JUNE 22 2016
For perfect poolside reading I would recommend Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A new history of the world (Oxford University Press). It’s a long, eye-opening and comfortingly old-fashioned essay in “big sweep” history, telling the story of the world from an Eastern perspective, and nicely deflating Western prejudices (it’s a world in which ancient Iran is a beacon of stability and good taste, Greece by implication a small-scale trouble maker). I shall be taking a handful of Elena Ferrante’s novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend (Europa) – if only because it’s getting embarrassing to confess I haven’t read them (or worse, half-pretending that I have).
“I was given a used copy of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology out of the trunk of someone’s car back in 1994 and still haven’t read it (at the time, they hadn’t either, which made the exchange feel more like a rescue mission). What’s worse, perhaps, is the fact that I’ve lugged it around with me for two decades, read more than a dozen of Derrida’s other essays and some of his lesser-known books, and yet, still, have not cracked this one. The publication of a fortieth-anniversary edition, which includes a newly revised translation and afterword by Gayatri Spivak, has made it impossible for me to neglect it any longer.
My reading time has been subsumed by writing time of late, so summer will be all about catching up. Semiotext(e) are a publisher I always look to for an injection of distinct and challenging contemporary thought. I’m particularly keen to read Dodie Bellamy’s sharp, subversive essay collection When the Sick Rule the World, published last year, and Natasha Stagg’s slender novel of internet fame, Surveys. Summer wouldn’t be complete without a huge, immersive novel or two, and so I’ve been saving Annie Proulx’s spectacular multi-generational epic Barkskins (Fourth Estate). I’ll be pairing it with Leslie Marmon Silko’s hugely ambitious attempt at “a moral history of the Americas, told from the point of view of the conquered”, Almanac of the Dead – a novel that, despite having been published in 1992, has until recently remained inexplicably unknown to me.
Could I be more looking forward to reading Mary Gaitskill’s new book, The Mare (Vintage)? Not really. Her novel Two Girls Fat and Thin is a favourite, a satirical, painful exploration of how women create, and have created for them, their images of self. Also remarkable is her essay “Lost Cat”, and it seems as though The Mare will draw on some of that piece’s preoccupations, namely the fraught issue of caring for children across a class divide. I also have in my bag Hisham Matar’s The Return (Penguin), a memoir of the author’s journey to Libya, his first in over twenty years, after the fall of Gaddafi. Matar’s father was kidnapped when his son was nineteen, and his family never saw him again; one can only imagine how a loss that total can find its home in prose. Matar is an exceptional novelist, and I feel sure this will be a very special book.
The seventh and eighth volumes of W. H. Auden’s Complete Works (Princeton University Press) gather together all of the poet’s prose from 1963 to his death ten years later. There are essays, reviews, previously unpublished lectures, public talks and more. I’ll pounce on Edward Mendelson’s commentary for A Certain World (1970), Auden’s wonderfully eccentric commonplace book which is as close as he ever came to an autobiography. This rich horde, beautifully produced and meticulously edited, will be my bedside reading for the rest of the year and beyond. There’s one more volume to come in this monumental series – the poetry!
I also look forward to reading ¡No Pasarán! (Serpent’s Tail), a Spanish Civil War anthology edited by Pete Ayrton. With pieces from Spanish, German, French, Italian and American writers, it promises to offer a broader account of this momentous conflict than the familiar narratives of the International Brigade.
I tend to read more old books than new, perhaps waiting for the new to ripen. On a recent trip, I took a novel by Elizabeth Taylor (1912–75) as my “easy” book, for long waits and tired bedtimes. With another trip looming, I wanted another Taylor novel, and, taking no chances, I ordered eight used Virago editions from seven independent (I hoped) sellers. Taylor dependably writes with poise, intelligence, humour, and keen observations of a transitional society in which, however, one might still “exchange” one’s library book every Saturday. Her prose is to be savoured at the same time as her plots sufficiently distract one from noisy departure lounges.
This pile of novels will be good for summer, along with several small, old hardcover editions of the naturalist W. H. Hudson (1841–1922), who timelessly recounts the moves of an anxious weasel or aggressive baby cuckoo. In a more recent publication, I plan to enjoy the discoveries of Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka?: 99 finds (New Directions) – curious facts and documents turned up during Stach’s research for his much-praised biography.
To indulge my reading tastes or to extend them? This is the dilemma of the summer months, in which the overwhelming temptation is to flee the city with a rucksack of paperbacks. From the left hand side of my desk a small stack of such volumes gazes alluringly up at me, with John Keene’s Counternarratives (Fitzcarraldo Editions) at the summit. Keene is among the contemporary American writers pushing at the boundaries of fiction, his angry, exhilarating stories about race and American history another counter-example (if it were needed) to the lazy assumption that literary innovation should be confined to the ivory tower. To my right is a comparably sized pile, albeit that its stare is more accusatory. Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft (Verso) demands to be re-read, a jarring insight into a global future shaped by invisible protocols governing the spaces in which we live. Given the world into which this summer threatens to lead us, however, I might do as well to look backwards as forwards. Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939 by Volker Ullrich (translated by Jefferson Chase) looks increasingly urgent.
This summer I’m most looking forward to a poet writing on hating poetry and a psychoanalyst writing on what we do with our hands. Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is an extended essay that irreverently considers the failure of poems to celebrate their subjects as an in-built, constitutive feature of poetry itself. Lerner scrutinizes the way the “impossible demand” poetry makes of us leads to denunciations of poetry, rather than casual dismissal; I expect him to propose a fresh way to talk about what poetry does and how, and why we love (and hate) it. Darian Leader’s Hands (Hamish Hamilton) meanwhile blends psychoanalysis, art history and clinical research in order to think about something more tactile than any of those abstractions: hands and how they help us to understand the world.
I am mildly obsessed by matching my reading to my travel destinations. With a trip to Finland in the offing, I’ll be taking The Summer Book (Sort of Books) by Tove Jansson. Having missed out on the Moomins, my first acquaintance with Jansson came through an enticing collection of her short stories, translated by Thomas Teal and published as Art in Nature (also Sort of Books) – the title story is set in an open-air exhibition on the shore of a lake, where the caretaker wonders about the mysteries of art. Closer to home, and somewhat in the superstitious tradition of carrying an umbrella to keep away the showers, I’ll also be reading Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four walks in English weather (Faber). But the book I’m most looking forward to spending time with, over the summer months and far beyond, is Clive James’s Collected Poems (Picador). While poetry’s slim volumes are easily portable, this hefty collection is definitely one for settling down with at home.
In his poem “Westering Home”, from the 1999 collection Here Nor There, Bernard O’Donoghue searches his memory for where, precisely, on the journey from England through Wales to his native Cork, the landscape begins to feel Irish. It’s O’Donoghue’s ability to fluidify boundaries and unite readers in a shared humanity (“the architecture of the spirit”, as he calls it) that I’m looking forward to rediscovering this summer, with the arrival of a fresh collection of poetry, his first since 2011. The Seasons of Cullen Church is billed by Faber as a book animated by characters from childhood – that elusive land we spend the rest of our lives searching for or fleeing. Whether heading back home or away from it, the poignancy of O’Donoghue’s migratory imagination is likely to be the perfect travelling companion.
Ever since reading Lauret Savoy’s wonderful Trace: Memory, history, race, and the American landscape (Counterpoint Press), earlier this year, I’ve been thinking about our relationships with land, and the social stratiographies of wild places in particular. True, this year marks the 100th anniversary of America’s National Parks – the subject of Terry Tempest Williams’s necessary new book, The Hour of Land – but part of the urgency around the subject comes from a feeling of increased cultural alienation from place itself. It’s a trend that expresses and compounds itself linguistically: Tempest notes that the new version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary removes, among others, the words “bluebell”, “bramble”, “fungus” and “pasture”. I look forward to thinking more about what this imaginative – and actual – impoverishment might mean through Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton), which comes out in the US this August. Macfarlane can always be counted on to set a light in those places where culture, and art in particular, meets the natural world.
On this summer’s menu: “reading, three ways”. Deep Classics: Rethinking classical reception (Bloomsbury), edited by Shane Butler, gathers new work which looks to examine the fruitful clash between vast distance and immediacy in our reading of the classical past; including essays on William Beckford, J. A. Symonds, Nietzsche, Pasolini, Gilbert Murray, and Borges.
Terence Cave, in Thinking with Literature (Oxford University Press), goes inside our minds to map out a new “cognitive approach to literary studies”. I like the sound of Cave’s chapters: “The Balloon of the Mind”; “The Posture of Reading”.
Stephen Orgel is always good value. The Reader in the Book (Oxford) is a study of early modern marginalia but also – the bit I’m looking forward to – a reflection on our more recent idolization of the clean, unmarked page.
Two legendary American editors will publish memoirs in the late summer. First to arrive is Terry McDonnell’s The Accidental Life: An editor’s notes on writing and writers (Knopf). McDonnell has lately found himself in the digital realm, having cofounded the literary website LitHub, but he’s served as editor at over a dozen magazines, including Rolling Stone, Esquire and Sports Illustrated. His memoir is advertised on the strength of its wild side – McDonnell is said to have played “acid golf” with Hunter S. Thompson – but is most attractive for its hard-earned wisdom on the art of storytelling.
Even more appealing is Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Robert Caro and Doris Lessing are just a handful of the authors Gottlieb has edited, all the while contributing wonderful essays on dance to the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. The so-called glory days of publishing may have passed, but if I can scrape enough money together, I can still read about them.
Andrey Kurkov’s surreal comic epic of post-war Russia, The Bickford Fuse (translated by Boris Dralyuk; MacLehose Press), was the first novel I’d read by this well-regarded Ukrainian writer. It was simultaneously reminiscent of lots of other books and entirely unlike all of them. It made me want to read more of him, so Death and the Penguin might travel with me on holiday. I hope we go somewhere nicer than the landscape of the Bickford Fuse, though. I’ll take Ben Lerner’s intriguingly titled essay The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions), too.
Having heard the author give a presentation on the book, I’m very much looking forward to reading Lyndal Roper’s new biography of Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (Bodley Head). It sounds to be a gripping story about a complete (ok – partial) lunatic, and the older I get the more interested in the Reformation I become.
I’ve been pestering people about David Szalay ever since reading his magnificent novel, All That Man Is, and the equally brilliant Spring (both Jonathan Cape). With just two more of his books to go, perhaps I should ration myself. But I know that London and the South-East, about advertising salesmen (Szalay is particularly good on jobs – such a big part of life, so often overlooked in fiction), and The Innocent, set in Soviet Russia, won’t make it to the end of the summer unread. Otherwise, a short holiday to Iceland is the perfect excuse to revisit Auden and MacNeice’s travel book, Letters from Iceland. Byron once observed that “letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company”, and I can’t think of a better literary company than Auden’s wonderfully witty verse “fan-mail”, “A Letter to Lord Byron”, included here. Why Byron? “I decided I’d give a fright to / Jane Austen if I wrote when I’d no right to . . .”
Multitudes (Faber) is a collection of eleven short stories by Lucy Caldwell. Ranging from childhood through to adulthood, each story – I’ve already read a few – is beautifully crafted, and so finely balanced that she holds the reader right up against the tender humanity of her characters.
For the first time in a long while I’ll be allowing myself the pleasure of a little re-reading this summer. First will be Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching (Picador). It’s the story of the creation of New York told through the eyes of the legendary and visionary artists who made it what it is. Everyone from Robert Moses to Robert Mapplethorpe is there. It’s one of the best debuts I’ve read in years.
The second will probably be Anakana Schofield’s utterly brilliant Martin John (And Other Stories) which is bleakly hilarious, incredibly painful and one of the most formally exciting books around.
Kluge and Richter. Richter and Kluge. They’re back together in a newly translated book called Dispatches from Moments of Calm (Seagull Books). On October 5, 2012 the German newspaper Die Welt allowed the painter Gerhard Richter to substitute the day’s photographs of horror for his own images. The writer Alexander Kluge has now accompanied these aggressively quotidian photos with short texts. The stories are comet-like fragments that whistle through the European past and present: from the mating habits of pigeons in the cities to a medieval subject hiding from his prince in a horse’s carcass.
Living in the West, I’ve also found a lucid primer to the populist resurgence on the Continent called Was ist Populismus? by Jan-Werner Müller. It explains why and how “We are the people” has come to mean keeping other people out, and will be published in English later this year.
AMBER K. REGIS
I recently read Alexander Masters’s A Life Discarded: 148 diaries found in a skip (Fourth Estate); part biography, part commentary on the biographer’s craft, the book is an act of bricolage which pieces together a life from found fragments. I’m now determined to revisit Masters’s back catalogue. His debut, Stuart: A life backwards (HarperCollins) – a biography told in reverse, as the title suggests, tracing the life of Stuart Clive Shorter from troubled adulthood to childhood trauma – was a favourite some years ago, but I have never opened my copy of The Genius in My Basement (Fourth Estate), his biography of Simon Norton, a Cambridge mathematician. I look forward to Masters’s sensitive prose and striking illustrations, which reveal the sublime and ridiculous in the midst of mundanity.
ANNA KATHARINA SCHAFFNER
I’ll be reading Nils Büttner’s Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and nightmares (Reaktion). Marking the quincentenary of the Dutch master’s death, the publication of Büttner’s study also coincides with a major Bosch retrospective that has travelled from the painter’s birthplace in s-Hertogenbosch to the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where it will be on show until September. Like all great art, Bosch’s macabre oeuvre is steeped in ambiguity, inspiring debate as to whether his paintings are morally didactic in nature, or whether they are humorous, mad, visionary, proto-Surrealist, or even coded expressions of the doctrine of some religious cult. Büttner promises to dispel some of the more persistent myths concerning Bosch’s art, and to locate his paintings firmly within their socio-historical context.
Denis Feeney’s Beyond Greek: The beginnings of Latin literature (Harvard) manages to make strange an entire narrative of Western literature. It takes an origin myth accepted as logical, “the creation of a Roman literature on Greek models”, and through its patient, stylish, precise investigation demonstrates how in fact this was “one of the strangest and most unlikely events in Mediterranean history”, a phenomenon of pure contingency.
As for strangeness of a different kind, the Icelandic novelist Sjón has already written three elegant, troubling historical fables – a kind of surrealist world history – and in his new novel Moonstone: The boy who never was (FSG), translated by Victoria Cribb, he’s up to something at once similar and more uncanny. It tells the story of Máni Steinn, a gay man in Reykjavík in 1918. But it’s really a homage to the dreamlike aesthetic of Sjón’s artistic ancestry – presided over by Louis Feuillade’s great silent movie serial, Les Vampires.
Almost two millennia on, the catastrophic Jewish revolt against Rome (AD 66–74) remains a source of pride and trauma for Jews everywhere. Trauma, for the sack of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers and the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70; pride, above all for the heroic defence of the rock of Masada in AD 73. Yet the causes of the war remain deeply unclear. Was the Roman administration of Judaea uncharacteristically ham-fisted and insensitive? Was the revolt sparked by factional struggles within the native ruling class? Or – most controversial of all – might there have been some fundamental incompatibility between Roman and Jewish culture and religion? Steve Mason is the foremost modern interpreter of the historian Josephus, whose The Jewish War (c.75) is our main narrative source for the great revolt. Mason’s A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66–74 (Cambridge) will surely be the definitive account for our times.
I’m researching life in interwar London, so a fine antidote to the sort of living arrangement Katherine Mansfield gives out-of-work singer Ada Moss in her story “Pictures” (“her room, a Bloomsbury top-floor back, smelled of soot and face powder and the paper of fried potatoes she brought in for supper the night before”) will be Adrian Tinniswood’s The Long Weekend: Life in the English country house between the wars (Jonathan Cape). It promises rich tales of decadence, scandal and extravagant water features. And I’ve already laughed out loud several times while flicking through Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel Harmless Like You (Sceptre): she combines a wry, sardonic voice with an assured knack for comic set-pieces; I’m especially intrigued by one central character, a bald, diabetic, fashion-conscious cat named Celeste.
Not content with bringing Han Kang to the English-speaking world with her translations of The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Deborah Smith has established Tilted Axis Press, a non-profit press “on a mission to shake up contemporary literature” and committed to giving translators their full due. Their first book, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s Panty, translated by Arunava Sinha, was originally published by Penguin India in 2014, but this is the first time it will be available outside of India – it looks set to shake up our view of contemporary Calcutta. Then, I’ll turn to The Storyteller (Verso), Walter Benjamin’s first collection of fiction, including novellas, fables and riddles. The translators also provide a valuable introduction in which they note Benjamin’s concern with the severing of the “red thread of experience” after the First World War. It’s the kind of break in tradition heralded by Nanni Balestrini’s 1971 novel, We Want Everything (Verso), next on my list, about striking Italian workers, in which the author seeks a voice for the new worker, casualized, alienated and exploited.
Elizabeth David has become the first cookery writer to receive an English Heritage blue plaque, outside her house in Halsey Street, Chelsea. This seems a good summer to return to David, yet again. I’ll start with Is There a Nutmeg in the House?, a collection of essays edited by Jill Norman just reissued by Grub Street. It’s worth it just for the two-page masterclass on how to make yoghurt using “rich, creamy Jersey milk”, an old saucepan and a Thermos flask. The collection also includes David’s famous polemic against garlic presses (“I regard garlic presses as both ridiculous and pathetic”).
I keep hearing excellent things about Pride and Pudding: The history of British puddings (Murdoch Books) by Regula Ysewijn, a collection of eighty pudding recipes with history. Finally, Food Worth Fighting For: From food riots to food banks by Josh Sutton (Prospect Books) looks like a fascinating and original short book, comparing the inequities of today’s food system in Britain with the food riots of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Two books for an unpredictable English summer, one taking us to the blue- remembered hills of Victorian Shropshire, “the land of lost content”, the other to the near mystical brightness of East Sussex. Peter Parker’s much anticipated Housman Country: Into the heart of England (Little, Brown) includes an exploration of the composition – or what John Sparrow called the “morbid secretion” (comparing the process to the “pearl in the oyster”) – of the The Shropshire Lad, the pessimistic poem cycle first published in 1896 and since then never out of print. Ann Wroe’s hypnotic Six Facets of Light (Jonathan Cape), meanwhile, is a hymn to the luminous radiance of the Downs between Brighton and Eastbourne. Blending her own thoughts on light with the ways in which Eric Ravilious, William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Coleridge have recorded their observations, Wroe’s book seems likely to turn reading into reverie."TSL ( The times Literary supplement).