The Books of My Numberless Dreams

London Review of Books, Nov. 2nd issue

Posted on: December 25, 2006

Going back through the archives we read the Nov. 2nd issue of the LRB. One thing that escaped my notice during the last read was the regular art gallery exhibition column. The NYRB is the other publication, of the ones I read, that regularly gives column space to art but it is always the dubious, squiggly, “real” modern stuff that is Hungarian to me. So I ignore that. LRB does cover exhibitions at the Tate Modern (shudder) but the coverage is more even-handed. Anyway I just wanted to point out that besides being cosmopolitan the journal is also devoted to art beyond featuring ads to see such and such an exhibition, which I like.

Peter Campbell, that erudite chap (who does the covers!), covered the Adam Elsheimer exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and I realised instantly why I did not always pay attention to his columns which are often free online—no art scans. For someone who will only recognise about 0.9% of the names mentioned in his column, without a visual example of the artwork being discussed my eyes flit over it, oblivious. However, without having a clue who Elsheimer was, the detail of the moon over the river in The Flight into Egypt was exactly the right thing to capture my interest. Campbell’s writing was perfect, as usual—an informative, aesthetic critique of the work without pretension and a concise assessment of the artist’s critical status in his time to now, with good historical context. He wrote just enough to keep me intrigued enough that I wanted to learn more about Elsheimer.

There were two good reviews on novels that made the Best End of Year lists for a few newspapers, journals, and authors featured in those and similar publications: Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn and Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland. James Wood (one to watch out for based on this post) reviewed the first and Colin Burrow (squee!) the second . I love, love, love when reviewers place an author’s latest in the context of his/her previous works and go into some detail about them. This approach is more obvious when the reviewed is part of what is now a quartet, but what struck me was Wood’s concise, pertinent and relevant commentary on them. Reviewers often give too little information or inane remarks that are good for nothing but (maybe) persuading one to plug a title into Amazon. Wood named Hollinghurst St. Aubyn’s “colleague-in-style” which should prove interesting as I have two of the former’s works in my TBR pile.

Jamie McKendrick‘s poem “The Resort” is pointedly paired with the St. Aubyn review as it covers another time period of upper class excess—Ancient Rome. (Although I get the (perhaps mistaken) impression that he is not only writing on what happened in the past.)

A plague
of copulating crystal-winged flies

alights indifferent on plates of meat,
on fruit, on us—a sign of thunder or just
more heat. A sated roar comes from the stalls.
Wild beasts are all the rage in Rome
and here too we import somnolent crocodiles
that only strike when the prisoner’s goaded
within three steps of their jaws;
and a great ape that can tear men apart.
My friend Smynthius, aptly named
after the god of plagues, has had his walls
turned into an entire menagerie
by a Greek dauber with a taste for narrative.

I love Burrow’s reviews of fiction because he shows a clear wealth and breadth of knowledge of the novel as an art form—other academic reviewers may have this but not be good at exhibiting it– and an uncanny ability at inhabiting the characters, knowing them thoroughly. I may not always agree with him but his arguments are typically lucid and honest. I don’t know, they speak to me the way Sasha Frere-jones music reviews do (even when I have no interest in what either critic is covering). Burrow examined Hyland’s acclaimed Carry Me Down with his ruthless focus. I skipped over some paragraphs as they contained spoilers, but what I read reaffirmed my intention to purchase the book.

I felt relief at my familiarity with the two novels mentioned above as Mr Henry Day was responsible for critiquing three books in his review, two of which I now want. (Damn you, Day!) The major one was Anabis or The Expedition of Cyrus, a new translation by Robin Waterfield and two complementary texts, The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand a collection of essays edited by Robin Lane Fox (checked out of the library ’till May you bloody student) and Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia and the End of the Golden Age also by Waterfield, which held less allure. (Pottery history and details on hoplite warfare on their don’t do it for me.) Frequent mention of the deceptive simplicity of the Anabasis‘ challenging nature and Louis MacNeice’s description of it being ‘crusted with parasangs’ did little but add caution to my enthusiasm for the story. Xenophon, a narrator whose ego forces us to skeptically read his accounts, started with the rebellious Persian Prince Cyrus who, in 401 BC, took an enormous army through mountain ranges and desert to do battle with his brother Artaxerxes II on the Mesopotamian plains. The poor thing was killed in battle by said brother. Now we must follow Xenophon, back a thousand miles with ‘the Ten Thousand’ Greek survivors through hostile territory, blizzards, food shortages, the works. Don’t forget that on this trek they have with them family and much livestock. It is the kind of story I can now find interesting but in high school would have made killing and dissecting chickens in Agricultural Science class something approaching nirvana. How glorious it is to be a high school graduate!

After this came four Hugo Williams poems given the lavish 3/4-of-page LRB treatment. (When they do this I cannot refuse to read the poem/s.) The set was about Hugh Williams, his father. In the “Introduction” we meet the poet sitting in the tea room at a Hotel adopting the dress and manner of Hugh and with this recreation further explores his memories of Hugh’s character, his image and their relationship. The poems’ forms effectively changed according to the poet’s purpose: a giving, fluid conversational form as he introduces the main players, giving backgrounds and stating intentions; the short, compact form of “Brow”, focusing on the image; the sharper, tighter sentence arrangements of “The Mouthful” where the lines become shorter as Williams describes his father’s “shrapnel” eyes with a widow’s peak “like a Norman helmet”; and the easing shift in “Fur” where, all in one sentence, Hugo shares how he traces an evening coat to the maker who, having no memory of Hugh Williams or his distinctive clothing, brushes aside the idea of repairing the coat and offers instead to pull out and purchase the fur separately at ten quid. Outside of his memories, outside of the poems it all holds no import or significance.

All in all very good stuff. I knew of Hugo Williams before reading these but could not have named any poems. Here’s a profile of him in The Guardian.

To my surprise there was an article on Jamaican history! Stephen Sedley wrote on the judicial implications and consequences of a set of cases surrounding the Morant Bay Rebellion. Two of Jamaica’s National Heroes, George William Gordon and Paul Bogle, were major players in it to varying extents. I did not know that there had been any public ire in England about the brutal abuse of martial law that had been put in place by the Edward Eyre, the island governor, after the rebellion or that he, and others, had stood trial (all acquitted). It was a bit hard for me to read about the cases from an imperial perspective as Sedley considered the implications for the British empire in deciding how to maintain its position while trying to treat its subjects humanely and how far it should do so. It was interesting to note the assertion that those who pursued cases against Eyre and others did so for their own ends rather than out of sympathy for the Jamaicans’ plight—the clergy, the only group who could be accused of such, were marginalised. And that Ruskin and Tennyson wrote in defence of Eyre. (Ugh.)

Another good piece was Collini’s evaluation of Waller’s book on Literary life in Britain 1870-1918 largely because the book, according to Collini, lacked any coherency. It was left up to him to connect the dots and give us an overview of how the financial and critical status of writers and the publishing business developed and changed within that time period. Three volume novels get pushed aside by the convenient single, the birth of the best-seller, the yawning gap between “populist” and “literary” all figure in his narrative.

I persuaded my favourite Chapters employee—one of the two booksellers among about the ten or so there who actually know anything about books besides which part of the store they are stacked—to lead the charge on re-instating LRB copies in their rightful space on the journal shelf. But I must wag my finger at you LRB—not a single female contributor to this issue. Shame, shame, shame.

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