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ReadySteadyBlog

One of the Guardian Unlimited Books' top 10 literary blogs: "A home-grown treasure ... smart, serious analysis"

The Bookaholics' Guide to Book Blogs: "Mark Thwaite ... has a maverick, independent mind"

Blog entries for 'July 2007'

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Onfray once more

An interesting article on Michel Onfray's atheism over at the New Humanist which contains this nice quote from Jonathan Rée:


Onfray is the kind of philosopher who is impressed by how much human beings can know with certainty, and he assumes that believers claim certainty too. I’m much more interested in the amount we have to take on trust, and in that respect I think everyone has a lot to learn from a certain kind of believer: not the dreadful dogmatist, but the shy doubter (eg Kierkegaard).

We also learn, from Onfray fan Douglas Ireland:


It’s just silly for English-speaking philosophers to criticise him for not having elaborated on his philosophical project simply because they are incapable of reading him or simply haven’t bothered. Among his 31 books, Onfray has published no less than seven in which he specifically unfolds in great and inventive detail his theory and philosophy of hedonism.

His most recent in this area, La puissance d’exister: Manifeste hédoniste (Grasset, 2006; soon to be translated into English by University of Melbourne Press), is a brilliant summing up of his unique philosophical approach and the constructs which flow from it.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Tuesday 31 July 2007

A Defence of the Book

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

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Monday 30 July 2007

Ingmar Bergman RIP

   
Ingmar Bergman, via bergmanorama.com


What was I supposed to be doing this morning? What was I supposed to be writing? Never mind, I think to myself. Bergman's dead.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Monday 30 July 2007

The Bookseller blog

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!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Thursday 26 July 2007

The Human War

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.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Wednesday 25 July 2007

Comments on RSB

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!!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Wednesday 25 July 2007

Muriel Spark memorial

Bronte Blog informs me that the "Edinburgh Evening News reports that a permanent memorial to Dame Muriel Spark is to be created in Edinburgh":


The memorial stone in Makar's Court, just off the Royal Mile, is seen as a suitably "dignified" tribute to the Edinburgh-born writer, who died in April last year. The simple stone slab will feature either a quotation from one of Dame Muriel's novels or her autobiography.

At the Makar's Court, she will take her place alongside Rabbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, who are also celebrated with inscriptions outside the city's Writers' Museum.(...)

The Muriel Spark Society has been planning a tribute to the author ever since her death, but has struggled to find funds.

But now, following a "generous donation" from an anonymous donor, the plans can go ahead.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Monday 23 July 2007

History books

I was going to read Noam Chomsky's Interventions over the weekend, but on Friday Norman Stone's World War One: A Short History (Penguin) turned up. I read it in about two sittings. Very compelling; commendably well done. Nothing about the African campaigns and, obviously, plenty of other gaps too (weirdly, too much battle detail in parts and, overall, not nearly enough (geo-)politics). I'll review it later today or tomorrow on The Book Depository (currently down because of the Gloucester floods).


I've just got stuck into Adam Tooze's Wages of Destruction. I think this summer, history books are going to dominate.


My favourite history books? Top five might be as below. What are yours? I'm especially keen to know what you'd recommend next on WWI and WWII.


  • Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
  • Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged
  • E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class
  • Frederick Turner's Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness
  • Fredy Perlman's Against His-story, Against Leviathan

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Monday 23 July 2007

Dan Hind on Start the Week

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!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Friday 20 July 2007

Tamar Yellin interview

I've just published a great interview with Tamar Yellin, author of The Genizah at the House of Shepher and Kafka in Bronteland and other stories, over on The Book Depository site.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Friday 20 July 2007

New Chomsky

There is a new Noam Chomsky title due in August, op-ed pieces "adapted from essays ... distributed by the New York Times Syndicate":


Interventions is Noam Chomsky at his best. At a time when the United States exacts a greater and greater power over the rest of the world, America’s leading voice of dissent needs to be heard more than ever. In over thirty timely, accessible and urgent essays, Chomsky cogently examines the burning issues of our post-9/11 world, covering the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Bush presidency and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This is an essential collection, from a vital and authoritative perspective.

This landed here with me yesterday and I'll no doubt read it this weekend. I do think it is worth noting, however, that this is printed on really grotty, low-grade quality paper (nothing to indicate that this is recycled paper). It is a little, boxy hardback which seems a hell of price at £12.99 to me. And there seems little chance of Asda offering this as a loss-leader for a fiver either!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Friday 20 July 2007

Nicholas Murray's blog

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


Nicholas -- welcome to the 'sphere!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Thursday 19 July 2007

Ann Quin

I should've mentioned this a few days ago: Ellis's To the end of everything: Ann Quin’s 'Tripticks':


One of the very few critics to respond to Quin’s work is the American critic Philip Stevick, in his essay Voices in the Head: Style and Consciousness in the Fiction of Ann Quin in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction ... Stevick usefully draws attention to three aspects of Quin’s writing which doubtless account for resistance to her work: the instability of the narrative voice/s, a narrow, ahistorical focus on the inner turbulence of a self in conflict with others, and indifference to storytelling and the manipulated patterns of a plot.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Thursday 19 July 2007

The post: recent and forthcoming titles

The postie has been a fount of book bountifulness this week, bless him. I think, therefore, it is worth letting you know what is sat here on the mantelpiece waiting to be read over the coming weeks:


In fiction, I'm excited to note that Tom McCarthy's new novel, Men in Space, due out in September, has landed. I'll be interviewing Tom about his latest book around the time of publication. In addition, a couple of good classics have also arrived: Flaubert's Madame Bovary, in the Penguin Red Classics range, with -- don't you know! -- a cover design by Manolo Blahnik (him of the shoes); a new translation of the classic that inspired Roland Barthes' seminal S/Z, Balzac's Sarrasine (from Hesperus); and Hermann Hesse's The Journey to the East (from Peter Owen).


In politics, Murphy and Mustapha's The Philosophy of Antonio Negri: Revolution in Theory - Volume 2 is out now, as is Robert Albritton's Economics Transformed: Discovering the Brilliance of Marx. Patrick Cockburn's The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) has a new edition coming out in September. In On the Brink (Politico's), Tyler Drumheller a "former CIA chief" exposes "how intelligence was distorted in the build-up to the war in Iraq."


In philosophy, author William Allen has been kind enough to send me his Ellipsis: Of Poetry and the Experience of Language after Heidegger, Hölderlin, and Blanchot which looks great. More on this anon.


In art, three titles from Thames & Hudson are noteworthy: Andréa Lauterwein's Anselm Kiefer / Paul Celan: Myth, Mourning and Memory, Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real, edited by Armin Zweite and Maria Müller and, as I've already mentioned and am currently thoroughly enjoying, Linda Nochlin's essays on Courbet.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Wednesday 18 July 2007

Dumas due

According to The Kenyon Review blog:


... the lost Alexandre Dumas novel The Last Cavalier will be released by Pegasus in October, reports Publishers Weekly. The book was found in the National Library in Paris two years ago by Dumas expert Claude Schopp, who also added a conclusion to the unfinished novel. The book, published in France in 2005 as Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, “gives a full account of the Battle of Trafalgar, which explains that the hero of the book was responsible for the death of Lord Nelson.” According to BBC News at the time, the novel “has been described as ‘indescribably brilliant’ by scholars.”

I wonder which scholars called it ‘indescribably brilliant’? I somehow can't imagine very many having the balls to call it ‘indescribably crap’!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Wednesday 18 July 2007

Janet Gezari interview at TBD and other bits

Lola the puppy is at the vet's (getting spayed, god bless her). Stupidly, I'm quite frantic with worry, but the nervous energy at least means I'm cracking on with lots of work...


I've just posted a great interview up on The Book Depository with Janet Gezari, author of the excellent Last Things - Emily Bronte's Poems.


And -- in addition to The Official ReadySteadyBook.com Fanclub -- I've also created the Editor's Corner on Facebook group so you can stay up-to-date with what is posted on my Book Depository blog, Editor's Corner, what reviews I've recently added to The Book Depository site and what is going on behind the scenes at The Book Depository (a facelift for the website if you're curious to know ... and soon -- yay!)

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Tuesday 17 July 2007

Blaise Cendrars

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).

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Tuesday 17 July 2007

The Official ReadySteadyBook Fanclub

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.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Thursday 12 July 2007

Wall on Berger

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.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Thursday 12 July 2007

Flares

I'm only two years late, but today I am mostly listening to -- and absolutely loving -- Flares by Port-Royal. I'm rubbish at describing music, but this is post-rock in the more painterly, intimate sense of, say, Helios, with the gorgeous, shimmery hazes of, e.g., Boards of Canada, rather then the bombast of Godspeed! or the jazz-tinges of Do Make Say Think. (Can you say post-shoegazing? I really want to!) The effect-laden guitars are quite lovely, but this has plenty of beats and cut-up textures to keep things interesting too. The arrangements blend over the course of tracks that move from swirls of sound to something much cleaner and drum-led. In parts I was reminded of Dif Juz. And it is a good length too -- almost 80 minutes. I've only just discovered this, which is bonkers, as I love most anything on the Resonant label. Anyway, the even better news is that Port-Royal's latest, Afraid to Dance, is out next Monday. Yay!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Wednesday 11 July 2007

Green on McCarthy

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."

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Wednesday 11 July 2007

Harper Lee

Over on the Kenyon Review blog, Jerry Harp has been Rereading Harper Lee. I'm not convinced I need to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, however. For all the social significance of its homilies it never really felt like more than a good children's book to me. Actually, I think I probably enjoyed the 1962 Gregory Peck film.


As readers of Harper Lee will recall, a central point–perhaps the central ethical lesson–of the novel occurs when Atticus tells Scout about the importance of climbing into another person’s skin and walking around in it, a lesson that Scout puts into practice in her dealings with her brother, Jem, and then with other persons such as Tom Robinson and Arthur Radley, persons who have been marginalized, made “into ghosts,” as Atticus puts it when discussing Arthur Radley with his children.

For a wee while, back in the mid-nineties, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, I used to work in an idyllic, small secondhand bookshop at the top of Hardman Street in Liverpool called Atticus. I'd often have a bottle of red wine on the go and get quietly pissed over the course of an afternoon, listening to Radio 3. Good times.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Tuesday 10 July 2007

Michael Otterman blog

Author Michael Otterman has a blog over on his American Torture site. His book, also called American Torture, which was one of my Books of the Week back at the beginning of May, is out now from Pluto Press:


Michael Otterman reveals the long history of US torture. He shows how these procedures became standard practice in today's war on terror. Initially, the US military and CIA based their techniques on the work of their enemies: the Nazis, Soviets and Chinese. Billions of dollars were spent studying, refining, then teaching these techniques to instructors at military survival schools and interrogators charged with keeping communism at bay. Along the way, the US government produced torture-training manuals that were used in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere. As the Cold War ended, these tortures -- engineered to leave deep psychological wounds but few physical scars -- were legalized using the very laws designed to eradicate their use. After 9/11, they were revived again for use on enemy combatants detained in America's vast gulag of prisons across the globe -- from secret CIA black sites in Thailand to the Pentagon's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Tuesday 10 July 2007

Cape Verde literature

Matt from Mountain*7 is off to the Cape Verde Islands next week:


Here's the thing though: I've dug around and found very little in terms of translated literature. There's the recently published The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida (thanks to the Complete Review for this) but seemingly very little else. The Islands are well known for their thriving literary and poetry scene but I can't seem to find anything else that is readily available - anyone got any nuggets of wisdom out there, on this or any other aspect of the culture and history?

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Tuesday 10 July 2007

How To Read Elfriede Jelinek

There is a detailed overview of the work of Elfriede Jelinek by Tim Parks over in The New York Review of Books: he isn't that impressed!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Monday 09 July 2007

Dan Hind -- was it good for you?

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.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Friday 06 July 2007

New William Basinski

The latest William Basinski CD has landed -- yay! I'll let the boomkat folk explain why I'm so excited:


Background information is typically scant with this latest release from William Basinski's 2062 label, but what we do know is that it features re-discovered tape loops that have been delicately re-crafted for a recent performance at the Montalvo Arts Center. Clocking in at just under 50 minutes, El Camino Real is another one of those breathtaking aural tapestries that Basinski seems to have such an intuitive feel for - effortlessly piecing together elements that bring to mind everything from Arvo Part through to the Cocteau Twins without ever letting go of his own signature sound. Because the source material for these loops has been de-graded and layered so heavily, it's hard to imagine where they could have come from or how they could have been made - all that we're left with are mesmerising remnants of a ghostly female voice dominating the undulating mix to almost harrowing effect. There's also something about this recording that brings to mind more recent contemporary musical experimentations, and in particular the work of Liz Harris under the Grouper moniker - its the same archetypal shoegaze aesthetic that dominates this extended piece and it has a similarly overwhelming effect on the senses : lulling you into a deep state of drift before reminding you that behind the velvety wall of sound lies an uncertain, complex world. El Camino Real is certainly one of Basinski's most absorbing pieces and, for us at least, offers the most contemporary re-interpretation of his own archive recordings to date. We just can't imagine anyone not being overwhelmed by this music - take a listen and sink in while you can.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Friday 06 July 2007

Dan Hind interview (part 5)


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!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Friday 06 July 2007

Mountain*7 on Elizabeth Bishop


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.”

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Friday 06 July 2007

Good-time George gone for good


George Melly (photograph via the BBC)


There just aren't enough jazz-singing, surrealist, alcoholic, bisexual Scousers in the world. And now, sadly, there is one less: George Melly, born in Liverpool in 1926, died yesterday from the effects of battling lung cancer and vascular dementia. RIP George.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Friday 06 July 2007

Schneepart review

Jeremy Noel-Tod briefly reviews Snow Part/Schneepart and Other Poems (1968-1969) by Paul Celan (translated by Ian Fairley) over in the Telegraph (thanks Steve!)


A more colloquial Celan might be imagined - and has been, in America, by Pierre Joris. But the consistent texture of these translations makes for a very satisfying volume to read whole, as Snow Part's psychodrama progresses from privation and sexual surrealism to public poems for troubled times (1968) and, finally, hi-tech apocalypse: "In the entry hatches to truth / the scanners are praying."

This is a great volume but, for me, we need Hamburger's, Fairley's andPierre's translations. Taken together, they help us to read a fuller, truer Celan than we would have in English with just one version.


Mention of Pierre is timely: he very kindly sent me some of his recent publications a couple of weeks ago and I need to report back on them. I'll do that in the next week or so.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Thursday 05 July 2007

Dan Hind interview (part 4)


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.

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Thursday 05 July 2007

Rushdie and Melville

I've been arguing with the fabulously-named Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky over on the excellent Kenyon Review blog about the literary worth of Salman Rushdie's work. I'm not a fan, Sergei is:


I see The Satanic Verses as Rabelaisian in style and intent: a satiric excess that reflects what happens to language when empire makes it both an official language of power and a language of immigrants. The secret of empire is that you never truly conquer another people: you marry your children to them. That’s also true in language. You don’t teach those you conquer to speak your language; instead you find yourself speaking Anglostani on the streets of London or Calexican on the streets of L.A. To me, Rushdie’s linguistic excess is funny, and the inconsistencies in his tone reflect the clashing of worlds. That’s the most important narrative of our time, and if the writing sprawls and lacks purity, that’s exactly the point.

During our debate, Sergei brought my attention to some great old reviews of Moby Dick that can be found via melville.org. One, from the London Literary Gazette (December 6th, 1851) reads in part:


This is an odd book, professing to be a novel; wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic; in places charmingly and vividly descriptive. The author has read up laboriously to make a show of cetalogical learning... Herman Melville is wise in this sort of wisdom. He uses it as stuffing to fill out his skeleton story. Bad stuffing it makes, serving only to try the patience of his readers, and to tempt them to wish both him and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea...

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Thursday 05 July 2007

Joseph Epstein on Paul Valéry

Via Books, Inq., Joseph Epstein on The intimate abstraction of Paul Valéry.

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Thursday 05 July 2007

No to Tate!


Catherine Tate as Donna, the runaway bride


Completely concurring with Emma over on the Snowblog who said yesterday:


Words cannot convey the horror, shock, sadness and derision I feel upon hearing that Catherine Tate is going to be the new Companion. I utterly give up. Russell T Davies, you are *ruining* Doctor Who and it's not yours to ruin. It's going to be dire. I am so mad.

Tate seems such a backward step to me. Her annoying mannerisms (and, jeez, Donna the runaway bride was such an annoying character) coupled with her limited actorly range (plainly, I'm out of my depth talking about the telly!) surely mean that the new Companion will move Doctor Who back towards the sillier plots and away from the recent darker episodes.



Carey Mulligan, star of the Blink episode


Why can't it have been Carey Mulligan (who did such a splendid job as Sally Sparrow in Steven Moffat's excellent Blink episode)?


Don't do too much TV, but I do like my Who ... and this has pissed me off!

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Wednesday 04 July 2007

Dan Hind interview (part 3)


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.

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Wednesday 04 July 2007

Kafka's birthday

Yesterday, Steve reminded me, was Franz Kafka's 124th birthday. Steve quotes from "the final paragraph of Ernst Pawel's biography from 1984 with the winning title: The Nightmare of Reason." Reason, and what reason means, is very much on my mind at the moment, of course, with my ongoing Dan Hind interview.


Admitting that the quote (below) is a "little excessive perhaps," Steve says, "I'd say his "innermost self" was his innermost non-self too and that giving shape to anguish is the opposite of anguish. Anyway, for Kafka, reason was as problematic as faith" --


The world that Kafka was 'condemned to see with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable' [a quotation from Milena's obituary] is our own post-Auschwitz universe, on the brink of extinction. His work is subversive, not because he found the truth, but because, being human and therefore having failed to find it, he refused to settle for half-truths and compromise solutions. In visions wrested from his innermost self, and in language of crystalline purity, he gave shape to the anguish of being human.

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Tuesday 03 July 2007

Dan Hind interview (part 2)


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.

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Tuesday 03 July 2007

Fragmentary Futures

Inkermen Press was Publisher of the Week over on The Book Depository the other week. Dan Watt's press have just released a fascinating looking title by Dan himself entitled Fragmentary Futures: Blanchot, Beckett, Coetzee:


Romanticism elaborates a model of fragmentation, different from the fragment as ruined part of a totality from which it is shorn. Rodolphe Gasché argues that the concept of the Romantic fragment would have to be ‘radically recast’ to be applied to contemporary literature. It is via Maurice Blanchot that the fragment is ‘recast’ into an event in which ‘all literature is the fragment’. This book investigates that turn, exploring its implications in the work of Blanchot, Samuel Beckett and J.M. Coetzee. Blanchot’s ‘recast’ fragment demands that literature become fragmentary whether it carries the form of the fragment or not.

Beckett’s prose work unfolds a part of fragmentary writing that appears to be degenerative, as words collide and syntactic structures are eroded. However, fragmentary writing allows the presentation of a damaged work, one under the threat of abandonment, as work in progress; being neither finished nor continued.

The work of Coetzee demonstrates the fragment’s relation to Levinasian ethics, inviting a responsiveness to the ‘other’: a situation that maintains the singularity of the work without reducing it to particular critical positions. The legacy of the fragment remains as much a responsibility for modern literature as for the event of the German Romantic fragment. Fragmentary Futures argues that the fragment points to an impossibility governing the generation of literature itself. The German Romantic fragment is still to come, haunting literature. The ‘recast’ fragment does not exorcise such a revenant but makes its future appearance more fascinating.

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Monday 02 July 2007

Dan Hind interview (part 1)


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.

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Monday 02 July 2007

Dan Hind week


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.

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Monday 02 July 2007

The Fall

No, not Mark E Smith's seminal band, not Camus' modern classic, nor our separation from the state of grace (if you believe such gubbins), but my own personal tumble: I fell over a baby-gate, down our staircase, and I hurt everywhere. My bruises have bruises, and I'm very miserable. I fear a cracked rib, but Mrs Book reckons not. Don't think that this hasn't brought the drama queen out in me: I could have died!

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Serendipoetry

Omens, after Alexander Pushkin

I rode to meet you: dreams
like living beings swarmed around me
and the moon on my right side
followed me, burning.

I rode back: everything changed.
My soul in love was sad
and the moon on my left side
trailed me without hope.

To such endless impressions
we poets give ourselves absolutely,
making, in silence, omen of mere event,
until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.

-- Louise Gluck
Averno (Carcanet Press)

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Word of the Day

The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or two

Pre-order Anu Garg's new book: The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words (ISBN 9780452288614), published by Penguin more …

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October's Books of the Month

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