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Tag: Book Review

Yet Another Top 10 List – Smutty Books

Emmanuelle_Story of the Eye_The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman_The Ripening Seed_Querelle_Sexus_Lolita_Delta of Venus_Story of O_Philosophy in the Boudoir

After yet another night on the town and a variety of noxious alcoholic medleys I woke up this morning feeling malcontent, maladroit and morbidly hungover. I was going to – very audaciously – vow to stay off the booze for the remainder of February but then realised it was Valentine’s Day and I would certainly need something 20 proof and above to get me through it. That and some books, perhaps, of the smutty variety for it is somehow both appropriate and inappropriate to be reading smut on this merchant-made capitalist abomination of days.

So in case you’re feeling a little bit like me here’s a list of some literary smut, arranged in alphabetic order by the first letter of the writer’s surname. The list is by no means comprehensive and reflects my own reading preferences and prejudices. So, friends, say NO to Hallmark and Cadbury and go buy one of the below! Or tell me what would be on your list.

Emmanuelle by Emmanuelle Arsan
“What’s beautiful is to refuse to let yourself stop, sit down, fall asleep, or look back.”

Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
“We did not lack modesty—on the contrary—but something urgently drove us to defy modesty together as immodestly as possible.”

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter
“I desire therefore I exist.”

The Ripening Seed by Colette
“One would have to be a raving lunatic to try to find out what a woman wants, or to imagine that she knows herself!”

Querelle of Brest by Jean Genet
“When we see life, we call it beautiful. When we see death, we call it ugly. But it is more beautiful still to see oneself living at great speed, right up to the moment of death.”

Sexus by Henry Miller
“To love or be loved is no crime. The really criminal thing is to be make a person believe that he or she is the only one you could ever love.”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.”

Story of O by Pauline Réage
“Finally a woman confesses! Confess what? What women never allowed themselves to confess!”

Philosophy in the Boudoir or The Immoral Mentors by Marquis de Sade
“Nature, who for the perfect maintenance of the laws of her general equilibrium, has sometimes need of vices and sometimes of virtues, inspires now this impulse, now that one, in accordance with what she requires.”

Source: GoodReads, Wikipedia

Seminal Lines

Photograph by Ralph Gibson

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

Mad Girl’s Love Song – Sylvia Plath

Charles Nicholl: Dazzling the reader with his prose and infectious curiosity

Traces Remain by Charles Nicholl

“I have always found the details of history more interesting,” writes Charles Nicholl in the preface to his new collection of essays, “or anyway more evocative, than the larger perspectives of History.” And this is precisely what Nicholl explores in Traces Remain – the overlooked and forgotten fragments and people that have failed to make it into the textbooks. The 25 essays gathered here originally appeared in a number of literary publications and were guided, according to the writer, by the general principal of “poking around,” libraries and archives “re-examining existing evidence and then trying to ask new questions about it,” sometimes “prospecting”. Despite his seemingly casual air Nicholl is meticulous in his research, taking on the role of a painstakingly assiduous detective as he trawls through the decades, searching for clues to untold mysteries. One of these is the legend of Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, an intrepid Amazonian explorer described as a “man in hand-to-hand combat with the wilderness,” who disappeared over 80 years ago. Fawcett was accompanied on the doomed expedition by his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell. His last dispatch was dated 25th May 1925 and was sent from Dead Horse Camp, exactly what happened to the three men after that has never been established although some answers have been provided by the subsequent rescue missions. The first and most famous of these was led by Commander George Miller Dyott in 1928, who learned that Fawcett had “played his ukulele for some Xingu Indians a few days before vanishing in the Mato Grosso jungle” and was most likely massacred by the Nahukwa tribe, who in turn blamed the notoriously fierce rival group Saya. “Despite the staring-eyed fantasies of his later years,” writes Nicholl, “he [Fawcett] was in many ways an admirable Englishman, austere, laconic, honourable, and incredibly tough, playing with a straight bat on some of the stickiest wickets the planet could provide.”

Strange and curious personages like Fawcett feature throughout this fascinating book. Among them is a poet by the name of Thomas Coryate, once the “butt for courtly wits and poets like John Donne and Ben Jonson,” he was also a “courageous traveller,” who in 1608 covered 1,975 miles in just over five months and visited 45 cities around Europe. Coryate wrote a book about his voyages called Crudities – loosely alluding to “raw experience” – which managed to make waves alongside such literary triumphs as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist – on stage at the time. Then there’s an English pseudoscientist, clairvoyant and con-man by the name of Edward Kelly, who fooled Bohemian royalty with his  “esoteric flannel,” and later died in suspicious circumstances most likely at the orders of Emperor Rudolph II. “The usual telling of the story is that Rudolph ceased to believe in him,” says Nicholl, “Kelly’s promises, particularly with regard to heaps of transmuted gold pouring into the treasury, had proved empty.”  Kelly’s story is surpassed only by that of another con-man, adventurer, French scribbler, one time heavy-weight boxer and nephew to Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, Arthur Cravan. He was briefly married to avant-garde poet Mina Loy who had his child and outlived him by several decades. When asked toward the end of her life what had been her happiest instances Loy said: “Every moment spent with Arthur Cravan. ‘And the unhappiest?’ The rest of the time.” He is thought to have drowned off the coast of Mexico around 1918, although according to the most recent theory, Nicholl says, Cravan reinvented himself as the no less mysterious author B. Traven, who went on to write several hard-bitten Mexico based novels.

Along with the mysterious fates of the aforementioned men, Traces Remain includes two murders cases, two discoveries of unmarked graves, one missing Shakespeare play and one very enigmatic portrait recently found in Herefordshire. The latter is a work of art believed to have been painted by Frederick Hurlstone, its subject may or may not be Lord Byron in the guise of one of his own fictional heroes called Manfred. Yet, as Nicholl explains, despite numerous authentications the sitter and artist cannot be conclusively verified. “Does it look like Byron?” he says, speaking of the portrait after seeing photographs of it, “To answer this, one has to ask another question: what did Byron look like? Byron’s appearance changed all the time – because different artists saw him differently and because he was a great believer in diets and regimes, and his weight fluctuated by as much as four stone. Various portraits show around Byrons and thin Byrons, Byron’s with moustache, with mutton-chop whiskers, in costume, in uniform, in Greek helmet, in his dressing gown and so on.” In fact, there are over 40 portraits of the Romantic poet and albeit this latest one cannot be authenticated,  Nicholl says, “the sad-looking man in the fur hat deserves further investigation”. This kind of uncertainly –  a theme throughout the book  –  is one of its pitfalls and in a general sense the trouble with writing about historical marginalia.

Many of the tales within the collection are about the obscure who crossed paths with those that made history. One of them is of a woman for whom William Hazlitt divorced his wife and wrote “with alarming frankness,” as Nicholl puts it, Liber Amoris. The thinly disguised fictional account of Hazlitt’s love bares no resemblance to any other of the writer’s works, and was once considered a thing of great embarrassment. It also caused a bit of a scandal despite being published anonymously, and while Hazlitt managed to recover from it almost instantly being a bullish “spiky” and “self-absorbed” man that he was, Sarah Walker’s reputation as a “dowdy trollop” and “one man’s amour fou”  prevailed. The turn of her fate is difficult to trace, says Nicholl, but all evidence indicates that Hazlitt’s love was unrequited and that Walker went on to marry and have a son. It is most likely she died of “old age” perhaps, the writer speculates, thinking of those “distant days of her youth, and that strange, hectic man who loved her so passionately, and wanted to marry her, and ended up marking her life and her name with the taint of scandal that would never quite go away”. Nicholl goes from subject to subject with ease and authority, from talking about interpersonal relationships between English poets and European dignitaries to Leonardo Da Vinci’s relationship with his art, which is explored  here through the painter’s Milanese notebooks. Unbeknown to many, Nicholl says, Da Vinci was also a keen writer or rather a “writer-down of things: a recorder of observations, a pursuer of data, an explorer of thoughts, an inscriber of lists and memoranda”.

In describing the famous Italian artist, Nicholl also succeeds in describing something of himself for he is very much a modern day polymath – a historian, a scholar, a travel writer and a sleuth looking for greatness in the neglected and the ordinary. Speaking on the subject to the Guardian, Nicholl recently said that he has always aimed to present in his work the “the realities of life as it was lived by that person” with a sense of complete authenticity. “There’s one world that you know these people very well from,” he explained, “so let’s have a look at the other one, at the other, dark side of the moon, as it were: Marlowe as spy, Rimbaud as traveller or explorer and gun-runner, Shakespeare as lodger rather than great playwright.” It is this desire to construct a comprehensive picture of someone that makes Traces Remain  such a consummately engrossing read, full of thrilling details, shady characters, legends and mysteries from all four corners of the world. Much of which Nicholl has travelled himself, after being given tickets to Martinique as part of the prize for the Daily Telegraph Young Writer of the Year award which he won in 1972. He has since travelled most of the globe, Europe, South America, parts of the Middle East. One of the essays in the book is about the quest to find Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, the beautiful and rich “capital of memory,” as described in the eponymous Quartet. “Only fragments remain of Classical Alexandria,” Nicholl tells us sadly, “but its more recent past can be savoured just by wondering aimlessly through the streets, past shabby villas and Rococo facades and dusty brick-a-brac shops. The city seems like an aging dandy fallen on hard times.” Every essay in the collections has something interesting, worthwhile and amusing to impart, whether it be about a person, an artifact or a city. Nicholl is a man who makes history come alive, dazzling the reader with his prose and his infectious curiosity.

Guardian | Charles Nicholl

Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: December 2012
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 9780140296822

Favourite Reads – 2012

Favourite Reads 2012

Allen Ginsberg by Steve Finbow

Finbow is a resolutely straight-shooting biographer who treats his subject with complete candour, examining Ginsberg’s neuroses, his guilt over his mad mother, his suicidal tendencies, his petty jealousies and sexual perversities in relation to his work and how it shaped him as a poet. The biographer draws on secondary sources and first-hand knowledge with great proficiency and skill in order to evaluate Ginsberg’s place in American letters and beyond.

Reaktion Books  | 239 pages| £10.95

Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Maupassant explores the dynamics of urban society through its relationship with politics and the press, power and sex. This book is a conscientiously observed and rendered tale of intrigue, liberated women and old-fashioned men, love, loyalty and social climbing. Written in the 1880s, the book records the social milieu of bourgeois capitalism under La Troisième République, mirroring the reality of its day in this sprightly and compelling tale.

Penguin Classics | 416 pages | £9.99

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

A uniquely relayed story of love, abandonment, pain and triumph of the will. Smart conveys the multifarious graduations of emotion with a sentience rarely matched, but she also has a tendency to fluctuate between disclosing too much and too little, between superbly lyrical prose and overlaboured writing, between aesthetic excellence and a propensity for the melodramatic. Overall, however, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is superb.

Flamingo | 112 pages | £5.59

Hell by Henri Barbusse

A semi-philosophical study of the human condition devised to show us that man’s desire for solitude cannot be reconciled with his desire to live to the utmost degree of fulfilment. A tragic book in many ways but also a triumphant one, which reads like a bold rejection of philosophia Christiana and a homage to secularism, daringly rendering God obsolete.

OneSuch Press | 136 pages | £7.95

John Berger by Andy Merrifield

This wonderful critical study contains an array of insights about Berger the man, the artist, the “concerned citizen” and the “uneasy rider” aboard his Honda Blackbird. Merrifield documents the trajectory of Berger’s professional life with expertise, showing how the modernist novelist, who had given the English novel an art-house Continental twist, has evolved into a craftsman storyteller. In doing so, the biographer conjoins different aspects of Berger together, demystifying the seeming disparities and deriving new meaning from his art, his life and his politics.

Reaktion Books  | 224 pages | £10.95

Museum Without Walls by Jonathan Meades

There really are no walls to Jonathan Meades’ Museum as this book contains everything from seventeenth century literary dicta to the demerits of the Theory of the Value of Ruins. Meades’ spellbinding enthusiasm, his acuity and his crafty prose in writing about social, political and religious issues – which he contemplates with wit and gravitas – are surpassed only by his uncompromising candour, which also extends to his personal life.

Unbound | 352 pages | £20

The Lowlife by Alexander Baron

A compelling and moving book full of optimism where one might see none, relayed in a precise and engaging narrative driven by a rogue but very likable protagonist, who despite his trials, troubles and tribulations aims to see the good in all things. Baron’s extraordinary eye for period detail and his astute observational abilities, combined with his ostensible penchant for storytelling, make The Lowlife a highly enjoyable read.

Black Spring Press | 192 pages | £9.99

The Richard Burton Diaries edited by Chris Williams

The Diaries offer a very candid look at Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s volatile married and professional lives; their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. The collection spanning from 1939 to 1983 comprises frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.

Yale Books  | 704 pages | £25

The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet

A murder mystery with a seemingly straightforward plot, which is anything but straightforward. Robbe-Grillet spent his career experimenting with themes of repressed memory and nebulous identity, the ambiguous complexity of space and time and the intricate nature of truth. The Voyeur is an early example of his style and the erratic chronology, mystic symbolism, incantatory narrative, rounded repetitions and stylised deconstructions of plot that later came to define it. It is a truly new vision of the novel, depicting a familiar yet numinous universe, where a man by the name of Mathias may or may not be implicated in a murder.

Alma Classics | 178 pages| £7.99

White Noise by Don DeLillo

White Noise is a valiant and veracious postmodernist depiction of “human dread” as well as of the horrors and ecstasies of life. DeLillo captures the state of modern family, the society of the spectacle and the notion of the future as the here-and-now with considerable deft. Not only that, he manages to create a neoteric social satire, funny, plangent, absurd, terrifying and skilfully evocative of modern-day life and all its ecstasies and encumbrances.

Picador | 400 pages| £7.99

Seminal Lines

Photograph by Robert Frank

“In love there are no vacations. No such thing. Love has to be lived fully with its boredom and all that.”

On Love – Marguerite Duras

Robert Bird: A diligent and enthusiastic biographer

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Robert Bird

Fyodor Dostoevsky was an enigmatic man. Sigmund Freud, for example, writes Robert Bird in his book on the famous Russian discovered “four distinct faces for Dostoevsky, the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner”. All of these are carefully examined in Bird’s critical study, which suggests that Dostoevsky’s multi-layered image presented the writer himself with certain “mysteries”. As his fame grew Dostoevsky would frequently decline to pose for photographs deeming it an infringement upon one’s person, believing that the physiological was inseparable from the spiritual self. In his case, however, there was a great dichotomy between the two. Bird quotes a number of descriptions of the writer to illustrate the ostensible discord between his physical appearance and his personality, his “intellectual authority” and his “unappealing exterior”. “A little man, skinny, grey fair hair, the colour of his face and of everything was grey,” wrote one observer in 1880, “he read and everyone listened, holding their breath. He began quietly and ended as a prophet.”  Another account of Dostoevsky is provided by Varvara Timofeeva, an editor with whom he worked on the Writer’s Diary. His “was not a kind or evil face,” she wrote in 1873, “it somehow simultaneously attracted and repelled, frightened and captivated”. Bird suggests it is for this reason, among others, this puzzling duality of the corporeal and the spiritual, which also came to define Dostoevsky’s works, that our interest in him has never dwindled and is showing no sign of doing so.

Dostoevsky rose from humble beginnings, although occasionally he liked to suggests otherwise. His father worked in a hospital for the poor and money was always a source of worry, even later on in Dostoevsky’s life when he had achieved considerable success.  “From early on,” explains Bird, “ Dostoevsky’s financial problems were exacerbated by this wholehearted immersion in the imaginary realms opened up by poetry, drama and fiction.” Experiences of monetary hardships infiltrated his fiction from as early as Poor Folk, The Double and White Nights all of which lament, as Bird points out, “the disfigurement of society and the individual psyche under the pressures of modern life,” defined by “forces that constrain human freedom, both exterior forces such as money and power and interior ones like illness and sexual desire”. Bird unveils Dostoevsky as a formidable social commentator, whose works were infused with popular philosophical and ideological ideas akin to those of Karl Marx. “As different as their analyses and solutions were,” writes Bird, “both Dostoevsky and Marx sought to identify the iron fences of necessity in order to establish the conditions of new freedom.” In his own way Dostoevsky sought to form these conditions with every single one of his books, two journals, Vremya and Epokha, and continuous calls for artistic liberty, which saw him arrested for sedition and sent to the Semipalatinsk labour camp. Dostoevsky later described those four years in Siberia as deadening as being “buried alive and enclosed in a coffin”. But Bird notes that surviving documents paint a picture of Dostoevsky as a brave and courageous “man trying to stay true to his artistic vocation in the face of crushing physical and psychological blows”.

Bird is very diligent in chronicling how each period of Dostoevsky’s life shaped his fiction. After leaving the camp, for example, Dostoevsky began “remaking himself as a writer” and resolved to set up house and raise a family. In 1857, he met and married a widow by the name of Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva. “Family, patriotism, religion,” writes Bird about this time in Dostoevsky’s life, “all three elements of this essentially conservative mind-set issue directly from the artist’s attempt to compose a new image for a new time.”  To keep this momentum going Dostoevsky launched the first of his two literary journals, Vremya, with his brother Mikhail, which showcased a “nascent ideology for national unity”. And for a while the future of literature and society seemed to rest with “his talented, socially committed pen,” which deemed it imperative for Russia to find its own place in the world, away from the Western Tradition. “Our task is to create for ourselves a new form, our own, native to us,” Dostoevsky wrote at the time, “taken from our own soil, taken from the national spirit and from national principles.”  This notion would also apply to the writer himself, who in 1861 resumed writing Dead House, a fictionalised account of prison life in a form of “notes” consisting of disconnected and fitful narratives, rich in dominant ideological standpoints. In order to proceed with Dead House, Dostoevsky had to invent a new literary form because his vision, Bird explains, “refused to submit to conventional means of literary representation”. Dead House was an artistic turning point for the writer just as Crime and Punishment would later elevate his “name to a wholly new status”.  But this was also a troubled time for Dostoevsky, who found himself in a dire emotional and financial position following his wife’s death and the folding of both his literary journals. It prompted Dostoevsky to refer to himself as “a literary proletariat,”  perpetually toiling away with little  to show for it.

Dostoevsky’s lack of control over his gambling and his estate haunted him until the end. It was in part due to his impractical nature and his inability to abnegate the vices of the flesh despite his Christianity, which was a dominating element in his personal and professional life. While travelling around Europe, for example, Dostoevsky became fascinated with religious art, deeming the famous Sistine Madonna “the greatest revelation of the human spirit”. The painting was later obsessively mentioned in all of Dostoevsky’s mature novels, except one (The Brothers Karamazov). But even in his early works of the 1860s, the religious element was at the forefront of the writer’s mind as he set out to “create a Christian literature”  in his own unique way. “Christianity infuses his work as a gesture,” Bird explains, “changing the quality of his images by setting them against an infinite horizon. The crucial decision was to stop projecting ideas onto fictional forms and to allow both form and idea to emerge viscerally from his raw experience”. Bird illustrates this point throughout the book with learned enthusiasm, occasionally too academic and scholastic in tone.  But this is no surprise as Bird’s main area of interest is the aesthetic practice and theory of Russian modernism, whose spectres loom over the otherwise very well balanced book, which conscientiously appraises all of Dostoevsky’s faces.

“The Idiot,”  Bird writes mid way through the book, “is a novel that reveals most about Dostoevsky’s inner life, his experience as an epileptic and his dreams of (and for) the world.” One can clearly see elements of Myshkin in Dostoevsky, who fought a lifelong battle between flesh and spirit, between intellect and labour. The book was written abroad, with Dostoevsky pinning for Russia, gambling himself into destitution and feeling increasingly ill  due to his epilepsy. He was by that point married to his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, with whom he had a daughter that died before Dostoevsky finished the book. This state of mind inevitably shaped the tortured and on occasion torturous work. In the book, explains Bird, Dostoevsky hoped to portray a “positively beautiful individual,” resembling the spirit of the Sistine Madonna, a man endowed with all the qualities that Dostoevsky considered godly: love, humanity, faith. All the qualities he wished in himself, but felt he struggled to find. “You think I’m one of those people who save hearts, resolve souls and dispel grief?” Dostoevsky asked in reply to a  fan’s letter, “Many write such things to me but I know for sure that I am more capable of inciting disappointment and disgust.” It would be easy to assume that this earnestness was part of some perverse affectation, but it is more likely that Dostoevsky genuinely believed himself more capable of the latter than the former. “Even in his final repose,” Bird says, “Dostoevsky was unable to maintain the solemn dignity he so craved.” His funeral was a large scale public spectacle, almost farcical in scope and grandeur. “A student records,”  Bird cites, “that one passer-by asked who was being buried with such pomp: he was given the puzzling answer: A convict.” A sinner. A neurotic. A moralist. But a creative artist, above all.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: March 2012
Paperback: 240 pages
ISBN: 9781861899002

Writers On Writers

Hart Crane_Jonathan Meades_ Chico Buarque_ Aldous Huxley_W.H Auden_Philip Roth_Martin Amis_ F.R. Leavis_ Eugène Ionesco_ John Stuart Mill

”Hart Crane’s poems are profound and deep-seeking.”
Eugene O’Neill

“Meades is a national treasure – original, quirky, fearless and often quite right.”
Nigel Jones

“Buarque’s the real deal, hilarious and innovative and deftly profound.”
Jonathan Franzen

“Aldous Huxley was uncannily prophetic, a more astute guide to the future than any other 20th- century novelist.”
J.G Ballard

“Auden’s range was astonishing.”
John Fuller

“Roth had reached a kind of terminus  – the end of the beginning, as it were.”
Jason Cowley

“Amis does the reader a brilliant, generous (and cathartic) favour.”
Richard Ford

“F.R. Leavis’ ‘eat up your broccoli’ approach to fiction emphasises this junkfood/wholefood dichotomy.”
Angela Carter

“I’d never heard of Ionesco until after I’d written the first few plays.”
Harold Pinter

“John Stuart Mill thought that lyric poetry is not heard, but overheard.”
James Fenton

Sources: The Daily Telegraph, Guardian, The Atlantic, Wikiquote, Dictionary, The Paris Review

Richard Burton: An actor with a scholarly appetite for learning

In November 1966, Richard Burton turned 41. “I don’t seem to feel physically any older and tend to think ‘well thank God’ that’s another year gone,” he wrote a couple of days after his birthday, “I’ll change my refrain later when I’m 60. If I reach that age.” Sadly, Burton died in 1984 aged 58. But he did leave behind 450,000 handwritten words in a series of notebooks and journals, which have been meticulously gathered together into a single definitive volume of Diaries spanning from 1939 to 1983. The majority of these collected musings, which commence in earnest in the 1960s, chronicle his passionate but destructive relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, following their adulterous whirlwind romance on the set of Cleopatra (1963). Occasionally, the entries are annotated by Taylor herself and even when they’re not she’s ever-present on the page and in Burton’s everyday thoughts and contemplations. His diaries provide a very candid look at the couple’s volatile married and professional lives as well as their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. They also comprise frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.

Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins on 10th November 1925 in a small village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales, to a coal miner father and a barmaid mother. He was the twelfth of thirteen children and grew up in a working class Welsh-speaking household. “I have been inordinately lucky all my life,” Burton wrote at the peak of his career, “but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth”. Shortly after the couple’s scandalous romance began Burton divorced his wife at the time, Sybil Williams, and Taylor ended her marriage to Eddie Fisher (“a gruesome little man and smug as a boot,” according to Burton). The couple tied the knot nine days after Taylor’s divorce was finalised in 1964. For the next 10 years, they jetted around the globe “surrounded by publicity and paparazzi” celebrating their love and their glamorous lifestyle. In his most tender moments, Burton lavished Taylor with boundless love, affection and gifts. “She is a wildly exciting lover-mistress,” he wrote early on in their marriage, “she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography…she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in my stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!” But he also recorded the violent clashes of their discordant tempers and their explosive rows, which would arise at any given moment in public and in private. “In the middle of the early night Elizabeth and I exchanged insults,” Burton wrote on 2nd August 1967, “in which I said she was not a ‘woman but a man’ and in which she called me ‘little girl’. A couple of months later Burton raged: “Am in a violent temper. E, as usual, has to combat everything I do or say in front of the children.” And even a couple of years later in 1971 while on a visit to Rome, Burton wrote: “I had a quarrel with E so vivacious that I went for a long walk to cool my anger.”

The ups and downs of their relationship were many and frequent, and eventually led to divorce in 1974, remarriage in 1975 and another divorce in the following year. Judging by Burton’s diaries, however, he could never quite believe his luck when it came to Taylor. “My God she’s a beauty,” he wrote after an evening out in 1968, “sometimes even now, after nearly 8 years of marriage I look at her when she’s asleep at the first light of grey dawn and wonder at her.” There was also a playful element to their relationship, which the diaries auspiciously chart. “E anxious that I write about her here so here goes,” Burton teased in 1967, “She is a nice fat girl who loves mosquitos and hates pustular carbuncular Welshmen, loathes boats and loves planes, has tiny blackcurrant eyes and minute breasts and no sense of humour. She is prudish, priggish and painfully self-conscious.” One of many ways Taylor would retaliate would be by telling Burton in graphic detail the delights of over-eating kippers, for example, and the joy of their repeating. “She is the only person, certainly the only woman who will tell you, details of the internal working of her body,” Burton wrote in September 1971, “She knows it appals me which is why perversely she enjoys telling me. Liz la Perverse.” The diaries reveal Burton’s impeccable observation skills and an abundant interest in books, places and people. The intimacy of the medium allows him to emerge as a fully rounded human being – and a man quite different from his public persona – who readily confronts the challenges of life lived in the public eye. Burton disliked the spotlight and never fully grasped the fascination with celebrity. “Why do they do it?” he once wondered after being accosted by fans, “I never gaped at anybody in my life and much as I admire certain famed people, Churchill and various writers – R. S Gwyn and Dylan Thomas, T.S Eliot, Spender, Greene, MacNeice etc etc I have never asked for an autograph.”

As the above suggests, Burton was a voracious reader and spent a lot of his free time immersed in a book. “I read P.G Wodehouse’s’ latest Do Butlers Burgle Banks? in one sitting,” he noted in an early entry, “it’s exactly the same as all the others. He’s still mining the same vein of gold, but it’s as effortlessly entertaining as ever.” A little later in life, Burton developed an appreciation of poetry, boasting that it was “a magnificent thing to discover poetry in middle age”. He took a particular interest in Dylan Thomas and W.H Auden, with whom he was once invited to read. He later remarked: “Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence.” Burton wrote of his fellow actors with equal shrewdness. “Marlon’s immorality, his attitude to it is honest and clean,” he notes of Brando, for example, “he is a genuinely good man I suspect and he is intelligent. He has depth…Very little misses him as I’ve noticed.” Amid numerous pages of descriptions of writers, actors, politicians and people in general, Burton comments on important world events – the UK general elections, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon, Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Russian spy Oleg Lyalin defection, the disgraceful death of Nelson Rockefeller and so on. Most of the entries, however, are of a more personal nature and document Burton’s insecurities, vanities, disappointments, drinking and eating habits which he tried to curtail and control throughout his life. “Being (relatively) sober for the last three or four days I have learned a great deal,” Burton wrote in July 1969, “drink, for instance, is a great anodyne. I had forgotten how boring people are. I’d forgotten how afraid people are. I’d forgotten how boring I am. And how all of us lead lives of quiet desperation, and bugger you Thoreau.” 

There is no artifice with Burton – a true Welshman – but occasionally his frankness is somewhat unpalatable as it is, for example, when he documents Taylor’s intimate medical ailments. There is a fine balance between openness and indiscretion and occasionally – even if very occasionally – Burton misses the mark. But his love for Taylor never comes into question, as even in their later years after numerous suspected infidelities, brutal cattiness and decades of turbulence Burton remains firm in his feelings, confessing on paper in late 70s that he loves her still, “mindlessly and hopelessly”. The later entries in the volume are sparse and laconic and bear little resemblance to Burton’s intelligent, revelatory, witty and fascinating ruminations of his heyday. Surprisingly, it seems that much of his unhappiness was a result of his profession. “Very edgy and cantankerous” he wrote in 1966, “no doubt the prospect of working tomorrow is the reason. Always the same before I start a job.”  This sense of anxiety and insecurity plagued him throughout his career. “Off to work,” he wrote in 1971, “in case I hadn’t mentioned it before I hate my work.” This was reportedly due to the fact that he felt he had wasted his talent by working for Hollywood rather treading the boards in London. “My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total,” he declared in  August 1971, “all my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get.” Burton’s Diaries were bequeathed to his last wife, Sally Hay, whom he married in 1983, a year before his death. She gifted them to Swansea University in 2005. They have been thoughtfully compiled and edited by Professor Chris Williams, and give a rare and exclusive look into the life of Richard Burton – the man.

Publisher: Yale Books 
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 704 pages
ISBN: 9780300180107

Brian Sewell: Forthright and formidable

The title of Brian Sewell’s new book of criticisms is a revealing one. Naked Emperors – a play on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes – pre-emptively informs that the material contained within pertains to swindlers and imposters unmasked by a single-truth telling individual. Some of these are world celebrated contemporary artists, others belong to the curatorial establishment; all are subject to Sewell’s vituperative evaluation. Sewell has been the art critic for London’s Evening Standard since 1984, almost as long as he has ”locked horns” with the ”successive chairmen, panjandrums, secretaries and Councillors of the Arts Council”. This, he says in a pointedly entitled chapter, A Nest of Vipers, is due to their ”Byzantine methods of selection and appointment, their often outrageous exploitation of appointment for professional advantage, their buddy-boy and back scratching patronage and subsidy”. Unsurprisingly, his repetitive enquiries and interest in this particular institution have been obstructed and deemed “malevolent”. But neither one nor the other has disparaged Sewell in his quest for veracity, or has stifled his stentorian cries at the fact that the public has been duped into gazing “in adoration on works of art in the mediums of human blood, semen, urine and the fluff discovered in an artist’s navel”.

Sewell’s distaste for what is nowadays foisted as art is palpable throughout the collection and only outweighed by his anger, which reaches its pinnacle in a chapter on Tracey Emin and her “retrospective celebration of unmediated autobiographical relics and self-centred sentimentality” at the Hayward Gallery in 2011. The critic duly informs the reader that he has previously “said very little of Miss Emin” since her debut in 1997 due to the fact that he had hoped that even “our insane contemporary art world would have enough common sense to let her fade into obscurity”. But alas it has not thus Sewell’s erroneous assumption is perhaps as much a reason for his vehement hostility toward Emin as is his objection to her patchworks, her tumbled bed and her general “misery reconstructed in self-pity”. The chapter on Emin, which spans all of three pages, is replete with gratuitous name-calling and ebullient contempt for the “art’s Jade Goody” who, according to Sewell, has made her name through “cunning exploitation of ignorance, irascible emotion and raw sex” while playing the “drunken slut” for the benefit of the popular papers. Sewell’s bile toward his subject – with whom he feels “not the slightest sympathy” over her sexual and personal tribulations – is unmitigated, unrestrained and borderline sadistic. On the other hand, his grievances regarding her art are credible and validated. He’s right; crude images of bladder emptying, masturbation and neon signs telling one to “FUCK OFF AND DIE YOU SLAG” and “PEOPLE LIKE YOU NEED TO FUCK PEOPLE LIKE ME” is the stuff of a “teenage girl besotted with boy bands rather than the serious business we might reasonably expect of a famous woman of forty-eight”.

Now in his 80s, Sewell is perhaps both most maligned and celebrated – depending on your stance on conceptual art – for his scathing reviews of the “intelligence-insulting, cynical, exclusive, manipulated and fraudulent” Turner Prize. He attributes the award’s success to its elements of perversity and freakishness and the public’s inexorable interest in the “enjoyable frissons of dismay, incomprehension and distaste”. But Sewell laments it all the more for its “exclusive approach to art, for its blindness to the quality of anything not definable as cutting-edge…for the secrecy that surrounds it and the evident mismanagement of the results”. Simon Starling, who won the Prize in 2005 for Shedboatshed, is a prime example, says Sewell, of someone who was awarded the accolade for the sheer “eccentricity of the idea” rather than its connection with “ancestral forms of art”. Starling dismantled a shed turned it into a boat sailed to Xanadu and then turned it back into a shed. And that won this unassuming genius £25,000. Sewell quite rightly points out that the whole project was an exercise in carpentry rather than art, the very definition of which he questions throughout the collection. He does this scrupulously as he ponders one “incomprehensible postmodernism” to the next, produced by the likes of Anthony Caro who for the past decade has been “toying with the student exercise of making three dimensional tableaux” from the paintings of old masters; Damian Hirst whose “imagination is as dead as all the dead creatures” suspended in formaldehyde; David Hockney whose “portraiture has been unworthy even of the street painters of Montmartre” for the last couple of years and a handful of others favoured by the art establishment.

And here the establishment is as vehemently lambasted as the individual artist. ‘‘The Whitechapel Gallery is,” writes Sewell, “to anything pretending to be a work of art, the most flattering space in London.” Tate Gallery ranks lower than “a minor museum in provincial Germany,” the Arts Council is “an irrelevance to the great majority of working painters and sculptors,” the Royal Academy has “fallen on hard times…complacency [and] indolence,” and the Saatchi Galleries are run by a proprietor whose taste is “crudely literal, bizarre, grotesque, sexual and calculatingly offensive”. Sewell also sneers at compliant journalists and submissive broadcasters espousing uniform and uncritical praise for artists of international calibre but little skill. His astringent disposition was famously challenged in 1994 when 35 art world signatories wrote a letter to the Evening Standard accusing Sewell of prejudice, homophobia, misogyny, hypocrisy, demagogy and “formulaic insults and predictable scurrility”. Sewell retorted in kind and with a letter from 20 other art world signatories condemning the accusers for their attempted censorship. As a critic Sewell is both forthright and formidable, as a man he often appears quite vulnerable, somewhat wounded, perhaps, by the fact that the industry considers him an outsider, even if an esteemed one. His commentary, however biting, bitchy and belligerent, is insightful, interesting and supported by over 30 years of expertise which lends itself to understanding individual works as well as their place in history.

Naked Emperors is a shrewd and witty book charting a man’s interest in and changing perceptions of art as well as the industry’s shifting values, ethics and standards. It is also a book which makes it easy to see why many take objection to Sewell’s brand of criticism. His is not a subtle approach, but it is astute, intelligent and humorous. Sewell studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art under celebrated historian and disgraced Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. He graduated in 1957 and after a stint in the National Service worked at Christie’s auction house, specialising in Old Masters. He has since been a regular commentator on television and radio, and has won several prestigious awards including the George Orwell Prize for his column in the Evening Standard. Naked Emperors gathers Sewell’s reviews of exhibitions by contemporary English artists, most of which were written exclusively for the London paper. They are arranged chronologically under artist and institution and coalesce into a comprehensive and intelligent record of how “ancestral conventions of painting and sculpture” have been discarded for the sake of shallow, vulgar and fatuous installations and daubs, which have made the Naked Emperors undue millionaires.

Publisher: Quartet Books
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 368 pages
ISBN: 9780704372825

Jonathan Meades: An indefatigable deipnosophist and a polyhistor

“There is no such thing as a boring place,” says Jonathan Meades. And let’s face it, he should know having spent a lifetime “writing about it in different media and in different ways: polemically, analytically, essayistically, fictively”. Place, albeit not exclusively or singularly, is also the subject of his new collection, Museum Without Walls. The sturdy hardback – boasting 54 prose pieces and six film scripts – delivers some genuinely droll and outré views and ideas, all backed up by an astonishing wealth of knowledge. Meades is an indefatigable deipnosophist and a polyhistor, who often veers off course to fascinating ends. Writing about architecture, for example, in Hamas & Kibbutz he deviates from the topic at hand to the subject of football, pondering: “If it is a national game how come we always lose?” He writes more amusingly, however, about one of the game’s biggest stars, saying: “A buzzard is an avian analogue of the even squeakier David Beckham,” who will “always be a wrong voice, a treble in a tenor’s body. That for me is his defining characteristic. He is to be filed, ultimately, alongside Alan Ball and Emlyn Hughes in the Sportsmen Posing As Castrati category”. Yet jocund badinage aside, Meades really knows his stuff from seventeenth century literary dicta to the ineptitude of an untutored architect, from the demerits of the Theory of the Value of Ruins to the capital’s imperfect traffic and transport systems. Meades is a redoubtable social critic and nouveau historian with an intrepidly facetious streak, humorous and clever without being glib.

Much of Museum Without Walls is dedicated to Meades’ monomania, which he has spent 30 years cultivating in numerous television programmes, books and journalism features. Here, in this collection, are some of his most interesting texts pertaining to London and its monuments, both the memorable and the unremarkable. “Of London’s major set pieces,” writes Meades, “St Paul’s Cathedral is the most distinguished, though not, I suspect, the most loved: it is too stately, aloof and worldly to excite the sort of affection granted to such exercises in quaintness as Big Ben and Tower Bridge”.  Further in the collection Meades ruminates over the subject again, praising St Paul’s for its “swagger and urbanity and temporal grace,” which stands at odds with its function as a church, “a monument to unreason…a musty repository of ancient mysteries and incomprehensible superstitions” and the residence of “the fearsome, jealous, tyrannical wrath-monger called god”. Meades continues his deadpan fulmination against the numinous deity in the brilliantly irreverent Absentee Landlord. God is “an absurdity whose existence it is absurd to deny,” he says, “because God is omnipresent, God is in believers’ minds or souls or hearts or wherever it is they know he is”. In fact, he is a “fantastically successful invention.” And if an idea ever had legs Meades muses, “this one has run and run and is still full of puff”. 

Next, he tackles the church. The Church of England to be precise or rather “the Church of Convenience,” as he calls it, “founded to sanction a king’s polygamous lubricity and his Bluebeard appetites”. Speaking from an architectural point of view, however, he avers that churches as buildings cannot be denied. Most of these putatively sacred structures are lumped together as Gothic, because they predominantly are and have been since the Middle Ages. “The Gothic is an agent of de-secularisation, it is an architectural means of achieving sacredness,” Meades explains, “it made schools, law courts and railway stations into quasi-religious building which were thus invested with added authority: we thanked God for selective education, for the wisdom of judges, for making the trains run on time.” Interestingly, Meades goes on to note that “Atheism, unlike Christianity, possesses no architectural type or decorative style which is peculiar to it.” And yet he daydreams here a little, saying: “Still, had atheists built they could have built at no more propitious a moment than during the middle years of this century, when nearly all architecture had broken with western Christian precedent, when architecture was so ideologically determined that it was itself a cult or religion.” Sadly this is no longer the case, as Meades laments in Postmodernism to Ghost-Modernism because modern British architecture died when Margaret Thatcher assumed power in 1979 and thus dismantled the “economic and cultural apparatus that had supported it”.

And, it only got worse under the tenure of Tony Blair, “the most bellicose prime minister of the last 150 years”. There is something of the Uriah Heep that Blair’s “corrupt regime” has banqueted to Britain, says Meades. But what he really takes objection to are the “block upon block of luxury flats” despoiling different cityscapes across the country. In On the Bandwagon talking of Blair’s government, Meades says that the decade-long rule “will be recalled as much by its architecture as by its low dishonesty”. But the architectural legacy is Meades’ primary concern, so much so that he has coined a neologism for the particular type of structure associated with New Labour. A sightbite, the analogous equivalent of a soundbite, is “characterised by its hollow vacuity, by its sculptural sensationalism, by its happy quasi-modernism, by its lack of actual utility”.  These “dangerously vapid” buildings found mostly in municipalities undergoing regeneration, from London’s Docklands to Cardiff Bay, are fully representative of the government who authorised them. A government this particular auteur takes to task where others have not dared. Meades’ spellbinding enthusiasm, his acuity and his crafty prose in writing about social, political and religious issues – which he contemplates with wit, deft and gravity, depending on the exact nature of the topic – are surpassed only by his uncompromising candour.

This candour also extends to his life, his childhood and formative years, references and anecdotes of which punctuate the collection.  Occasionally, these sketches are plaintively nostalgic as those, for example, in Fatherland, where Meades remembers places associated with his father, which he says “coalesce into a memento mori whether I like it or not”.  Thus places, like certain smells and sounds, are able to solicit small and inconsequential but also exigent and momentous reminiscences and are therefore an integral element of our emotional life. A great number of these places for Meades are – in a very quintessentially English way – pubs, or more precisely their parking lots, where he whiled away the hours eating crisps and imbibing fizzy lemonade, waiting for the grown-ups. “I spent the 1950s in pub car parks,” he confesses, “in summer I kicked gravel, walked perilously on the wall tops, scaled trees. In winter which is what it usually was I sat in my father’s car watching my breath condense, mining driving, scrutinising the underside of Issigonis’s dashboards, reading maps”. Here like elsewhere in the collection Meades pays tribute to his father, a biscuit salesman with whom he travelled from town to town, taking-in the beautiful, the grotesque and the commonplace which, in his own words, grew to seem extraordinary. Unbeknown to young Meades at the time his edacious interest in his surroundings would not only develop into a lifelong fascination but also into a brilliant career, both in print and in television. The six scripts gathered here give unprecedented insight into the filmmaker’s pedantic precision and attention to detail. Surprisingly – surprisingly because Meades’ television programmes appear so wonderfully spontaneous – every nuance and scene, every screen-shot and take is meticulously scripted, attesting to Meades’ proficient showmanship.  Just as Museum Without Walls attests to his talents as a writer with an exciting and varied body of work of which one hopes there is much more to come.

Publisher: Unbound
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 352 pages
ISBN: 9781908717184

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