Ten years ago my dear friend Stephen Mitchelmore started his superb book blog This Space. It remains a vital inspiration, and the most essential book blog out there.
Recently, for a book project of my own that never got off the ground, I interviewed Steve. This Space's anniversary seems like an excellent time to publish it...... read more
This "beautiful essay on language and the work of Peter Handke was presented two days ago by Karl Ove Knausgaard at the Skien International Ibsen Conference. The Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke is the winner of the the 2014 International Ibsen Award, the world’s most prestigious theater prize." It really is a stunning essay and one, I think, that shows that those who read Knausgaard as some kind of uber-realist are missing his supreme literary artistry... ... read more
There has never been a better year to look at the work of Kazimir Malevich, a pioneer of abstract art often seen as the greatest Russian painter of the twentieth century. “Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art,” first shown in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and now at London’s Tate Modern, is the most comprehensive exhibition of his work ever.
Malevich is known above all for his Black Square (1915)—a black square surrounded by a margin of white—the most prominent of the abstract, geometric paintings he called Suprematist, first shown at the now famous “0.10” exhibition in Petrograd in 1915. With... read more
Just out from Bloomsbury, Michel Henry's From Communism to Capitalism: Theory of a Catastrophe (translated by Scott Davidson):
Both a unique witness of transformative events in the late 20th century, and a prescient analysis of our present economic crises from a major French philosopher, Michel Henry's From Communism to Capitalism adds an important economic dimension to his earlier social critique. It begins by tracing the collapse of communist regimes back to their failure to implement Marx's original insights into the irreplaceable value of the living individual. Henry goes on to apply this same criticism to the surviving capitalist economic systems,... read more
As I tried to make very clear in my post on Sunday, the small and contained argument that I'm advancing is not that serious and interesting writing about books is not happening online. Categorically, it is. I listed five blogs and bloggers in my original Guardian post – This Space, David Winters, 3:AM, Flowerville, Time's Flow Stemmed – and in my follow up blog, I listed several more – John Self, Berfrois, LARB and Dan Green. Very many more wonderful book-related spaces and places could be mentioned – The Quarterly Conversation and HTMLGiant both deserve a shout, as do Marooned... read more
I was honoured to be invited to speak at The Literary Consultancy's Writing in a Digital Age conference yesterday. (A particular personal pleasure because I got to see Lynne Hatwell and Sam Leith again, and it had been far too long in both cases.) Huge thanks to the organisers for inviting me. Seemed to be a very vibrant and well run affair, and I enjoyed the discussion immensely.
The conference was the occasion for writing this piece (What became of literary blogging?) for the Guardian last Monday. It was the subs at the Guardian who framed the piece thus: I hoped... read more
Pushkin Press, two years into new ownership and going from strong to stronger, is one of the few publishers I buy books from on reputation alone (see also: NYRB Classics, CB Editions, Penguin Modern Classics). Their untouchably handsome Pushkin Collection titles, designed by Clare Skeats and David Pearson, are usually new translations of overlooked 20th century world fiction. This is a slight variation: a reissue of a book already translated: the first English edition was published thirty years ago. Fortunately, Pushkin’s eye has not dimmed: this tiny novel, which Alan Sillitoe called “the book of this damned century,” was worth reissuing.
A Childhood... read more
Click here to read my review in The Times of Monique Roffey’s new novel House of Ashes. It’s based on an attempted coup in Trinidad in 1990, and was gripping and enlightening, though not without weaknesses.
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Whenever R.E.M. released any of their last half dozen albums, I used to say that they should call it Return to Form: that, after all, was what everyone was desperately hoping for – though without much hope. In reality there were always critics handy who would call it that anyway. Return to form is such a loaded phrase, ostensibly positive but carrying ahead of it the acknowledgement that the recent work has been sub-par. On the other hand, it does say that there was a form worth returning to.
And as for us – the consumers – because we have human loyalties, we want... read more
Click here to read my review in the Sunday Times of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which is the first crowdfunded novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is, in addition, written in a ‘shadow tongue’ which mixes Old English with variant spellings of modern words, though that might not make it unique in Booker history – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas had one section (‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’) which had a similar linguistic approach. Have there been any others?
... read more
Recently I read Here and Now, the letters of J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster (I don’t recommend it). In it, Auster claims that he never reads his reviews. It’s not an uncommon stance, but I wonder how true it is of writers generally. At a literary event a few years ago, I met two Booker-winning authors. Both, when I was introduced to them, immediately had a strikingly clear recollection of everything I’d written about their books (which, given that it wasn’t all complimentary, was awkward). I raise this because the author of this book, Jonathan Gibbs, is what we might call... read more
Here is my review for the Independent on Sunday of Elizabeth McCracken’s excellent new collection of stories, Thunderstruck. If you’re sampling it, or have a copy and are wondering where to start, my favourite stories were ‘Juliet’, ‘Some Terpsichore’ and ‘Property’.
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In the second section of the new book Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff, we find essays by Katrin Kohl, Kirstin Gwyer, and Lynn L. Wolff grouped under the rubric “Witnessing Trauma and the Poetics of Witnessing.” The first essay is Katrin Kohl’s “Bearing Witness: The Poetics of H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald.” Using as a touchstone Theodore Adorno’s now-infamous statement that “to write poetry after Aushwitz is barbaric,” Kohl examines how Adler and Sebald cope with the ethical issues of “bearing witness” through their poetry and fiction, focusing mostly on... read more
Propolis, the publishing arm of Norwich’s The Book Hive, is holding a London book launch for Philippa Comber’s Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald at the Chelsea location of Daunt Books on Friday October 17, starting at 6:30 PM.
158-164 Fulham Road
London SW10 9PR
Daunts launch invitation
Five days later, the Royal Academy of Arts is having a launch for Tess Jaray’s new book The Blue Cupboard: Inspirations and Recollections. It will be held on Wednesday October 22 from 6:30-8:00. In 2001, Jaray and Sebald collaborated on the book of artwork and poems For Years Now. In addition... read more
My essay “A House Divided,” on S.D. Chrostowska’s book Permission: A Novel (Dalkey Archive, 2013), can be read over at 3AM:Magazine. Permission struck me as a complex and deliberately contradictory book that I simply could not shake free of. I was particularly taken by the variety and sophistication of the ways in which Chrostowska used photographs in her book. I would glance at them expecting to quickly consume the image and then move on with the text; but the images repeatedly stole my attention, and I found myself eventually going back to the text having been taken somewhere entirely unexpected... read more
Toward the end of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Jacques Austerlitz tells the book’s narrator that he has just read a “heavy tome, running to almost eight hundred close-printed pages, which H.G. Adler, a name previously unknown to me, had written between 1945 and 1947 in the most difficult of circumstances, partly in Prague and partly in London, on the subject of the setting up, development, and internal organization of the Theresienstadt ghetto, and which he had revised several times before it was brought out by a German publishing house in 1955…” It was a struggle for Austerlitz to understand the difficult... read more
“Why write? to remember? or to give? or at last to forget.”
“Unlike ancient seers, I foretell the past.”
In Ancient History: A Paraphase (Knopf, 1971), Joseph McElroy once again uses a favorite device – the personal letter – in a novel dedicated to reliving, dissecting, and realigning the past. The narrator is Cyrus, a professional anthropologist who seems to work for a foundation. (As usual, basic facts remain elusive in McElroy’s world.) Cy is also what we today might call a stalker. He is obsessed with Dom, an outsized figure in New York literary and political circles – a character often... read more
The phrase “Ariadne’s thread” usually refers to the process of solving a maze or other complex problem through a physical trace (the mythical ball of thread) or a some method of recording and verifying one’s options and decisions. In Philippa Comber’s new memoir Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald, the thread ultimately leads us back into the maze that was W.G. Sebald. In 1980, Comber, a young English-born psychotherapist living in Berlin whose marriage was “foundering,” moved to Norwich for a new job. In August 1981 she joined up with a small group of friends and others to see... read more
Painting is practical day-to-day thing I think. One might say something clever, one might say something big, but one does something limited. It’s a serious thing – like religion – like love – one does the persistent thing, and then the really remarkable happens when something’s there that wasn’t there before.Frank Auerbach's words from fifty years ago were pasted above my student work desk without ever prompting attention. Inspirational quotes are there to be ignored, after all. Only lately has the contrast between his trust in a modest routine and apparent wonder in the presence of art demanded examination. After... read more
This week marks ten years since this blog was born. Appropriately, the first post was about beginnings. As I tell Mark Thwaite in this interview about literary blogging, it wasn't the first blog I'd written for, but this was the first solo effort: Almost immediately I recognised This Space as my true home, a miraculous release into a limitless expanse in which writing could be explored in the direction demanded by the work under discussion. The editorial identity was soon established and gave me what I had lacked until then. My only responsibility was to sustain that exploration. Perhaps ten... read more
In the relaxed confines of the LRB Bookshop on a warm August evening, Lars Iyer marked the publication of his fourth novel by telling an audience that as a youngster he had been drawn to philosophy rather than fiction as a means to find a way to live, to think his way to life. It's an old question – how to live? – and one often so pressing that philosophers have made it central to their lives. This indeed used to be the definition of a philosopher: someone who lived consistently with their beliefs. Ludwig Wittgenstein is one example. For... read more
Some novels offer the perfect opportunity for reviewers to palliate otherwise desolate and sundered lives. Notable examples in recent years include Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones and Tao Lin's first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee. There are many others but Tao Lin's Taipei, published last year, is an extreme case. One reviewer found relief in the "vapid stupidity" of its prose, another in its "massive discharge of waste matter", a third in its "mindless kitsch". As we watch them scurry in haste to the well-furnished bunkers of polite literary society, we can infer each reviewer found clarity and... read more
Revue LISA, a print journal published by the University of Rennes, has a very welcome edition dedicated to the work of Gabriel Josipovici. It is also online.
Readers new to his fiction and criticism would do well to read Vesna Main's Beyond the "Grammar", in which the grammar is "the formulaic apparatus of most novels", and Victoria Best's very moving essay on The Cost of Creativity in his work.
The editor Marcin Stawiarski is also organising Zig Zag, Twist and Turn, a conference on Josipovici's work, to be held at Dalarna University in Sweden this... read more
Going back to a beloved novel after many years can be a disconcerting experience. Often you wonder what you saw the first time around to prompt such nostalgia and loving reverence. Much of the detail is unfamiliar, alien even. Unlike a poem, whose aura is embedded in words recited both subconsciously and at will, a novel is recovered en bloc, masking many details and existing almost like a Platonic form we contemplate with awe in its absence. But, when trodden again, the perfect lawn has molehills.
In effect, our personal library is a collection of portals... read more
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Picador (August 2013)
378 pages, hardback
Bought by me, from Amazon
I savoured the thought of reading Hannah Kent’s debut novel for almost six months. I pre-ordered it, and then hoarded it, like I do with books I hope I’m going to relish. It ticked lots of boxes for me: historical fiction; female protagonist; set in a cold climate; dark murderous plot. The book itself was beautiful, with its stark and striking cover and black edged pages. It sat patiently on my TBR, always hovering near the top, while the accolades came rolling in: it was chosen... read more
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah
Hannah Kent - Burial Rites
Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland
Audrey Magee - The Undertaking
Eimear McBride - A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
Donna Tartt - The Goldfinch
I know, I know, the Baileys shortlist has been out for almost a week now and is officially Old News in the blogosphere, but I've only just properly caught up. It's been a busy little time for me recently. We're about to move house for the second time in two years, this time out to the country. I'm six months into my part-time PhD and it... read more
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
The Austen Project, The Borough Press, March 2014
352 pages, paperback proof
Kindly sent by the publisher
I've never read Val McDermid before, and I heartily wish now that my first encounter hadn't been with Northanger Abbey. If there was ever a book that wasn't for me, it's this one. I eagerly snapped up a review copy because I was quite curious about The Austen Project- which has commissioned six bestselling authors to reimagine Austen's novels in contemporary settings - and because I enjoy following Val on Twitter. I'm not a huge crime fan; Austen is far more... read more
The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt
Simon and Schuster, March 2014
Paperback proof, 374 pages
Review copy from the publisher
A puzzling reading experience, this one. The proof comes replete with glowing recommendations from Nathan Filer (winner of this year’s Debut Costa for The Shock of the Fall) and Samantha Harvey (of The Wilderness fame), and it has been long-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize this week. But I struggled to get through it: 374 pages dragged by and I had to bribe myself to keep up a steady pace. It wasn’t that I was disappointed or bored as such (although I was a... read more
I didn't realise how long it had been since I last posted. Over a month. Ahem. So much for my new year resolution to write more frequently. Better get back on the horse.
While I've been away the Orange Bailey's Prize for Women's Fiction longlist has been announced, and what an excitingly rounded list it seems. I've read The Luminaries so far, and have Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld waiting in the wings. Of the others I'm keen to get my mitts on The Signature of All Things, Reasons She Goes to the... read more
The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness
Translated from Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson
The Harvill Press, 2001 (first published 1957), paperback, 246pp
Bought by me, from a bookshop somewhere.
The Fish Can Sing wasn't the book I was expecting. When I read Laxness' extraordinary sheep-farming epic Independent People I was overwhelmed and unsettled. It has stayed with me over the years, growing more majestic and psychologically acute in my mind. That novel - especially the first 2/3 of it - is a great cosmic shout, a conjuring of both the grandeur and limitations of human life. The Fish Can Sing is a... read more
If Noel Streatfeild and Barbara Noble were busy prefiguring child psychology in the 1940s then hang it all, wasn’t Dorothy Canfield Fisher streets ahead of everyone back in 1924?
The Home Maker, how could I leave it off my list and I am sure you are familiar with the story…
Evangeline and Lester Knapp, she trapped by an almost OCD approach to housework and child-rearing, he ‘bound and gagged’ by a dead end job, and their three children. Helen of the supposed delicate lungs and the supposed helpless impracticality. Henry of the phantom delicate digestion and the unnecessary special diet and then... read more
If the role of the wartime mother and the impact of conflict on children are so brilliantly delineated in Saplings, then Barbara Noble’s Doreen has just as much to offer.
Two mothers, one biological, one surrogate will unwittingly fight for the possession of Doreen…or is it DoReen…or maybe even Dreen. The book was written in eighteen months during the worst part of the blitz; office cleaner Mrs Rawlings, torn between keeping Doreen close or keeping her safe takes up the offer of a country billet for her 9 yr old daughter. Enter childless couple Francie and Geoffrey who will grow to love Doreen as their... read more
Here follows, over several blog posts, the transcript of my talk at the Persephone Lunch last week...
Mothers and children in Persephone books...well it's now Wednesday (it was), I hope you have until at least next Tuesday because this could take us some time.
I came across some old copies of The Young Elizabethan magazine at a book sale, and this article by Noel Streatfeild entitled 'How I Write My Books' caught my eye...
'I am convinced if I do not know everything there is to know about my characters my readers will not know them at all. For this reason I start living with... read more
.. and I answered the call over three days this week.
The talk at the Persephone Bookshop (Mothers and Children in Persephone Books) happened on Wednesday, to a very appreciative audience full of friendly faces who looked engrossed each time I glanced up, so I am hoping it all lived up to expectations. It can be hard to know how and where to pitch any talk, but I had taken a particular line with this one and just hoped it would all make sense and hold together. The transcripts of both halves (before and after lunch) will be on here this... read more
I am always grateful to all of you for ideas, suggestions, inspiration and thanks, both in comments and your emails, so when Avis sent along a message asking if I knew of this..
I was delighted to say, yes indeed.
We have driven past Higher Uppacott on the road from Tavistock to Ashburton and beyond for over thirty five years now, always admired it, often wondered what it might look like inside, and now that it is completely owned by the Dartmoor National Park we have been able to visit.
The house sits in a hollow on the right hand side... read more
It's a new affliction and it struck on my birthday, a big bout of Cadfaelitis.
I have never been that interested in the Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters (aka Edith Pargeter) not even when a very good friend, who read every one as it was published back in the 1980s, tried to persuade me. Those were the days when I favoured Susan Howatch and Mary Wesley, but a monastic whodunnit...no thank you.
Nor did I watch the TV series with Derek Jacobi. That continues to pass me by completely.
So when the Kindle Daily Deal arrived in my inbox backalong, and for one... read more