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Archive for November, 2007

November 30th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Kermode on Transformation and the Young Critic



Re: last post, just came across this from Frank Kermode on page 118 of The Sound on the Page:

"I became a critic late in life, at twenty eight," he says. "I was anxious to make my way. I needed to write a book, and that led to a certain amount of strain in the writing – I pushed too hard at the ideas. When you’re young, you’re writing for your life. You tend to be rather grandiose. Eventually I learned to relax." 

Quoting literary critic Edmund Wilson: "Art has its origin in the need to pretend that human life is something other than it is, and, in a sense, by pretending this, it succeeds to some extent in transforming it,"

Kermode follows with this: The transformation of the world, as Wallace Stevens remarked, is the transformation of overselves, and we do it with  reason and imagination. What needs to be transformed, how transformations have historically occurred, and what is wrong with present attempts at transformation, are the legitimate and exhausting tasks of criticism. Wilson has worked at them as no other critic in his time."   

                                           From an essay in his book Continuities.

Pretty relaxed for 1966.



November 29th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Bloom, Kermode and Picasso


 Further to my post on The Sea and Jeremy Noel-Tod’s
review of Swithering:

Funny this tendency in academia to write incomprehensible garble. I recently browsed some early works of literary critics Frank Kermode (Sense of an Ending) and Harold Bloom (Anxiety of Influence); both are annoyingly opaque.

My guess is that the two felt obliged to lard their prose with latinates and isms in order to satisfy and impress their academic superiors. Once and only once their professional credentials were established  could they risk ignoring the gas bags, could they write in ways understood by average intelligent readers, and translate their radiant ideas and criticism into language that has, in both, over the years, become increasingly concise,  logical and limpid (conciser, logicaler and limpider). In short, as they’ve aged they’ve become more palatable, more digestible,  more satisfying. 

I’m tempted to compare them, in a loosely paradoxical way, to Picasso: Pablo gained early respect for his talent, and mastery of traditional realist modes of expression. Establishing credentials as a good conventional artist made his subsequent departures less outrageous, enabling him to entertain and wow a more accepting audience. Credentials freed Picasso to go one way:  abstract and recondite. They freed Kermode and Bloom to go the other: concrete and transparent.

 …then again the three of them may simply have been driven by the purse. 



November 29th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

They Fought for their Country

I’d meant to post this Siegfried Sassoon poem on Remembrance Day. Today is as good as any other.

Does it Matter?

Does it matter?-losing your legs?…

For people will always be kind,

And you need not show that you mind

When the others come in after hunting

To gobble their muffins and eggs.


Does it matter ?-losing your sight?…

There’s such splendid work for the blind;

And people will always be kind,

As you sit on the terrace remembering

And turning your face to the light.


Do they matter?-those dreams from the pit?…

You can drink and forget and be glad,

And people won’t say that you’re mad;

For they’ll know you’ve fought for your


And no one will worry a bit.

November 28th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2007

 Great graphic eh? Here are the names of the winners horizontally:

By Michael Thomas. Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic, paper, $14.

By Per Petterson. Translated by Anne Born. Graywolf Press, $22.

By Roberto Bolaño. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.

By Joshua Ferris. Little, Brown & Company, $23.99.

By Denis Johnson. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95; Vintage, paper, $14.95.

LITTLE HEATHENS: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression.
By Mildred Armstrong Kalish. Bantam Books, $22.

THE NINE: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court.
By Jeffrey Toobin. Doubleday, $27.95.

By Linda Colley. Pantheon Books, $27.50.

THE REST IS NOISE: Listening to the Twentieth Century.
By Alex Ross. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.

November 28th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Why Terry Eagleton is mugging celebrity Authors

I read and appreciated Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory about ten years ago. A deft survey of poststructural theory, Marxist criticism, psychoanalysis, aesthetics, ideology, postmodernism…everything the blank-brained illiterate needs to know about literary criticism.

I held Eagleton in high esteem. Sought out his work. Even bought a signed first edition of his novel. He was a star in my lit crit hall of fame and remained so, despite some rather pedantic essays over the years , notably The Critic as Clown, until several months ago when he started spitting malice at Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins and Martin Amis.

Why is Eagleton mugging these celebrity authors? Perhaps because by doing so he gets to share their spotlight, sate a sad need for attention. Maybe it’s simply a ploy to sell more books. Either way he’s making an asshole of himself.


…and now that I’m at it…you may want to miss this dreadful Eagleton lecture, pocked as it is with distasteful unfunnynesses about paying Terry the lecturer fees for private post-talk tutelage.


November 27th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Jim Harrison on Charles Bukowski

What a marvelously macho review by Jim Harrison of The Pleasures of the Damned, Poems, 1951-1993. By Charles Bukowski in the NY Times here. I can’t help but quote at length:

"A durable poet, the rarest of all birds, has a unique point of view and the gift of language to express it. The unique point of view can often come from a mental or physical deformity. Deep within us, but also on the surface, is the wounded ugly boy who never has caught an acceptable angle of himself in the mirror…Charles Bukowski was a monstrously homely man because of a severe case of acne vulgaris when he was young."

[He] was a major-league tosspot

…a writer’s paper sack of baubles

All the scaffolding around the five story building of this poetry is actually a confusing blemish and should be ignored in favor of the building itself…

Bukowski seemed far more worried about his cats’ health than his own. One had been shot and run over but survived, though its front legs didn’t co-ordinate with the back, a metaphor of something, probably Bukowski’s life.

He was deeply enthused about bars and keeping company with whores, and seemed to like the spavined landscapes of the nether regions of Los Angeles, which I myself used to visit.

An attractive idea is that the test of poetry should be the same as Henry James’s dictum for the novel, that it be interesting."


This is a great review. It’s funny. It’s interesting. It tells us what constitutes durable poetry. It contains wisdom direct from the masters. It details Bukowski’s life, his likes and dislikes, and lists those who influenced his work. It’s got a couple of stanzas of Bukowski’s poetry and some judgement. And best of all, it’s written in language that perfectly accompanies its subject, "the hard found music of the streets." Harrison talks to his topic in just the right tone. He’s been in the nether regions where Bukowski hung out, and he’s ‘deeply enthused.’ 

I’m running to the shelves now…and…Yes! I have a copy of Returning to Earth.  Stay tuned for the Wicked Quotes.

November 27th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

A Sneak Preview of The Sound on the Page

Whoa. Am I ever enjoying Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing. And here I was wasting time scouring shelves for books to ballast my new criticizing career. Bloom, Arnold, Barthes, Burke, Cicero, Plato, Coleridge, Connolly, Strunk and White, Empson, Eliot, Gass, Frye, Fowler, Foucault, James, Lanham, Lukacs, Montaigne, Ozick, Paglia, Updike, Woolf…they’re all here, and I’m only on page 30, where this appears:

"[Cicero's middle style]…lies between the ornateness and perorations of the grand or vigorous style (used for persuasion) and the simple words and conversational manner of the plain or low style (used for proof and instruction."

This is all I’m going to give you for now. Stay tuned for the Wicked Quotes.   

November 26th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Wicked Quotes from The Information by Martin Amis

 Martin Amis has written of John Updike what could be said of himself:  "[He] has that single  inestimable virtue: having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to to read everything he writes."


Here are some reviews of the book, NY Times, Boston Book Review, Christopher Caldwell.


Here’s the raw material:



Richard sat at his desk; he had just put Untitled away for the morning, after completing an hysterically fluent passage of tautly leashed prose.*

But he subscribed to the view of the Critic as Bouncer. Only geniuses were allowed in Richard’s speakeasy.

Braced at first by the Saharas and Gobis of talentlessness which hourly confronted him, he now knew this stuff for what it was. It wasn’t bad literature. It was anti-literature. Propaganda, aimed at the self. Richard’s novels might have been unreadable, by they were novels. Whereas the finished typescripts, printouts and flabby exercise books that lay around him here just hadn’t made it out of some more primitive form: diary, dreamjournal, dialectic. As in a ward for the half-born, Richard heard these creatures’ cries, and felt their unviewable spasms, convulsed in an earlier version of being. They were like tragic babies; they were like pornography.

I can’t give up novels." Why not?" Because…because then he would be left with experience, with untranslated and unmediated experience. Because then he would be left with life.

The way her lips gave just enough to be more than very polite.

It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette. The need was and wasn’t being met.

To him, builders meant destruction. Bumcrack cowboys, knee-deep in pointlessness and slime, and raising nothing but hell.

Dogshit park

like trying to get a raw oyster into a parking meter.

It is evening and the bloodbath of sunset is daubed over the rooftops.

Every sensitive man was allowed a midlife crisis: when you found out for sure that you were going to die, then you ought to have one. If you don’t have a midlife crisis, then that’s a midlife crisis.

For a shampoo you would go to the carwash with such a head of hair.

-when Marco cried. Adulterers sometimes leave beds suddenly. But nobody leaves a bed as suddenly as a mother.

Television: Every household, be it ever so mean, shared this square of dead gray.

When Gina his wife starts sleeping with writers before they were married Richard "found his jealousy reasonably easy to manage when she slept with poets – easier, much easier, than when she slept with novelists and (especially) dramatists. He liked poets because they had no power and no money.

…that slobbering fuckpig of an Englishman

These pains were informers sent by death

…and there they were, staring down the sights of their lives and drawing a bead on the information.

An I for an I.

Her blue-jeaned thighs were widely and rigidly parted, her feet erectly tensed on their toes.

He remembered the preemptive mwa of her kiss as he bade her good-night outside her room.

Success revamps you. It must keep you young. Because failure sure makes you old.

You could see lights, and the reflections of lights, car lights, murkily glistening – the filthy jewelry of Kennedy Expressway. They heaved on, flanked and tailed by mustang, bronco, pinto, colt, by bluebird and thunderbird and ladybird and lark, by panda and cobra, by jaguar, by cougar: the filthy menagerie of Kennedy Expressway.

The sky was there to provide the artistic comment on the day, the weather, the light it was screening for you, but it was also there to tell you about the universe, the gentlest pointers and reminders of the most part, with no hard lessons about where you stood in it and where this left you.

Richard always found stimulation and unaffected good cheer in the company of poets because they were the only living writers who were lowlier than he was.

Poets got women. They didn’t get anything else, and women sensed this; so they go women.

With Nabokov, and others, Richard regarded the drama as a primitive and long exhausted form. The drama boasted Shakespeare (which was an excellent cosmic joke), and Chekov, and a couple of sepulchral Scandinavians. Then where were you? Deep in the second division.

Time is a dimension, not a force. But women felt it as a force, because they could feel its violence, every hour. They knew they would be half dead at forty-five. This information did not fall in the path of men. Men, at forty-five, were in the "prime of life." Prima (hora): first (hour)? They get the Change. We get the Prime. And this is the reason why our bodies weep and seep in the night, because we’re half dead too, and don’t know how or why.

The prose is given to tautness and burnish precisely by what it deliberately excludes. Picasso’s abstracts gain their force from the …from the representational mastery he holds in check.

On the other hand, he was free to wonder why so many writers’ women killed themselves, or went insane. And he concluded: because writers are nightmares. Writers are nightmares from which you cannot awake. Most awake when alone, they make living hard to do for those around them.

Literature Richard said, described a descent. First, gods. The demigods. Then epic became tragedy: failed kings, failed heroes. Then the gentry. Then the middle class and its mercantile dreams. Then it was about you – Gina, Gilda: social realism. Then it was about them: lowlife. Villains. The ironic age. And he was saying, Richard was saying: Now what? Literature, for a while, can be about us (nodding resignedly at Gwyn): about writers. But that won’t last long. How do we burst clear of all this?

It seemed to him that all the time he used to spend writing he now spent dying. This was the truth. And it shocked him. It shocked him to see it, naked. Literature wasn’t about living. Literature was about not dying. Suddenly he knew that writing was about denial. Suddenly he knew that denial was great. Denial was so great. Denial was the best thing. Denial was even better than smoking.

 Absolutely everyone in pornography was absolutely humorless. Steve never quite got this.

Three days of weather were stacked in the sky. Here was today. And there was tomorrow. And other there, the day after.




Book titles in The Information:

Protagonist Richard Tull, novelist, author of Untitled, and editor of The Little Magazine, is tasked throughout with reviewing such 700 page page-turners as:

The Soul’s Dark Cottage: A Life of Edmund Waller,

The Unfortunate Lover: Willian Davenant, Shakespeare’s Bastard,

L.H. Myers: The Forgotten,

The Wouldbegood: A Life of Edith Nesbit,

Times Song: Winthrop Praed, 1802-1839,

AntiLatitudinarian: The Heretical Career of Francis Atterbury,

The House of Fame: A Life of Thomas Tyrewhitt,

Man of his Words: The Life and Times of Ingram Bywater.


Character names in The Information include: Agnes Trounce, Gal Aplanalp, Chuck Pfister, Phil Smoker, Darko, Scozzy.

* Bold = brightest spectacles.

November 25th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Martin Amis: The best or worst prose stylist of his generation?

Speaking of Good and bad, I’ve just added a link to under the blogs on books category down there on the right hand side of this page. Alex Good writes one good, aggressive, disagreeable book review.

I hit his site in search of Harold Bloom + Martin Amis. As readers will know, I’ve been on a mad reading jag lately…swooning over and raving about Amis’s richly entertaining prose.  Alex shits heavily on The War Against Cliché…calling  Amis a lazy, indifferent literary snob and "one of the worst English prose stylists of his generation," he also shits on Amis’s hero Saul Bellow: "a really, really  bad writer."  And he indirectly shits on me for doing here and here what Amis does in his book…serving in the name of one’s idol “…as a  guide in a gallery where the signs say Silence Please; you are shepherding your group from spectacle to spectacle – awed, humbled, and trying, so far as possible, to keep your mouth shut.”  All I do ‘here’ and ‘here’ is demonstrate that Amis is easily one of the best English prose stylists of his generation, and then some.

I haven’t read much Bellow. A short story or two and fifty pages of Humbolt’s Gift. I was planning to read The Adventures of Augie March because Amis says it’s the Great American Novel. Given Alex’s tirade, perhaps I’ll go for Herzog. It’s shorter, and it’s James Wood’s favourite.

Once I’ve finished The War Against Cliché (which incidentally won The National Book Critics Circle Prize for criticism the year it was published, and the unrestrained praise of Sir Frank Kermode in the LRB) and a bit more Bellow, I may respond to Alex…but then again, being subject to laziness and indifference, I may not.

November 23rd, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Bad Sex in Fiction Award coming up

Jeanette Winterson, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith, Iain Banks, Norman Mailer and David Thewlis are all in line for this year’s Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Find out who else is bad at sex here. Alex Good at Good Reports figures McEwan is a shoo-in.