London Reviewers


London Review of Books, Volume 29 Number 24, 13 December 2007

Taciturnian swipes at history (Pakistan, Ireland, Australia). A biography of Stein from an author who neither likes nor understands her work, reviewed by another who shares this view.

“Frank Kermode is 88,” reads his biographical note, he reviews a book on old age by a woman of 42, it “commanded the interest”. Immediately, on the same page, Michael Wood begins, “Ridley Scott is always a director to watch,” sc. interesting.

Divisadero is reviewed, Ondaatje’s prose is picked apart, his faults examined, but the reviewer cannot understand the formal structure indicated by the title.

Andrew O’Hagan flips through Panicology, a work of statistical comfort. A boon companion of sorts is Edward Burra the painter, a new book about him has no paintings but his witty mind and perfect eye are conveyed in the review anyway.

A music teacher at King’s College London drones on about a droning book on Italian opera and stops in mid-sentence. Góngora is “demystified” in plain bare English. A color reproduction of Joan Eardley’s Catterline in Winter at the National Gallery of Scotland deprives Peter Campbell of useful commentary. Hapless scholars resurrect Edmund Curll and do not get his jokes, the reviewer explains.

Volume 30 Number 1, 3 January 2008

Alan Bennett will not take Bath lying down, he’s had enough of “its architectural atrocities, the money-grubbing councillors who sanctioned it, the mediocre architects who did their bidding, winkled out from their wisteria-covered vicarages for proper retribution. Many of them are of course dead but like Cromwell they could be disinterred and their remains stowed under some sort of monument in the centre of this coming mall,” the latest outrage he deplores, “a reminder of the crime they have committed.” He notes in his diary on the occasion of Blair’s departure “that to Blair the real importance of his premiership is as a stage in his spiritual journey,” and this is published coincidentally at the very time when the cwazy wabbit makes a pilgrimage to Rome and turns papist.

An article describing the bank run on Northern Rock and the sub-prime fiasco explains, “the contemporary derivative is likely to involve a mix of options and futures and currencies and debt, structured and priced in ways that are the closest real-life thing to rocket science.”

A nineteenth-century novel from the Portuguese gets compared in two translations, neither very satisfactory.

Ten thousand letters from Henry James are being published in Nebraska, interesting bits are culled, expatiation of theory enlaces them.

Picasso is biographed for the chronology to be extracted from remaindered copies, like Buckle’s Diaghilev.

The editor of Studies in Medievalism writes, “Norse myths are probably more familiar than classical ones in the modern world, perhaps even more familiar than the Old Testament stories Europeans were once brought up on.”

Condoleeza Rice wrote her master’s thesis on Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin, according to a biography written by a New York Times reporter. Gordon Brown wrote a biography of James Maxton “which was based on his Edinburgh PhD” brought up to compare the two Labourites thusly, “Compare the characters of Maxton and Brown, and distinctly different men emerge, but successful as Brown has been, he, too, now seems to be lacking what Taylor said Maxton lacked: the gift of knowing how to succeed.”

Goldwater’s campaign speeches have been reprinted, “his anti-democratic sentiments were as much an expression of realpolitik as a resuscitation of Aristotle and his 18th-century Anglo-American heirs.”

A novel is stretched like nerves until it snaps flaccidly and is put away, likewise a long poem in terza rima on Nigeria. A DJ writes of Joy Division and the suicide of its vocalist. “Curtis was cremated and there’s a memorial to him in Macclesfield cemetery. The stones there are grouped roughly chronologically, with room for only the barest details, some of them tended, many not. Curtis’s memorial stone is unassuming, easy to miss. There’s no birth date on the stone, though the date of his death is recorded, along with the words ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. There were a few flowers, sprigs of this and that, and a couple of badges. There was also a key, but nothing to unlock, and someone had thoughtfully placed a shoebox-sized Tupperware container close by. In it were thirty or forty cards, notes, photos and letters; some of the cards dated back to July (his birthday), and some to last Easter. Sarah from Manchester had written some words by Blake (‘The Ruins of Time builds Mansions in Eternity’); others thanked Curtis for his inspiration; some promised he’d never be forgotten.

“It was quiet, and the clouds shifted; the wind blew fallen leaves across the stones and pathways. The cemetery still feels undiscovered, a shared secret. And perhaps because it’s so unassuming, it has more force than more famous rock-star graves, like Jim Morrison’s at Pčre Lachaise. Having flicked through some of the messages, I pulled back from looking at the rest. I replaced the lid, and it closed with a double click.”

Afghan Diary 19 June—12 September by “a reporter for the BBC and the Discovery Channel” contains this vivid description, “I could hear the bullets breaking the sound barrier above our heads and remembered the instructor on the BBC Hostile Environments course saying that if you can hear that sound, you are too close.”

Seventeen members of China’s terracotta army are at the British Museum, and “the short, catastrophic history of the Company of Scotland, which took a nation’s money to found a colony on the Panama isthmus in 1698 and ended flat bust in 1701,” is reviewed by the author of Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland.

Volume 30 Number 2, 24 January 2008

The paraliterary is sounding brass, tinkling cymbals.

Eliot Weinberger dissects a recent translation of the Psalms, it seems to him self-evident, a paltry psaltery. Sufficient examples prove this from the text, he adduces mountains of inspiration from scholars and poets, crowns his essay with the Jerusalem Bible, and then overbids. “The anonymous Jerusalem Bible translators, who make no claim for poetry, have inadvertently written a Beat poem—by Allen Ginsberg or Anne Waldman or Michael McClure”.

Peter Campbell writes of still lifes at the National Gallery as though he were being offered plates of fruit, with metaphysical speculations attached in the form of an appendix.

Whatever the opposite of belles-lettres is.

Volume 30 Number 3, 7 February 2008

The Review is not without art, the single solitary line that proves the author in question is mad (Woody Allen does this in Match Point with a few bars of The Woman in White). It’s best read on a bus providing rhythm and motion and destination, leaving you to enjoy the tickle and coo of literary journalism en passant, as it were, or possibly in the wrong sort of pub rather than bed or den or library where you writhe. In the throng it’s a private entertainment just for you, silly as you are.

And here come authors this time, really, W.H. Auden and with him Louis MacNeice. And so, we get the converse, a scrap of Auden’s prose worth much the entire business, a line of MacNeice, ”There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.”

A Birkbeck Lecture on the reign of Bloody Mary confutes the allegation that she was remiss in the execution of her duties as a Catholic sovereign, citing among many sources an exile in Strasbourg to his London parish, “whyche not in persecution but before persecution cometh do goe backe,” Churchill’s loss without venture.

In years past, LRB queried its readers after a fashion, would they really favor an Eliot Middle Ages? In any event, one would rather read The Criterion. The matter is quite different in New York, hirelings of the NYRB stroll with an author down the avenue, elegantly pointing out his qualities with the keen blade of a walking-stick that leaves a tattered mess on the sidewalk and a quivering residue, unless it’s politics, in which case he’s beaten within an inch of his life.