Readersforum's Blog

January 6, 2012

Are you ashamed of skipping parts of books?

Must I read all of it? I am on holiday … Open book on the beach. Photograph: Corbis

A quick skim through the reasons why it’s not always a good idea to read every page.

By Robert McCrum

Over recent days, I’ve been reading Somerset Maugham‘s Ten Novels and Their Authors in the Vintage edition (a Christmas gift).

Before he gets stuck into the lives and masterpieces of 10 great authors (the book began as a commission from Redbook in the early 50s), Maugham gives us an essay on “The Art of Fiction” in which he devotes quite a bit of space to “the useful art of skipping”. Skipping, says Maugham, is perfectly fine, because “a sensible person does not read a novel as a task. He reads it as a diversion”.

Whereupon a chasm seemed to open up between this reader of 2012, and the reader (or writer) of 1952, for whom the novel is to be treated as an entertainment. Modern readers might include “to be pleasing” as one of art’s aims, but they would also, I suspect, look for some moral enhancement, some thrill of style, and some cultural uplift, too. Strange as it may sound to contemporary ears, however, Maugham contends that “the aim of art is to please” – and of course, if that’s its aim, then when it fails to please, it can be ignored, or skipped. Maugham comes from an age in which the artist was paid to satisfy a largely middle-class, and essentially Anglo-American audience. Reading the book made me realise exactly how much has changed in these past 60 years.

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December 8, 2011

John Banville on Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom: 'Shakespeare, more than Hume or Wittgenstein, remains the greatest of thinkers' Photograph: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA/Corbis

“Bloom writes: ‘I preach Bardolatry as the most benign of all religions’”

Harold Bloom delights in his surname. Describing it as “splendid”, he says it seems to him “the most literary of names”. There is, however, a price to be paid. When he teaches Ulysses, he tells us, he has to refer to its protagonist Leopold Bloom as Poldy, “since my name has been confiscated – for a time”. This happy excursus appears in The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale, £25), in a chapter entitled “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction of the Romantic Self”, and is preliminary to, among numerous matters, a consideration of why the name Lucifer is not mentioned in Paradise Lost, and why Milton should have chosen not to give us in his great poem an account of Satan in his prelapsarian, luciferous state. Yes indeed, here we have the literary life de haut en bas.

In another splendid appellation, Bloom is Sterling professor of the humanities at Yale University. It is a most fitting seat for this great critic to occupy. He was born in New York City in 1930 into a Jewish family, and grew up speaking Yiddish and Hebrew before he learned English. He famously claims that at the age of 10 he discovered the poetry of Hart Crane at his local library in the Bronx, and at once determined to become a literary critic. Throughout his career he has continued to champion Crane, seeing him as the direct heir to Walt Whitman – Whitman being “not just the most American of poets but American poetry proper, our apotropaic champion against European culture” – and slayer of neo-Christian adversaries such as “the clerical TS Eliot” and the old New Critics, who were and are anathema to Bloom, unresting defender of the Romantic tradition. Other heroes of his are Shelley and Blake, Samuel Johnson and Walter Pater, Yeats, DH Lawrence and Joyce, and, among more recent figures, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery.

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December 3, 2011

Books for giving: fiction

Inside the Arctic Circle: John Burnside's A Summer of Drowning 'brings an eerie glow to the far north'. Photograph: Farrell Grehan/Corbis

   A rich year for novels

By Justine Jordan

After a rich year for fiction, the novel most likely to be placed under the Christmas tree will surely be Julian Barnes’s Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape, £12.99). A meditation on memory and regret slyly conveyed through the unreliable voice of a complacent man whose past gives him a nasty surprise, it’s slim enough to gobble at a sitting and slips down with deceptive ease, but leaves plenty to ponder in its wake. The hardback is also a thing of beauty in its own right.

Also small but perfectly wrought, At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Picador, £16.99) is the fifth and final volume in his series about abuse, addiction and other bad behaviours among the English upper classes. It’s savagely funny stuff, and a fitting conclusion to a saga that’s been one of the literary highlights of our time. Alan Hollinghurst teased out the literary establishment’s path through the 20th century in The Stranger’s Child (Picador, £20), elegantly unpicking myths and customs of Englishness as he traces the secret life and afterglow of a country house and a Georgian poem.

For more rambunctious fare, turn to Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate, £7.99), the most irrepressible read of the year. A young boy is plucked from the streets of 19th-century Wapping and launched on the high seas, joining a quest to capture and bring back a komodo dragon. His story is full of wonder, peril and discovery. Animals also cavort through the picaresque Orange winner, The Tiger’s Wife (Phoenix, £7.99) by Téa Obreht. Through a mixture of folklore and autobiography, she paints a vivid portrait of Yugoslavia’s history and the Balkan wars.

This year saw several fine novels that opened on to parallel dimensions, including the much-anticipated 1Q84 (Harvill Secker, £20 & £14.99) by Haruki Murakami (which in two volumes means double the wrapping). There are cults, conspiracies and lost lovers aplenty in this vast labyrinth of a novel, in which the parallel universe is lit by a second moon. Beautifully strange, too, is John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), now on the Costa shortlist.

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November 30, 2011

Kerouac’s ‘lost’ debut novel is published 70 years after its conception at sea

Jack Kerouac on Manhattan's lower east side in 1953, eleven years afrter writing The Sea is My Brother. Photograph: Allen Ginsberg/ Allen Ginsberg/CORBIS

Beat generation author Kerouac shows signs of future rebellion in 158-page maritime tale published by Penguin.

By Stephen Bates

The American beat generation author Jack Kerouac is said to have spent just eight days on active service in the US merchant marines on board the SS Dorchester in 1942; but his short stay furnished him with notes for his first novel and, after nearly 70 years, it has now been published for the first time.

The 158-page The Sea is my Brother, a tale of two young men serving on a voyage from Boston to Greenland, has been known about for some time, but is being described by Penguin, its publisher, as “a unique insight into the young Kerouac and the formation of his genius”.

The author himself apparently noted: “It’s a crock [of shit] as literature.”

Literary critics appeared inclined to agree with the author that the text, although showing signs of Kerouac’s future style, is raw and juvenile, as well it might be, given that he was 20 when he wrote it.

The literary critic Stuart Evers said: “It is not a great work of literature. It would never be published today if it wasn’t by Kerouac, but it is fascinating as an insight into him as a writer … He was just jotting down ideas that he would explore with much more gusto in his later work. There is no real narrative, not much happens, but there are flashes of his later work.”

Dawn Ward, the book’s editor, said the novel shows a side of Kerouac not normally seen in his books. The manuscript was discovered in Kerouac’s archive by his brother-in-law.

Ward said: “It was referred to briefly in letters, but nothing that led anyone to believe that there was this really large volume … This book is really quite important as it shows how Jack developed his writing process.”

The novel joins a growing canon of Kerouac’s published works, though it seems unlikely that he ever bothered to lug the manuscript round to publishers, as he did in the 1950s while trying to sell the work for which he is best remembered, On the Road.

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November 15, 2011

Niall Ferguson v Pankaj Mishra: battle of the historians

It's Mishra v Ferguson Photograph: Corbis; Christian Sinibalde

The two academics are having a spat. Is it time for them to step outside and settle it once and for all ?

ByPatrick Barkham

It is shaping up to be the tastiest historical scrap since Rob Newman’s comedy professor character compared the girlfriend of David Baddiel’s don to Peter Beardsley. The warring academics, beloved of 1990s students for their “that’s you, that is” repartee, have made way for Niall Fergusonand Pankaj Mishra, after the latter likened Ferguson to Tom Buchanan in the Great Gatsby.

As with all the best academic spats, spectators are advised to equip themselves with a dictionary and a history degree to follow the action.

Mishra, the Indian author and essayist, argued in the London Review of Books that Ferguson was “homo atlanticus redux”, a “retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past” whose books “are known less for their original scholarly contribution than for containing some provocative counterfactuals”.

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October 6, 2011

Nobel prize for literature: Tomas Tranströmer joins a strange gang

Nobel champions (of Stalin) Pablo Neruda, left, and (of Hitler) Knut Hamsun. Photograph: AFP/Corbis

For all their august reputation, the Swedish poet’s fellow winners have a notably chequered history.

By John Dugdale

In becoming the 108th winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Tomas Tranströmer joins a curious club in which giants such as WB Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore, TS Eliot and Jean-Paul Sartre are outnumbered by obscure figures (often Scandinavian realist novelists or poets from Mediterranean or Latin countries) you’ve never heard of. Several should not be in at all, according to the contemporary interpretation of the prize’s rules as excluding anyone except imaginative writers; the roll of honour includes the philosophers Henri Bergson, Rudolf Christoph Eucken and Bertrand Russell, the Roman historian Theodor Mommsen and Winston Churchill, whose chronicle of the second world war (put together by young researchers) secured his entry as a historian. Erik Axel Karlfeldt, a Swedish poet, was not only dead when awarded the 1931 prize but until his death had been permanent secretary of the awarding body, the Swedish Academy. Two more little-known Swedes who were then academy members, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, were scandalously jointly honoured in 1974.

Politically, the laureates range from Knut Hamsun, who eulogised Hitler, to Pablo Neruda, who composed an ode to Stalin, and Mikhail Sholokhov, who had been a Supreme Soviet member under him; left-of-centre views perhaps predominate (Jorge Luis Borges’s support for rightwing regimes is said to have put paid to his chances), but conservatives such as Eliot, François Mauriac and VS Naipaul have received the nod too. Creatively, authors at the avant-garde end of modernism or writing experimental novels, plays or poetry after 1945 are scarce – Eliot, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon and José Saramago are the most obvious adventurers. Conversely, Proust, Joyce and other difficult authors have been shunned.

Of the 107 laureates since 1901, only 12 have been women, and a longstanding European bias is evident when countries are ranked Olympics-style by wins: first France, then the US, UK, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain, followed by Russia/Soviet Union, Ireland and Poland all on level pegging. Naguib Mahfouz is so far the Arab world’s sole winner and is one of Africa’s four; Asia has had three, divided between India and Japan; Latin America and the Caribbean seven.

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August 26, 2011

Stephen King launches leftwing radio show

Making a stand against political bullies ... Stephen King. Photograph: James Leynse/Corbis

Author’s new talkshow, hosted by the Green party’s Pat LaMarche, aims to stall right’s domination of airwaves and make people ‘a little bit angry’

By Alison Flood

Stephen King is hoping to “make some people a little bit angry” with a new, left-leaning morning talk show which will offer a counterbalance to the proliferation of conservative American radio hosts.

“We’re a little to the left, but we’re right,” the bestselling horror author said at a rare press conference announcing the new show. To be hosted by Pat LaMarche, a Green party vice-presidential candidate in 2004, and former reporter Don Cookson, The Pulse Morning Show will air on the King-owned radio stations WZON 103.1 FM and 620 AM from 12 September on weekday mornings and online at zoneradio.com.

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August 7, 2011

Albert Camus might have been killed by the KGB for criticising the Soviet Union, claims newspaper

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , , , — Henry Greeff @ 6:04 am

Car crash in which French literary giant was killed in 1960 was no accident, claims new theory.

By Kim Willsher

Albert Camus died instantly when the car he was travelling in spun off the road in icy conditions and hit a tree. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

When the French philosopher, author and inveterate womaniser Albert Camus died in a car accident in 1960 just two years after winning the Nobel prize for literature, France’s intellectual beau monde mourned what seemed an almost freakish tragedy.

In Camus’s pocket was an unused return train ticket from his home in Provence to Paris. The 46-year-old writer had intended to travel back after the Christmas holidays by train with his wife Francine and their teenage twins Catherine and Jean. Instead, his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard offered to drive him.

Camus was killed instantly when Gallimard’s powerful Facel Vega car left the icy road and ploughed into a tree. Gallimard died a few days later. As well as the train ticket, police found 144 pages of handwritten manuscript in the wreckage entitled The First Man, an unfinished novel based on Camus’s childhood in Algeria and which he had predicted would be his finest work. The tragedy shocked and saddened France. But no one imagined that the crash had been anything other than an accident.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera has now suggested that Soviet spies might have been behind the crash. The theory is based on remarks by Giovanni Catelli, an Italian academic and poet, who noted that a passage in a diary written by the celebrated Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana, and published as a book entitled Celý život, was missing from the Italian translation.

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July 29, 2011

Rereading Rabindranath Tagore

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Henry Greeff @ 5:26 am

The work of the Nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore was once ‘shoved down our throats’. Now he is too easily dismissed, even ridiculed.

By Amit Chaudhuri

A street vendor sells photographs of Rabindranath Tagore on a Kolkata pavement. Photograph: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters/Corbis

The celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in May began early in the month and will continue until next year. The event passed without much comment in Britain, but was noted by Ian Jack  in the Guardian, and JC, in his notebook in the TLS. They enquired, pertinently, whether Tagore was worth making a fuss about. In fact, JC wanted to know: “Who reads Rabindranath Tagore now?” Any man dressed in a loose robe-like garment, and whose poetry, at least in English translation, comprises lines such as the one Jack quotes (“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark”), is up, in Britain, for a laugh.

Jack reminds us of Philip Larkin’s opinion, expressed vividly in a letter: “An Indian has written to ask what I think of Rabindrum Tagore. Feel like sending him a telegram: ‘Fuck all. Larkin.’” This could be Larkin the epistolary racist. Or it could be Larkin the poet who deployed expletives to arraign the polite, the poet who, in a poem called “Sunny Prestatyn”, records with satisfaction how the original poster (“Come to sunny Prestatyn”) is gradually defaced by “Titch Thomas” with a drawing of a “tuberous cock and balls”. One can feel some of the liberating electricity Larkin feels in placing “fuck all” in close proximity to “Tagore”. He and to a certain extent Jack (who’s remarkably equable in his piece) are of a generation that had Tagore, as Karl Miller once told me, “shoved down our throats”. As an early 20th-century elixir, like Cod Liver Oil or Waterbury’s Compound, Tagore was always destined to date, and even the irritation he caused to be forgotten.

So it’s encouraging to discover that at least the irritation hasn’t vanished entirely. At the same time, I feel a surge of empathy for Jack and JC, and all who can’t read Tagore in Bengali, who must endure the most popular English translations (which are still Tagore’s own), and take on trust there’s something out there worth celebrating. Jack points out there’s very little in Tagore’s own translations worth quoting from. At first glance, this seems absolutely true. Although Tagore has had some good translators (Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Sunetra Gupta, Sukanta Chaudhuri, William Radice), it seems his own translations have permanently superseded any regard for his originals, just as, for a while, Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi eclipsed Gandhi in the popular imagination.

Tagore’s English version of the Gitanjali, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1913, is what Mother Teresa once was to Calcutta, the royal family to England, and Kingsley to Gandhi: a tantalising mirage that obstructs the view of what’s behind it.

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July 16, 2011

Writing is bad for you

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , — Henry Greeff @ 6:11 am

By Rick Gekoski

Shadowy occupation ... a typewriter. Photograph: Corbis

I’m not sure about the improving influence of reading, but I’m certain that writing brings out the worst in me.

We live in a literary environment that – a little uneasily, I often think – feels the need to justify the reading and study of imaginative literature. That is understandable, for writers and readers often have to stand up and fight for what they care passionately about. We believe it is good for us, it must be good for us, this force we attribute to the enterprise of reading and writing. A wide exposure to great literature, it is claimed, provides a basis upon which we may feel more deeply, understand more widely, become better.

If this is an empirical proposition, I rather doubt it, though I have no substantial evidence for my scepticism. I have not interviewed thousands of teachers, novelists and critics in order to quantify their goodness on some objective scale. Horrible thought. So I rely, here, on some degree of self-examination. I am pickled in the brine of literature, as an academic, critic, and writer. I have read pretty carefully and widely for 50 years. If there is something enhancing about such an exposure, I should be showing some signs of it by now.

Sometimes, for sure, I can feel the old Leavisite values kicking in, and am able to consult an inward panel of fine sensibilities, and to employ those voices in making my own judgments. The question “what would Jesus do?” is not entirely inane, and if you substitute Montaigne for Jesus, you have a useful tool at your disposal. (Not that he would do much, but he might have a lot to say.) But for every such benefit there has been, I am sure, a corresponding loss, as there must be in a class of persons who so widely, and often unreflectively, introject the voices of others, and psychically identify with those wiser than themselves. Jung calls this process psychic inflation, and you can see examples of it everywhere in literary life. I try to guard against it, but it recurs, like bouts of malaria.

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