ReadySteadyBlog

The latest articles here on ReadySteadyBook, include Shiona Tregaskis' review of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp ("Antwerp reads like the gathering of forensic evidence – loosely pertaining (or perhaps not at all) to a murder in the Costa Brava..."), Danny Byrne's essay on László Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance ("his material is some of the oldest in literature: in fact, the symbolic devices read at times like a post-Nietzschean take on Elizabethan tragedy...") and Cassandra Moss's take on Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead ("the past, whilst immutable as a remote, completed whole, offers, in fine detail, movement and malleability")...

Unmissable stuff, so please read, comment, Tweet etc!

Also, make sure you haven't missed Simon Critchley's annotated bibliography for The Faith of the Faithless ("On my reading, what is being called for by Kierkegaard is a rigorous and activist conception of faith that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantee or security, and which abides with the infinite demand of love, the rigor of love..."), and my interviews with the boys from The White Review ("To dismiss the discussion of complicated subjects as elitist is to deny people a stake in them...") and George Craig, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, and chief translator for the Letters of Samuel Beckett ("Beckett's handwriting is a perpetual source of difficulty, but long acquaintance makes it, for the most part, manageable. Translation is a problem mainly because SB does not simply "use" other languages, but plays with them.")

Back in 2005 I interviewed Dai Vaughan. Neal Ascherson once called Dai ‘one of the most imperiously intelligent fiction-writers alive’, he could have added one of the most gracious and charming too...

Great news, then, that the excellent CB editions has just published Dai's latest book Sister of the artist:


A cloaked figure sweeps towards her. It has the features of Viktor, who she knows is far away. But they are only a painted oval held on a wand, which he flicks aside to reveal, under the sacking cowl, her own double; and she hears a voice – her own? – croak, ‘Who leads in the dance?’

Prompted by the example of the composer Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny, Sister of the artist addresses the injustice of a brother and sister, both artists, whose talents are respectively encouraged and thwarted by the conventions of their time and place. Their story is layered with fragments of more ancient narratives that explore the mysteries of sibling love and the wellsprings of creativity.

Sister of the artist is prefaced by two stories of a writer and her sister, guests returning from Dai Vaughan’s first novel, The Cloud Chamber (1993).

In the Haganah you give a month of yourself to working in a kibbutz. We worked inKiryat Anavim, up in the fields with the shepherds. One day there was a call that a group of new immigrants arrived from Germany. The kibbutz rang the bell for lunch and all these young immigrants scattered into the fields. They were screaming and running very fast. You could not get them to believe the bell was being rung so that they could be fed. They thought it was rung for the slaughter. They thought they would be taken if they did not hide themselves. This stayed with me all my life.

Good friend of – and regular contributor to – ReadySteadyBook, Leora Skolkin-Smith has a new short story, A Tape of Helen Gilderstein Speaking, published up on International Jewish Fiction. (For more about Leora see leoraskolkinsmith.com.)

In the autumn of 2000, I was a 20-year-old student in Cambridge, at home in the English language but new to England and the English. Producing dutiful but desiccated essays every week on regicide and gender-bending in Shakespeare, struggling meanwhile with the almost complete absence of rice and dal (“lentils”) in the British diet, I suddenly fell violently in love in an unlikely place – Galloway & Porter, a home for cut-price and remaindered books. Thankfully the object of my affections was, like Barkis, willing. She was, to squeeze out the last of my metaphor, The Novel.

Chandrahas Choudhury, an old pal of RSB, talks about Falling in love with the novel over at the Telegraph...

RSB interviewee Derek Attridge has a 50 minute talk (about Reading and Responsibility), originally delivered on October 16, 2007 at the University of Washington, up on ARCADE.

Back in 2003 when I started ReadySteadyBook the Booker Prize was something I had a modicum of interest in. Whilst the books on the list were never quite my cup of tea they did, I thought, represent a fairly good place to start with what was out there that was deemed a contemporary meaty read. With some scepticism, I bought the line that the Booker prize was a decent guide to the modern British novel.

Over the past eight or so years, my opinions on lots of things have modified and changed, but Booker fiction (which I've since rather pejoratively called Establishment Literary Fiction) continues, for me, to be the fairly "decent guide to the contemporary British novel" that I thought it was back in the day. And it is for that reason that I have so very little interest engaging with it here.

ReadySteadyBook has changed considerably over the last few years. I started it thinking I could maintain a kind of mini-Amazon – offering short reviews of lots of books across numerous genres. Very quickly I realised that I couldn't keep up with the slew of new books that get published each week and, moreover, that I didn't have anythig like the energy or commitment to review even a tiny percentage of them. So my focus sharpened and I began – as the site's tagline still declares – 'reviewing the very best books in literary fiction, poetry, history and philosophy.'

Not long after, I added a blog to the site and my 'online literary journal' started to have a relationship to and with the burgeoning blogosphere. And for a while I really enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow book bloggers. ReadySteadyBook grew, I loved the feedback, got a little bit better at blogging, and began to articulate a little more clearly my feeling that 'literary fiction', whilst an often hugely entertaining genre, was not what I meant by – or required from – literature.

Recently (indeed almost since Lee did such a great job on RSB's facelift), I've allowed RSB's blog to become almost like a Tumblr: a place where I record the occasional apposite quote or link. ReadySteadyBook as an online 'journal' has continued to thrive (with excellent recent highlights including David Winters' review of Gary Gutting's Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960, David Auerbach's excellent essay on Hans Blumenberg, Barry Baldwin's review of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation and Dai Vaughan's breathtaking essay on Jean-Pierre Melville). But as blog I'm not sure it is cutting the mustard. And, you know, that is ok. It is ok because I no longer want the RSB blog even to be a "literary blog"...

When Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? landed I was pretty taken aback by the bile directed towards it by many reviewers. But I was also amazed by their ignorance of the philosophical underpinnings of Josipovici's astonishing essay. After reading countless reviews, one couldn't help but be shocked by how many reviewers simply hadn't understood what Josipovici was trying to do. Now, Josipovici wears his philosophical learning pretty lightly, so it is only right not to read his work as an academic treatise, but philosophers like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, critics like Blanchot, historians like Eamon Duffy, haunt his work. What Ever Happened to Modernism? engages with an argument that has been raging at least since Max Weber first articulated his notion of the "disenchantment of the world" and uses that as a rubric to see what is so exceptional in the work of writers as widely geographically and temporally separated as Cervantes and Beckett, Wordsworth and Borges, and works out what sensibilities they shared in the literature they produced. But the reviewers of What Ever Happened to Modernism? just didn't seem to have any idea about this.

The book's reception made me, again, realise that my own interest in literature is really what it does philosophically and is philosophically. Actually, I'm deeply uncomfortable with that phrasing – not least because I think that the thing that literature does (and is philosophically) is... literature. But the point is that that argument needs unpicking. And it needs unpicking slowly and methodically.

So all of this no more than a preamble to say that I'm currently working on a long paper, a paper that might become something more than that, that attempts at length rigorously to work through a problem that the idiot reception of Josipovici's finest work has made me want to contemplate much more fully. And some bits of that contemplation are going to end up here. Here on a blog that categorically has no interest whatsoever in the Booker furore, but as fervent an interest as ever in literature and what it means and what it is.

In the latest article here on RSB, classicist A.T. Reyes describes the background to his C.S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile:

I have no doubt that, like a sort of tutelary divinity, the spirit of Virgil was present at meetings of the Inklings literary circle in Oxford. In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered the Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture to the British Academy on the subject of Beowulf, which considered, in part, the similarities and differences between that Anglo-Saxon epic and the Aeneid. When he joined the Inklings in 1939, Charles Williams had already published a small volume re-telling the adventures of Aeneas, and in his Arthurian poems, Virgil appears as a central symbol of civilisation. But it was C.S. Lewis whose thoughts and writings were most deeply affected by Virgil's masterpiece. His correspondence and writings make clear that he had begun a translation of the Aeneid in 1933, the very year, according to the biographer Humphrey Carpenter, that the Inklings came into being. Lewis is known to have read out portions of his translation during meetings in 1943 and 1944, and in 1962, he wrote that the Aeneid was one of 10 books that had done the most to shape his "vocational attitude and philosophy of life."

Read the whole article.

Excellent news: good friend – and regular ReadySteadyBook contributor – Leora Skolkin-Smith has a new novel, Hystera, coming out with Persea Books in November:

Hystera tells the story of a young woman who finds herself involuntarily admitted to a mental hospital on New York City's Upper East Side, in the 1970s after a family tragedy. The story is layered with Lillian's own notebook characters as she invents people from the Middle Ages through the 19th century straight up to her present time, experiencing mysterious "mental conditions" that parallel her own. Lillian joins her invented cast of characters and that of the real people she meets on the ward as she journeys to health and stability. She finds herself, too, part of a continuum of rebellion and enigmas throughout history.

In October 2003, ReadySteadyBook coyly appeared on the Web, in clothes I rashly designed myself. About three years later, a new look was already desperately required, and Lee Kelleher, Kelle Link and Liza Lemsatef Cunningham helped style RSB for the noughties.

But fashion dates, and RSB's regalia has been looking rather raggedy recently. As ever, Mr Kelleher – friend, confidante, crack coder! – could be relied upon to come up with the goods, and the new look RSB – very classy and pared-back, easily navigable, and with an engine that simply purrs – is up and running because of his kindness, excellent eye and hours of hard work.

Lee, I salute and thank you. RSB-readers, I commend our new look and feel.

Huzzah!

Well, my two big novel reads this year were The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (which I wrote about here and here; Stephen Mitchelmore's review is magnificent) and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Spurious on 2666: wonderful!). Both books have been written about widely; both reminded me that more sometimes really is more; both deserve all the plaudits they've received. Neither were new in 2010: sorry 'bout that!


Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves (published by my employers, Quercus) charmed and informed; a lovely book that any bibliophile would surely fall for. Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands was the most beautiful book object I clasped all year. Milan Kundera's Encounter was an effortless, provocative delight. How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Carl Cederstrom's book of interviews with Simon Critchley, reminded me that I was not the only tinnitus-blighted Scouser to be fighting the good fight for "Continental" philosophy!


Fans of Gabriel Josipovici were blessed with three books this year: What Ever Happened to Modernism? (by a mile, my book of the year; I wrote about it here); and two fiction titles - Heart's Wings and Only Joking. I loved them each; regular readers will have already gathered that.


John Lanchester's Whoops! is matchless at explaining the immediate causes of the credit crunch and subsequent banking crises: angry and funny, and yet not that great on the deeper, embedded structural causes. For those, David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital is your best place to start, and probably your best place to start with the excellent Harvey too...


Normally, the end of year lists in the broadsheets bring to my attention a few books that I've missed, but this year nada -- so please let me know what you've loved (and loathed) in the comments box...

New on RSB, a lovely piece from Ben Granger on the no-longer-read William Hazlitt:


The tides of literary posterity crash in unpredictable ways, and the vagaries of what makes an author feted in one age, ignored in the next are often mysterious. Near namesakes Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair were considered the greatest American novelists of the early twentieth century, but are little read these days. It’s diverting to ponder which contemporary author will be read with regularity 50 years from now. I wager Irvine Welsh will last longer than Ian McEwan, spring the results of that one on me in the nursing home.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all concerns that of William Hazlitt... during the man’s lifetime everyone in literary England had a view on Hazlitt, adoration and loathing in equal measure. The name caused heartbeats to skip, whether from ardour or horror, but it certainly wasn’t ignored. So just why is the finest essayist of the early nineteenth century now so little read? (More...)

Actually, I've not gone fishin' at all, but we are freezing the data (!) here on ReadySteadyBook whilst we do a major upgrade of the site (especially in the "back end")...


On Friday, I finished working for The Book Depository after a wonderful four years with them. In July, I start a new adventure (in trade publishing with Quercus; on Twitter: @quercusbooks) which I'm very excited about. But, for once, for now, I'm going to put my feet up for a few weeks, unplug from the matrix, and read some big books...


See you back here in September.

Is Vasily Grossman beginning to achieve (in the English-speaking world) the recognition that is his due? I've never read him, so I actually don't know if he is even due said recognition (he doesn't feel like my kind of guy) but RSB interviewee Robert Chandler (Grossman's translator) reckons he is, so I should probably pull my finger out and give him a read. I should probably pull my finger out and interview Robert again too, as we last spoke about 5 years ago!


Recent sightings (and citings) of Grossman include: Vasily Grossman, Russia's greatest chronicler, awaits redemption (in the Guardian); In praise of... Vasily Grossman (Guardian CIF); Anti-Socialist Realism (TNR); Everything flows: Robert Chandler on Vasily Grossman (Vulpes Libris); and A Russian titan revealed... (BookSerf).

Along with Peter Jones, whose Learn Ancient Greek and Learn Latin courses (subsequently published in book form) enthralled many Daily & Sunday Telegraph readers some years back, and whose Ancient and Modern column continues to adorn The Spectator, Mark Walker should be declared a national treasure...

Now, Walker gives us Britannica Latina: 2000 Years of British Latin, proclaiming via the dust-jacket blurb "It is time for British Latinists who reclaim their heritage." It is, indeed, when we contemplate ignoramus philistines in departments and ministries of education who dismiss Latin and Greek as 'dead' and ancient history as 'elitist' and/or 'irrelevant'.

Barry Baldwin reviews Britannica Latina by Mark Walker here on ReadySteadyBook.

Just a wee reminder -- when it goes quiet here on ReadySteadyBook it is probably because I'm pretty slammed, but that doesn't mean there isn't much inconsequential chatter, and often some pretty interesting links, being thrown into the ether from my Twitter account...

At the launch event for Best European Fiction 2010 a few weeks ago, the Norwegian author and dramatist Jon Fosse made some wonderfully cutting and dismissive remarks about crime fiction.


Here, exclusively for ReadySteadyBook, Jon expands on his thoughts about what he calls the "pornography of death":


Literature is basically a personal, and at the same time universal, asking into the fundamentals of existence, made possible by the aesthetic possibilities of language. The more personal it gets, the more universal it becomes. When literature gets private, it looses its quality, as it does if it ends up as universal in this sense: something everyone agrees about.

Of course, one can learn about life in literature, for instance to see how life is for other persons, perhaps in another time, in another culture: in the novel everyone has the right to be understood, nowhere else. And to me dramatic literature is about getting a glimpse of the forces that somehow, in their invisible way, direct life. But more than this, literature is about learning to die, as Harold Bloom has put it.

What then about crime fiction, so highly esteemed as literature, at least here in the Scandinavian countries? Is it at all literature? No it isn’t. The aim of this literature is not to ask into the fundamentals of existence, of life, of death, it is not to try to reach the universal through the unique, it is a try to avoid such an asking, such unique universality, by stating already given answers that are not really answers, but just something one has heard before. It therefore feels as a pleasant and safe answer, and what feels pleasant and safe one could also call entertaining.

Death, perhaps literature’s basic concern, at least when doubled with what cannot exist without it, love, is in crime fiction made into a kind of puzzle which can be solved. Death is made safe by being looked at as something which might well not exist, if it wasn't for a murder, and then is reduced further by making this murder, death, into a puzzle to be solved. And which will be solved.

And when even the aesthetic ambition, this never-ending process of saying it all again, seen from a new perspective, is replaced by filling out a plot with variations, how can one possibly see crime fiction as literature? Add some political correctness to this plot, and we live in a perfectly safe and stupid world.

Literature is writing so strong that one sees life as something else after meeting it. It has to do with the uniqueness in every human being, and with this truth: the most unique is the most universal. Crime fiction is the opposite, to see life as the same all the time and feel safe in one's lie. It's pornography of death, and much less honest than the pornography which has to do with the beginning of life.

A quick ReadySteadyBook round-up...


The latest three book reviews:



The latest three articles:



Three from me on Shakespeare:


A question suggests itself -- and I'm certainly not the first to ask it: why in a book ostensibly about Karl Marx does Jacques Derrida divert himself, and us, at such considerable length, considering 'Hamlet'? If we choose not to accuse Derrida of bad faith or wilful obscurantism -- which, anyway, would only show our own bad faith, or an obscure lack of understanding concerning his project -- then we must take him absolutely at his word. We read Spectres of Marx and note that 'Hamlet' allows Derrida to think, and to think of Marx. 'Hamlet' supplies him with the metaphors that allow him to unpack Marx's own metaphors and allow us to see how these metaphors structure Marx, structure 'Hamlet' and could deconstruct (unstructure) our idea both of Marxism and the destructive reality of our capitalist present.


But is something more happening here? Should we ask: can the political only be thought about via/with fictional narrative and the metaphors it lends? Further, can we only think progressively about our collective present and other possible futures if the metaphors we use are deeply embedded in our collective life? Jacques Ranciere, in The Aesthetic Unconscious, problematises our understanding of Freud's use of the Oedipus myth. Did Freud use the Oedipus myth as a metaphor for the unconscious, or was the unconscious already shaped by Oedipus's story? Did Freud use the story or did the story use Freud? Bluntly, I don't think we can think without literature. I don't think we do think without literature. Further, I don't think we can possibly think ourselves out of our current impasse, and the impasse of our thinking, without it.


One of the very many obtuse things about David Shields' obtuse "manifesto" Reality Hunger -- an obtuse book which contains many wonderful quotes about literature and life and which could have been simply a very fine commonplace book -- is its obtuse and strident assertion that the line between the real and the fictive was in any way ever absolute and that the commingling of these two supposedly separate realms will save literature from redundancy.


Mark Fisher describes the foreclosing of (political) thought that could envision different (social) futures as Capitalist Realism. His short book is highly recommended: not least to someone like Shields who seems to think that reality is a given rather than a perpetually socially constructed fiction which we half-wittingly recreate each and every day of our lives.


If the recent banking crisis showed us anything it was that the make-believe is at the heart of what we tell ourselves is real -- and that fiction becomes fact when we have faith enough, or fear, in the (empty) lies that keep us in our places. Those who rule our world kill to maintain the presence of this absence every single day. Every day thousands starve or go cold, kids are bombarded in Iraq whilst neoliberal bloggers cheer, countless bore themselves stupid in offices -- all so that bankers in Saville Row suits are maintained and preserved, and maintain the fiction that thinking beyond a system predicated on their maintainance and preservation is an impossibility.


What is deconstruction? Or, perhaps, that better question from earlier: what was Derrida saying it was when he wrote a book about Marx that was actually much about 'Hamlet'? He was, surely, demonstrating -- more than that, he instantiated it in the very weft and warp of his argument -- that the political is structured by the fictive; is, indeed, always fictive, and needs to be read and understood like this to be undermined and disbelieved.


Things are ever not right here in the 'state of Denmark'. The palace stinks of corruption. The need for change haunts Elsinore; a ghost harrows the corridors and halls. And a spectre is haunting Europe, too: it is called fiction. It is reality's own bad faith. Pace Shields, there is no need to mash-up the fictive and the real to reinvigorate narrative, but there is certainly a need to read the real as always already fictional and thus detonate reality's murderous presumptions.

Much in the news of late (because of the publication of his new novel The Pregnant Widow), Martin Amis has regularly used the media opportunities he's been given to spout any amount of risible bunk. Here on ReadySteadyBook, Anthony Cummins takes Amis to task for his comments about J.M. Coetzee:


What’s most revealing about Prospect’s recent interview with Martin Amis isn’t his opinion of JM Coetzee – “he’s got no talent” – but the evidence he cites to support it. (It’s hardly a surprise, after all, that the cool wit of a writer whose PhD thesis looks at the manuscript revisions to Samuel Beckett’s Watt should hold no appeal for a man whose aversion to Beckett, vented after “a couple of hundred glasses of wine”, once drove Salman Rushdie to the brink of violence.) Put to one side what Amis says about the Nobel laureate being no fun, since that’s a matter of taste, and in any case isn’t exactly an original point to make about an author whose best-known book pivots on a gang rape. Of greater interest – because it suggests how blithely Amis can pass off wilful ignorance as critical rigour – is the moment where he tries to convince his interviewer, Tom Chatfield, that cliché is the enemy of literary value (more...)

To help keep things moving here on ReadySteadyBook, the matchless Mr Rowan Wilson -- a very dear friend, and already a contributor to the site and regular commenter -- will, in the future, be blogging alongside me. He'll be writing one or two pieces a week, so do please make him very welcome...

Well, ReadySteadyBook, as you'll have noticed, is slowly starting to wake from its long summer slumber. I'm now pretty settled in sunny West London -- and it has been a quite beautiful September weather-wise -- and beginning, I think, to find my feet. I trust that this means that there will be more -- and more regular -- blogging here on ReadySteadyBlog and more content in general throughout the site (with URLs and links to generally interesting stuff also flying out from Twitter). I'm attending an awful lot of launches at the moment, so you may hear about a good few of those too.


On Monday, Robin Durie reviewed Kim Stanley Robinson Galileo's Dream, pondering throughout SF's literary value on the back of Robinson's recent Booker-inspired comments. Yesterday, Pakistan-born writer, and long term contributor to RSB, Soniah Kamal took on Ali Sethi's novel of his Pakistani childhood, The Wish Maker. Later today, Barry Baldwin will review Orwell's 1984 -- is there really anything more to say about this, ahem, "enduring classic"? Barry reckons there is, and I do too after reading his excellent piece. Tomorrow, theatre-expert Natasha Tripney reviews Percival Everett's Erasure. And on Friday, my good friend Kit Maude, now resident in Argentina, makes his first intervention as my Latin American Editor. At some point, I'll also post a longish review of Coetzee's excellent new novel Summertime...


Next week, I will do a little intro to Sarah Hesketh which, I'm hoping, will make her out herself as my poetry editor (her recently published collection, Napoleon's Travelling Bookshelf (Penned in the Margins), is mighty fine and requires my review. I am on task, promise! In the meantime, nice review of Napoleon here.) Also, by that time, I'm hoping Mr Richard Seymour (yes, he of Lenin's Tomb fame) will have penned me a little something too.

This week's two highlighted RSB Books of the Week are The Philosophy of Edmund Husserl by J.N. Mohanty (Yale University Press) described in the publisher blurb as a "deeply insightful book [that] traces the development of Husserl's thought from his earliest investigations in philosophy... to his publication of Ideas in 1913" and On the Death and Life of Languages by Claude Hagege (again, Yale University Press) which "seeks to make clear the magnitude of the cultural loss represented by the crisis of language death" -- the rate of attrition comes in at the loss of 25 languages each year.

In the latest review here on ReadySteadyBook, Robin Durie reviews Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson:


I was intrigued by Kim Stanley Robinson's attack on the conservatism of the Booker prize, its tendency to favour historical fiction whilst overlooking science fiction, and his claim that science fiction at its best explores the new, for a number of reasons. First, I think the general thrust of his critique is well justified. Second, over the last 12 months I have consciously begun reading a fair bit of science fiction (a genre I had more or less ignored since my teenage years). And, third, when I read the article, I was in the midst of reading Robinson’s new novel, Galileo's Dream.

Whilst Robinson was making specific claims about the UK SF scene, the timing of his intervention nevertheless prompted the question of how his own book measures up to the criteria of his critique. The book -- which, at nearly 600 large scale pages, shares a common predicament with the tendency of both historical fiction and SF to indulge in length, often, it seems, for its own sake -- has a structure which has felt forced and not entirely successful to most reviewers. In "parallel" stories (how and why they are not parallel will prove to be significant), Robinson depicts Galileo more or less biographically, as his astronomical observations and interpretations inexorably lead him into conflict with the Catholic church; whilst, at the same time, Galileo makes a series of journeys to the moons of Jupiter, at a time some 3000 years in the future, where the descendants of humanity are about to encounter their first alien species. The threat would have been that, by this plot device, Robinson might risk undermining the scientific achievements of Galileo. Whilst for much of the book, the "parallel" stories do sit uncomfortably alongside one another, by its conclusion, Robinson's gamble reaps a very rich reward (more...)

Well, I'm back! I should have been back last week, but BT have introduced me to new levels of pain and frustration having taken over a month to sort out a broadband connection... Useless would be a kind way of putting it.


Anyway, letting the blogging begin!

The latest interview here on ReadySteadyBook is with Owen Hatherley who blogs at sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy, which focuses on aesthetic and political issues in architecture and music, and who has just written his first book -- Militant Modernism:


For myself, and numerous others who aren't part of any old boy networks, or who are neither adept at nor interested in networking and private views, [the internet] provided an outlet which simply wouldn't otherwise exist, or if so in the more retro form of the fanzine. I first started reading on the internet rather than regarding it as a kind of expensive Ceefax because of a rash of blogs around 2002 – Blissblog, New York London Paris Munich, then the less musically-focused, philosophical, political and poetic blogs like K-Punk, Infinite Thought, Heronbone, Citta Violenta, The Pillbox, Lenin's Tomb. I had wondered where the critical writing about popular culture which used to have a space in the music press and to a lesser extent the likes of The Face had disappeared to, and there it was, on the internet. It took another few years of procrastinating before I got mine together. These blogs seemed a reaction to the closing-down of discourse which occurred in the late 90s, where the music press no longer existed as an entity interested in politics and wider culture, and the internet actually created something better, something where there was more potential for response, more space, more depth, and yes, more democracy (more...)

blogRank "uses over 20 different factors to rank the blogs in any category. Some of the factors include: RSS membership, incoming links, Compete, Alexa, and Technorati ranking, and social sites popularity."


According to the blogRank ranking ReadySteadyBook is the 21st most popular literary blog out there. Indeed, RSB is the only British blog on the list, aside from the London Review of Books website which most certainly is not a blog. It's an odd list -- a book site list rather than a blog list really -- but it is interesting to be well-placed on a chart which is created via such an array of data.

The latest book review here on ReadySteadyBook is by Alexandra Masters writing about Gide's The Immoralist:


For André Gide, writing The Immoralist was a near-death experience. "I have lived it for four years and have written it to put it behind me," he wrote to a friend. "I suffer a book as one suffers an illness. I now respect only the books that all but kill their authors." Now that's dedication. If this is the case, novelists today might think twice before penning their next oeuvre, or at least take a very deep breath (more...)

The three previous book reviews around here have been: Lucy Popescu on Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction; novelist Leora Skolkin-Smith on J.M.G. Le Clézio's Wandering Star; and writer and poet Carey Harrison on Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.


Whilst I'm at it, the three previous articles on ReadySteadyBook have been: an interview with Lenin's Tomb blogger Richard Seymour; an interview with novelist Paul Griffiths; and Sophie Lewis's joint review of The Erotic Potential of My Wife and The Elegance of the Hedgehog.


And the last three long blog posts have been: me on reading poetically; me on liking whatever you like; and me on Anita Brookner.


It has been a very busy past couple of weeks up here in the windswept North, not least with me working away to bed-down and improve the content on the newly upgraded Book Depository website. And, to be honest, it's been a pretty difficult year for other more personal reasons too. Add to this the fact that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has robbed me of all the rest of any of the free time I might have had and you can see why RSB hasn't exactly been a hive of activity of late.


But, as I know happens with many bloggers, my busyness has coincided with thoughts about where I want RSB to go, what I want to do with it, what I want it to achieve and what I want to achieve with it, or via it; what I want to explore here and what I want to write about.


I'm somewhat in agreement with Andrew Seal when he wrote this below about his own blogging blues back in February:


This blog is much more like the blogs I don't much care for: wholly dependent on what I "happen upon" in my reading, whether that's what I found on the web today or what book I picked up for vague reasons or no reason. I've been struggling with how to change that, how to add to or change this blog in ways that will make it less adventitious, short of imposing a mandatory reading list on myself or ceasing to blog about anything but a narrow subject. I want to keep a little randomness: I don't object to randomness—I just don't like the self-satisfied surrender to entropy that comes with the idea that I'll blog about whatever catches my fancy.

I used to keep RSB ticking over with links to interesting literary things that I found on the web. I'll still do that from time to time, but I've found that Twitter is a better medium for me to chuck interestng URLs out into the world (anyway, if you want great links you can't beat wood s lot). What this should mean is that when I do write something here at RSB it is of more value and consequence than simply contextualising a link or two, but that requires more time and effort... and energy. And it is energy that I feel so desperately short of right now.

The latest interview here on ReadySteadyBook is with Paul Griffiths author of the OuLiPo-inspired novel let me tell you:


There was a soldier at the table. Quite still. And I could see two letters on the table, where his hand lay on them. One of them must have come from his brother, the one that had gone away some months before. All this time he had his head cast down, so I could not see his eyes. I tell you it as I remember it. Do I have to say that? I did not know him from before, this soldier at the table with his head down. I do not know where he comes from. (More...)

Now, I know I'm never going to beat Gaiman but -- come on -- I don't want to lose! Vote ReadySteadyBook!

Happy new year y'all! Finding it a wee bit difficult to readjust to, you know, working and thinking and sitting still for hours on end, so it might be a bit quiet here this week. Bear with me!


Very kindly, ReadySteadyBook has been shortlisted for the 2008 Weblog Awards in the Best Literature Blog category. How nice! You can vote for RSB -- or any of the 9 other shortlisted blogs -- via the 2008 Weblog Awards website. Thanks so much!

It is Books of the Year symposium time again! Like I do every year, I've asked a number of friends and contributors to ReadySteadyBook to tell me which books impressed and moved them most over the last twelve months, regardless of whether the books concerned were published this year or not.


The ReadySteadyBook Books of the Year 2008 symposium contributors are: Sacha Arnold, Derek Attridge, David Auerbach, Edward Champion, Richard Crary, Robin Durie, Scott Esposito, Gavin Everall, Rebecca Ford, Paul Griffiths, Sarah Hesketh, Lars Iyer, Gabriel Josipovici, Robert Kelly, Sophie Lewis, Charlotte Mandell, Tom McCarthy, China Miéville, Steve Mitchelmore, Nicholas Murray, Rodney Pybus, Lee Rourke, Anthony Rudolf, Leora Skokin-Smith, Dan Visel, Ken Worpole and also me!


Thanks so much to everyone who contributed.

Good to see that two very positive reviews of RSB-contributor Paul Griffiths' let me tell you have appeared recently:


At first sight, Paul Griffiths’s exceptional novel might be recognized as an attempt to draw the profile of the woman Shakespeare obscured, and that would not be wrong, but it is not why the book is exceptional. Ophelia has been reimagined before...yet never with such restraint, or, more precisely, constraint....[The] formal restriction still enables Ophelia to tell a story rich in detail and expression, taking us back to her happy childhood with a distant, speech-making father, to the birth of her beloved brother and to the glowing presence of a nameless maid who comes from over "the cold green mountain"; a radiance soon gone. The repetitions of words and familiar phrases powerfully evoke what remains uncertain in Ophelia’s life outside the play, what these words alone will never quite say....The effects of necessary variation and repetition kindle both the freedom of another life and the fire that burns it away.
(Stephen Mitchelmore, Times Literary Supplement, 19/26 December 2008)

Paul Griffiths's book is a more profound achievement [than Eunoia by Christian Bök]... Griffiths pulls off some fine tricks, and shows how much of [Ophelia’s] speech can be chopped up and made to sound like Beckett, or the Beatles (she quotes Love Me Do verbatim), or Oscar Wilde. There are the rhythms of recognisable nursery rhymes throughout....[T]his is a vital book, as much for musicians as for literary theorists. From Griffiths, who is perhaps best known as an invaluable guide to contemporary music, this is a composition in its own right, to listen to along with Berio’s Sinfonia with its spliced quotations from Mahler and Beckett, or John Cage’s Dadaist treatment of Finnegans Wake. For feminist critics, ironies abound: here is Ophelia’s story, at last, but with words that a man wrote for her being hacked about by another man. But then, somebody had to do it (the book does make you feel this way).
(Tom Payne, Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2008)

There is a useful round-up of some of the Best of the Year lists over on Dani Torres' A Work in Progress blog. BTW, the RSB Books of the Year symposium will land in a few weeks.

One of my Books of the Week this week is A Time to Speak Out "a collection of strong Jewish voices, drawing on an established tradition of Jewish dissidence, come together to explore some of the most challenging issues facing diaspora Jews, notably in relation to the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine."


Thanks to the good folk at Verso (thanks Rowan!) we have a PDF version of Gabriel Josipovici's contribution to A Time to Speak Out, Cousins, up on RSB for you to enjoy. Go read!

Anthony Cummins has written to me responding to the recent discusion around here on Zadie Smith. With his permission, I reproduce Anthony's email to me below:


Excuse the ramble which follows, but it's fascinating to follow the cackhanded response to Zadie Smith's superb NYRB essay via ReadySteadyBook. Via Monk's House I note: "And maybe Smith in quarreling with Netherland is quarreling in part with James Wood, from whom she has famously diverged before, and who ecstatically reviewed O'Neill in the pages of The New Yorker."

I think this is the key -- not a side issue -- in understanding what Smith's on about: "Lyrical Realism" -- an odd term she must repeat so much only because of Wood's "hysterical realism" tag; the emphasis on Flaubert, the darling of How Fiction Works; the fact that Wood effectively made the reputation of Netherland; HFW vs DFW. The NYRB already reviewed Netherland, too, when Alan Hollinghurst wrote about it the other month: how often does that happen? I reckon it's a more calculated attack on Wood and How Fiction Works than people seem to have realised.

Did you catch this interview with Robert Silvers? "'[Zadie's article is] an ambitious essay, a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind,' Silvers said. In it, she dismantles the status quo in the form of a review of two new novels - Netherland and Remainder - that she holds up as representing where the novel's been and where it's going. 'Some people will be slightly shaken,' Silvers said, with delight." Among them James Wood? It's quite curious since John Banville's moderate piece on HFW immediately precedes Smith's essay. I suspect it has something to do with heralding Smith's arrival as a Wood-status critic pre-Fail Better.

And when you've given up puzzling over that, this far more practical website will help you decide whether you should be booking that next holiday.

John Self on Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl (which was reviewed here on ReadySteadyBook a couple of years back):


Poet and translator Michael Hofmann has been cited before on this blog as a reliable source of reading - he wouldn’t waste his time, so I won’t be wasting mine - but I wondered if his judgement might be clouded when it comes to his father. Gert Hofmann has had his final three novels translated by his son: this, published in 1994 following Hofmann’s early death at the age of 62, was the last. Until now we’ve had to rely on an (admittedly handsome) US edition from New Directions. This month, the book is finally published in the UK by CB Editions.

We had a bit of a ding-dong here on ReadySteadyBook, back at the end of last month, about James Hawes' thesis of the Kafka myth. Knowing my scepticism, James has been good enough to flesh out his thoughts here on RSB:


So why has the vast academic Kafka-industry failed to undercut this myth? Kafka’s business memoranda get their own Critical Edition, entire exhibitions are mounted about the factories he inspected, whole books published about the cafés he sat in or the distant relatives he occasionally met. Yet the standard German reference guide, the Kafka Chronik (1999) used by every scholar, still maintains on its back cover the hoary myth that Kafka was “almost unknown in his lifetime”, and in 2004 the UK’s top Kafka-scholar (Oxford Chair of German Ritchie Robertson) felt moved to praise Germany’s top Kafka-scholar (Berlin Chair of German Peter-André Alt) for countering “the notion, still widespread today, that Kafka was hardly noticed by fellow-authors and reviewers in his lifetime” (more...)

Yesterday, Mark Wood's incomparable wood s lot announced that it is eight years old. Congratulations Mark!


I have my own little announcement too: the first incarnation of ReadySteadyBook went live in October 2003. We are five!

The latest article here on ReadySteadyBook is Barry Baldwin's controversial attack on Ismail Kadare's claims of dissident status -- Call me Ismail: Kadare's Capers:


The 2005 award of the first Man Booker International Prize to Ismail Kadare re-inflated the bubble of his self-perpetuated myth as persecuted dissident under the reign of Enver Hoxha. It immediately prompted a panegyric in the Times Literary Supplement (June 24, 2005) from Robert Elsie, the West's leading Albanologist. Concentrating on Kadare's literary oeuvre, prose and poetry, it largely fought shy of the dissident issue, combining an opening routine compliment ("His courage in attacking literary mediocrity within the Communist system brought a breath of fresh air to Albanian culture in the sombre years of imposed conformity") with the admission, "He was privileged by the authorities. Indeed, he was able to pursue literary and personal objectives for which other writers would certainly have been sent into internal exile or to prison." (More...)

The latest article here on ReadySteadyBook is novelist Alistair McCartney's essay On the Subject of Literary Suicides in General and David Foster Wallace’s Suicide in Particular. The essay is actually an excerpt from a novel in progress, The Death Book: A Comedy:


...between the 18th and 20th centuries, the suicide of a writer was a significant and meaningful gesture. This notion was heralded in by the era of romanticism, specifically the suicide of the 17-year old poet Thomas Chatterton in 1770, to be later immortalized in a painting by Henry Wallis, which depicts the pale redheaded poet lying prostrate after imbibing some arsenic.

Like a signature and wax seal on a document issued by a notary, suicide legitimized the writer, gave him posthumous authority. Suicide carved out a territory or space for the writer’s name and the writer’s memory, launching him into immortality. And as we see in the painting of Chatterton, lying there on the bed in his garret in his blue knickerbockers and his white blouse, taking one’s own life was a profoundly aesthetic gesture; it made one beautiful (more...)

Just to say, huge, huge thanks to Rowan Wilson for holding the fort on the blogging front (and to Lee for helping him) whilst I've been away on my holidays (sunning myself in very sunny Greece).


Hopefully, if I ask him nicely, Rowan will continue to blog here even now that I'm back.

Just a quick note to say y'all should expect a quiet (although not completely silent) August here on ReadySteadyBook. I need a holiday and RSB needs a bit of techie-love too. So, there won't be too much posting going on for the next few weeks...

Thanks to our tech-guru Lee, ReadySteadyBook now has a "Latest Comments" feature/block on the homepage (below the Poem of the Week), on the blog (below Books of the Week) and on each of our contributor pages. The "Latest Comments" are also available as a RSS feed:

http://www.readysteadybook.com/Feed.aspx?comments

The latest book review, here on ReadySteadyBook, is Sophie's review of Madman Bovary by Christophe Claro (congratulations, too, to Ms Lewis, for the recent publication of her translation of Marcel Aymé's Beautiful Image, which we'll have more to say about soon):


In this literary hijack, Claro infiltrates a classic text and takes the controls. Or does the novel submit willingly?

Our narrator, unnamed until he adopts this twisted title, is reeling from his lover Estée’s departure. He retreats to bed, where for solace he reaches for the nearest novel: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. He will cure himself of his hopeless attachment by a non-stop re-reading, ‘like a derailed train’. A few pages into Madman Bovary’s journey, ‘derailed’ looks like a serious understatement (more...)

I should've mentioned last week (especially for those who read the site via RSS) that I recently posted Leora Skolkin-Smith's wonderful review of Passages by Ann Quin on the site:


As one reads Ann Quin's Passages a kind of language serum is injected into the system is a potent as any intoxicant. The end result is akin to an experience of literary drunkenness. I simply stopped caring that I didn't know who Quin meant when she wrote “I” ,“She” or “He”. And, although I was perpetually confused as to what the emotional storms her narrators were experiencing were all about, I was immersed and too “drunk” on her language to care. The concrete, literal reference points stopped having meaning. I was content to simply luxuriate in Quin's emotional pool of words and allusions, of poetry (more...)

The University of Warwick has launched a £50,000 writing prize, but the best part is that our good friend Stephen Mitchelmore, ReadySteadyBook-contributor, blogger at the peerless This Space, has been asked to be one of the judges:


How does writing evolve? Where is its moving edge? Is all writing at its very best a type of creative writing? To explore these questions and to identify excellence and innovation in new writing The University of Warwick is today launching the £50,000 Warwick Prize for Writing.

This substantial prize stands out as an international and cross-disciplinary award. It will be given biennially for an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form. The theme will change with every prize: the 2009 theme is Complexity.

China Miéville, award-winning writer of what he describes as weird fiction, will chair the panel of five judges. Other judges include mathematician Professor Ian Stewart and literary blogger Stephen Mitchelmore. A longlist of 15 to 20 titles will be announced in October 2008 followed by a shortlist of six titles in January 2009. The winner will be announced in February 2009 in Warwick.

The latest book review, here on ReadySteadyBook, is Dai Vaughan's wonderful essay on Anna Kavan's Guilty:


Rhys Davies, one of Anna Kavan’s few close friends, wrote an introduction for Julia and the Bazooka (1970), a posthumous collection of her stories linked by their common allusion to her heroin habit. In it he describes a meal taken with her at the Café Royal during which she developed an inexplicable revulsion for one of the waiters, and his surprise when later he found this episode recounted in a story (The Summons in Asylum Piece [1940]) in that manner full of foreboding which, for want of a better word, people are inclined to call Kafkaesque. Having myself already come across that story, I experienced the converse of Davies’s reaction: surprise that such a sinister incident could have been experienced, by someone else, as so everyday, so innocuous (more...)

The latest interview here on ReadySteadyBook is with one of the finest writers we have on the world of contemporary music. I offer you ... Mr. Simon Reynolds.

The latest book review here on ReadySteadyBook is from the pen of novelist David Mitchell (Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten) who takes a look at Toby Litt's I Play The Drums in a Band Called okay:


This mordant, ticklish and addictive novel tracks, over twenty-six stories, the Canadian rock phenomenon okay (italics, lower-case) from its garage-band beginnings to global stadium-filling behemoth. The adventures of Crab the drummer (and articulate narrator), Syph the singer, Mono the bassist and Clap the guitarist take in both mainstream and indie chapters in the life-cycle of many a U2-sized band – the deranged groupie, the loneliness of the long-distance tour, the Spinal Tap follies – but this is a sober spoof, truer than most samples of the bespoofed (more...)

The latest book review here on ReadySteadyBook, by RSB debutante Sarah Hesketh (welcome Sarah!), is of The Blue Fox by Sjón:


Rarely does an author come loaded with such impressive indie and establishment credentials. As Björk’s long time collaborator, Sjón was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the film Dancer in the Dark. Renowned throughout Iceland for his numerous plays and poetry collections (the first of which was published when he was just sixteen) in 2005, Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox) was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize – the Nordic equivalent of the Booker. Bile might start to rise in certain quarters at the thought of musical hipsters who think they can pull off a novel. But in this beautiful, tiny book, Sjón has produced the literary equivalent of a snowflake, a hundred page riff on the literature, landscape and history of Iceland which reads more like an epic poem, albeit with one striking piece of modernity thrown in more...

How do you read ReadySteadyBook's blog? Via RSS?


RSB has a number of different feeds. Personally, I read blogs via Bloglines and find that much the easiest way to cope with the flood of blog information out there. You can subscribe to RSB's feed at Bloglines directly or you can add either the blog feed, the content feed, or the combined blog and content newsfeed via clicking on the appropriate links.


You can also follow ReadySteadyBook on Twitter.


Editor's Corner is my blog on The Book Depository website. And, of course, that has a feed too!

The latest book review here on ReadySteadyBook comes from the pen of the excellent Dai Vaughan reviewing Don Delillo's Falling Man:


[P]ervasively in this book, commas are used not primarily to subdivide clauses in the interests of clarity but to put a brake upon the thought, to stall it, so that the sentences move forward in lurches like a car in the hands of a novice driver. We are trapped in Alzheimer’s territory. And it is frightening (more ...)

Earlier, I mentioned my Editor's Corner Tuesday Top Ten feature (today featuring Two Ravens Press publisher Sharon Blackie). Well, I'm going to go ahead and steal my own idea (hardly original, for sure) and have a Tuesday Top Ten here on ReadySteadyBook ...


Below is a list -- how exciting is this! -- of Gabriel Josipovici's "top ten novellas – or short novels, or long short stories – books of about 100 pages that ask to be read in one go. I give the English title of standard translations for all except the Perec, which, so far as I know, has not been translated:"



Anyone have a copy of Adalbert Stifter's Ice Mountain they want to swap for ... a pile of new books? I can't find a copy anywhere! Actually, I do have a copy (of the Pushkin Press version): I best read it!

Our latest book review, from Sophie Lewis, is of Lars Saabye Christensen's The Model:


The snow never melts in this novel. There’s no reason that it should, as its protagonists – painter Peter Wihl, his family and his gallerist Ben – never leave wintry Norway, except when Peter makes a clandestine journey to Estonia, which he finds scarcely any warmer or more welcoming. Yet, I had to decide either that Christensen’s fictional world is a kingdom where pathetic fallacy reigns supreme – or it really is true that ice and darkness are pernicious and one day will enter the soul (more ...)

My recent post asking why fiction is (in response to James Wood's book How Fiction Works) prompted some interesting comments here on RSB and a very good discussion over on This Space, where I've attempted to elucidate my original post by writing, "the 'ontological status', then, of fiction is what I'm thinking about here. Blanchot and Heidegger guide the thinking. For sure, my question touches on the personal reasons as to why a writer might choose fiction to express themselves, but I wanted to draw attention to fiction's own being, to its own ground, to our assumptions about it before we approach or write or read it. These assumptions are rarely aired, but a strain of writing from Sterne through to Robbe-Grillet has attempted to grapple with them in their own fiction."


And now this excellent post from the No Answers blog:


... fiction itself is very much about its own response to this argument. More than representation, more than beauty, perceived or otherwise, more than didactic elucidation, it remains the very thing that rebuffs such questions, and it is within such a general rebuttal that it defines itself. Note that I don't mean by this that fiction is somehow inherently ambiguous, or contradictory, or disingenuous: fiction is simply this -- that which continues to escape.

I mentioned the other week my disappointment about James Wood's How Fiction Works. One of the first rules of book reviewing, surely, is that you review the book at hand on its own terms? No point complaining that a book called, say, The History of Rugby has nothing in its pages about football. A fair review of How Fiction Works, then, would critique and/or praise its terminology, its history, its readings and its style. It would judge what it was setting out to teach and see if it achieved its own goals. Wood sticks close to the commonly used critical lexicon (and is very good at explaining free indirect style which has, effectively, become his phrase), contextualises the books he reads, is a conscientious and voracious reader, and whilst he exclaims a little too often and sometimes confuses approbation with attentiveness, is a fairly decent writer in his own right too. What How Fiction Works sets out to do it does well enough. I wish it had been a more ambitious book and I wish Wood's oft-remarked intelligence was more clearly on show (his book is a good crib, no more); but it does what it does very well.


My problem with How Fiction Works then is, to some extent, rather beside the point. Articulating my problem with it contravenes that first rule of book reviewing that I mentioned above, but a footnote to the rule is that it is surely right to point out, regardless of its local felicities, whether a book is wrong-headed. My problem with How Fiction Works is that how fiction works is not a very interesting question (hence Wood's perfectly adequate answer becomes a not particularly interesting book).


When faced with a novel, I'm not reading as a practitioner or would-be practitioner. Close reading, for me, isn't an attempt to unlock a code, it isn't about seeing how it has all been done, so I can then go away, tooled-up, and create a version of it myself.


I'm not interested in such unpicking, but not because I don't want to "ruin the magic" or some such: I'm not interested because I think far more interesting questions about the novel need to be asked. It seems to me that asking how fiction works is a very dull question indeed next to the existential one that really matters: why fiction is.

Via Anecdotal Evidence: Robert Alter and Marilynne Robinson discussing and reading from Alter's recent translation of Psalms.

Well, the blogging will begin again in earnest on Wednesday. Probably. Depends on how drunk I get tonight. Sadly, Mrs Book is rather unwell, so I doubt I'll be getting too damaged! 


In the meantime, I have just posted my interview with Lee Rourke (RSB contributor, of course, and author of Everyday) up on The Book Depository.

My favourite novel this year was Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt. It has a unique voice; Belben is a strikingly original writer. As soon I began reading I thought, "this is the real thing." And, with regard to modern novels, the "real thing" seems very thin on the ground these days.


The only other fiction I really rated (Vila-Matas, such a favourite with contributors to the Books of the Year symposium, has yet to be read!) was Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Declares and Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero also deserves mention: with a singular style, which admittedly sometimes masks a lack of substance, he tells a haunting story of a policeman investigating some dreadful murders in post-war Japan. Or perhaps we are simply hearing the ravings of a mad man?


Charlotte Mandell's translation of A Voice From Elsewhere was a treat. We'd seen some of these essays before but a second translation as limpid as these was certainly to be welcomed.


The thesis of Peter Brooks' Henry James Goes To Paris was countered by some critics, but I was convinced. James went to Paris in the mid-1870s, moved amongst the Modernists but didn't, at the time, quite understand just exactly what it was that they were trying to do. Nonetheless he knew what he had seen and read and heard was vitally important. Slowly, it -- early Modernism and its new techniques, its new ways of looking at the world -- worked its way into his writing and the novel would never be quite the same again.


The Emergence of Memory edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz brought together some thoughful essays on Sebald and some illuminating interviews with the man. I consumed it in one or two sittings reminded again of what a loss to literature his untimely death was.


Ironically, my fear for How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is that people won't actually read the damn thing! They'll assume from the title that this is a bluffer's guide to getting away with it at dinner parties. But Pierre Bayard's psychoanalytically-inspired book is both funny and very insightful. The author does two things: he subverts the supposed presence of reading by reminding us how much we forget and misremember; and he reminds us that the small island of books we have read will always be surrounded by a great wide ocean of unread titles. This non-reading, this absence, structures our reading and needs our awareness and investigation. His tongue is often in his cheek, but don't let his comedy blind you to what an important and useful essay this is.


Currently, I'm reading Tim Parks' The Fighter. When you read Josipovici's literary essays you learn how to think differently, how to read differently, as you walk with him through the texts he is discusssing. Not so with Parks: his insights are more mundane, his synopses over long, his range narrower, but he is a passionate and clever critic nonetheless and I'm thoroughly enjoying what he has to say about Beckett, Bernhard, Cioran and Dostoyevesky et al.

It's Books of the Year time again! I've asked a number of friends and contributors to ReadySteadyBook to tell me which books impressed and moved them most this year, regardless of whether the books concerned were published this year or not.


The RSB Books of the Year 2007 symposium contributors are: Derek Attridge, Edward Champion, Richard Crary, Jonathan Derbyshire, Max Dunbar, Scott Esposito, Gavin Everall, Rebecca Ford, Lars Iyer, Gabriel Josipovici, Robert Kelly, William Large, Charlotte Mandell, Stephen Mitchelmore, Nicholas Murray, Scott Pack, Rodney Pybus, Lee Rourke, Anthony Rudolf, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Dan Visel, Eliot Weinberger and Ken Worpole. Thanks to everyone who contributed.


For now, I've held my silence. I'll add my two-penneth over the weekend. So: go read!

The ReadySteadyBook Books of the Year 2007 Symposium will, all being well, be up on the site tomorrow. Yay!


In the meantime, here is the Chandrahas Choudhury's selection of best reads of the year from the always excellent The Middle Stage blog.

RSB contributor Paul Griffiths "is one of the University of Rochester Press' favourite authors. His biography of Jean Barraqué, The Sea on Fire, is a scholarly and imaginative triumph, while his collection of occasional pieces and reviews, The Substance of Things Heard, was described as "illuminating, translucent, sagacious" by the TLS. Griffiths is also an accomplished librettist..." and today he writes about recent performances of his collaboration with one of modern music's greatest composers over at the From Beyond the Stave blog.

Jonathan Derbyshire chaired a talk at the RSA by Dan Hind a couple of weeks back. Jonathan, normally a pretty solid reviewer, penned an incomprehensibly bad notice of Dan's book a few months back for the New Humanist magazine. Anyway, forget that, and go and listen to Dan's talk over on the RSA website.

It has been pretty quiet around here recently, I know. Sorry about that. I'm very busy over at The Book Depository gearing up both for Christmas and for some exciting new projects in the New Year.


Nonetheless, even if it goes unreported, the reading continues. The reading is endless: long live the reading!


One recent highlight has been Janet Malcolm's essay Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice which was splendid. The book:


... makes for a wonderfully fluent introduction to the Modernist writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and her life partner Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967). As ever with Janet Malcolm's work – The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Journalist and the Murderer – her book is also an investigation into itself. Whilst this is a (brief) biography of Stein, it is also a (brief) meditation on the art – the duplicities, the impossibilities – of writing biography itself.

Malcolm is an incisive journalist and her book reads like a long New Yorker piece, a magazine for which she is a celebrated staffer. It makes the notoriously difficult Stein (whose books include The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas, Three Lives and The Making of Americans) seem almost worth the effort of reading, whilst at the same time making it clear that Stein's often silly ramblings won't be to everyone's taste. As they say the best literary journalism should do, this leads one back to the work under discussion newly invigorated for the difficult task ahead of reading such a singular (and singularly odd) writer as Gertrude Stein.

One thing I should get back into the habit of doing, is bringing your attention to those books I've chosen as Books of the Week and Books of the Month. These, as I've said before, are the books that have landed here at RSB HQ (last week, last month) that have most caught my eye.


This week, you may have noted, my two books of the week are The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl (Shakespeare, I'll admit, is an author I'm always happier to read about than actually read; any book that whisks me back to an atmospheric sixteenth and seventeenth century I'll cheerfully to submit to) and Administration of Torture by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh.

Computer problems meant that my five-part interview with Tom McCarthy didn't go up as smoothly as possible last week -- sorry about that. But all five parts are now online -- part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5. To make things easier, I'll collate all the parts of Tom's interview later this week.


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Below is the fifth and final part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Are you dismayed by the current state of the world!?


Tom McCarthy: How could I not be? Beckett’s answer to this question was ‘Let it burn!’ – but then he has Vladimir in Waiting for Godot say ‘Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?’, which I think is the single best and most moving line ever written by any writer, ever. Everything’s political, ultimately – but I think good writing disengages from politics at a superficial level in order to experience it more profoundly.


MT: What are you writing now?


TM: Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon.


MT: Anything else you would like to say?


TM: Keep on keeping up the good work. RSB’s become a staple of my daily meander through cyberspace: the criticism, the links, it’s all good – apart from the announcements of various great writers’ and critics’ deaths, which I always read first on your site. Stop killing off our heroes!

Below is the fourth part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Who should we be reading from way back when and who should we be reading who is writing now? Why!?


Tom McCarthy: You gotta read the Greeks if you want to understand how the whole symbolic order fits together; it’s like the main-frame from which all subsequent literature springs. Read the Oresteia, Oedipus, Antigone. Then the Renaissance writers, obviously. And the big modernists. Not reading Joyce if you want to be a serious writer would be kind of like not looking at Picasso if you want to paint. In terms of now, I think some of the most interesting literary figures (as I suggested earlier) aren’t necessarily writers. The films of David Lynch, for example, have an extremely literary logic; his latest, Inland Empire, is structured like Finnegans Wake or the novels of Robbe-Grillet, with a set of repetitions regressing inwards, modulating as they repeat. He’s grappling with questions of narrative and representation and identity in a way that mainstream novelists simply aren’t, and is therefore much more interesting as a ‘writer’, even if he isn’t strictly speaking one.


MT: You've established yourself as a writer, but you still see yourself as an artist -- what non-writing work are you involved in at the moment?


TM: I’m heading off to New York this week to present the International Necronautical Society’s (INS) Declaration on Inauthenticity, a joint statement with INS Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley, who I see you’ve interviewed on these pages in the past. It’ll be delivered in the form of a White House-style press conference, at the Drawing Centre on the 25th Sept. There are also INS projects coming up at the Museet Moderna Kunst in Stockholm, where we’re going to install an audio ‘crypt’ in the gallery, at Tate Britain here in London and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. I’m also working with the artist Johan Grimonprez, who made this brilliant film called Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, all about airline hijacks, which won the Documenta prize a few years ago. He’s working on a new film about Hitchcock and the double, a theme obviously very close to my heart, and I’m writing a kind of voiceover-narrative for it.


MT: Are you dismayed by the current state of writing/publishing?


TM: Nes and yo. I think it’s a great time to be a writer; it’s just an awful time to publish. But, as I suggested earlier, a result of the closing out of literature by corporate publishing here in the UK has been that literature runs underground and bubbles up elsewhere: art, film, philosophy and so on. The borders between these disciplines get blurred, there’s hybridization, new forms emerging. That’s a good thing.


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Below is the third part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your novels? Have you learned anything from them?


Tom McCarthy: I’m interested in people’s readings of the books. A novel doesn’t end when it’s written; in a way, that’s just the beginning: the ‘meaning’ isn’t enclosed within it but emerges from its meeting with other texts, other moments – all textbook deconstruction stuff, I know, but no less true for that. Having said that, some readings are much more productive than others. Ones that interpret Remainder, for example, as a straight allegory or ‘solve’ it by suggesting that the hero’s dead but doesn’t know it yet are interesting but limited. The critic Andrew Gibson, who’s just put out a book on Beckett and Badiou, told me that my work is about ‘the radical death of the world,’ adding that this is the theme of twenty-first century philosophy. I’m not sure I understand what he means but it sounds really good.


MT: Remainder is a very philosophical novel. What first drew you to Continental Philosophy, to Blanchot et al?


TM: It’s such great stuff. The English empirical tradition is just bean-counting; it’s got nothing to do with proper thought. Real philosophy throws us radically and dynamically into the world, into language and experience, through desire towards death and so on. That’s why Heidegger, Levinas, Blanchot, Derrida – and Badiou too – are real philosophers. What draws me also is the centrality of literature to this tradition. Heidegger develops half his ideas from the poetry of Hölderlin or Gottfried Benn, Derrida from exquisitely close and creative readings of Genet, Ponge and Baudelaire. Where does the ‘philosophy’ end and ‘literature’ begin? The Post Card is a love-poem to rival anything by John Donne – only it’s not a poem; so what is it? And how do we categorise Edmond Jabès’s work? Criticism? Prose-poetry? ‘Meta-writing’? In good philosophy, the question of literature is always ‘live’, and ditto the other way round.


MT: You've said that you think the novel is safer in the hands of artists than with writers -- what did you mean by that?


TM: I don’t think that’s always the case; it’s all contingent. But with mainstream UK publishing becoming just the middle-brow branch of the corporate entertainment industry, the writers promoted by the big houses tend to be ones who are using the format of the novel to serve up nicely-packaged but quite unambiguous ‘thoughts’, or pat liberal ‘questions’ that bring their own answers with them – in other words, purging literature of the slipperiness, recalcitrance, abjection and a million other things that make it literary. Conversely, art’s become an arena where these very things are valued, and artists (as I think I said in our last conversation) are becoming more and more literate – and even using text and narrative in their work. Things move in cycles; maybe in fifty years time art will be all dumb and corporate and publishing dynamic and subversive, who knows? But at the moment, yes, it’s art and its networks that are curating literature – ‘curating’ in the classical sense of keeping it safe, letting it develop.

Yesterday, I posted the first part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy. Today, Tom lists his Top Ten Novels over on The Book Depository ... and I give you the second part of my interview with Mr McCarthy below:


Mark Thwaite: What do you see as the main fundamental differences between Men in Space and Remainder Tom?


Tom McCarthy: Superficially, they’re very different novels: dispersed third-person versus monomaniacal first, eclectic overabundance versus pared-down minimalism and so on. But ultimately they’re concerned with the same things. Repetition, for example, and the idea of inauthenticity. Also, as I hinted earlier, they’re both about failed transcendence. In both novels, there are two directions, two pulls: up, and down. Things get sent up towards the sky, the heavens; they come crashing down again. In Men in Space these things are people, eras, whole societies; in Remainder it’s blue goop from a windscreen-wiper reservoir – and also, of course, an aeroplane and whatever piece of hardware fell on the hero in the first place. In both novels, there’s a battle between an abstracting, idealist tendency and a material one that leads to clutter and detritus – and in both the latter wins hands down (go and look at Yeats’s The Circus Animals’ Desertion and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about). And both end in a kind of suspension: the hero of Remainder doing aerial figure-of-eights, or Nick stuck on the roof holding the rope while history’s wheel loops round and round...


MT: What were the biggest challenges of writing MiS? How did you overcome them?


TM: How do you write a novel about disintegration that’s not disintegrated, that’s coherent? And how do you write about things you’ve experienced while simultaneously configuring it all from a novelistic point of view? In the first draft, there were episodes in there simply because they’d happened to me and seemed important at the time; then you realize that that doesn’t matter: everything has to play a role within the novel’s architecture, its staging posts, relays and correspondences. Also, more prosaically (and it is prose we’re talking about, after all), how do you get a character into and out of a room? I find that hard enough.


MT: I understand the film rights for Remainder have been sold? What does this actually mean!? When might we see a film?


TM: A partnership of FilmFour and Cowboy Films have bought the rights and are producing the movie. They’re the partnership behind the recent adaptation of The Last King of Scotland, which was a huge success and won an oscar for Forrest Whittaker. The first draft of the script has been written, by John Hodge, who wrote the script for Trainspotting. I’m not technically involved, but the producer gave me a peek and it looked really good. Next they decide who the director will be. So maybe 2008/9 for the release date. It always takes longer and costs more than you think, apparently...


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Back in July, I did a five-part interview with Dan Hind (collected here). Doing the interview over the course of a week seemed to be very well received, so now it is time to do it again, this time with our pal the author Tom McCarthy (who I've interviewed before, of course).


Tom's novel Remainder has become hugely successful. His lastest novel is Men in Space.


Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Men in Space, Tom?


Tom McCarthy: I lived in Prague in the early nineties, just after the Velvet Revolution. As though half-realising Plato’s vision of a philosopher-led state, this absurdist playwright, Havel, had come to power and filled parliament with his friends. The city was also a magnet for young would-be Bohemians from all over the world, and there were parties that went on for days, spilling from club to loft to opening to club again. Beyond the drunkenness, there was a real excitement, a sense that something new, a new Europe or new type of Europe, was emerging from the ruins of the Easter Bloc. A few years later, back in London, I wanted to write about it – or at least use it as the setting to write about something more entrenched. The image of the floating saint in the stolen icon painting that serves as the book’s ‘MacGuffin’ helped solidify some of the themes of regeneration and transcendence – or its failure – I was trying to get at; and of course the abandoned cosmonaut who doubles him in ‘contemporary’ (rather than ‘archaic’) time, orbiting above the stratosphere while the ex-Soviet states argue who should bring him down, did the same. These things came together slowly, though. There was no single Eureka-moment, like there was with Remainder when I got struck by deja-vu while looking at a crack and the whole novel was there in half an hour.


MT: How long did it take you to write it?


TM: I finished a version of it before writing Remainder, a really long time ago. Fourth Estate were going to publish that version, but the editor got blocked from above, and then the same thing happened at a couple more big publishers; so I put it aside and wrote Remainder. After that book took off I looked at the manuscript with Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books here and Marty Asher of Vintage in New York and we decided we’d do it. But by this time it was pretty old, and I wanted to rework it thoroughly before putting it out; so I spent the first three months of this year heavily rewriting, cutting loads and adding new stuff. So, to answer your question, it was written over two and a half years seven years ago and three months seven months ago. Got that?


MT: What is it about Central Europe at the moment just after the Soviet Union collapsed that you find so fascinating?


TM: An order of things disintegrating, all the old parameters being stripped away, or, to put it in drier philosophical terms, a grand narrative being fragmented (which, for the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, is the defining feature of the ‘postmodern’). It’s the vertigo, the exhilaration, the terror and the expectation – not to mention the eventual disappointment: they wanted The Republic and got Starbucks.

I mentioned on Monday that, on Tuesday, I was going to "post an article (by my pal Sophie from the Dalkey Archive Press) about the intriguing Stefan Themerson."


Well, it's been that kind of week, so I've only just posted Sophie's great article, Just Two Doorways to a Hall of many Doors. Sorry it took so long, Sophie. Everyone else: go read!


Also, sometime this afternoon I believe, there should be an article by yours truly up on the Bookseller blog about the new look and feel over at The Book Depository.

I'm not really that excited by the Booker longlist -- I never am, really -- although it is good to see two small publishers getting a look in, with Tindal Street's What Was Lost (written by Book Depository interviewee Catherine O'Flynn) and Myrmidon's The Gift Of Rain (by Tan Twan Eng) both on the longlist.


BritLitBlogger Dovegreyreader is reading them all: what prodigious energy! Remember, though, we do have a great review here on RSB, written by Soniah Kamal, of Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl.

Please take the time to read -- and comment on -- Alan Wall's provocative essay A Defence of the Book here on RSB.

Last Wednesday, over on my Book Depository blog Editor's Corner, I posted an article about The Death of Publishers, referring to the excellent ongoing discussion over on Mssv about this very topic. I’ve now extended my argument a little over on The Bookseller blog. Go read!

Way back in November 2005, Lee Rourke reviewed Noah Cicero's The Human War for me here on RSB.


Now, Snowbooks have reissued Cicero's novella and I have reviewed it over at The Book Depository:


Reading Noah Cicero's angry yet affecting and unsettling novella The Human War, it is difficult to know whether his artless prose is part of the effect or what, finally, limits his book's effectiveness. Cicero has been compared to Bukowski, but a better comparison might be to the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine or rather to Celine's misanthropy. The two writers, however, are in vastly different leagues; where Celine investigates, Cicero merely rants, often quite clumsily. Cicero is far, far from being accomplished and this is a raw, untidy book where, through lack of attention to detail and to the nuances of tone, earnestness slides unwittingly into farce and back again to trite teen angst; darkly absurd one moment, laughable the next.

However, the monotonous rhythm has an unarguable drive, and the gap between hope and the empty lives Cicero's characters lead, intelligence and their scope for action, is clinically -- if sometimes rather boorishly -- attended to. There is something profoundly moving about the frustratedly articulate main character and his trailer trash girlfriend. Mark, furious and confused about the war in Iraq which is just about to start, has sex with Kendra, drinks coffee with his friend Jimmy and then goes to strip club and gets very, very drunk. All the time venting about the emptiness of his benighted existence. Whilst one shrinks from Cicero's bitter and destructive ennui, one recognises its truth and its humanity. Cicero's rage doesn't make for a polished work, but it does make for an enthralling if very uneven read.

You've long be able to leave comments on the RSB blog but now, thanks to the genius that is Lee, you can now leave comments on all our articles and interviews as well. Yay! Web 2.0 or what!!

Dan Hind, who I recently interviewed here on the blog over five days (first part, second part, third part, fourth part, fifth part), is on Start the Week this morning.


Update: To make this a lot easier for y'all my interview with Dan Hind is now all together in one place. Tidy!

Kafka biographer, and RSB interviewee, Nicholas Murray now has a blog. Visit him at The Bibliophilic Blogger.


Nicholas -- welcome to the 'sphere!

The latest article here on RSB is by the excellent Kit Maude and is about Scottish/Swiss born -- then naturalised French -- writer Blaise Cendrars (pseudonym of Frédéric-Louis Sauser; 1887-1961).

Look you here: The Official ReadySteadyBook.com Fanclub now exists on crazy ol' Facebook. I'm not quite sure why, but I was swayed by historical forces beyond my control. Go join!


Busy here! And only just recovering from my recent ridiculous tumble down our stairs. Reading-wise, by the way, I'm very much enjoying Linda Nochlin's new book on Courbet and Julia Smith's Europe After Rome.

Alan Wall has written a superb review for me of John Berger's latest book Hold Everything Dear: Despatches on Survival and Resistance:


Berger’s contempt verges on incredulity, and it’s hard not to sympathise. We live in a world dominated by late capitalism in its corporate finance stage. The rich get richer, and they have no shame whatsoever about it: they believe themselves to be the chosen of the earth. What is so astonishing is that they believe themselves to be the chosen of the heavens too. The most witless and bellicose American President in living memory, a child of wealth, corruption and privilege, tops it all off with a garnish of piety. Even the Almighty would surely have preferred the fornications of JFK to the posturings of this born-again bombing instructor. He arrived on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and declared that the war in Iraq was now a ‘Mission Accomplished’. That was some years back. Nobody knows how many deaths ago, because no one bothered counting.

Daniel Green, of The Reading Experience, reckons that Tom McCarthy's Remainder is "not only the most impressive debut novel I've read in a very long time. It's one of the best novels I've read recently, period."

Last week, I dedicated much of the blog to a five-part (first part, second part, third part, fourth part and fifth part) interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso). I devoted so much space to this feature because I think Dan's book, though flawed, is a very important response to much of the nonsence currently being poured forth in the name of so-called reason. Also, I really liked the format! So, a question to you guys: did you like the format too? Is this something I should do again with other authors? Do, please, let me know.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Below is the fifth and final part (first part, second part, third part, fourth part) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso). Threat was very favourably mentioned in of the book in the Spectator yesterday; good to see.


Very many thanks to Dan for taking the time out of such a busy schedule to answer my questions:


Mark Thwaite: You end The Threat to Reason with a call for a re-energisation of the public sphere. Isn't this a kind of naive amalgam of Habermas and Internet optimism?


Dan Hind: Well I am not that naive about the emancipatory potential of new technology. The internet has great potential as a way to widen participation in research and debate; that is, I think, already being demonstrated and we are only at the start of that process. But it is also a great venue for peddling misinformation, violent pornography, and corporate advertising.


Habermas and I mean different things when we talk about the public sphere. Habermas is describing a history of modern society, which he traces back to eighteenth century England. He is talking about how individuals and institutions create a space for discussions about the 'public interest'. I follow Kant in seeing the public sphere as a realm where individuals and groups abstract themselves from their institutional roles and try to achieve a state of total autonomy. Collaboration, of course, but an acute sensitivity towards, and suspicion about, the distorting effect of institutional power on the free exercise of the intellect. This runs against the idea that one can be entirely free to inquiry in the context of one's institutional life (a claim that academics and journalists sometimes make). Kant's conception of the public/private divide is a good deal more exotic, and more radical, than we usually recognise. He is very far from Habermas in this regard.


MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?


From the Enlightenment, Hume is an extraordinary figure and in many ways a sympathetic one. I'd like to read more Diderot and more Madison over the summer, too, now I think about it, but I wouldn't call them favourites. It won't come as a great surprise that I admire Noam Chomsky a great deal. His book with Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent, is still news. Joel Bakan's The Corporation is a model of how to deliver an unanswerable polemic. It is calm, concise, devastating, and it achieves precisely what the author intended. As far as reading for pleasure I have recently been introduced to graphic novels. Two that stand out are Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Joe's Matt's The Poor Bastard. In their very different ways they are exceedingly fine.


Can't claim any great authority or knowledge about fiction. I don't think anyone would regret taking the time to read Bulgakov's The Master and Magarita (I read Glenny's translation) or Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. And there is something about The Iliad that I can't stop wondering about. Christopher Logue's re-workings of it are a good place to start. Not so much a favourite as a puzzle I can't solve, and wouldn't want to.


MT: What would you like readers to take away from your book?


DH: The main point I'd like readers to take away is that the Enlightenment doesn't belong to a small group of experts. The Enlightenment was a public debate about the fundamental issues in society; who should rule, how should their power be limited, how do we agree on a common account of reality? We can take useful things from the historical Enlightenment, and use them to help us in the work of becoming more enlightened now. Without becoming lost in the thickets of the history of ideas, we can draw on the work of figures like Bacon and Kant and learn from them about the possibilities and dangers of a campaign for knowledge. I believe that only a world more fully understood can be made more just.


But don't take anyone else's word on faith. What the Enlightenment was, what it might be now, these are questions for us all to try to answer.


MT: Thanks so much for your time Dan. All the best with the book!


Elizabeth Bishop


The Mountain *7 blog has fallen for Elizabeth Bishop:


I do seem to have rather fallen for Elizabeth Bishop recently - and not just for the spare warm wisdom of her poetry. After reading a small piece about her somewhere I went looking; and in the gaps between these three anecdotes and in the poem at the end there is something quietly beautiful, worth finding.

For more Bishop, do take a look at the lovely essay, Elizabeth Bishop: Why Is She So Good?, that the poet Anne Stevenson wrote for me for ReadySteadyBook a little while ago:


Bishop herself, in an essay called Writing Poetry is an Unnatural Act (brought to light in the recently published Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box) defined three qualities she most admired in the poetry she loved: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. Quoting Coleridge, she argued that the best poetry conveys “the most fantastic thoughts in the most correct and natural language”, opposing it to “the tiresome practice of conveying the most trivial thoughts in the most fantastic language.”


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Below is the fourth part (first part, second part, third part) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):


Yesterday, there were good reviews of Dan's book over on Lenin's Tomb (where the latest Christopher Hitchens book, God is Not Great, is also soundly dismantled) and at the Socialist Review. Right, onto the interview:


Mark Thwaite: Now, postmodernists! They're a rum lot aren't they? Lots of anti-foundationalist mumbo-jumbo. Surely they are a threat to reason!?


Dan Hind: Well, some of them would certainly like to think they are. It's dangerous to generalise, though. The post-modern impulse to cast doubt on the legacy of the Enlightenment has a strong historical justification. Ideas and language we associate with the Enlightenment have been used repeatedly by European powers to justify aggression and state terror. The Americans in the Philippinnes were bringing progress to the region, as they are in Iraq now. So it is quite right to question the uses made of the Enlightenment. Now I don't agree with some post-modern positions, and some I plain don't understand. I think it is wrong to dismiss the ideas of the Enlightenment outright because of the use that has been made of them in the past, which is sometimes a temptation. 'Radical' critiques of reason and morality can, I think, lead to a withdrawal from the work of knowing, and of trying to change, the world.


Still, even at their most radically anti-rational, post-modernists pale into insignifance as a threat to reason. A philosopher might tell a journalist that they can never report truthfully on a situation; this might give the journalist pause, it  might even undermine his or her self-confidence a little. But politicians and businessmen have journalists killed when they stumble on a story, or simply when they are in the wrong place. Now it is not a subtle point, but it is worth making; post-modernists don't kill journalists as part of their efforts to derail Western metaphyisics. What is a more serious threat to your capacity to make reasoned judgments about the world - academics who claim that reason is a chimera, or institutions that use violence to suppress information that might have a disruptive effect?


MT: I'm been particularly dismayed recently by the so-called "bombing left"? How do you respond to them and their (ir)rationalism?


DH: You're talking about Christopher Hitchens, Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch, I guess, the enlightened supporters of intervention in Iraq. One of my main aims in writing the book was to try to gently prise their fingers off the Enlightenment. So in a sense the book is my response to them. They wanted to claim that US-UK military intervention in the Middle East had an 'objectively' enlightened quality, somehow; to side with America was to side with progress. This is an idea that depends on a very eccentric understanding of what the Enlightenment itself was about, and a wilful reluctance to find out what was going on in 2002-2003. Plenty of people were able to see that the invasion was not about promoting democracy, or confronting religious tyranny, and that it was likely to be a disaster for the Iraqi people. Interventionist liberals thought they could see a bright shining future. Clearly the people who protested against the war had a better title to the Enlightenment than the 'bombing left; they had the courage to use their own reason and weren't suckers for any old mood music that the White House put on.


Power is very adept at finding reasons why we should stand by and let them do what it wants. The language of Enlightenment was part of that process in 2002-2003. It is time to put an end to this blackmail - 'either you're with us or you're against the Enlightenment', not only in our dealings with state power, but also with the corporations. States and corporations are very dangerous, and if you ever hear them talking about the forward march of progress and the triumphant possibilities offered to us by modern science, then you have to start worrying.


MT: What are you working on now Dan?


DH: I am working on a longish article about the possibilities and opportunities presented by new technology. I am not a techno-utopian, by any means - posting on the Guardian's Comment is Free is enough to cure anyone of that. But I am interested in looking at the potential of new technology. And I am also writing a proposal for a new book. When I say writing, I am mostly staring at a blank piece of paper and then checking the Amazon ranking for The Threat to Reason. I mean, I am only human.


I am also trying to do some work at the day job, at Random House.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Below is the third part (first part was Monday, second part was yesterday) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):


Mark Thwaite: In one sense, your book is all about asking people to ask themselves what are the real threats that are out there. The world is not a bad place because of homeopathy! Is that correct?


Dan Hind: Yes, that's an important theme in the book, definitely. This comes back to your earlier surprise about my surprise at the need to make the case I make in the book. If you believe something like Dick Taverne's The March of Unreason, you would end up thinking that a sinister alliance of New Age aromatherapists, animal rights activists and NGOs were about to destroy western civilization. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World played a similar tune. Part of me finds it baffling that people can take this sort of thing seriously, but clearly they do and that has serious consequences.


We have already talked about fundamentalist religion a little. The point here is not that it doesn't have any threatening aspects  (it is more threatening than homeopathy, say). But we need to investigate how it relates to other forces. The alliance between the Evangelicals and elements in the Republican party should be explored, of example. But this line of inquiry leads us away from fretting about metaphysics and towards the messiness of facts; it becomes a matter of Enron consultancies and casino shakedowns.


Let's try to order problems rationally, in line with their objective significance. Let's investigate them on rational lines, by inquiring into their structure. And then let's develop responses that are based on a clear-eyed understanding of them. Some people might really think that Greenpeace is a more serious menace to public understanding than, say, Exxonmobil. Well, that's up to them. I think most people can see that a large transnational energy company is more likely to be able to estrange us from reality than a relatively tiny NGO.


MT: Isn't this all a bit conspiratorial? Are you really suggesting that the pharmaceutical industry are putting profits ahead of people and allowing countless folk to die!?


DH: Well the pharmaceutical companies do put profits ahead of people and countless people have died as a result of this profit orientation. Some of this is a matter of secret, coordinated efforts to suppress unwelcome trial data and keep lucrative drugs on the market -- these efforts might be legal, in the sense that no one ends up going to prison, so I would hesitate to use the word conspiracy. But I talk a little about the controversy over SSRIs and Vioxx in the book; what was happening simply boggles the mind.


More generally, the structure of corporations leads them to ignore the public health and safety, if they can get away with it, and if there is an incentive to do so. They will also deceive the public if it serves their interests and they can get away with it. Now I don't propose to know what to do about this fact about corporations, but it is a fact. And if we take the "threat to reason" seriously, we should bear it in mind. Ideally I'd like every news bulletin to end  with: "And finally, today states and corporations told thousands of lies that resulted in death, injury and misery for millions of people around the world." Is that too much to ask?


MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?


DH: Well, partly I wanted to reach people who get upset and angry about the threat posed to secular liberal society by religious fanatics, postmodernists and New Age crystal healers. I wanted to suggest that they were possibly being distracted from some other issues that are a sight more serious, and that we had some way to go before we could claim to be enlightened.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Below is the second part (first part was yesterday) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):


Yesterday, Dan had a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog. Goodness knows why, but the Guardian blog always seems to attract some right nutters on its comments threads. Anyway, over to my continuing conversation with Dan ...


Mark Thwaite: Speaking with you, in one sense you seem surprised that your book even needed to be written. I'm surprised you're surprised! It seems to be that - particularly since 9/11 - the ruling elites of the UK and US have become dangerously tyrannical and that is obvious for all to see.


Dan Hind: Certainly our rulers have become more authoritarian since 9/11. What surprises me is the ease with which they have been able to claim that their project was in some way enlightened. The idea that the Enlightenment can be re-staged now as a showdown between (Western) reason and (Islamic) faith has gained a measure of respectability that is in a way rather amazing.


MT: The current political climate seems to suggest that every single Muslim in the world is potentially bad and evil and that our brave politicians will wage a war without end against them. How has this nonsense managed to gain any foothold?


DH: The honest answer is that I don't know. History shows that people can be made to be frightened of pretty much anyone. Effective propaganda works with what it has, it generalises from the particular in ways that suit its purposes. Aggressive campaigns to promote prejudice often pose as self-defence. Isolated incidents and a tiny minority of extremists can be made to define whole communities, if the conditions are right. Certainly many people who should know better have gone along with this, even contributed to it. There is an alternative, we can change the subject; it is up to us to step outside the story we have been given, a story that we are tempted to tell ourselves, that evil is external and simple and our leaders are only trying to keep us safe.


MT: Is the War on Terror a racist war, an imperialist war or something else? Are terms like imperialist even very useful to describe the dreadful mistake that was the invasion of Iraq?


DH: Well, last week BBC radio referred to 'the so-called War on Terror'. That was a bit of a breakthrough, though it happened before the recent run of scares. There is a very lively debate about American global policy going on and you can find a wide range of answers to your questions.


We do know that the prime movers in the Iraq invasion were a coalition of imperialists and militarists who were in a hurry to exploit America's 'unipolar' moment. They were backed by a network of institutional interests who could see the benefits of a move to a war footing. Forty percent of America's tax income is spent on defence; that kind of money can change your life, or end it if you are in the wrong place. Readers who are interested in this might want to look at Ismael Hossein-Zadeh's The Political Economy of US Militarism for a detailed recent treatment of this subject.


I am not sure we can expect an entirely adequate explanation of what is going on in a useful timeframe. We can get a reasonable sketch. It is at least as important to try to figure out how to stop it.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Here is the first part of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):


Mark Thwaite: Dan, thanks for submitting to my questions and agreeing to this! So, for starters, what gave you the idea for The Threat to Reason?


Dan Hind: After 9/11 I noticed that the word Enlightenment seemed to be cropping up much more regularly - one source suggests that the phrase "enlightened values" cropped up four times more often in broadsheet newspapers in Britain in the period after the terrorist attacks in the US. People started to claim that we had to defend enlightened values from Muslim fanatics. This made me wonder what the Enlightenment was as a set of historical events, and what we could learn from it now. The book came from out of that curiosity, and from an impatience with what some liberals and progressives were saying, especially in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.


MT: How long did it take you write it?


DH: I started writing some notes in the summer of 2004. Francis Wheen's book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World was kind of the last straw... I wrote a first draft Autumn 2005 - Spring 2006, which I sent to publishers And I wrote the final draft in the Autumn of last year when Verso) signed me up. Apart from that final re-write I was working full-time, so the book came along quite slowly.


MT: Lets get back to basics: what was and is the Enlightenment?


DH: What was the Enlightenment? That's big question! Put neutrally it was a period of philosophical and political upheaval between the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the French Revolution around a century later. If I had to give a more substantial definition, I'd say it was a collection of attempts to describe the world more accurately, by replacing dogma with experiment and open debate. A world understood more clearly could be improved. That was, I think, the characteristic hope of Enlightenment. That's what it was, at least seen in one light. There are other ways to describe it and I talk a little about them in my book. But that is a useful definition to start with.


MT: Why is it perceived to be under threat? Is it?


DH: Well a number of movements consciously or implicitly reject the ideas that we associate with the Enlightenment; most spectacularly some religious fundamentalists insist that science cannot challenge the authority of scripture. More complicatedly, postmodern philosophers have sometimes seemed to argue that Enlightenment universalism is only ever a cover for imperialist land grabs.


In my book I argue that the enlightened inheritance really is under threat and that it should be defended, but that its most significant enemies usually pose as its friends. Science is under constant, corrupting pressure from the institutions that fund it, or example. All the time these institutions pose, sometimes very convincingly, as the defenders of science. Angelina Jolie perhaps alludes to this with her tattoo, 'What nourishes me destroys me'. Too often defenders of the Enlightenment engage in a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy show, a formal confrontation between faith and reason, say, where everyone happily talks at cross purposes and hits each other with rhetorical sticks. Reality doesn't have the same, reassuring, seaside-knockabout form. Enlightenment is a much more unsettling subject than most of its self-appointed defenders are comfortable admitting; the word itself demands a state of constant vigilance in those who presume to use it.


The Threat to Reason


Dan Hind's The Threat to Reason (Verso) comes out today. It is also, you'll note, one of my Books of the Month this month. Despite its pastiche pulp cover, Dan's book is a serious and important contribution to the current debates about the War on Terror, postmodernism, and religion versus secularism and atheism.


I really want to get behind Dan's book and see it do well. So, to that end, this week is going to be Dan Week here on RSB. Breaking from my usual interview structure, I'll be asking Dan 3 questions every day this week on the blog. Hopefully, this will create a decent amount of debate -- Dan will be about to respond to any questions/responses you have to his answers via the comments so do, please, get involved.


Update: d'oh! I failed to mention that Dan also has a blog at thethreattoreason.blogspot.com.

With the kind permission of Penguin, I'm thrilled to be able to reproduce an extract from the Preface and also the full Introduction to George Monbiot's Heat: How we can stop the planet burning.

For those who read the blog via a newsfeeder, don't miss my interview with radical/campaigning/green journalist George Monbiot:


MT: Your book is big on policy objectives, but a little dismissive of what we can do as individuals. Can we really leave remedying such an important issue as global warming to politicians?

GM: I don't by any means think we should leave it to politicians - we all need to act, but primarily as citizens, rather than consumers. Consumer power alone is useless. You can give up your car, but all you do is to create extra road space for someone to drive a less efficient car than you would have driven. Your decision becomes meaningful only if it is accompanied by a political campaign for the road space you release to be handed to pedestrians or cyclists or buses instead. You can replace your lightbulbs, but if you merely reduce the demand for electricity, making it cheaper, someone else will be burning more. We must keep demanding systematic environmental policies that apply to everyone.

Sorry I've been so quiet: very busy! I'll try to mention a few bits and pieces tomorrow (not least I want to brag to y'all about the fact that an essay of mine is now available in an actual, real book!)


Also, The Book Depository have been shortlisted in three categories for The Bookseller Retail Awards 2007. We are in the running for:


  • The Nielsen Supply Chain Initiative of the Year
  • The Peter Jones Award for Entrepreneurship in Bookselling
  • The Direct to Consumer Bookselling Company of the Year

Yay, a possibility of slipping into my tux again!

I've just posted a wonderful review of Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee, entitled the The Necessary Alien, by the matchless Stephen Mitchelmore.


And a nice, chunky interview with Peter Robertson (an associate editor of the Mad Hatters' Review).

A link: Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder being discussed on RTE Television's The View.

I've just posted a great interview with Rosalind Belben: go read!


Nice, old Faber cover (via william-golding.co.uk)


I note I've not really said, of late, what I've been reading. Well, lots of things, of course, but the books that stick in the mind include William Golding's Pincher Martin (a lovely old Faber paperback I picked up in a local charity shop; the latest incarnation, you'll note, has a truly awful cover design), Dan Hind's The Threat to Reason (Verso; Dan's book is a wonderful antidote to the idiocies of Euston Manifesto-type pillocks and I'll be doing a lot to recommend in the coming weeks), and Roberto Bolaño's Amulet (New Directions; and one of my Books of the Week you'll have noted). The Bolaño oddly reminded me of Richard Brautigan; something both casual and heart-wrenching about the writing.


Update: Actually, I've just posted a tiny, capsule review of Pincher Martin over on The Book Depository which reads:

Whenever William Golding's name is invoked, we recall his dystopian, best-selling classic Lord of the Flies. That novel, first published in 1954, has sold millions of copies worldwide, including more than 25 million in English alone. But Golding's skill as a truly modern writer is better showcased in his most perfectly realised work, his masterful third novel Pincher Martin. The story of a shipwrecked sailor, set at the time of World War Two, it is also an existential quest into our anti-hero Christopher Martin's sense of himself, of his past actions (including violently forcing himself on a female friend) and his gathering awareness of what is really happening to him as he tries to survive on an outcrop in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, drinking from rock pools, eating whatever he can find, and fighting for his life and his sanity.

The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize "aims to honour the craft of translation, and to recognise its cultural importance." The shortlist for the prize was announced a week or so back; the winner will be announced on the 6th June. Let us hope Michael Hofmann wins for his work on Durs Grunbein's Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems.

Via Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence:


The poet-translator Michael Hofmann reviews The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, by Zbigniew Herbert, in the May issue of Poetry. Hofmann idolizes Herbert but eviscerates his latest translator, Alissa Valles, and addresses the question of why John and Bogdana Carpenter, Herbert's longtime translators, were not given the task. Here's a sample of Hofmann's rage:

"Alissa Valles's Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect. The original (I'm quite sure) is none of those things. This Collected Poems is a hopelessly, irredeemably bad book. The only solution to its problems would be a bulk reinstatement of the old translations. These things matter so much; it would be nice if they made a difference."

Hofmann goes on to say: 


"New translation" is never the infallible trump that publishers sometimes wish (do they ever believe it?) when they are driven to play it. Old translations hang around, even when they are notionally superseded or replaced, even when they have been discredited, which again is manifestly not the case here. Constance Garnett's Tolstoy, Scott-Moncrieff's Proust, Edwin and Willa Muir's Kafka, H.T. Lowe-Porter's Thomas Mann—all have their adherents. Notable instances in poetry would include the Rilke of J.B. Leishman or C.F. MacIntyre, and the Cavafy of Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherard. As the song has it, the first cut is the deepest.

Two excellent new pieces up today here on RSB.


A version of Anthony Rudolf's warm eulogy, originally delivered at his funeral, to that great and overlooked writer Jakov Lind.


And Carey Harrison's wonderful review of Robert Kelly and Birgit Kempker collaborative work Scham/Shame.


Michael Ondaatje, photograph copyright Ulla Montan


At the Booksellers' Association Conference earlier in the week, I picked up a couple of finished copies of Michael Ondaatje's forthcoming novel, Divisadero (published by Bloomsbury and not due out until September). So, who would like my spare copy? Email me, and I'll pop it in the post to you (previous freebie winners are excluded from this "offer"!) Oh, once you've read it, if you could write me a little review, that would be nice.

I've just finished reading Simon Critchley's Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance which I would very warmly recommend. I'll write about it further soon. Critchley combines Levinassian ethics with a neo-anarchist politics: it's clearly and persuasively argued; one of the best political books I've read in ages. And I've also just read Ethics and Infinity, a book of conversations (ten short transcribed radio interviews) between Philippe Nemo and Emmanuel Levinas, which acts as a wonderful introduction to the latter's thinking, even if some of the translation leaves much to be desired. If you don't know Levinas's work (and I'm no expert): start here.


And in the post this week there have been more than a few interesting looking titles:


I suppose, in a sense, this post is a kind of manifesto or, more modestly, the beginnings of a statement of intent about where I see ReadySteadyBook heading over the next couple of years.


As many of you know, I wear two hats: I'm editor here at ReadySteadyBook and I'm also, in my day-job, lucky enough to edit The Book Depository (TBD) website. As editor of TBD my role is to make sure that the frontlist titles that I choose to review and feature on TBD's pages, and the authors and publishers I interview, reflect in some modest way the astonishing range of books that TBD customers buy every day. The breadth of their purchases is amazing; I want TBD's homepage to be, in a small way, similarly catholic.


Here on RSB I have a different role. Certainly, it is one that I'm making up as I go along. I started RSB thinking of the site as an online literary journal that would reflect many opinions, air many voices, and I still think that that aspect of the site is important and needs growing (if you want to contribute, email me), but principally RSB is -- like it or loathe it -- me and my musings. My thinking about literature and books over the last three or four years has developed and, I hope, deepened. RSB facilitates that ongoing learning by forcing me to attempt to articulate what it is I think I feel about literature, and engaging with others in the blogosphere about those ideas.


When I talk to folk, especially publishers, about what kinds of books I like to feature on RSB, I often reach for the phrase Literary Fiction ... and then I quickly backtrack. Literary Fiction is one of the genres of fiction that I'm happy to feature on TBD's homepage, alongside a host of other types of books. And Literary Fiction is, undoubtedly, the genre that many of the books that have been reviewed on RSB in the past have belonged to. But, editorially -- and by that I mean, via the blog, and from my heart -- I'd actually like RSB to be seen as being anti-Literary Fiction. Indeed, what I've taken to calling Establishment Literary Fiction is, to me, the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential.


Literary Fiction is genre fiction; literature, art, is writing that deconstructs the very idea of genre. Proust's In Search of Lost Time isn't literary fiction, but a novel that destroys the idea of the novel in its very realisation. Beckett's famous lines from Worstward Ho -- Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -- are in themselves a manifesto for writers and writing. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.


Simon Critchley writes (in Infinitely Demanding): "When I pull myself out of the slumber of my inauthentic existence and learn to approve the demand of conscience, which for Heidegger is the demand of my finitude confronted in being-towards-death, then I become authentic, I become who I really am." This "I" -- as Simon recognises -- is conflicted, multiple, but it is the demand of which he writes -- of ethics, of art -- in the face of finitude, of silence, that I'm interested in here. This demand, taken up by art, by literature, is infinite. Literature can approach, help negotiate, begin to articulate, that demand; Literary Fiction withers in the face of it, never having heard its call, deaf to it.

Tom McCarthy has dropped me a line to tell me about an event he is involved in at the London-based British Film Institute this evening (starting at the very specific time of twenty to seven!):


What is the cultural logic of repetition? Is repetition the same as re-enactment? What role does trauma play in all this? Are these questions, by their very nature, inherently political?

Writer Tom McCarthy, whose novel Remainder sees an obsessed Everyman re-enact increasingly violent situations in a bid for 'authenticity', and artist Rod Dickinson, known for his large-scale re-enactments of the sermons of cult leader Jim Jones and the Obedience to Authority experiment of psychologist Stanley Milgram, discuss these issues with each other at the BFI, London. (18:40, £5, £4 concs).

There has been a new addition to the RSB team. Meet Lola, a 9-week-old German Spitz (Mittel). Lola has been brought in to deal with illiterate journalists, fools, and other riff-raff!


Lola

The first chapter of A Voice from Elsewhere, Charlotte Mandell's latest Maurice Blanchot translation, is now online. The book, as you'll have noted, is one of my Books of the Month this month:


A Voice from Elsewhere represents one of Maurice Blanchot’s most important reflections on the enigma and secret of “literature.” The essays here bear down on the necessity and impossibility of witnessing what literature transmits, and—like Beckett and Kafka—on what one might call the “default” of language, the tenuous border that binds writing and silence to each other. In addition to considerations of René Char, Paul Celan, and Michel Foucault, Blanchot offers a sustained encounter with the poems of Louis-René des Forêts and, throughout, a unique and important concentration on music—on the lyre and the lyric, meter and measure—which poetry in particular brings before us.

When I say Coetzee and me, I don't mean to pretend a link between the great man and my 'umble self (excerpt that we both seem to have a soft spot for the beasts of the field;  Coetzee's latest speech in defense of animal rights is excerpted at the Sydney Morning Herald [via TEV]). What I meant to suggest was the first part of this post would be about JMC (done!) and the second part (coming up) would be about me ...


So, its been very, very busy around here of late! Do, please, forgive the paucity of posting. Last week I had a review of Rosalind Belben's marvelous Our Horses in Egypt in the TLS (not online, although there is a short version of the review over at The Book Depository, and I'll post a full version here on RSB sometime very soon) and I've just sent "filed the copy" for my review of Aharon Appelfeld's new one, All Whom I Loved, with the Telegraph. Again, I'll post a version of that here soon. It's a wonderful and very understated novel.


This Thursday, World Book Day you'll note, I'll be down in Big London Town, talking to the creative writing students at Roehampton University. And on Saturday, I'll be addressing the delegates at the Independent Publishers Guild conference. So, busy, as I said!

Welcome to those of you who have been directed to ReadySteadyBook via the BBC's Open Book radio programme: do have a good look around! RSB was featured on the programme yesterday with "literary editor Suzi Feay" kindly saying she was, "pretty impressed by it ... good standard of writing ... book choices intelligent and varied." Which is nice.

I've just posted Daniel Frank and Aaron Manson's foreword to Philip Rieff's latest and last book Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us. Thanks go to both Daniel and Aaron for allowing me to reproduce their essay here on RSB.

I'm a bit behind this week, what with recently starting full-time at The Book Depository, and having deadlines to meet for a longish article (on Death and Literature don't you know!) in a Time Out book, which isn't due for publication for a wee while yet, and for a review in the Financial Times (I know!) of Sayed Kashua's pretty poor Let It Be Morning. All this by way of saying that I will be writing about Pascale Casanova's Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution very soon. In the meantime, Ghunka.com has a decent, sympathetic review of the book online which is worthy of your attention, but with which I have several difficulties. For now, I'll just say I'm far less sympathetic to Casanova's argument than Ghunka.com.

I'm just going through the up-and-coming book releases for the next few months so that I can make sure we get good, timely author interviews and book reviews etc. up on The Book Depository site. There are bucketloads of shiney, new releases, as there always are, but I've not spotted anything yet that really gets me very excited at all. So, a quick plea: have any of you good folk noticed any really good books, especially fiction, coming in the next few months? I've got plenty of information on the new Iain Banks, Tracy Chevalier, Dan Rhodes, Steven Saylor and similar guff, but nothing very RSB-esque is jumping out. Help!

Happy new year! All the very best to all in 2007!


Things should get back into normal gear around here on Wednesday which is also my first day full-time in my new job editing The Book Depository website. It's gonna be another busy year!


Oh, and if you haven't seen it already, we recently redesigned BritLitBlogs (thanks Lee!) Go take a look -- it's real nice!

Well, I trust you are all having a good winter break? Mrs Book and I are just back from Paris and I won't be doing much here for a few days: there is booze to be drunk and chocolates to be consumed! I have, however, updated the Books of the Year 2006 symposium a tiny bit (make sure you check out the newly added entries from Julián Ríos and Anthony Rudolf) and I will be working on some site housekeeping


There are plenty of useful, year-end round-ups about all over the place, but one you might have missed is Chandrahas's Books of the Year over at The Middle Stage.


Right, see you in a day or two.

The RSB Books of the Year 2006 symposium is now online. Enjoy!

The matchless Stephen Mitchelmore has just written a wonderful piece on Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe Trilogy for our edification: The sea closes up, and so does the land. Do take the time to read it, it is, as you'd expect from Mr Mitchelmore, a brilliant essay.


I must admit that Richard Ford has never really appealed to me, but John Banville's recent admission, in Salon magazine, of his fondness for the writer, coupled with Steve's tremendous article, has made me think I should, perhaps, reconsider. Banville said:


I'm becoming a little embarrassed at my enthusiasm for Richard Ford's novel The Lay of the Land, but it does seem to me the finest piece of fiction out of America in a long time. Its two predecessors in the Frank Bascombe trilogy, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, are marvelous works, but this new volume is remarkably fluid and accommodating in an almost Proustian way -- and it's laugh-out-loud funny, too.

And a taster of what Steve has to say:


The reviews take it for granted that this is a novel like any other, only much better than most. Yet right from the start Bascombe consigns his literary career to the past. He won’t be writing a novel again. This will be something much less than that. It will be enough for his to speak in “a voice that is really mine” as he says. The manuscript of his first novel got lost in the post. Soon after he wrote a collection of stories which weren’t. Indeed they got published and were well-received. The film rights were then sold for a lot of money. Using that foundation, he settled down to write another novel. Half way through his son died, and so did the novel. “I don’t expect to retrieve it unless something I cannot now imagine happens.” That ambiguity of that unimaginable something resonates throughout The Sportswriter. It suggests that the novel must find a connection to life that it now apparently lacks.

Expect things to be pretty quiet around here over the next few weeks. The usual Christmas madness, coupled with a trip to Paris, plus some technical stuff Lee and I need to get on with means that there'll be precious little new content on the site for the next week or so. However, the ReadySteadyBook Books of the Year 2006 symposium will be up at the end of this week and, if I get the time, I'll also publish an astonishing essay, by Steve, on Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land. In the New Year, the RSB minisites will be relaunched along with one or two other improvements to the site and its functionality. Additionally in 2007, I'll be taking on web-editor duties over at The Book Depository full time.

Last year's ReadySteadyBook Books of the Year symposium 2005 was a great success. So, I'll be doing similar this year, and the symposium should be up on the site over Xmas. No doubt, I'm as ambivalent as many of you are about these lists, but they do sometimes remind one of forgotten titles or, better still, introduce you to books that somehow have passed you by.


Prospect magazine have a fine Books of the Year list up online already, actually:


Books of the year features can seem pretty pointless, ladling hype on books that have already been fulsomely praised. In order to elicit livelier responses, Prospect asked a range of contributors to nominate their "most overrated and underrated books of 2006."

David Cox, broadcaster (nope, I don't know him either), is amusingly cross with regard to these overrated titles:


The Night Watch, Sarah Waters (Virago). An imitation Catherine Cookson for dim but pretentious lesbians.
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai (Hamish Hamilton). A typically box-ticking, offence-avoiding Booker winner whose supposedly innovative structure is more sensibly viewed as narrative incompetence.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Bantam). Dreary rant by anti-religious fanatic lacking any grasp of all but a minor aspect of the subject he purports to address.

David Herman, writer, has the good sense to choose my year-favourite:


The Singer on the Shore: Essays, 1991-2004 by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet). Superb collection of essays by one of the greatest critics of the last 30 years. Worth it just for the first essay on the Bible.

Finally, Sandra, over at Book World, is "struggling to decide on [her] five favourite books of the year":


Depressingly, there are at least twelve books (which will remain nameless) which with hindsight I wish I'd given up on. But one always reads in hope. And even to the last page I worry in case a tedious book might suddenly pull itself together and turn out to be amazing and that I'll miss something if I give up. So far I have finished 69 books this year (and given up on half a dozen along the way) and I'm seriously tempted to say that it was too many.

I've recently been enjoying John Mullan's How Novels Work (indeed, it was one of my Books of the Week last week). I failed to mention, however, that back on the 5th December, over on the OUP USA blog, John Mullan gave his fine book a nice puff:


Listen to most of the talk about fiction in the media and you will find it mostly concerns what novels are about. Yet novels grip us (or fail to grip us) not because of their subject matter but because of how they are written. And leading novelists of the last decade have carried experiments with form and structure into the mainstream of fiction. To take an American example, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book with three narrative strands set in different times, intricately alluding to Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel Mrs Dalloway, managed to be a bestseller. In Britain in 2004 the bestseller list was for a while headed by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – a novel of six narratives in different times and genres, nested in a ‘Russian doll structure’, and a knowing variation of a technique developed by Italo Calvino in his supposedly avant-garde If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller

When is this imaginative innovation, and when is it just trickiness? What terms and ideas is it useful to have in discussing contemporary novels? Thanks to reading groups, these novels are often subject to the analysis and argument that used to be reserved for the classics. The features that we most want to describe (plot, dialogue, character) are not mysterious, but emerge much more clearly if we understand what the words mean, and can compare different examples. Even the stranger-sounding novelistic techniques (metanarrative, prolepsis, amplification) are easily explained and easy to recognize.

Something else to watch for in the New Year: a new novel by Aharon Appelfeld, All Whom I Have Loved, is due out from Schocken at the end of February. (For more on Appelfeld, don't forget Lars Iyer's wonderful RSB essay Experience IV - Silence: Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life and Tzili: The Story of a Life.)

Due to the happy circumstance of soon giving up my current day-job to begin, in the New Year, to work full-time as the web editor of The Book Depository (and, yes, one of my first jobs will be to sort out the look and feel!), I am now a subscriber to The Bookseller magazine. Hopefully, what this will mean going forward for RSB readers, is that I'll be able to keep a better eye on what is about to land in our bookshops.


Most of what The Bookseller reports is of little interest, but some publishing news is noteworthy. I was happy to see, for example, that in January, Penguin are releasing newly repackaged Kafka titles, including new translations, by Michael Hofmann I understand, of Metamorphosis and Other Stories (this volume incorporates "a fascinating occasional piece and The Aeroplanes at Brescia, Kafka's eyewitness account of an air display in 1909").

At school, if another child encouraged me to do something stupid, doubtless a teacher would upbraid me by saying something like, "Well, if Charlie told you to put your hand in the fire would you do it?" Of course, one was supposed to be chastened: no, certainly one wouldn't place one's hand in a fire on Charlie's behest. And, yes, I'll admit, what I've just done was probably almost as stupid: I'll consider myself rebuked. Sorry, Miss.


As I've got older, however, there are one or two people whose judgement I trust so implicitly that, yes, if they told me to put my hand in the fire, I just might.


So, if Gabriel Josipovici says something is good, it is. Full stop. Here he is blurbing RSB's Book of the Month, Peter Hawkins' Dante: A Brief History:


Peter Hawkins' knowledge of and passion for Dante shines through every page of this elegantly written book. He writes, moreover, with passion and precision. This is not only a superb introduction to Dante, but a work which will move and enlighten those thoroughly steeped in a poet who remains, seven centuries after his death, still very much our contemporary.

Well, last week was a good one. A real challenge to write those long pieces each day for the Poetry Foundation (the permalink to my pieces is, as yet, only to Monday's article and it seems to have killed the warm comments I got too! Hopefully, the PF folks can get this remedied asap). I think, in the New Year, I'll try to do the same here on RSB. Not on a daily basis, mind, I couldn't keep that up, but I'll at least try to get in a weekly essay of about 1000 words. What would make most sense is tying the essay together with one of my Books of the Week, but, seriously, I'm just not that organised.

Sorry! More self-pimping: my "guest-blog" spot at the Poetry Foundation continues. Yesterday, I had a piece on Roy Fisher, and later today a post on Tomas Tranströmer should see the light of day. I'll have more to say about Robin Robertson's new versions of Tranströmer's The Deleted World (Enitharmon) here next week (I likes it!) In the meantime, please read the Poetry Foundation stuff -- and please leave comments! Thanks!

RSB interviewee Tom McCarthy will be talking about his novel Remainder on Matthew Crockatt's Lit Bits show later today (between 3-3.30pm GMT) on arts radio station Resonance FM.

Too much has been written already about "newspaper reviewing versus online reviewing" (Scott Pack's phrase which he uses to introduce his rejoinder to Rachel Cooke's ill-informed, nugatory and defensive recent piece in the Observer), so I'll restrict myself to restating what I had taken to be self-evident: the internet is a massive space and "online reviewing" comes in many shapes and sizes and of widely differring quality. An enthusiastic customer review on Amazon is not the same as a review in Jacket magazine and nor does any sensible reader equate the two (journalists and populist academics aside, it would seem).


And no two blogs are the same. Some (often quite winningly) blether inconsequentially on about what books lie unread on the bedside table; some engage in serious criticism. All of this is, surely, utterly unambiguous. My fear with this debate, however, is that the previously mentioned Scott Pack (ex-Waterstones Buying Manager) and the novelist Susan Hill are continually referenced as somehow the voices of the blogosphere, the defenders of bloggers and blogging. When interviewed, I've heard neither cite serious literary websites and blogs (RSB, This-Space, the Literary Saloon, Spurious ... one could list for hours) and neither seem to be particularly well-informed of what they are being wheeled-out to defend. Commenting beyond this risks flattering this idiotic debate with import it doesn't possess. Next time you read an article about blogging in the mainstream media, however, take it with a mountain of salt.

Is it worth mentioning science-fiction, worth invoking that term, when talking about Cormac McCarthy's new novel The Road? I've been wondering this whilst pondering what it is I want to say about this very gripping book. Max has already briefly reviewed the title here on RSB, but I wanted to say something myself, and I wondered whether I would have to frame what I was going to say through a discussion of "genre".


The reason one might want to invoke genre is that The Road is set in what would seem to be a post-apocalyptic landscape. In his review, Max mentions Steven King's The Stand, but "post-apocalyptic" landscapes are rife in sci-fi and beyond, from Mad Max to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. As the man and his son walk down the mostly empty road, searching for food and for a future (and isn't searching for the future also searching for a meaning?), the event of the recent past that has destroyed (their/our) civilisation is not named. But we ourselves live in a world still full of nuclear (and other) weapons and we think we know what a huge nuclear war would do to our world. And we've seen the films and read other books and those pictures help us clearly to see the world of The Road, the sci-fi world where McCarthy's characters walk.


As soon as one invokes "genre", however, the term begins to collapse in front of you and in the face of good writing. Literature is the antidote to genre, not because there can't be good genre writing, but because writing that is true to itself must focus first on its own realisation not on its submersion within genre's commonplaces. Invoking sci-fi to talk about The Road would mean, perversely, that we were not talking about The Road and its singular effort at all.


The pace and the rhythm of McCarthy's book are extremely well-handled. Short paragraphs, verb-free sentences (compare Hemingway, of course, but also Bellow), staccato phrasing, barely a comma, or a sub-clause, in sight: all these punch the work along. But McCarthy has his clumsy moments ("In the nights in their thousands to dream the dream of a child's imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be.") as well as his more poetic ("He thought that in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime..."). He is also unafraid, within such ostensibly clipped writing, of working his complex lexicon: discalced; isocline; loggia; piedmont; torsional. Simple, "muscular" writing is thought to be transparent, to allow the story to the fore, but McCarthy's writing here (I don't know his other work) is not nearly as simple as it pretends. Not nearly as simple, say, as the terse conversations he reports between the man and his sometimes obmutescent son. Indeed, there is a quiet tension between their curt, taut dialogue and the novels concise, condensed yet sometimes gnomic phrasings ("The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running.") This tension is between what the man and the boy say, what they can possibly say, and what they are beginning to lose how to say (what use for the word "crow" when there are no crows in the world?) As much as anything else, The Road is about fathers and sons and what they do and don't say to each other, what they do and don't bequeath to and receive from each other.


Plot-wise there is something almost Godot-esque about the man and the boy, mendicant, starving, fearful, walking the road, making camp for the night, occassionally coming across a house or an abandoned town, sometimes finding some food, or something useful, sometimes coming across -- and having to flee from -- other "survivors". And then walking on: sleeping, waking, walking. McCarthy manages to keep his repetitious, spare plot free from tedium by keeping his language surprising, his detail accurate (the man is very good with his hands; his practicality, painstakingly described, keeps him and his son alive), and giving the narrative a sense of perilous foreboding achieved by the lack of overarching description brought about by an almost free indirect style (third-person narration so close to a character's thought and perspective that it resembles first-person telling): we are as unaware as the man and the boy are as to what may be around the next corner.


So, this is an accomplished piece. And we might well expect this. But is there more here? Max called the novel a "contemporary masterpiece" and applauded its "searing humanity and compassion", but he didn't really justify his hyperbole and I'm not sure I feel compelled to defend his words. I certainly used to feel I had to make grand judgements when I first started reviewing books (when I worked for (five long years for) Amazon), but I'm less keen to do so now. I'm happier with less conclusive judgements: art and (un)certainty and all that ...


Sleeping, waking, walking. And walking on. Sleeping and waking in the face of a disaster. And in the wake of the disaster, going on. Giving your continuing some semblance of sense by creating a goal (at the end of the road, the coast) and walking towards it. This is what we all do, how we all live. And as we walk, we talk to others -- strangers or sons -- who also walk the road, also create their own reality as they continue on. And when we talk our language is often too clumsily simplistic to explain what we really mean. And sometimes our silence is pregnant with a meaning that needs few words. It is no doubt rather pat, but we are all on the road.


But I don't want to end there. I also want to remember that on the night of February 26th 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's government announced that it was withdrawing from Kuwait. The surrendering soldiers, returning to Southern Iraq, down the Basra road, were massacred in their thousands by the US airforce bombing them from above. Some roads are far more dangerous than others.

‘Now Miss Hudson,’ said Rhoda, ‘has shut the book. Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures.’
-- The Waves


‘Odd, that they [The Times] should praise my characters when I meant to have none’
-- Virginia Woolf, 5th of October, 1931.


Surely, a good novel must be peopled by realistic figures, have fully-rounded characters? Characters that you can believe in (believe really could exist) doing believable things, responding to other characters believably: that, surely, is a key requirement for a successful novel? For characters to be two-dimensional, to be merely mouthpieces of their author, not to act, within the novel's presented situation, in an authentic way this, surely, damages a novel, hobbles it? Indeed, many book reviews seem to suggest that believability is essential to the novel and that believable characters are the hallmark of a good writer. Well, I don't think characterisation is that important. Not at all, in fact. And Woolf's 1931 novel The Waves (and all of the Woolf novels I've recently read) has allowed me to think about this aspect of the novel again.


Of course, endowing a character with complexity is very much dependent on the relationship of the text with the reader. If we read of a character responding aggressively on one page and then, later, acting warmly, we can and do endow a third dimension to the text: we believe these two situations create a roundness to the character that we are reading about. We presume a characterfulness because different scenarios have been presented to us and the reactions to those situations have been, in some way, recognisable, identifiable. But what happens when such "characters" are not invented and such situations do not occur? Can the novel work well without such scenes?


In The Waves we most certainly don't get characters -- we get barely distinguishable (and distinguished) voices that, over the course of the novel, in some subtle ways, distinguish themselves from one another. Towards the end of the novel Bernard, the storyteller, is allowed to expatiate at length in his voice on his voice and the voices of the other names within the work. He underscores how tentative we should be about calling these cyphers characters and of endowing these names with substance. He reminds us that we are reading and that final judgements and good art do not ever belong together. He reminds us that these voices are writing and that Woolf is writing about writing with every word in her great(est) novel.


The voices, here, are, in no way, believable. The writing is poetic -- could only ever be writing; the voices are not naturalistic, not intended to be mimetic of how anyone naturally speaks. (At best, one could imagine this as a script for a play, and one is perhaps encouraged to do so by the simple repetitions of "Susan said", "Jinny said", "Louis said", etc., but the play would be very stiff.) The voices ebb and flow together (as a reader one has to be very aware when the voices shift because they are almost indistinguishable -- they aren't "characterised"; beyond the eg "Neville said" often we have few clues in the words to separate one voice from another): they have different trajectories; but they aren't clearly differentiated as characters by Woolf by her giving to each -- in the writing -- different inflexions. But characters (or sets of behaviours that, when they are reported, seem in some way correctly to be attributed to eg Rhoda rather than Susan) do emerge. At the end of the novel these non-characterised voices have almost become archetypes (Susan, wife and mother; Jinny, lover; Rhoda, suicide; Neville, homosexual; Louis, outsider; Bernard, storyteller). "Character" has, in some sense, returned to the novel; has, clearly, in a certain sense, never been able to be entirely left behind (perhaps because the reader can never be entirely left behind). One might say, that the impossible search for characters is what structures the work. And this line of argument might be said to be embodied in the one character who never appears on the novel's stage.


Percival is central to the The Waves. He loves Susan, is loved by Neville, and is beloved by all the voices. And he dies. His lack is reinforced, later, by his total absence. But his, also, is the absence of absence; both because of his constant presence in the work (he is constantly referred to by the other voices) and because of the death that defines him and defies the destiny that all the other voices had hoped for him. He never appears in the novel, but he never leaves it either.


Is Woolf breaking the novel here? Only in as far as she is immediately remaking it. And she remakes it via the traditional elements she is interrogating at the very moment she uses them to write her book.


But, perhaps, Woolf's exercise in "high modernity" is no example whatsoever to use. It is so singular (or, perhaps better, so much a part of a moment) that using it to think about the work other novels do is innappropriate. Certainly, this could be argued. But perhaps it would be better to think about the limitations of the realist novel that Woolf was working against and, more positively, of the art she was working to produce, and ask why she needed to forestall the drive to complex characters and instead produce such a beautiful (and complex) piece of writing.

The Folkestone Literary Festival started a few days ago and goes on until this coming Saturday. On that day, November 18th, the last event is Debating Nuclear Energy: Solution or Setback?: Martin Empson and Malcolm Grimston. Martin, campaigning journalist and member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, recently reviewed George Monbiot's Heat on RSB, Grimston is a Member of the Atomic Energy Authority and Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House.

Lee Rourke, boss of Scarecrow, and RSB contributor, is interviewed over at The Paris Bitter Hearts Pit.

I've been asked (and I'm honoured, I must say) to guest-blog (I suppose you'd call it) for the (US) Poetry Foundation. Each week in their Journal section (sadly, and frustratingly, sans RSS) they get a poet or writer to write a journal entry for each day of "their" week discussing themselves and their reading. Last week, Rigoberto González took the floor. I'm up week-commencing November 27th.


I'm really thrilled. I don't write enough about poetry, and what it means to me, here on RSB, so this is a good chance to discuss (in slightly longer postings than I normally manage here) a number of poets that have recently been on my mind.

Philip Oltermann reviews Ashes for Breakfast by Durs Grünbein (translated by the wonderful Michael Hofmann; the Faber version reviewed here only has the English translations, the FSG edition comes, more satisfyingly, with the German originals on facing pages and is much the better for it). Oltermann has mixed-feelings about the collection, but seems just about generally positive:


In English, Grünbein in public-intellectual-mode is as much of a mouthful as in the German - but the more colloquial passages never quite seem to get off their teutonic stilts. At times, Hofmann's phrases ring with the triumphalism of the accomplished bilinguist rather than with their proper music ... This is not to say that Ashes for Breakfast isn't an overall success. When the teeth of Hofmann's vocabulary grip into the material of Grünbein's ideas, these poems can develop an irresistible emotional pull. Greetings from Oblivion City has the popular appeal of a Radiohead lyric, Portrait of the Artist works as a riveting, veiled historical epic and In the Provinces is a stoically comic cycle of five poems about different species of roadkill.

T'other week, I published Ismo Santala's fantastic interview with Alan Moore here on RSB. Today, I'm publishing Part II: an interview with Melinda Gebbie. Melinda is Alan's partner and the artist behind Moore's latest book (16-years in the making this) the Lost Girls.

RSB-interviewee Chris Knight, (University of East London anthropologist) spoke to scholars at the Cradle of Language conference underway in Stellenbosch, South Africa recently (via Babel's Dawn):


A hundred thousand years ago (± thirty thousand years) human primate society was replaced by a human speaking community, shifting priorities from Darwinian issues to those of a symbolic culture ... The human speaking community is radically different [from primate society], according to Knight. Members who are in need of assistance can expect it. Parents routinely feed and educate their children in the ways of the family and community. Infirm elderly typically receive some support from their children. Dominance is not won but granted by the community, typically based on what they contribute to the group. Often this contribution comes in the form of wisdom, verbal co-operation that benefits the community. The transition from primate gestures and vocalizations to speech was not driven by a new brain as it was by the evolution of new strategies for cooperation.

Eris Ormsby reviews Thomas Bernhard's poetry (In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon translated by RSB-interviewee James Reidel):


The Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard took a mordant glee in outraging his countrymen. The Austrians have a name for such troublemakers. Bernhard, they said, was a Nestbeschmützer, a man who fouls his own nest. But for Bernhard, the nest had already been fouled, and long before ... The poems are quiet, almost whispery in tone, displaying none of the virtuoso antics of the prose: no glittering cascades of insult, no manic swerves from tenderness to savagery. The shock comes from their unabashed religious fervor. Though they sound like prayers "to the unknown God," they are, nevertheless, prayers, by turns meditative, anguished, and almost perversely devotional.

(Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)

Two wee reminders ... as I mentioned on Monday, the poet Roy Fisher is reading at Manchester Metropolitan University (in the Geoffrey Manton Building, on Oxford Road, Manchester, opposite the Aquatics Centre; £5/£3 concessions) tonight at 6.30pm.


And Tom McCarthy (worth checking-out is Tom's recent talk on Trocchi) will be reading from and discussing Remainder with Simon Glendinning of the Forum for European Philosophy at Borders, 120 Charing Cross Road, London also tonight at 6.30pm. This event is free.

The latest issue of the Green Integer Review is now online. It includes some poetry (including four poems by Christopher Middleton), Douglas Messerli on Harry Mathews' My Life in CIA and Brian Evenson on Jon Fosse's Melancholy (which Max Dunbar reviewed recently here on RSB and hated!) Messerli also writes on the Polish novelist and dramatist Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969).

Its difficult to keep up with all the glowing references to RSB interviewee Tom McCarthy and his debut novel Remainder, but two recent mentions are noteworthy.


Richard, over at his excellent blog The Existence Machine, says:


Repetition plays a major role in this novel. The re-enactments are repeated over and over again. The narrator's singlemindedness creates restlessness in the reader (or, well, this reader): what, I wonder, is the purpose of these re-enactments? Or, where is this going? Indeed, expectations of "story" are continually raised and then thwarted. But the re-enactments are the point: he is trying to have a real experience, to enter into the experience, and his experience is such that we enter into it ourselves, almost achieve a trance state in our reading... In the re-enactments, as the narrator seeks to enter into the moment, to recreate these fleeting sensations when he felt most real, most alive, as he slows down the process, the prose slows, and we enter into the moment as readers, achieve an almost trance-like state, as he does.

And, today, Dan Wagstaff posts the first part of his interview with Tom over at the Raincoast Books blog.


RB: Is ambiguity a virtue?

TM: For sure. If you were simply communicating a message you were certain about it wouldn’t be any good as literature.

The American LitBlog Co-Op has chosen Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage as its Autumn 2006 Read This! Selection. Janelle reviewed this on RSB back in May and loved it, saying:


Savage holds a doctoral degree in Philosophy from Yale University so it should come as no surprise that this slim volume is full of more questions than answers. Whether Firmin, capable of consciousness and immersion into the great works of fiction, is a better mirror for humanity’s frailities because he is a rat is difficult to state. What is apparent is that Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife merits repeated readings for Savage has filled its pages with much food for thought. This gem of a book should be a treasured addition to any bibliophile’s bookshelf.

RSB's very own Max Dunbar is one of the regional editors of Succour magazine:


Succour magazine will be released on October 24th, available at the Cornerhouse [in Manchester] and through the website. With a theme on The Obscene, issue 4 features new writing from Matt Thorne, Cathi Unsworth and David L. Hayles.

Yesterday, I posted Ismo's massive interview with comics supremo Alan Moore. It is an excellent piece and the best interview I've read with Moore in years. Alan, as you may know, has just finished writing Lost Girls with his partner Melinda Gebbie. An interview with Melinda will be up on RSB next week.

A friend asks me: "I saw mention somewhere sometime very recently of a new critical look at comics. Can't remember where ... you haven't got a record of it somewhere have you?"


I'm stumped. Can anyone help?

One of my Books of the Week this week is Chushichi Tsuzukis' biography of Edward Carpenter. Carpenter (1844-1929) is a fascinating figure: "a utopian gay man who lived for much of his life in a large rural house amongst a group of his friends and lovers. EM Forster described him as 'a poet, a prose writer, a mystic, a manual labourer, an anti-vivisectionist, an art critic'" (quote from the Edward Carpenter Community website).


Edward Carpenter was a pioneering socialist and radical prophet of a new age of fellowship in which social relations would be transformed by a new spiritual consciousness. The way he lived his life, perhaps even more than his extensive writings, was the essence of his message. It is perhaps not surprising that his reputation faded quickly after his death, as he lived much of his life modestly spreading his message by personal contact and example rather than by major literary works or through a national political career. He has been described as having that unusual combination of qualities: charisma with modesty. His ideas became immensely influential during the early years of the Socialist movement in Britain: perhaps Carpenter's most widely remembered legacy to the Socialist and Co-operative movements was his anthem England Arise! but it is his writings on the subject of homosexuality and his open espousal of this identity that makes him unique.

RSB did not win a Manchester Blog Awards last night. The best arts and culture blog was won by Yer Mam! Well done James!

As I have just mentioned, Robert Gordon (of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge), the editor of Verso's newly published edition of Auschwitz Report, responded to Jonathan Beckman's "shrill assault" on that book in a letter in yesterday's Observer. The letter, as is usual, was edited for the newspaper. Here it is in full: 


Auschwitz Report by Primo Levi and Leonardo De Benedetti (published by Verso and edited by myself) is an extraordinary historical document from 1945-6, which describes in appalling medical detail the conditions in the Monowitz satellite camp of Auschwitz, where its two authors were imprisoned. Unfortunately, Jonathan Beckman’s intemperate review of the volume (Observer, 8 Oct) is such a mish-mash of bald errors, pompous arrogations and sheer confusions that it is hard to spot the single serious point that lies behind it, a point about history, literature and our notions of authorship.

To deal first with the errors. Beckman fumes against the publisher’s ‘unforgiveable’ use of an image of Levi’s ‘distinctive bottle-lensed glasses’ on the book’s cover. I am not quite certain why such an image would constitute so grave a breach of good taste, but, the point is moot: the glasses are not Levi’s – they rather mutely evoke the thousands of belongings stolen by the SS from victims destined to disappear. Worse, Beckman suggests that Levi never witnessed the selections in the camps of what he calls ‘invalids’, when the weakest and sickest were picked out and sent to the gas chambers. In fact, Levi’s 1947 masterpiece If this is a Man – written in exactly the same weeks and months as he and De Benedetti were preparing their report – contains some of the most powerful pages ever written on precisely those terrible ‘selections’, which Levi experienced and chronicled as few others. More vaguely, Beckman implies that Levi had only a minor, almost irrelevant role to play in writing and publishing the Auschwitz Report in 1946, and that it is therefore dishonest to publish it as a work by Levi. Yet none of the evidence Beckman produces to back up this assumption (such as the alphabetical ordering of the authors’ names in its first publication) suggests anything other than a genuinely co-authored report. As I discuss in the introduction to Auschwitz Report Levi’s role was, in fact, substantial: as such it is a work of considerable literary and historical interest. And it certainly does not warrant Beckman’s shrill assault on the book’s publishers.

Beckman, rather like Jonathan Aitken once did, assumes the mantle of arbiter of the true, calling for ‘absolute fidelity to truth’ and adherence to Levi’s own standards of ‘rigour’. His slips rather belie his apparently noble cause, as does his suprisingly benign description of the Nazi medical structures, when he does touch on the content of the report: to describe Levi and De Benedetti as ‘survivors of [Nazi] medical care’ hardly captures the reality of what they suffered, nor the true purpose of the report. The rhetoric is breathless and unrelenting, though: he accuses Verso of ‘dolling’ up the work, ‘desperately swelling it’ to book length (as if short books were somehow immoral), ‘piggybacking’ on Levi’s fame; the introduction is ‘spurious and crass’, although no good reason is given. Further, the book was, Beckman says, swelled by pieces in the postscript, but these do exactly what Beckman complains elsewhere the book doesn’t do enough of: that is, give Leonardo De Benedetti his due. They contain two moving tributes by Levi to his life-long friend De Benedetti.

Here we come to the serious crux of the matter: how to treat the ‘other’ author. Levi’s name – and Beckman has measured it – is apparently five times larger than De Benedetti’s on the front cover (although not on the inner cover, nor on the contents page, nor at the head of the report itself) and he appears as having written the report ‘with’ Levi. Yet, as we’ve seen, they shared more or less equal authorship of the report. Is this publication strategy immoral or hypocritical? In 1946, perhaps, there was no reason to give Levi top billing. But, now, nearly 20 years after Levi’s death, when he is established as one of the truly great voices of 20th-century literature and testimony, how disingenuous is it to pretend that he doesn’t belong above the title line, and above his co-author? It’s a tricky decision to make, one I discussed with Verso, and one without a black-and-white answer. The report is a fascinating and important historical document, but how many would read it without Levi’s name prominently attached?

Commerce comes into the picture, no doubt, but so too do canonization and history. Sigmund Freud’s complete works include Studies in Hysteria, a work co-authored by Josef Breuer. The Two Noble Kinsmen is by a pair of playwrights, called, in alphabetical order, John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. No prizes for guessing who gets first billing between the two. It would be interesting to discuss, calmly, the rights and wrongs of relegating the likes of Breuer, Fletcher and De Benedetti out of their alphabetical places and into the shadows of their more famous co-authors; and whether or not we would have heard of them at all, otherwise. We could discuss how, even with the Holocaust, documents can exist as simultaneously part of history and part of literary history, as both of then and of now. The historical document, Auschwitz Report, was by ‘Dr. Leonardo de Benedetti (physician) and Dr. Primo Levi (chemist)’; but Auschwitz Report takes its place in literary history also, as the work in which Primo Levi’s lifetime of writing about Auschwitz began.

There was some fuss the other day (you may have seen Jonathan Beckman's Observer review?) about Verso's packaging of our Book of the Month Auschwitz Report. Beckman was cross because "Verso has dolled this up as the work of Levi, blazoning his name on the front of the book, at least five times bigger than the words 'with Leonardo De Benedetti'." But this is really rather silly. Beckman himself says, "De Benedetti's name does not sell books" (indeed so: who, bar a few experts will have heard of him?).


Michael Orthofer says this this sounds "pretty typical of the games publishers play. Can any of them be trusted?" But if Verso had not described this as a work of Primo Levi many, many readers would simply have missed it and that, surely, would have been a dereliction of their duty? Verso should be congratulated for bringing back a forgotten document into wide circulation: publishing Auschwitz Report is a good thing!


Beckman says:


The exploitative packaging of Auschwitz Report is misleading. This 48-page document, with preface, introduction and postscript desperately swelling it to book length, is basically a report by two survivors of medical care in the Buna-Monowitz, a satellite camp of the Auschwitz complex. It is clear that this was written by Leonardo De Benedetti with the assistance of Primo Levi, not the other way around. Internal evidence also suggests De Benedetti as the main author. When discussing the selection of people for gassing, the report spends a page on the procedure for choosing invalids (events experienced by De Benedetti alone). When the report was published in 1946 in an Italian medical journal, it was almost certainly as a result of De Benedetti's influence, and named the authors as 'Leonardo De Benedetti and Primo Levi'.

My understanding is that Beckman is wrong to say that Levi had no knowledge of the procedure for choosing invalids. The preface, introduction and postscript may "swell" the report, but I found them to be useful and informative. Beckman also objects to the cover suggesting that the spectacles are representations of "Levi's distinctive bottle-lensed glasses", but the glasses are obviously not the kind Levi wore (just look at the cover). Indeed, the cover is probably a visual synecdoche for the vast piles of glasses so often seen in Nazi propaganda shots. But Beckman again, despite what seems like rather comically affected apoplexy, gets it right when he says, "Auschwitz Report provides an important corrective to the accepted view of Auschwitz ... [it] is a small but significant addition to Holocaust documentation."


Primo Levi is one of the most important writers of the 20th century – a work co-written by him is important as a work written by him. And, again, who would buy a book by De Benedetti!?


Addendum: Rowan Wilson, the Publishing Manager at Verso (and an old and very dear friend of mine) has just brought my attention to Robert Gordon's response to Beckman's "shrill assault" (Gordon is the editor of Auschwitz Report; his response was published in yesterday's Observer). Gordon's letter has been edited; I'm trying to get hold of the unexpurgated version which I'll publish later.

There are two poles to contend with, to negotiate, when reviewing. Especially with regard to new books, the pressure is to venture an opinion, the fear, I suppose, is "getting it wrong" (one misreads something or, perhaps worse, one believes something to be "good"; critical opinion all says "bad"); with established books, the fear is banality (simply reiterating what is already well-established) and, especially with books that have become "classics", daring to venture an opinion against the body of received academic lore. Saying anything about, for instance, Shakespeare would seem pointless or foolhardy. Notwithstanding that, and aware that I might fall flat on my face, I'd like to write some very provisional notes about To The Lighthouse.


I know precious little about Virginia Woolf. I have read one biography (Julia Briggs' Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life which I thought was excellent) and, now, two of her novels (I read Orlando many years back). I cannot even begin to pretend any great understanding of her work, but I do want to respond to To The Lighthouse, which I've just read, which moved me greatly. The novel seemed to confirm a personal maxim of mine, no doubt gleaned from the writings of Gabriel Josipovici, especially his The Lessons of Modernism, that we have not fully learnt all we could from Modernism, and that the questions Modernism asked, and the challenges that Modernism posed, remain with us today. Almost 80 years since it was written (it was published by the Woolf's own Hogarth Press in 1927) and To The Lighthouse still makes most modern fiction look tired, nescient and pointless. Almost 80 years since it was written and it still retains something vital and fresh.


How has the novel retained its freshness and vitality? Its form is as important as its content; its content is self-aware of the form through which it is being expressed. It is tender and intelligent; domestic and philosophical; it is aware of its artifice. In its central section, Time Passes, an obvious reference to Proust (Woolf was obsessed by Proust and noted in her journal his "tremendous sensibility & curiosity & intelligence"), the hinge between The Window (dominated by the thoughts and character of Mrs Ramsay and through whose perspective we see many of the other characters and see into her -- and their -- mind) and The Lighthouse (Lily Briscoe to the fore), the reader is moved, at pace, through time (ten years, the sympathetic fallacy of the declining house, and a war). The narratorial perspective shifts. For this section, we are outside looking in. And we learn, almost casually (shockingly, in parentheses) of Mrs Ramsay's death.


There is a compelling rhythm to the writing in The Window. We move back to a similar style in The Lighthouse. This reinforces the centrality of Time Passes and gives the novel's shape such strength. I'm uncomfortably using the term "stream of consciousness" (note, anyway, that the novel is all narrated in the third person) because is seems to me to have been degraded now to mean little more than a style marked by sentimental, mawkish interiority (what I often think of, in film, as the dreary expedient of the voiceover). Here the interior monologue is exquisitely handled: inquisitive, fickle, capricious, grounded. At the centre is war and death: Andrew Ramsay dies at the front, Prue Ramsay dies in an "illness connected with childbirth" and, as noted, Mrs Ramsay dies "rather suddenly".


Lily Briscoe doesn't go on the boat-trip with the family at the end of the novel (Mr Ramsay is now quite old, but his youngest child, Cam, is still only fifteen; his son, James, is sixteen). She stays in the garden, she remembers back to earlier times, and she paints. Indeed, she struggles to finish a portrait of Mrs Ramsay. Art has to contend, contain, contest death. Its contours are shaped by death. Charles Tansley who, earlier, cruelly and stupidly claimed that women could neither paint nor write, is also remembered. And dismissed. Lily has been struggling to get the perspective right for years. “It is finished,” Lily says. Carmichael the poet looks on.

Again, a book referred to (here on RSB), but not (as yet) written about. Back on the week commencing Monday 17th July, César Aira's "short, powerful portrait" An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter was my Book of the Week. The landscape painter of the title is Johan Moritz Rugendas (as the complete-review reminds us, "Rugendas is an historic figure, a well-known 19th century painter (he lived 1802-1858), born in Germany but best known for his South and Latin American paintings.") The novel concerns itself with a set of expeditions, beginning in 1837, with another German painter, Robert Krause.


Again, a short novel, in danger of being thought of as slight, but in fact a subtle, compelling piece: riveting, unnerving and odd. The physical journey being, as we'd expect, secondary to the spiritual quest it facilitates. Whilst Rugendas is the star pupil of the "physiognomic" painter Alexander von Humboldt, his painting interests draw him away from his master and into Argentina's wild, expansive heartland. Rugendas is not content merely to paint (and certainly not to paint by way of Humbolt's (pseudo-)scientific code). Rugendas wants, via his painting, to explore "the other side of his art". He wants his art to be the site of his exploration, to be the exploration itself; but he needs the emptiness of Argentina's massive skies and endless plains to work with and against. Implicitly then, the mind/body split is questioned. Rugendas, moving from the crass materialism of Humboldt's physiognomic painting, still actually needs the physical challenge of his adventuring and the physical sublimity of the countryside to find, and ground, his true art. And -- final triumph of the Real! -- he needs to understand his art with reference to (his) death. (Blanchot wrote in The Work of Fire: "Without death everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness.") Rugendas, in fact, nearly does die. And comes to know the cataclysm of his accident as the central moment in his life and the moment from which he could understand what he was reaching towards in his art. And Aira brings some of Rugendas's (self-)understanding back to bear on his art, in this novel: the event of Rugendas's accident being, of course, the central moment in his excellent book.

The good folks over at 3:AM are organising a tribute to Scottish almost-Situationist Alexander Trocchi (author of, amongst other things, Young Adam and Cain's Book; for more see A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi).


White calves, black ski-trousers will be held at The Three Kings pub, Clerkenwell Close, London EC1 (Farringdon) at 7.30pm this Thursday. RSB interviewees Tom McCathy and Stewart Home will both be in attendance. Should be a good night.


Ooh, goodness, lots of signposting from me today. Well, anyway, this looks interesting (and I can't go!): from the Forum for European Philosophy on Thursday 12th October (6.30-8.00pm) at Borders, 120 Charing Cross Road, WC2, London, Rosi Braidotti (Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Utrecht University) is to give a talk entitled The Ethical Accountability of Nomadic Subjects. On Thursday 2nd November RSB interviewee Tom McCarthy takes the stand, same time at the same venue, in the next Borderlines event.

The Manchester Blog Awards Shortlist has been announced. I'm thrilled to say that ReadySteadyBook's blog has been shortlisted as one of the three Best Arts and Culture Blogs (alongside music blog Yer Mam! and Bitter and Blue ["Opinion, commentary, news, views and tears about Manchester City and beyond"]).


The other shortlisted blogs are:


Blog of the Year

Mancubist
The Airport Diaries
43

Best Personal Blog

A Free Man in Preston
Keris Stainton
Kitchentable

Best Political Blog

Normblog
Skipper
Blood and Treasure

For those who read via a newsfeeder, the last five reviews here on RSB are:


  • Paul Griffiths on Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes
  • me on Noam Chomsky's Imperial Ambitions
  • Max Dunbar on Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men
  • And Max on Will Self's The Book of Dave
  • Janelle Martin on Charles D'Ambrosio's The Dead Fish Museum
  • Good friend of RSB, Edmund Hardy, was on Resonance FM on Sunday talking about Thomas Bernhard (and particularly about Bernhard's poetry, recently translated by RSB interviewee James Reidel in his In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon). First, I need to apologise for not letting y'all know about this. And secondly, I still owe Edmund an apology for not having written anything for his Douglas Oliver: Radial Symposium. I had hoped that Edmund's Bernhard appearance would be archived somewhere on the Resonance FM site, but I can't find it. If he is there, please leave a comment directing me. Thanks!

    Over at Dennis Cooper's blog (which contains some porn -- so I've removed the hyperlink -- best be aware of the nature of Dennis's site if you are accessing it!) it seems to be Maurice Blanchot Day. Some excellent Blanchot resources on there. (The RSB Blanchot minsite, to which Dennis kindly links, is due to be updated -- along with the other RSB minisites -- in the next few weeks.)


    If you put a gun to my head -- not that you would -- and asked me whom I'd consider the greatest writer of the 20th century -- not that asking my opinion is worth risking a police encounter -- I'd say, 'That's easy, put the gun down. Maurice Blanchot.' He's both my favorite fiction writer and my favorite writer of what's alternately dubbed philosophy or language theory. His Death Sentence is either my favorite novel of all time, or it's tied for favorite with Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. To me, Blanchot is to the written text as Bresson is to the captured image, which is to say not so much the greatest at his chosen medium -- obviously a ridiculous proposition -- as he is an artist as singular, ruthless, pure, and infested with belief in the abilities of language as anyone who has ever tried their hand at writing. He might also be the writer who most warrants the words 'not everyone's cup of tea.' Many find his work impossibly dense and cold. To quote from his unusually excellent Wikipedia entry, 'It is difficult yet imperative to note the particular experience of reading Blanchot: his grip on the reader and his ability to mix anguish, philosophical thought, an imagination of death, and a narrative where everything seems to almost happen is often particularly discomforting.' To me, his work's 'discomfort' is the formula for ecstacy. His work is one of the impossibly high standards against which I try to assess my own writing, which leaves me perpetually unsatisfied and disappointed with my efforts, which in turn causes me to keep working hard for whatever good it does.

    I've just posted a great interview with the art historian Leo Koerner (author of The Moment of Self-portraiture in German Renaissance Art, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape and The Reformation of the Image.) Don't miss it. It's a belter.

    I'm going to be posting an interview here on RSB with the superb art historian Professor Joseph Leo Koerner later this week. In the meantime, to whet your appetites, here is Eamon Duffy reviewing Koerner's excellent The Reformation of the Image (from the LRB):


    Joseph Koerner's scintillating, learned and eloquent book explores this shift [art as no longer sacred, but instead offering an alternative form of textuality, mere food for thought] by an extended investigation of the method and meaning of Cranach's Lutheran paintings, especially the monumental altarpiece he painted for Luther's own church, the Stadkirche at Wittenberg, installed there in 1547 as a memorial to the first and greatest of the reformers. Koerner sees in this altarpiece the key to a new aesthetic, which preserved art by turning it into a form of pious self-effacement, enacting its own theological redundancy by presenting itself as a mere system of useful signs, not so much an alternative as a supplement to text, a vehicle for information and affirmation of the new gospel. Emptied of emotion and of claims to transcendence, Lutheran art represented the sacred not by confronting the visible church with images of the invisible church, a company of the saints caught up in a heavenly worship (as in Catholic altarpieces such as Duccio's Maestà or van Eyck's Ghent Adoration of the Lamb), but by depicting the quotidian activities of the visible church itself.

    Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes is hugely affecting: disquieting, profound, emotionally truthful. It occupies just sixty pages. I'm wary of talking about this astonishing and beautiful book for two reasons: I fear invoking cliches about it punching above its weight, about it being short but never slight; and I fear that, as with the work of Beckett, a prolix review would be entirely inappropriate given the minimalist qualities of the work in question. But criticism, like all metalanguages, tends to infinity with regard to its object: you can write endlessly about any work of art, but, in the end, it must be allowed to speak for itself. How, then, to let Everything Passes speak and, yet, to write about it, to respond to it?


    As Steve noted the other day, "There are some books whose first lines, the opening lines, are enough. Reading them, you know this is it. This is why you read." As Steve quotes, the novel (the diminutive novella seems too pretty, too dismissive) begins:


    A room.
    He stands at the window.
    And a voice says: Everything passes. The good and the bad. The joy and the sorrow.
    Everything passes.


    Immediately, a rhythm. The stage is set. Indeed, these could almost be stage directions. (And, again, and not to Josipovici's detriment, one thinks of Beckett.) The stage is set, and we are drawn on, we read on. The tone is melancholy, minatory even. Looking through a cracked window pane, Felix remembers. Brief sketches, but full enough, redolent of a flawed, full existence. A lived life. Josipovici doesn't create characters by packing the narrative with events that pretend, via accumulation, to some authentic, life-like verisimilitude (the more facts, the more real; the more pages, the more real!). Rather, he builds an emotional veracity that arises from an honesty about the nature of writing itself. And so, and at first this feels a little abrupt, the monosyllabic work opens out and Rabelais is recalled (but this is never bloodless, intellectual writing: Josipovici manages, via a concision that verges on the magical, to evoke the full confusion and pain of familial love in a matter of a sentence or two). Rabelais: the writer who invented modern writing. Writing that was to be read, by strangers, not made as part of, and for, a community. The writer who first knew the absurdity of modern writing, of writing, to be read, by and for these strangers. The writer who first knew. Extreme contemporary!


    Rabelais is remembered and other memories intrude. A life passes. Everything passes. A lover passes besides Felix, and gently pushes her way into the garden. His son and daughter come and go. A wife, that lover, a life. Even words pass. But these, these pass slowly: the book contains as much silence and space (it is almost auto-contemplative) as it does language. And this is only right. Beautiful.

    Looking back over a few weeks' blogging I sometimes note, not the books that I have mentioned, but the books that I've read that somehow haven't, in one way or another, made it into my entries here on RSB. The "absent" books may not have formed any part of the blog, but they have often been important as part of my thinking about literature and its attendant difficulties. (Or, rather, my ongoing difficulties with literature.) One such unmentioned book is Philip Roth's Everyman. I found the work hugely flawed. But, then, flaws are what make a work of art interesting, of course. There is no such thing as a perfect life and, so, a perfect novel is itself impossible to imagine. It would be like finding out that there really is an answer to the riddle that is life, the universe and everything; such an answer could only ever be a banality.


    Everyman was received with mixed reviews (Tim Adams in the Guardian praised it highly; Michiko Kakutani called it, "a cobbled-together production of a writer coasting wearily along on automatic pilot") and my own feelings share the critics' general ambivalence. AS Byatt glossed the story thus: "The book opens with his funeral, and ends with the moment of his death on the operating table. In between, with a blunt and steady progress, the reader sees through his eyes the slow dissolution of his body." But it isn't the story that is interesting here (in truth, a good tale is the last thing I'm looking for when I read a novel): it is the form and the style of the work. Both whether the form and the style engage with the content, reflect it, bolster its truth and whether, in themselves, they question, in some way, the very certainty of the endeavour that is writing.


    John Banville called Roth's style in Everyman "measured, understated, withholding - in a word, plain." Certainly, it is the plainness that is most affecting about the piece. Not, here, the macho, unadorned, "muscular" prose of any number of post-Hemingway writers (from the Beats to Fante and Bukowski), but something more artful, refined and reserved. Prosaic, here, because it is restrained, not because it is vapid. And artful because, starting as the story does with our Everyman's funeral, the narrative has nowhere to go, no real surprises to spring. And how apt that is! The inevitability of the narrative is admitted at the outset. The absurdity of the endeavour written into the writing of the piece: I can't go on writing, because my character is already dead, I'm already dead. I'll go on writing.


    Only writing that knows the absurdity of writing in a world where death has undone so many should expect our time and effort. This is a slight work from Roth, uneven in its tone, unbelievable in some of its dialogue, seemingly rushed in some of its phrasing, confused in overall effect. But it is a compelling and troubling work even so. Its assurance is belied by the discomfiting truths that the very shape of the work embodies. And its inability to remain assured in the face of the truths it is awkwardly working out make the novel, I think, if not entirely satisfying, honest and praiseworthy.

    RSB contributor Ismo Santala is in London! As he said over at the Splinters blog:


    Anyway, the point of this post is to get the word out: I arrived in London two days ago, and will be living (& studying) here until the end of January. Since the express purpose of my stay is to improve my spoken English, I'd like to meet with as many bloggers, writers and artists, etc. as possible.

    You can find my email address by visiting my weblog (click on my name on the top of the sidebar). If nothing else, I'd appreciate some good links/resources re: literary London. Thanks.

    The matchless Dalkey Archive Press have just released their latest Gilbert Sorrentino novel, Red the Fiend: "a recasting of Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, this is the story of how a child becomes a monster: of how Red the boy becomes Red the Fiend."


    This reminds me that I never mentioned Derik A. Badman's online comic Elegy for G.S. (which is in the latest The Quarterly Conversation). And it also reminds me that I need to do some work on the RSB Gilbert Sorrentino minisite and on my other minisites too.

    Many of you, it would seem, have very kindly nominated RSB for inclusion in the Manchester Blog Awards ("winners will be announced at an awards ceremony during the Manchester Literature Festival, at Urbis, on October 16 at 7pm.") Happily, RSB is now well and truly nominated (and "nominations do not count as votes") so, please, don't concern yourselves any further with nominating RSB -- that is now done and dusted -- just keep your fingers crossed that we get shortlisted "in early October."

    Back in mid-July, I mentioned that I had asked Princeton University Press why they had republished Franco Moretti's massive, groundbreaking, five volume critical history of The Novel in an English-language version of just two volumes. I was concerned that this important work of scholarship was being worryingly emaciated. Well, just as I'd landed in Crete for my holiday, Caroline Priday from PUP kindly got back to me saying:


    Our vision in contracting with Einaudi [the Italian publisher] to redact their 5 volumes to 2 volumes was driven by the desire to produce a work that would, effectively, portray the scholarship contained in the original for the broadest possible array of English-language readers around the world -- scholars, critics, and students alike. This I think we have done, and more successfully than might have been the case with a 5-volume work, whose appeal would have been limited, inevitably, to academic libraries.

    Did we de-emphasize the international aspect of the work? If anything, I think we have effectively preserved the work's international appeal. Indeed, it is a tribute to Professor Moretti's editing of our two-volume edition that the book is as broadly cross-national in its scope as it is. Our two volumes include more than 40 contributors from universities outside the US -- from countries such as Italy, Germany, Cuba, India, Turkey, China and Brazil -- out of a total of 100 contributors. And more than 40 pieces were translated from their original language. So we feel our edition of this book comprises an impressively international scholarly enterprise.

    As noted, our original conception for the English-language edition of this book was for a two-volume work, and this was based on our publishing vision and our sense of how to get this book out to a large audience. We certainly do not, as a press, decline to publish works on the grounds of their being multi-volume. As you will be aware, we hardly shy away from multi-volume works, and for over a century have in fact published many multi-volume works -- some of them extending into thirty or forty volumes and more -- and continue to do so.

    We're confident that, with the superb direction of editor Franco Moretti and the collective efforts of our colleagues, we've published what will be a landmark book on the novel for years to come.

    If, as Caroline says, the decision to reduce the Moretti down to two volumes was to "portray the scholarship contained in the original for the broadest possible array of English-language readers," rather than publish a book that was destined only to remain unread in libraries, I don't see why a single-volume "taster" could not have been published alongside the full, five volumes for those interested readers who require access to the full text.

    Right then! I'm just back from two weeks holiday in (very) sunny Crete. Today, I'll be catching my breath, but expect things to start coming alive again around here (and at the Book Depository) on Monday at the latest.

    Please take the time to read my interview with Jean Paulhan expert Professor Michael Syrotinski. I've already published Michael's wonderful, short profile of Jean Paulhan here on RSB and also his introduction to Paulhan's The Flowers of Tarbes. In our interview, Michael outlines further why Paulhan is such an important figure.


    In the interview, Michael mentions a forthcoming anthology of Paulhan's collected essays (translated by Jennifer Bajorek) due soon from the University of Illinois Press. Actually, that translation is a collective effort: Jennifer translated a third of it, RSB interviewee Charlotte Mandell translated a third, and Éric Trudel (who teaches French literature at Bard College) translated a third.

    Don't expect much posting throughout August! I'm not sure when, where or even if a holiday is on the cards this year, but I do know I need to not look at another computer screen for a few weeks!

    Succour magazine is calling for submissions:


    Succour is a biannual journal of new fiction and poetry. The magazine grew out of the University of Sussex's Creative Writing courses and is now sold in London, Brighton and Oxford. A themed journal, Succour aims to promote quality original work by new artists and writers.

    For issue 4, The Obscene, Succour are looking for fiction, poetry and artwork from Manchester-based writers. You can email submissions to RSB's very own Max Dunbar. Prose submissions should not exceed 2500 words and should be attached as a Word document. Artwork can be emailed as bmp or jpeg files. You can interpret the theme as wilfully or obliquely as you like.

    The deadline is Monday 28th August.

    The good folk at bloggasm ("Bloggasm is a media blog featuring interviews from the most interesting blogs around. In between interviews, we also talk about current events") have seen fit to interview yours truly. Far more interesting are some of the other "literature" folk they've interviewed (like George Murray from Bookninja for instance).

    Do, please, forgive the radio silence. I've been away on a wee mini-break to Big London Town (I'd headed down because PN Review were having a 30th birthday bash). As well as the party, I did some wonderful tourist things (went to Sir John Soane's Museum and Dr Johnson's House and saw the excellent Modigliani and His Models exhibition at the Royal Academy). Now I'm back ... and I'm shattered.

    Yesterday, I posted Max's review of Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast. As ever with Max, its a good, solid review, but I know that comments like, "unlike many in the antiwar movement, Palast ... has not staggered down the road of supporting any dictator or theocrat who is against the US" and "I and many people on the left supported the Iraq war because it was essentially the only way of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and giving Iraqis some hope in the first time in thirty-five years" will, understandably, be a red rag to some. I'll hold my tongue for now, but for those who wish RSB book reviews had their own dedicated comments facility, comment here!

    As you'll probably know, RSB interviewee Tom McCarthy has a new book out: Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Granta). See the Guardian extract for more or read Susan Tomaselli's review. We're not big lovers of Tantan around here: although we do pronounce his name in a poncey way just to show how francophilic we are!

    Jerzy Ficowski's only book of his own fiction Waiting for the Dog to Sleep (Twisted Spoon Press) is one of my Books of the Week this week. There is a useful short obituary for Ficowski over at Forward.com which gives some background to this important Polish writer and expert on Bruno Schulz. (For more on BS, see Mark Kaplan's tribute to Bruno Schulz.)

    I'm never quite sure why "summer reading" has come to be a synonym for "reading rubbish books", but the lists that abound at this time of year rarely seem to bring one's attention to anything decent. I hope my own Books of the Month for July offer a little more food for thought ...


    First up is Darkness Spoken the collected poems of the extraordinary Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann (published by Zephyr Press, "a non-profit arts and education organization" based in the US that have a very good list).


    And then we have Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation by James K. Lyon (Johns Hopkins University Press): "Drawing heavily on documentary material—including Celan's reading notes on more than two dozen works by Heidegger, the philosopher's written response to the poet's Meridian speech, and references to Heidegger in Celan's letters—Lyon presents a focused perspective on this critical aspect of the poet's intellectual development and provides important insights into his relationship with Heidegger, transforming previous conceptions of it."

    Responding to my interview with the poet and Celan-translator Pierre Joris, the writer and publisher Anthony Rudolf (of the excellent Menard Press) has written me this lovely note, which I'd like to share:


    I would like to gloss Pierre Joris's comments on Celan translations and exclusivity, made during the fascinating interview posted on RSB. I'm glad he put the word 'official' in quotation marks concerning Michael Hamburger for, during the nearly forty years I have known him, Michael has always insisted that he is against exclusivity on principle when it comes to poetry translation, although he can see why other considerations enter the frame with a long prose book.

    Gisèle [Celan-Lestrange], herself a distinguished print maker and artist, exasperated by the amount of time she had to spend dealing with copyright questions, anthology requests etc, asked me in the early 1980s if I thought Michael would agree to be the exclusive translator of her late husband; it would simplify her life no end, she said. I told her about Michael's honourable attitude and that what she proposed was not the solution.

    Allow me to mention a memory triggered by this communication. Gisele and I were friends for a number of years, but we lost touch, as sometimes happens. Later, I attended the funeral of my friend Edmond Jabès at Père-Lachaise in January 1991. I half-recognised a woman who looked ill and strained, a shadow of the beautiful and elegant person she had been. I went up to her, and said: Gisèle? There was a pause -- as if to complete my half-recognition and make it whole -- and then a reply: Anthony? We embraced. Less than a year later, she was dead.

    Two more comments: Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès were close friends. One day, perhaps, Celan's heavily annotated copy of Le Livre des questions will be published facsimile with a commentary (Pierre is surely too busy to edit it). Lastly, for those with the requisite French, the two-volume boxed edition of Paul's correspondence with Gisèle, published by Le Seuil in 2001, is essential reading.

    PS a pertinent extract from a draft memoir:

    Some years ago, I was about to publish my own translations of Claude Vigée’s poetry and prose. As an old friend, I had long known about his version of Four Quartets, which had lain untouched in a drawer for half a century because T.S. Eliot had agreed to exclusive rights in the translation by Pierre Leyris about three weeks before he read (and admired) Vigée's translation. I told Claude that the time had come to mount a campaign to find a publisher for his version. There was no problem at Faber and Faber, and Valery Eliot and Kathleen Raine wrote supporting letters. But the French publisher of Leyris was adamant that there could not be a rival version in France. I said what about Menard, which is a UK publisher? To this suggestion, they said yes, but only if Leyris agreed. Naturally, I wrote to the master translator of English poetry (Eliot, Hopkins, Shakespeare etc) in appropriate and respectful terms. He replied with the sweetest letter, saying that it was impossible for him to say no but that I should make sure that Vigée drew a distinction between “durée” and “temps” when translating the word “time”. And so the book was published, with the bonus of one of Gabriel Josipovici’s best essays, which was specially written for this book and translated into French for the occasion. He later published it in English in PNR, as I recall. The Menard book also contains a previously unpublished letter by T.S. Eliot.

    The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed a few small changes on the blog page (thanks so much Lee). Most usefully (I hope) is that we've added a form to the site for readers/publishers/authors/bloggers to let me now about their literary news.


    If you do have cause to use the form, please remember that ReadySteadyBook is a literary site, so if you have self-published a crime novel, that's great, I'm thrilled for you, I hope its sells millions of copies, but I do not need to know about it via the RSB news form. Thanks!

    No, not Goethe's book, but FW Murnau's 1926 silent classic! The good folk at Masters of Cinema have very kindly sent on a copy of their Two-disc 80th Anniversary Special Edition of the film. And, for once, "special edition" actually means something: this is a "newly found domestic German print featuring completely different takes and much better resolution than the previously seen export print released outside of Germany". I'm going to review this on RSB soon and, if me and the Masters of Cinema folk can get it together, I'm going to review a good few of their other gems too.


    Murnau, a perfectionist, shot multiple takes of each scene with only prime takes making the final German domestic cut of Faust. Only the prints made for export outside Germany were seen until recently, indeed this version was at one time thought to be the only version (it used discarded takes, errors, less impressive special effects, and human stand-ins for real animals). Using the nitrate duplicate negatives printed by UFA in 1926 (and an array of international sources) Murnau's favoured domestic German version of Faust has now been meticulously reconstructed by Luciano Berriatúa for Filmoteca Española from which this newly restored transfer is sourced.

    Nice: RSB interviewee Michael "OBE" Schmidt on Foxe's Book of Martyrs (thanks Max).

    Max wrote an excellent and considered review of Henry Baum's North of Sunset t'other day here on RSB. Henry's rebuttal to said review can be read over on his Ash Tree blog.

    RSB contributor (and my good friend), the poet, publisher, academic and critic, Michael Schmidt has been awarded the OBE: "For services to Higher Education and to Poetry". Huge congratulations Michael!

    Thanks to our friends at Coffee House Press we've added some more goodies to our Gilbert Sorrentino minisite. Now on RSB we have some great excerpts from his work. These are: A Beehive Arranged on Humane Principles from The Moon In Its Flight; Pair of Deuces from A Strange Commonplace; Sea of Cold from Lunar Follies and The Tomato Episode from Little Casino.

    We seem to be having some problems with the "comments" functionality on the blog. We're working to get this fixed but, in the meantime, if you'd like to add a comment to a blog entry and you can't get it to work (it does seem to be working for some folk, so do try the traditional method first!) just email me the comment and I'll add it for you. Thanks!

    The Guardian newspaper finally gets around to a Gilbert Sorrentino obituary. More on GS on the RSB Gilbert Sorrentino minisite.

    Just been to Swindon and back. Shattered. Swindon is further away from Manchester than any place on God's good earth. Nowhere is further away from my house than Swindon. I may sleep for the next three days.

    Back on the 19th May, Steve mentioned The Book Depository. Well, I'm thrilled to say that I am The Book Depository's web-editor!


    Fantastically, I have complete and utter editorial discretion and can feature whatever books I like. Most certainly, The Book Depository is a commercial site, but my job there is to surface forgotten, ignored and marginal books, as well as -- for reasons of topicality -- those that have become Books of the Moment by being, for example, Book of the Week over on Radio 4.


    At the moment, if you visit The Book Depository site, you may get a wee bit of a sense of déjà vu: a good deal of the content (book reviews and interviews) have come from RSB. But, going forward, there will be lots and lots of unique content on The Book Depository that will be quite different to what you'll read here.


    I'm thrilled to be helping The Book Depository folk out. I used to work with the Big Boss (Andy) back in my Amazon days and I know how committed he is to extending the range of books that are easily available -- and at a great price (free shipping on everything!)


    I'll also be blogging for The Book Depository over on my Editor's Corner. I'll be focussing more on trade-/publishing-related news and, again, on books (crime, graphic novels, erotic, plainly bonkers) that I don't focus on here - RSB being, after all, a literary site.

    Do you buy a lot of secondhand books online? I do! And I get very annoyed when the books are not exactly as described. I don't mind at all if a book is battered, but I want to know that before I buy it, so I don't get a nasty surprise. Anyway, here is a good grading system for books from the Independent Online Booksellers Association (via BookLad).

    With the help of the good folk at Coffee House Press and the Center for Book Culture, I've started to build a Gilbert Sorrentino minisite. There is some unique content including: Robert Creeley's Afterword to GS's Splendide-Hôtel; The Act of Creation and Its Artifact (from the Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1981); Something Said: Hubert Selby Jnr on GS (from the Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1981) and Two extracts from Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. These articles all need a bit of tidying, which I'll sort once I've got through my recently acquired backlog of emails!

    Nothing whatsoever to do with books. From freegan.info:


    Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources. Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.

    Please take the time to read Andrew Merrifield's superb essay The Flight of the Blackbird: Aboard John Berger's Motorbike.

    A quick RSB question for y'all: we've had a few issues with the size of the left column on the blog page. In some versions of firefox it seems to get very wide indeed squashing the middle column of my blog entries to a very narrow pipe of text. We think we've sorted the problem, but need a wee bit of confirmation: do you like the layout of the blog? are the blog columns the right width? do you want a wider middle blog column? Do let me know via the comments on the blog page. Thanks!

    As you may know, I've been working with a number of literary journals and magazines to bring to RSB readers some unique subscription offers. We have already have reader offers with PN Review, The Reader and the TLS and now, today, I've added a new offer from the excellent US-based Poetry magazine.

    Thanks to the wonderful Lee, RSB now has a sitemap. The page lists every single content page on the site: there are currently around 800 links on there. Ooh, I have been busy!

    We've just started with some adverts here on RSB. I'm not that happy about it. I wanted to keep adverts off the site, but the tiny amount of revenue they raise should help me continue to improve RSB. If the revenue that comes in after, say, three or four months, is still risible then I'll put a stop to them altogether. And if the feedback we get is predominantly negative (or positive) that will help me decide which way to jump too.

    RSB recently interviewed the radical anthropologist Chris Knight. There is another interview with Chris that goes into much more detail, outlining some of the evidence his theory is based on. Most fascinatingly, what he has to say is backed up by some of the latest findings in artificial intelligence.


    It's worth spending a week checking out the truly wonderful Becoming Human website, which has a series of documentaries explaining what we know about the human story, and how we came to know it.

    As many of you will have seen, I've been trying to arrange some great subscription offers for RSB readers. The offers that we have with PN Review and The Reader are just the first of many: watch out for offers coming soon in conjunction with Agenda, Granta and Poetry magazine. Excitingly, the Times Literary Supplement have come on board and are offering RSB readers the chance to save up to 58% on a subscription. This isn't strictly an exclusive offer, but it is, as I understand, the best offer they do (the standard saving on a subscription is up to 43% rather than up to 58%). So, if you want to subscribe to the TLS at a fantastic rate you know what to do. (If you are an non-UK-based reader and wish to subscribe to the TLS at a reduced rate email me - I still need to get this aspect sorted.)

    Very busy here ... and next weekend we move house. So that'll be fun. My books are mostly packed. I feel bereft, yet simultaneously freed from their gaze.


    So, I don't think I'll get much time to blog today, but may I bring your attention to a couple of new reviews on the site? Ismo reviews The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell, Paul reviews War & War by László Krasznahorkai and Max reviews NW14: The Anthology of New Writing. Go read.

    Unbeknownst to me, the comments on RSB have been broken (not quite sure for how long). Anyway (thanks Lee!) all sorted now.

    RSB's science editor, the lovely Stuart Watkins, has brought my attention to a few recent, decent science book reviews: Marek Kohn reviews Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (a good book, says Marek, but its vision of man the tool-maker is now overlaid by one of humans as social animals); why we won't be mistaking machines for humans any time soon (via 3 Quarks); and the dangerous battle to find clues about our past (via SciTech Daily Review).

    The has been much fuss recently over Helen Vendler's comments, in The New Republic, concerning Alice Quinn's Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box (uncollected poems, drafts and fragments by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop). I like Helen Vendler. I like her uncompromising, New Critical perspective and the rigour of her reading, but she is wrong to see Alice Quinn's book as a "betrayal" of Bishop. Michael Schmidt, in his editorial for PN Review no.169, says:


    Readers of Bishop’s poetry are interested in the poems, in how they work, in how they came about. It is an arrogation on Vendler’s part to speak for the poet who, in leaving her papers to an archive, spoke with sufficient, quiet eloquence, herself. To limit access to Bishop’s working, to reserve the progressive spectacle of her creative process to academic scrutiny, to preserve it from the poet’s common readers, is a very high-church thing to do.

    (Don't forget that RSB readers can subscribe to PN Review at a special rate. And more RSB offers are on their way, with special deals coming from Poetry magazine and Agenda.)

    If you should so wish, you can now have my ruminations, digressions, rhetoric and guff delivered direct to your in-tray. The wonderful Lee has set up a Subscribe to Blog service (see the left column on the blog). Enjoy!

    Via Lance Mazmanian, I hear the good news that Sian Heder and RSB-interviewee David Newsom have been asked to take their short film Mother to the Cannes Film Festival's Cinefondation Competition, May 2006. Theirs is one of just eighteen shorts selected from more than 1500 submissions.

    Spurred to read John Burnside by Cape's recently issued Selected Poems, I made his poem Septuagesima my Poem of the Week this week. Below is my reading of Septuagesima.


    For those of us who only read fluently in one language the epigraph, in Spanish, at the head of John Burnside's poem Septuagesima, is the second hurdle we face after the title of the work itself. Septuagesima is the name given to the third from last Sunday before Lent in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. Known among the Greeks as Sunday of the Prodigal, the title is taken from the Gospel of Luke's famous The Parable of the Prodigal Son, (chapter 15, verses 11-32), which customarily is read on the day. Understanding this, we are immediately tuned to the fact that this may well be a religious poem or a poem where knowing some of the religious connotation or background or resonance of the title is probably of some importance. A poet is not going to choose such a title, and append such an epigraph, carelessly.


    Jorge Guillén y Álvarez (1893–1984) was born in Valladolid in Spain and was a member of the so-called Generation of '27 poets. The quote in the epigraph is from Guillén's poem Dawn. In English translation it would read something like: "Names. / Above, below they cover the essence / of things." These words set the theme of the coming poem and are echoed both right at the start of Burnside's verse ("the day before Adam came / to name the animals") and towards the end ("before the names, / beyond the gloss of things).


    The first tercet of Septuagesima again tells us that God is in the house - "I dream of the silence / the day before Adam came". And the second stanza's "God's bright fingers" fully confirms the hint of the title, whether we know anything about Burnside's faith or not, that this is indeed a religious poem. The poet dreams of the earth's silence before God had made mankind, way before the events of the Fall. Looking out onto "a winter whiteness" he wonders would that time then be in any way like this time now. Is this light, bright silence in any way like the silence "before Adam"? If it is (and the hint is that it is "like this, perhaps"), what does that tell us?


    We read that the "gold skins" of the newly created, at the time of their newness, were "still implicit with the light". The poet seems to be suggesting that the creatures of creation were themselves formed out of this (Divine) light and the "gold" brings our attention to how precious that creation is. I find myself reminded of William Blake's God reaching down, out of the clouds, almost pure light. Perhaps, in times of quiet contemplation, we can get "beyond the gloss of things" by seeing in the day's quotidian light the very Divine light from out of which it was separated? "[B]eyond the gloss of things" is the Divine. And it is all around us; a patina on our fellow creatures; an ever-present companion - who, asked TS Eliot, "is the third who walks always beside you?"


    Philsophers have long argued about how to discover the thing itself, language being a bridge to the thing described but, finally, a barrier to it: language merely refers. Burnside suggests that we are "sometimes / haunted by ... the forms / we might have known / before the names". Before the corruption of language, just after God first separated the light from the dark, before the animals were named, the forms of things simply were. In their quiddity, their thing-ness still "haunts" us (note the repetition of "haunting" and "haunted"). But why "haunt"? It seems an oddly non-Christian word (ghosts and ghouls haunt, not the Christian God).


    We are sometimes "haunted by the space / we fill". As when we enter a huge, cavernous church or, more simply, just a cave. And sometimes haunted "by the forms / we might have known": the people we might have become or loved; the paths not taken. At the very least, "haunt" suggests the supernatural. It brings our attention to the unnaturalness of God, perhaps even to something frightening about Him. But, despite this one word, the tone of the poem is not fearful, nor fearsome. Burnside dreams "of the silence" before Man was made, and before Sin came. Echoes of those days "before the names", before our Creation and so before our separation from God, can be felt in the light shining now, today, any day, which, finally, is our reassurance: light's silence always speaks of God.

    Fathoms from Anywhere, an online Beckett exhibition, went live today because today, of course, is the hundred year anniversary of Big Sam's birth. I'll be working on the RSB Samuel Beckett minisite, if I get a moment, over the weekend.

    I've just published three new book reviews here on RSB. All very different and all very good: Stuart Watkins provides a detailed and damning review of Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell; Ken Worpole reviews Jaroslav Andel's beautiful The New Vision for The New Architecture: Czechoslovakia 1918-1938 and Max Dunbar writes about Ed Trewavas's grim debut Shawnie.

    One of my Books of the Week this week is Antony Hasler's translation of Georg Heym's Poems (Libris). Heym (1887-1912), who died tragically young, has always been in the shadow of Georg Trakl, who was born in the same year as him. Whilst understandable, this is a real pity. Michael Hofmann has called Heym an "authentic prodigy" (when he reviewed this very volume) and Rilke praised him privately. Hofmann argues, "of the German expressionists (Benn, Trakl, Van Hoddis, Stadler and others) - the modern generation that arrived just before the first world war, whose equivalent in England I suppose would be the imagists - Heym is much the most literary and, on the surface, the most conventional." This, you'll note, does nothing to lesser the pleasure of reading him. For more on Heym, Patrick Bridgwater's Poet of Expressionist Berlin: Life and Work of Georg Heym (from the wonderful Libris, who also publish Heym's The Thief and Other Stories) is your best place to start.

    Mrs Book and I have just bought a house, so things are going to be pretty busy over the next few weeks. Please forgive me, in advance, for what it likely to be a paucity of posting!


    In the meantime, I give you: my interview with the lovely Leora Skolkin-Smith author of Edges: O Israel, O Palestine (Glad Day Books), which was a 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award Nominee.

    I mentioned, back on the 28th March, that I'm going to be working with a number of literary journals and magazines over the coming months to bring to RSB readers some unique subscription offers. PN Review, for example, is offering an 18 month subscription for the annual subscription price of £29.50 and now The Reader magazine is also offering RSB readers an special subscription deal: a cut price subscription, plus a free issue.

    My latest obsession is German poet Peter Huchel. You may have noted that Anvil Press's bilingual edition of his selected poems, translated by the marvelous Michael Hamburger, The Garden of Theophrastus, is one of my Books of the Week. (Actually, that's the second Anvil book in a row: last week it was Nikos Gatsos's Amorgos). And I'm eagerly awaiting Libris's In Time of Need to land. This is a "conversation about Poetry, Resistance and Exile" between German poet, and friend of Peter Huchel, Reiner Kunze, and Huchel's French translator Mireille Gansel, which addresses, to some extent, Hölderlin's question, "What use are poets in time of need?" I will be reviewing In Time of Need for PN Review next month. Reiner Kunze's work in English translation is, sad to say, well out of print.

    I've just posted a review of Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. For those interested in the work of this underrated German master, Edmund Hardy's excellent review of The Parable of the Blind is also certainly worth a read.


    Simplicity is an underrated virtue in fiction, too often it is assumed that plainness and restraint are artless and Spartan. It is presumed that explanation and elaborate backstory create a fully rounded character. But such mimetics do not always make for satisfying art: the elaborate can be merely ornate: motivation can be imposed without a real feeling for the characters' true selves. Allowing a character to not have his/her motivations pinned down and explained away can give a story wings. In Hofmann's short, sturdy, pointed paragraphs, Lichtenberg is presented to us as he presents himself to the uncomprehending citizens of Göttingen: a dandy, an eccentric, a naïve, a learned fool; a flawed man, a good friend, an amateur. All this, and more, without crass psychology and with much humour.

    (For all of my review of Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl.)

    The US-based Poetry magazine was founded by Harriet Monroe in 1912 when "American poetry remained stuck in the twilight of the nineteenth century and an exhausted Romanticism inherited from England." Poetry is still going strong, not least because of a considerable bequest, worth more than one hundred million dollars, from the pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly to the Poetry Foundation (Poetry's parent body) and is currently edited by Christian Wiman (who a couple of years ago made some controversial— and by that I mean wrong-headed — comments about Wallace Stevens). Why all this? Yesterday, I mentioned that I've set up an exclusive subscription deal for RSB readers to PN Review. Well, you lucky things, a similarly great deal for RSB readers will soon be offered by Poetry magazine. You'll have full details in about a week.

    The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed two new links on the navigation at the top of each RSB page: "minisites" and "offers". I've launched a Samuel Beckett and a Maurice Blanchot "minisite" (minisites are just special areas of RSB dedicated to particular writers, their life and work) and they'll be more to come (the next should be for Christine Brooke-Rose). The minisites are still being worked on, so do please forgive any daft mistakes. The only "offer" so far is the PN Review offer I mentioned yesterday, but there are plenty more to come.

    I've just published a wonderful, short profile of Jean Paulhan by Professor Michael Syrotinski. This accompanies Michael's Introduction to Paulhan's The Flowers of Tarbes which I published here on RSB at the beginning of February. Michael is the foremost Paulhan expert here in the UK, note his Defying Gravity: Jean Paulhan's Interventions in Twentieth-century French Intellectual History, The Power of Rhetoric, the Rhetoric of Power: Jean Paulhan's Fiction, Criticism and Editorial Activity, and Progress in Love on the Slow Side. I'll be interviewing Michael soon, in the meantime these excellent Paulhan texts should keep you busy!


    It's difficult to overstate the importance of Jean Paulhan's role in French literature in the first half of the twentieth century, and the influence he wielded. He was closely involved with the leading literary review in France, the Nouvelle Revue Française, from 1920 to his death in 1968, and the director of the review during its illustrious interwar years. His position at the heart of the French literary scene, along with the many other associated editorial activities through which he nurtured and published the cream of a generation of writers, earned him the reputation as the 'grey eminence' of modern French literature.

    (For all of Professor Syrotinski's profile of Jean Paulhan.)

    PN Review is offering an exclusive, special subscription deal to RSB readers: the opportunity to purchase an 18 month subscription for the annual subscription price of £29.50. That's 9 issues for the price of 6 - 50% extra reading! (For more about this subscription deal.)

    I began reading Edward Said's On Late Style (one of my Books of the Week this week, alongside Amorgos by Nikos Gatsos) at the weekend. The book, nicely reviewed by Paul Griffiths in the latest BookForum, was left unfinished when Said died of leukaemia, aged 67, back in September 2003. With the help of his wife Mariam and the literary critics Richard Poirier and Michael Wood (who, as one would expect from such an excellent writer, provides a useful, short introduction) the work has been constructed and looks to be a fitting last book by a key intellectual figure of the last few decades.


    The first essay in the book is an engagement with Adorno's work on late Beethoven. Indeed, Adorno haunts this work. Whilst On Late Style is being billed as Said's last book of literary criticism it is every bit as much a book of musicology.


    Edward Said looks at a selection of essays, poems, novels, films, and operas to determine what late style may explain about the evolution of the creative life. He discusses how the approaching death of an artist can make its way “with anachronism and anomaly” into his work, as was the case in the late work of Thomas Mann, Richard Strauss, Jean Genet, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and C. P. Cavafy. Said examines Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Genet’s Le captif amoureux and Les paravents, Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Visconti’s film of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Euripides’ The Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis, and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, among other works.

    Gabriel Josipovici, who I recently interviewed here on RSB, has kindly allowed my to republish his wonderful essay Borges and the Plain Sense of Things, from his recent collection of essays The Singer on the Shore. As always with Josipovici, Borges and the Plain Sense of Things is a beautiful, nuanced and exceptionable piece of work from one of our very, very finest critics.

    I recently interviewed Chris Knight, professor of anthropology at the University of East London, and author of the acclaimed Blood Relations: Menstruation and The Origins of Culture. Chris made some controversial remarks about Noam Chomsky in our interview which he has now expanded upon in an essay he has written exclusively for RSB entitled Noam Chomsky: The New Galileo?

    I've just reviewed Alberto Manguel's memoir With Borges:


    Borges had known he would turn blind from an early age and finally lost his site in 1957. He was a voracious reader of a wide range of books and Manguel lists some of the titles that were housed in the modest flat Borges shared with his mother, Doña Leonor (who called him Georgie, which was his Northumbrian grandmother's nickname for him), Fanny, their maid, and Beppo, the big white cat. Borges, it transpires, loved Stevenson, Chesterton, Henry James and Kipling, and he loved the Arabian Nights, the Bible, epics like Njals Saga, Homer and Virgil: "epic poetry brought tears to his eyes." He disliked "faddish" literary theory blaming French literature "for concentrating not on books but on schools and coteries."

    (For all of my review of With Borges.)

    I failed to mention that the (American) National Book Critics Circle Awards were recently announced. Two books reviewed here on RSB got the nod: EL Doctorow's The March and Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl.

    I don't think that my admiration for the work of Gabriel Josipovici is any secret whatsoever. So, as you can imagine, I'm absolutely thrilled to have just published an interview with Gabriel here on RSB. (Thanks to Steve with his help and advice on some of the questions.) One of our very, very finest critics, and a wonderful novelist in his own right, Gabriel Josipovici is one of the few writers working in English today who seems to have thoroughly understood the ongoing challenge of Modernism.


    Asking him about the quality of "lightness" that he had once remarked was vital to the success of The Iliad, Gabriel answered:


    For complex reasons art before the Romantics could be both profound and ‘light’. Homer’s and Shakespeare’s plays are cases in point. After the onset of Romanticism it’s as if depth had to entail solemnity, weightiness. Contrast Mozart and Beethoven, Pope and Wordsworth, Fielding and George Eliot. I love many works written after 1800, but I wish it were lighter. And I can’t stand those great nineteenth century works that take themselves so seriously and try to found a new religion, like Mahler’s symphonies. That’s why I love Stravinsky: for me he has everything: wit, lightness, precision, yet a plangency that is deeply moving. He remains the artist I would most like to emulate (one can have ones dreams). I love some of the novels of Bellow and Nabokov and Muriel Spark and Thomas Bernhard because I think they laugh at themselves and their own pretensions even as they burrow into the depths. I love some of the novels of Aharon Appelfeld because they say what they have to say in the simplest way and then stop, and what they have to say moves me deeply. But I could go on and on, with a list of my favourite modern novels – which would include works by Malamud, Shabtai, Simon, Perec, Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Kundera, Joseph Heller and Peter Handke.

    This is unexpected: Robert McCrum has an article in today's Observer Our top 50 players in the world of books. Top of the "ones who nearly made the list" is ... well, me: the Observer seems to reckon that I'm the 51st Most Important Person in Publishing!

    I neglected to mention that Michael Schmidt's excellent editorial to PN Review no.168 is now online here at RSB. Schmidt seems to be one of the few critics around who has noticed how self-laceratingly, blackly funny the poet Geoffrey Hill is. And how bawdy too! Certainly, Hill is a far more approachable writer than the severe, arcane, opaque oracle he is sometimes painted as:


    From its dedication to the Italian poet Eugenio Montale to its impassioned dialogue with the novelist, publisher and poet Cesare Pavese, who committed suicide in 1950, there is a fascinating erotic current. And the book is marked by Hill’s peculiar brand of humour, Old Testament and merciless and true, not least when he reflects on himself.

    Yesterday, I posted a brilliant interview with the radical anthropologist Chris Knight. Chris is professor of anthropology at the University of East London and the author of the highly acclaimed and controversial Blood Relations: Menstruation and The Origins of Culture. Please take the time to read the interview (which Stuart did for RSB); it really is very good!

    This week's Books of the Week are Janis P Stout's Coming Out of War (University of Alabama Press) and Severin Schroeder Wittgenstein (Polity). Stout probes the work of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Randall Jarrell and challenges the belief that war poetry was written only by men by examining the writings of Rose Macaulay, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Schroeder's book is a clear account of Wittgenstein's philosophy, framed against his biography.