A playlist of some of my favourite music. The title was the only organising principle. It's an attempt to summarise the human condition. It's music for night time, much of it haunted., but by beauty as well as death.
"The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny thirty times a day for months on end. And on most days he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the cookie dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife."
King James had the bible translated into English. Nathanael West has transmigrated it into the language of hard-drinking, utterly cynical newspaper men, creating a book at once funny and heartbroken, perhaps as bereft of hope as any book I have read. Indeed, it is a rare pleasure to read a book almost as pessimistic as I feel.
Miss Lonelyhearts, firstly, is a man who took on the 'agony aunt' column in 'the New York Post-Dispatch' in order to further his career. Now even he refers to himself as Miss Lonelyhearts. Even his identity is inauthentic. He is a figure of fun for his editor, Shrike, who makes a joke of Miss Lonelyhearts' earnestness and quasi-priestlike position. "'The Susan Chesters, the Beatrice Fairfaxes, and the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America.'"
"The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn't holler anymore and they didn't hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse."
This is the third of Robinson's Gilead books, after Gileaditself and Home, and there are gaps left here that point to possible future instalments. Lila is the wife of Reverend John Ames, who was the central consciousness in Gilead.
The long letter that John Ames writes his son in Gileadcontains many of his "begats". He is one in a long line. Lila, however, knows little or nothing about her forebears. Her life begins when she is taken from the 1920's equivalent of a crack den by Doll. Doll dosses down in the house herself and has really nowhere to take the child, who is sick, having been left outside in the elements. She is the only one who ever shows Lila any kindness. Indeed, when Doll is kind to Lila before taking her away, Lila hates her for it, a trait which is prevalent in children (and adults) with attachment difficulties. They share their homelessness, and that becomes a part of the bridge between them. ""Well, we got no place to go. Where we gonna go?""
My St Patrick's Day offering is the second part of my mix of some of my favourite Irish music. You will find much Cathal Coughlan and Stephen Ryan here; That Petrol Emotion; Luggage; The Idiots; Female Hercules; Into Paradise; Eating Betty and more - see playlist below.
Given that I am currently under orders to refrain from reading and writing, and anything that involves looking down too much I have been experimenting with putting together a couple of "radio shows".
There are some programmes on the history of Irish Rock on BBC Four tonight, and St Patrick's Day approaches so I thought I would put together a personal selection of Irish rock music. This is part one of at least two.
Apologies for gaps, clicks, pops, cat noises and "eh"s.
To add injury to inertia, my recent bloggers block has been compounded by an injury received playing football this week.
Having received an elbow in the eye I am currently walking around with smoke-like trails of blood in the visual field of my right eye. It is like my own personal Northern Lights, in red.
I am under doctors orders to look ahead and not downwards or upwards. I was told not to READ for a few weeks. Also no activity beyond a gentle walk which endangers my recent flirtation with improved fitness and reduced weight...
At least when I get the all clear i'll be raring to go again.
Just before I got the doctors advice I re-read Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts which was, if anything, better than I remembered. One of the greatest masterpieces of American fiction. I was also loving B.S.Johnson's The Unfortunates. More on both when I return in a few weeks..
I seem to have briefly (I hope) lost my blogging mojo but I did make this video/slideshow for The Knocking Shop's track Half-Orphan. The song was written in memory of my mother and she 'stars' alongside me in the video. It was made as a Valentine's Day card to her memory.
I hope you enjoy it.
Hopefully it will be back to book-blogging business here soon!
"It did not take him long to realise that he had not been born into money; that he would therefore have to acquire it as best he could; that there were unpleasant (and to him unacceptable) penalties for acquiring it by those methods considered to be criminal by society; that there were other methods not (somewhat arbitrarily) considered criminal by society; and that the course most likely to benefit him would be to place himself next to the money, or at least to those who were making it. He therefore decided that he should become a bank employee."
I finally got to read something by B.S.Johnson and I will be looking out for more. This comedy of morals is an all out attack on the 'realist' novel and draws on a tradition that includes Nathanael West and Flann O'Brien. It is also easy to see the influence of this on What a Carve Up! by Johnson biographer Jonathan Coe.
The Gate - Natsume Sõseki
(Translated by William F. Sibley)
"They walked along through life together on the path toward death, lashed by fate each step of the way. Yet the lash's tip, they realised, had been dipped in a honey-like balm that healed all wounds."
Although it dates from 1910 there is something very modern about The Gate. It deals with the death of ambition under the pressure of financial strain, conformity and the wearying monotony of commuter life. At times I found myself thinking that it sat somewhere between Dostoevsky and Revolutionary Road.
The main characters are Sōsuke and his wife Oyone. Right from the start there is a sense that the are just pawns in a bigger game, or perhaps prawns: "She saw that at some inner prompting he had brought his knees up to his chest, prawn-like, as if he were occupying a cramped space." They cling to middle class respectability but we are constantly being made aware that there is something shameful in their past, or at least in Sōsuke's past. For some reason he failed to finish university which has hampered his career progression. Work seems little more than an exhausting chore that leaves Sōsuke worn out: "when he gets home he's exhausted - even the walk to the bathhouse is a chore."
My 14 Books of the Year 2014
(none of which are actually from 2014) (and there are actually more than 14)
I guess I'm a bit late with this but I seem to be developing a backlog of half completed posts and I would rather finish than delete them. 2014 was marked by a few separate events, none more so than the death of Dermot Healy, the brilliant Irish novelist, poet and dramatist. I'm not sure what order he would have put those in but that is the order they hold in my head. I was inspired to reread all of his novels, his only collection of short stories and a couple of books of his poetry (although I have yet to post anything on the poetry). The novel reading culminated in a reading of his final novel, Long Time, No See, which I had bought when it came out but which had remained (in good company) unread on my shelves. This had probably been partly a result of the lukewarm reception the book received. However it was the highlight of my year and brought my "project" to a satisfying close.
One of the more memorable things I did this year was presenting a paper at the A Riot of Our Own conference on The Clash in Belfast. It was nowhere near as frightening to do as it was to contemplate in advance, fortunately. I have been meaning to brush up my notes into a more coherent essay and 'publish' it here. However, I never seem to manage to get the time and in order to clear my backlog of 'things to do', here, in the spirit of punk, is the rough version, including the powerpoint images which were well received, whatever about the words...
Ghosts gives the sense of being improvised and contains the mundane and the supernatural living comfortably together. It takes place on New Year's Eve in a building that is under construction and seemed to me to be a reflection on how we construct spaces, stories and cultures. It explores choice, inviting us to consider the choices that are always being made by the writer. As the novel progresses the focus moves from the builders of and future owners of the apartments to the family of one of the builders, the alcoholic, Chilean Raúl Viñas, who is also night watchman. His family live with him in an apartment "no more finished than the rest of the building".
What A Carve Up! - Jonathan Coe
(US Title The Wimshaw Legacy)
(The US title of the film What a Carve Up! was No Place Like Homicide)
"Mum, I want to stay and see the end."
In this earlier post I explained how I and some others decided to read this together. Hopefully all have progressed and there will be a bundle of posts over the next few days. I will link as I discover them.
How do you package anger and disgust, at yourself and the world you live in? Here is one answer, with a mixture of bile and belly laughs. Coe's book goes straight to the top table of comic novels that I have read, and is also one of the best political novels I have read. That's the gush done with, for now at least.
Coe parodies many styles, but it is mostly a cod gothic novel which reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm and Gormenghast. There are multiple narratives at play, all of which are pulled together by fantastical coincidences. Michael Owen, author of two moderately well received novels, is offered very attractive deal (any deal that involves money is attractive to a novelist!) to pen the history of the Wimshaw family for the vanity publishing firm Peacock Press. The rich, greedy Wimshaw's are almost all an odious crew, solely motivated by money. Their home, Wimshaw Towers, is a grim, gothic pile overseen by a 'gaunt, solemn' butler called Pyles. "As for the mad conglomeration of gothic, neo-gothic, sub-gothic and pseudo gothic towers which gave the house its name, they resembled nothing so much as a giant black hand, gnarled and deformed: its fingers clawed at the heavens, as if to snatch down the setting sun which shone like a burnished penny and would soon, it seemed, have descended inexorably into its grasp."
The Shipyard - Juan Carlos Onetti
(Translated by Nick Caistor)
"Many people swear they saw him that lunchtime in the dying days of autumn. Some claim he looked like his old self resurrected in the exaggerated way, almost caricatured, that he was trying to recapture the indolence, the irony, the sparse disdain of the postures and expressions he had employed five years before; they recall how keen he was to be noticed and identified, his two fingers ready to rise jerkily to the brim of his hat at the slightest hint of greeting, at any look which remotely suggested surprise at seeing him again. Others on the contrary remember him as indifferent, hostile, resting his elbows on the table, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, parallel to the drenched Artigas Avenue, as he peered into the faces of those coming in for no other reason than to keep a personal tally of loyalties and betrayals, acknowledging either response with the same easy, fleeting smile, the same involuntary twitch of the mouth."
Larsen, the focus of this novel, is banished from the city and his return is brief. On a journey to a nearby town he meets the "idiot girl" of local industrialist Jeremias Petrus and later gets a job managing the shipyard of the book's title. The shipyard is in an advanced and advancing state of decay and Larsen and the two other staff (Galvez and Kunz) who work there are involved in a sort of self-delusion that alone can give any meaning to turning up to plan for the future of a clearly ruinous and derelict facility. They are not paid, although they have contracts and nominal salaries. Ends are made to meet by selling off a load of the rusting equipment in the sheds to scrap merchants once a month. Galvez and Kunz live in the shipyard, Galvez with his pregnant wife in "an enlarged version of a dog kennel", Kunz in a "doorless, abandoned office, with wooden planks for walls."
The End of a Mission - Heinrich Böll
(Translated by Leila Vennewitz)
My second choice for GermanLitMonth allowed me to continue to make my way through the collected works of Heinrich Böll. The End of a Mission is the fourth Böll novel I've reviewed here and there fifth I've read. The Safety Net; Group Portrait with Lady; The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum are all featured on the blog but my first Böll, and my favourite thus far Billiards at Half Past Nine was read before I started blogging.
As with many (all?) of his other books The End of a Mission has, as it's central concern the relationship between post war Germany and what happened during that war. How has it affected community, memory, the relationship with law and the state? How can/is language calibrated to reveal/hide it? It is a satire, or perhaps more accurately a farce in which the blind, remorseless and often senseless needs of bureaucracy collide with individuals and community in the small town of Birglar.
Rebellion - Joseph Roth
Translated by - Michael Hofmann
"They were blind or halt. They limped. They had shattered spines. They were waiting to have limbs amputated, or had recently had them amputated. The War was in the dim and distant past." "They had made their own individual peace with the enemy. Now they were readying themselves for the next war: against pain, against artificial limbs, against crippled, against hunchbacks, against sleepless nights, and against the healthy and the hale."
Given that The Radetzky March is one of the best books I've read since I started this blog, I felt it was well past the time when I should read another Roth and GermanLitMonth seemed the perfect opportunity. The introduction to Rebellion is written by the masterful translator Michael Hofmann who informs us that this is the fifteenth and last of Roth's novels to be translated into English, a full sixty years after his death. He also suggests that the reader "might read the whole of that oeuvre", and although I have only read three so far (I read The Legend of the Holy Drinker a few decades back) I hope that I will get to read all fifteen.
Memory of Fire, 1: Genesis - Eduardo Galeano
(Translated by Cedric Belfrage)
Genesis is the first part of Galeano's ambitious and brilliant retelling of the history and mythstory of the American continent. Short, anecdotal passages jump from location to location, leapfrogging through time to build a picture of the civilisations that existed in pre-Conquistador America. It's a couple of months since I read Genesis and I stopped part way through the second book in order to complete some reading I had committed to. I hope to get back into it soon, as it has lived up to my high expectations so far, expectations raised by my reading of another of his books: Upside Down, A Primer for the Looking-Glass World.
The Goat's Are Singing Long Time, No See - Dermot Healy
"It's a terror to hear a sound that is not there. Have you ever heard a sound that is not there?"
Long Time, No See, barring an unexpected posthumous work, is Dermot Healy's last published novel. All of his other three novels were set in multiple locations and the characters were often running away from or towards somewhere but here the main characters are all deeply rooted in the small rural enclave of Ballintra on the west coast of Ireland. This time the world comes to the characters, rather than the other way round.