The Books of My Numberless Dreams

London Review of Books, Jan. 4 issue

Posted on: January 19, 2007

Being sick on Wednesday disturbed my reading routine for the litjournals. I had not recovered enough to make the 30 minutes trek on foot to Starbucks today and my typically dependable campus library proved disappointing. The latest issue of the TLS on display is two weeks old and the latest LRB was not even seen as fit enough to display. (Chapters would you stock the damn periodical already?) My posts on the TLS will be slightly out of whack for a while. Anyway I had fun with the LRB even if this issue only had a single female contributor.

It starts out with Alan Bennett’s dairy-like observations chronologically arranged by month…for the whole of 2006. My first reaction to this was, “Why the fuck should I care what some random tallywhacker did every month of the year? Good lord.” Then I got pulled into it, somehow. Some of the entries were actually bookish, noting his experience working at libraries and the interesting characters he met, thoughts on a memoir he was reading by some chap named Duff Cooper who screwed around. He went to an opening of a play in New York. (The History Boys–ever heard of it?) His smirk-inducing remarks on Blair were entertaining and saddening: “After the murder of Mr de Menezes Tony Blair claimed that he ‘entirely understood’ the feelings of the young man’s parents. Today it is the 80, 000 people who, following the government’s urgings, subscribed to their employers’ private pension schemes. When the firms went bust or were unable to pay, their workers unsurprisingly turned to the government to make good their lost annuities, except that now the government claims it’s not its responsibility…Mr. Blair reassures…them that he entirely understands their indignation. Is there any limit, one wonders, to the entire understanding of Mr. Blair? Heaped naked in a pile on the floor of an Iraqi prison it must be comforting to know that you have the entire understanding of Mr. Blair.” But my attention wandered after he professed horror at some terrible faux pas people made when renovating houses. I googled to see who on earth this man was in an attempt to boost my interest with the exact opposite occurring.

“Oh. He’s an actor.”

The distinguised pedigree, the accompanying tinge of charming artistic poverty of the descriptive “theatre” could not weaken my shameful prejudice. Maybe if he were reading it to me I could have bothered to finish the rest (Wikipedia notes his “sonorous Yorkshire accent”).

There is what could very well be an agreeable article on the Getty and how it is spending its inheritance, but a NYRB article late last year consumed all my interest in Getty-related matters for about 6 months. Ruth Padel’s poetry was given the 5/8-of-a-page treatment but, alas, it was not the magic 3/4 that poetry in the LRB needs to retain my attention. That honour was given to the arresting works of August Kleinzahler. The first was “Retard Spoilage”, a poem filled with this strange mix of archaic, esoteric biological and sophisticated literary words that composed this curiously thrilling image of slow decay and rotting of the food in the fridge, extending it into a metaphor to connect it with people. I didn’t know a good deal of the words but from the context I had a general idea of what he was saying. And the obscurity of the words made it all the more arresting. It’s funny how what he describes is quite repulsive on its own but in the poem he makes the metaphor work in such a way as to encourage concentration and reflection not disgust. Not overwhelming disgust at any rate.

Good, patient Leeuwenhoek of Delft,
having ‘partook of hot smoked beef, that was a bit fat,
or ham’, of which he was most fond,

suffered a grave ruction below
and so put to work his celebrated lens
that he might better examine his troubled stool

and found there an animalcule, nay many,
but one especially in the figure of an eel
that ‘bent its body serpent-wise’,

‘a-moving prettily’, he made thorough note
in a letter to his estimable coequal, Robert Hooke,
and ‘as quick as a pike through water’.

Sleep, my angel, sleep,
though everywhere out there they are among us,
within, as well, wriggling deep,

they prosper into our dark complement, and by us dwell
in perfect equipoise: your inviolate sweetness
amids that which is vile&writhing&smells.

(Don’t you love how the lack of space between the last three words seems to reinforce the meaning of those words, as if you could smell and see those icky creatures moving around in your ‘dark complement’ right now? It’s brilliant, he uses it to similar effect in the first stanza.)

It seems as if LRB only reserves two of its full-length pieces for fiction which should bother me a lot more than it does, considering its my main source of contention with NYRB (along with the dearth of female contributors). I guess it does not because its scope of non-fiction coverage is far more diverse. The only time the NYRB deigns to look beyond the US and Europe is for Iraq–which almost doesn’t count for me because the focus is rooted in self-interest i.e. the American war there–or if one of their coterie has published a book that focuses on somewhere else. Anyway the two fiction novels reviewed were Pynchon’s and Amis’ latest: two authors I’ve never read and only the former holding any possible interest.

Corey Robin reviewed three Arendt books: Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: The Jewish Writings ed. by Jerome Kohn & Ron Feldman, and Eichmann in Jersualem by Arendt herself. Robin criticises Young-Bruehl and a Samantha Power, who wrote the introduction to a 2004 Schocken reissue of The Origins of Totalitarianism, for committing the apparently common error of making Arendt’s totalitarian writings, rather than those on anti-Semitism and imperialism, the focus of their scholarship, when the relevant historians had long deemed it the “least instructive”. Robin also considered that section the least representative of the book. He went on to show how Arendt’s essentially psychological analysis of totalitarianism ignored the political and economic aspects of the societies in which the ideology developed. Young-Bruehl’s application of that analysis on to the current problems with Islamist radicals and the Bush adminitation’s reactive strategies threw this problem into stark relief, Robin argues. He then elaborated at greater length on how her writings on Zionism, imperialism and careerism are of greater currency. I found his piece a fascinating read: I haven’t read any of Arendt’s work, though of course I mean to, and his provocative idea that careerism acts as a good or better an agent for fanaticism as it is commonly thought to do for capitalism, the “efficient…source of freedom” is intriguing.

The next article is an even better example of why I like the sort of reviews usually printed in lit journals–the author writes at length on a subject related to the book before even mentioning the reason for it, appearing in smaller type below his or her name. Tariq Ali, before getting to Pervez’s Musharraf’s memoir–for which Musharraf did some heavy publicity in the West, even appearing on The Daily Show (which startled a “wtf?” from me)–wrote a detailed overview on the history of Pakistan under military rulers. One gets everything from the (part) origins of Bangladesh before it became Bangladesh, to the Soviet’s Union botched invasion of Afghanistan when the US was afraid of the Communist bogeyman. None of this is wasted at all as it perfectly sets up the context for Musharraf’s memoir: we can more readily assess his actions as he presents them in light of the knowledge one has gained about the general history and current political and diplomatic circumstances of not only Pakistan but Iran, India, Afghanistan and even Saudi Arabia. Probably the most worrying piece of information I left with was Ali’s assessment of Afghanistan:

Despite the fake optimism of Blair and his Nato colleagues everyone is aware that it is a total mess. A revived Taliban is winning popularity by resisting the occupation. Nato helicopters and soldiers are killing hundreds of civilians and describing them as ‘Taliban fighters’. Hamid Karzai, the man with the nice shawls (ouch–ed.), is seen as a hopeless puppet, totally dependent on Nato troops. He has antagonised both the Pashtuns, who are turning to the Taliban once again in large numbers, and the warlords of the Northern Alliance, who openly denounce him and suggest it’s time he was sent back to the States. In western Afghanistan, it is only the Iranian (!!! -ed.) influence that has preserved a degree of stability. If Ahmedinejad was provoked into withdrawing his support, Karzai would not last more than a week. Islamabad waits and watches. Military strategies are convinced that the US has lost interest and Nato will soon leave. If that happens Pakistan is unlikely to permit the Northern Alliance to tae Kabul. Its army will move in again.

Those ungrateful Afghanis. The Americans, Canadians and (to a far lesser extent) Europeans gave them a gift and they’re throwing it back in their faces. Why don’t the citizens rise up and take this gift of democracy which the West has, in their wisdom, given to them? Afghanis, Iraqis, they all look alike.

The last really great article was Adam Phillips review of two Paul Muldoon books: The End of the Poem: Oxford lectures on Poetry and Horse Latitudes, his latest poetry collection. I engaged far more with Phillips’ descriptions of Muldoons poems than the bits that he quoted, but I should probably get a proper look at them. Muldoon’s lectures sounded attractive because he explores his ideas on writing, the mechanics and motivations of it, and the role of the reader in all of this, which was a welcome addition to the Zadie Smith’s frequently linked piece. As Phillips represents it

For Muldoon both reading and writing involve ‘speculation on what’s going on, consciously or unconsciously, in the writer’s mind’; the reader of a poem is what he calls a ‘stunt-writer’, and ‘the person through whom the poem was written a ‘stunt-reader’, each determining the impact of ‘those words and those lines’. Writing works at all only because readers and writers are so similar, ‘foreshadowing’ each other, both interested in ‘finding likenesses between unlike things’, and both attentive to links where you least expect them.

I like that. Too bad someone already checked it out of the library. (Boo!)

Curiously the LRB has Denis Feeney, who admits that he helped (in a limited way he claims) Robert Fagles in his Aeneid translation and is mentioned “with characteristic over-generousity” in the acknowledgements, review the bloody book. Isn’t that rather questionable? It’s a good thing I’m already familiar with Fagles boring, lifeless, pedestrian, simplistic translations. (Which are, inevitably, greeted with a chorus of hosannahs. Wtf people?)

The letters had a lot of contributors from previous issues battling out with readers who claimed to have cited egregious errors or faulty reasoning. Unlike the TLS and NYRB, the LRB pairs the reader’s letter with the contributor’s response rather than waiting for the next issue to print the latter.

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5 Responses to "London Review of Books, Jan. 4 issue"

Come on, don’t be coy, tell us how you really feel about Fagles…

Not including many women reviewers really sucks, doesn’t it?

Just to say I LOVE Adam Phillips. Do try one of his books if you get the chance, Imani. I think he’s such an exciting essayist, and so extraordinarily perceptive about the human condition.

Sylvia please don’t tempt me to drop my restrained demeanour. I’m trying to seem reasonable

Dorothy there wasn’t any female reviewers actually–Ruth Pendel (sp?) contributed two poems and that was it.

litlove ooo, I did not know that he had written any books. I will look them up, thanks!

[…] LRB but I’d like for another to take up the burden of peddling his wares. First we get his diary, now this? (Is he a god in England? I am lacking […]

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