Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Archive for December, 2008

December 31st, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Readysteadybook’s Books of the Year 2008 symposium


The only really new book I’m listing this year is The Lazarus Project, a novel by Sarajevo-born Aleksandar Hemon. He has lived in Chicago for some years now — enough to write fiction in English. A new Conrad? Who knows, but he’s very good (though I have yet to read his earlier short stories). The novel runs two parallel narratives: the ‘author’ protagonist looks into the true story of an earlier immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who escaped the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 in Moldova/Bessarabia as a child, and at the age of 19 is killed by the Chicago chief of police, and he himself, Brik, travels back to eastern Europe with a photographer friend, in search of Averbuch’s birthplace. The photographs that fill the book, both historical and contemporary, add to the narrative rather than detract or distract. And Hemon’s voice is very much a voice of our times, eagerly American and knowingly European, serious and elegant, funny intelligent and edgy, the emigre/immigrant story.


Not sure that Hemon is ‘eagerly’ American…more like ‘tentatively’…although, now that Obama is in, his attachment is no doubt slightly more solid.

Listen to my interview with Hemon over at The Quarterly Conversation.

December 26th, 2008 • Posted in Uncategorized

Sault Ste. Marie


December 25th, 2008 • Posted in On Collecting

On the bookstore hunt: White Christmases and Rare Hybrids

No worries about unwhite Christmases around here…outside my Ottawa office window

or, evidently, anywhere else in Canada.

Made North Bay in four and a half hours, and with in minutes had bagged my first prize: Allison the Bookman…

I’d visited the store many years ago, and bought a couple of books on the history of the Canadian Press at the time as I recall…

then down the street, as luck would have it, I spotted this rare hybrid, and bagged it on the spot:

December 25th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Minneapolis here I come…

Open Book.

I’m heading out for Minneapolis shortly, returning via Chicago and Detroit, so please stay tuned for documentation of visits to bookstores en route and conversations with mind melting bibliophiles.

December 25th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Merry Christmas all on earth…



December 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Review of JMW Turner Retrospective Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York

My review in the latest edition (108) of BorderCrossings magazine:

A poster of Salvador Dali’s Swans reflecting Elephants, a black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe leaning, like a feline up against a door frame,

and a swim-suited, cleavage-baring Farrah Fawcett

 all, among other delights, graced the walls of my teenage bedroom. So did J.M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. And, though devoid of sexual content, this work’s passion and fire left an indelible mark on me.

So it was with some disappointment that I failed to find this and another favourite Rain, Steam and Speed with its famed rabbit in the foreground, among the paintings displayed in the J.W.M Turner recent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York

This said there was no shortage of the sublime. Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus

for example, contains a sky which critic and early Turner champion John Ruskin called “beyond comparison the finest which exists in Turner’s oil-paintings.” From seascapes and mountain tops to naval battles, historical Greek settings and wild imaginative abstractions this exhibition authoritatively traces the evolution of John Mallord William Turner’s varying style and choice of subject matter with representative sampling from a truly herculean output over a career that lasted more than sixty years. Much in this exhibit is literally brilliant. These paintings effortlessly captivate spectators, moth-like, within their orb.

Born in London in 1775, Turner spent his early childhood in Covent Garden, where his father had a barber shop. At an early age he showed talent for sketching and worked for a time as an architect’s draftsman. At fourteen he enrolled in London’s Royal Academy of Arts Schools. In 1802 he became the youngest artist to be elected as a full Academician. Encouraged to study the techniques of the Old Masters Turner chose to emulate the idealized landscapes of Claude Lorrain (c.1604/5-82). These were to serve as a touchstone throughout his lifetime.

In addition to dominating landscape art during the first half of the 19th century, Turner with his technical innovations in watercolor, had a profound impact on artistic development around the world, particularly in France, where painters such as Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir pointedly credited him for influencing their work, notably with his depictions of  the reality of form in movement and the fugitive phenomena of light.


 Dazzled by a wall-filling image of Venice, from the porch of Madonna della Salute, I was awed by this show before even stepping into its exhibition space. A clamour of eager, gate-crowding patrons milled around and filled, like Time Square, the entrance area, a testament to the excitement stirred by this impressive exhibit. Though the painting’s watery foreground was obscured by an ocean of people, Turner’s sky and buildings remain radiantly visible, proof that they easily match his much vaunted seas and waterscapes, of which Ruskin once said: "The surface of quiet water with other painters becomes fixed. With Turner it looks as if a fairy’s breath would stir it, but the fairy’s breath is not there."


Many of the works Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy – those which established his reputation and ensured immortality, are on display here — Fishermen at Sea (1796, Tate), for example, and the luminous Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834 (1835, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight (1835, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C).

So are his “color beginnings” studies for subsequent paintings, and his finished watercolors.

The exhibition is organized thematically and chronologically, beginning with early Sublime and historical landscapes and ending with late seascapes and blinding, abstract and very modern unfinished works. Early on you can see his skilled draftsmanship at play in an exquisite water colour depiction of Tintern Abbey in South Wales. Also his penchant for clouds and majestic settings are displayed, for example,

in The Devil’s Bridge, Saint Gotthard, painted in the Swiss Alps (and owned I might add, with surging pride, by a private collector in Canada). These have an almost Blakean feel to them, and evidence an attempt at what Burke called ‘the sublime’: the conveying of ‘astonishment and terror, or the strongest emotion of which the mind is capable of feeling.’

Perhaps because of its greater capacity to convey drama and depth, and its higher prestige, Turner soon moved to painting in oil. The first of these to be exhibited at the Royal Academy was

Fisherman at Sea. It contained elements which would fill his canvases for the next half century. The way his moonlight hits the ocean is truly wondrous. His waves in particular in this and other seascapes of the same period are highly reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s paintings of the same, just miles away across the Channel — muscular and alive.

Also in the exhibit were depictions of historical landscapes and important contemporary events, such as the Battle of Waterloo, and the blazing Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, a painting worth sitting in front of for hours.

With Turner’s visit to Italy there is a marked shift in palette. We see softer and warmer colours and brush strokes. There are fewer clouds too. His strengths remain: breathtaking skies, sun sets and light, in weather fair and foul, reflected in water. These fill the senses to a point where the odd sail out of sync, a disproportionately small boat, or a pale background just doesn’t matter. Nor does the fact that people, though inconsequential in most paintings, at times appear sketchy, underdrawn, grotesque, in the way Pieter Bruegel painted them. Given Turner’s prodigious output it is easy to see why critics would have accused his work of being unfinished, even coarse. The pleasant irony here is, as we get to the end of the exhibit and his so-called ‘unfinished’ work,

we are treated to what is possibly the most completely sublime experience of the afternoon.

December 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with Victoria Glendinning by Nigel Beale: On the nature of Biography

Photo by NB

Biographer, critic, broadcaster and novelist Victoria Glendinning was born in Sheffield, and educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Modern Languages. She worked as a teacher and social worker before becoming an editorial assistant for the Times Literary Supplement in 1974.

President of English PEN, she was awarded a CBE in 1998. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and holds honorary doctorates from the universities of Southampton, Ulster, Dublin and York. Her biographies include Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, 1977; Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions (1981), which won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography) and the Duff Cooper Prize; and Rebecca West: A Life (1987), and Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West (1983) and Trollope (1992) both of which won the Whitbread Biography Award.

We talk here ostensibly about her latest book,  Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie: Letters and Diaries 1941- 1973 but in fact, mostly about the nature of biography,the difference between editing letters and writing lives, fabricating dialogue, compiling data, selecting facts; the importance of place, material and familial limitations, life over art, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville West, Sissinghurst, and text versus context.

Copyright © 2008 by Nigel Beale.

Please listen to the Biblio File interview here: 

December 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Martha Wainwright, Rufus, Marilyn and Kate.

I attended a Rufus Wainwright concert four or five years ago at a nightclub (damned if I can remember its name) at the corner of Rideau Street and Cumberland in Ottawa. What I  remember is how startled I was at how campy…and gay…Rufus was. Startled not because I objected, far from it. No. Simply because I’d assumed, naively I suppose, that he was straight. It took a bit of reorienting, after which I settled into an awed appreciation of this man’s wonderfully powerful, tireless vocal chords, and the charm and ease with which he held his audience. He must’ve sung for two hours straight, at least. Just belting it out, full throttle. It was one of the best concerts I’d ever been to. His sister Martha joined him on stage for several numbers.

Last weekend I took in the final gig on her latest tour. Her voice, like her brother’s, is premium, high octane. A Ferrari that lives to be gunned and driven hard, to the limit, for the distance. Impossible to red line, power to spare whenever she needs to pass. Horsepower, delivered with deep, heartfelt emotion,

makes for stage domination. She purred and pumped out her lyrics. Moused with and delighted her audience. Joked about dildos with her band members. A formidable presence, not just because of her voice; but because of her lithe, sensual chassis; presented as it was with a faux ditziness. A taller, thinner Marilyn. A kitten in tight blue jeans and high heels, wriggling and bending, pelvising, leggily, lanky. A magnet for male, and female eyes. Just like Rufus, she gave ‘er. And her mom Kate showed up too.

Reminded me of how great that Love over and Over album is. Funny how it calls up memories of driving along howling, snow strewn highways outside of Humbolt, Saskatchewan.  Last weekend’s evening highlighted by the two singing in French. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Martha seemed more fluid and at ease in it than in English.

December 23rd, 2008 • Posted in On Collecting

Another ‘best of’ book list…

Several years ago Mark Sarvas

compiled a list of books New Yorker critic James Wood ‘has written about approvingly at one time or another.’ Given that tis the season to put out ‘best of’ book lists, I re-post it here:

Don Quixote - Miguel Cervantes
Loving - Henry Green
Living - Henry Green
Party Going - Henry Green
Zeno’s Conscience - Italo Svevo
Tristram Shandy - Laurence Sterne
A House for Mr. Biswas - V.S. Naipaul
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark
Hunger - Knut Hamsun
Short Stories - Anton Chekhov
Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Charterhouse of Parma - Stendahl
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum - Heinrich Boll
To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
Herzog - Saul Bellow
Humboldt’s Gift - Saul Bellow
Collected Stories - Saul Bellow
Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol
The Radetzky March - Joseph Roth

I’ve read the bolded titles (half of Humbolt’s Gift, plus one or two of Bellow’s short stories), and plan to take a shot at those remaining, in 2009. Odd that none of my three favourites — War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov and Le Rouge et le Noir — appear. Have recently been reading and delighting in Roth’s short journalistic pieces on France, written between the Wars. Boll’s The Clown failed, as I recall, to amuse at time of reading. Given how often French’s biography has been top-tenned this month, it really is time I read Naipaul’s Biswas.  I think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is over rated, and suspect, given an early struggle with Humbolt’s Gift, that the same might be the case with Bellow. Then again, Martin Amis is also a fan, so another concerted effort is definitely required. My hope is that Green warrants the praise. V.S. Pritchett writes appreciatively of him as well, so I’m looking forward to the reads. Am pleased to say I own Hogarth First Editions of Nothing and Concluding.

Also the Picador triple paperback pack of Nothing, Doting and Blindness; none of the ones on the list of course. I’ll be looking for them, along with copies of Bernhard’s The Loser, and anything by Blanchot during my big bookstore hunting trip, set to commence at noon this Christmas Day (more anon).

December 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Realism, Ron Mueck, Dead can Dance and Emotional Connection



 Video directed by Alejandro Mapis

I note that from my new StatPress tool, that people searching Ron Mueck seem to be landing on this site with fair frequency. So, just as I have brazenly utilized "Obama’ in hopes of attracting a few additional readers, here goes with another take on Ron: There’s definitely a connection here between literary and sculptural realism…Ron Mueck’s people fascinate us because while we know they aren’t  human  (as we know too that words on the page don’t produce real people, rather via descriptives, monologue and dialogue, they mesh with our imaginations to create lifelike characters…larger and smaller than life) they so closely resemble the real thing that we puzzle over them; marvel at their verisimilitude, strain over the tension between likeness and difference. The familiar and the strange. The task of getting our heads around how something can resemble life so, and yet at the same time, be so obviously removed from it. This is captivating stuff. This is why realism in literature is so potent: close proximity to the actual stimulates real, genuine emotion and feelings. Physical responses even. I made a point of observing attendees at a Mueck exhibition when it came to the National Gallery of Canada several years ago. They sighed, laughed, shivered and shook their heads, pondered, felt…and connected…in ways that I’ve rarely, as a certified people watcher, ever seen before or since.

More videos here.