Archive for the ‘literature’ Tag

Waking Up

My favourite book is Ulysses by James Joyce. I first read (most of it) at university, completed it six years later. By that time it resonated far more for me – I’d got to know and love Ireland in the interim. It has a reputation for being difficult but once you let go a bit and let it flow over you to some extent it becomes both readable and enjoyable. It feels to me like it’s about everything.

finnegans wake james joyce book novel

Inevitably after a few years the thought occurred to read Joyce’s follow-up, Finnegans Wake. In November 2017 I bought myself a copy of A Shorter Finnegans Wake, edited by Anthony Burgess. The longer original seemed so intimidating that I felt this attractive slimmish Faber volume might be the route in. But on opening to the first page it looked absolutely unreadable. A codebook with no key. Like nothing I’d ever seen, apart from perhaps the most obscure, chaotic parts of Ulysses – reminiscent but far more convoluted.

At the beginning of 2018, on 5th January, I joined the Charles Peake Seminar at the University of London, a monthly gathering at Senate House of mainly academics close-reading Ulysses, which I’d first been told about years before by Fritz Senn, the director of the James Joyce Institute in Zurich. “Good timing”, the person beside me whispered, “we’re just starting a new chapter!” I wasn’t particularly impressed until it came to light that the last one had taken 5 years. We’re talking close reading here.

We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got

One of the regular attendees at the Charles Peake was Finn Fordham from Royal Holloway who led another sister seminar on Finnegans Wake, also monthly, same place. He persuaded me to try it out, reassuring me that it didn’t matter that I hadn’t read the book. My first session was on 23rd February 2018. we were on page 538. Now we’re on page 547. Two and a bit years to cover 9 pages!

But these two years proved crucial. A few weeks ago, during the Coronavirus lockdown, our seminar having shifted online for now and doubled in frequency through demand and enthusiasm, I realised, after a particularly enjoyable session, looking back to page 1 that I could now read what once seemed unreadable. On 26th April (2020) I embarked on the journey through the Wake. Reading at least a couple of pages every day, usually to get my day under way, I have now read the first couple of chapters, the first 50 pages, in half a month.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

I’m glad to get a name-check in the opening line. The central character is HCE. By my reading so far HCE is Adam (among others). HCE is a man who has a great fall by committing a sin in a garden or park, Phoenix Park in Dublin. It involves sex and breaking the law. He might have been exposing himself to some young ladies or wanking in a hidden place. He may have been frolicking with some soldiers. His crime changes with each telling. Rumours abound. HCE stands, we are told at the start of Chapter 2, for Harold or Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Humphrey connects him to another bad egg (or ego) who had a great fall, Humpty Dumpty. Chimpden is a reminder that we are but bald apes. Earwicker renders him/us lower, creepy weird insects (earwigs). But at the same time HCE is also some kind of a king. This is the night book to Ulysses‘ book of a single day around Dublin city. This one takes us to dawn through the obscurity and dream-world of a typically chaotic, but not without pattern, human sleep. Humphrey becomes Humpty becomes Adam becomes Everyman, struggling with identity, guilt and self-justification, interacting with a family equally fluid, in a language playful, funny, obscure, frustrating, innovative and plumbing the depths for things that don’t really want to come to light…

James Joyce portrait Irish writer novelist

To see or not to see, that is the question

 

World of Zoom 3

It’s exactly a week since my second reflections on online conferencing which was exactly a week from my first reflections on online conferencing. This only slightly less weird week this morning brought the best Zoom background of the Lockdown from my colleague Simon Goodman at Showem Entertainment, with whom I made Naked & Invisible and In Your Face

simon goodman zoom background 2020-04-03

The other Zoom highlights included, after nagging from me, shifting the long-standing Charles Peake Ulysses Seminar from Senate House, University of London to online (for the first time). Also having our first ever online book group after 20 years IRL.

Book group zoom screen

The distinctive thing about this session was that we didn’t discuss a book. We were supposed to be talking about A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke but our host for the evening is down with… yes, you guessed it, Corvid19. We didn’t want him to miss the discussion of the book he had chosen (it only comes round about once every two yaers that you get to choose) so we just chewed the fat about life, love and the universe – and the plague.

The Plague 2

So I am still ploughing my way through Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague / La Peste. I am not rushing, savouring it – got plenty of time on my hands! The parallels continue to resonate. So here’s picking up from my first post on the subject…

la peste the plague albert camus 1947 1971 novel le livre de poche

I recently acquired this 1971 copy of a 1966 edition

[Sunday posting] “Only as the sermon proceeded did it become apparent to the congregation that, by a skilful oratorical device, Father Paneloux had launched at them, like a fisticuff, the gist of his whole discourse. After launching it he went on at once to quote a text from Exodus relating to the plague of Egypt, and said: “The first time this scourge appears in history it was wielded to strike down the enemies of God. Pharaoh set himself up against the divine will, and the plague beat him to his knees. Thus from the dawn of recorded history the scourge of God has humbled the proud of heart and laid low those who hardened themselves against Him. Ponder this well, my friends, and fall on your knees.”

“ ‘Ah, if only it had been an earthquake! A good bad shock, and there you are! You count the dead and living, and that’s an end of it. But this here blasted disease – even them as haven’t got it can’t think of anything else.’ ”

[on the day of the UK Government’s first daily Coronavirus news conference] “a new paper has been launched, The Plague Chronicle, which sets out “to inform our townspeople, with scrupulous veracity, of the daily progress or recession of the disease; to supply them with the most authoritative opinions available as to its future course; to offer the hospitality of its columns to all, in whatever walk of life, who wish to join in combating the epidemic; to keep up the morale of the populace, to publish the latest orders issued by the authorities, and to centralise the efforts of all who desire to give active and whole-hearted help in the present emergency.”

“During the last 24 hours there had been two cases of a new form of the epidemic; the plague was becoming pneumonic. On this very day, in the course of the meeting, the much-harassed doctors had pressed the Prefect – the unfortunate man seemed quite at his wits’ end – to issue new regulations to prevent contagion being carried from mouth to mouth, as happens in pneumonic plague. The Prefect had done as they wished, but as usual they were groping, more or less, in the dark.”

[self-reflexive about these posts] “They began to take a genuine interest in the laborious literary task to which he was applying himself while plague raged around him. Indeed, they, too, found in it a relaxation of the strain.“

“ ‘If things go on as they are going,’ Rieux remarked, ‘the whole town will be a madhouse.’ He felt exhausted, his throat was parched. ‘Let’s have a drink.’ ”

[on the day UK government calls up retired doctors and final year medical students] “ ‘Haven’t doctors and trained assistants been sent from other towns?‘
‘ Yes,‘ Rieux said. ‘10 doctors and 100 helpers. That sounds a lot, no doubt. But it’s barely enough to cope with the present state of affairs. And it will be quite inadequate if things get worse.’ “

“At 11 o’clock that night, however, Rieux and Tarrou entered the small, narrow bar of the hotel. Some 30 people were crowded into it, all talking at the top of their voices. Coming from the silence of the plague-bound town the two newcomers were startled by the sudden burst of noise, and halted in the doorway. They understood the reason for it when they saw that spirits were still to be had here.”

“ …there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.’
‘ What do you mean by “common decency”?’ Rambert’s tone was grave.
‘ I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.’ ”

“ Tarrou said he knew the latest figures, and that the position was extremely serious. But what did that prove? Only that still more stringent measures should be applied.
‘How? You can’t make more stringent ones than those we have now.‘
‘ No. But every person in the town must apply them to himself.‘
Cottard stared at him in a puzzled manner, and Tarrou went on to say that there were far too many slackers, that this plague was everybody’s business, and everyone should do his duty.”

[full UK lock-down was announced last night with a rousing Churchillian speech by PM Boris Johnson] “Now, at least, the position was clear; this calamity was everybody’s business.”

Life in a nutshell

reading books life

Enfant Terrible No. 1 sent me this the other day – it more or less captures my worldview.

4 reasons to read The Sellout

thesellout-mar20151

So we had our 15th Anniversary Book Group gathering last night and the book in the spotlight, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was highly praised by all but one of our number, getting 9s and even 10s in our scores (for Literary Merit and Enjoyment), one of the most popular choices in the whole decade and a half.

My review on GoodreadsA dense and intense tour de force with shades of Catch 22 (absurdity), David Foster Wallace (intensity) and Candide (humanity), filled with insight about how black people are seen and see themselves in the USA (and beyond).

sellout

Here are 4 good reasons to read this standout satirical novel:

(i) On lawyers:

The Chief Justice meekly raises his hand.

“Excuse me, Mr Fiske [the defending lawyer], I have a question…”

“Not right now, motherfucker, I’m on a roll!”

 

(ii) On education:

Two hundred kids quieted instantly and turned their attention deficit disorders toward me.

 

(iii) On weed:

“What the fuck is this, dog?” Puppet coughed.

“I call it Carpal Tunnel. Go ahead, try to make a fist.”

Puppet tried to ball his hand but failed.

 

(iv) On intellectuals:

The meetings consisted mostly of the members who showed up every other week arguing with the ones who came every other month about what exactly “bimonthly” means.”

Classic satire in the heritage of Waugh and Swift that’s laugh-out-loud funny.

Books of 2016 – suggestions for book groups

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I put out a call today for books people have read this year which really blew their socks off. It’s my turn to chose for our book group – that’s a thing that only comes round every 20 months or so, so I want to make it a goodie. I wanted to go for Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, which was bought as a gift for my birthday,  but it breaks our 300 page rule. Last time out I chose The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell which was class and memorable.

Here’s what people sent in, mostly published in 2016 (with a few oldies for variety):

  • Ragtime by EL Doctorow
  • Wake & The Beast by Paul Kingsnorth
  • A Brief history of seven killings – Marlon James
  • the vegetarian by Han Kang
  • Station Eleven, Euphoria by Lily King
  • The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
  • Master and Margarita – Bulgakov
  • His Bloody Project – Gramme Macrame Burnet
  • Mr Penumbras 24 hour bookstore – robin sloan
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
  • The Girls by Emma Cline
  • The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
  • Nutshell – Ian McEwan
  • Bel Canto by Anne Pratchett
  • A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
  • Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
  • A god in ruins – Kate Atkinson
  • All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt

cover

I went in the end with Autumn by Ali Smith (recommended by my friend Bill Thompson) as it’s very topical, one of the first post-Brexit novels, and I’m looking for some insight into how to deal wisely with the fucked up year we’ve just had. I knew I should have just gone to bed when Bowie died and slept through two winters.

Here is the list I made of suggestions for book clubs last year where the question was which book made most impact on your life.

And here’s the list of the first 10 years of our reading group’s books.

Finally here’s a list of recent titles from our group, based on email archaeology working my way back to the end of the first 10 year list (my favourites are bolded):

  • The Sellout – Paul Beatty (11/16)
  • The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt (10/16)
  • The Yacoubian Building – Alaa Al Aswany (9/16)
  • A Golden Age – Tahmima Anam (6/16)

  • The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (4/16)

  • Joyce Carol Oates:” the man without a shadow” (4/16)

  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (2/16)

  • Submission by Michel Houellebecq (1/16)

  • The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami (11/15)

  • The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford (9/15)
  • “In the Country of Men” – Hisham Matar (Jun 15)
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (3/15)

  •  The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (1/15)

  • “Oblivion”by David Foster Wallace (Nov 14)
  • “The Leopard”by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Sep 14)
  • What was Promised by Tobias Hill (6/14)

  • “Stoner: A Novel” – John Williams (Apr 14)
  • “Rabbit at Rest” – John Updike (Feb 14)
  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – Alice Munro (12/13)

  • May We Be Forgiven – AM Homes (11/13)

  •  Irretrievable – Theodore Fontane (9/13)

  • Wise Men -Stuart Nadler (7/13)

  •  Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (3/13)

  • “Yellow Birds” – Kevin Powers (Jan 13)
  • “There’s no such thing as a free press…” by Mick Hume (Dec 12)
  • William Trevor’s ‘Love and Summer’ (11/12)

  • (Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman (8/12))
  • “The Uncoupling” – Meg Wolitzer (July 12)
  • A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 12)
  • Philip Roth’s “Nemesis”(4/12)

  • “Old School” by Tobias Wolff (3/12)

  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain (Nov 2011)

So our little group has just turned 15 years old. Our next meeting is tomorrow night (The Sellout). Glad to say it’s as good for us today as it’s always been…

md6907308980

 

 

Books That Changed Lives – suggestions for book groups

I’ve been in a book group with some old school friends and a motley crew of other geezers for 13 and a bit years now. Here is a summary of our first 10 years. Well it’s my turn to choose the book again now – it takes 18-24 months for the honour to come round these days so you can’t take it lightly. I put a call out to social media friends for books that had really changed their lives or ways of seeing the world. Loads of interesting suggestions came in and rather than let them fade away in the ephemeral world of Facebook etc. I thought I’d save them here so other people in other book groups/book clubs/reading groups could make use of the titles. (The quotations are from the friends making the suggestions.)

Bookshelf books

  • Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  • A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  • My brilliant friend – Elena Ferrante
  • Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
  • Kevin Barry’s City Of Bohane
  • Don de Lillo’s Underworld
  • Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels – “made me think differently about how the past shapes your present/future and how as individuals we get to choose if the negative parts of our past consume our futures or not. It is also beautifully written and made me revisit poetry too.” “it is the book that taught me how beautiful words can be”
  • Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The social animal – David Brooks
  • Do No Harm – Henry Marsh
  • Andre Agassi’s “Open”
  • The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities
  • Us – David Nicholls
  • Amongst Women by John McGahern
  • Malloy by Samuel Beckett
  • The Master by Colm Tóibín
  • The Country Girls by Edna O’ Brien
  • Foster by Claire Keegan
  • At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’ Brien
  • The Quest for Corvo – AJA Symons
  • Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
  • Birchwood by John Banville
  • How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston
  • The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
  • Love’s Work – Gillian Rose
  • The History of History – Ida Hatemer-Higgins
  • Inventing God, Nicholas Mosley – “felt my mind shifting on religion/geopolitics/Middle East. God as the greatest invention of humankind. Humanist but generous to those who have faith – a gentle riposte to the Hitchens/Dawkins approach. In a novel.”
  • A window for one year – John Irving
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving – “love, friendship and sacrifice”
  • Wild, Cheyl Strayed
  • Dracula – Bram Stoker
  • The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
  • Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  • For whom the bell tolls – Ernest Hemingway
  • To the End of the Land, David Grossman
  • Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood – “felt the terror of teenage girls when read and re-read both as a teenage girl/40 yr old woman”
  • The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – “felt the power and grace of the quiet man”
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinwe Achebe
  • Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother “Made me respect young people more”
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
  • The Mezzanine by Nicolson Baker “It’s very short, very unlikely and some in the group will HATE it and for others it’ll change the way they look at the world around them. You’ll never see perforations or a straw in a fizzy drink the same way again.”
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman – “had a huge influence on my going to university and recognising the need to never find oneself in a position where you are wholly reliant on a man. All teenage girls should read it.”
  • William Leith’s The Hungry Years “taught me how not to be a food addict”
  • Cervantes’ Don Quixote “taught me to rely on my inner compass rather than external signage.”
  • Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow “showed me that our personal interpretation is where the colour and joy of the world are to be found, but to keep it just shy of solipsism”
  • Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book “became my personal cultural key to unlocking New York”
  • Stoner – John Williams
  • Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse “made me see my middle class/ inner animal struggle in a clear & cleansing light, Damn you Herman Hesse!”
  • Plumed serpent, D. H. Lawrence – “opening to the mythic underbelly”
  • Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ “because his characters are so compelling and so flawed. Our heroine’s youthful arrogance and stubbornness sees her turn down suitors because she values above all her freedom, only to find herself trapped in a way she could not have imagined. I was excited at her prospects and I feared for her. There were other characters I was rooting for too! Having re-read it more than 20 years later, I was interested and surprised to find I had more compassion for some characters I disliked intensely and impatience for those I felt sympathy for when I read it as a teenager. A truly astonishing, complex masterpiece.”
  • The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  • Cormac McCarthy’s The Road “is the most piercing book I’ve read. The description of the trials faced by the father and son has stayed with me for years.”
  • 1984 – George Orwell – “”We are the dead” “You are the dead” stopped me in my 13 year old tracks. Never saw it coming”
  • Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day – “because it really does require you to take a big chunk out of your life to read it – Rams home the idea that reading is subversive: stops you working, earning, socialising and kinda does stop time.”
  • A fraction of the whole – Steve toltz
  • Douglas Coupland’s ‘Microserfs’
  • Be Here Now – Ram Dass
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  • The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
  • The english and their history by Robert tombs – “Amazing and definitive book that filled in every gap for me in understanding where we live and why it is how it is”
  • The Spinoza Problem by Irvin Yalom “Despite the title, it’s a real page turner. Yalom goes back and forth between Spinoza and Rosenberg (part of Hitler’s propoganda machine). My book club had a fantastic discussion.”
  • Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
  • Humanity: A Moral History of The 20th Century by Professor Jonathan Glover
  • Lolita -Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Bone People by Keri Hulme
  • Homage To Catalonia – George Orwell
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Beingby Milan Kundera
  • The Wind-up Bird Chronicle -Haruki Murakami – “Extraordinary writing that made me see the world differently”
  • Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
  • House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
  • Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

Again, thanks to all those who kindly contributed to the list.

In the end I opted for The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (partly because I thought Cloud Atlas was something pretty special). Will report back on how it goes.

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