Archive for March, 2006

reading for Q1, 2006

March 31, 2006
  1. The Master by Colm Toibin
  2. Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis
  3. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  4. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
  5. A Dictionary of Accepted Ideas by Gustave Flaubert
  6. Eclipse by John Banville
  7. Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
  8. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
  9. Nelson by Christopher Hibbert
  10. The Untouchable by John Banville
  11. 1066 and all that by WC Sellar & RJ Yeatman
  12. The Marlboroughs by Christopher Hibbert
  13. Blake by Peter Ackroyd
  14. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

the beast is slain!

March 20, 2006

Finally, this last weekend, I finished reading Roger Lewis's biography of Anthony Burgess.

I was trying to summarise for my wife, who has suffered through bits and pieces of my interior monologue on the experience of reading this book, my assessment of it as a biography of Burgess.

The first point I made was that I have not read very much Burgess, and so am not in a position to refute Lewis's opinions and assertions about a number of the Burgess books. Burgess books I have read are (in this order):

  1. Inside Mr Enderby (circa 1988)
  2. A Clockwork Orange
  3. Earthly Powers
  4. A Dead Man in Deptford (not completed)
  5. Inside Mr Enderby (again in 2005)
  6. Enderby Outside
  7. The Clockwork Testament or Enderby's End
  8. Enderby's Dark lady

Also, without realising I was watching a Burgess adaptation, I remember being enthralled by Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth as a child.

So, although Lewis's tone is distasteful, I did find that at times I was persuaded of his critical faculty. What he has to say is not uninteresting but the way he says it is often repulsive. He sneers at Burgess and his alcoholic first wife Lynne. He squeezes out nasty thoughts about the possible truth behind what he claims are Burgess's lies lies lies. Emblazoned across the back cover of the book is this quote:

Question: On what occasions do you lie?
Burgess: When I write, when I speak, when I sleep.

Lewis chews on this idea throughout the book, and ultimately this destroys it. He's the biographer who came to hate his subject, and he's not professional enough to finish the job of writing the book without letting his bile leak onto the pages.

But, and this is what I was trying to express to my wife, I think his overall assessment of Burgess holds some interest. Lewis presents not evidence but rather an array of interpreted substance and supposition that draws a picture of a man who at some point lost his perspective on himself. Perhaps. John Wilson takes on the part of Anthony Burgess, but he never quite has the confidence to stop creating the character, and so he goes too far. Perhaps. His exaggerations, his larger-than-life gestures, become his lies, his dishonesty. Burgess's conceits are, for Lewis, his deceits.

Lewis, also, is not an unskilled writer. He weaves, gently and largely imperceptibly, a well- textured critical analysis of Burgess's authorial project. He admires – in a rare moment – the man's productivity and discipline. He consistently draws connections, sometimes elliptically, between Burgess's thought and the themes that preoccupy him: Joyce, language, Marlowe, espionage, exile, impotence, betrayal, violence. And at the end Lewis draws these threads together into a convincing (and well-turned) thesis:

Marlowe, the dead man in Deptford, and the subject of the final novel, is symbolic of talent attenuated; Burgess is representative of talent protracted. His career was a phantasmal, enigmatic enterprise… Yet, slippery and amorphous as he was, Burgess hated not to be grasped: 'I like understanding from those who read my books,' he once bellowed… Well he's had plenty of understanding from me, fair play. I can see for example that (a) he was a great writer who never wrote a great book: his talent was too widely dispersed; (b) his life was circumscribed by deaths: his mother, his sister, his first wife, his own first death sentence – and his real death sentence… and if it is true he wrote to live (and to make a living), he also worked to forget, to block out, rather than to remember. He did his best to disengage himself from his feelings; this is why there is no sensuality in his writing… There is a lack of positive, warm emotion… What does come through, in his best work, is a sense of doom. Empires collapsing; the end of the world.

To me, based on what I've read, this is persuasive stuff. I cannot, however, leave any sort of simple glow of recommendation smudged across Lewis and his book.

I dug up part of an email exchange I had about reading this book. Here is what I had to say when I first restarted it:

I have restarted, after a two year break, Roger Lewis's hatchet job biog of Anthony Burgess. I am determined to finish it despite the bitterness with which Lewis regards his subject. I find Burgess such an interesting character, but his writing is so dense and erudite that I find I can only properly absorb it with adequate recovery periods between books. In the five or so pages I have read (starting where I left off), Lewis has already implied that two men were having it off with Burgess's wife in a menage a trois and that Burgess was too dumb to realise – it is fascinating in itself to see the breakdown of the biographer. This is what happens when the biographer finds that the subject he began researching in a hazy glow of adoration is someone he now detests. Lewis definitely comes out of it looking like the creep though, not Burgess.


March 20, 2006

It's about time we had some Barth on this blog! From The Tidewater Tales: A Novel

Andrew Sherrit, directing the number-two cameraman to dolly in tighter, is surprised at the husky male sound of his own voice. It is himself at his present age, in the bed of his bedroom at home, on a green and tender late-May morning. But the smiling woman beside – tawny-haired, brown-eyed, brown-skinned as a Coppertone model sans bikini, across whose nakedness the sweet air moves as over his – is his wife. Her head is propped in her right hand; her left rests lightly on her upthrust hip. Her face, also he body, is of a surpassingly friendly beauty; Chip will remember that phrase, the ease of his lying there with her, the air on their skin, the feel of their being husband and wife. He'll recall her face exactly; it reminds him of no one's he knows, nor any composite that the can sort out. He'll wish he had gotten her name, at least, and wonder why in the world he was filming them in bed together. He'd never do that! His eyes and nose will sting: his first real wet-dream, and they were such good friends!


March 13, 2006

From Nostromo by Joseph Conrad:

At last the conflagration of sea and sky, lying embraced and still in a flaming contract upon the edge of the world, went out. The red sparks in the water vanished together with the stains of blood in the black mantle draping the sombre head of the Placid Gulf; a sudden breeze sprang up and died out after rustling heavily the growth of bushes on the ruined earthwork of the fort. Nostromo woke from a fourteen hours' sleep, and arose full length from his lair in the long grass. He stood knee deep amongst the whispering undulations of the green blades with the lost air of a man just born into the world. Handsome, robust, and supple, he threw back his head, flung his arms open, and stretched himself with a slow twist of the waist and a leisurely growling yawn of white teeth, as natural and free from evil in the moment of waking as a magnificent and unconscious wild beast. Then, in the suddenly steadied glance fixed upon nothing from under a thoughtful frown, appeared the man.


March 9, 2006

From Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd:

The saliva fills Chatterton's mouth, a river overflowing its precious banks. There is a pain in his belly like the colic but burning so, my liver and spleen might roast in the heat. What is happening to me? He tries to rise from his bed, but the agony throws him down again and he rolls in terror to stare at the wall. Oh God the arsenic. He vomits over the bed, and in that same spasm shit runs across his thin buttocks – how hot it is – and trickles down his thighs, the smell of it mixing with the rank odour of the sweat pouring out of his body. Everything is fleeing from me. I am the house on fire. Oh God the poison. I am being melted down… a birth pain, my bowels ripped open to find the child, oh mother mother. Chatterton is being tossed up and down upon the sodden bed, the agony rising from him like mist into the attic room. Hold on oh hold on until this fit is past but my hands are nailed to the bed, my flesh being torn from me as I curve and break. His face is swelling, his eyelids bursting in the heat. I am the giant in the pantomime oh God save me from melting, melting, melting

gothic nightmares

March 9, 2006

On Saturday last, we went to see the Gothic Nightmares exhibition at the Tate Britain, featuring works by Henry Fuseli (mainly), William Blake (hoorah), James Gillray and some of their contemporaries who also had a penchant for all that was a bit dark and a bit naughty.

The picture presiding over all the others was Fuseli's The Nightmare – a raunchy and glamourous composition of drooping lady, toothy horse's head, and a nasty little imp lurking in the darkness.

My primary interest were the works by Blake, and we were both fascinated by his idiosyncratic pictures, which could be spotted from a mile away amongst all the exhibited works, especially The Ghost of a Flea. This tempura was much smaller than I'd imagined and very dark. It was poorly exhibited, being hung at the back of a room where a clip from an old gothic film was being shown – to demonstrate the resonance of Fuseli's The Nightmare for years after it was painted – and everyone had their backs to it, watching the film instead.

Many of the artists, especially Fuseli and Blake, worked on the same subject and it was interesting to see how each artist presented the same idea in a different way. Also, there was a lot of fun to be had from seeing how Gillray turned popular and phantasmagorical imagery into biting political satire with his gift for caricature.

There were some powerful works to see – Fuseli's oils of Titania and Bottom, Blake's Biblical watercolours, Gillray's cartoons – and I would recommend the exhibition, although it was perhaps a little arduous with over 200 pictures (and accompanying notes, which I can seldom ignore) to ogle.

Enderby words

March 8, 2006

Some words to roll around in your gut a bit, borborygmously…

(I’ve gone with the quick lookup on, and after that I’ve contracted some of the definitions.)

  • analphabetic = not alphabetical, illiterate
  • disintermediation = withdrawal of funds from intermediary financial institutions
  • calumniate = make malicious or knowling false statements about
  • indurate = to make hard, harden; to inure, as to hardship or ridicule
  • redivivus = come back to life, revived
  • magniloquence = lofty and extravagant in speech
  • encomium = warm, glowing praise; formal expression of praise; a tribute
  • logorrhea = excessive talkativeness
  • avoirdupois = weight or heaviness, especially of a person
  • guy (v) = hold up to ridicule; mock
  • tergiversate = use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate, change sides, apostatize
  • apostatize = abandon one’s faith, politics, principles, etc.

What I’d like is to have someone set this list of words, sans definition, to music. I think it would make a most excellently chewy song, like a thick, dry, stale slice of bread.

a small connection

March 6, 2006

I have discovered another small connection in the great big scheme of life. One of the highly select entries in Flaubert’s dictionary – from which flows so much delight – is the word I noticed in a Banville book the other day (see Eclipse):

SATRAP. Rich man of loose morals.

teetering piles

March 4, 2006

Equiano left a comment on this post about the teetering pile of books that most of us inevitably manage to build of books we want to read soon.

This made me think of my own pile, which has had to be split into three separate stacks to avoid a catastrophic collapse. Evidence, this year's intended reading… stack 1:

Stack 2 (out of view is The Daily Telegraph Fourth Book of Obituaries: Rogues):

Stack 3:

I am very much enjoying Roth's The Plot Against America, and am racing through it to get to the next book. I don't why – perhaps because, trite as it sounds, there is so much good stuff still to read – but I feel compelled, constantly, to read and read and read.