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Archive for August, 2009

The Waste Land and Other Poems (1917 – 1954)
T. S. Eliot
Faber and Faber, 80pp

I picked up a box set, Faber and Faber Poetry Essentials a number of months ago, and this collection by T. S. Eliot is just one of the entries in the ten box set. It is a small sampling of Eliot’s Collected Poems, including the most famous works – The Waste Land, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Ash Wednesday and Journey of the Magi amongst others.

I had not read much of Eliot before this – I knew The Waste Land, and perhaps that was it. I admit to enjoying this collection immensely; Eliot is the recognised genius of modern poetry, and beginning with Prufrock I was enveloped in the rhythm and cadence of his work. Though not always clear what is occurring, Prufrock struck me as a series of somewhat disconnected – but more connected than you think – thoughts within a day in the life of Prufrock; the leaps Eliot makes are psychological, intuitive, rather than logical.

“I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

There is humour to the insights. Following Prufrock Eliot’s work seems to become more structured, wearing his learning more clearly – his poems become puzzles to unlock, the apotheosis of which seems to be The Waste Land, a stunning piece of work that reveals more upon each reading. There has been allusion in Eliot’s work, even in Prufrock, but here it is a real game, a challenge to know more than Eliot. This can distance some, I am sure, but for the true reader of poetry, a joy, it is what makes poetry such a powerful force. Even so, there is simplicity here, a plainness to some of the images that almost conceals how crafted and beautiful they are:

“And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.”

That from The Waste Land. A simple image that sparks so much.

I will say little more on Eliot now as his Collected Poems is to be read in the future and I will save my thoughts for then.

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Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile) (2000)
Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Chris Andrews
Vintage Books, 130pp

Published in Spanish in 2000, Chris Andrew’s translation of By Night in Chile appeared in 2003. Following Bolaño’s death and the success of 2666, Vintage has been publishing Bolaño’s back catalogue, of which this is the most recent. It is a short novella, just 130 pages long. Despite its brevity, By Night in Chile contains as much force as his longer works and speaks more truth than many other novels.

We are, of course, in Chile. Through one night, Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a priest, member of Opus Dei, literary critic and poet believes he is dying, hunted, and is trying to recall the crucial moments of his life. “I am dying now, but I still have many things to say.” This unburdening takes place over one paragraph that trips back and forth in time.

Bolaño’s bite is as savage as ever, and his satire on Pinochet’s Chile is damning, reaching its climax at a party in which a guest uncovers torture chambers in the basement. Even the artists, it seems, are complicit in the evil of this corrupt regime. It leads to the damning statement: “That is how literature is made in Chile… or at least what we call literature to prevent ourselves from falling into the rubbish dump.” Art cannot support a regime but a regime can support the artist.

By Night in Chile deserves more commentary than I have given it, but it languished on my shelf un-reviewed for a number of weeks, for which I am to blame, and some of its parts, though dimmed in the memory, are still strong, but not enough to adequately comment upon without a reread, something that in my current climate will be impossible. I do recall enough to say: By Night in Chile is a brilliant a novel as anything Bolaño has written.

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Estrella Distante (Distant Star) (1996)
Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Chris Andrews
Vintage Books, 149pp

Vintage Books continue their Roberto Bolaño series with Distant Star, a short work translated into English by Chris Andrews in 2004, and which won the prestigious Valle-Inclán Prize.

Distant Star, a short novella, not even 150 pages long, opens with an explanation by Bolaño that the story that follows is a fuller retelling of a story first recounted in Nazi Literature in America (1996), a version that would be ‘a mirror and an explosion.’ However the note is not all it seems to be, and neither is the story that follows. The story is this: an unnamed narrator is trying to reconstruct the life and works of a poet and military assassin in Pinochet’s Chile. Distant Star has the same reflexive qualities of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, but is less epic in scope than those works – and though the focus at first appears slighter because of it, Distant Star proves itself another masterpiece from Bolaño.

“Like the story of Chile itself in those years, the story of Jason Stein, who ran our poetry workshop, is larger than life.”

This explanation, given at the start of chapter four, reveals much. Bolaño is as interested in Alberto Ruiz-Tagle and Chile’s poets as he is in the nature of the country itself. Distant Star, unlike his other short novella, By Night in Chile (2000), only really hints at the crimes of Pinochet’s Chile, but their insidious nature underscores every page. There is fear and suspicion here.

I think the fascination with Bolaño’s work is that he is a South American writer unafraid of facing these issues directly: others would face them through magic realism and indulgent fantasy; Bolaño tackles things head on. He is unafraid of the fight, of apportioning blame. It is what makes Distant Star, and all of Bolaño’s work that I have read so far, so powerful and unmissable. He is the shining star of South American fiction.

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Doctor Who: Last of the Titans (2001)
Nicholas Briggs
Starring: Sylvester McCoy
Big Finish

A single half hour story, based on the Audio Visuals story Vilgreth, Last of the Titans sees The Seventh Doctor stranded on a large spacecraft, whose one other inhabitant, Vilgreth, might not be all he appears to be. Given away free with Doctor Who Monthly, which also included the first episode of the Paul McGann story, Storm Warning, and as such does not belong to the monthly releases but is a one off special without the usual production code. Last of the Titans differs slightly to usually Big Finish productions in that McCoys reads parts of the story, as if it were a short story, but other scenes, especially the dialogue between Vilgreth and The Doctor are dramatised as a play. It is somewhat disconcerting, at first, but one soon settles into it, and then it’s over. For such a short piece it packs in a few questions, such as the morality in destroying planets to power ones ship and whether scientists should experiment upon living beings…

Even for such a short piece, Big Finish’s production is superb – the ship upon which the actions takes plans creaks and groans, you can sense the grime and the dirt and the heat. You know this is a ship at the end of its days. Nicholas Briggs does a grand job of making Vilgreth a sympathetic, bumbling oaf of an alien, loveable from the start but whose true intentions soon play wonderfully against this image we’ve had of him. There is also some wonderful lines between him and the Doctor.

A minor entry in the Big Finish catalogue, Last of the Titans is nevertheless a fun diversion for half an hour.

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December (2008)
Elizabeth H. Winthrop
Sceptre, 373pp

A five hour train journey beckoned, and though I was in the middle of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, it had been a long day and night just gone and I wanted something lighter, more modern. In a Cardiff charity shop I picked up December, by Elizabeth H. Winthrop, knowing little about it – the cover quotes from The Times was all I had time to read. “This extraordinary novel seduces as it also challenges.” It might not be the something lighter I had in mind, but at least it was modern.

I read it in one breathless sitting. The Times was right. December seduced me and challenged me: it made me think, what would I do if my eleven year old daughter stopped speaking for no visible or apparent reason? It’s a soap-opera setting, seemingly designed to pull at the heart-strings: you have the Christmas setting, the marriage straining under the weight of their child’s choice, a dog that is dying: none of it should have worked, the melodrama should have overwhelmed it. Winthrop saved it. Her deftness of touch, her unencumbered language was a simple delight.

“Sometimes, the safety she’s created by her silence is more terrifying than the world from which she wanted to withdraw. The world is senseless, but it is peopled. Please, she thinks, come in, but the shadows pass on and the sound of her father’s footsteps fade down the hall.”

To have a protagonist, eleven year old Isabelle, a girl who doesn’t speak as a central character must have been difficult to realise – she cannot engage in conversation, and so everything must be described, but Winthrop inhabits Isabelle’s mind so fully, her explanations and reasons begin to make sense even as they frustrate us and her.

I have spoken high praise for this novel, which it fully deserves, but it fails, as much recent American fiction seems to do, in the neat resolution. I wonder if such decisions come more from the influence of cinema and television, which by necessity must resolve all plot lines satisfactorily – American fiction seems to have done away with loose threads. Everything is no neat, a manicured lawn, and life – especially for authors such as Winthrop whose subject is human lives – is not like that. Every character, even the minor ones, have their moment in the sun. General readers do seem to appreciate that, but as a writer I like the mess of life, to see lives still being led, to think the story continues beyond the last page and such novels – of which December is just one of thousands – they seem to end there, with life preserved in this moment of happiness and contentment. Then again, maybe I’m just a pessimist.

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The Whole Day Through (2009)
Patrick Gale
Fourth Estate, 237pp

A few years ago I read Patrick Gale’s A Sweet Obscurity (2003), very much enjoying his simple elegant style. Soon afterward I tried another but found it too slight. Not too long ago I bought a few books in my local bookstore and was offered Gale’s latest novel at half-price – why not, I thought. I finished The Whole Day Through in one sitting, which is befitting a novel that, as one can tell from the title, takes place on a single day, though its narrative moves effortlessly back and forth in time through the decades, it is to this single day in the lives of Ben and Laura, former lovers, meeting again for the first time in decades.

Gale’s fiction, as I gather, has always leant towards the emotional, dealing with soap-opera elements: The Whole Day Through is no exception. The central romance between Ben and Laura is contrasted against these issues – mental health, disability, sexuality; a tactic that leavens his narrative.

Following last year’s Richard & Judy book club choice, Notes from an Exhibition (2007) which was regarded by many as a great book: expectation was high for his follow-up, and if The Whole Day Through sees Gale treading water that is no bad thing. The Whole Day Through is a bittersweet, wry confection, but one I was happy to spend a few hours wallowing in.

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Man Gone Down (2007)
Michael Thomas
Atlantic Books, 428pp

Man Gone Down, Michael Thomas’s debut novel, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009, beating off works such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It’s story is simple: an unnamed black narrator has four days to come up with the money to pay for his kids to go to school and for the apartment for he and his family to live in; only he is broke. Some would make this story into a manic quest, full of harebrained schemes to raise the money; Thomas goes the other way. His narrator’s quest becomes a meditation on life, abandonment, family; it is the story of the American dream gone awry.

Thomas’s tale is infused with the rhythms of jazz. Its sentences spin around, electrical, effervescent. They are sentences that are knowing, Thomas wears his influences openly: he also likes to show off. So many works are referenced, and yet it never becomes wearing, it becomes simply part of the beat; our narrator is an intellectual who has turned his back on academia, he is a man who hides his true self from others to become one of them. Though its action spans just four days, the story of this man and his family spans more time and space than that: he recalls his childhood, “a social experiment”, his university life, the occasional violence, of dreams deferred and sometimes lost.

Thomas’s novel echoes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man most clearly: that work, with its also unnamed black American narrator, explored race relations in post-WW2 America. This then, I suppose, is the update; how America is now, post-Iraq, post-9/11. Nothing much, it seems, has truly changed. “There are white models of morality, rich models of morality, and enfranchised models of it, as well. Nobody wants mine, this I am sure of.”

This is a long, deep novel. It is epic in scope but also quiet; it luxuriates in detail and description: “the heaving surface of the water is what the night sky should be — moving and wild, wavering reflections of buildings on both sides, dark and bright, like thin, shimmering clouds.” The city weighs heavily, a millstone, so does time and identity. Thomas has shaped a powerful novel, maybe even an important one. He is a man that knows there is a price for being poor and black in America, that the system will do anything to keep a man down.

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