Somewhat underwhelmed by a creeping sense of futility — in which state one can’t be bothered making sense of the feeling — I lucked into a splendidly bitchy and fortifying review in the London Review of Books.
The LRB is an odd animal, a fortnightly journal with a smallish circulation in the low tens of thousands and a certainty of deep influence, kept afloat by a wealthy patron. Sometimes a delightfully quirky and fruity friend; more often I find its clubbish air pretty off-putting. An Oxbridgey U (and non-U), lefty, literate, too-too-smart nonchalance. Let’s not mention its complex texture of class tension. The LRB aroma can best be discerned is in its celebrated personal classifieds. A pitch-perfect example from this issue:
My dream dinner party would feature Jaroslav Hasek, Churchill and Robert Walser. I would get drunk and abusive and retreat to my room to fix the carriage return on my vintage Imperial Good Companion. You would come to placate me, only to be hectored about Erik Satie’s umbrella collection. Male, 31, no lover of dinner parties. Box no: xx/xx
In contrast, say, the New Yorker is a fully democratic, seemingly unassuming American magazine — it only assumes that the reader is intelligent, reasonably well-read and curious, and likes shopping. Rather than assuming a PhD, it explains any part of what it considers an obscure background or point.
I was leafing through the last LRB over lunch (it was a thoughtful gift sub) — my appetite blunted by said futility — and was magnetised to a review of Craig Raine’s novel Heartbreak by Terry Eagleton. (Adopting the New Yorker attitude) you may recall Raine as the young gun poet whose remarkable verse ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home‘ prompted the name of a whole school of poetics: Martianism, Martian poetry — exotic metophors to unhinge “the familiar.” But the clock drops through the air; that was 1977 and Raine is now an earthly 66, twice the age of his Martian youth.
Former professor of literature (sacked in a blaze of acrimony) and currently a professor of cultural theory, Terry Eagleton — I quoted him in August last year to back up my claim on the irrelevance of this blog, dear reader — the Marxist/Catholic/BritLitCrit was last seen savagely counterpunching against the combined assault on religion by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. (Read the first fantastic paragraph and a bit of this piece.)
A dose of Schadenfreude
Anyway, back to lunch: Eagleton takes his carving knife to his keyboard for Raine’s new book, “a collection of short stories, loosely linked by the topic announced in the title” which turns out to be spilling with Martianisms. (Happily, free online.) Among of the charms of the LRB is its pithy headlines — as in bitter pith — phrases abstracted from the articles. This one is titled ‘Count the Commas.’ Do read the piece if you’re in the mood for some medicinal astringence, but here are some pearly, curly ones (I’m at risk of quoting the whole piece):
— “Craig Raine’s Heartbreak is a novel in the sense in which Eton is a school near Slough. The description is true but misleading.”
— “There is, in short, plenty of stuff to keep Pseuds’ Corner busy for a fair few months: ‘Francesca’s fanny was a glorious irrepressible Afro pompon (“to go with my Botswana bottom”)’ might do for a start.”
— “A woman’s breasts move as she walks in a pattern ‘simple but somehow contradictory. As a drop of water fattens, stretches, shrinks: undecided in the suspense of its own elastic eternity.’ As with many Raine conceits, it is the voulu, blatantly unfelt quality of this that leaps from the page, the way it keeps a proud eye on its own verbal pirouetting.”
— “A pair of female nipples are ‘asymmetric hernias’. There is much rustling of the author’s Things I Saw Today that Look A Bit Like Other Things notebook.”
— “Another woman bites her nails so that ‘each quick was bared, a frayed frontier of pink, the grip-seal on a plastic bag, a gap, a gash, recovering cosmetic surgery.’ In a flash of bogus meta-commentary, Raine adds coyly: ‘How many epithets is that? Count the commas. A handful. Five,’ which magnifies the self-preening rather than letting it off the hook. An arch knowingness isn’t the same as a redemptive self-irony.”
— “The female anus, suitably aestheticised, crops up rather a lot: ‘The beautiful blot of her arsehole. A dark-pink peach-stone. An astonishment of lips.’ (One presumes he has slipped here from one thing to another, unless the woman in question is anatomically unique.)”
— “Characters are continually pelting each other with chunks of Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot. There are even a couple of discreet allusions to Areté, the author’s own literary journal, though with commendable delicacy Raine refrains from providing the address of the subscriptions manager.”
— “People say puke-makingly pretentious things like: ‘The art of drama, no, the essence of drama is unpredictable inevitability.’ Someone says to someone else, ‘propinquity creates its own pressures,’ a line nobody could actually pronounce without sounding like a drunk.”
— “Another character speaks of ‘some … dump in fucking wind-tormented Ireland. I remember going for a walk in one of those places. Got an amazing headache in seconds from the wind parting my fucking hair in a hundred different places. Every which way. I thought I had a brain tumour. Seriously.’
Nobody actually says ‘wind-tormented’, so the poeticism has to be deflated by that ‘fucking’. The notion of the wind parting one’s hair in a hundred different places is another shamefaced piece of poetry, which must be countered by the sham colloquialism of ‘every which way’. In general, the novel’s idea of how to make conversation sound authentic is to sprinkle it with two or three ‘fucks’ a line, which succeeds only in making it sound phoney.”
— “It is a high-minded cliché of contemporary fiction that love is doomed, social hope bankrupt and virtue wet behind the ears. In this context, the most outrageously avant-garde novel would be one in which someone was happy for a change.”
Without Schadenfreude: Hitchens, cancer
A heavy smoker before giving up in 2008, Christopher Hitchens has been been diagnosed with the wicked esophageal cancer. On the Vanity Fair site he writes: ‘I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my oesophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.’ ”
His fans have had some varied and complicated reactions to the author of God is Not Great. Christianists are being, ah, forgiving. (“… But Christopher Hitchens is not the enemy. God created him because He loves him … We can pray for him. And pray for him some more … Let’s us love him with a patient unrequited love … I must confess that I smile when I ponder what a wonderful Christian Hitchens would make if ever he were to believe.”)
In the same issue of the LRB above is a review of Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22. With a surprisingly sympathetic start, as so many LitBrits think of Hitchens as a left-to-right turncoat, the reviewer makes a good case for Hitchens being a political romantic — which seems obvious from the writings about this writer since the Bush 43’s Iraq War. But the sympathy doesn’t last. ‘It’s Been a Lot of Fun’ — free online.
Happy Birthday, dear Penguin
Slightly belated. Now we are seventy-five.
The Penguin Archive Project.
And at 75, “”I think that the younger generation is not so familiar with Penguin. We grew up with the books. They were such a familiar, instantly recognisable sight on bookshelves everywhere. I don’t think younger people feel as strongly about them as we used to,” said John Lyon, investigator of the archive.
I like this: Simon Eliot, professor of the history of the book at the University of London, said that the books were “flimsy” but in a good way. It encouraged literate people of modest means to experiment in their reading.