a banana milkshake in the street where a blinded St Paul is reputed to have been taken to refuge by his companions.
He meets an English tourist who is pondering doing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. He cheerfully says he’s not a believer and hasn’t been since nine has done it before wants to again because he likes to feel linked into something.
That striving for some sort of ‘linking into something’ seems, in fact, to be the book’s main undercurrent.
And he reads David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sentence , in which the narrator quotes Larkin’s Days.
He doesn’t find the poem disheartening or depressing even though he is aware Larkin’s poems tend to be on the dolorous side. The scurrying priests at the end he says look like clowns, and could even be a bit on the macabre side – what is he seeing here? Death in a gown?
‘That would be more in keeping with Larkin I suppose. We live in days not in Hobart or Hull or in this year all that year or even lifetimes or eras let alone “in the moment” or even in God’s timeless gaze. We live in” our own succession of days”. Learn to value that’.
Again, the italics are his.
There is much to value in both these books.
* James had reviewed, otherwise favourably, a previous volume and commented the work was not historically accurate and Milligan took grave offence. I will return to the Milligan books another time: for now it is worth noting Milligan did not hold a grudge, as his subsequently published letters shows.
** Ok. Slight exaggeration at both ends of the scale.