Literary Review: Vladmir Nabokov, George Herbert, Fiona Maazel, Colin Barrett, Alain Badiou, Marie Chaix

Posted December 2, 2013 in Arts and Culture, Print

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Collected Poems
Vladimir Nabokov
[Penguin Classics]

Here’s something indispensable: a Collected Poems that redresses the recent lack of Nabokov’s verse in English circulation. It’s a shame, though, that the lyrics themselves are so conventional. This is fettered verse from the man widely held to have inaugurated the open form in American fiction. The poems are full of moonlight, ‘violet-blue noon’, and ‘sandy bliss’ – poetic shorthand and tonal poetastery.

In their slightness, Nabokov is exposed. But this touches me, rather than makes me flinch. ‘Space is collapsible,’ he writes: the crude addresses, along with the bleating rhymes, are stirringly mortal as attempts to stop us falling in on ourselves. There is something frightening about speakers who exist, in tired stanzas, by the frailty of their own cloying insistence, as will-o’-the-wisps. The levity wobbles like the ‘one-legged child’ in ‘Dream’ hopping after a bloody bone. Elsewhere, a Pnin-like professor, hollowed by ennui, explains to an American audience that the ‘limp iambus’ of Russian prosody sounds like its own warbling shadow. Where the poems are mawkish, their spiritual listlessness is convincing; while they are démodé, they are also somehow Baudelairean.

Because Nabokov was so interested in memory, trace, evidence, any critical enterprise undertaken in his name seems foreshadowed in his work. It’s difficult to read these poems and not think of John Shade’s suffocating cantos in Pale Fire, to which Charles Kinbote’s annotations offer a gorgeous, but chaotic, corrective. This collection’s editor, Thomas Karshan, is un-Kinbotean: his introductory essay is nimble, his editorial procedure scrupulous. In noting first publication details and semantic variations, in pausing over whether Nabokov’s dating of his early poems corresponds to the pre-revolutionary Julian or post-revolutionary Gregorian calendar, and in leading us from interbellum émigré Berlin to the din of the 1950s New Yorker, Karshan ensures we remain sensitive not only to Nabokov’s lived history but also to the capriciousness of the twentieth-century. By dint of his scholarship, these poems are helped to breathe. In them, Nabokov deepens for us.

– Joanne O’Leary

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Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert
John Drury
[Allen Lane]

George Herbert (1593-1633) has a convincing claim to what is admittedly a seldom contested title – that of best devotional poet in English. Largely unpublished in his own lifetime, and dead before the outbreak of civil war, the sometime Anglican cleric had a serenity of mind that was rare among the major poets of 17th-century England. He could speak to his God fitfully and wittily, could fret his lines with a lean and punchy music, yet still retain what Empson called ‘a reliable and unassuming grandeur’. Indeed, this radiant sense of personality – epitomised in poems like ‘The Collar’, ‘Jordan (I)/(II)’, and ‘Love (III)’ – led W.H. Auden to wish dearly that he might have known Herbert for a friend.

It is a pleasure, then, to encounter Herbert the man through John Drury’s richly accessible study, Music at Midnight. With great warmth and clarity of judgment, Drury brings us into intimate communion with his subject, variously enhancing what he calls ‘the chamber music of [Herbert’s] individual voice’. Poems under discussion are printed in full, and many etchings, maps, and letters accrete beautifully throughout. Himself a cleric, Drury speaks with equal authority on the slip-ups of Jacobean power play, the dynamics of country parsonage, and – most captivatingly – the runny ink of Herbert’s own manuscript revisions.

The flexible structure of the biography allows the poems to weave gracefully and suggestively into the life of their maker. Herbert’s ambivalence toward poetic ornament, for instance (‘Who says that fictions only and false hair / Become a verse?’), is given greater nuance when one learns of the extravagant, Ciceronian flourishes he was required to discharge for kings and courtiers as University Orator at Cambridge. Indeed, such sketches of the secular, petitionary Herbert do well to qualify the more abiding image of his three peaceful years as rector at Bemerton, near Salisbury. His life and times were certainly not as cacophonous or compelling as those of Milton and Marvell, but as John Drury so masterfully shows, Herbert was a miracle of a poet.

– Conor Leahy

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Woke Up Lonely
Fiona Maazel
[Graywolf Press]

I don’t know how many layers of irony Fiona Maazel intends by her second novel, Woke Up Lonely. I am too worn-out to tell. I hope it’s loads. Otherwise this is an indefensible piece of work. In its bid to map the whole of ‘American loneliness’, the book lights out for the Flannery O’Connor territory of huckster prophets consoling the gullible. But the book does so by lifting verbatim from Jonathan Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. The book does so by very slowly assembling the metaphor of representative Americans (white middle-class heterosexuals) held hostage by a cult leader. The book does so in a style that lacks the confidence to believe in its own tricks. The book does not work.

It is not a problem for a novel to have a lot of speaking characters. But it is a problem for a novel to queue its characters up, one after the other, to deliver same-key hand-wringing pain arias (‘Time heals all wounds. Ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha’). Plot-wise the tempo is flat-footed. Suspense exits halfway through. It is like watching a guitarist embark on a solo only to run out of notes, wandering doomed through upper-register triads, clueless about to how to resolve. Perhaps Fiona Maazel’s real fault doesn’t lie in her execution, though. Perhaps it lies in her choice of theme. Perhaps, after Girls, Chuck Palahniuk and even Young the fucking Giant, this furnished-houses-unfurnished-lives thing just isn’t that interesting anymore.

– Tim Smyth

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Young Skins
Colin Barrett
[Stinging Fly Press]

Colin Barrett opens his debut collection of stories by acknowledging the reader’s familiarity with its territory. ‘My town is nowhere you have been,’ he says, ‘but you know its ilk.’ And indeed we do. Like Kevin Barry’s There Are Little Kingdoms before it, Young Skins takes place within a fictional paradigm of small-town Ireland whose idiom is universal: misspent youth, sexual frustration, bursts of violence, depression, alcohol, minor drug-dealing, pool-playing, dead-end jobs, and driving. Many in the collection’s large cast of secondary characters seem mere ciphers for a generalized notion of youth culture. Shots are sunk, pints are downed, weed is smoked. A girl chants ‘let’s get this party started’. At times the typical seems merely banal.

Still, Barrett’s natural flair for language should not be discounted. The highlight of the collection, ‘Stand Your Skin’, combines a series of intuitive descriptions with a well-drawn sense of pathos for Bat, the long-haired, disfigured stoic who is surely Barrett’s most singular character. In describing a daddy-long-legs in a petrol station toilet, a kebab shop’s ‘flayed loaves of chicken and pork’, or a man holding ‘a plastic shopping bag with what appeared to be a bunch of other plastic bags folded up inside it’, Barrett demonstrates an ability to transcend familiarity and create moments of uncanny recognition instead.

– Jamie Leptien

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Alain Badiou
[Polity Press]

You might be forgiven for thinking a book as grandly named as Cinema would contain some comprehensive or totalising film theory by its author and subject, Alain Badiou. It does not. What it contains instead is an impressively thorough collection of Badiou’s writing on cinema, alongside several interviews and discussions with the man himself. Badiou has been a philosopher, a radical and a lecturer for over half a century. His career extends long enough for his writings on cinema, alternatively peripheral and central to his academic and political interests, to constitute an imposing body of work, however internally varied and inconsistent. Yet Cinema‘s major weakness, to those unacquainted with the history of Badiou’s thought at least, lies in this very inconsistency. Silently the text bears witness to great, sometimes jarring, leaps in its author’s critical and methodological approach.

Don’t worry, though: the inevitable essay by a public intellectual on The Matrix is here in full. Aside from that, ‘Thinking the Emergence of the Event’, a 1998 interview with Cahiers du cinéma, and ‘Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation’, a transcription of a 2003 seminar in Buenos Aires, are the book’s standout chapters. Examining the interstices between the thought of Badiou and Gilles Deleuze, each discussion considers the profound contention that cinema ‘thinks with images’. Following Deleuze, Badiou distinguishes between concepts (the stuff of philosophy) and cinema-thought (Badiou’s term for what Deleuze refers to as ‘movement-images’ and ‘time-images’), and demonstrates cinema’s potential, unique to itself, for transforming the very work of philosophy. Would that all glitches in the Matrix were as illuminating as this.

– Oisín Murphy-Hall

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The Summer of the Elder Tree
Marie Chaix
[Dalkey Archive Press]

Marie Chaix stopped writing when her editor, Alain Oulman, died unexpectedly in March 1990. His death backed her ‘against a wall’. It constituted yet another abandonment in a life that now seemed defined by them. Only this time it was worse. She couldn’t mourn without writing and she couldn’t write without Oulman. The once-prolific author published nothing until, in 2005, this short memoir of abandonments appeared at last. L’Été du sureau was an attempt to work through her writer’s block, to force the work of mourning. She has written nothing since, but the text is its own reward, its variously contemplative and aphoristic prose accumulating to form ‘a compendium of phantom books never finished’. The translation is a travesty. It makes a full-phantom of its referent. Chaix’s prose is altered to include an outburst of disorienting commas and inelegant gerunds (‘their being islands’, ‘their evoking a journey’). New clauses come clunking in from nowhere. At one point, ‘l’héritage pesait lourd mais les passeuses étaient légères’ becomes ‘the legacy was heavy but the women who did the passing on had a light touch’. The Summer of the Elder Tree makes heavy work indeed. Still, despite its obvious failings, the translation is the much richer text. In ‘abandoning’ style, and sometimes meaning, it realises the concerns of the original. Infidelity, it turns out, is just a more profound way of being faithful. Or so I expect the translator tells his wife, the once-prolific author Marie Chaix.

–  Kevin Breathnach


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