Monday, July 25, 2011

I came across the Sunday Times list of “The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945” at Of Books and Bicycles.

  1. Philip Larkin – I don’t know as well as I should, but quite like what I’ve read.

  2. George Orwell - the two everyone has read, and some of the essays. On tea and grammar, well worth reading.

  3. William Golding – had trouble staying awake

  4. Ted Hughes – Paul Muldoon has rekindled my interest

  5. Doris Lessing – I’m ashamed to say not

  6. J. R. R. Tolkien - The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but otherwise just “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

  7. V. S. Naipaul – ah, Mr. Biswas

  8. Muriel Spark – not yet

  9. Kingsley Amis - only Lucky Jim, which I didn’t find as funny as I’d hoped

  10. Angela Carter - no

  11. C. S. Lewis - too much. Narnia, Lost Planet, and a heap of his apologetics. While once I had time for him, that phase has passed.

  12. Iris Murdoch – never been excited

  13. Salman Rushdie - Midnight’s Children and the Satanic Verses

  14. Ian Fleming – Mom wouldn’t let me when she still okayed my reading as a lad, so I devoured the lot and found them boring as a teenager

  15. Jan Morris – unknown to me

  16. Roald Dahl – Quite a lot, though not for some time. I was quite fond of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

  17. Anthony Burgess - no

  18. Mervyn Peake – mmm… Gormenghast-y goodness

  19. Martin Amis – never been excited

  20. Anthony Powell - nope

  21. Alan Sillitoe – I read The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner because of Belle & Sebastian. Haven’t bothered with anything else.

  22. John Le Carré – decent, clever spy-thriller stuff but never got super excited

  23. Penelope Fitzgerald - no

  24. Philippa Pearce - no

  25. Barbara Pym - no

  26. Beryl Bainbridge - no

  27. J. G. Ballard – no— classmates in grad school whose taste I trusted loathed Crash, so I've never bothered

  28. Alan Garner - no

  29. Alasdair Gray – don’t even know the name

  30. John Fowles - The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector, The Magus

  31. Derek Walcott – some of the poetry, but not much.

  32. Kazuo Ishiguro – I will always buy and make time for a new Ishiguro. I adore An Artist of the Floating World

  33. Anita Brookner – I don’t know her stuff

  34. A. S. Byatt – I quite like some-- Possession , especially--and was bored by others

  35. Ian McEwan – as variable as Byatt, but not quite reaching her heights

  36. Geoffrey Hill – He may be one of my favourite poets. I have been a different person since reading “Lacrimae Amantis”

  37. Hanif Kureishi – has been in the to-read pile for too long

  38. Iain Banks - no

  39. George Mackay Brown – haven’t even heard the name before

  40. A. J. P. Taylor - haven’t even heard the name before

  41. Isaiah Berlin – to-read

  42. J. K. Rowling – “One of these things is not like the other”. Yes, all 7, but man did she need an editor after the first

  43. Philip Pullman – I quite enjoy Pullman. His Dark Materials is brilliant, and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is fun and thought-provoking

  44. Julian Barnes – mmm…. I enjoy Barnes. I do want to know to whom I loaned A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters and if s/he will return it.

  45. Colin Thubron - haven’t even heard the name before

  46. Bruce Chatwin – I’ve had Patagonia recommended to me more than once, but others have panned it. Inertia is a significant force in my life

  47. Alice Oswald - haven’t even heard the name before

  48. Benjamin Zephaniah - haven’t even heard the name before

  49. Rosemary Sutcliff – I read a lot as a child. Warrior Scarlet and Knight’s Fee were particular favourites

  50. Michael Moorcock - haven’t even heard the name before

I should look up the people I haven’t heard of.
And the Times needs to have the heads of its staff checked for omitting David Mitchell.
And I'm appalled at how poorly I did with having read the small number of women on this list.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 1997.

This collection of essays is my first foray into reading Wallace. I’ve been meaning to spend some time with his work for a while now, and am now both glad that I have and hoping to find more time to spend with Consider the Lobster and Infinite Jest.

The writing is fun: recursive, exuberant, given to marvellous and unexpected comparisons as a way of bringing a scene to life, and richly evocative: “an unshot skeet’s movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean’s sky is sun-like—i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left—and that its disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad.” What I found most remarkable were the two travel pieces, “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” about the Illinois State Fair, and the title piece “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” about a Caribbean cruise. They feel at first like deeply personal travelogues, essays that describe the scene and bring you into the author’s experience complete with all his entertaining and identifiable neuroses, and seem to lack coherence other than that given by the passage of time. In reading them, though, I came to see that the seemingly-relaxed structure is a front: Wallace has very deliberate points about what it means to be human and what it means to experience, that are worth discovering in his meandering and footnoted-way. And oh, the footnotes 1 in all their parenthetical and humorous delight, never detracting from the piece but always adding something. One has to read the footnotes!

The only piece in the collection I found myself skimming rather than reading was the essay on David Lynch, and while it examines what makes Lynch a different sort of auteur than many directors, my lack of familiarity with and interest in Lynch himself wasn’t overcome by Wallace’s engaging writing.

Captivating but difficult is the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” a piece I wish I had read many years ago. Arguing that television exists as a medium wholly invested in irony, Wallace builds on the brilliant Lewis Hyde to argue “… irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks” and thus television can never be a truly effective tool for the novelist: authors of fiction have an obligation to use modern references, to be sure, but to transcend irony to create something else. He quotes Hyde’s idea from “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking” that “Irony has only emergence use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” I’m excerpting an idea from a complex piece, but it serves to present Foster Wallace as someone who, in this postmodern age, felt that fiction is more than a player in the great game of deconstruction.

I look forward to the next bit of time I’ll be able to spend with his writing.

1 and the footnotes to the footnotes 2
          2 and so on

Friday, July 08, 2011

Stephen Fry, The Fry Chronicles, 2010.

The Fry Chronicles picks up where Moab Is My Washpot left off, offering a vertiginous stream of wordplay and eloquence to describe a portion of Fry’s life—in this case, his years at university and just thereafter as he establishes his career. It ends just before Fry and Hugh Laurie are to begin a tour of England to prepare for A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and with the start of a new problem that we readers are to assume will challenge Fry’s life for some time to come.

Fry writes his story lightly, interspersed with understandable but too frequent heavy-handed apologies for the what- some-might-consider-trivial woes that mark his life story. Except for these asides, his writing is deeply engaging. We are immersed first in the world of Cambridge, and learn how he finds his way into the Footlights, and then brought into the world of television in London (and radio, and magazines, and musicals). Characteristic throughout is his sense of discomfort in his environs, always suspecting that he’ll be found out to have less talent than he has been credited with by others, and it’s this feeling that gives plot to what is otherwise a fairly linear string of events in Fry’s life. Told otherwise, his biography would seem nearly golden: despite a few expulsions and an arrest for credit card fraud, he attends Queens’ College, Cambridge, and then soars to a magnificent career as an entertainer, earning and receiving opportunity after chance and indulging tastes for cars and computers along the way. Yet this insecurity never distanced me from Fry as I read: it’s the signature element of who he is, rather than an affectation, and I found it both endearing and easy to identify with.

I’ll look forward to the next volume.