The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Literary Journals

Posted on: December 14, 2006

The Thomas Hardy issue of the TLS was a fruitful read as usual. The best thing I love about the journals is the chance I get to read about subjects with which I am unfamiliar or would rarely come across in my book reading. Take biographies, for instance. Unless they are required, I cheerfully avoid them. The only biographies worth their salt are the ones about people who have produced great works or had a significant impact on their environment. If so I would rather read the great works than learn in what room the author wrote his great works, whether she loved her Mommy, or who really liked to ride bicycles. I would rather read chapters about how Octavian and Agrippa planned the battle of Actium than about how they became great friends. I only need biographical information in so far as it had impact on events rather than a detailed personal study.

What about reading a review of two Hardy biographies? I like that fine. (I am not wholly incurious about the personal lives of important figures merely averse to read 400 pages of it.) Jonathan Bate wrote the opening article, which focused primarily on how the two authors handled Hardy’s marriage with Emma, how that affected his creative output and his attitude towards his physical environment. He declared Tomalin the better writer and assessor of Hardy’s marriage, Pite more astute on the importance of locale and geography to Hardy personally, and his work in general. I shall read neither but the review writing was clear, incisive and–something of a surprise for the longer articles in the journals–primarily focused on the books rather than the subject they addressed.

The best thing I took from it was an interest in Hardy’s poetry, Poems of 1912-13. The Commentary article focused on them in order to consider if they contained any evidence of Hardy giving his wife syphillis. If it was so the tragedy factor is heightened as Emma Hardy died from it far sooner than Hardy, and went through all three stages (we know it is four now) which included a neurological disorder. Personal history aside the rhythm and sentence structure of the poems guide one’s reading to great effect.

There are three folk driving in a quaint old
And the cliff-side track looks green and fair;
I view them talking in quiet glee
As they drop down towards the puffins’ lair
By the roughest of ways;
But another with the three rides on, I see,
Whom I like not to be there!

No: it’s not anybody you think of. Next
A dwelling appears by a slow sweet stream
Where two sit happy and half in the dark:
They read, helped out by a frail-wick’d gleam,
Some rhythmic text;
But one sits with them whom they don’t mark,
One I’m wishing could not be there.

I am eager to visit the library on Friday to return all the school texts in order to make space for poetry books and novels.

Another writer I will be on the look out for is John McGahern. The *review in the Fiction section was a general assessment of his body of work rather than on his latest stories collection, which I appreciated. When I discover authors new to me I prefer to start with one of their older works first before hitting the latest. The reviewer highlighted the sort of characters that usually people McGahern’s bleak literary landscape and his focus on the strong, beleaguered women in rural Ireland was of particular interest. He was compared to Alistair McLeod if that rings any bells for you.

One or two works of translated fiction are regularly covered too. Admittedly it may be on the biographies of authors long-dead, but at least it reminded me to pick up Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysman. The reviewer’s comment on Huysman’s decadence confirmed my suspicion that he was the author for me.

Astonishingly I found so many articles of interest in the big holiday issue of the NYRB–I haven’t even finished it yet–that I had no time to get to my LRB copies yesterday. I know, I am as surprised as you, if not more. It even had four, count it four female contributors–see what wonders a higher page count can bring! I read the Margaret Atwood’s review of Richard Powers’ new novel to which all the litblogs were linking. Her tone was more jocular than what normally graces the NYRB’s pages–I liked it–and her descriptions of Powers’ structural and writing style encouraged me, more than anything else, to give his Echo Maker a try. Gold Bug Variations also sounds spiffy but I don’t know whether the local independent will have it in stock (Chapters does not). Perhaps the NBA win will resolve this as nicely as it did for M.T. Anderson.

McNeill reviewed Max Boot’s book on important technological advancements in weaponry, how that shaped the history of much of the world, and set the present global political power hierarchy. McNeill’s criticisms on the author’s concentration on military developments to the exclusion of all other pertinent social factors rang true. His observation on the author’s triumphalist tone when it came to describing battles involving the West conquering the rest I had expected 200 words ago. There is no need to gloss over the facts but I could not help wincing at the quotes describing Britain’s glorious conquering of India.

“In sum, to fight like Europeans you had to become “European.”You had to adopt at least some of the dynamism, intellectual curiosity, rationalism, and efficiency that has defined the West since the advent of the Gunpowder Age.”

Poor dumb Maratha chieftains.

My gusto for reading biography reviews continued with P.N. Furbank’s commentary on a new Leonard Woolf biography by Victoria Glenndining (best surname ever). It was a surprise to learn that Woolf was such a misanthrope but apparently a good husband to Virginia. Anyway I enjoyed learning about Woolf’s own writings–I recently came across Persephone Books which publishes The Wise Virgins–both literary and political.

The best article (so far) was John Banville’s review of the collection of letters of Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salome. Just thinking about it makes me laugh with delight. From my readings Banville is one of the best stylistic writers. His diction is pointed, concise and the prose flows effortlessly. The rhythm tends to linger and phrases, no doubt garbled, run over and over in the back of my mind. It was such a contrast to the others I had read before and after. Again, I could care less about the book being reviewed–not Banville’s fault, simply my distaste for reading someone else’s letters–but if I had a copy here I would cut out the review and paste it on my wall, that is how much of a ninny I am. If nothing else he made me care about Rilke and Lou for a few minutes. Oh and I wish to try the Leishman translations of Rilke’s poetry, which he prizes.

I do not think I will ever have time to read all that I want to, which often makes me dour. Anne Carson’s O Ishter–a Canadian poet–made me itch for her book as did Paul Schmidt’s translations of Marina Tsvetaeva.

I’d like to live with you
in some small town,
in never-ending twilight
and the endless sound of bells.

And in the little town’s hotel
the thin chime of an antique clock,
like little drops of time.
And sometimes, evenings, from some attic room,
a flute,
a flute player by a window.
And huge tulips at the windows.
And if you didn’t love me, I wouldn’t even mind…

Even the academic and press ads were helpful. I was ambivalent to all the huge, glossy, two three page ads that significantly contributed to the bigger size of the holiday issue. Articles were squeezed in between a colourful add from South Carolina U press over here and Southern California U press over there. I don’t like to feel as if desperate salesmen are pushing catalogues in my face while I am peacefully getting some good reading done. On the other hand…some of those books looked good, particularly the general selection of Yale press. After reading a couple of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations earlier this year the coming Epicurean and Stoic volume from the Axious Institute grinned grinned invitingly and Robert Gula’s Nonsense nodded and told me to buy him. Nevermind that I acquired three books yesterday and am fast being run out of my room by book piles.

It is almost enough to make me look at my Dec. 14th issue of LRB in dread. Ha! not likely. In a satisfying reverse of events the LRB staff member’s generous offer of a few free issues was not a fluke after all! He apologised for missing my e-mail and promptly shipped them to me in a shiny white package. They arrived on Monday.


I shall get to all four, numbering back to the November 2nd issue some time before Christmas, time willing.


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