Tuesday, April 30, 2024

39 Books: 1991

One the first books I found in a bookshop* upon moving to Brighton was Rosalind Belben's novel Is Beauty Good. I had seen it two years earlier chosen in a newspaper books of the year listing alongside Jacques Roubaud's Le Grand Incendie de Londres and Thomas Bernhard's Old Masters. Those were the days.

I'd not read a book like Is Beauty Good before, and haven't since, and while its unique qualities are suggested by its form – there are 30 chapters in 111 pages – describing it further threatens to sidetrack me from what I'd like to say. The cover painting by Sigmar Polke is helpful here: we see a figure, we see colours, shapes and lines. Each is there to see; it's not abstract, yet also not distinct in part or as a whole; there are individual elements, merging, each apparently on the way to full clarity, a state impending at all times and yet one we know can never fully arrive. And so the novel's various voices, anecdotes, observations, questions and exclamations.

Two of the book's blurbs use the word 'beautiful'. David Plante says "I can't think of anyone writing in English (with the possible exception of Beckett) whose prose is as beautiful." (The novel was published in the months before Beckett's death in December 1989.) What distinguishes the prose for me is the use of commas chopping up sentences like the oblique slant dividing lines of poetry in quotation. This is enhanced by the publisher Serpent's Tail using a denser, more upright typeface. The effect is curiously similar to taking a bath in one of Proust's sentences: it expands one's consciousness in fleeting exposures to the outside.

The use of the word 'beautiful' has some irony given the title and the refrain inside in which a guard on the Berlin Wall asks whether it is good that the corollary to our attraction to the beautiful is our disgust at what enables it. To where does it lead to call something beautiful? The recent reissue of Rosalind Belben's 1974 novel The Limit reveals a persistent concern for the question, as discussed by Kirsty Gunn in her review. I hope the NYRB reissues some more, including and especially Is Beauty Good.

*Wax Factor on Trafalgar Street. It has now stopped selling books. End times.

Monday, April 29, 2024

39 Books: 1990

The first book I read in the 39 years of this series was a genre thriller, and I've read only two more since. The second one came along this year. In 1989, I got a temporary job in the archives of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum where I met Carl Erlewyn-Lajeunesse, an anti-authoritarian Canadian Saul Bellow-lookalike with a conspiritorial laugh. Our job was to enter into a computer database the careers of submarine officers from 1901 up to and including the Second World War, researching the details in handwritten ledgers, small notecards and plump hardbacks called The Navy List. Carl decided that instead of merely entering dates, names of ships and boats (submarines are 'boats', never 'subs') we would write short narratives for each officer. I remember one early submariner who took his pet rat on patrol. It was called Ratto and lived up his sleeve. And I don't forget what happened to the crew of HMS C16 off Harwich in 1917. The boat became trapped on the seabed and an attempt was made to fire a crew member through the torpedo tube, with a note to rescuers tied to his body, but he got stuck and drowned. Then they tried to open the hatch, which wouldn't open fully but then wouldn't close, making escape impossible. The boat began to fill up. One crew member left a note to his family asking them to inform "my girl" of his fate and ended with the words "thought of you till last moments".

Perhaps to counter the darkness of such stories, Carl also decided we should insert a fake career into the database. We had great fun inventing the details. His name was Rear-Admiral Sir Geraint Fairbairn-Bentinck, a bachelor sailor who liked especially to mentor handsome young midshipmen and was renowned for his prolific torpedoing of merchant ships – a feat distinguished because it was done completely outside of wartime. By astonishing coincidence, each ship happened to be carrying the cargo of competitors to the family business.

It turned out that Carl had published a crime thriller in 1981. He also wrote issues of a comic called Commando (I found this page only yesterday searching for photos of the novel), and he knew what he was writing about as he'd served as a paratrooper in the Korean War, later half-seriously expressing regret that he hadn't fought on the North Korean side. He didn't have a copy of Dead Man Running, as he had lent his last copy to someone many years previously and they hadn't returned it. With remarkable good fortune, I found a copy for sale in the local library. I read it and then presented it to him on his birthday. Many years later it was displayed at his wake.

I owe Carl a great deal. He encouraged me to work towards a place at university, something that at the time was as remote to me as walking on the moon. Nobody in my large extended family had ever been to one. Chance meetings that change the course of a life become clearer with age, and more vertiginous.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

39 Books: 1989

Nowadays I would be put off reading a book labelled controversial and exciting gossipy attention on TV and in newspapers, but in 1989 I read Alexander Stuart's The War Zone that did exactly that. It was later made into a controversial film.

The only thing I remember of the novel is the comparison to Martin Amis made by the reviews, which may have been why I picked it up, and I mention it here only because, a few years later when I was studying at the University of Sussex and living in Brighton, my friend and fellow student Sean happened to be living in the house in which the novel had been written. We climbed the steep stairs to the attic room and there was the desk on which it was written, bathed in sunlight from a steeply sloping window. That was it. 

In June 1912, Kafka, accompanied by Max Brod, visited Weimar as a pilgrimage to Goethe's city. He records it in his travel diary:

Walked at night to the Goethehaus. Recognised it at once. All of it a yellowish-brown colour. Felt the whole of our previous life share in the immediate impression. The dark windows of the uninhabited rooms. The light-coloured bust of Juno. Touched the wall. White shades pulled part way down in all the rooms. Fourteen windows facing on the street. The chain on the door. No picture quite catches the whole of it. The uneven surface of the square, the fountain, the irregular alignment of the house along the rising slope of the square. The dark, rather tall windows in the midst of the brownish-yellow. Even without knowing it was the Goethehaus, the most impressive middle-class house in Weimar.
The next day, they go inside:

Reception rooms. Quick look into the study and bedroom. Sad, reminding one of dead grandfathers. The garden that had gone on growing since Goethe's death. The beech tree darkening his study. While we were still sitting below on the landing, she ran past us with her little sister.

She is Margarethe Kirchner, the teenage daughter of the Goethehaus' custodian, known as Grete. Kafka becomes infatuated, seeking out her company at every turn. She is polite but clearly not interested. The great writer and his house are relegated to a backdrop to his unhappiness:

Box bed. Slept. Parrot in the court calling Grete.

If a person could only pour sorrow out the window.

I choke up at the thought of having to leave. 

Two weeks later, he meets Felice Bauer. I have often wondered if the encounter at the Goethehaus was as significant as the one in Prague, momentous as that was, and was disappointed that Reiner Stach's biography lets it pass as a short diversion from the main story.

The only other writer's house I've visited, that is a writer who wasn't already a friend or indeed the house of the writer whose body I inhabit, was Goethe's, more aware of following in Kafka's footsteps, seeing what he saw. In particular, I wanted to find where Max Brod took this photo of Kafka and Grete in the garden and have my photo taken there too, but for some reason that day the garden was closed. Back home, I discovered the plastic tag I should have handed in before stepping onto the creaking floorboards.

It is clear from visiting a writer's house, you can't step into the same river, not even once.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

39 Books: 1988

This is one of my most surprising discoveries in second-hand bookshop trawls in the far off days when they existed, especially because it was found in Portsmouth, not the most literary of cities despite Dickens and Conan-Doyle (or perhaps because of Dickens and Conan-Doyle). 

The original title translated by the great Ralph Manheim is Seul comme Franz Kafka and comes from Janouch's conversations:

"Are you as lonely as that? I asked.
Kafka nodded.
"Like Kaspar Hauser?"
Kafka laughed.
"Much worse than Kaspar Hauser. I'm as lonely as ... as Franz Kafka."

Marthe Robert contends that Kafka's loneliness was due to his relationship to Judaism. "The son of a prosperous self-made businessman, he grew up in a family that was half-assimilated, half-Germanized, vaguely traditionalist, and more conformist than religious." From the start, "Kafka was torn between diametrically contrary currents." I liked in particular Robert's line that, as Kafka moved towards full assimilation, he came to realise "he was Jewish even in his way of not being Jewish".

Any relationship with faith wouldn't have meant much to me then, not only knowing nothing about Judaism but also nothing about the Catholic religion into which I had been born. This may explain why I have not reread it. However, because of my new reading habit, being torn between contrary currents was to become more familiar.

Guildhall Square, Portsmouth

Dickens' statue is a few yards away from Portsmouth Central Library which began to feed my new habit in 1987. I wrote about my discovery and the importance of libraries many years ago.

Friday, April 26, 2024

39 Books: 1987

From two books in the first year of reading and twenty-four in the second, I read eighty-six in the third, including a lot more non-fiction. This was due to cycling to libraries in adjacent towns where the selection was wider. One of them had my first non-novel choice: this edition of Chomsky's Turning the Tide.

Chomsky's name came to my attention when, in an interview with the NME, Robert Wyatt said he was reading him, which links back to my 1985 entry. The book helped me to become sensitive to how language is used by news media not only to set the agenda but to control thought and elicit particular responses. This was long before the Internet of course and nowadays it's easier to see: for example, Alan MacLeod uses his Instagram account in part to document the use of the passive voice in headlines, more common now as corporate media tries to play down overt war crimes in Gaza. I remember one example in particular: the BBC's evening news account of the Haditha massacre, carried out by the US Army: Nicholas Witchell said soldiers "entered a house ... and people died", pronouncing the final words as if an elderly dog had been put to sleep. This is what makes censorship from above unnecessary.

When I found Chomsky's book in the library, it was alongside a huge hardback entitled Peace of the Dead: The Truth Behind the Nuclear Disarmers, an attack on CND, a prominent movement in those days. Plus ça change: nowadays my town library has three books by Chomsky alongside multiple copies of the same two books by those intellectual titans Jordan Peterson and David Baddiel.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

39 Books: 1986

In my second year of reading, I read four novels by DM Thomas, beginning with his most famous, The White Hotel, in the edition below with its very 1980s cover design. I look at the single-word titles of the others and can remember absolutely nothing about them.

Both the title and the three forgotten novels continue the theme of 1985, with the title following Martin Amis' guideline, adding a metafictional element for good measure: the novel as a temporary residence, a holiday in which one can escape, its whiteness offering a clean slate onto which one can watch the projection of another life, another world, but it was also throwing good money after bad as I sought something else these novels could never contain. Perhaps a book's title is the perfection we are seeking in novels, which the content can only spoil.

Fuss over titles is nothing new, nor is Amis' guideline. Early commentators on Dante's Commedia were either troubled by or ignored the comedy of the title when tragedy was considered the highest of styles, and by Dante in particular. Boccaccio came up with the answer:

On the grounds that the author was a most prudent man, I believe that he would have had in mind not the parts contained in comedy but its entirety, and that he named his book on the basis of this entirety, so to speak. And from what one can infer from Plautus and Terence, who were comic poets, the entirety of comedy is this: comedy has a turbulent principle, is full of noise and discord, and ends finally in peace and tranquillity. The present book altogether conforms to this model. Thus the author begins with woes and infernal troubles and ends it in the peace and glory enjoyed by the blessed in their eternal life. And this certainly suffices to explain how the said title suits this book.

This quotation is taken from Giorgio Agamben's The End of the Poem, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, in which Agamben assesses what he calls "an event" that led Dante "to abandon his own 'tragic' poetic project for a 'comic' poem".

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

39 Books: 1985

The first novel I read was Twice Shy by Dick Francis, reportedly the Queen Mother's favourite novelist (which tells you all you need to know about the intellectual energies of British Royal Family). It was the hardback edition below and tells the story of an Olympic champion marksman who comes into the possession of a betting system that guarantees profit.

Dick Francis was a prolific author of thrillers related to horse racing and, as this list shows, he wasn't shy in using a cliché as a title; in fact, their use is almost pathological. I've always been fascinated by the titles of novels and remain troubled when they lack a unique quality. When I wrote about the subject in An aside on titles, I mention Martin Amis but not how he decided on the title for the otherwise execrable London Fields: that it underlay the content rather than being a content-specific reference or a cringeworthy poetic title.

As I read Twice Shy, music played on the turntable in the background. It was Land of Cockagne, an LP by Soft Machine. My disappointment and confusion that it wasn't anything like as good as Third helped me to realise that I bought records by Soft Machine because of Robert Wyatt, who had long left the band. This series will also be a record of sorting and sifting as I come to such realisations with books.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

39 Books: Introducing a blog series

In 1985, I read two books. The following year I read a lot more, and it was then I began to keep a list of each book I finished. I've kept the list ever since. In this blog series I will choose one book from each of the 39 years and write whatever occurs to me and post whatever I've written each morning for 39 days.

However, I will constrain the choice to an author or book I have not written about before, first as a means of returning to the golden age of regular short-form blogging and second in the hope of coaxing the unexpected into the open. The latter has always been my ideal for literary blogging: to say something interesting in an interesting way. There will be straightforward reviews, incidental and possibly irrelevant tangents, anecdotes personal and impersonal, and, inevitably given the time limit, superficial observations, and each of these together in various permutations.

39 Books is an inadvertent tribute to Microdisney's LP 39 Minutes and indirectly to Microdisney's singer and songwriter Cathal Coughlan, whose death in 2022 came as such a blow. In late 1984 I heard the band's Peel Session which included my favourite song, Horse Overboard, a time that marks the beginning of a new life, which has now passed.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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