Thursday, April 05, 2007

Easter asides

At last, an American who doesn't overrate Clive James, unlike one or two US litbloggers recently. Gary Indiana provides a clue as to why he might appeal: "James can expound his subjects' accomplishments without oversimplification; what he can't do, apparently, is interrogate his own broad assumptions and prejudices." It's not only in the liberal arts that this applies it seems.

Elsewhere, Chandrahas Choudhury reviews the brief tales in Etgar Keret's Missing Kissinger and calls them "potent drops of storytelling". They are indeed, and when he also describes them as "anti-literary" and "anti-romantic", I accept (reluctantly) that these are positives. Yet I found them too glib and self-satisfied to warrant the enthusiasm of the blurb quotes (including Clive James' "One of the most important writers alive"!). I used the word 'glib' in a review - not online - but what I didn't mention (due to space) was the translation from Hebrew. I presume it's accurate in its colloquial tone, though it does tend to emphasise the cultural similarities between the US and Israel rather than their differences. Many read like products of creative writing classes. One similarity might be ignorance of football. In one story, the narrator mentions having Adidas trainers like those worn by "Kroif". The translator evidently didn't know that this refers to Holland's greatest ever player. So maybe Keret's prose is not as carefree as the translation suggests.

Keret should attract younger readers; at least those less concerned with form than with content. In this, he's more like a rock star than a writer. Ah, what it must be like to live life to the full, on the edge, like a musician, this one for example.


  1. Thanks for link to the review of the Clive James book (if only for the invocation of the notion of "totalitarian democracy"). I've only read a small handful of articles by Clive James, and they didn't leave much of an impression, so I've been a bit surprised to see all the blog-gushing. It felt off to me, though I had no specific knowledge to counter it with.

  2. Steve, in politics, saying somebody can't interrogate their own prejudices just means he's a liberal. It's a shorthand insult. But being a liberal isn't a bad thing. I agree that big - lefty - changes are necessary. That's just the way things are at the moment. But only liberal values can ensure a steady hand. For all my admiration for Hugo Chavez - getting on the electricity, teaching people to read - there is still the whiff of the caudillo about him. That will NOT be good in the long term. It never is, and the historical perspective is what James offers.

    And saying he dislikes Sartre doesn't tell the full story. He may well do, but that doesn't mean he isn't alive to existentialism as "a virus in the culture" as you put it about modernism. Sartre is a good diagnostician, but a bad fixer. And that's what we need: fixers.

    Where I agree with you is that James is oblivious to the fact that his liberalism is a "theory". You pointed that out on this blog ages ago (he was reviewing John Bayley) and it was a big lesson for me. But as a liberal myself I think that should be affirmed. It doesn't mean he's wrong.

    By the way, in the New Yorker the other day, Clive James gave scandalously short shrift to Georges Simenon's romans durs. You asked a while ago about what formally simple, but deeply modern novels there were to read: these are the ones. Start with "Dirty Snow" and "Monsieur Monde Vanishes".

  3. Thanks Rory and Richard, a late friend of mine was very keen on Simenon in the original. Never read him, so I will look up those recommendations.

    My resistance to the gushing over Clive James isn't due to a liking for Sartre. He doesn't interest me and I find it frustrating that he and Camus are the sole reference points for popular discussion of French literary-philosophers, when you-know-who and his philosophic companion are far more interesting.

    As for Chavez, I've often said amy criticism of him is disproportionate. This is not to express support for everything he does. I'm just not interested in false "concern" for those minor issues. The only threat he offers is that of a good example.

  4. Love the Eric Satie link, thanks for that! Very funny.



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