April Superlatives

My reading in April has been so consistently good that I’ve had trouble thinking of positive categories that don’t all sound the same! Long may it continue. Links are to reviews where applicable.

most inspirational: a tie between Deep Lane, by Mark Doty, and All About Love, by bell hooks. Doty’s poetry is gorgeous and playful, and refreshed my interest in ignoring the rigidity of formal poetic boundaries; I reviewed it in Quadrapheme here. bell hooks is an author I had never read before now, and All About Love struck such a chord with me that I just couldn’t write about it. It’s a gauntlet thrown down to a generation defined by cynicism, the sort of challenge you want to rise to whilst still being afraid.

most philosophically worrisome: Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess. I read two Classics Challenge books this month, to make up for a grand zero in March. Burgess’s fat novel of Catholicism, morality, sexuality and the two World Wars was ideal Easter reading, but disquieting because it forces you to wonder what you would do in similar situations, and to realize that you probably wouldn’t be heroic.

guiltiest pleasure: Orient, by Christopher Bollen. Martin Cornwell reviewed this in Quadrapheme, and I took a copy from the launch party, for my own satisfaction. I finished it in two and a half days–it’s that addictive. A marvelous literary thriller that, as Martin says, transcends genre.


most impressively disturbing: The Beautiful Indifference, by Sarah Hall. Read all in a gulp on the Oxford Tube, on the way to an event at Foyle’s for the release of her new novel The Wolf Border. All of these stories are, in the best way, haunting, but the one that keeps coming back to me is the first in the collection, “Butcher’s Perfume”, which was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and, let’s be honest, probably should have won. (Hall won it a few years later anyway, for “Mrs. Fox”.)

most simpatico: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse. This debut novel of office-worker malaise and the myriad weirdnesses of being in your twenties pushed so many buttons for me. It’s also wonderfully rendered: Furse does a good line in detached, observational prose, which helps subtly but unmistakably to characterize her unnamed protagonist.

most straight-up infuriating: The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham. Another one for the Classics Challenge this month. I just. I’m sorry. I know that there are many excellent reasons to explore the character of a man who callously abandons his wife and family in order to pursue A Life Of Art Because He Is A Genius, but genius has been an excuse for far, far too long.

pleasantest surprise: Goblin Market (Penguin Little Black Classics), by Christina Rossetti. Having never read any Rossetti before (to speak of), I wasn’t sure what to expect–morbidity, mostly. There was plenty of that, but also plenty of unexpected sensuality. The title poem is extraordinary in its imagery and its intensity.

most earnest: On the Beach At Night Alone (Penguin Little Black Classics), by Walt Whitman. Here’s what I learned by reading this: I like Whitman a lot, but only in small doses. The problem is that he enjoys repetition too much, and some of his keystone phrases (“men and women”, “I have loved well”, literally anything to do with the sea or sailors) lose their potency when they’re right next to fifty other poems with the same keystones. Read Whitman poems one at a time, very gradually.

I just love this picture.

most unabashedly comforting: Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale. Comfort food for the soul: this collection of emails between two university friends as they embark on international adventures both professional and romantic was itself a gift from an old friend, and a fun, oddly soothing read.

greatest cause of head-on collisions with strangers: Shingle Street, by Blake Morrison. I kept stopping in the middle of carparks whilst reading this poetry collection, which is dangerous. Some of these poems are devastatingly clever, like “Wave”; some are small and self-contained, like “Happiness.” All are great. I can’t think of a poem in this collection I didn’t like.

all-around best: Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. I waited months to read this, and good Lord, was it ever worth it. A post-apocalyptic thriller that’s actually much more about relationships, resilience and missed opportunities. It’s so good.

most gut-wrenching: Girl At War, by young Croatian author Sara Novic, which I’ll be reviewing as part of Little Brown’s promotional blog tour (!) It’s a novel about the Balkan war in the early ’90s (something I have very vague, very early memories of, it being in the news in the States when I was a toddler. Not the parts that this novel covers; I don’t think I was really sentient until Kosovo happened in 1998, and Girl At War‘s most traumatic events occur in 1991.)

next up: Among others, The Electric Michelangelo, Sarah Hall’s Booker-Prize-shortlisted second novel, and Nights At the Circus, by Angela Carter, for May’s Classics Challenge.


Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel

Because survival is insufficient.

I’ve been wondering almost since starting Station Eleven (two days ago—yes, it really is that good) why it’s so clearly a breed apart from other apocalypse thrillers. I have an uncharacteristic but genuine affinity for disaster movies (this includes things with giant robots in them), and although some of them can be more than the sum of their parts, most of them, like most end-of-the-world books, are predictable. Entertainment, certainly; food for the soul, less so. But Station Eleven is something else entirely, and not just because the production of Shakespeare plays is central to the narrative. Finally, getting dressed this morning (a time at which many of my revelations inconveniently occur), I think I figured out why: where most apocalypse thrillers chart the end of the world as it happens, and many even throw in a plot twist at the end where the world is saved, Station Eleven accepts that the end of civilization has, definitively, happened. Emily St John Mandel is much less interested in the world-ending pandemic itself than she is in how people survive in the aftermath.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road sort of does this, but McCarthy’s vision is unfailingly dark. St John Mandel’s, by contrast, notes violence—one of our protagonists, Kirsten, has two knife tattoos on her wrist; in response to a question about them, she says, “You know what tattoos like this mean…I won’t talk about it, François, and you know better than to ask”—but it’s not the sole medium by which human interaction takes place. Instead, she flips back and forth between two times and several protagonists, giving us a sense both of the last day everything was normal and of the strategies that the few survivors have adopted, twenty years on. We have at least five point-of-view characters: perhaps most accessible is Kirsten Raymonde, an eight-year-old child actress in a Toronto production of King Lear on the night the pandemic lands in North America. Starring as Lear in that production is Arthur Leander, who dies onstage of a heart attack; Station Eleven, in part, traces his history back into his teenage years, and we see him moving to the city, becoming famous, falling in love, falling out of love, behaving appallingly, getting divorced, and generally becoming a very different person. Arthur’s best friend is Clark Thompson, who, in the years after the pandemic, manages to survive in a colony within Severn City Airport, in Michigan. We also see through the eyes of Jeevan Chaudhury, a paramedic who was in the audience at King Lear on the night of Arthur’s death, and of Arthur’s first wife, Miranda Elliott, who spends much of her time working on a graphic novel entitled Station Eleven. On the night Arthur dies, Miranda visits him at the theatre and gives him two copies of the first two volumes; he sends one copy to his estranged son Tyler, and gives the other to Kirsten. The characters and themes of Miranda’s Station Eleven—a graphic novel about the end of the world, and two very different ways of coping—resonate throughout St John Mandel’s Station Eleven beautifully and profoundly.

You might think, reading the above, that these themes can’t be tied in without looking clumsy, that the similarities would be too obvious, the moral lessons too glaring. You would be wrong. Partly this is because all the characters are differentiated so well, and partly this is because there are essentially two strands of the novel: before, and after. St John Mandel incorporates chapters from before, outlining the story of Arthur and Miranda’s marriage and its breakdown, Clark Thompson’s disillusionment with his friend, and the night at the theatre itself, in between chapters from after, which outline Kirsten’s life as an actress with the Travelling Symphony, a group of itinerant players and musicians who bring the joys and distractions of art to the small settlements that have sprung up in the wake of the pandemic. If the before and after sections were not all mashed in with each other, perhaps the graphic novel subplot would be too meta, too twee; as it is, it’s woven unassumingly but with technical brilliance throughout the book. It is frankly heartbreaking.

I’ve complained earlier about how most reviews of Station Eleven don’t give anything away, meaning that it’s impossible to read them and get any sense of what it’s actually like to read the book. Having read it, I understand why: there’s an interconnectedness to the plotting that reminds me a little bit of Cloud Atlas (though in Station Eleven the effect is far more organic, and, I think, preferable). It makes it very difficult to discuss anything without revealing spoilers; like pulling on a loose thread, everything else wants to come tumbling out. What I can say about the second, “after” plot, is that it involves a mad prophet. St John Mandel’s prose is well-adapted to descriptions of fear and the processes of survival; she writes clear, uncluttered sentences with just the right detail or touch of humanity. In the Severn City Airport:

A day later, the first stranger walked in… [He] seemed less dangerous than stunned. He was dirty, of indeterminate age, dressed in layers of clothes, and hadn’t shaved in a long time. He appeared on the road with a gun in his hand, but he stopped and let the gun fall to the pavement when Tyrone shouted at him to drop it. He raised his hands over his head and stared at the people gathering around him. He seemed to struggle for speech. His lips moved silently, and he had to clear his throat several times before he could speak. Clark realized that he hadn’t spoken in some time.

‘I was in the hotel,’ he said finally. ‘I followed your tracks through the snow.’

‘Okay,’ someone said, ‘but why are you crying?’

‘I’d thought I was the only one,’ he said.

That’s a scene we’ve been presented with a dozen times before, in the disaster movies of which I am so fond, but St John Mandel makes it work. The emotion is there, built up in the unhurried description of the stranger’s attempts to speak. She gives him a long, leisurely paragraph, noting his appearance, the movements of his lips. And then the punchline we know: “I’d thought I was the only one.” We are all afraid of being the only one.

The fear of loneliness is, I would suggest, the fear upon which Station Eleven plays the most. Arthur’s death is sad, but elevated to tragedy by the fact that, having divorced three wives and with no close family, the first person to be notified when he dies is his lawyer. Kirsten is afraid only of losing her friends in the Travelling Symphony: “Hell is the absence of the people you long for” is another much-quoted line. And the Travelling Symphony’s own motto—“Because survival is insufficient”—nods to this, too. Their dramatic repertoire is entirely Shakespeare. They are performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream when we first meet them, a play which might seem ill-suited to the end of the world until you realize that the scene St John Mandel chooses to have them play is the meeting between Titania and Oberon, where the queen of the fairies describes how their discord has changed the weather, fomented diseases. Here, again, she invests fact and detail with great power by simply allowing them to speak for themselves:

Shakespeare was the third born to his parents, but the first to survive infancy. Four of his siblings died young. His son, Hamnet, died at eleven and left behind a twin. Plague closed the theatres again and again, death flickering over the landscape. And now in a twilight lit once more by candles, the age of electricity having come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king.

Survival is insufficient. The reason Station Eleven is glorious is because it argues—slyly, passionately—for the strength of humanity: that, twenty years after 99% of the world’s population is wiped from the face of the planet, there could be such a thing as Shakespeare, as new life (the baby born to a cellist and a guitarist in the Symphony; Jeevan’s survival, marriage and existence in a small community called McKinley.) It’s simultaneously the most realistic and the most hopeful depiction of the apocalypse I’ve ever read. Another one that ought, by all rights, to be on the Baileys’ Prize shortlist.

A Weekend Miscellany: the Pulitzers, bell hooks, and What To Read Next

Thing One: the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was announced last week. This year, it goes to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. This frustrates me for several reasons, one of which is that I haven’t yet read it, and I now have to decide whether it’s worth reading yet another WWII novel simply because it won the Pulitzer. I’ve heard very mixed reactions, from people telling me it’s poetic and beautiful to the Guardian reviewer asserting that its poeticism is overblown but made up for by a gripping plot. (I’m inclined to believe the Guardian reviewer). I like reading the prize winners because it provides a certain level of order and some common cultural ground to my reading list, but at the same time, I’m not sure I have that much interest in a 700-pager about occupied France. Has anyone out there read it? Is it worth a go?

Thing Two: I read bell hooks’s book of cultural criticism All About Love last week. I’m not going to write about it. I vacillated for a bit on this, but I think I have a few solid reasons, one of which is that it’s a book that requires time to percolate. The first few chapters of my copy now have heavy pencil underlining, and the idea of a “love ethic” in daily life is something that I want to sit down with and unpack on my own time. For precisely that reason, it’s not very review-able. It’s a book that will continue to resonate with me personally, privately, for a long time, and I don’t want to write down my thoughts too hastily and then send them out into the ether. Some books need to be experienced in privacy, and ongoingly. (I know it’s not a word, but now it is.)

Thing Three: What do I read next? I finished Blake Morrison’s amazingly good collection of poetry Shingle Street yesterday, and went to the random number generator to choose my next. The first time, the computer suggested #2 on my list: Of Human Bondage. I’ve just finished a Somerset Maugham (The Moon and Sixpence, for the Classics Club, review coming soon), and I’m going through some life changes at the moment which mean that I don’t want to be dealing with a particularly large book. I tried again. Infuriatingly, the computer next suggested #4: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is about 900 pages long. Eventually, I decided that I had denied myself the pleasure of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven for long enough, and started on it. (It’s very good. I’m going to review it here, properly, because none of the reviews I’ve seen have given even the slightest indication of what the experience of reading the book is like; most have been content to state the premise.)

But that made me think: maybe the Internet has some ideas. So, below is my current TBR list (these are all the books in my room that I haven’t yet read). It’s shorter than most peoples’, because I’m a young professional and my room isn’t very big, and also because there are more TBR books in my grandparents’ garage, which I’m not even going to get into right now. If you have any suggestions for where I should go after finishing Station Eleven, leave them in the comments!

  1. The Golden Pot, German fairy stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
  2. Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham
  3. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
  4. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
  5. Alms for Oblivion: Vol. 1, by Simon Raven
  6. Grits, by Niall Griffiths
  7. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
  8. Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamed Ould Slahi
  9. The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture
  10. Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn
  11. Nights At the Circus, by Angela Carter
  12. The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light
  13. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber (it has literally taken me this long to realize that his name is not Michael, but Michel. Seriously! Look closely at the book cover, then ask Wikipedia.)
  14. The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall
  15. Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed (also known as Dear Sugar)
  16. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
  17. Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale

I think if you can make plans that far in advance, you are officially in the adult club. My current life has the same expiration date as my student visa.

Sometimes a book is the literary equivalent of a superfood salad, a glass of white wine, and a warm bath: it just does exactly what you need it to do, and you don’t even feel bad about it. Sometimes that book comes to you by way of a good and trustworthy friend, which is even better. Red and I have been friends since the summer after our junior year of high school, when we met at a state-sponsored summer camp for nerds in Newport News. We’ve written letters and emails and Facebook messages, sent each other playlists and book recommendations, done shots and drunk tea, stayed up late and slept in late, looked at the moon, visited art galleries, disgraced ourselves, and redeemed ourselves. She hears all about my misadventures in Oxford and London, and I hear about her life with her fiance in Ohio. She’s a hard worker and a fierce heart.

Which means that when she sent me a surprise late birthmas (this is a thing) package with two books, I knew perfectly well that they’d be good. I started Graduates In Wonderland the very next morning.

One of the weird things about this stage in your life is that everyone does it differently, but there are enough common denominators for most other peoples’ experiences to be recognizable. That said, you do have to understand that Graduates In Wonderland is the sort of thing–the sort of story–that only exists because of privilege. The night before they graduate, Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale promise to send each other emails every week with honest accounts of their lives in the various foreign cities in which they end up living. Both women went to Brown, an Ivy League, and both have family situations that can provide them with at least some financial support whilst they pursue multiple masters’ degrees and general international adventuring. I know that I write this as the possessor of an Oxford degree, and therefore have limited scope to blather about privilege. I do spend a lot of time worrying about money, however, and what surprised me most about the emails that comprise the book is that very few of them mention any kind of panicking about money. At one point, Rachel gets hit by a car and the insurance pay-out is $10,000, which carries her through the first year of her masters’ in Paris. She doesn’t dwell very much on the fortuitousness of this, which struck me as a bit odd. Then again, because these were emails between friends, maybe that’s why; do friends really write to each other about their money fears? I’m not sure I tell my long-distance buddies about mine. But on the other other hand, these are supposed to be “no-holds-barred” emails, which makes it a little hard to believe that the girls can quit jobs without once mentioning to each other that they’re worried about how they’ll make rent. I’ve been unemployed and soon will be again, and let me tell you, I thought about almost nothing except how I was going to make rent. Maybe I’m the weird one.

If you kind of abandon the idea that this is non-fiction, however, Graduates In Wonderland is pretty charming. (Come on–no matter how “raw and honest” their emails to each other were, there’s been editing.) BUT BUT BUT. Come on now. It’s tremendous fun to read the travails of women your own age, who are also, like you, battling through misery and self-doubt one day, and taking shots with commitment-phobic boys in questionable bars the next. It reminds you that you’re not alone. It makes you hopeful that you’ll make it through. And it brings to the forefront of your mind the brilliance of your friends. After Rachel is unexpectedly and horribly dumped by a Frenchman named Olivier, Jess writes, with the absolute solidarity of a friend:

You want someone who is going to stick around and give you half a chance. Olivier is not this. At least you didn’t waste years on him…But honestly. I want to punch him in the face. I want to take a fish and slap it across his face, while yelling, “NON! NO MAS TOUCHE PAS!”

You are going to be okay. I promise.

If you visit me here, I’ll take you to the farthest place from Paris: St Kilda. It’s the closest thing to a beach in Melbourne–a strip of sand on a bay. The streets are lined with fish-and-chip shops, cyclists, and bakeries. We’ll lie in the sun, and I’ll make sure your pale skin is completely covered in SPF 50 sunblock. I’ll find a strapping Australian guy named Jono to rub it in for you.

That’s love, you guys.

Actually, in some places, this book almost hurts to read, because in among the ridiculous romance escapades and the exploring of new cities and the discoveries of your own competence, there are some really sad moments. Like when one of the girls asks how many times you can move from city to city without losing most of the people you knew in each one. That’s the rootlessness of your twenties. That’s one of the worst things about this life stage, too: the intensity of your friendships, the difficulty of starting them in the first place now that you’re no longer living within a couple hundred yards of everyone you know, and the bereftness, the sense of melancholy, when you realize that you’ll still end up losing most of them. It’s a tough place to be.

It’s also a great place to be. Rachel’s mother tells her, when she gets accepted to a masters’ program in Paris, “In ten years, you won’t be able to do this. So go.” I can’t think about this too hard because it frightens me and excites me and hurts my head and makes me useless, but there are so many things I do these days that I won’t be able to do in ten years. There are so many choices I could make that won’t be reasonable options when I’m thirty-two. It seems ungrateful not to bite off as much of life as is possible. Accept the invitation; apply for the job; reply to the text; flirt with the bartender (when applicable); be good to yourself. I don’t often need persuading of the fact, but I’m glad Graduates In Wonderland is here to remind me, when I need it.

Goblin Market (Penguin Little Black Classics no. 53), by Christina Rossetti

We must not look at goblin men,/We must not buy their fruits.

Who knows upon what soil they fed/Their hungry thirsty roots?

Virginia Woolf once wrote of Christina Rossetti, “If I were to bring a case against God, she would be one of the first witnesses I should call.” It is not the most wholehearted of endorsements. Rossetti suffers from it; most people know her, if they know her at all, as the woman who wrote the words to “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”. The remainder of her reputation is as a writer of morbid romantic and devotional poetry, with a heavy focus upon death and blighted love. She’s easy to make fun of, if you’ve never actually read her.

Penguin’s Little Black Classics ought to help rectify that. To begin with, they constitute a brilliantly simple marketing idea: to celebrate Penguin’s eightieth anniversary, a limited edition release of eighty short, small, elegant books of extracts from some of Penguin’s most famous publications, priced at 80p each. There is nonfiction from the writings of Charles Darwin, Samuel Pepys, John Ruskin, and Henry Mayhew, amongst others. There is fiction from Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, to name but a few. There is, of course, poetry: Basho, Hafez, Chaucer, Ovid, Catullus, Homer, Walt Whitman, and—not least—Rossetti. The Little Black Classics are pamphlet-sized and come without any supplementary material: no introduction, no footnotes, not even a back-cover blurb. The effect is to make the text immediate and fresh. You’re approaching something on your own that would normally be mediated for you through academia. For some readers, I imagine, it is their first time in years—perhaps ever—interacting with a non-contemporary text simply, on its own terms.

I bought two other Little Black Classics along with the Rossetti (extracts of Walt Whitman’s poetry, entitled On the Beach At Night Alone, and a collection of the medieval Persian poet Hafez under the enticing name The nightingales are drunk), but Goblin Market was a brilliant place to start because that freshness, that sense of coming to the text without mediation, was particularly vivid. I had barely read Rossetti; “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” hardly counts, and the other two poems of hers I knew were from my senior high school English class, where we had covered them in five minutes and moved on to other things. At Oxford, while we covered Victorian fiction and criticism and two major poets (Tennyson and Browning), the tutors roundly ignored her. So I knew almost nothing. I had few expectations, other than those adjectives mentioned above: morbid, romantic, devotional. They were fulfilled, but more adjectives crowded in as I read: playful. Contemporary. Clever. Earnest. Pathological. Painterly. And, oddly, sexy.

Goblin Market is a long poem and takes the form of a cautionary tale. There are two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. Both have golden hair and pale skin and inexplicably absent parents, as fairy tale sisters often do. Of an evening, they while away the hours by a stream in a dell near their house. Both hear the crying of goblin men, fruit-sellers and tempters. Lizzie resists and flees back to the safety of the house; Laura cannot resist, and eats. From then on she is cursed, restless and depressive, desperate for another taste of the goblin fruit, and Lizzie takes it upon herself to rescue her sister from the spiritual slough into which she has sunk.

So far, so Victorian, with its correlation of fruit or food with sexuality, desire, and excess, which, naturally, must be punished. Where Rossetti stands out is in the sensuality of her descriptions. The list of fruits that the goblin-men are hawking piles up like the fruits themselves; combined with the dactylic rhythms of the meter and the truncated lines, it gives a sense of voluptuous, almost breathless abundance:

Plump unpecked cherries,

Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,

Swart-headed mulberries,

Wild free-born cranberries…

Come buy, come buy.

And when Laura decides to stay behind in the glen, we know that she’s doomed long before she does, because the poetry tells us so, again in the most extraordinarily sensual manner:

Laura stretched her gleaming neck

Like a rush-imbedded swan,

Like a lily from the beck,

Like a moonlit poplar branch,

Like a vessel at the launch

When its last restraint is gone.

I mean, sorry, but that is hot. Not just for the neck imagery, although that’s part of it; it’s also the way Rossetti works her rhymes, abaccb, so that you think you know what’s coming and then there’s the final couplet with “launch/gone”, which don’t rhyme at all, although “gone” echoes back to “swan”, so there’s resonance but no predictability. It’s startlingly good. (There’s also the imagery of a woman as a ship without restraints, which is hot in yet another way.)

Her religious poetry lacks these febrile similes, but there’s an absolute assurance to them, especially the one called “Up-Hill”, which ends with a couplet that seemed familiar: “Will there be beds for me and all who seek?/Yea, beds for all who come.”

The certainty of the hope of heaven is fortunate, because almost all of the other poems are about death, or a pathological melancholy whose sufferers can find respite only in eternal sleep. The one which touched me most, however, was in an oddly different vein, a bit like Philip Larkin’s poem about the hedgehog. It’s entitled “A Frog’s Fate”:

Contemptuous of his home beyond

The village and the village pond,

A large-souled Frog who spurned each byeway

Hopped along the imperial highway.

It’s thoroughly charming. (“A large-souled Frog”! Of course.) The story ends badly, as stories tend to do for wildlife who insist on sharing roadspace with humans and their wheeled transport, and the frog’s dying “sob” or “croak” is a remorseful one: he should have stuck to the byeways. Rossetti’s final two stanzas turn the story into a meditation on the obliviousness of the great to the reality of the lives of little people—the wagoner who killed the frog was humming “A froggy went a-wooing” as he did so: “A hypothetic frog trolled he/Obtuse to a reality.” I really can’t decide what this reminds me of. Emily Dickinson in a playful mood, perhaps? Yet for all its light irony, it’s a terribly sad poem.

The final selection in the pamphlet is a series of nursery rhymes from Sing-Song, a collection Rossetti published in 1872. They start out weird: “Our little baby fell asleep,/And may not wake again/For days and days, and weeks and weeks,/But then he’ll wake again.” One imagines an ellipsis instead of a comma after the third line; we’re certainly being made to contemplate a baby whose sleep is the sleep of death. There’s sweetness: “My baby has a mottled fist,/My baby has a neck in creases;/My baby kisses and is kissed,/For he’s the very thing for kisses.” But it’s almost entirely overshadowed by falling leaves, ruined nests, caged linnets, and—finally—a grave: “Why did baby die,/Making Father sigh,/Mother cry?” Not at all the sort of things you’d be singing to your own infant. Who the intended audience could possibly have been is unclear. It reminds me, overall, of a comment one character makes in AS Byatt’s Possession, of a Victorian female poet partly modeled on Rossetti: “She doesn’t like children.” I don’t think Rossetti really did, either.

I’m glad to have been introduced to her this way, though. It allows one to make up one’s own mind about the poet and their work, which in some ways is intimidating but in others is a delightful freedom. Christina Rossetti may not have liked children, but I like her: for her fearless subject matter, for her clearly uneasy relationship with sexuality, for the wildly imaginative and colorful pictures that she paints with words. Goblin Market is a wonderful, haunting little pamphlet.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse

I was meant to be doing all the things I used to talk about and instead I was doing nothing.

Some books tap into the malaise and misery of office culture in a way so specific to their time period that they rise above the general melee. Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland, did this in 1995. Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To the End did the same thing in 2007, right before the financial crisis. Now, post-global banking meltdown, in the era of zero-hours contracts, Alice Furse has written Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a mildly horrifying yet spot-on satire of the current state of graduate employment.

Her narrator is an unnamed twenty-four-year-old woman who lives in a grotty flat somewhere between London and Brighton (probably in one of those Surrey or Hampshire nowhere settlements like Wokingham or Redhill), with her boyfriend, known only as the Traffic Warden. The Traffic Warden’s parents live a ten-minute drive away. Our heroine has an English degree from a university which we assume is non-Russell Group, and a certain restlessness. Eventually, she’s hired for a data entry job at a company called Weblands.

It’s never entirely clear, or even just a little bit clear, what service Weblands provides. It doesn’t matter. The complex futilities of office work haven’t changed much since Kafka’s day:

It was another of my jobs to order all the stationery for the office. Mostly this consisted of reams upon reams of paper for customer service printouts, and a mind-boggling array of envelopes. There were three different sizes: DL, C5, and C4. Some had windows and some didn’t; some had to be gummed for the machine and others self-seal; some were over-printed with our address on the back. I couldn’t fathom any sort of system to it, and to make matters worse I had to renegotiate a price each time. I just knew that no matter what I asked Mary, or how long I spent poring over the catalogue, I would get the wrong ones.

Furse is particularly adept at revealing how our narrator slowly becomes more confident in the office, moving over time from shy and silent new employee to backchatting, fully-fledged colleague. Her growing confidence is partly due to the advent of Rachel, hired after her. Rachel is thirty-five and has a seven-year-old daughter, Amy, whom she adores, and whose father is both absent and irrelevant. The narrator (whom I’m going to call Effie, short for Euphemia, because the one clue we get about her name is that it’s fairly unusual) is fascinated by Rachel from the beginning: “She wouldn’t fit into Weblands at all and I liked her instantly.” Their growing friendship is one of the most charming things about a book which, on the whole, eschews charm for an almost distressingly realistic sense of stagnation.

For that is precisely the problem Furse is addressing: how, at the age of twenty-four, in a dead-end job, do you prevent your life from stagnating? Effie becomes increasingly disillusioned with the Traffic Warden’s general laziness and lack of aspirations. His characterization, incidentally, is marvellous: he leaves clothes everywhere, is almost always standing in the doorway eating something when Effie comes home, gives out a minimal number of tickets per day (sometimes as many as six, but usually closer to two), and can be driven to immediate and disconcerting rage by seemingly innocuous things. This latter fact is particularly interesting because of the way Effie reacts to it: she notes that their university housemates found his sudden tempers frightening, while she was simply amused by them. Reading this, it’s hard not to feel at least a little tinge of worry for her, especially given that one of their favourite things to do while shopping for groceries is to play a game called Wife Beater:

 He grabbed my elbow and bellowed, his teeth close to my face: “Will-you-fucking-shut-up-you-stupid-bitch?” I bowed my head and just caught the expression on a woman’s face before she went off to Fruit’n’ Veg. I knew that we would be destined to see her again, in the frozen aisle, or gazing at cheese, and she would stare at us and pity me and then look away.

Effie and the Traffic Warden are, of course, sleepwalking towards disaster, but it’s not, fortunately, the kind of disaster that the Wife Beater game seems to forbode. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that she breaks up with him, about three-quarters of the way through the book. One of the most curiously depressing and yet exhilarating things about leaving university, as I have found out, is that you change suddenly as your life changes, and sometimes you find that people who were perfect for you back then aren’t perfect for you now. Furse captures the first intense miserable realization of that fact, and then the sudden weird contentment that sometimes comes as a result of being alone and accountable to no one else. Effie goes shopping alone for the first time since the breakup:

It occurred to me that if every product we bought together was a compromise, then neither of us had really ever been happy. I bought smoked salmon, pistachio nuts, garlic cheese, fresh bread, chocolate cereal. I couldn’t be sure whether I was cut adrift or free, but I felt like I was living well.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is one of the most interesting  instances, too, of a book that the publishers clearly felt had to be a little bit misleading in its marketing materials. This isn’t to complain—if you can’t tell already, I loved it—but to note how difficult it is to sell aimlessness. The jacket copy proclaims, “As her days fill with low paid office work and her boyfriend abandons ambition, a young woman believes there must be an apocalypse on the horizon and hatches a dramatic plan to escape the life she picked by mistake.” This makes it sound as though our narrator joins a cult or starts to lose her mind or is plotting to run away. None of these things are true. The only time the apocalypse is mentioned is when a work colleague (known as Young Nathan) tells Effie that he’s writing a novel about their office. (So meta!) She asks him what’s going to happen in it, and he replies that he can’t decide: “Either the apocalypse…or nothing.”  And the “dramatic plan to escape” is, I think, a slightly hysterical marketing professional’s description of the eventual break-up.

Either way, it’s quite funny. The novel is more than compelling enough without the threat of the Rapture. The only shame is that the people who will nod most in recognition—the workers in call centres, the students working at McDonald’s, and the hordes of graduates doing data entry—may not stumble across it. It’s published by a small press, Burning Eye, and even major debuts tend not to make an impression on people who don’t assiduously read the books news. I’ve already determined to lend it to a friend, however, and I hope the other people who have read and enjoyed it do, too. It’s a terrific, sad, hopeful novel, and tremendously timely.

There ain’t no party like a book launch party

(Title quote stolen shamelessly from the deathless anthem “S Club Party”, which had the distinction of being my favourite song for about two weeks when I was eight or so.)

I haven’t been around here much recently. Sorry. Easter holidays came and went, and I was in Hampshire/West Sussex with the Revered Ancestors, dealing with their ridiculous parish organ and seeing the gorgeous, elegant flower arrangements in the church and eating roast chicken. Then I was in London, seeing friends and going on a houseboat and drinking outrageously priced cocktails. Sometimes when you’re happy you don’t want to spend any time in front of a screen. Who knew, eh?

Last week, though, as a result of Quadrapheme’s growing profile and some fabulously nice publicists, I was at two book launch events—two! My first two, so I was both wickedly nervous and wasn’t quite sure what to wear. The first was in the top room of a pub in Farringdon. I was meant to be meeting one of Quadrapheme’s ace reviewers, the erudite and charming Martin Cornwell, outside the venue, so that we could go in together (there’s nothing less fun than entering, alone, a party where you only know one other person). That night I was staying at the Duchess’s house in North London, but she was tired out from our boating exertions earlier that day (can’t say I blame her; locks are hard work.) After some deliberation, I put on a black sleeveless dress, black flats, and lipstick, and wended my way to Farringdon.  (Though not before having the following conversation: “Okay, does it look like I have my shit together?” “Yeah. It’s kind of scary, actually.” “Good.”) Brilliantly, I turned the wrong way out of the station and walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction to the pub; by the time I worked out my mistake, the event was about to start. I hailed a cab from the street—something I’ve never done before in my life; it was rather exciting and professional-feeling—and texted Martin with apologies. He was waiting outside for his friend in any case, so we had ten minutes to kill before going in. His friend turned out to also be about six feet tall, so I spent most of the evening craning upwards.

The event itself was for a literary thriller called Orient, by the American arts journalist Christopher Bollen. Martin had read it, and will be reviewing it in Quadrapheme, but I hadn’t, so swiped a free copy from the mantelpiece as I was leaving. It really is good. Set in a tiny village on the tip of Long Island, it explores gentrification, small-town resentment and pettiness, and the New York art world, in a way that makes you both fascinated and repulsed. You wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters, really, with the possible exception of young Mills, the nineteen-year-old foster kid on whom the murders (there are lots of those) are pinned. It might give you an idea of how compelling I found it to say that it’s about six hundred pages long, and I finished it in two days. Stay tuned for Martin’s review! Also, although these things shouldn’t matter, the author is lovely. I was introduced to Christopher Bollen near the end of the event, and he immediately corralled me by the elbow, took me over to the wine table, and began to talk with great enthusiasm about his online Scrabble habit, which has, apparently, turned into an online chess habit. When I told him I played chess (I do, but I lose most of the time), he cried, “Well, you should play me!” Despite suspecting that he wouldn’t remember the conversation the next morning—there really was a lot of wine floating around—it was thoroughly charming.

The second event wasn’t a launch per se, but it was the only event that Sarah Hall is doing in London to promote her new novel, The Wolf Border. I absolutely loved the book, and her publicist at Faber was kind enough to send me two comps tickets to an “in conversation with” that she was doing at Foyles on Tuesday night. Since Darcy is from Cumbria, and the novel is set there (plus it’s Hall’s home county), he was my plus-one. Transport woes also stymied my arrival to this one: the coach from Oxford was badly delayed leaving, and when I finally got to the Central line, it was to discover that trains aren’t stopping at Tottenham Court Road all the way through 2015. Trying to get a taxi from Oxford Circus was a bust, too, since half of Oxford Street is shut to taxis due to Crossrail construction. My taxi driver only told me this after I’d gotten in. I swore a lot, and commiserated with him on all the fares he was losing as a result. He dropped me about two blocks from Tottenham Court Road and refused to let me pay him, which was rather kind. I practically sprinted to Foyles, and, panting, presented myself twenty minutes late to the front desk bookseller, who informed me that the event was on the sixth floor. I’m not proud of the fact that I then sighed, “Oh, fuuuuuck me”, although discovering the lifts improved my mood a bit.

After some rather embarrassing peering-about for Darcy, who had saved a seat for me but had then sat directly behind a large bank of A/V equipment, making him difficult to find, I slid into the seat next to him, grinned in what I hoped was an apologetic yet rakish manner, and paid attention to what was happening on stage.

Sarah Hall’s a very interesting human being. She doesn’t do tropes, really, or seem to subscribe to any of the things that people tell you about life experiences. This comes across most profoundly, for me, in the way that she writes sex and relationships. Sex in her books has this inconclusiveness that rings truer than all the myths we’ve ever been told about how “love actually” works. She also has a self-confessed obsession with realism and detail: the research for The Wolf Border involved her acquisition of an enormous encyclopaedia on lupine behaviour, from which, she says, she dropped far too many details into the first draft. (She insisted, however, on keeping the fact that wolves can swim eight miles. It is, admittedly, a pretty great fact.) She’s also wary of giving potted answers, which is absolutely wonderful in an author; there’s no glibness at all, no insincerity, no pomposity. A successful author without pomposity is a magical thing.

She also signed my copies of The Wolf Border and The Beautiful Indifference, a collection of her short stories published in 2011. I barely have any signed books, but the ones I do have—hers, and the entirety of A.S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet plus Possession—are among my most treasured.

So, there we have it. Networking, wine drinking, question asking, book signing. More fun than an S Club Party any day, methinks.

Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess

first published: 1980

edition: Vintage Classics edition, 2004

provenance: purchased from Waterstone’s in pre-travel mania mode

read: early April 2015, on various trains between London and Hampshire


This is going to be an unusual Classics Club post for various reasons. One is that I’ve covered Earthly Powers, to some extent, in a previous post, which contained my initial reactions and a general description of what the book is about. The other is that I won’t be able to quote much from the book, or even refer to it, except by way of Google Books, because I’ve left it at the house of the Revered Ancestors. With little spare space in the suitcase and a possible impending move (keep your fingers crossed!), I couldn’t really bring it back with me once I’d finished it. So, after a marathon on Easter Monday wherein I read about three hundred blissful pages in a day (and did very little else), the elegant volume has been popped into a large plastic box in the RAs’ garage, where it is keeping company in hibernation with perhaps fifty other books, the majority of my little library.

As a result, this will be a much looser review than my Classics Club mini-essays usually are, but in a way this pleases me. Earthly Powers is so fat and crammed with incident and idea that the notion of trying to corral my reactions to it all into some sort of order is daunting. Herewith, a very patchwork piece. For specifics, you will have to read it yourself.

Much of the book is concerned with the nature of good and evil. Burgess doesn’t engage with the issues in the abstract, although there are probably half a dozen Serious Philosophical Conversations scattered throughout the novel. Instead, he positions his protagonist’s life, and the lives of his sister, brothers-in-law, mother-in-law and friends, during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, so that we are faced, unavoidably, with historical events that comprise both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. Mostly, though, it’s the worst. There is homophobia; there are race riots; there is cult religion; there is the nuclear threat; there are the dying throes of the British Empire; there is tropical disease. There is, of course, the Holocaust. This looms large. Toomey, in attempting to arrange a passage out of Nazi Germany for the Jewish Nobel laureate Jakob Strehler, is arrested himself (the war breaks out a week after he arrives in the country) and can only ensure his safe deportation home by making a deal with the government. If he speaks in favour of the Nazi regime, or at least not against it, on Berlin radio, he will be returned to England safely; if he refuses, he will be interned in a civilian POW camp for the duration of hostilities. He chooses, of course, the get-out option.

I say “of course” because Toomey is distinctly unheroic, from page one all the way through to page six hundred and fifty. It makes him sometimes quite grubby to read about, but mostly what it does is remind the reader, again and again and again, that compromising ourselves morally in favour of survival is perhaps the most human act imaginable. We are all weasels. Heroes have a place only in the sentimental pap that Toomey writes for the lower middle-class British public, hungry for fantasy. In reality, we collaborate with revolting regimes if we think it might ensure us life, or even just greater comfort. Even those who appear heroic–for instance, Toomey’s mother-in-law, who dies trying to assassinate Heinrich Himmler–act from a variety of motives, almost none of them pure. (In Signora Campanati’s case, she is dying of cancer and would prefer to go out with a bang than with a whimper.)

In this context, the actions of Toomey’s brother-in-law, Don Carlo Campanati, while Bishop of Moneta in Italy, seem frankly praiseworthy: he constantly agitates both against Italy’s Fascist government and against its Nazi affiliations. Yet Campanati also permits a teenaged girl to be tortured in front of him, instead of giving up the whereabouts of a resistance group. He claims not to know where they are; the whole horrible scene plays out (it isn’t gratuitously graphic, but it involves amateur dentistry and it made me feel a bit sick anyway); the girl passes out. Then, like a bombshell, one sentence on its own: Carlo knows perfectly well where the resistance is hiding. The girl awakes; Carlo remonstrates with the SS colonel, who is unimpressed; he addresses the man with the dental drill, whose first name he knows. The torturer, moved and disturbed, walks out. The colonel remains unimpressed. What happens to the teenaged girl? We never find out. Carlo, of course, becomes pope.

Are his acts during the war good or evil of themselves? Are they neither? Carlo’s stint in the papacy, at least, is clearly modeled on that of John Paul II. He is described as revolutionizing the Church with a doctrine of ecumenicalism, universal love; Catholic teenagers shout out affectionate rhymes about him (reminiscent of the “JPII, we love you” jingle); in every city, he preaches to packed football stadia. Carlo–or rather Pope Gregory XVII, as he becomes–asserts that evil is not of human making. Made in the image of God, we are inherently good. Evil is external, of demonic provenance. Those who do evil things are possessed; they are not themselves. Earthly Powers’s power comes from asking us to consider whether Carlo is right, or whether, regrettably, people are most themselves when they do evil things. It’s a question that religion, ethics and philosophy have yet to answer definitively, although contemporary thought seems to be edging towards the latter conviction.

One character whom the contemporary reader will almost certainly enjoy, however, is Toomey’s sister Hortense. Conventionally, her morals are sketchy; she has affairs, drinks, pursues her own happiness (always a questionable path for a woman…) Yet she is the voice of conscience throughout the novel. Where Toomey is prissily hypocritical and condemnatory, she is fierce. She is full of rage at Toomey for failing to stand up for the rights of homosexual writers and artists in the repressive Britain of the 1940s; she has nothing but disdain for Carlo and his oratory. She is utterly herself. Her interpolations are the sound of pure common sense and show a greater compassion for human frailties than we see in either her brother or her brother-in-law. She remains a second-tier character, but an extraordinarily interesting one.

Finally, there is Domenico Campanati, Hortense’s husband, Carlo’s brother, and all-around reprobate. Domenico is a composer, ambitious at first (opera and concertos) but then settling into his true metier: “plastic” music, composing background scores for the new medium of film. (He earns, we are told, an Oscar for his score to a Hollywood version of The Brothers Karamazov.) Domenico and Toomey collaborate on several occasions; the last of these is an opera of the life of St Nicholas (Toomey’s idea), one of whose miracles was that he raised three murdered brothers from the dead. In the opera, the three brothers–one of them actually turns out to be a woman–wreak havoc in their newly restored lives, murdering, pillaging, starting wars, and generally embodying evil. Toomey’s libretto has St Nicholas at the end on his knees, clutching a dead child, crying out to God, before being struck by a vision: this was all a test, Job-like, to see if Nicholas would curse his Creator; he has not done so, he has passed; cue ascent into heaven. Domenico makes some changes at the dress rehearsal, however, and the premiere finishes with the saint still on his knees, the child still dead, and the final words of the opera–Maledico, maledico, I curse you, I curse you–echoing into empty air. God is dead, if he was ever alive. Evil has come from good. There is no heaven.

This, obviously, is an extreme answer to the questions that Burgess is raising, a despairing one. Domenico’s opera is the counter-instance to his brother Carlo’s determined optimism about the human condition: it doesn’t make any grand claims about innate evil or innate good, but it is very clear on the state of our solitude in the universe. In this mindset, no one is coming to save us. We’re on our own.

Depressing as this sounds, it’s probably the take-away from Earthly Powers as a whole. If no one is coming to save you, you’re responsible for your own actions. The weaseling of Toomey and others is perhaps more reprehensible in a Godless universe than in a divinely ordered one; it has consequences. Yet despite the message of human corruption that resonates throughout the whole book, there’s a sense of pity too. As the novel ends, Toomey composes himself to sleep, and considers that death will be coming for him soon: “I hope there are no dreams,” he writes. One gets the impression that an afterlife would not necessarily constitute a good dream. But are we better off without one…?


For more by Anthony Burgess, see:

The Kingdom of the Wicked (London: Alison and Busby, 2009)

A Dead Man in Deptford (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)

The Malayan Trilogy (London: Vintage Classics, 2000)


For more on Burgess’s work and context, see:

Anthony Burgess and Modernity, Alan Roughley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008)

A Clockwork Counterpoint: the Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess, Paul Philips (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010)

Anthony Burgess: A Study in Character, Marina Ghosh-Schellhorn (Frankfurt: Peter Lang,  1986)

Meanwhile, Over at Shiny: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader, and The Well, by Catherine Chanter

Without doubt, one of the prettiest covers of the year so far.

Shiny New Books is an online book recommendation magazine, published four times a year to highlight the best of fiction, nonfiction, reprinted fiction, and literary news in its Bookbuzz section. I now write reviews for them, and the Spring 2015 edition is up today! First up, Robyn Cadwallader’s historical novel The Anchoress, published by the discerning folks at Faber and Faber. Here’s a snippet of my review:

Imagine: you’re a woman in England in 1255. With a little bit of flexibility, depending on your father’s annual income, you have two life choices. One is to marry and produce children, or die trying. You may achieve some level of financial and spiritual independence if your husband predeceases you, but this is by no means certain. The second is to enter holy orders: to become a nun, or, for the exceptionally devout (and usually well connected, since this option requires life-long patronage from a wealthy individual), an anchoress. In Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel The Anchoress, seventeen-year-old Sarah chooses the latter option. As the book opens, she is being enclosed in a small rock-walled cell attached to the church of Hartham parish. She cannot leave the room, nor may she speak to any man other than her confessor or the bishop. Conversation with women is limited, and she is discouraged from looking into their faces; she may offer spiritual guidance to the villagers, but only through a curtain. She is to stay there until she dies.

I thought it was a very well-researched debut; you can read the rest here.

Secondly, we have Catherine Chanter’s remarkable The Well, published by the ever-reliable Canongate Books, which for lack of a better pigeonhole might well be shelved under “speculative eco-thriller”. It’s so much more than that, though:

Speculative fiction often works best when it takes one element of our everyday lives and tweaks it, showing us how much we rely on a certain cultural script or set of behaviours in order to function as we do. Sometimes this tweak takes the form of a natural phenomenon. In The Well, Catherine Chanter’s debut novel, it is a drought — a very long one. England has been suffering from a lack of rain for about a year (yes, a highly unlikely scenario, but swallow it, for your own sake. The book requires you to, and the book is good.) We are left to make up our minds about why. A reader can guess at vague climate change-related rationale, but Chanter wisely avoids the details of the situation; instead, she immerses us on the first page in her strange new world, and never hesitates for a moment as she draws us in.

I was enjoyably convinced by Chanter’s dedication to her story; read the rest of the review here.

And please spend some time poking around the rest of the reviews at Shiny New Books; I think it’s a public service, like talking to your favourite librarian or bookseller or friend or mother-in-law, or whoever else recommends your books to you. It’s also edited by some great and dedicated people, whose own work can be found here:

Annabel’s House of Books (Annabel)

Harriet Devine’s Blog (Harriet)

Stuck In A Book (Simon–whom I met last week! He’s very nice.)

Tales From the Reading Room (Victoria–whom I’ve only emailed with, but who is also very nice.)

Apt Reading for Holy Week

For choristers (like, ahem, me), the run-up to Easter is much more about singing than it is about reading. Good luck to you if you sing regularly and can get hold of a spare hour or so between Palm Sunday and Easter morning to chew up a novel (although the glorious Glinda, for one, has managed to go on tour, read a novel, and write a review of it for us at Quadrapheme, because she’s amazing.) This year is the first year for…a really long time…that I haven’t had a regular singing engagement somewhere. I hate it and will be finding somewhere new to sing should my proposed springtime move to London occur (fingers crossed). However, as a result, Holy Week has been all about them books.

The first half of the week was given over to Mark Doty’s new collection Deep Lane, which I’ll also be reviewing for Quadrapheme. I can’t give too much away here and now because, well, then you won’t read the proper review. Contemporary poetry is always difficult for me to start analyzing. I’m not quite sure why this is; possibly because the way I was taught to engage with poetry was formally, looking at its features and techniques. Much of contemporary poetry doesn’t yield to formal technique, or if it acknowledges it at all, it does so with an ironic smirk and twist. Doty’s work is wary of formal technique, but he has that ability to keep it all pinned together which I appreciate; he doesn’t do it through meter, but the lengths of his lines keep pace with each other, and his imagery is so direct, his voice so intimate and confiding.

Damn, there I go, writing the review! Anyway. On to book number two of this week: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, proof that a) when traveling I should always be made to keep a paperback in my shoulder bag, because b) if I don’t have one close to hand, I will go into a bookshop and buy one just for the purpose, never mind if I have two books in my suitcase already, because that suitcase will be on the luggage rack of the train for the duration of the journey and what will I read in the meantime, eh?? Answer: Earthly Powers. (At least I only bought one. In the past, as regular readers will know, travel paranoia has induced me to buy three at a time.)

Earthly Powers is a great book to be reading during Holy Week because it is all about religion, although it’s also not. As a teenager, I used to make a game out of seeing how much I could compress the themes and plot of a book whenever anyone asked me “What’s it about?” Were I to play the game with Earthly Powers, I would have to reply, “A gay Catholic novelist and the Pope.” (If I really wanted to compress and confuse, “gay Catholic novelists” would have to do. Maybe just “gay novelists”, or even “novelists”–our narrator, Kenneth Toomey, drops many a name, including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, “Willie” Maugham, and Norman Douglas, to whom one character rather delightfully refers as Abnorman Fuckless.)

That little pun–Abnorman Fuckless–is a good barometer for Burgess’s linguistic pyrotechnics. I know that’s an overused phrase, “linguistic pyrotechnics”, but the things he does, the wordplay, the vicious, perfect wit, reminds me of Catherine wheels going off one after the other. It’s so fucking funny; not laugh-aloud funny, but definitely snort-into-your-soup funny. There’s a delicate bitchiness to the diction that reminds me, at times, of Blackadder:

“As I foresaw, I am to assist in the canonization of the late Pope.”

“Oh God, oh my God, oh my dear God, you? Oh, Christ help us.”

“Don’t be silly, Geoffrey. You forget certain facts of my biography, if you ever, which I am inclined to doubt, knew them.”

And the one-off observations are peerless, as when Toomey, watching the Archbishop of Malta attempting to equivocate, says that he “played an invisible concertina for two seconds.” The precision of “two seconds”, the absurd picture of “an invisible concertina” and yet the absolute accuracy of how it looks when someone flutters their fingers back and forth, looking for a word… It’s very good writing.

At present, I am with Toomey in Malaya (now Malaysia, then still a British dependency), watching the effects of an exorcism performed by the aforementioned “late Pope”, who happens to be Toomey’s brother-in-law, back when he was merely Don Carlo Campanati.

It’s an incredibly weird book, but I’m enjoying it.

Also, it’s on my Classics Challenge list! So perhaps a fuller review once I’ve finished it. I’d like to finish it by tomorrow; goodness knows if that will happen. I’m off for a cup of tea and a good natter with the great-granddaughter of the Duchess of Warwick now, my dears. (This is actually true, although not as pretentious as it sounds. I’m staying with the Revered Ancestors for Easter and they live in one of those villages where everyone is either a great-granddaughter of a duchess or a retired brigadier colonel.) Toomey and Geoffrey would no doubt approve.