Libra by Don DeLillo, published in 1988, is an imaginative reconstruction of events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963.
It might seem unlikely, but one of the first things that came to mind whilst reading Libra, was VAR, the Video Assistant Referee, which was supposed to take the controversy and doubt out of refereeing decisions in football. Did it? No. Instead the controversies just concentrated themselves on ever more subtle distinctions. And there isn’t really time for forensic analysis of video footage in the middle of a game of football, which after all is what people have paid to see. A recurring thread in Libra involves a CIA historian sitting in a room with vast amounts of mounting evidence. The assassination of President Kennedy is like a deadly serious and endlessly complex VAR controversy. Time moves on rather than freezing itself on one moment, leaving the historian gathering more and more information, not getting any nearer a conclusion, the conclusion becoming of academic interest only, as the events under study slip into the past.
Libra reads like an arty thriller, and it works well like that. But there is a lot to think about with this book. It is very relevant to contemporary concerns regarding conspiracy in its various forms – from the self-centred idea that certain people claim to see truth hidden to normal people, to that vague feeling of life itself seemingly pushing you in a certain direction through coincidence and unlikely twists of fate – which is where the somewhat ironic reference to astrology in the title comes in.
Anyway I will leave my evidence there. Gathering more won’t make the picture clearer. I have to make a call and not interrupt the run of play – so, yes, a compelling, interesting book, exploring typically modern dilemmas.
To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, is Virginia Woolf’s partly autobiographical novel about the Ramsay family, who stay with various guests at their holiday home on the Isle of Skye one summer in the early twentieth century.
In many ways this book is difficult to classify as a novel. There’s no story as such. The first section describes a day of hanging about the Ramsay’s residence. The holiday group combines highbrow, sometimes extremely annoying men, eight lively Ramsay children, the maternal Mrs Ramsey, a young girl about to marry, and a frustrated woman with artistic ambitions, who has been told by one of the male guests that women can’t paint, or write. A boat trip to a nearby lighthouse is tentatively planned but abandoned because the weather is unsuitable. The second section, following family loss, is a description of the deserted holiday home slowly falling apart. And in the third section, surviving members of the original party make a nostalgic return after ten years, Mr Ramsay and two of his now adolescent children, finally taking a boat trip to the lighthouse. That’s it.
Mrs Ramsay’s youngest boy, James, likes to cut pictures out of catalogues. To keep James occupied for as long as possible, his mother tries to find him pictures of items such as rakes, which require plenty of time-consuming trimming around prongs. The adult men, who are university professors and the like, are grown-up versions of young James, cutting things out from experience to study. In contrast there is an approach more associated with women in the book. For them, experience is best understood in terms of how things work together rather than in isolation. There’s one scene describing a trout in a river. Take the trout out of the river and it won’t be a trout for long. The trout’s essential troutness is best understood as part of the river.
There is some amazing descriptive writing. My favourite part of the book was the second section where the abandoned house is slowly deteriorating. It’s haunting, almost post-apocalyptic. So much goes on that doesn’t involve people at all, great tracts of time and events. People see only a tiny piece, and maybe, in the end, that tiny piece is best considered as part of something bigger.
Once Upon a Tome, published in 2022, is the memoir of rare bookseller, Oliver Darkshire, telling the story of his apprenticeship at Sotheran’s antiquarian bookshop in Sackville Street, London.
This is a charming and funny book, with a quick, unexpected stab of extremely moving right at the end. There are plenty of colourful characters encountered in the surprisingly varied life of a bookseller. If you think it’s just about working in an old shop you’d be wrong. There are adventurous journeys to libraries in crumbling mansions, book conferences in York, storage cellars in Kings Cross, as well as trips to other rare bookshops to return borrowed hat stands.
Once Upon a Tome has a lot to say about all kinds of things, the enigma of value, health and safety in the ancient work place, the ironies of ownership, guords. There’s rare book jargon, and assessment of various species of collector – the omnivorous Smaugs and the focused Draculas. Out of this witty, wry, droll collection of observations, one in particular really said something to me about books. I don’t mean books that cost thousands of pounds, which are way beyond my budget – I mean all books, including the books I borrow from Kent eLibrary, a type of book that has no physical existence at all, and can never find a place on Sotheran’s shelves. This observation involved Oliver’s cautious reveal to his new colleagues that he was gay.
“If a place is aesthetically stuck in the 1800s the people who work there might be too.”
But when Oliver drops a gendered pronoun regarding his partner into conversation, he gets no reaction. There’s nothing, no drama. The only difference is that bookseller James seems to put more authors like Oscar Wilde and Christopher Isherwood in Oliver’s cataloguing, as if making a point about the book world. Wide reading tends to promote tolerance and acceptance, opening a reader to different points of view and experience. A book shop as old at Sotheran’s may be a bit backward looking, suspicious of computers, dusty, prone to mould, but it is a naturally tolerant environment. Of course there have been intolerant books, dark books, books that are now an embarrassment. An antiquarian bookshop could well have examples of those. But Oliver suggests we can learn from any book. A nazi might burn books, but Sotheran’s would not burn a copy of Mein Kampf. The shop would seek to place it, say, with an institutional buyer interested in the context of such a work. And none of this means that the shop would fail to show the door to any aggressive bigot who goose steps over the threshold. You see the difference? Book burners don’t usually read widely. People who read don’t often burn books.
As someone who loves books, this was one of my favourite observations in a book of excellent book-centric observations.
Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969, is Kurt Vonnegut’s partially autobiographical novel about an American soldier who, as a prisoner of war, witnesses the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. The experience is so traumatic that he becomes untethered to normal life. He drifts about in time and space, to the extent of occasionally finding himself on the alien planet of Tralfamadore, where he is an exhibit in a zoo. The Tralfamadorians have no concept of linear time, which means our soldier fits in quite well on their planet. I suppose in some ways you could view all this as a depiction of post traumatic stress. And of course from the point of view of fancy physics, time is a relative rather than an absolute thing going predictably in one direction. So maybe the soldier’s delusions have a truth in them.
In many ways this is a harsh book about the most extreme and horrific of experiences. I wondered how I was going to do anything as mundane as review it. But it’s also a book about ordinary experience, optometrists’ conferences in the 1960s for example. The extreme and the mundane, as seemingly different as past and future, float around together. Unbelievably it’s also funny at times, which adds another contrast to the free-floating mix.
Reading Slaughterhouse Five caused me to recall a time in early 1990 when I had to have a fairly major operation. The aftermath was initially incredibly painful, followed by a longer period of grinding discomfort as the nurses slowly hauled me back to health. The initial diagnosis – later modified – was not good and I was labouring under the shock of that news. There was one moment which is vivid in my memory. I was in bed connected up to lines, attached to bruised little points in the back of my hands and abdomen, restrained it seemed by delicate chains which I had to be careful not to break. I felt weak and ill and wondered if I would ever get better. At that moment there was a sudden realisation that this time was already over, and I was looking back at it from another situation, and another place. In the blink of an eye, I would be somewhere else.
I recalled that moment very powerfully reading Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe in its own small way, my moment in hospital was impactful enough to shake me out of things.
Bizarre as Slaughterhouse Five seems to be, it did make sense to me. It was reassuring in a way. I really enjoyed it.
Super-Infinite is Katherine Rundell’s biography of the poet John Donne, published in 2022. Unexpectedly, for the biography of a late sixteenth, early seventeenth century poet, the book became a Sunday Times top ten bestseller.
I first read John Donne at school. Apparently, he was a ‘metaphysical poet’. I didn’t really know what metaphysical meant – guessing it was something about being above and beyond the boring physical realm in which my classroom was situated.
Reading Super-Infinite I got a better sense of why a poet in Donne’s lifetime would want to be metaphysical – it might have something to do with the fact that his physical world was so relentlessly horrible. An arbitrary, ferociously cruel justice system, no antibiotics, no contraception, no dentistry. Alongside endless physical pain came constant mental torment resulting from the frequent death of children. If I lived in that world, I too would aspire to the metaphysical.
However, mercifully distant though Donne’s life might seem, part of the book’s interest for me lay in its description of changes that formed the foundations of the world we live in today. For example, prior to the sixteenth century, people did not tend to identify themselves in terms of their nationality, but in terms of locality, dynasty or, most importantly, religion. Then, in the 1530s, Henry the Eighth broke free from the Catholic Church, to create the Church of England. Nationality was beginning to muscle in on religious identity. Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Lord Burghley commissioned the first reliable maps of the British Isles, the Saxton Atlas of 1579, when Donne was a child. Now there was a picture of a country, with which proud citizens could more easily associate themselves. After living most of his life as a Catholic, seeing his identity in religious terms, Donne converted to Protestantism and spent his last years as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, a zealous representative of a national church.
Super-Infinite sometimes has an overblown tone, with odd turns of phrase. Donne’s poetry is described as offering a joy so violent that it ‘kicks the metal out of your knees’ for example. But the style is accessible, brings Donne’s frequently appalling world to life, and offers some insights into the poems. As I say, the thing I found most interesting was the way the book revealed the foundations of our present situation. Maybe that is why a book about a sixteenth/seventeenth century poet has been a surprise hit. I have to admit that Donne is still not my favourite poet. All his heated religious imagery doesn’t suit me. I prefer his contemporary – the cooler, more secular Shakespeare. Nevertheless, I feel that after reading this book, Donne’s work makes more sense than it did in a dingy classroom at school
I will get to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in a moment. By way of introduction, I’ll return to one of my most vivid memories of university – my Shakespeare tutor telling me that the great man wasn’t actually saying anything. There was no point, no position, no argument, that didn’t have its black and white expertly shaded away to grey. At the time, of course, there were many who saw life in more straightforward terms. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, busy pouring scorn on compromise and consensus. At the other end of the scale, there was the student who knocked on my door one evening, inviting me to stand up to Thatcher by joining the miners on frankly hazardous 1980s picket lines. I might have annoyed my caller by pointing out possible pernickety complications. On the one hand you had all those people losing their jobs, their lives upended, wider ripples devastating whole communities that relied indirectly on the mines for their livelihood. On the other hand, there was the beginning of a shift away from coal, Michael Heseltine appearing on the news to describe his efforts to find new markets for British coal, running up against the fact that those markets were shrinking. Anyway, not knowing what the answer was, it seemed unlikely that I would have been much good to the miners, especially in the police baton charges.
I might have had David Bowie playing in my room as I worked on essays, maybe listening to All the Young Dudes, where the singer gives up on that ‘revolution stuff’ because it has too many snags.
These memories of studying English at Warwick University in the 1980s, came back to me whilst reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The debut novel of Carsen McCullers, set in the American south, was a huge success when it first appeared in 1940, and has remained highly regarded ever since. The central character is a deaf-mute called Singer, a calm, generous man, who after losing a long term deaf-mute friend to mental illness, becomes a confidante of a number of people who live in his small town. The kindly owner of an all-night cafe, an embittered labour agitator, an adolescent girl with a talent for music but no money to develop it, and a doctor, with a burning sense of injustice at the treatment of black people – they all come to Mr Singer and unburden themselves. This group are on the receiving end of an iniquitous society. They are poor, suffer cruel discrimination, or both. They make efforts to improve their situation, and in some cases argue bitterly about how this should be done. There are snags at every turn.
Mr Singer, as a mute, becomes a kind of blank canvas on which frustrated people paint any picture they like. He seems to agree with those who want social change achieved gradually. He appears to support those who argue for much more direct action. He is understanding of those who are more interested in music than saving society. He is sympathetic towards the desire to direct kindness in a small, but real way to people who come into a late-night cafe. All the while, Singer remains a silent friend to everyone. In this sense, Singer actually reminded me of the Shakespeare I read at Warwick.
Maybe Singer says nothing, but his name suggests that he not only has a voice, he has a melodious voice, maybe even capable of singing a massive, crossover hit, enjoyed by dudes young, old, radical, easy going and anything in-between. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a fascinating, funny, moving, sometimes shocking book, exploring writing and its relationship with people’s endless struggle to improve their lives. You might say it belongs to that category of a book which offers friendship to any reader.
Herzog by Saul Bellow, published in 1964, tells the story of an academic enduring a mid-life crisis. Moses Herzog has just gone through his second divorce, and is having a lot of trouble – poor chap – with his latest book on romanticism. We follow him for five days as he tries to go on holiday, has a date with a very pleasant woman called Ramona, worries about how wife number two, Madeline, is looking after their daughter, crashes his car, gets into trouble with the Chicago police, and visits his run down house in rural Massachusetts. Through all of this he reflects on his life, while exploring his concerns via imaginary letters written to many different people – friends past and present, or famous figures both living and dead.
This is not a book driven by plot. It can be quite tricky to follow, with past and present floating in and out, and abrupt changes between first and third person. It’s a book where the real interest lies in the ideas.
You will have to be the sort of reader who enjoys ideas if you are to enjoy Herzog. The same, I fear is true of reviews of the book. Fair warning if you are to read on.
Assuming you’re still with me, if Herzog is a book of ideas, a central one involves the way a situation of similarity can also show dramatic differences. For example, Herzog, who spends his days thinking fancy thoughts about Kierkegaard and Hegel, is also the same man who has to deal with house maintenance, bodily functions, and matrimonial strife. Herzog plays a game with his daughter, June, where they imagine an odd association for people who are the most of anything – the weakest strong man, and the strongest weak man, the stupidest wiseman, and the wisest blockhead. In his letters, Herzog mentions, amongst other things, Schrödinger’s thoughts on life’s struggle to maintain a fragile identity in the face of entropy, which always tends to decay into a uniform ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’. The book spends a lot of time describing a kind of thermodynamic equilibrium where friends can be enemies, clever people can be idiots, and good ideas can be pretentious nonsense. At the end of the book Herzog rediscovers his own equilibrium, pottering around his dilapidated house. But remembering Schrödinger, individual identity remains a basically unstable thing. Meanwhile, equilibrium also remains an unstable thing, because life is always trying to get away from it and maintain a separate, unequal, identity.
Herzog is an intellectual book, which is also earthy and emotional. It suggests the promise of underlying unity in a divided world, while also portraying divisions as a defining aspect of life. The achievement of the novel lies in the way it is big enough to encompass so many opposites, leaving their identities alone, while still bringing them together into a whole. The book could even include an accommodation of those who write admiring reviews, and others who might issue one star.
All contemporary categories of writing are descended from an original, single category of book which existed when the printing press was invented around 1440 – the Bible, or books about the Bible. In 1440, very few people could read, and books were prohibitively expensive. The word author – derived from the word authority – is very much a hang over from the time when ‘divinity’ was, in effect, literature’s only genre. The ultimate author was considered the writer of the Bible, which reached people almost entirely through the authority of the Church.
One of the great social schisms of Western culture occurred in the sixteenth century, when improved printing presses, and some increase in literacy, allowed people to start reading the Bible for themselves. This widening readership was actually the beginning of a shift away from the idea that one book was relevant to everyone. Individual viewpoints started to become more important.
Centuries continued to pass, literacy rates crept up, and advancing printing technology made headway in reducing book prices. Academic Jeremiah Dittmar estimates that by 1700, there were around eighty basic varieties of book serving an enlarged, but still modest, book market, where divinity continued to account for half of all sales. Through the next three hundred years, the rate of change gathered pace, so that today, literacy is almost universal, and digital publication offers reduced book prices, and an opportunity for anyone to publish their work. As a result, genre varieties have exploded. The current situation in publishing is a mirror image of what it once was in 1440. Whereas in the fifteenth century everyone shared the same book, in the twenty first century it’s almost as though everyone can have their own book, unique to their own part of life. The bewildering variety of genres reflects the fact that today almost everyone is a potential reader, all these different people with varied tastes, interests and experiences, looking for books in which they see themselves.
And yet, perhaps there are new difficulties in the way culture has become fragmented, with people tending to live in their own bubbles. You might say that Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, published in 2021, is about this situation.
The book sets up a kind of Notting Hill scenario where a famous celebrity writer called Alice starts a relationship with an ‘ordinary’ man, not a bookshop owner in this case, but a warehouse worker called Felix. Felix would not read Alice’s books. In fact he doesn’t seem to read at all. The first chapter describes Alice and Felix going on a very awkward date, where they seem not so much different people, as representatives of different species. There cannot possibly be books appealing to both of them. And yet, as time goes by, we begin to see common ground emerging. For example, they share problems with mental health. Alice’s difficulty is described in expressive terms of anger and not coping. Meanwhile, Felix gives a manly account of “a few months where I was seriously not bothered about it – getting up and going to work and all that”. But you feel these two experiences are essentially similar. This forms the basis for a relationship between Alice and Felix.
The book continues from there, tending to dissolve categories of identity in favour of what people share. One particularly interesting example of this occurs in the back and forth of emails between Alice and her friend Eileen. They discuss something called the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which occurred between 1200 and 1150BC – cities in the eastern Mediterranean were destroyed or abandoned, advanced writing systems disappeared and trade systems fell apart. Now I know that people chit chatting about the Bronze Age via email might seem unlikely, and could represent a shoehorning of ideas into the book in a rather forced way. But apart from the conversation actually being fitting for the characters, I did think a historical crisis of 1200BC had a peculiar resonance for our present situation. One theory explaining what happened suggests that at a certain point, social complexity and specialisation go beyond what is sustainable, followed by disintegration, loss of cultural identity, and recovery at a simpler level. This is called general systems collapse. The suggestion is that our present society is also vulnerable to such crisis. Beautiful World, Where Are You is a general systems collapse all of its own, where following a period of painful turbulence, characters’ complex lives become simpler, their situations less separate and isolated.
In this sense I found the book very interesting and timely. Yes, it did sometimes make me feel like a warehouse worker out on a date with the wrong person. The last third – long, blocky, sparsely punctuated paragraphs of emotional arguments and self analysis – did occasionally have me yearning for the sanctuary of a warehouse staff room, offering a strong mug of builders’ tea. Nevertheless I put down my builders’ tea and kept on reading. Was this a book for everyone? Well, no. Absolutely not. It wasn’t a book for me in some ways. But it did look beyond contemporary divisions, complexity, break down and chaos, to something that might be more humane and peaceful. You could say that even if a book for everyone is no longer possible, this was at least a suggestion of a book for everyone; and that, I would say, constitutes something of a landmark.
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
(Somerset Maugham’s retelling of an ancient Mesopotamian folk tale, reproduced at the beginning of Appointment in Samarra.)
Appointment in Samarra is a 1934 novel by American writer John O’Hara. It tells the story of Julian English, the owner of a car dealership in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. At a Christmas party he impulsively throws a drink in the face of an influential and garrulous local businessman. From there, over the few days of the Christmas holidays, Julian’s life falls apart. He makes attempts to reverse the awful momentum of events, but disaster seems inescapable.
Julian’s life in Gibbsville is inevitable in its course. By the time a young man reaches his junior year in college, his station in the town’s social life is fixed. And yet a suffocatingly orderly community is also riven by organised crime and corruption. Actually the words ‘organised crime’ sum up a place that combines stultifying regularity with criminal irregularity.
Julian commits a ‘crime’ in this town where crime is an accepted part of local administration. Throwing a drink at a pompous man who loves the sound of his own voice is one of those acts which, while not illegal, catches the general imagination as a ‘bad thing’. It is perhaps all the worse for occupying an unsettling and un-legislated grey area. Many ‘scandals’ occupy this twilight zone, somewhere between proper behaviour and outright law breaking.
Julian’s life starts to rapidly unravel. He is resentful that a relatively minor infraction threatens to ruin him, when Gibbsville sees much worse as part of its normal routine. In his frustration, he does a few more impulsive, stupid things which, in the terms of Maugham‘s opening epigraph, push him further and further along the road from Baghdad to Samarra. Julian’s story combines a sense of gathering chaos with remorseless inevitability, a kind of organised crime in itself.
This compelling story is told in a generally straightforward style, with an emphasis on realistic dialogue. There is some chopping and changing of point of view – head hopping as it’s called these days. That didn’t used to be such an issue as it is now, but for me it did stop the story being quite as compelling as it might have been. I leave you to judge whether that is a crime or a minor breaking of a writing rule, when writing rules are always murky.
The story felt contemporary, both in its frank writing style and its preoccupations. Our social media dominated society is riven by doubts and inconsistencies regarding standards of behaviour. Appointment in Samarra is interesting as an early exploration of this difficult landscape.
In John Dos Passos’ book Manhattan Transfer, published in 1925, there’s a scene where a man, walking down a street in New York, sees an advert for razors. I’m going to have a quick look at the way words are used in the advert. If you’re wondering why you might want to read on, I would make the bold claim that this bit of literary analysis might save you money, and help the environment.
So here we are in late nineteenth century New York City, as described by John Dos Passos:
At a yellow painted drugstore at the corner of Canal, he stopped and stared abstractly at a face on a green advertising card. It was a highbrowed, clean shaven, distinguished face with arched eyebrows and bushy neatly trimmed moustache, the face of a man who had money in the bank, poised prosperously above a crisp wing collar and an ample dark cravat. Under it in copybook writing was the signature of King C. Gillette. Above his head hovered the motto of NO STROPPING AND NO HONING. The little bearded man pushed his derby back off his sweating brow and looked for a long time into the dollarproud eyes of King C. Gillette.
This motto, or strap-line as it might be called these days, was used widely in early razor advertising. It seems to be describing the advantages of a razor which, following some kind of technical breakthrough, does not require stropping or honing. Stropping is the cleaning of a blade on a piece of leather; honing refers to blade sharpening.
But the strap-line’s words are doing multiple things at once. They appear to be a description of certain characteristics. They can also be read as a direction to be followed, as in NO TRESPASSING.
Faced with high fuel bills and increasingly expensive weekly food shops, this particular struggling writer was looking to reduce his monthly outgoings. One of the things I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of money on was razor blades. Surely there had to be some way of reducing this annoying expense. Cartridge blades for my razor lasted about a week before they became uncomfortable. Each blade costs around £2 – £3 depending where you buy them. That’s about £100 – £140 a year.
After doing some research, I was surprised to discover that strops need not be confined to scenes in old films, where a barber cleans a cut throat razor. Strops are available for cartridge razors – a piece of silicone rubber material set in a plastic frame, over which you pass the blade a few times after shaving. I bought one and started stropping. Doing this I have been using the same cartridge for six weeks now. Rather than using a new blade, it was only necessary to clean the old one. It seems a cartridge can actually be made to last for months.
It is not often that my bathroom routine provides literary insight, but that’s what happened here. Those few words of advertising copy, quoted in Manhattan Transfer, were fiendishly clever. They seemed to be telling customers about the advantages of a new product, when in fact they were training customers to use a basically unchanged product in such a way that it would last as short a time as possible, before needing replacement. This of course would generate a lot of money, and as a further consequence, a lot of waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 2 billion razors are thrown away each year, and being a combination of metal and plastic, they are very difficult to recycle.
A huge fortune, and a mass of waste, resulted from a few carefully chosen words. PS Market Research suggests that the razor market could be worth $20,866.6 million by 2030. And one of the main drivers of this growth involves: ‘allowing people to buy use-and-throw razors, rather than using the same piece repeatedly after cleaning the blade.’
So there you have it – the power of a few words, which seem to be a description, but are actually a disguised direction.
Monday 13 March 2023 update – I am still using the same cartridge – that’s four and a half months with the same cartridge! Previously, without the strop, I would have used about eighteen cartridges in this time.