The feeling that (literary) life is elsewhere

William H. Gass as painted by Philip Guston

William H. Gass as painted by Philip Guston

I was going to write (in a somewhat gushing manner) about how much I enjoyed William H. Gass’s piece on Katherine Anne Porter in the latest issue of Harper’s. Not because I have any particular interest in Porter (so perfect is my ignorance,  I had never even heard of her), or that learning about her life and writing created the desire to read her books,  letters and reviews, an impulse that was accompanied by a kind of anticipatory pleasure, as if her books were some new kind of fruit.

My enjoyment stemmed from neither of these, nor the satisfaction of knowing this was one less thing I knew nothing about (and for me, it is never terrible to become aware of yet another empty, dark space where the flame of my knowledge is but a lighter held aloft. On the contrary, I find it profoundly reassuring. This meager effort is usually sufficient to make me feel let off the hook (of not-knowing) so completely that it is wholly unecessary to make any futher effort). What made the piece an utter joy was simply Gass’s performance: his erudition; the grace of his prose; his metafictional tics.

On Porter’s marriage to John Koontz:

The pair moved but packed their problems with their pajamas. One one occasion husband thew wife down stairs, ‘breaking her right ankle and severely injuring her knee’. On another, he beat her with unconscious with a hairbrush. The view one has of men and marriage from the foot of such a fall, or from an instrument that should only pursue fashion or caresses, tends to be as permanent as Adam’s; nevertheless Porter tried to save her marriage by converting to Catholicism, a move I find mystifying, though I was never consulted.

On praise for Porter as ‘an excellent stylist’:

This praise is well meant, but it is also removed as quickly as it is offered. For most critics, the presence of “style” requires assurance that there is also “substance”. Style is wrapping paper and ribbon, scented tag and loving inscription. If you are careful, the tissue can be reused for a birthday or another Christmas. My aunt ironed such paper as she fancied and stored it like linen napkins in folded flat stacks beneath her bed.

Whilst this no doubt seems like ‘flashiness’ or ‘showing-off” to some- those who prefer their reviewers sober, staid,  so absent from the discussion as to seem like critical ghosts -to me it is the brilliance of a man, who at the age of 82, could not be more playful.

The article is only available to subscribers (which, believe me, is very cheap, even for those outside the U.S.- with it comes access to the entire Harper’s archive) but I can provide a pdf on request.

Having spent all this time and effort on the gush, I don’t have sufficient negativity left to write about what this post was intended to be, namely a moan/rant about the feeling that the UK has an impoverished literary culture, with few decent magazines and (as people seem to virtually crow) that there is no market or demand for or interest in short stories, unless they are by people whose long stories (i.e. novels) are already beloved. Happily, this can bring us back to Gass (and curtail my slatternly tears):

Although O’Connor, Welty, and Porter obliged us by writing novels, it is for short stories they are generally remembered, in which more polish for small surfaces is routinely expected, whereas Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Stein- well, they are moving mountains, and it doesn’t matter if they leave a small mess here and there like great chefs in their kitchens. Does it?

Aye Write!


The Aye Write! Book Festival is Glasgow’s version of (or answer to) the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the main differences between the two being that Aye Write! lasts for just over a week, and has a greater emphasis on local authors. Notwithstanding this, it gets some big names too: this year Alan Bennett, Robert Fisk, and Graham Swift are all attending. Oh, and so am I. And some people I know. It takes place in the Mitchell Library, which has some lovely high-ceilinged, wood-paneled rooms which it would be a pleasure to read in. We, however, will be in the café on Tuesday, March 10th, from 9-10.30 p.m.

This year’s delusion

Apart from my perennial delusions (some of which involve a book-deal), I like to have a foolish notion to kick around during the year. Last year’s involved getting a job in the fabled (and sometimes fabulous) Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. Some of the major components of this delusion: a short working week; access to luncheon vouchers; the chance to generally swan around the low-numbered arrondissements. Impressively (if only to my mind), I did  apply for a vacancy that actually existed. Less impressively, I failed to get it.

In a slight variation on this theme, I have, after visiting Berlin, resolved to live there by the end of the year. Naturally I have plans on how to achieve this. In my head, they sound great. In the meantime I shall goad myself with the following pictures taken during my recent sojourn. All images by Mr Ryan van Winkle (, in the sense that he pressed the button.


Various sites of worship


Probably not thinking


Mr. Dirk Markham wearing a found shirt


The author, pictured with Death on her lunch-break.


The Creeping Bent Organisation




I am begining to think that The London Review of Books is pretty much the only place (in the UK) to find an actual book review. By which I mean a piece of writing that engages with the way in which a book is constructed, how it achieves its aims (or fails to), what it means in the context of other, similar works- in short, whether the book is good (or not) and why.

I used to read the Saturday Guardian and The Observer religiously, but the space devoted to books has shrunk, as the ‘cultural analysis’ of reality TV and footballer’s wives has grown (and if an utter disinterest in this sort of thing makes me an elitist, I shall willingly march to the scaffold). Now the majority of book reviews seem to consist of little more than a plot synopsis followed by some vacuous phrase intended for the back cover.

Lest this post consist entirely of griping, here are some extracts from the November 20th edition (I am always a few months behind, as even the pieces on the history of sweaters seem to compel my attention).

From Michael Wood’s piece on Kafka’s Office Writings:

‘We might think of Kafka’s response to his friend Max Brod’s question about hope and whether there was any outside the world as we know it. “Plenty of hope,” Kafka said. “But not for us.”

‘The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy heaven. This is beyond doubt, but doesn’t prove anything against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.’

From Elif Batuman’s review of Philosophy in Turbulent Times by Elisabeth Roudinesco:

‘Helene was a Russian Jewish emigree, a Resistance fighter (unlike Althusser, who spent the war in a prison camp), eight years older than her husband, and not beautiful. By the time she got married all her closest friends had been killed by the Nazis. Her parents had died long, slow deaths from cancer before she was 14; the family doctor, her only friend at this time, betrayed her by abusing her sexually and eventually forcing her to euthanise her own parents with morphine injections. Life with Althusser was never easy either. In his manic periods, the philosopher compulsively seduced younger, more attractive women and brought them home to ‘show’ his wife. The actual murder took place when he was giving Helene a “neck massage”- on the front of her neck. The great Marxist pressed “his thumbs into the hollow at the top of Helene’s breastbone and then, still pressing, slowly moved them both… up towards her ears,” squeezing so hard that he felt pain in his forearms. He noticed this pain before he noticed his wife’s glazed and protruding tongue.’

‘For the most part, Roudinesco leaves the obscurities of Deleuze and Guattari unplumbed- “Be the pink panther,” said the two authors, “And may your loves be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon.”‘

There are also many fine quotes in the piece from Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, a work I think I should like to have close at hand:

‘NOVELS: Pervert the masses.

GYMNASTICS: One can never do enough. Wears children out.

HYGIENE: Must always be maintained. Prevents illnesses, except when it causes them.

In closing (and fairness) I should acknowledge the possibility that The Times Literary Supplement (and maybe, perhaps, The Literary Review) sometimes have decent reviews. However, I am yet to be convinced of this.

The LRB is available in WH Smiths, and most decent newsagents, but your best bet really is to subscribe (£20 quid for 6 months (12 issues), £34 for the year).

Absent writers #2


Nice piece from The Guardian about Salinger’s absence.

The cover is from an early paperback edition, before Salinger became successful enough to be able to stipulate there be no images on his books. There have been some fairly ghastly interpretations of this rule- to the point where one wonders if the graphics department were saying fine, alright, now lie in this bed.


Generally, however, the designs have been clean and cohesive, with the one on the left being the current template. Given that this post, like the one preceding it, is little more than a piece of enthusiasm, I suppose it’s appropriate to urge anyone who’s only read The Catcher in the Rye to check out the other books, which offer a series of interconnected stories about a family of genius children, who are all quite broken and charming, and as adults struggle to deal with the suicide of Seymour, the eldest child. These are strange, tightly crafted books, that often veer into mystical territory, while never losing a  sense of fun.

OK, I need to finish this post, that last sentence sounded too much like a blurb.




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