Tuesday, August 25, 2009

'I think the spoons and forks in the silverware drawer can be just as interesting as War and Peace'

Lisa Jarnot's Ring of Fire is a strange, likeable book. It's not afraid of rhetorical postures – in fact, its declarative, repetitive style connects back pretty much directly to Whitman. A brief discussion here talks about the repetition, and whether it's too static. I really like 'Sea Lyrics', a long reiterative sequence, but I can imagine not liking it if it were slightly different in various ways.

Some of the repetition does leave me cold. It's tempting to say that the device is overused, but thats partly the point, and it might be that Jarnot has to overuse it to arrive at the pieces where it works better. She can't be accused of playing it safe. Ring of Fire is one of those poetry books that has really stimulated my own writing by example - not by showing me how it should be done, but how it can be done.

You can read a PDF sample of the book at the link above. This post's title comes from this otherwise rather evasive interview at 12 or 20 Questions.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Where I lead, Margaret Drabble follows

Well, not really. But my occasional posts on the forgotten art of Arnold Bennett are relevant to this, er, clarion call for armies of readers to read more of his novels and stamp on Virginia Woolf's grave. Except the last bit.

'He loved parade, stylish women’s clothes, the lavish spectacle of theatre and music hall, the great department stores, the plumbing of modern hotels, the conveniences of electricity and central heating – all such a contrast with the nineteenth-century Five Towns from which he had escaped [and which he also wrote about].'

Drabble makes a good case for the tensions between realist and modernist, provincial and metropolitan, old and new in Bennett's work. Ooh, dialectics – Bakhtin and Lukacs would have loved it. And if that seems far-fetched, here's Walter Benjamin, quoted by Drabble:

'I continue to read Bennett, in whom I increasingly come to recognise a man whose stance is very much akin currently to my own and who serves to validate it: that is to say, a man for whom a far-reaching lack of illusion and a fundamental mistrust of where the world is going lead neither to moral fanaticism nor to embitterment but to an extremely cunning, clever and subtle art of living. This leads him to wrest from his own misfortune the chances, and from his own wickedness the few respectable ways to conduct himself, that amount to a human life.'

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sian Hughes, The Missing

Towards the end of last week I read Sian Hughes's The Missing, shortlisted for this year's Forward Prize for Best First Collection. I haven't read the other books on the shortlist so I can't comment on who should win, but I can say that this one's really good – a brief, affecting, plain and magnificent book. Read it if you get the chance.

(There's a rather longer review of it at Matthew Stewart's blog here.)

Friday, August 14, 2009


Yesterday I taught my son how to play snap, using a donkey deck. I'd forgotten donkey, its cod-ostracising.

From Walter Benjamin's notes on Brecht, published in Aesthetics and Politics, a great reader in leftist critics.

"24 July 1934. On a beam which supports the ceiling of Brecht’s study are painted the words: ‘Truth is concrete.’ On a window-sill stands a small wooden donkey which can nod its head. Brecht has hung a little sign round its neck on which he has written: ‘Even I must understand it.’"

It's easy to see why he had to write it on a sign: directness, simplicity, lucidity are among the most difficult virtues to acquire (not least because at an earlier stage in development they are vices); and they have to be relearnt every time.

That's one reason I'm still very much enjoying Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album – hardly stories, some of them, but little vignettes that show what prose can do (and what it need not do). As, in a different way, does Luke Kennard's The Solex Brothers (Redux) – prose delighting in itself, and delighting the reader, too. On the other hand, I'm dipping my toes into Gormenghast, a whole other kettle of fish. And – though this is neither here nor there – listening to Blood on the Tracks.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Dylan Thomas

I've just reread 'Altarwise by Owl-Light', Dylan Thomas's mesmerising/bonkers sonnet sequence (only the first four are available at the link). I don't know why, but people don't really talk about Thomas at the moment - perhaps he's one of those fixtures that become invisible. But his writing is so odd, perplexing, beautiful, difficult, musical and popular that I always come away from it with an expanded sense of what is possible.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


In the last few weeks every book I've picked up hasn't really answered. In the end I got round to Sketches from a Hunter's Album, the book that made Turgenev famous. It's funny to think of him facing house arrest for subversion for writing this gentle collection of anecdotes, but it's all context, innit?

I've only read two so far. 'Yermolay and the Miller's Wife' is a short story in the classic vein (I should probably say 'at the bedrock of the classic vein' or some similarly tortured thing). But 'Khor and Kalinych' is weirder, slighter stuff: it really is a sketch, a double portrait. There's no story to speak of. The subversion lies in the discussion of serfs' lives and the treatment of them as people. I guess this is much more significant than the hints of extramarital sex in 'Yermolay and the Miller's Wife' – imagine how this situation might have been reversed in England at the time.

'Khor and Kalinych' also lies near the beginning of a short story tradition – the one we (OK, I) tend to think of as more modern, in which the story is less important than the treatment. I remember reading others like this by Turgenev years ago, like 'The Brigadier' (in a battered old collection of that name). I feel ambivalent about them – they can seem so slight that you have to be in the mood, since they're congenitally incapable of grabbing you by the throat. They indicate why Dostoyevsky despised him.

Similarly storyless was 'Grandmother' by Hans Christian Andersen, a prose poem really, remorseless in spite of its sentiment and grimly disdainful of the narrative twist I was expecting. I suppose that's the point – art imitating life.

Bought some black ruby barbs and kuhli loaches at the weekend for my tropical tank. Mostly settling in well – the cockatoo cichlid looks pretty pissed off to have new neighbours, but otherwise OK. Except – one of the loaches wriggled its way into the filter unit and jammed the mechanism in a hideous swimming pool accident type accident. I got up in the morning to find the fish all swimming weirdly in still water, took the filter apart thinking it was broken and extracted the little corkscrew body. I don't think it was anyone's grandmother, but it was still a bit of a shame.