Now here is a book cover to arrest the browser’s fickle gaze, with an elegant and beautiful balance of text, image and abstract colour. And it’s not a one-off, but part of a series design – Penguin European Writers – with titles by Cesare Pavese and Violette Leduc coming later this year. For the paper-fetishists among us, it’s a fine book-handling experience too, with flapped covers, slim format and printed on untreated card. And – I almost forgot – it’s one of the strangest and best books I’ve read this year.
If I had to sum up Death in Spring (1986;... read more
Three years ago, Penguin hit paydirt with its Little Black Classics range: short, pocket-sized slices of work from the authors in its Classics imprint, at 80p a pop, to celebrate 80 years of Penguin Books. It wasn’t a new idea: they did it before in 1995 (with the Penguin 60s, with both contemporary and classic authors), in 2005 (with the Pocket Penguin 70s – no, not those Pocket Penguins – containing old and new writing by Penguin authors) and in 2011, to celebrate 60 years of Penguin Modern Classics (with the Mini Modern Classics). And here is another set, 50... read more
Click on the link below to read my review in the Irish Times of Zadie Smith’s second collection of essays, Feel Free. My review was edited for length, so I’ve included the original opening paragraph below:
A few years ago, Zadie Smith reviewed a collection of Geoff Dyer’s essays for Harper’s magazine, and praised his “tone. Its simplicity, its classlessness, its accessibility and yet its erudition – the combination is a trick few British writers ever pull off.” Whether Smith was hoping that one day someone would say the same of her, who knows – but here it is. These are... read more
Here is a book whose fearsome reputation precedes it – or should I say (spoiler alert) exceeds it? Berlin Alexanderplatz is a monument of modern German literature and, more prominently to me, a byword for fat unreadability. It’s not clear whether this is because of intrinsic qualities in the book itself, or the widely disliked first English translation by Eugene Jolas. The book is a running joke in Ned Beauman’s novel The Teleportation Accident, where the ‘hero’ Egon Loeser has been trying to read it for 30 years:
About a year earlier, he had taken a slow train to Cologne to visit... read more
A few years ago, I had a discussion with someone who said they never re-read books. This seemed to me a wild claim. Re-reading is, to me, an essential component of reading: I might even say that the first reading of a book is only ever a provisional act, a test to determine whether it is fit to be retained for a future revisit, when I’ll take my time over it and give it the reading it deserves. In practice, because I am fully engaged in this first-level sifting, the re-reading almost never happens, an effect enhanced by the usual... read more
That’s the trouble with secrets, one can never ask for forgiveness.
In the highly refined world of Javier Marías, where any emotion, action, or statement can be surgically probed for pages in order to reveal every nuance and possible interpretation, the bar for what counts as an affront to the system is set frightfully low. At the outset of Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narrator, twenty-three year old Juan De Vere, is told by his new boss, the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, that a friend of Muriel’s, a certain Dr. Van Vechten, has possibly committed some sort of heinous act in the past.... read more
Everything I had, I destroyed. Yet while I was alive I called myself a healer. We are all monsters, and I most among us. When we think we do the most good we commit the gravest arrogances. —Maw
Quintan Ana Wikswo’s first novel—A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press)—is a deeply ambitious book full of wild, unforgettable images, maximalist writing, and page after page of literary pyrotechnics. If I say that it’s a scathing, dystopian view of America, a diatribe against male privilege, and a send-up of the hypocritical sanctimony of the church—all of which... read more
I’ll be visiting London and Cambridge in April and the folks at the London Review Bookshop have invited me to join in a program celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication in Great Britain of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Grant Gee will be screening his terrific film Patience (After Sebald). Here’s the LRB’s program preview:
Marking 20 years since the translation into English of the late W.G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, one of the most remarkable books of the late twentieth century, Grant Gee introduces his acclaimed 2011 documentary essay film tracking both the journey taken in the... read more
Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2017 containing embedded photographs. You can see bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo. I also maintain a more complete bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing (http://www.librarything.com/catalog/VertigoTwo). I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books. If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about! [Updated February 15, 22,... read more
Han Kang. The White Book. London: Portobello Books, 2017. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time not yet lived, into this book I... read more
The saints were uneducated. Why, then, do they write so well? Is it only inspiration? They have style whenever they describe God. It's easy to write from divine whispers, with one's ear glued to his mouth. Their works have a superhuman simplicity. But they cannot be called writers, since they do not describe reality. The world won't accept them because it does not see itself in their work. EM Cioran, Tears and SaintsA surprising conclusion: realism, the new narcissism.
It might explain why I prefer to read non-writers. But what do they write about if God no... read more
This is a novel about a translator who moves from London to Paris after the death of his first wife and then to Wales with his second wife, from where the novel is narrated, sometimes through the translator's imagination and sometimes via the guests invited to dinner parties in their cottage on the hills above Abergavenny. I admit that this doesn't sound like the most exciting premise for a novel, but I have read it three times in quick succession with increasing pleasure and relief (an odd word to use in a review perhaps), so let me try to explain... read more
Elizabeth Lowry's skilled review tells you all you need to know about JM Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus, more or less. It recognises that the "mysterious Spanish-speaking country, this place of refugee souls" in which the two protagonists make their new lives "stands for our embodied earthly life", and that their new home city Novilla is also "the genre in which the characters find themselves, the novel itself". It's why the novel is not very enjoyable, she says; a flimsy metafictional construct allowing Coetzee to indulge in Platonic dialogues as unappealing as the bread and bean paste eaten by... read more
Sarah Kofman wrote nearly thirty books between 1970 and her suicide in 1994. The majority have not been translated into English and those that have are expensive, but with titles on Kant, Nietzsche and Freud, you can appreciate their range and seriousness. Derrida and Levinas admired her work so much they joined a campaign to get her the academic recognition she had been denied. However, I want to draw attention to one short book from late in her career.
Parole Suffoquées was published in 1987 and translated by Madeleine Dobie as Smothered Words, an edition of less... read more
"I’ve tried to read Karl Ove Knausgaard. But it is impossible… My Struggle lacks air. Literature needs a little air." Peter Handke"In his fiction [David Grossman] has always been a serious writer, a dealer in big themes – too serious for my taste, I find his books lack air." Gabriel Josipovici I read these two statements within a week of each other and have to ask: what is air? A falsely innocent question of course, as both comments surely wish only for relief from the weight of the world pressing on the words, which is after all what storytelling... read more
A review of Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey
Karl Ove Knausgaard stands in front of a 14th century Swedish castle speaking to a film crew from Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show. "I don't understand what time is," he says. "Place I can relate to. We are here now and the castle's there now. But I don't understand what it is that someone was there 700 years ago". There is a pause before the camera pans over the castle walls, as if performing a token search for long-dead Swedes. It's an oddly innocent moment in... read more