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All That Is by James Salter

All That Is by James Salter

James Salter is one of few modern writers able to create equally compelling male and female characters. He says it’s because he has made a conscious “effort to nurture the feminine” in himself and in his responses to the world around him which “pure masculinity” often discounts. This very shrewdly cultivated skill is something one can clearly see in All That Is, rippling with atmospheric vitality and meticulously developed men and women vying for the reader’s attention. The story of Salter’s first novel in over 30 years revolves around former naval officer, now book editor, Philip Bowman and the people who drift in and out of his life. The book itself is primarily concerned with the nature of love, the hardship of relationships and the way in which people deal with both. After returning home from Okinawa and a stint at Harvard, Bowman meets and falls for a young woman by the name of Vivian Amussen. “He saw himself tumbled with her among the bedclothes and fragrance of married life,” Salter writes of Bowman’s daydreams, “the meals and holidays of it, the shared rooms, the glimpses of her half-dressed, her blondness, the pale hair where her legs met, the sexual riches that would be there forever.” Shortly after the couple tie the knot, however, Bowman learns that nothing lasts forever, especially marriage. Theirs sours rapidly as Vivian loses interested in her husband’s bookish whimsies, in his talk of high culture and his quixotic reveries.

With his marriage over, Bowman travels to London on business where he meets Enid Armour – a sultry South African English blonde with a chronic philanderer for a husband. The pair embark on an affair and following Bowman’s divorce travel to Spain to consummate their romance, to consolidate their fledgling love. It is here in his descriptions of cities and their poetry through the eyes of the lovers that Salter reveals himself to be a master of etymology and lyrical precision. His rolling sentences flow mellifluously from one page to the next, creating iridescent snapshots of García Lorca’s homeland, effortlessly integrating his story and the country’s history into the narrative. “He was…an angel of the re-awakening of Spain in the 1920s and ‘30s,” Slater writes, “[his] books and plays filled with a pure, fatal music, and poems rich in colors with fierce emotion and despairing love.”  Numerous historical elements and literary references are interwoven into the plot, adding to the wonderfully rich tapestry of Salter’s prose. Salter captures the glamorous milieu of Europe – Greece, France, Spain – in all its glory, through opulent literary ruminations over its present and its past. He goes from describing places to describing people in them with graceful fluency, connecting the two to create a larger, more vivid picture. “They went to Toledo for a day and then on to Seville, where summer lingered and the voice of the city, as the poet said, brought tears,” he writes of the two lovers in Spain, “They walked through walled alleyways, she in high heels, bare-shouldered, and sat in the silent darkness as deep chords of a guitar slowly began and the air itself stilled.”

This kind of tender evocation also extends to Salter’s images of the lovers in their most intimate moments. “The glory of her,” Bowman marvells looking at Enid, “England stood before him, naked in the darkness…He pulled her over him by her wrists, like a torn sheet.” But for all their passion, Bowman’s relationship with Enid eventually fizzles out and the two part.  Shortly after, he meets Christine Vassilaros and her young daughter. The pair fall in love and set up house, living in blissful domesticity or so Bowman thinks until one day Christine decides it’s over. Inexperienced, uncertain and self-doubting Bowman appears to be the very antithesis of a romantic lead and in many ways remains so until the end. He laments his incompetence with women from the start, blaming it on his absent father. There are nebulous questions over Bowman’s masculinity and there is but one moment in the book when he exercises its full force, revealing the truly chilling side of man. Wounded by Christine’s betrayal and humiliated by having to forgo the house they shared Bowman waits patiently to take his revenge, which comes as an unexpected twist in the otherwise linear plot. Salter brings the story to an equally unexpected close, which in many ways reflects the precariousness of life. “He had been married, once, wholeheartedly and been mistaken,” Salter writes of Bowman toward the end of the book‚ “He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and it had somehow faded away. As if by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he had met a woman and been betrayed. He believed in love – all his life he had – but now it was likely to be too late”. This rather reductive view is relegated by Bowman himself just pages later as he realises that it is, in fact, never too.

All That Is is a lyrical meditation on the human condition, replete with languorously poetic turns cut with fastidious precision. The book’s key themes evoke universal interconnections, between love and death, loneliness and companionship drawing the conclusion that one’s fate depends almost entirely upon oneself. Yet the book is much more than a romantic allegory, All That Is also deals with a number of other topics such as identity, social exclusion and inclusive alienation. The latter are diligently rooted in the plot. Bowman feels an outsider, an interloper at Harvard and a stranger in his American-Jewish social circles despite being inexorably linked to his friends and acquaintances by a shared cultural heritage. Bowman is the vessel through which Slater channels the search for one’s identity, in and out of relationships. And in this Bowman is uncompromising, refusing to settle into a cosy existence by way marriage, electing to teeter on the peripheries of the in-crowd. “He might have married one [a Jewish woman] and become part of that world, slowly being accepted into it like a convert,” Salter writes of Bowman’s decision, “He might have lived among them in that practical family density that had been formed by the ages, been a familiar presence at seder tables, birthday gathering, funerals, wearing a hat and throwing a handful of earth into the grave. He felt some regret at not having done it, of not having had the chance. On the other hand, he could not really imagine it. He would never have belonged.”

This sense of otherness is a motif throughout the book. Bowman’s search for a place in the world is defined by his romantic failures, which continuously distort and destabilise his sense of self until he finds love once again. All That Is is characterised by Salter’s trademarks, his geometric prose, his tacit force, decisive authority and erotic realism. Sex lends the book much of its thematic unity both individually and in relation to Salter’s other works. On occasion, the amorous liaisons lack the poetry of the more commonplace scenes but Salter redeems himself through those. Speaking in a recent interview, the writer said that he “will never again write a book in which there’s a single sexual act”. This might prove to be an interesting exercise if, indeed, Salter decides to write another book. Certainly, his “energy and desire” seem to be intact as is his lifelong passion for flying. Like his protagonist, Salter was a military man, a US air force pilot, who gave it up to pursue a career in the literary world. This inevitably invites one to draw comparisons between the two men, but while Bowman often appears finite and fallible Salter does not. He commands attention with the inimitable certainty of a master storyteller, a literary  frotteur, a man who likes to “rub words in his hand”  but one who never minces them.

The Paris Review | James Salter 

Guardian | James Salter

Publisher: Picador
Publication Date: May 2013
Hardback:  304 pages
ISBN: 978-1447238249

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z_A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Writing in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments at the end of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgeral Therese Anne Fowler says she “tried to adhere as much as possible to the established particulars” of Zelda and Scott F. Fitzgerald’s lives. And in that she has succeeded. It is apparent from the first few pages of Z that the writer has done her research which, as she explains, offered varied – and greatly conflicting – versions of their story. “I often felt as if I’d been dropped into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott,” Fowler says at the end of the book, “For every biographer or scholar who believes Zelda derailed Scott’s life, there is one who believes Scott ruined Zelda’s.” This, no doubt, made Fowler’s undertaking a very tricky one not least because of the Fitzgeralds’ own mythmaking. Their accounts – sourced from their epistolary exchanges – are riddled with liberal embellishments, exaggerations and occasionally downright machinations, rendering the truth indeterminable. As Fowler points out, it is difficult to establish whether it was Scott who brought about Zelda’s downfall or visa versa because opinion varies, paving way for pedagogic wrangling and biographical confusion. It is, however, clear that their mutual predisposition for excess played a large part in their undoing.  This is something Fowler aims to convey in the book, distributing the culpability equally between Zelda and Scott. Yet occasionally Zelda’s voice is also that of Fowler’s who, somewhat inevitably, has far more sympathy with her protagonist than she does with her literary husband.

Z is an interesting but deeply flawed book. Fowler writes wonderfully of the background sights and sounds that constituted the couple’s lives, their time in Alabama, their stint in New York, their travels around Europe and their sultry summers on the French Rivera. The writer’s imagination roams freely across the dance floor of Montgomery Country Club’s high-ceilinged ballroom where Zelda first meets Scott, the benevolent warmth of the Mediterranean landscape where Zelda begins to yearn for independence and the resonating buzz of the casinos and cafes around Antibes where the couple’s glamorous life begins to crumble. This is something that Fowler does very well, conjuring up consummately vibrant accounts of the atmosphere, places and people with impressive lucidity and verisimilitude. But Zelda’s voice – the linchpin of the book – is somewhat less convincing. We are introduced to Zelda as a precocious and effervescent 17 year old Southern Bell, running riot in her home town much to the dismay of her stolid and disapproving father. “Boys liked me,” she tells us, “because I shot spitballs and because I told sassy jokes and because I let ‘em kiss me if they smelled nice and I felt like it.” This seemingly carefree attitude, however, quickly dissolves when Zelda meets Scott and after a brief courtship begins to contemplate her future. “I knew that if I let Scott go, I’ll most certainly end up married to some nice, proper fella from a good family whose people have deep roots in the South,” she says, thinking on the matter, “I’ll be the same girl I’ve always been only the parties I go to will take place in drawing rooms instead of the Club or the Exchange Hotel…Looking down the road in the other direction, I see the life Scott offers me…It’s more unpredictable than Alabama’s weather in springtime…It will be an adventure…”

And the pair do indeed have an adventure, which Zelda then spends most of her time bemoaning. Fowler documents the couple’s domestic disputes, financial troubles and champagne-fuelled misadventures, speaking directly through Zelda, who never really manages to ingratiate herself with the reader. Her voice, inflected with a sensationally Southern drawl, fluctuates between frivolous and fatuous, conceited, rapacious and inane. Her contemplations are sometimes interspersed with witty and amusing observations, but even in her most private and reflective moments Zelda appears to be quite uninspired and uninspiring.  And this is Z’s biggest failing because the woman behind the reputation is never quite exhilarating, complex or compelling enough in comparison to the idea we already have of her. It is somewhat unfortunate that in writing about Zelda Fowler was always going to be competing with the man who knew her best. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalised his wife perfectly – if not altogether accurately – in his books, writing about her in various fictional guises for several decades. From The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) –  the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch –  to Tender Is the Night (1934), his last book in which Zelda appears as the captivating but unhinged Nicole Diver, wife to the equally troubled Dick. The Divers were reportedly modelled on Fitzgeralds’ friends on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet the fictional couple’s marriage and all its elements – alcoholism, mental illness, a mounting emotional chasm and eventual separation – is more closely allied to that of Zelda and Scott. Again this is something Fowler explores in the book, paying particular attention to Zelda’s looming breakdown, which was reportedly spurred by Scott. “I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realise myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it” Zelda says toward the end, “He wanted to control everything…He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse.”

Fowler does well to show us Zelda’s evolution as a personality – and a woman – who outgrows her lavish lifestyle and her insular existence. “I considered how I might become more like the women I respected and admired,” she muses as the novel progresses, “Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant. Contribute something. Accomplish something. Choose. Be.” In highlighting Zelda’s personal development, Flower permits us to get a glimpse of her as someone who was deeply driven, intelligent and ambitions. Her introspection, her dreams, worries, aspirations and observations make for some interesting reading, especially in regard to other historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Parker, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Edmund Wilson, whom Zelda asses with incisive consideration. But again, there is little real indication of just how unstable Zelda is (aside from the reference to“blackness” in her head) or how this may have affected Scott. Fowler does, however, tap into the popular idea that Scott hindered Zelda’s literary progress as well as her rights as a woman, subjugating her to the role of his sidekick and that of a mother. “There’s no need for you to be a professional dancer, writer, anything,” he says to his muse, “Be a mother. Be a wife. I’ve made a good life for you, Zelda; stop rejecting it.” Fowler also explores the idea that those in Scott’s camp (namely Hemingway) believed the opposite was true and that Zelda, driven by professional jealously, set out to bring down her husband. This, again, is the area where Fowler sides with her protagonist.

Reading Z one senses a distinct lack of sympathy with Scott, who for all his faults – passing off Zelda’s work as his own, pilfering dialogue straight out of her diaries, controlling and neglecting her – was someone that loved her very deeply and was fiercely protective of her. “I fell in love with her courage,” he once wrote in a letter, “her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be, I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.” It is difficult to ascertain the true nature of their relationship or be objective in the process, as even their own records are filled with misinformation devised to contribute to their own romantic myth. The Fitzgeralds’ story, however, should be read as a cautionary one, a tale of two people who ruined themselves and each other through carelessness and excess. And in many ways, this is how Fowler sets out to project it through granting Zelda a voice of her own, allowing her to tell her story and debunk the unjust depictions of her circulating in the literary ether. But Fowler’s Zelda never quite manages to make herself heard in the way she deserves, often lacking conviction and authority. This is perhaps due to the fact that the writer aimed for objectivity but if so it begs the question why write the story from Zelda’s perspective at all? Zelda was a hurricane of a woman, disarmingly intelligent, outspoken, passionate, fearless, ambitious and unapologetic – everything that Z is not.

Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: April 2013
Hardback:  384 pages
ISBN: 9781444761405

The Book Of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

The Book Of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

“Part of growing up is learning, unfortunately, to develop loyalties to abstractions: the state, the nation, the idea,” writes Aleksandar Hemon in The Book of My Lives, “You pledge allegiance; you love the leader. You have to be taught to recognise and care about differences, you have to be instructed who you really are; you have to learn how generations of dead people and their incomprehensible accomplishments made you the way you are; you have to define your loyalty to an abstraction-based herd that transcends your individuality.” This is the way in most cultures and countries, but especially those saddled with a draconian regime. Hemon, who grew up in Sarajevo, writes of the experience with ebullience that hasn’t dulled with either years or geographical distance. The Book of My Lives documents some of the social injustices and cruelties endured by the Bosnian people prior to and during the 1990s war. It regards the subject through a personal lens, delivering moving accounts of the villainies witnessed by Hemon, his family and friends. Hemon recalls vividly the exact moment he realised the pernicious nature of the Socialist rule, when after (a grossly misjudged) fascist-themed birthday party he and some of his friends were summoned to the State Security offices. “They interrogated me for thirteen hours straight,” Hemon recalls, “in the course of which I discovered that all the other people who attended the party had visited or were going to visit the warm State Security offices…Naïvely, I assumed that if I explain to them that it was really just a performance, a bad joke at worst…they would just slap our wrists…and let us go home.” They did, of course, let the adolescents go eventually but the story developed into nationwide news with the group being labelled the “Nazi Nineteen,” which Hemon says was a very surreal experience, likening it to “reading a novel in which one of the characters – a feckless nihilistic prick – had my name”.

For a while after and despite evidence to the contrary Hemon and his friends continued to rely on what they “stubbornly perceived as normalcy,” ignoring the fact that Croatia was in the throes of war and Bosnia was soon to follow. Working as a writer for a magazine at the time, Hemon recalls the months preceding the war through a fuliginous haze of hashish, sex, writing assignments and Dean Martin’s euphonious crooning. “We did it all,” he says nostalgically, “staying up all night to close and lay out an issue of the magazine, subsisting on coffee and cigarettes and trance; consuming pornography and writing poetry; participating in passionate soccer-related discussions and endless manic debates…Then there was rampant, ecstatic promiscuity…It was a great fucking time.” A time that was swiftly succeeded, he goes on to tell us, by the incontrovertible fact that “the war had arrived and now we were all waiting to see, who would live, who would kill, and who would die.” Hemon writes of his subsequent depression and hopelessness with intense acuity, imbuing this time spent largely in isolation with cultural and philosophical contemplations which enrich the narrative with a sense of universal resonance. It is here that Hemon’s memoir works best, when his voice is subjective, idiosyncratic and entirely his own. There are moments in the book, however, when Hemon writes as a seemingly impartial observer as he does, for example, in a chapter called Let There Be What Cannot Be. “In April, [Radovan] Karadžić’s snipers aimed at a peaceful anti-war demonstration in front of the parliament building,” he reports, “and two women were killed. On May 2, Sarajevo was cut off from the rest of the world and the longest siege in modern history began. By the end of the summer, nearly every front page in the universe had published a picture of a Serbian death camp.” This kind of divagation is no surprise when one learns that all the pieces in The Book of My Lives were written individually rather than as a collective whole. They have since been revised and reassembled, but the narrative disparity – infinitesimal as it its – contributes to the overall fragmentation of the book. This is compounded by the middle chapter called This Is Why I Do Not Want To Leave Chicago, which is essentially a list – a very interesting and articulate list but nevertheless a list – at odds with the rest of the book.

The all-important aspects of Hemon’s life, however, are certainly here . The birth of his sister which marked a “tormentful, lonely period” in the writer’s formative development; his early experiences of the divisive ethic system; his realisation about his parents’ fallibility; the “ceaseless debasement” of army life; the atrocities of war; the torturous complexity of immigration; incurable homesickness and the protracted and debilitating process of constructing a new life. The latter is something Hemon ruminates on with the weight of bitter experience, conveying the hardships of adapting to a new world through his own eyes as well as those of his mother and father. A year after Hemon left Sarajevo for the US (1992) his parents and his sister immigrated to Canada. The escape itself had been precarious enough, but no one could have prepared the Hemons for the difficulties that followed. “Things were very complicated for them,” writes Hemon of his parents in Canada, “what with the language my parents couldn’t speak, the generic shock of displacement and the cold climate that was extremely unfriendly to randomly warm human interactions.” In fact, as we go on to learn, the whole process was far more serious than that. “Within months my parents started cataloguing the differences between us and them,” Hemon explains, “we being Bosnians or ex Yugoslavs, they being purely Canadian.” At one point, the writer recalls how this caused a rift between him and his family, who was beset by “devastating nostalgia and hopelessness” at their new life. Hemon writes very candidly about the various adversities in adapting and trying to encourage his parents to do the same. “I was incapable of helping them in any way,” he writes, “During my visits, we argued too much: their despair annoyed me, because it exactly matched mine and prevented them from offering comfort to me…Everything we did in Canada reminded us of what we used to do together in Bosnia.”

The Book of My Lives is full of such plaintive moments. Hemon remembers the acclimatisation process with plangent astuteness, his words reverberating with a familiar if distant echo of longing. “Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past,” he explains, ”with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances…At the same time there is the inescapable reality of the self-transformed by immigration – whoever we used to be, we are now split between us-here (say, in Canada) and us-there (say, in Bosnia).”  To bridge this gap, between his old and new self, Hemon set out to explore his adopted hometown and this is precisely how he documents his time in Chicago; as a wanderer, a searching flaneur, who grows to love his new city through familiarity, slowly forging relationships with its places and people. “I realized that my immigrant interior had begun to merge with my American exterior,” Hemon recalls after a couple of years of living in the US, “Large parts of Chicago had entered me and settled there; I fully owned those parts now. I saw Chicago through the eyes of Sarajevo and the two cities now created a complicated internal landscape in which stories could be generated.” And there are certainly many – and wonderful – stories that have been generated and gathered here, which Hemon started writing in English as soon as his displacement anxiety began to dissipate. They are the Lives referred to in the book’s title, split between his early years in Bosnia and subsequent struggles and his time in the US, focusing on the city of Chicago; his local football team, the chess players with whom he shared his passion, his past lovers, his ex and present wife, his daughter Isabel’s battle with cancer and his older daughter Ella’s imaginary friend.

The Book of My Lives is Hemon’s first collection of non-fiction, consisting of 15 pieces of autobiography assembled loosely together into a variegated whole. It is a short but surprisingly compendious read, offering great insight into the writer’s past and present. Hemon is someone who manages to convey the emotional complexities of loss and extant pain with superb clarity and feeling.“How can you possibly ease yourself into the death of your own child,” he asks, “For one thing, it is supposed to happen well after your own dissolution into nothingness. Your children are supposed to outlive you by several decades, in the course of which they’ll live their lives, happily devoid of the burden of your presence, eventually completing the same mortal trajectory as their parents: oblivion, denial, fear, the end…And even if you could imagine your own child’s death, why would you?” But sadly the unimaginable became a reality for Hemon and his family, when their infant daughter died of a rare brain tumour . “Teri [Hemon’s wife] and I held our dead child – our beautiful, ever-smiling daughter, her body bloated with liquid and beaten by compression,” he writes, “- kissing her cheeks and toes. Through I recall the moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me.” Hemon lays himself bare on the page, vacillating candidly, unashamedly, from hope to joy to grief to disbelief and anger.  “One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling,” he rages, “that it is a step on the path of some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. The only result of her suffering that matters is her death. We learned no lesson worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anybody.”  Hemon’s memoir ends with this heart-wrenching story, which is both overwhelming and very moving. Speaking about writing, in more general terms, Hemon recently said that literature was “human experience in language” and that what mattered was not the “information about the past or the present” but the “intensity and depth of experience of reading and imagining other lives.” And this is the key to the Book of his, his many lives, all of which – the good, the bad, the joyous and the tragic – are very much worth reading and imagining.

Book Browse | Aleksandar Hemon

Publisher: Picador
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback:  224 pages
ISBN: 9781447210900

LBMC: #1 The Swedenborg Society Bookshop

The Swedenborg Society

I have somehow  – in a bout of inadvertent spontaneity – set myself the challenge of visiting every independent bookshop on the London Bookshop Map. Upon making my London Bookshop Map Challenge (LBMC) known on Twitter I received several shop recommendations, urging me to go to Judd Books, The Broadway Bookshop,  Clerkenwell Tales and  the Kirkdale Bookshop, all of which I now also intent to visit. This brings the total to a hefty 109 different shops, in different parts of town! What was I thinking? Probably not very much at that precise moment, but I like a challenge and have sulfur in my blood! (The latter is something Henry Miller used to say. Not sure if it applies here but it kind of sounds good.)

The first bookshop I went to is the Swedenborg Society one, which I picked because of its proximity to my work. The shop is located on the corner of Barter Street, opposite Bloomsbury Square. It specialises in the work’s of  Swedish philosopher, theologian, scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Most of the books in the shop are published by The Swedenborg Society, which has been going since 1810. This wonderful little establishment also sells other editions, most of which pertain to the philosopher, his ideas and his cultural and historic significance.

The books published by the Society are absolutely beautiful. The intention is to have them look like classics, Nora (Foster), the Society’s Publicist and Assistant Curator, told me. A lovely idea, I agreed, marvelling at the handsome hardbacks. I was greeted and shown around by the very lovey Company Secretary Richard Lines, who offered me a potted history of the famous philosopher and took me on a guided tour of the Grade II listed premises. The building houses a vast and impressive library, which contains  the most extensive collection of Swedenborg editions in Europe, some in their original languages of Swedish and Latin. I was also lucky enough to be shown a couple of leather bound manuscripts written in Swedenborg’s own hand, which looked fantastic if indecipherable.

Richard took me up and down several flights of stairs annotating our journey as we went, telling me about the Society’s heritage, its early patrons and contemporary friends (A. S. Byatt,  Iain Sinclair, Homero Aridjis among them). As we made our way through the building, Richard explained that the Society is currently in the process of cataloging Swedenborg’s Library and Archives online, to make them accessible to the general public. All the antiquated hardbacks and manuscripts are stored around this grand scholastic hub, which also has a 100 seat neo-classical hall, where the Society hosts literary evenings, talks, exhibitions, performances and lectures. Their programme is extensive and varied and has in the past included an Ingmar Bergman season, a poetry reading by Ali Smith, a special screening of Grant Gee’s documentary on the writer WG Max Sebald and a musical performance by Jozef Van Wissem.

The Swedenborg Society bookshop is one of Bloomsbury’s little treasures. It has a wonderful array of specialist books and great staff, who are infectiously enthused about them.

The Swedenborg Society
20-21 Bloomsbury Way
London
WC1A 2TH
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday/9.30 am – 5.00 pm

PS If you’d like to recommend a bookshop please leave a comment on my blog, tweet me (@DollyDelightly) or send me an email: dolly.delightly.books@gmail.com. Thanks.

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Zona by Geoff Dyer

“Nothing that happens in Stalker is an accident,” Geoff Dyer tells us in the first couple of pages of Zona, “and yet, at the same time, it is full of accidents.” This is one of the ways in which Andrei Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film imitates life and its seemingly arbitrary nature, which is in fact mapped out with cartographic precision. This exquisite geometry is also mirrored in Dyer’s book, a paean to Tarkovsky’s work, boasting a swaggering array of facts, anecdotes, references and deviations beneath a consummately rigid structure. Zona is as much about Tarkovsky as it is about Stalker which, Dyer says, was partly responsible for shaping his perception and understanding of the world and without which it would be “radically diminished”. Dyer’s interest in Stalker has been compulsive, obsessive and longstanding – and is now well into several decades. “I’ve seen Stalker more times than any film except The Great Escape,”  he wrote in the Guardian a while back, “I’ve seen it when the projectionist got the reels in the wrong order (I was the only person who noticed), I’ve seen it on my own in Paris and dubbed into Italian in Rome, I’ve seen it on acid (remember that sequence when the solid ground begins to ripple?) and I’ve seen it on telly –  and it’s never quite as I remember. Like the Zone, it’s always changing. Like the Stalker, I feel quite at home in it, but whenever I see the film I try to imagine what it might be like, watching it for the first time when it seemed so weird.” Despite Dyer’s intimate familiarity with the film one gets the distinct impression that he still finds it weird. And the emphasis on weirdness is both implicit and explicit. It is, in fact, the film and its maker’s otherness, which transcends both cultural and aesthetic hegemonies, that Dyer finds strange and idiosyncratic. He ruminates over the nuanced complexities of Stalker with admirable erudition and finesse but with a quintessentially English sense of curiosity, ossified by ratiocination and intellectual liberalism, which is doggedly linear unlike its European counterparts.

In many ways, it is Dyer’s Englishness that prevents him immersing fully into Tarkovsky’s imagination, and identifying with the filmmaker and his work. And thus he always remains an analytical observer and a piqued voyeur, who finds his subject exoteric and esoteric, lucid and puzzling but altogether too remote from his own value system. There is a point in the book, for example, when Dyer ponders the Stalker’s sleeping raiment, finding himself perplexed by the irrationality of it. “To sleep without trousers but with a sweater does not make sense with regard to any system of convention,” he says thinking about a scene in the film when the Stalker gets out of bed, “It just seems weird and not terribly hygienic.”  This sentiment is echoed again and again whenever Dyer thinks on the Stalker and his two travelling companions.  One almost feels as though he cannot quite reconcile the idea of a “prophet ” with the obdurate physiognomy of the shaven-headed zek who is to lead his two equally gruff “clients” – the Professor and the Writer –  on a spiritual and metaphysical journey to “the Zone” at the crux of which lies “the Room” – a place where one’s deepest wishes are granted and ”ultimate truths are revealed”. Despite lacking an interpersonal affinity with the film’s characters and director, Dyer  feels the same desire to find fulfilment, peace, happiness. “I am as badly in need of the Zone and its wonder as any of the three men,” he writes, “The Zone is a place of uncompromising and unblemished value. It is one of the few territories left –  possibly the only one –  where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold: a place of refuge and sanctuary. A sanctuary, also, from cliché.” Dyer employs wry and acerbic humour throughout the book to make his subject –  a 163 minute long film “about three blokes drifting along the railroad to nowhere” – more palatable, more accessible, and in doing so sees the reader follow his irreverent, digressive and meandering voice avidly from page to page.

Some may find Dyer’s footnotes and interpositions self-indulgent and whimsical but they are in fact quite important to the rich tapestry of the narrative. Every anecdote and story contributes something to our understanding of the film, its director, its cast and crew and how Stalker was made after a hellish number of delays and logistical and technical difficulties. The film went through three different directors of photography, changed locations before and after shooting, encountered various faults with the experimental Kodak film, was marred by professional rivalries, directorial vicissitudes and had a serious problem with drinking on set. The cast and crew boozed heavily to alleviate boredom in between takes, spearheaded by Anatoliy Solonitsyn (the Writer) who was renowned for his two-week binges.  Despite all the problems, however, the film went ahead and was made but sadly “at the cost of a heap of corpses and triple retakes”. Several people involved in Stalker, including Tarkovsky and Solonitsyn, were believed to have died as a result of the arduous shooting schedule and the toxicity of the location, which was based around a half-functioning hydroelectric station in Tallinn. Ironically, it is the beautifully desolate landscape that gives Stalker it’s most memorable quality, framed by Tarkovsky’s unorthodox used of  long takes with slow, subtle camera movements, which make the film seem alive –  suspiring in tandem with the viewer.

Dyer pieces together a capital of information to provide a comprehensive overview of Tarkovsky and his cinematic vision; a sophisticated and original vision, which has made him one of the most innovative and brilliant directors of the last four decades. “Tarkovsky was not only a visionary, poet and mystic,” Dyer says, “he was also a prophet.”  Stalker is loaded with allusions to mankind’s immanent future; and it is a dire forecast. One of these portentous bolts seems to be forewarning of the looming disaster of Chernobyl, by way of the Professor’s impassioned speech about a meteorite which fell to earth, destroying lives and communities and creating the Zone. ”Tremors from the future can be felt throughout Stalker,” Dyer writes, “In less than a decade Professor’s summary  of how the Zone came into existence had taken on an aura of a premonition fulfilled, and Stalker acquired yet another dimension of suggestiveness in its foreshadowing of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.” Paradoxically, the oneiric terrain and scenic atmosphere of the Zone is where Tarkovksy’s poetic propensities come to the fore. “Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky,”  Dyer writes, “but…their beingess had not been seen in this way. Tarkovsky reconfigured the world, brought this landscape…into existence.” Dyer also stresses that we ought to pay close attention to the seemingly irrelevant objects on film because they too mean something in Tarkovsky’s world. Everything, a rock , a tuft of moss, a puddle, is imbued with a “breathing magic”. They’re all part of the human interaction with the landscape , Dyer explains, which Tarkovsky makes into a kind of poetry comparative to that of William Wordsworth’s. It is Tarkovsky’s Wordsworthian understanding of and interest in nature’s ”inward meaning,” says our literary tour guide that gives Stalker’s filmic archaeology that “special aura”.

This is one of the many and varied elements that make up Tarkovsky’s cinematic trajectory. Most of them are considered in the book through Dyer’s ruminations on Stalker, which he says is a literal journey as well as a “journey into cinematic space and in tandem into time”. This was one of Tarkovsky’s principal preoccupations, which Dyer contemplates in regard to this own life, conflating research and studious inquiry with humorous yarns and confessional annotations. We get to learn, for example, that Dyer could have had several threesomes but didn’t, that he used to spend his student days tripping on LSD, that he thinks there was a time when his wife looked uncannily like Natacha McElone in Solaris and that they’ve been debating getting a dog for over five years. Some of these might be immaterial to the topic at hand, but they’re fairly interesting and offer great insight into Dyer, the man. Throughout the course of the book we get to learn about both the writer and his subject as Dyer journeys into himself by recounting the journey of Stalker and his two clients. And this makes for some very interesting reading, but perhaps the most interesting (and important) of the nuggets of knowledge we acquire is the meaning of the Zone, a term which derives from prison jargon for the world outside. “[In] the 1950s when the Soviet Union was a vast prison camp…in prison camp-slang (as an Applebaum points out in Gulag) ‘the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as freedom, but as the ‘bolshyaa zona’,” Dyer explains, “the ‘big prison zone’ large and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.” Whenever asked about the symbolism of Stalker Tarkovsky always maintained that there wasn’t any, saying the Zone should be taken at face value rather than as a cinematographic treatise on freedom, and its dearth in the Soviet system. But that’s precisely how the film should be interpreted, as Tarkovsky’s (man’s) quest for personal freedom through his artistic realisations, which was the only time he felt he had any. This is something Dyer could have explored a little bit more perhaps for after all Tarkovksy’s artistic freedom was the linchpin of his work.

Guardian | Geoff Dyer 

Publisher: Canongate
Publication Date: March 2013
Paperback:  228 pages
ISBN: 9780857861672

Intermission by Owen Martell

Intermission by Owen Martell

Writing about the death of a lover in a letter, Edna St. Vincent Millay described his absence as “a hole in the world,” which she found herself “constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night”. Jazz pianist Bill Evans fell into an identical hole in 1961 following the death of his friend and fellow band mate, bassist, Scott LaFaro. The difference was Bill never returned from the abyss, not wholly and certainly not intact. His retreat into the introspective darkness is the subject of Owen Martell’s new book, which chronicles this largely isolated and deeply troubled period of the pianist’s life. The story of Intermission is told primarily by Bill’s family with Bill casting his eminent shadow over the narrative from afar. We are introduced to him by his older brother Harry at the start of his fame, with a handful of albums already behind him. The success of the Bill Evans’ Trio is, however, impeded when LaFaro dies, leaving Bill utterly devastated.  “You wouldn’t have put them together, that was for sure,” Harry says thinking about the two musicians, “Scott was happy to assume all the authority of this youth. Bill, thirty-two in August but only a few years older, looked like the junior partner. You’d have said coming at them blind, that they were too different. Scott was astounding – he actually sounded as good as he looked. Bill, on the other hand, well, you heard him feeling his way. Or you felt him listening…Then you spoke to him after and he wanted to fade into the decor. As if the places he played weren’t already dim lit or unfussy enough. He didn’t want to talk about the set or listen to you tell him that you’d enjoyed it.” But people did enjoy it and the Trio were on their way up after recording two live albums, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. It was reportedly Bill and Scott’s rapport that made magic, their “opposite identicality” which bound the two together into what Bill thought would be an indefinitely “lasting partnership”.

But the partnership was cut short when Scott died unexpectedly in a car crash. Martell takes this particular period of Bill’s life and fashions it into an imaginative fictional account of a man’s plight to come to terms with loss. Already under the spell of heroin, Bill finds himself yielding more and more to the paregoric. Concerned about his brother, Harry takes Bill in to look after him. It is through his interaction with other people and their reactions to him that we learn of Bill’s fractured consciousness and the magnitude of his bereavement. Bill remains almost exclusively silent throughout the book, ever-present in the background but rendered mute by grief. He vanishes like a ghost from his brother’s apartment at night, disappearing into nocturnal drug-addled trysts around New York City. The only time he comes alive is in the company of his niece Debby, the “bounding, boundless” child who seems to dispel his demons. Martell juxtaposes Innocence and Experience, freedom and constrain,  in a similar way William Blake did in the pointed prophesies of his eponymous Songs, where he contrasts good with bad, concluding that one preordains the other. Martell uses this method throughout the book, when Harry, for example, envious of his “odd” and troubled brother’s budding relationship with his daughter packs him off to their retired parents in Florida, under the pretext of safeguarding his own family. “He persuaded himself by Monday morning, sleeping on it hard, that, for Debby’s sake, they could no longer have Bill in the house,” writes Martell of Harry, “He was too erratic and might only become more so.” Bill’s mother feels a similar anxiety and copes with it the only way she knows how, by infantilising her son who to her mind is a little boy lost and needs protecting.

Here, again, Martell pits virtue against vice when conveying a mother’s love toward her addict son to show how one is connected to the other. Martell writes poignantly of familial ties, of mother and son sitting on the sofa in a soft embrace and later of Mary watching him sleep unable to bed down for the night herself. “She wanted to take Bill out of the world, she thought,” Martell says of Mary as she sits by her son’s bedside, “That was her goal all along.  Out of localised hardships – Pennsylvania, New Jersey – and out of the greater patchwork too. Gifts and ingratitude, immodesty, all the capital crimes. To allow him access at least to a different world. One in which he wouldn’t be obliged to remake the imperfect cycle…Again Mary tried to see Bill through the dark and she reached out her hand now as though decided at last that she would touch him. She drew a long sustaining breath and held it. Bill had music.” It is in fact the music that the whole family is counting on to disperse Bill’s “sadness that won’t bear discussion, that won’t even bear recognition”. Even his father, who at first appears stoically taciturn, is terrified for his son’s future and hopeful that the music might came to the rescue. In a few very short chapters Martell manages to capture the whole history of the Evans’ family, their life prior to Florida, their early years in Plainfield, New Jersey, the brothers’ first band and the genius of Bill’s ensorcelled musical flourishes.

Intermission is a craftily formulated and written book, which traverses several genres – history, biography, fiction. It is also a haunting and maudlin work that dares to sideline and subordinate its subject – to achieve something quite novel – choosing to tell his story through the people around him. Bill looms over the narrative, but remains a spectre throughout; even in the last couple of chapters when Martell shifts his attention away from the family and on to the pianist. Back in New York, after two months away, Bill is suddenly struck by the realisation that he owes it to his “mother to not be unhappy…and to his father too” and to “the troubled look in his brother’s eyes and the togetherness of their youth”. Above all, however,  he knows he owes it to himself and yet he continues to wish he could keep the “world at bay for as as long as possible”. Nevertheless, Bill gets up and out of bed and by the onset of winter begins touring again, now “more or less operational” and back in the realm of the living.  Intermission is Martell’s first book in English, the rest of his work being in Welsh the language he grew up with in Pontneddfechan. Speaking about his decision to write in English, Martell said it had less to do with the pianist’s American origins and more with Evans himself. “I’ve wanted to write a book based in some way on Bill Evans’ story for a good many years now,” he explained in an interview recently, “The idea came from the music – a friend gave me a copy of Sunday at the Village Vanguard back in 2001. It was a thrilling thing to discover. As well as being improvisatory in large part there are structures there too. It’s a way of putting freedom and constraint to the test, playing one against the other, and figuring out, perhaps, that the distinction between the two is less meaningful than we imagine.”

This idea of duality, of being liberated and manacled, good and bad, and the line that falls in between is something that Martell ruminates on from the outset. Thinking about Scott and Bill in the first few chapters Harry chronicles their differences, which in the end was the thing that bound them. “Scotty handles his bass with implausible, almost arrogant ease,” Harry tells us, while for Bill playing was something that “troubled him – in the sense of movement inside, rather than affliction necessarily – the way he bent double over the piano, head almost touching the keys, fingers like willow stalks dragging along in the swell.”  Intermission is by no means a comprehensive account of Evans’ life, work or his legacy. It is, however, a skilfully constructed interpretation of a very dark period in Bill’s history, which shaped him both as a person and a musician. “I don’t think the book I ended up writing is a jazz book – in the sense that its rhythms aren’t jazz rhythms,” Martell says, “But having to make phrases and think about form is common to jazz, music in general, writing, everything, pretty much, and I’m happy to engage with that”. And he certainly does, through his deft manipulation of language and the way it communicates a sense of melancholy and ruefulness almost by itself, almost miraculously. Intermission is a captivating and evocative book, which compounds the mystique of Bill Evans, adding to his inviolable elusiveness which reverberates with Martell’s very own brand of music.

The Independent | Owen Martell 

Publisher: William Heinemann
Publication Date: January 2013
Paperback: 192 pages
ISBN: 9780434022045

Writers On Writers

Rebecca West_ Fyodor Dostoevsky_ Willa Cather_ Walt Whitman_ Margaret Drabble_Raymond Chandler_ Katherine Anne Porter_ Blaise Pascal_ Eugene O’Neill_ Émile Zola

“Rebecca West was one of the giants and will have a lasting place in English literature.”
William Shawn

“I don’t like Dostoevsky. He is like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light professing love, all love.”
D.H. Lawrence

“Willa Cather. I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock—really all of her work.”
Paula Fox

“Hey—Walt Whitman, isn’t he magnificent?”
Jim Crace

“Well, now I’m over sixty I can simply say this: the reception of my early books was completely meshed up with the fact that my sister Margaret Drabble was a writer.”
A. S. Byatt

“Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight.”
James Ellroy

“Katherine Anne Porter was an influence on me.”
Nadine Gordimer

“Pascal was the shock of my life. I was fifteen. I was on a class trip to Germany, my first trip abroad, and strangely I had brought the Pensées of Pascal.”
Michel Houellebecq

“I remember at one point going through everything of Eugene O’Neill’s. I was struck by the sheer theatricality of his plays.”
Joan Didion

“When I said that Zola was my favourite writer, I meant that I loved his courage, his indignation.”
Anita Brookner

Sources: The Paris Review, GoodReads 

Jenn Ashworth: A very gifted storyteller

The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

The Friday Gospels is a book about a Mormon family awaiting the return of their son, Gary, from a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, where he’s been studying as a missionary for two years. Although Mormonism is very much the cynosure of the story, The Friday Gospels is a book about family in a very universal sense. It is a carefully crafted work that deals with lost innocence, the burden of experience and the trials and tribulations that can sever and fortify familial bonds. The saga unfolds on the day of Gary’s return with every member of the Leeke household –  including the prodigal son – telling their own story, which gradually builds into a very resonantly ticking time bomb. Several chapters in and one is struck by how skillfully – convincingly – Jenn Ashworth formulates each character, giving them a distinctly unique personality and voice. Jeannie, the teenage daughter, for example, is shy, a little withdrawn but all heart. Gary is callow and very earnest and has a number of covert aspirations that have nothing to do with missionary work. Martin, the man of the house, is on the surface an uxorious husband but underneath feels downtrodden by the realities of family life. Pauline, the long suffering wife and mother, fits her role perfectly veering between an obdurate matriarch and a perpetual nurturer. And then there’s Julian, the tearaway eldest son, angry and unpredictable – a grave concern to the rest of the Leeke clan.

Julian is the common thread that weaves through every character’s narrative as their concern for his increasingly erratic behavior mounts, temporarily distracting them from their own personal troubles. “Julian had been being right weird,” Jeannie says at one point, “running up and down the stairs and making the house feel small with his shouting and moaning and moving things around in his bedroom.” Similar thoughts occur to Pauline who fears he might “start tearing down the house,” Martin who says Julian’s “not much to look at” among other things and Gary to whom Jeannie grumbles about the older brother, urging the younger one to come home. “Jeannie writes that he [Julian] is getting worse,” Gary tells us, “that he speaks like a robot, that a family from the Ward had complained to Dad about him looking into their windows. He’s going to do something, she says, he’s going to blow a gasket.”  Yet unbeknown to anyone Julian plans to get away before he blows, leaving his shitty job, his depraved boss and his neurotic family behind because, as he explains, a “person cannot be expected to live his life around the edges of an ash cloud”. While no one is aware of Julian’s intentions, they know that something is awry and feel it will be up to Gary to put it right. “Gary’s homecoming is going to be a real triumph for me personally,” Pauline says proudly, thinking on the subject, “and for our family generally.”

But she has no idea, neither about Jeannie and her ever-growing predicament nor Julian and his objectives toward a little girl called Angela, and certainly not about Gary’s sense of presiding inferiority or Martin, who has been in love with someone else for over three weeks. In fact, Pauline’s sense of awareness is completely subsumed by her physical ailments, her hysterical muliebrity and, as Martin puts it, her overwhelming “interest in the moral dimensions of carpets, paint, net curtains and tablecloths,” which has landed the family up to their “eyeballs in debt”. All these problems are compounded by secrecy, and the prevailing delusion among the Leekes that Gary’s homecoming will be their individual and collective salvation. And yet, ironically, it is Julian who comes to the rescue when the hypothetical bomb detonates. The Friday Gospels is an intricate examination of family, brilliantly conceived and executed by a wonderfully imaginative writer with a penchant for irony and an ear for dialogue. Having been brought up in a Mormon household Ashworth writes about the religion, its customs and traditions, with ostensible familiarity without prejudice (in either direction) and with a rare ability to interweave it seamlessly into the narrative. She allows her characters to rely on their faith and have doubts about it, to experience confusion about its practices and, in Julian’s case, to feel animosity toward its edicts and mandates. “If you are not breeding, shitting out four or six or even nine kids,” he rages after being accosted by two Elders, who suggest marriage might save him from sin, “then there is something wrong with you. You are sick, or deformed or gay.”

Ashworth manages to convey the finer points of Mormonism without preaching, rooting them into the story, rich in practical and spiritual examples, which debunk some stereotypes but also expose some of the myths integral to the faith. The struggle between good as defined by Latter-Day-Saints (LDS) and that by the rest of the world is something that is evident among all the characters, who waver in their beliefs and convictions intermittently through the book. This is a theme that Ashworth partially set out to explore. “My upbringing has influenced my fiction massively,” she recently said in an interview with the Guardian, “If I hadn’t been brought up LDS, I wouldn’t have ended up a writer. I am certain about that. The connection is something that’s hovered over me my whole life, and I am only just now getting to grips with it. My preoccupation with truth and reliability, unstable identities caused by slippery language, isolation, reading between the lines, mistranslation and misunderstandings are a very clear hangover from being told I was a member of the only true church in the entire world, restored on to the earth by some magical acts of translation and revelation, and led by a person who could not and would not lie. And then I found out that this was not so.” Ashworth is also keen to point out that there is no link between her own family and the Leekes except in a very general way, a way in which, she says, it shows “some of what can happen when you’re told the world is orderly and certain and then you discover that it isn’t”.

Ashworth has written a number of short stories and two other novels, A Kind of Intimacy (2009) and Cold Light (2012).  And yet despite her modest output, The Friday Gospels has the maturity one would expect from a seasoned writer, who is consistently inventive and original, her prose humorous, intelligent and moving without ever seeming laboured or strained. This is perhaps due to Ashworth’s experience as a Writing Fellow at the University of Manchester – where she studied for her own MA in creative writing in 2005 – her teaching position at the University of Central Lancashire and all the “standalone workshops” that she has done. But I suspect it is because she has a very authentic knack for storytelling, clever, inspired and resonating all in one. “I think I’m a very messy, instinctive writer” Ashworth says, “teaching forces me to theorise about what I do, and extract some observations (not rules) that I can pass on to others. Mainly though, I always say I teach close reading and editing; the writing they have to do on their own. I’m constantly impressed and humbled by the hard work, originality and sheer bloody-mindedness of my students. It’s heartening to be around people who are struggling to make their writing better, the same as I am.” And yet one would hardly know of Ashworth’s struggle reading her latest work, which is an accomplished tale about humanity at its best and its worst, relayed by a very gifted storyteller on the first rungs of a brilliant literary career.

Guardian | Jenn Ashworth 

Publisher: Sceptre
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 336 pages
ISBN: 9781444707724

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

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

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