Baboon, Part 2

January 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

My favourite parts are Nabokov twitching and looking around while Trilling offers his ‘theory’ on Lolita, and Nabokov’s view of his ‘monument’ at the end.

A baboon of genius

January 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

Nabokov discusses Lolita with Lionel Trilling (and Pierre Berton). Enjoyable amounts of steam from their marvellous cups of tea. Part 2 to follow shortly.

The feeling that (literary) life is elsewhere

January 27, 2009 § 2 Comments

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!

January 22, 2009 § Leave a comment


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

January 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

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


New Leaf

January 14, 2009 § Leave a comment


This is the start of The Sea, The Shore, a boy-meets-girl story of mine that appears in New Leaf 25. It’s too long to post all of it, but I may do so anyway, as currently New Leaf is only available in Bremen (though the good people who produce the magazine have assured me that at some point, possibly soon, you’ll be able to buy it from their website).

The Sea, The Shore

Audrey has had eight boyfriends in twelve months, and obviously, she’s done things; on sofas, on floors, on beds, on the back seats of borrowed cars, and once, when it was warm, on a blanket by the river. She has done a lot of things. But she has never done it. The boys have all been clever, nice, not inclined to rush things, quite the opposite: there has even been occasions when they were the ones who talked her out of what she thought she wanted. But in each case— an hour later, the next morning, or when she was on the flight from Lawrence, Kansas —she has been grateful that these decent, well-brought up boys were able to show the kind of sensitivity, the kind of empathy, that is generally thought to be beyond any male confronted with a golden goose. Because Audrey is pretty; she is attractive; her acne has cleared. The eight of the last year were thus, in addition to their patience and sensitivity, all cute, handsome, hot, or sexy, certainly much better looking than the usual kind of guy people give their virginity to. The boys, the quality of them, has not been the issue. Something else has made her shy. And no, not rape. Not abuse. The reason she is still, at twenty-three, my god, a virgin, is much less dramatic. It has been a simple failure of conjunction. The right place, the correct mood, the appropriate weather, the proper music, who knows, maybe the right number of fruits and vegetables consumed in the last sleep/waking cycle: one of any or all of these, must have been, on each occasion, somehow not ideal. And maybe, she thinks, as the English wave breaks, the boys weren’t that sensitive. They weren’t saints. Each of them, after the refusal (hers, theirs), found some reason to end things. Joel said he loved her too much; Ben that he was too fucked up. You’re going away, Steve said. I think a year’s too long.

Owen comes to the shore six mornings out of seven. Monday is the day he misses, when his lecture starts at 9. Otherwise he’s there, sometimes with coffee, sometimes a joint, always by the slipping line between the land and sea. He looks down the beach to the old wave-bitten pier. It is not a pier. It has not been joined to land for more than fifteen years. Better call it a birdhouse. Always, gulls are circling, their many thousands blurring. He likes the way they dive and wheel, the speed and its slowness. The flock gathers, rises, turns, as if gravity, like direction, is something they choose.

She likes the place, the sound of it. Brighten. Bright-town. She likes that it slopes. In the days before induction she walks down small leafy streets that point to the sea. The houses are brick, two-storey, their gardens full or missing. Begonias in dark chocolate soil. Hedges and lawns, large spreading shrubs. Or gravel, a path. The owners are all at work, the pavements taken back by cats that unwind, slow, from trees. She doesn’t stroke the fluffy ones— something gross about that hair and how the hand sinks in —but if they are smooth, black, orange, tabby, she drops to one knee. She runs her hands up and down, giving, taking comfort. She is not homesick. The language and the shops are really not much different. She hasn’t made any friends, but that will change when her course begins. In the meantime she drinks coffee and phones her Dad most nights. She is reassured to find that, despite the land and sea between them, despite the things her mother said— about her aunt, and her old teacher —his voice is the same. It is quiet, measured, sure; as slow and patient as water on stone. For the most part he listens. She tells him what she’s seen and done, and when, inevitably, she pauses, he, like all the best listeners, does not rush his voice in. Only when she’s finished, does he start to speak. His sentences are so concise that, if he were not her father, who loves her, they might seem reluctant. He talks, in his clipped way, of rain and rising water. Those people, he says. They’ve lost everything. He talks of the dog’s progress. Much better. On his feet. She brushes her hair, listens.

He likes taking the train to class. It is an old train. It has first-class compartments whose long seats face each other. The doors open manually, and from outside, which means passengers must slide down the windows and reach for the handles. This is not entirely safe. There’s nothing to stop a passenger from opening the door whilst the train is in full motion (over the viaduct, he thinks). And when the train enters the station (Moulsecoomb, then Falmer), if the passenger is having a bad morning, or is just vicious, the door can be released so that it will hit anyone not standing back behind the faded yellow line. He has never wanted to do this, but, because it is possible, he accepts that it may happen. What he prefers is to swing out, not completely, one foot stays in the doorway until the train has slowed enough for him to step to the platform. It is a small, graceful action, which, if accurately timed, lasts three or four seconds. In the context of the day, its different tasks, its many needs, the act is unimportant. He is first off the train whenever possible.

She likes her classmates, she likes her professors. By the end she’ll have a grasp of Policy Formation. But however much she reads, no matter how hard she studies, she is certain that she won’t be like the others. They talk (and no doubt think) as if they’d done the course already. They make long, fluid pronouncements on the state of things. They do so with confidence. Their speeches make sense. And this is not a gender thing. Thin-faced Roo is no different. It does not make Audrey feel stupid; just nowhere near as clever. In the first few weeks she tries to somehow catch up. She makes notes when the others speak, she reads the books they cite. She works hard, and there are prizes. When, during her presentation (“The Two Communities Metaphor and Loosely Coupled Systems”), she uses some of the names, she earns two nods, a smile, a softening of green eyes. She is heartened. But not sure she can keep it up. It won’t be the hare and tortoise: they will stay ahead. And it isn’t how she wants her English year to be. She wants time on the cliffs, the shore, in the many little shops that constitute The Lanes. She has spent the last three years in the library; she was summa cum laude. And so, when the sun shines, she resumes her walks with very little guilt. Sometimes she takes a camera. Sometimes she writes verse. She still does most of the reading, but not in that hungry way. Her classmates do not seem to mind; in fact, they seem more friendly. They have coffee in twos or threes; occasionally most of them go out for drinks. And of course, there are parties.

He opened the wrong door, saw the guitar; thought that he could play. He had hoped to strum a while without an audience. Instead he’s drinking rum and playing to almost a room full. But that’s okay. They seem alright. They are sprawling, perching, lying on a vulgar bed. It is like a large pink cake that has been fucked by a poodle.


January 11, 2009 § 1 Comment


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).

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