Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

"Surrealist Love Poems" by Mary Ann Caws (ed) (Tate Publishing, 2002)

An anthology containing poems by about 25 poets (Picasso, Dali, etc). The introduction says

  • "Of all modern movements in the combined visual and verbal arts, [surrealism's] heritage is proving to be the most powerful and the most lasting" (p.11)
  • "Surrealist love picks up on the tradition of courtly love, with all its inbred contraries: to possess is no longer to love, so the truest love is in the pursuit itself" (p.14), though in surrealism, as Breton wrote, love can be "Always for the first time".

Here are some extracts that I liked -

  • My love whose sex is gladiolus
    Is placer and platypus
    Algae and sweets of yore
    Is mirror
  • She is absorbed in my shadow,
    Like a stone upon the sky
  • beautiful as the uprising of the poor
    your armpits are night but your breasts are day
    your words are stone but your tongue is rain
  • my tomb burst open my red grasshopper rain

Other reviews

  • Jeffery Beam (the addition of a number of women poets eases the heavy chauvinism one sometimes feels when reading or viewing surrealist works. ... These poems remind us how flaccid, self-absorbed, and derivative so many contemporary surrealist inspired poems are.)

Saturday, 16 February 2019

"The Year's Afternoon" by Douglas Dunn (Faber, 2000)

There are poems from The North, Poetry Ireland, Poetry Review, TLS, etc. The Year's Afternoon (the title poem) is long, including -

This is my time, my possessive, opulent
Freedom in free-fall from salaried routines,
Intrusions, the boundaryless tedium.
For three hours without history or thirst
Time is my own unpurchased and intimate
Republic of the cool wind and blue sea.

Here are extracts from other poems

Self-sacrificial 'Soldier' Oates lies there
still sinking down the ice-cap draped in breath
That turned to crystals when he welcomed death.
He's shrouded in refrigerated prayer.
Night after night, trying each umpteenth Muse
For suitability, a Scots accord
Between my accent and a verbal bruise
Inflicted on each cadenced English word
In an attempt to write the way I spoke
Reduced your protégé to an Inglis joke
Older, and no wiser,
I sit in the sun
With understanding
That's always on the edge

Nearing its conclusions,
Always getting closer
But never reaching
What I want to know

I couldn't finish his short story collection, and I struggled to get through this. Surely it didn't need to be 81 pages long. Poems like "A Complete Stranger" don't interest me - tired subject matter, staid execution. I liked "Woodnotes" though.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

"Bizarre Romance" by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

Illustrated short stories from The Guardian, Elle, Chicago Tribune, etc - some graphic-stories, some with a few inserts, some with just an initial/final image.

"Backwards in Seville" was my favourite piece, both for its story and picture. But that's not saying much - the light fantasy pieces aren't to my taste. "Girl on a Roof", "Jacob Wywialowski and the Angels" and "Motion Studies: Getting out of Bed" might have developed into something, given more space.

Other reviews

  • Elisabeth Woronzoff
  • Etelka Lehoczky (Niffenegger would have done better to keep it for herself. Her writing calls emphatically for a certain type of visual accompaniment: detailed, decorative, Edwardian. Campbell's pen (usually a digital stylus, as is all too evident) races forward and meanders, stutters and scrawls. In other works his approach has had a seat-of-your-pants energy, but here his sketches just feel rushed.)
  • Teddy Jamieson

Saturday, 9 February 2019

"The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking, 2001)

The narrator, Lily, is a bookish, white 14 year-old girl born in 1950, living on a South Carolina peach farm. There's period detail - "she was wrestling with the rabbit ears on top of the TV, trying to fix the snow on the screen" (p.24). She's capable of phrases such as "When the darkness had pulled the moon to the top of the sky" (p.27) and "Rosaleen moving at the pace of a bank-vault door" (p.35). The mix of insight and naivety is I suppose believable given her age, though her religious turn is odd - I wanted to touch [Our Lady of Chains'] vanishing red heart, too, as much as anything I'd ever wanted" (p.138).

When she was 4 she accidentally killed her mother with a gun, says her father. T. Ray. She dislikes and distrusts him - "Take everything T. Ray was not, shape it into a person, and you would get Walter Cronkite" (p.109).

The Civil Rights Act has been passed. Her black home-help, Rosaleen gets into trouble and is arrested. Lily doesn't seem shocked by the violence inflicted on Rosaleen. Suddenly resourceful, Lily helps Rosaleen escape. The two of them find work and board in a distant honey firm (bees already having been introduced as a leitmotif). The 3 owners - black sisters - each have their quirks. One drowns herself. The others' religious beliefs suggest mental problems too.

Then her black boy-friend gets into trouble - "I took to wearing my days-of-the-week panties out of order. It could be Monday and I'd have on underwear saying Thursday. I just didn't care" (p.267).

August, one of the sisters, explains that she help bring up Lily's mother, and hosted her when she ran away both from T. Ray and Lily. Finally T.Ray comes to get her back but the women support her and he leaves empty-handed

The writing's not subtle. Chapters are begun by a quote from bee books, introducing the chapter's theme. I thought maybe it's a YA work with a main character designed to be empathized with, and issues to be discussed. Men are either evil or adored. Chapters 8 and 9 in particular drag on - the book could easily have been a third shorter.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

"Gothic" by Fred Botting (Routledge, 1996)

The book charts the Gothic from being a reaction against the order and certainties of neo-classicism to postmodernism where "uncertainty perpetuates Gothic anxieties at the level of narrative and generic form" (p.168).

  • "Gothic signifies a writing of excess ... Gothic writing remains fascinated by objects and practices that are constructed as negative, irrational, immoral and fantastic" (p.1)
  • "Throughout the eighteenth century the sublime constituted a major area of debate among writers and theorists of taste" (p.3)
  • "Uncertainties about the nature of power, law, society, family and sexuality dominate Gothic fiction ... The decade of the French Revolution was also the period when the Gothic novel was at its most popular" (p.5)
  • "transgression is important not only as an interrogation of received rules and values, but in the identification, reconstitution or transformation of limits [though] the line between transgression and a restitution of acceptable limits remained a difficult one to discern. Some moral endings are little more than perfunctory tokens, thin excuses for salacious excesses" (p.8)
  • "In the eighteenth century the emphasis was placed on expelling and objectifying threatening figures of darkness and evil, casting them out and restoring proper limits ... In the nineteenth century, the security and stability of social, political and aesthetic formulations are much more uncertain. ... Gothic became part of an internalised world of guilt, anxiety, despair, a world of individual transgression" (p.10)
  • "One of the principal horrors lurking throughout Gothic fiction is the sense that there is no exit from the darkly illuminating labyrinth of language" (p.14)
  • "In the United States, where the literary canon is composed of works in which the influence of romances and Gothic novels is far more overt, literature again seems virtually an effect of a Gothic tradition" (p.16)
  • "The popularity of the Gothic novel highlights the way that the control of literary production was shifting away from the guardians of taste and towards the reading public" (p.47)
  • "Many of the main ingredients of the genre that was to be known as the Gothic novel can be found in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto ... The mixing of medieval romance and realistic novel tries to overcome the perceived limitations of both ... English Protestant culture is distinguished from the southern European, and thus Catholic, background which is constructed as both exotic and superstitious, fascinating but extreme in its aesthetic and religious sentiments" (p.48)
  • "throughout Radcliffe's novels, it is the heroines who, though subjugated, persecuted and imprisoned, still escape ... Apart from the malevolent villains, men play a very small and generally ineffectual part in the narratives" (p.70)
  • "In the period dominated by Romanticism, Gothic writing began to move inside" (p.91)
  • "Frankenstein, though one of the texts now synomymous [sic] with Gothic, deploys standard Gothic conventions sparingly to bring the genre thoroughly and critically within the orbit of Romanticism" (p.101)
  • "[Frankenstein] was dramatised, in burlesque and melodramatic forms, fifteen times by 1826. The theatre was important in the process of popularising Gothic terrors and horrors" (p.105)
  • "In the mid-nineteenth century there is a significant diffusion of Gothic traces throughout literary and popular fiction, within the forms of realism, sensation novels and ghost stories, especially" (p.113)
  • "At the end of the nineteenth century familiar Gothic figures - the double and the vampire - re-emerged in new shapes" (p.135)
  • "It has been the cinema that has sustained Gothic fiction in the twentieth century" (p.156)
  • "With Coppola's Dracula, then, Gothic dies, divested of its excesses, of its transgressions, horrors and diabolical laughter" (p.180)

Saturday, 2 February 2019

"Brodeck" by Philippe Claudel (Anchor Books, 2010)

Translated from French by John Cullen. Jews, Nazis and Kristallnacht aren't named (except perhaps in a concocted dialect) though that's what the book's clearly about.

A man living in a middle-europe village, is told to write about a recent incident. "You must tell the story, in sequence, one event after another. You mustn't forget anything, but you mustn't add useless details, either. They'll make you veer off your course, and you'll run the risk of confusing or even irritating your readers" (p.31). We learn that the men of the village (not the narrator) have killed "De Anderer", an enigmatic, quiet, arts-loving man who'd been living in the village for 3 months.

The narrator arrived as a 4-year-old orphan in the village over 30 years before, brought by an old lady. The village befriended him, gave him a house and later paid him to go to university (because the villagers felt that at least one of them should be educated). There he met his wife-to-be. He spent time in a concentration camp where he was prepared to accept humiliation in order to survive. Others didn't.

Though we already know the who, what and where of the crime, the novel has the pacing of a detective novel. The narrator jumps around in time as he collects information for his report. The drunken non-believing priest has heard the villagers' confessions. There's no shortage of detail, even when meeting minor characters. E.g. - "In order to speak to me, she'd interrupted a conversation with Frida Niegel, a magpie-eyed hunchback who always smells like a stable. She and Mother Pitz love to review all the widows and widowers in the village and the surrounding hamlets and imagine possible remarriages. They write the names on little pieces of cardboard, and for hours, like cardplayers, with mounting excitement they arrange the deck into pairs", p.81.

We learn that before killing the man, some villages killed his horse and donkey - his right hand ... was clutching something that looked like a hank of long, slightly faded blond hair. It was the hair of his horse's tail, which emerged from the Staubi like a mooring line ... I could see two large masses below the surface of the water, calm, ponderous bulks which the river currents were very gently stirring. The sight was unreal and almost peaceful: the big horse and the smaller donkey, both drowned, floating underwater with wide-open eyes. Because of some unknown phenomenon, the donkey's coat was decorated with thousands of miniscule air bubbles, as polished and shiny as pearls (p.284).

The narrator fears that he or his family may suffer if he fails. "When I read the pages of my account thus far, I see that I move around in words like tracked game on the run, sprinting, zigzagging", p.106. As late as p.261 we learn that his daughter, and his wife's mutism, resulted from a gang-bang while he was away. Soldiers and villagers were involved. When he delivers the report it's burnt before his eyes. He leaves with his family early the next morning.

I liked the book. It has that mixture of fable and realism that's rather common in Holocaust novels.

Other reviews

  • Giles Foden (Uncertainty is a major theme of Claudel's novel, which is both fable-like and documentary in style. ... One aspect of his literary skill is his assignment of a whole package of experience to a single powerful metaphor. ... With his otherworldly expression, kindly smile and outlandish robes, the Anderer is an enigma. A flamboyant artist who comes to the village to draw its inhabitants, he stands in for all strangers, for the unknown in all its guises.)
  • Caryn James (“Brodeck” is the Brothers Grimm by way of Kafka)
  • kirkusreviews (Much of the action occurs in an isolated mountain village in the European heartland. The time is a convincing fusion of modern and medieval; while there are parallels to Nazi Germany, the peasant villagers belong in a Breughel painting. The eponymous narrator was not born in the village (a key point) ... Claudel constantly shuffles the chronological order and passes up opportunities for suspense as he presses his inquiry into the nature of evil. )

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

"Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan (Einaudi, 2007)

A newly married couple, Edward (historian, Chiltern) and Florence (musician, Oxford), are about to sleep together for the first time, in an era when youth was a condition of slight embarrassment for which marriage was the first stage of therapy. They're both 22. Edward has performance anxiety. Florence's worries are more to do with disgust at the physical act, at being "penetrated" (even by his tongue in her mouth), though she doesn't fear giving birth.

They're honeymooning in a hotel, finishing their evening meal. It's about 1962. They hear downstairs old people at the bar still in the shadow of the war. They hear a distant radio. The couple think it's time to move on; after all, the States have Kennedy. The UK's losing what influence it had. The empire's shrinking. The couple's conversation is awkward, with many silences - Edward's keen to go to bed, Florence is dreading it, hoping she won't be sick, but neither dare say what's going through their minds. He thinks about politics to distract himself from getting too excited.

We wind back to their first meeting, which only happened because of a succession of chance events. They'd both studied in London but never knowingly met. We learn that Florence has a younger sister, that her mother isn't physically expressive emotionally. Florence has sometimes gone on holidays just with her father. Edward was raised in respectable but poorer surroundings. His mother's a bit strange and arty. He has younger twin sisters. She wants to set up a string quartet. He doesn't get classical music, preferring Chuck Berry. He plans to write a series of books on forgotten historic figures.

Back at the action, there's progress. Each movement's recorded, as if in slo-mo. She admits to being a bit afraid - an understatement, but they're her first ever words on the subject. He replies that he is too. She has a physical sensation caused by Edward which might be the first sign of pleasure. He has a messy premature ejaculation. In horror she runs to the beach.

We then read about Edward's stays with Florence's parents - his tennis games with her father (a businessman), his political/history debates with her mother (a lecturer), his caution about winning or losing. He experiences many things there for the first time, not least stereo, and cheese that isn't cheddar. He tries to delay her visit to his parents' dirty cottage. She turns up unannounced and enjoys herself.

In the hotel he thinks that she's tricked him into marriage feeling no physical attraction for him. He finds her far along the shore. She doesn't have a vocabulary to describe what happened, let alone an explanation. He's angry. They argue about money. She admits her difficulties, says she knows of a couple of homosexuals who live together. She suggests that she and Edward could make up their own rules about how to live together. He says she's broken her marriage vows and that's she's frigid. She packs and sets off to her parents before he's returned to the hotel. They divorce. He becomes a rock music journalist, lives for 3 years in Paris with a french wife, doesn't really do anything with his life. He reads in 1968 a review of her successful string quartet group. Had they met a few years later they'd have been able to talk about things more openly. The book's carefully located in time so that the gulf between intellectual and emotional openness is at its greatest. An image that's mentioned at least twice is whether the storms really do sort the pebbles on the shore (whether strong emotion gives order to randomness).

It's about 130 pages long.

Other reviews

  • Tim Adams (McEwan is word-perfect at handling the awkward comedy of this relationship and, as ever, turning it into something far more disturbing. ... McEwan's brilliance as a novelist lies in his ability to isolate discrete moments in a life and invest them with indelible significance)
  • Goodreads