On Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

I read Satin Island long before it was added to this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. It was the only longlisted book I’d previously read, and at the time I thought it was the best novel of the year. I still think so. I haven’t had a chance to really write about it—naturally, blogging about books this good is more difficult than complaining about Anne Enright—but I wanted to cover a passage that especially caught my attention when I was flipping through the book again a few days ago.

It’s from the first chapter, section 1.5. Satin Island has fairly traditional-seeming chapters, but it’s actually written in sections similar to a philosophical treatise—or perhaps an essay, report, confession, or manifesto? The narrator, U, is at an airport in Turin, and this section introduces one of the most important elements of the story, insofar as there is one.

Around me and my screen, more screens: of other laptops, mobiles, televisions. These last screens had tickers scrolling across them, text whose subjects included the air delay in which I was caught up. Behind the tickers, news footage was running. One screen showed highlights of a football game. Another showed the aftermath of a marketplace truck bombing somewhere in the Middle East, the type of scene you always see in this kind of report: hysterical, blood-spattered people running about screaming. One of these people, a man who looked straight at the camera as he ran towards it, wore a T-shirt that showed Snoopy lounging on his kennel’s roof, the word Perfection hovering in the air above him. Then the scene gave over to an oil spill that had happened somewhere in the world that morning, or the night before: aerial shots of a stricken offshore platform around which a large, dark waterflower was

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Arctic Summer by E.M. Forster

The novella-length Arctic Summer by E.M. Forster is not in fact a novella but an unfinished novel. But its abrupt ending is one that fits naturally with the shorter form, and its easily tempting to treat it as a finished whole. At least I will do so, unprepared to do much else, especially with the extremely small knowledge of Forster that I have.

Martin Whitby, British Government bureaucrat, is changing trains on vacation with his wife and mother-in-law, on their way through Switzerland to Italy, when he trips and nearly falls onto the tracks. A fellow Englishman helps him up, and Whitby makes a point of tracking him down later on the train to thank him for, according to Whitby, saving his life. The young man, a certain cadet named March, thinks Whitby is making an awful lot of the thing, and proceeds on an uncomfortable conversation with Whitby about Milan and its surroundings.

Whitby is eager to please—eager to bring order wherever he possibly can, order being his life’s great work and that of his wife—and also eager to appear cultured and knowledgeable about Italy. But he’s unfamiliar with the frescoes March is seeking, ones which, as it turns out, were fashionable to go and see a generation earlier, when Whitby’s mother-in-law made her grand tour of Italy with her own husband. She is able to provide March with particulars, and once it becomes such a topic of conversation among the whole party, they basically invite themselves along on March’s pilgrimage to Tramonta, the medieval castle housing the frescoes.

March, at this point, definitely does not want to go anywhere with the Whitbys—at this point, he even believes Martin acted ungentlemanly by putting a woman in a position of disgrace—and ends up put entirely off his trip to

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Revisiting: “Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Robert Nichols, a fellow English war poet, wrote an introduction to Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems that is reprinted in my Dover Edition of the War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Nichols recounts a conversation he once had with Sassoon, on the topic of “certain exalté poems in [Nichols’s] Ardours and Endeavours.” Sassoon likes the poems, and says:

“War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever litlte may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.”

I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.

“Let no one ever,” he continued, “from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”

War poems are, in some sense, a kind of Remembrance. Many are about individual fallen comrades; many more refer to the unnamed dead. Ghosts are everywhere, and dying men are everywhere, suffering and taking their last breaths. The poems are a record of horror and calamity, and many are also accusations.

How then

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Revisiting: “What silly beggars they are to blunder in/And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame”

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

On Tuesday, one of the poems I wrote about, “To Any Dead Officer,” ends very bluntly, as I noted: “I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” This kind of bluntness is characteristic, especially as a sort of epigrammatic last line to Sassoon’s poems. “Trench Duty” ends, “I’m wide awake; and some chap’s dead.” “The General,” one of Sassoon’s turns at the vulgarly humorous side of war poetry, finishes abruptly and unfunnily for our two comic actors: “But he did for them both by his plan of attack.” “The One Legged Man” last “thought: ‘Thank God they had to amputate!’”

One of the most powerful uses of this blunt instrument is in “Repressions of War Experience,” a poem about a demobbed soldier who is badly shell-shocked. The poem is off-putting in many ways. Sassoon abandons his usual clear if somewhat irregular stanzas for a more open form, and the narrator seems to drift through this open form just as his consciousness, troubled as it is, drifts illogically from one topic to the next (“And you’re right as rain…./Why won’t it rain?…”) Like “To Any Dead Officer,” this poem deals with Sassoon’s view of the afterlife, and like many of his war poems has a strong hint of nature about it.

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,— Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,— But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls, Who wore their bodies out

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Revisiting: More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Yesterday I ended with a question about Sassoon’s bitterness. Today I want to discuss a theme in many of Sassoon’s poems that is often treated more sweetly than you might expect: death. I mean here the state of death, the afterlife in the most literal sense possible—what happens after life ends.

Sassoon speculates often on what death is like, and though he has several reuseable phrases at hand to euphemise it—“gone out patrolling in the dark”, “beyond the wire”, “gone West”—even these are poignant and not (yet?) cliché. Sassoon’s attitute toward death is one of curiosity and interest; that curiosity may be tinged with sadness but it’s motivated by the care and love he feels for his dead comrades. Here, in “To Any Dead Officer,” he begins:

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say, Because I’d like to know that you’re all right. Tell me, have you found everlasting day, Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

Elsewhere these attitudes toward death verge on the playful. In “The Investitute,” a soldier makes his way through the pearly gates, where “God says something kind because you’re dead,/And homesick, discontented with your fate.”

If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls; Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old. But you’re alone; and solitude annuls Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.

These lines, like the ones

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Revisiting: “The Kiss” by (and more on) Siegfried Sassoon

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Why not have a week on Siegfried Sassoon? I mean to say, on his war poems. I can name a few good reasons: I’m not even really supposed to have read them yet; I probably ought to be writing about a lot of other things first; should one shortish book of poetry really make up a week? But as Tom suggested, these war poets make good guinea pigs for poetry-blogging, and Sassoon seems a good place to start.

Anthony recently posted on one of the problems with reading and writing history, quoting a review in the TLS by Joanna Bourke that states that ”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence.”

Geoff Dyer is fairly quick to point this out in The Missing of the Somme.

For all their abhorrence of war the poets of protest like Owen, Sassoon and Graves continued—for very different reasons—to wage it. Dominic Hibberd has pointed out how the official citation for Owen’s Military Cross refers to his having ‘personally manipulated a captured enemy M[achine] G[un]…and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy’; in the Collected Letters Owen’s family offer a milder rewrite of the citation, in which he ‘personally captured an enemy Machine Gun…and took a number of prisoners’. Sassoon seems to have oscillated between bouts of frenzied violence and bitter loathing of the war that unleased this strain in him. Graves recalls that he ‘had never

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Last Friends by Jane Gardam

In the June issue of Open Letters Monthly, I review Last Friends, the third of Jane Gardam’s Filth novels.

Bring on the drama

As others are haunted about not reading enough women,or enough YA, or enough world literature, I frequently torture myself over how little I read that is not prose (among many, many other things, of course). It’s bad enough the way I read fiction at the expense of nonfiction, the share of the universe of excellent essays and criticism I neglect, but the amount of space in my reading life accorded to poetry and, especially, drama, is pretty pathetic.

I’ve gotten somewhat better in the poetry side of things, and on the nonfiction side as well, though these are both things I find difficult to blog about so you often miss them here. It’s something I’d like to rectify. But to even things out in the drama department (and initially inspired, truth be told, by a Netflix marathon of Kenneth Branagh on recent weekend, along with other similar influences), I recently decided I would finally get around to reading all of Shakespeare’s plays (and finally Ocford Word’s Classics has editions that are actually attractive)–in my own sweet time, of course–as well as get into some Jacobean drama.

The most notable experience of reading the play was noticing how very many lines have become common references or clichés. It’s not just “mine eyes dazzle!”; I basically felt like I knew somewhere between a third and half the play. This is not to denigrate reading it in any way–quite the opposite. It was an enlightening experience, as well as entertaining.

The funny thing is, just as with poetry, and with short stories if I’ve stayed away from them a long time, I was also quickly noticing how much I enjoy reading in the form and wondering why I don’t do more of it. I’ll get to Shakespeare separately, as King

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Robinson by Muriel Spark

I’m aiming to do a few “quick hit” type posts this week, both to help get back into the swing and to put off writing about The Good Soldier Švejk for a while (though I should be writing about Švejk immediately after my other war post, sigh).

Today’s I’ve got Robinson, Muriel Spark’s second novel, on the menu. It’s the story of a mid-twentieth-century plane crash of which there are three survivors, stranded on a desert island. Scratch that—the island is not desert, but inhabited by on Robinson (and named after him). Robinson is a man of some independent means who has chosen, for apparently religious reasons, to live basically as a hermit.

The narrator of the novel, January Marlow, is, like a major character in The Comforters, a convert to Catholicism, and though pragmatic is quite serious about the faith. There are Catholic, and specifically Catholic-among-the-English, subtexts to much of the novel. This is a feature of Spark’s writing I’m curious to see develop further as I go further into her novels chronologically, and I don’t have much to say about it at this point other than that Spark seems to me to be an overlooked “Catholic writer,” especially “Anglo-Catholic writer.” I don’t think many put her in the same camp as an Evelyn Waugh or a Graham Greene or a T.S. Eliot (or a Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy) in this respect, and I’ve been wondering more and more whether they shoud.

As for Robinson itself, it’s an exploration of the bounds of civil society and of trust, of religion and reasonableness, of coping mechanisms for both being alone and being among people, and of the changing behavior and even nature of human beings as they shift from a modern-sized society to a small—perhaps

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Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson

At the beginning of this week, I discussed the morality of Middlemarch, and how the results that Rohan Maitzen was somewhat uncomfortable with rest on the problem that Eliot’s morality is not based on dessert. Today, I’ve got a book about exactly the opposite problem.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, a 1973 novel by British avant-garde writer B.S. Johnson, features a protagonist who applies the principles of accounting to everyday life. Not in the sense that he balances his checkbook every night, though; he’s balancing his moral accounts with the rest of the world. I should say that there are a lot of stylistic features of Christie Malry that I’m not going to write about, at least not right now, that are wonderful fun (and I have more Johnson sitting next to me as I type).

Christie’s “first reckoning” with the world gives a general idea of what he’s doing. In the debit column, he puts “aggravation[s],” like “unpleasantness of bank manager” (his boss), “restriction of movement due to Edwardian Office Block,” (referring to the fact that he had to walk around rather than through a particular building), and “bulb importuning” (referring to a flower bulb sales flier). Christie assigns monetary values to all these debits—values which are, as they must be, arbitrary, though they seem to have at least some relation to each other. Bulb importuning costs a lot less than his office supervisor’s lack of sympathy about the death of Christie’s mother. But they don’t seem to be related to any external scale.

Meanwhile, the credit column consists of “recompense” for these debits, some of which are actions by others (“small kindnesses from Joan”), but most of which are Christie taking action on his own in an attempt to balance the accounts: he scratches the facade

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