The Books of My Numberless Dreams

London Review of Books, Vol. 29, No. 5

Posted on: April 18, 2007

Let’s get the lame stuff out of the way. For some reason this issue has a bajillion page story by Alan Bennett complete with prominent ads for his books and play (last showing! last showing!). I’m not sure how Bennett hijacked the 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 context.)

The great news is that there were actually five, count it, five women listed in the table of contents–and only two were poetry contributors! (Band plays.) And they weren’t covering cooking or floral arrangements either. Keep it up LRB, I (and I hope others) do notice things like this.

I’ve already posted about the provocative Mumdani article which everyone should read. Another excellent one directly related to Africa and major urban areas worldwide was Jeremy Harding’s review of Planet of Slums by Mike Davis, It Migrates to Them. Davis wrote on the explosion of populations in urban areas in ways similar to the effects of the 19th century Industrial revolution: poor housing, poor infrastructure, generally sub-standard living conditions. In certain countries like Japan the rural dwellers did not even have to move closer to the city; the development came to them with highways cutting off their routes to the sea and the pollution killing the fish stock.

One of the major problems Davis identifies is that the populations far outnumber the economic opportunities offered in the cities; he disagrees with the idea that creating property rights will spur any development; and that too many people in these areas are forced to work in the same kind of jobs: “the informal sector…generates jobs not by elaborating new divisions of labour, but by fragmenting existing work, and thus subdividing incomes.” The IMF and the World Bank are implicated in sometimes causing and aggravating this problem in developing nations, along with the corruption of national governments.

The photographer Jonas Bendiksen took photographs of Kibera, an example of one of these slums, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya for the Paris Review Winter 2006. (The piece is in PDF format.)

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by the same author is also reviewed, the link formed by Davis intention to “focus on ‘slum-based resistance to global capitalism'”. Buda’s Wagon is an indirect way of addressing this (he plans a sequel to Planet Slums that will more thoroughly address the matter). For now he writes on this weapon that’s used by insurgents and secret services alike. Harding asserts that the “unwitting” overall picture Davis creates is the links between the outsider violent groups who use the car bombs and other tactics as weapons and the “state agencies” that taught them.

Peter Barnham’s review of the new translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, Rubbing Shoulders with Unreason, was really cool and interesting but at least 50% flew right over my head. I was clearly expected to have an idea of the concept of what “unreason” different from “madness” but I had not a fucking clue. It read real pretty though so once I actually, you know, find out what Barham was writing about I’m sure I’ll realise that I learned a lot.

Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been making the rounds in journals and newspapers. Frank Kermode reviews it here, as well as Bernard O’Donoghue’s in Who has the gall? O’Donoghue takes his modern approach further than Armitage, abandoning the alliterative Middle English poetic style, but both don’t balk at throwing in the jolty contemporary phrase. “Armitage enjoys taking liberties. The knight’s dreadful weapon becomes ‘the mother of all axes,/a cruel piece of kit I kid you not'”.

Kermode occasionally compares both translations to the “authoritative” Tolkien’s and finds good and bad in all. Of the two he leans towards Armitage, observing that while he may “kick up his heels” ever so often he does “much justice” to the extraordinary work. O’Donoghue’s effort is “less sparky”. Frankly all the “modern” made me desperately yearn for the Tolkien translation, although if I had to I’d go for the Armitage as well, based on this review.

Julie Elkner was the only woman to pen a major piece this issue. She reviewed Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Tear off Masks! Identity and Imposture in 20th-century Russia.

Fitzpatrick has a long-standing interest in the ways in which ordinary Russians negotiated everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s. Tear off the Masks! brings together a number of her studies from the past fifteen years, on a series of loosely connected themes falling under the broad rubric of ‘identity’ and its ambiguities, with notions of ‘masking’ and ‘unmasking’ as key motifs.

Elkner feels that Fitzpatrick can be too focused on deflating the idea of the omniscient, omnipotent Soviet bureaucracy, but he work on the different images people presented in their everyday lives, and the elaborate theatrics and mirrors devised by the secret service were lucidly described. I wanted to get my hands on it right away but some evil person did a term loan.

For the shorter pieces Uri Avnery wrote on the Israeli government’s dependence on the Arab world’s refusal of every ‘road map’ or ‘peace agreement’ and how Hamas agreement to the 1967 borders and the king of Saudi Arabia’s effort to unite the Palestinian government fills them with horror rather than joy. Peter Campbell covered the Turner’s Rigi exhibit (now ended) at the Tate Britain, stating the need for the three watercolours to remain together. (The threatened ‘Blue Rigi’ was saved.) Deborah Friedell connected Edith Wharton’s novels and the Herminoe Lee biography to her own experiences.

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1 Response to "London Review of Books, Vol. 29, No. 5"

Oh, I disagree! The Alan Bennett piece in question is WONDERFUL! It’s a gorgeous meditation on the power of reading to ENSNARE even the most guarded soul (and they don’t come more guarded than the Queen) – I agree that it probably didn’t belong in the LRB (although, for the sake of context, yes: Bennett’s a god in England), but you can’t fault the STORY for that. The story is a real gem – I urge you all to find it somehow and read it.

Signed, Alan Benne- er, Steve Donoghue

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