Book Me…

…Book Blog by Dolly Delightly

Tag: Review

Seminal Lines

Photograph by Frank Horvat

I’m in the tight dress. The one that prevents dignified sitting.
The tight dress suggests I’m prepared to be undressed.
Do my thighs flash through the seams?
I try to remember if the bed is made, or unmade.
The wind is wrapping up the sound of our kissing.
I wonder should I undress first or should you undress first.
I’m not sure I can take off the dress in a way that looks good.
I consider if I should save up sex until morning.
We are far gone and I’m better at kissing when sober.
I find that your earlobes provide the current fascination.
On my bedside table are three glasses of water and my favourite love letter.
I try to untie your shoes in a way that is appalling.

Tight Dress – Amy Key

Seminal Lines

Photograph by Israëlis Bidermanas

“My darling, the wind falls in like stones from the whitehearted water and when we touch we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone. Men kill for this, or for as much.”

The Truth the Dead Know – Anne Sexton

Writers On Writers

Colette_Don DeLillo_John Milton_ Angela Carter_ Percy Shelley_ A. L Barker_ Henry Green_John Keats_ Saki_ William James

“Colette is a writer one should know something about.”
James Salter

“I started reading DeLillo pretty much when he started publishing. He was, and is, one of my heroes.”
Ann Beattie

“Milton…was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
William Blake

“Angela Carter has remarkable descriptive gifts, a powerful imagination, and… a capacity for looking at the mess of contemporary life without flinching.”
Anthony Burgess

“I still think Shelley is an underestimated poet.”
Michael Frayn

“I am a fanatical admirer of A. L Barker. If you cannot read her it is your fault.”
Rebecca West

“I do like to write dialogue, intense forms of which I admire in Henry Green’s novels.”
Shirley Hazzard

“Being in a garret doesn’t do you any good unless you’re some sort of a Keats.”
Dorothy Parker

“Saki says that youth is like hors d’oeuvres: you are so busy thinking of the next courses you don’t notice it. When you’ve had them, you wish you’d had more hors d’oeuvres.”
Philip Larkin

“William James says that in times of trauma and crisis a door is opened to a place where facts and apparitions mix.”
Susan Howe

Sources: The Paris Review, Wikipedia, GoodReads

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Joseph Conrad once said that there is nothing more fantastical than life. This, I think, is largely true if we exclude imagination from the discussion. We dare to imagine things that are beyond the realm of possibility and probability, beyond the limits of convention and the likelihood of the everyday. Karen Russell’s imagination, however, stretches farther than most, from the plane of the surreal to the terrain of the absurd, from the wickedly magical to the downright supernatural. Even the title of her new short story collection – Vampires in the Lemon Grove – requires some assimilation. Russell takes the orthodox idea of the Gothic fable and turns it on its head, with humour, intelligence and linguistic gusto. The eponymous story follows Clyde and Magreb – a married couple – who resides in Sorrento, Italy, trying to contend with the impracticalities of being vampires by feasting on lemons instead of human blood. “Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything,” Clyde says, “fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogota, jackal’s mil in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only these lemons that give us any relief.” The story is, of course, about more than just lemons and vampires. It is a candid inquiry into the varied course of human relationships, into marriage in particular, the general brevity and customs of which Clyde finds deeply dispiriting.

Every story in the collections is rooted in some topical theme, some conscientious exposition on the human condition which is one of the things that make them so resonant. Reeling for the Empires is, for example, about oppression and empowerment. It is told by a Japanese silkworm worker, living in a reeling mill in Japan. The twist here – and there’s always a twist with Russell’s work – is that the female factory workers manufacture the silk themselves by being plugged into a machine. The women are recruited for this specific purpose from villages across the country; their fathers sold a machination about nobility, about their daughters being specially selected to reel for the Empire. But the truth of it is quite contrary. “Every aspect of our new lives,” the narrator tells us, “from working to sleeping, bathing when we can get wastewater from the Machine is conducted in one big room.” Russell makes very explicit allusions here to the debasement of factory-working culture, human rights infringements and the patriarchal forces driving it. The Agent, who recruits the silkworm workers, is the embodiment of capitalism, an abjectly oppressive force in the women’s lives, from whom they liberate themselves by way of direct reversal of fortune. It is a simple enough story, but one told in an entirely unique voice and from an entirely unique perspective. Russell finds new and innovative ways in which to relay old and familiar ideas, surprising, challenging and entertaining the reader. Every one of her narratives has foundations in some aspect of our cultural heritage –  be it folklore, fairy tale, legend, myth – and  is scrupulously researched before being transformed into something quite new and unexpected, akin to modern day folklore and allegorical dreams.

Russell is also someone who finds inspiration in the world around her, in the things that have – directly and indirectly – impacted all our lives. She borrows her plots from reality and loops them round, drawing out the comedy, the mystery, the eeriness and the despair out of the ordinary. One of the stories in the collection is about a young sergeant back from Iraq, haunted by the death of his friend. The New Veterans is an emotionally loaded look at the past’s influence over the present, combining psychoanalytical examination of memory and how it can redeem and offer salvation. Here again the story’s seemingly straightforward plot is given the Russell treatment, when Derek begins physiotherapy and the woman treating him is able to manipulate the commemorative tattoo on his back, depicting the death day of his comrade Arlo. Russell’s brand of storytelling has been invariably described as magic realism and while the appellation certainly fits I think her work would be more accurately described as macabre realism in its use of dark and haunting ideas and human experiences. All the stories gathered in Vampires in the Lemon Grove toy with some ominously pathological aspect of human personality or despotic element of nature, which Russell explores with great psychological insight. In The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach 1979, for example, she chooses betrayal as her topic centering the story on a 14 year old boy called Nal, who loses the girl of his dreams to his older brother. The story could quite easily read as a simple tale of adolescent angst if it weren’t for Nal’s ominous encounter with a minatory sea gull, who proffers the youngster the possibility of reconfiguring his life. This is something Russell does time and again in the collection, by adding extra-ordinary elements to everyday life.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s second short story collection, and showcases her talent as a writer who is coming into her own. She has a preternatural capability of combining the old with the new and making it appear original and inventive. And her inventiveness extends throughout the book, even to the less convincing stories such Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating, which is precisely as the title suggest  – a loosely assembled list of axioms about dehydrated foods, Zodiac boots and gaiters to aid aficionados of the sport in their endeavours, because ”tailgating in the Antarctic is not joke”; and The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, which reads like a gauche cautionary tale about a gang of bullies, who torment an outcast peer until they come across a scarecrow that resembles their victim and haunted by the effigy begin to feel remorse. The stories gathered here vary in quality and calibre, but have a sustained originality which reverberates with imaginative effulgence. There is a tangible materialism to every world that Russell creates, down to the seemingly inconsequential details, from the colour of sunsets on the Mediterranean coast in Vampires in the Lemon Grove to the adolescent jargon in The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, from the partisan divisions among the dead presidents in A Barn at the end of Our Term to the ins and outs of the Homestead Act in Proving Up. Russell pays very close attention to the little things while pushing narrative and linguistic boundaries, and paving the way for unexplored possibilities in new fiction, stretching over several genres and categories. This brave young writer clearly enjoys creating bewildering scenarios, designed to highlight the more unsettling aspects of composite realities, which on the surface appear intrinsically “normal” and average.

This is something Russell set out to explore, she says, adding that she’s fascinated by how “matter-of-factly people talk about crazy things that happen”. This quality of everyday madness echoes through the volume with a sense of bizarre verisimilitude. One wonders what source of voodoo Russell uses to solicits her ability to render life so eerie and unnerving, which when she does successfully attests to her literary brilliance. Vampires in the Lemon Grove offers a real mix, however, ranging from the superb to the mediocre but reading Russell’s work one can certainly see why this young writer was nominated or the Pulitzer Prize. And even though her ideas can sometimes fall a little flat and her language feels a little over-laboured –  often relying too heavily on metaphor, which makes her prose seem florid and overly imagistic –  Russell never fails to redeem herself through her exuberance and use of humour which surges through the collection. Speaking about writing in a recent interview Russell said she had two rules both of which materialised from advice given to her by two of her professors. One of which urged her to remember that “blue doesn’t stand out on blue” when juxtaposing “fantastic elements to the naturalistic elements in a story” and the other that “good writing should be surprising and true”. The heed of the latter is especially evident in Russell’s work, as the line between reality and fantasy is almost indistinguishable and only made conspicuous by the writer’s flourishing imagination.

The Awl | Karen Russell 

Salon | Karen Russell 

Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback:  256 pages
ISBN: 9780701187880

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.

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

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

Eduardo Halfon: A gifted storyteller

The writer of The Polish Boxer is also its narrator or at least the two men share the same name, the same experiences and the same history. Are they in fact the same man? The reader is left to draw his own conclusions as Eduardo Halfon fuses reality and fiction, mystery and memoir into one. The Polish Boxer is divided into ten chapters, which read like individual stories told by the same narrator who spends much of his time traveling, discussing literature and contemplating his ancestral past. From the outset the reader is alerted to the fact that The Polish Boxer has a dual structure. “The visible narrative always hides a secret tale,” Halfon asserts in the opening paragraph. He later consolidates this notion when identifying the qualities of a great writer which, according to him, rest on the ability to use “language as a means of accessing a sublime, ephemeral metalanguage”. This is something Halfon does himself as he embarks on a journey to unravel the story of his grandfather while also telling his own. The narrator, a young Guatemalan literature professor with an identical background as Halfon, is jaded, disillusioned with his job and his students. Halfon’s weariness is briefly dispelled when he meets a budding undergraduate poet. Juan Kalel is a summation of Halfon’s own literary ambitions, a well of potential which the narrator immediately recognises and aims to nurture, but Kalel is forced to drop out of university to support his mother and his three sisters after his father’s sudden passing. The narrator goes to the boy’s hometown of Tecpán to return his notebook and to ask him to come back but Kalel is bound by duty, which must come before his studies, his art. Leaving the town, Halfon asserts that someone like Kalel could never abandon poetry “because poetry would never abandon him,” bringing the story to a lovely conclusion.

The eponymous chapter and two others centred exclusively on Halfon’s grandfather are by far the best of the lot. Halfon relays his grandfather’s story of surviving Auschwitz with a certain tenderness and a certain curiosity, a universal curiosity, which the writer bravely yields to. It took Halfon’s grandfather nearly 60 years to reveal to him the origin of the mysterious five digit number on his forearm. “It was in Auschwitz,” he told his grandson one evening. “At first I wasn’t sure I heard him,” writes Halfon, “I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. Drizzle poured against the roof tiles. This, he said rubbing his forearm gently. It was in Auschwitz, he said.” The chapter showcases Halfon’s prowess both as a writer and a storyteller. The startling images conveying the tragic events at Sachsenhausen concentration camp stick in the mind with uneasy, lingering, poignancy. The writer brings the story to an equally startling close“All I could imagine,” he writes , “was an endless line of individuals, all naked, all pale, all thin, all weeping or saying Kaddish in absolute silence, all devout believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers, as they waited in line to be numbered themselves.” Elsewhere in the book, however, Halfon doesn’t do so well. Often, his descriptions and analogies jar as they do, for example, when he says his friend Milan Rakić has the look of a “well meaning vampire,” or observes that “the air smelled clean, naked,” or refers to a pair of eyes as “sky blue” or describes a particular word falling “like a dead dragonfly into a bowl of warm lentil soup”.   

Halfon excels as a writer when dealing with intangible, abstract, themes such as memory, desire and identity but errs again with relentless name dropping. Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway  Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, Thelonious Monk, Lee Marvin, Andrei Tarkovsky, e.e cummings, Woody Allen, Fred Astaire, Federico Fellini, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Liv Ullman, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Amedeo Modigliani all get a mention. This list is not exhaustive either.  The 192 page book is inundated with mentions of the great and the famous, to a gratuitous degree akin to boastful perorations about one’s intelligence. And there is little doubt that Halfon is intelligent, certainly in the way he deals with difficult and contentious subjects,  intrepidly confronting his own fears, prejudices and insecurities. “I couldn’t get far enough away from Judaism,” he confesses, “while Milan would never be close enough to the Gypsies.”  Halfon makes no secret of his apostasy, of his distaste for organised religion, of his distaste for Judaism in particular, the faith of his father and his “glass house world”. On the other hand, the writer is very clearly passionate about and fascinated by his immediate heritage. Guatemala is a place of wonder for Halfon, who pays homage to its rich and varied cultural traditions throughout the book. “Guatemala place names never cease to amaze me,” Halfon writes, for example, “They can be like gentle waterfalls, or beautiful cats purring, erotically, or itinerant jokes – it all depends…I suppose Guatemalan place names are the same as Guatemalans, when it comes down to it: a mix of delicate indigenous breezes and coarse Spanish phrases used by equally coarse conquistadors whose draconian imperialism is imposed in a ludicrous, brutal way.”

As the story progresses Halfon’s attention shifts from his grandfather to Milan, whom the writer travels to Belgrade to find after his postcards cease arriving. “I felt seduced, I guess,” Halfon tells his girlfriend Lía when she asks what had prompted him to go in search of the Gypsy pianist, “seduced by his music, seduced by his postcards, seduced by his story, seduced by the revolutionary tremors of his spirit, seduced by a smokey, erotic image…” Contemplating his experiences, Halfon concludes that there is always “more than one truth to everything”.  Life, love, literature. This point is further fortified when Halfon’s grandfather changes details of his survival story, reshaping his own memories, his own history and his grandson’s telling of it. “A story is nothing but a lie. An illusion,” Halfon writes early in the book, “And that illusion only works if we trust in it.” But sadly we no longer do; the writer shatters it in order to show literature’s chimerical nature, its artifice and casuistry. Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform,” Halfon writes toward the end of the book, “making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. Or perhaps literature needs to construct one reality by destroying another – something that in a very intuitive sense my Grandfather knew – that is, by destroying and resurrecting itself from its own debris.” Halfon’s examination of perception and reality, fact and fiction, is interesting and interestingly approached, but if a story is in fact false does it make it less beautiful, moving or engrossing? On the whole, The Polish Boxer lacks cohesion. The three chapters dedicated to Halfon’s grandfather read like an independent story integrated between other independent stories, loosely bound together by a singular narrator and a handful of reoccurring references.

The Polish Boxer is Halfon’s first book in English, his ninth overall. It was originally conceived as a collection of stories and perhaps this is the reason why the chapters read like episodic shorts, each one varying in matter and subject yet linked to the next by seemingly arbitrary yet correlated elements: Guatemala, history, religion, identity, literature. The interconnection is made seamless by Halfon’s expert hand; it’s clear he is a seasoned writer and a gifted storyteller capable of producing vivid and beautiful prose. But sometimes his aesthetic and value decisions show lapses in judgement. As they do, for example, when Halfon assert that he cannot image anyone being able to resist falling in love with a woman “who had come back from vacation with her pubis shaved smooth” or when he says he associates “acts of power with sexual acts” and it may have “something to do with being Jewish”. But these are trivial grievances, and one can easily see why Halfon has recently been named one of the best young Latin American writers by the Hay Festival of Bogotá and was awarded the prestigious José María de Pereda Prize. He has also received the Guggenheim Fellowship to work on continuing The Polish Boxer, which is a great story and one that makes the reader feel as if he’s being “dragged along in the author’s wake,” through Guatemala, Belgrade and Auschwitz, through literature and history, through death and love, through life.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 192 pages
ISBN: 9781908968074

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

Phil Baker on William S. Burroughs

“William S. Burroughs’ life is a gift,” Phil Baker tells me as we sit talking in his red-brick mansion flat in the curtilage of Tate Britain. He also tells me it was a “sad life,” but one full of incident, a treasure trove for any biographer. While Phil makes tea I glance inquisitively around the room that constitutes his office, unwittingly charting his occult and tribal interests, passions and travels. The bookshelves are bowing under the weight of numerous hardbacks. His desk, with myriad apothecary draws at either side, is chaotically lined with scattered papers. The Persian rugs and the red leather sofa upon which I perch are unmistakably time honoured. And there are bibelots and bagatelles to fill a generously sized curiosity shop. It is a very cosy office I conclude when Phil returns with tea and a chocolate cake I brought him. Phil’s biographical study of William S. Burroughs – published by Reaktion Books in their Critical Lives series – chronicles this most controversial and illustrious counterculture figure’s life from his boyhood to his eventual death in Kansas in 1997. It is a fascinating book, but one Baker says was simply waiting to be written. “You can’t really go wrong with Burroughs,” he explains, “because it is such a good life. And the ending is there, it’s natural, it’s ready-made.”

As we settle down to tea and cake, Phil confides: “I don’t eat cake very often, but this is very good.” I query him about his beginnings in teaching, which is something he aspired to do when he started his PhD. He subsequently taught at Oxford and “did quite a stint at Royal Holloway”. More recently, after publishing a couple of books, including a cultural history of absinthe, a book on Samuel Beckett, as well as Dennis Wheatley and Austin Osman Spare’s biographies, he has been granted a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship and has been “helping post graduates with their writing”. While he tells me about teaching, I wonder, whether or not he thinks style can be learned. “I do think style and form can be learned,” he nods, “you can’t teach people to have an opinion but you can teach them the mechanics of how to write. You can teach that it’s about beginnings and endings and that it has to flow.” Phil also works in the literary trade, reviewing books for the likes of Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. When I ask him about writing books he becomes pensive. “I think it kind of happened by default,” he muses, “when I was young I think I probably imagined I would write novels. I never had an ambition to write poetry, ever. But novels perhaps…and it just never happened. And I don’t think it ever will.” What about reviews, I say. “I sort of do and I don’t enjoy them” Phil wavers, “there’s something very exhilarating about writing, I mean it is quite compulsive…I do find journalism a strain but I think everybody does, so I’m not going to complain. I do, however, think that once you have a beginning and an ending the stuff in the middle writes itself. It’s the same with books – you have to know where it’s going. And you have to have a good start.”

This is one writer’s rule that Phil seems to adhere to when it comes to his own work. In his book on Burroughs, Phil opens with a hook that draws the reader in immediately. Chronicling his subject’s early years, he notes that Burroughs was almost exclusively attracted by the unorthodox and the occult. The foundational point of this allure was an autobiography of a criminal, Jack Black’s You Can’t Win (1925). Speaking of it later, Burroughs remembered being “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming house, pool parlours, cat houses and opium dens.”  In many ways, Phil explains, it propelled Burroughs’ “journey into deviance, a kind of deliberate journey into deviance,” which saw him enjoy the murkier side of life, drugs in particular. Burroughs’ own varying accounts of drug-taking are often contradictory, but Phil suggest that he really saw them as a means to “psychic exploration,” which led to his “great literary breakthrough” Junky. His interest in drugs and the macabre was on-going throughout his life, often melding fantasy and reality together to the point where it is almost impossible to differentiate between the two. Burroughs’ constant “self-mythologising,” is something Phil has been wary of, especially because a vast majority of his writing is geared towards this particular undertaking.

With regard to the shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951, in the infamous William Tell act, for example, Burroughs later wrote: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I never should have become a writer but for Joan’s death.” This is in fact not true. “He had this dream of being a writer as a child,” Phil clarifies, “and when he comes to write his own short, and very potted, autobiography ‘The Name is Burroughs’ he says something like ‘as a young boy I wanted to be a writer because writers lounged about in Singapore, wore silk suits, smoked opium and explored jungles with native boys.’’ Burroughs was fascinated by the mystique of writing, but what his craft actually sprung from was mainly his friendships. “All his writing was extremely interpersonal, until much later on when he had become an established writer,” Phil says, “it developed from him trying to impress friends, so he collaborated on his first piece of short fiction [Twilight’s Last Gleamings] with his friend at Harvard Kells Elvins and then the major works really grew out of his letters to [Allen] Ginsberg that eventually turned into Naked Lunch.” Ginsberg and Burroughs’ relationship was a troubled one. Phil suggests that Burroughs never really got over Ginsberg’s rejection, or that famous cruel rebuff about “his ugly old cock,” which wounded Burroughs very deeply. Love is something that always eluded Burroughs. And yet, toward the end of his life he found it in his cats, particularly in Russky. “Burroughs’ cats reminded him of people he had known,” Phil writes in his book “he felt them as autonomous, struggling, mortal beings, and he found again the sense of essential contact that he had always sought in relationships.”

By 1981, having travelled the world and hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger, Burroughs decided to settled down in Kansas. “He went out there because James Grauerholz [onetime lover, friend and literary executor] had roots there,” Phil tells me.With time, Burroughs became highly valued in his adopted hometown, where he earned himself a name as a lovable “old gink” in the words of Grauerholz. “He was the local star I suppose,” Phil says, “and he gave the place more of an identity. He was very well looked after in the end by a whole crew of people, who took it in turns to cook for him and take care of him. I think I was a little sentimental in the book. If I were to have qualms about it, it would be that maybe I played a little bit for sentimentality with the idea of Burroughs in old age singing Adiós muchachos and thinking about his friends.” I contradict Phil, saying the ending fits wonderfully with Burroughs’ story, which concludes with the most unpopular boy from St Louis realising that the most important thing in life is love. One wonders, however, how Burroughs’ later years of globetrotting and multi-genre experimenting shaped his legacy. “I find the idea of multimedia Burroughs a complete dead end,” Phil says resolutely, “because the only thing that he was really good at was writing.” One cannot help but agree as Burroughs’ painting, filmmaking and other artistic side-lines seem mediocre and half-hearted. Still, Burroughs has momentous significance in terms of the great American literary canon as the last “honourable literary deviant” and “neo-primitive, counter-enlightenment thinker” who rejected mainstream values and culture until the very end. “Burroughs was also the man that kept his tie on through the 60s,” Phil adds, “and I think you have to admire him for that.” 

Publisher: Reaktion Books 
Publication Date: July 2010
Paperback: 192 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 9781861896636

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