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.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

"Breath" by Tim Winton

An audio book. Australia. Paramedic Bruce (a quiet man, separated, with grown daughters) arrives at a house where a mourning mother is beside an asphyxiated boy, Aran. She assumes it's suicide. He thinks it's an accident.

We go back to when Bruce was 11, growing up in Soya. He had boring UK-immigrant parents and a daring mate, Looney, who lived in a pub. Bruce had a sense of beauty, bussed to school and liked books (a refuge becoming a pleasure). They learned to surf together with fin-less boards. Bruce's father was against it. When they weren't surfing they watched surfers and rescues. They dare each other. They see who can hold their breath the longest. By the time they're 13 they've got to know Sando, an "old guy" (in his 30s) who lives with his young sulky US wife Eva in a wooden house. Hippy, he takes trips to Indonesia when he's not on the beach. He gets sent many surfboards. My guess is that they're a way to import drugs.

The boys discover that Sando was a surf-mag model. Eva used to ski but bust her knee and has a limp. Looney thinks she's holding his hero Sando back. Bruce wonders if Eva's worried about how Sando's accepting the adulation. Looney left school at 15 and started work. Bruce and Sandy have long chats. Then Sando and Looney go on a long holiday to Indonesia without telling Bruce first. He feels betrayed. The 3 of them go down the coast to a challenging wave. Bruce bottles out. School's not going well either. One morning he tries the local challenge, Old Smokey, alone. He succeeds first time, fails the next and loses his board.

Eva was a top free-styler before the accident. She thinks Sando likes being idolised, that he fears being old. She sleeps with Bruce while the others are away. She's excited by self-asphyxiation - a bag and a strap. He doesn't want to join in.

Bruce (15) gets Eva pregnant. Sando returns. Looney never does. Sando assumes the baby's his. They move away. Bruce's father dies. Bruce settles down in a quiet marriage, has a breakdown and for a while is instutionalise. Later Bruce blames Eva for his problems. In the papers he reads that Sando's become an inspirational businessman and that Eva's found dead - self-hanged. Bruce trains as a paramedic - thrills and a responsibility that gains respect from his daughters.

There's much description of waves and landscape, of "feeling alive" when taking risks. The words, in Bruce's voice, can sound over-written - "the decommissioned buildings seemed hunkered down, besieged by sky and sea and landscape. The steep isthmus beyond that was choked by thickets of coastal heath".

Other reviews

  • Patrick Ness
  • Goodreads
  • Magdalena Ball (The breath motif is everywhere. There’s Eva’s breath in a plastic bag; Pikelet’s father’s Apnoea at night; the breath holding between Pikelet and Loonie that prefigures their surfing exploits; the exhalation of didgeridoo that narrates the story; and above all, the breath that is, metaphorically and actually, life itself. In the end, the journey becomes the point, and despite the damage, the breathing and dancing continue, creating meaning and value that needs “no explanation”.)

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

"afterlove" by Mario Petrucci (Cinnamon Press, 2020)

The first piece I liked was "storm", which (minus line-breaks) ends - "from blue-black tops a glow in us that shifts from over shoulders to make you crane & arch your spine shuddered supple along its length & split from mine as a lash tossed out & up just before its downward snap until our breath in great fat drops slaps into our sunlit dust your slow slow oh"

Here are 2 starts that don't appeal to me -

  • an interior the size of a cantaloupe you grow on mother-sap (p.28)
  • you dark-eyed god god-eyed whose eyes brim dark you look & suck then suck & look (p.30)

and here's one that does

  • because of You our sky is Ocean in suspense (p.38)

Here are extracts that don't appeal to me -

  • before brain could wink I turned to face you saw that look of your own making hung there in darkness eyes unblinking burnt black with love ... now in dimmest light your eyes unopened here beside me with another's love aglow in your face (p.49)
  • a kiss unearthed dreadless from our subsoiled bed presented as if its one coin undated were all that remained of your great abandoned civilisation (p.55)
  • Our eyes scan the question but don't quite rhyme. (p.57)

Other reviews

  • Liam Nolan (Divided into four sections, there is a loose narrative that can be glimpsed throughout. From the intensity of a relationship, portrayed mostly in bed (carnal in parts, but there is also the sensuality of sleep and simply being near another) through to familial love, and on to the ‘afterlove’ of the title: that point at which love collapses, is broken, but its aftermath still surrounds.)
  • Saturday, 10 April 2021

    "The Sparsholt Affair" by Alan Hollinghurst

    An audio book.

    Part 1 - Oxford University. World war 2. 3rd year Freddy Green (it's from his PoV) has friends Peter (gay artist) and Evert (gay son of a famous novelist, Dax) who both fancy David Sparsholt, a new 1st year, only 17. David's a rower, an engineer, and engaged to big-breasted Connie. Freddie has a student girl-friend Jill, just a friend. He's comfortable in the company of gays - he went to public school, and his half-brother had slept with Auden. Freddy and his friends are in the Literature Club, and Dax is their next guest speaker. Has Peter drawn Sparsholt in the nude? Sparsholt likes sleeping with men.

    Part 2 - David (married to Connie), his schoolfriend Cliff (married to Norma?), David's 14 y.o. arty gay son Johnny (his PoV) and 15.y.o. French Bastian go on a yacht and fish. Johnny and Bastion are sharing sex. Bastion joins Johnny's family on their seaside holiday to improve his English. Johnny's envious when Bastion eyes girls. He overhears Norma and his mother talk with interest about Bastion. They see Freddy on a TV quiz show.

    Part 3 - Johnny is now in the arts business, learning about restoration and dealing. He meets Evert and Freddy because his friend Dennis is secretary to Evert, who's writing up his father's life ("the memo[ir] club"). There are several gays in Evert's house, and a nude sketch of Johnny's father (though Johnnny doesn't know that). He's enjoying the sexual freedom and public toilets of London. We learn that 6 years before, his father (a WW2 hero) was involved in a homosexual scandal with an MP, Cliff and male prostitutes. His father had become a pin-up for some gays, a warning to others.

    Francesca, who knows Evert's group, asks him out. To his relief she takes him to a lesbian bar then a gay club. It's all new to him. So is the art world. He goes to an auction. Among regular dealers he has to quickly learn the tactics when previewing lots and dealing. It's not so unlike his experience of being amongst gays at social events. Francesca asks him if he'd like to be a sperm donor.

    He goes with unfaithful Ivan to Wales for the weekend in a disposable chapter. Ivan likes older men like Evert.

    Part 4 - Johnnie's daughter Lucy is 7. This part is rather from her PoV. She tries to understand the world of adults. At funerals we learn more about what happened year ago. She likes art. Johnnie meets his father, introduces him to Evert.

    Part 5 - Johnnie is 60. He's commissioned to paint a family, the mother a TV celebrity. We learn about the male gaze and marketing tricks of portraits artists. His husband Pat has died. He goes out to a club for the first time in 20 years. He meets a young guy who likes older men. While in a toilet cubicle together, Johnnie looks at his phone to find his father had died. Next day he visits his step-mother of 30+ years, who he hasn't seen much. When Johnnie goes to see the body, he sketches it. The press have a field day with the obituaries. Because he'd kept the rare family name, he'd never been allowed to forget his father's disgrace. Only now do we learn anything about how it hit Johnnie at the time. Lucy's going to marry a woman.

    Veiled conversation suddenly turns to physical sex. Perhaps the slow, evasive style reflects how things were then. We see the different, era-specific ways of coping with being gay. Art helps, whatever the era. Emotions often come paired - "excitement and fear", etc. Lingering glances matter - "Each knew something about the other, since Jill had been there on that evening in first week when we'd watched him half-naked across the quad, and David of course had coaxed certain romantic claims about her from me, so they each had the gleam of being in on a secret or a joke which was possibly disconcerting to the other". A final adverb (e.g. "competently") can twist a sentence. There are lots of little pleasures - what should one do if you're shy and you're with someone who attracts glances?

    Other reviews

    • James Lasdun (The immediate fun of this section is largely in its reviving of a particular style of fine writing, in which the rarefied pleasures of euphemism and indirectness concerning sexual matters still had a certain currency. It isn’t quite pastiche, more a sort of dead-on rendition ... there is a great scene between father and son at the RAF Club, though it serves mainly to consolidate Sparsholt as an enigma, which isn’t, for me, the most interesting of literary entities. Remarkably, the novel more than survives this slight letdown. What keeps it pulsing is really hard to say, especially as the careful formal patterning of the first three sections is also largely abandoned. It could be simply that, having laid the groundwork for one kind of novel, Hollinghurst found he had the basis for another, better suited to his gifts, which are possibly more those of a chronicler than a plotter. ... It makes for a looser, freer book than the cunning puzzle of a novel one was led to expect, and almost certainly a better one, too.)
    • Alexandra Schwartz (This kind of determined evasiveness, frequently frustrating for the reader, feels like a new development for Hollinghurst, and I wonder if it is born of a wish to refuse the sorts of major twists and resolutions that he has relied on in the past.)
    • Kirkus review
    • Laura Miller (The Sparsholt Affair lacks the sturdy momentum of Hollinghurst’s masterpiece, The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize. There’s little reason to worry that the likable, yearning, good-looking Johnny won’t fulfill his modest dreams. AIDS goes conspicuously unmentioned. But like all of Hollinghurst’s novels this one is still a wonder, full of wit and tenderness, rendered in prose of unostentatious, classic beauty. There is no better English stylist alive.)

    Wednesday, 7 April 2021

    "i tulips" by Mario Petrucci (Enitharmon, 2010)

    Maybe the "i" in the title is Italian for "the". The poems are from London Magazine, Magma, Oxford Poetry, Stand, etc. I think they were written quickly, the poems in this book selected from over a thousand.

    Short lines (less than 5cm) and 3-lined stanzas predominate (p.83 uniquely has zigzag triplets). Sometimes there's extra space between the words (sometimes where a full stop would normally be). I usually have trouble with such pieces. Here are the book's start - "That tulip set by the window in its vase of dusk is like a flame. You cannot help but say — no. Because a tulip caught in that glass is a flame — and once you have said it how to return to bloomed stem or soft spike of anther where now is fire? ". I can make sense of this, but it's wordy. The book version compounds the clutter by adding white space - this extract is spread over 20 or so lines.

    "starlings so" is conceptually more compact. It's about an apple tree suddenly filled with starlings, their "half-flight contrast to static rounds of flesh". The narrator decides that s/he'll "not let starlings eat but burst blackchaff at my bullet-clap knowing they think my hands a thing of dread a thing apart & gone in a swarm i am left a tree cored of starlings & cannot be sure i was not of them". That final quote (which I mostly like) spans 13 lines - more than 4 stanzas. "apart" is actually "a" and "part", separated by a stanza break - a useful double meaning (I've used it myself) but if the cost is that lots of other (to my mind gratuitous) line/stanza breaks need to be added, I don't think it's cost-effective.

    Other poems also exploit word-breaking opportunities - e.g.

    charcoaled bones fis
    sured & more dee-
    ply dark than sp-
    ace on x-ray as order
    -lies watch my blu-
    shes rise
    (p.99)

    I'm not against such devices. Here's the start of something I wrote in 1999

    Wipe the mist away to find the mirror, ex/citing land,
    the wake a/Sterne reminder that nothing's new to the sure readers,
    never flagging in their resolution, in/de-forming the silenced cannon,
    syntax ran/sacked, holed where elements end and arrangement beg[in]s

    It has puns (mist, sure, flagging, cannon, holed) and word-breaks but few line-breaks - when in doubt I left them out.

    I struggle with many phrases in the poems. Sometimes there's a lucid image trying to get out - he's committed to telling it slant. Sometimes I'm lost. Here are some examples -

    • a twosome creature all but one yet s-/hunted through in/-cremental selves by diet of said-&-done (p.26)
    • cicadas revving up for sun let slip an extra watt : how one begets that cheesegrater or/-chestra shifting in the ear as sand through gears of current (p.46). This begins well, but (not for the first time) tries too hard at the end.
    • friend take me on - not as volumes whose spines flex with con/fusion or half-erected schools of confession raised arcadian around my cloisters to fix half-minded thought whose luke-warm dinners & fast propel this small engine through biography two-thirds lived in (p.49)
    • i have a bay in me whose walls gaze out fresh as milk to draw a tongue of ocean lapping - where eye levels horizon to raise the bowed & one spireless geometry ushers this body to its cooler shadow where dusk touches my dusk (p.52). I like the idea of an internal bay. At the mention of walls I wonder whether I should hold in mind "bay window" as well as a cliff-flanked seaside bay. But why bring freshness into it? Why milk? A tongue laps at milk. The images don't constructively cohere, nor do they interestingly oppose.
    • as if death might come to me fully lit or drowse if i could stay with it all that bitter way to cud some dawn steeped in juice or slumber whose point of breaking is almost that stunned return to yesterday (p.83). I like the "cud some dawn" idea.
    • though there never was time i ventured by night any s-/pit of sand & if dreams of others send us to sleep might sea be something near conscious vastly & sleeping that in its slumber dreams me? (p.85)
    • is it that loss before the loss - glimpsed in eye-glow of either while still pressed together - or as air-hand grasp for child lost to crowd while child still trots beside you in blood red duffel (p.87) - I'm unsure what this all means. The words distract. Maybe instead "a hint of loss to come - in a hugged lover's glowing eye, or a hand reaching for a toddler thought lost in a crowd but there beside you in blood red duffel"
    • through all this lull of green the hospital behind me s/parse in its re/petition of extinguishers (p.93). I like this as it is.
    • to sway me full into what s/wells within till b/lack has clasped each oilslick lung (p.99)

    He writes -

    • "I'm seeking a species of language that can enlist and enact feeling and thought, rather than merely express emotion and think out loud... instead of talking about thoughts and feelings, I want poems that themselves think and feel."
    • "There's something almost quantum mechanical about many of the poems in the i tulips project, where syntax is made to hang - not least across line-breaks - so as to offer (though without becoming, one hopes, merely chaotic) a simultaneity of various possibilities for meaning. In a sense, there are different 'states' for the poem that co-exist as probabilities before a particular (perhaps more singular) reading of the text enacts certain decisions/interpretations within the listener's/reader's ear, decisions that 'collapse' the poem, as it proceeds, into a given observed state. Of course, conventional poems too may carry a plural quality; but in i tulips the occurrence is heightened and deepened"

    which is all fair enough. When I was younger I think I was more sympathetic to these views. Since then I think I've veered towards surface clarity, hoping that readers can see through to the mysteries - Magritte and Escher.

    My favourite is "we have to talk you &". It's longer than the other poems, which makes me more forgiving of the parts I don't understand.

    Other reviews

    • David Pollard ([i t 61] is an extremely subtle and, I think, great poem. There are many like it in i tulips ... Examples include 'what stirs this is-' [i t 48] and 'i have heard in' [i t 95])

    Saturday, 3 April 2021

    "The Improbability of Love" by Hannah Rothschild

    It's the day of the auction. "The probability of love" painting may go for a record price. A French minister, Middle East billionaires, an art expert who'd once called it a fake, a rap star and many pretty women are there in a carefully staged event.

    That's the prologue. We go back 6 months to when Annie buys a painting in a junk shop for £75. She's 31, lives in London, and getting over a relationship that had lasted 14 years. She has to collect her alcoholic mother Evie from the police station - not for the first time. She starts working as a cook for Winkleman fine art, making thematic food for a dinner party of prospective buyers.

    There are monologues from the 300-year old painting.

    We meet Berty, a life-consultant for new billionnaire exiles from Russia, Iran, etc. Vlad (worth 8 billion) had killed his brother. Berty encourages him to invest in art.

    Thanks to Jessie (a male who likes Annie), Annie takes the painting to expert Agatha (who likes Jessie). Annie researches to help with her themed dinners and learn about her painting,

    The Monocorum auction house is in debt. An earl (who works for them and whose job is at risk) visits famous artists looking for trade. By chance he stumbles upon the painting.

    Rebecca (she's the daughter of very rich Menling Winkleman, the art boss) discovers that her father wasn't an Auswitz survivor who had earlier helped Jews escape in exchange for their paintings, but a Nazi caretaker called Fuchs who had a hoarde of Nazi love - one of them the Winkleman's painting, which happens to be Annie's. Fuchs gave it to the love of his life, who died. He wants the painting back. Rebecca ultimatums her father. She discusses assassination to preserve the family's reputation. She frames Annie.

    Jessie chases up evidence and Annie is freed. The Winklemans get their come-uppance. Jessie and Annie marry. The painting's ownership is claimed by various parties.

    It's all rather slow going. Words can go ("triangular in shape"; "thought to herself"), sentences can go (the author has the habit of saying the same thing in 2 or 3 ways). When the same event is recounted by 2 characters, the 2 renderings are too similar. Decisions and events are fully explained (and not infrequently explained again). Even chapters can go (the earl's visits to artists). One or two verbose characters might be ok, but nearly all of them are repetitive. There's a lot of detail, mostly light, about art, etc. There's some interesting observation. There's satire and farce - galleries are viewed as giant bus shelters, free wifi a vital requirement.

    Were it reduced by 50% or so, and the art history/theory sections deepened, it might have worked. The provenence of a painting is shown to be important, as is the authenticity of the Winkleman family. This could have been more of the theme.

    Other reviews

    • Suzy Feay (This is a lengthy, baggy book that takes 100 pages to get going. Once it does, its sweep is almost Dickensian ... Some scenes don’t advance the plot but amuse nonetheless.)
    • Amanda Craig
    • goodreads

    Wednesday, 31 March 2021

    "crib" by Mario Petrucci (Enitharmon, 2014)

    Poems from Acumen, Antiphon, London Grip, etc. Parts were shortlisted in the Bridport. They're all for his son written before his son's first birthday. They're nearly all short-lined poems of couplets or triplets, often ending with an isolated line.

    Here are 2 face-to-face poems. I've omitted the line- and stanza-breaks, and one instance of an extra space. The extra space is like a comma, I think, but the rest disrupt (more than assist) the parsing -

    • i fish in dark with dark as spool & mark him sparely move as if i sought magnified on glass slide that form nekton slow-slewed on current i use him to snag but find me caught - nekton are "living organisms that are able to swim and move independently of currents". The words confuse me - I'd paraphrase them as "someone who's searching/fishing in the dark for something sees a baby barely moving, and gets caught himself".
    • what pours from that so-fast treading there just under where rib might be - your one tight curd in muscle throwing throwing itself back & through & always back angry with life it fills with or empties hung in you as a red wasp in almost too small a web? - I can see a few images - a baby in sleep rapidly treading water; a baby arching his back, his anger like a wasp in a web fighting to escape. Is there a soft abdominal muscle?

    I'm aware of some reasons why poets tells things slant - a distrust of language; a desire to make readers comprehend slowly; an attempt to overload the rational comprehension of imagery; etc. There are risks too however, and for me, the gamble pays off too seldom. The imagery is compacted at times beyond recognition without narrative to constrain connotations. I know that poetry (sometimes the best poetry) is hard to paraphrase but what about -

    • night tentative bestrides you stripes you less tigercub than resistor - your quiet ohm almost tubular in gloom precision made precariously singular conducting headcot to basecot" - I know about the colour coding for resistors. But "quiet ohm"? Maybe a paraphrase is "near-night projects stripes on the sleeping babe from head to foot of the cot"?
    • slugs diminish through light salt-porous as if waiting were due till one suck-sigh from waves north-keeping rheums the child-lucent span to temperate foam fizzes to deep water your fast-shrinking ice-aspirin of unsleep - this is close to word-salad, a call-my-bluff tease rather than a poem
    • that when mortar fevers towards winter - sweats on the inside to shed summer down panes icily one stream at a time in downwardness disconcerted pooling on sills serum so far removed from veins it is lost to what is pure yet lacking specifics circulates much - I gradually lost my grip on this

    Other reviews

    • Aurora Woods (Crib is more accurately an exploration of the literary process itself. ... Whether the reader feels Crib rewards the close re-reading and still more re-reading required is a moot point, but for me, the whole experience was not quite enough.)

    Saturday, 27 March 2021

    "Flowers of Sulphur" by Mario Petrucci (Enitharmon, 2007)

    Poems from Acumen, Ambit, Orbis, Stand, The Spectator, etc. "Negatives" won the Bridport in 1999.

    "Amaretti" mentions "Toadstool tops" and setting wrappers alight - allusions familiar to me, but more baffling to others. Fortunately there are YouTube videos about "setting fire to amaretti wrappers". "Orders of magnitude", "Request" and "Airfix" is a little sequence that would puzzle no one, but soon after that there's "footage" which is way beyond me.

    Here's some imagery that caught my eye -

    • he simply walked quarter speed behind a nebulous hearse of thought (p.28)
    • our classroom became a space lightened as if by a wind-felled tree (p.28)
    • one by one, those twinned red eyes of braking blinked shut (p.71)