Monthly Archives: March 2021

Martin Amis – Heavy Water and Other Stories

I know it’s passé to like Martin Amis but I do. The first Amis I read was Money (1984), and if you’ve read that novel you’ll know that, for better or worse, that’s not an encounter you’re likely to forget. For me, it was all positive: a junk-fuelled wonder of voice and vocabulary that had me laughing throughout. I’ve been less dazzled by his other novels, but who wouldn’t be after such an introduction? What has never failed to delight me, though, is the non-fiction. Amis is a terrific essayist and reviewer – forthright yet unpretentious – and his collections The Moronic Inferno (1986) and The War Against Cliché (2001) are essential reading for any budding scribbler. In my eagerness for more short-form Amis, then, I turn now to this, his second book of short fiction, Heavy Water and Other Stories.

Image Credit: Vintage

It’s more a collection than a book. Published in 1998, Heavy Water draws together nine stories dating back as early as 1976 – and it shows. Like the pre-Money novels, the pre-Money stories find Amis still fishing for his style, still very much under the influence. So with ‘Denton’s Death,’ the oldest story here, we get Amis trying Kafka out for size:

Suddenly Denton realized that there would be three of them, that they would come after dark, that their leader would have his own key, and that they would be calm and deliberate, confident that they had all the time they needed to do what had to be done.

Another apprentice work is the title track, ‘Heavy Water,’ about an elderly woman caring for her intellectually disabled son during a cruise. A tragicomic chamber piece, the story makes its confined setting a microcosm of society at large, in this case England circa 1977:

This year […] the cruise operators had finally abandoned the distinction between first and second class. A deck and B deck still cost the same amount more than C deck or D deck. But the actual distinction had finally been abandoned.

The result is oddly old-fashioned, the sort of story Angus Wilson might have written in the ’50s. But I can’t deny it moved me: the mother’s forbearance, the son’s sadness. Not what you expect when you open a book by Martin Amis.

What you expect is a story like ‘State of England.’ Its protagonist, Big Mal, is a classic Amis grotesque. A bouncer-turned-petty criminal, Mal “is built like a brick khazi: five feet nine in all directions” and is currently nursing “a shocking laceration on the side of his face.” This he got, hilariously, while attempting a clamping scam on some operagoers’ cars and getting caught in the act: “it must have been decades since he had been with a rougher crew,” he explains to his estranged wife Sheilagh. The occasion of this marital meeting is their son Jet’s school sports day, where the real competition is happening on the sidelines: “The dads: half of them weren’t even English – thus falling at the first hurdle, socially.” An outed philanderer, Mal is even lower on the pecking order and finds himself cold-shouldered by the other parents. In response, Mal does something we all recognise – turn to his mobile phone: “With a mobile riding on your jaw you could enter the arena enclosed in your own concerns, your own preoccupation, your own business.” Well, we recognise this now; but it seems a very percipient observation to have made back in 1996.

Amis proves himself an acute observer of other aspects of society: of LGBT issues in ‘Straight Fiction’; of algorithmic living in ‘Let Me Count the Times.’ In the later ones, though, Amis’ greatest inspiration is unfortunately himself. Too often he slips into self-parody. I return to ‘State of England’: “Bouncing wasn’t really about bouncing – about chucking people about. Bouncing was about not letting people in. That was pretty much all there was to it – to bouncing.” Amis is famous for this kind of wordplay, and gets away with it in the novels, I think, because novels are elastic and capacious and can take it. In a short story, however, every word needs to count, and so when Amis starts to riff like this, the work suffers.

It is no coincidence, then, that the best story here is also the most rigorously structured. Inverting the worlds of poetry and film, so that poetry is a big bucks industry and “screenplay writing” an earnest, solitary endeavour, ‘Career Move’ flicks back and forth between the life of a poet and that of a screenwriter. It’s a brilliant inversion that sends up the absurdity of Hollywood better than any realist telling could:

They talked about other Christmas flops and bombs, delaying for as long as they could any mention of TCTs ‘’Tis he whose yester-evening’s high disdain’, which had cost practically nothing to make and had already done a hundred and twenty million in its first three weeks.    

It also permits Amis to show off his talent for nomenclature. Among our screenwriter’s works, for instance, are such gems as Offensive from Quasar 13, Valley of the Stratocasters and, my personal favourite, Medusa Takes Manhattan. And as for the names of the prequel and sequel to the hit poem ‘’Tis’ – well, they are too good to spoil here. In fact, the whole story is too good: the first in the collection, it sets an unattainable standard for the others, meaning a sequential reading of Heavy Water will inevitably disappoint. So if you do happen upon a copy of this book, my advice is this: save ‘Career Move’ for last.

by George Cochrane

Heavy Water and Other Stories is published by Vintage and is available here.

John Berryman – John Berryman (Poet to Poet Series)

I’ve owned this slim little book for nearly seven years, and it still has the paper price tag on the back: £3.99. Those were the days. I bought it after a night of undergrad boozing chez my friend Tristram, whose bookshelves I had combed in conspiracy with another friend, Thea. Thea pulled out this very edition of John Berryman – I remember being struck by the stack of shot glasses on the cover – and told me that I had to read him. The Dream Songs especially.

Credit: Faber and Faber

And though 58 Dream Songs (chosen from 385 of them) make up about three-fifths of the book, it was Berryman’s sonnets that I first latched on to. At this point in life I was devoted to poetic form, slavishly so, and that devotion struggled to find a place for The Dream Songs’ histogrammic six-line stanzas, sometimes rhymed and sometimes not. The sonnets attracted me by virtue of their shape – time was when everything I wrote was a sonnet – but they were sonnets with a voltage that I had rarely felt:

All we were going strong last night this time,
the mots were flying & the frozen daiquiris
were drowning, supine on the floor lay Lise
listening to Schubert grievous and sublime,
my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, an evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstacies –
among so much good we tamped down the crime.

The weather’s changing. This morning was cold,
as I made for the grove, without expectation,
some hundred sonnets in my pocket, old,
to read her if she came. Presently the sun
yellowed the pines & my lady came not
in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down and wrote.

For years I wished that the book gave me more than a tiny window onto Berryman’s sonnets (21 out of 115), but over time I have come to think Michael Hofmann’s selection near-faultless. It’s surpassed only by his introduction, possibly the finest poet-to-poet preface that I’ve ever read. Hofmann admits that “any selection of Berryman has, to some extent, to oppose itself to the worst tendencies of the poet. There will be a little denial in it, and a little false innocence”. Otherwise one gives too much space to Berryman’s most irresponsible speech-acts, like this:

The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business… being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer… I hope to be nearly crucified.

Berryman suffered the worst possible ordeal at the age of eleven, when he saw his father walk out into the garden and shoot himself in the head. The sins of the father did not die with him: instead, the son inherited the urge to self-destruct. This translated into alcoholism, the extra-marital affair chronicled in the sonnets, and finally his own suicide, when he jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi.

Those catastrophic tendencies find voice in the Dream Songs’ protagonist Henry, who comes and goes, twirling around Berryman’s own biographical trajectory. But whether writing about his own implosions or the implosions of others, Berryman usually resists (self-)pity, which of course makes him the more harrowing. The Dream Songs include a handful of elegies for Delmore Schwartz, the Brooklyn poet who crashed and burned and became an Adonian martyr figure among Berryman’s circle, inspiring the title character of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. In Dream Song 149, however, grief is “too astray [perhaps in the sense of ‘wild’] for tears”:

This world is becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro’ all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref
and grief too astray for tears.

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.

The poem is studded with allusions to the greats. “Can Delmore die?” picks up Shakespeare’s “Can Fulvia die?” (Antony and Cleopatra), while “Harms & the child I sing” grotesquely inverts the opening three words of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Arms and the man I sing” (arma virumque cano). But the poem’s pathos plays along the language of dead platitudes: “I imagine you have heard the terrible news”. And “his promise” – at how many funerals has the inadequate word ‘promise’ been trotted out? Perhaps the saddest thing, which anyone who has read Humboldt’s Gift will recognise, is that Delmore died “miserably & alone”, deserted not only by his friends but also by his talent. “When he was young” he was “gift-strong”, but his gift, like Humboldt’s, abandoned him in later life. In the next Dream Song, #150, Berryman writes “I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved / but it is not so”.

For his part, Berryman pre-empted a similar decline by sabotaging his own poetic praxis. Love & Fame (1970) reads like a man who has given up trying to make sense of life and is content to laugh at it; certainly, he’s stopped trying to shape it to a real form – the book’s quatrains seem token, almost a mockery of the verse tradition. As one Dream Song says, “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify and comfort”, a gloss that probably applies to most of the Berryman corpus. After all, what is there to understand in the opening ‘stanza’ of ‘First Night at Sea’?

I’m at a table with Canadians.
He translates Villon. Villon! What Canadian
could English make of those abject bravura laments?
He says he’ll give me a copy.

But reading with the hindsight of an age when most poets are ‘prosey’ at one point or another, these poems have a power of their own. They involve some cognitive leaps that the reader can only hope to keep up with, but they speak with a plainness alien to much of Berryman’s oeuvre, not least the sonnets. No one could call them disciplined, and my recent purchase of Berryman’s Collected Poems (everything except The Dream Songs) has shown me how uneven his body of work is, an unevenness that Hofmann does a fine job of hiding. When you have access to all the sonnets, you realise that they’re riddled with ellipses, which in my view represents a failure of syntax. Indeed, most of Berryman’s poems smack of something unfinished, unconsummated; however astonishing they are, very few of them invite the word ‘perfect’. One that might, though, is Dream Song 145:

Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong
for going on forty years – forgiveness time –
I touch now his despair,
he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower
but he did not swim out with me or my brother
as he threatened –

a powerful swimmer, to      take one of us along
as company in the defeat sublime,
freezing my helpless mother:
he only, very early in the morning,
rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window
and did what was needed.

I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong
and so undone. I’ve always tried. I – I’m
trying to forgive
whose frantic passage, when he could not live
an instant longer, in the summer dawn
let Henry live on.

That brutal, tight-lipped terseness, “did what was needed”. And the compression – not “I’m trying to forgive him / whose frantic passage”; just “I’m trying to forgive / whose frantic passage”. No words more than necessary, as necessity is the argument that Berryman puts for his father, who “could not live an instant longer”. It relieves his father of the guilt of choice, perhaps so the son can lay the questions to rest. All attempts to “read that wretched mind” have failed, though “I’ve always tried”. Is there a poem more simple and devastating?

Well, maybe. Maybe the last poem in this little book:

He Resigns

Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
Her having gone away
in spirit from me. Hosts
of regrets come and find me empty.

I don’t feel this will change.
I don’t want any thing
or person, familiar or strange.
I don’t think I will sing

any more just now;
ever. I must start
to sit with a blind brow
above an empty heart.

by Harry Cochrane

Walker Percy – The Moviegoer

I’m always wary when new editions of old books trumpet their trophy cabinets. The really great ones don’t need to. Take my Penguin Modern Classics Invisible Man, for instance: you have to look very closely in its front matter to find any mention of its National Book Award. Whereas my Methuen edition of The Moviegoer emblazons its National Book Award across its front cover. Happily for readers, this is not a reflection on the novel’s quality; only on its impact. For while The Moviegoer may have come top in ’62, it is the novels that didn’t win that year, Franny and Zooey, Catch-22 and Revolutionary Road, that have had the last laugh, all going on to achieve classic status and platinum sales figures (much later in the case of Yates’ book) in a way I don’t think The Moviegoer has ever quite managed. Which is a shame, because it really is a terrific novel. 

Image credit: Brill/Darren Peterson

Evoking The Great Gatsby and not suffering by the comparison is just one of its achievements. Take its narrator, Binx Bolling. He bears a strong resemblance to Nick Carraway. Both do the same job; both are on the cusp of thirty. He even sounds like Nick:

I am a stock and bond broker. It is true that my family was somewhat disappointed in my choice of a profession. Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longing […] It is not a bad life at all.

You can be sure that anyone who says that at the start of a novel is not going to feel that way for long. Though it is hard to pinpoint exactly what throws Binx off course. As you can see, he lives a fairly hermetic life. A bachelor and a business owner, his only real vice is his womanizing, with each of his secretaries – Marcia, Linda and the one we meet, Sharon – falling foul of his charms. These are also hard to pinpoint. Like Nick, Binx is really quite feckless – “sure” is his response to just about any question – and his snobbish Aunt Emily is allowed to completely engineer his life.

With this in mind, you might expect Binx’s voracious moviegoing to be his way of escape, of living by proxy, but it is not quite that. This extract illuminates it, I think:

it was here in the Tivoli [theater] that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra. It was during a re-release of Red River a couple of years ago that I became aware of the first faint stirrings of curiosity about that particular seat I sat in […] I made a mark on my seat arm with my thumbnail. Where, I wondered, will this particular piece of wood be twenty years from now, 543 years from now?

Place and time are key. Binx’s nightmare is that he should “be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time.” He craves specificity, what I’ll call “here and now-ness.” That, as I understand it, is the object of “the search” he talks so much about, and when he does not have it, he feels untethered. That’s when “the malaise” sets in; the malaise that suddenly “settles […] like a fall-out” during an otherwise-happy day out with Sharon. There are a few more of these Don DeLillo-esque abstractions throughout the novel, none clearly defined, suggesting to me a depressive who doesn’t have the language – or want the language – to understand that’s what he is. And he’s not the only one. Ever since her fiancé died in a car crash the day before their wedding, cousin Kate has also suffered bouts of blackness and has been a constant source of worry to her family. With Kate now due to marry again, her mental state is once more under the microscope and Aunt Emily enjoins Binx, the only one in whose company Kate feels comfortable, to keep an eye on her.

Given the place and time of the novel – New Orleans circa 1960 – Aunt Emily’s concerns are perfectly plausible. This is a society held together with spit and glue; an old world not yet touched by civil rights, but about to be, and an erratic element like Kate is a threat to that. In Aunt Emily’s African American manservant, Mercer, for instance, Uncle Tom is still very much in evidence: “My aunt truly loves him and sees him as a faithful retainer, a living connection with a bygone age.” But there is change in the air. Watching a Mardi Gras parade file past, Binx and Kate bear witness to “a vanguard of half a dozen extraordinary Negroes dressed in dirty Ku Klux Klan robes” who seem to presage this change. The result is a New Orleans of semi-mythic power, like Fitzgerald’s Long Island; it’s no coincidence that Binx lives in a suburb called “Elysian Fields.”

There is also literal change in the air; storms are forever brewing and venting, with direct consequences on those below: “[Kate] will not feel wonderful long. […] I know very well that when the night falls away into gray distances, she will sink into herself.” Now, I am usually allergic to descriptions of sky and weather – and advise all writers to avoid them – but Percy’s really are wonderful:

The squall line has passed over. Elysian Fields is dripping and still, but there is a commotion of winds high in the air where the cool heavy front has shouldered up the last of the fretful ocean air. The wind veers around to the north and blows away the storm until the moon swims high, moored like a kite and darting against the fleeing shreds and ragtags of cloud.

In a novel of ideas and alienation like this one, such lyricism really leavens it. That doubling up of adjectives in “cool heavy front” I particularly like. Percy will often do this: ask two opposing adjectives to get along without the help of a comma. Others include “furious affectionate,” “rapturous rebellious,” “peevish-pleasant.” In these, we get a microcosm of the whole novel, which depicts a place in barely functioning harmony.

Sometimes it doesn’t function at all. There is an awkward episode late on when Kate and Binx sit on a mezzanine and look down on one of Aunt Emily’s society dinner parties that really doesn’t work; seriously, I have no grasp on the geography of this scene. The humour we get at the expense of Mercer also sits uneasily. Apart from that, though, I struggle to think of a reason why The Moviegoer is not in the first rank of novels. It did for me what DeLillo (to come back to him) fails to do for me: discuss big ideas with wit and warmth.

by George Cochrane

The Moviegoer is published by Methuen and is available here.

Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends

With a third Sally Rooney novel on the way and a TV adaptation of this, her first, in the works, Conversations with Friends is surely about to re-enter the conversation. So let’s talk about it.

Image credit: Elliana Esquivel/Faber

The title tells you two important things about the novel: its dialogue-heaviness and its simplicity of prose. What it fails to give you a sense of is the novel’s narrative. There are arguments, yes, soliloquies, certainly, flirtations, most definitely, but I’m hard pressed to remember anything so mundane as a conversation ever happening. Part of the problem, though I accept this may just be my problem, are these so-called ‘Friends’. There is nothing that annoys me more, in life and in art, than a precocious teenager who has the entire history of Western philosophy at their fingertips, and in Conversations with Friends we get just such a character in Bobbi (okay, she is just out of teenagehood, but she is still preternaturally brainy). Mercifully, Bobbi is not our narrator – that would be her friend (and ex-girlfriend) Frances – and she is somewhat redeemed by the suggestion that maybe her brilliance is all in Frances’ head. That idea I like.

Frances, you see, is comparatively unremarkable. Early on, she admits to having no “real personality” of her own and, by way of disguising this, will change her spots on cue:

Bobbi and I often performed [Frances’] poetry at spoken word events and open mic nights that summer. When we were outside smoking and male performers tried to talk to us, Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing, so I had to act as our representative. This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work. I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things.

Given this talent for acting, Frances’ involvement with an actual actor seems a match made in heaven. Nick is in his early thirties and, though his career may be on the wane, his looks are not. He is “exceptionally handsome” – to the point of absurdity, I have to say – and genuinely quite nice too, if a little withdrawn. There is just one problem: he’s married. Worse, his wife, Melissa, is a friend of Bobbi and Frances’ and is writing a hagiographic magazine piece on their poetry act. These are our players, then, these our complications, and the rest of the novel is about how these rub up against each other – literally rub, in the case of Nick and Frances.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the setting. Frances and Bobbi are students at Trinity College Dublin, and apart from a brief sojourn in France, the whole novel takes place in Ireland. But you would hardly know it. Not a single mention of the Troubles, nor an ounce of self-consciousness about same-sex relationships. It’s refreshing, and Rooney is surely at the vanguard of a new Irish literature here. She is particularly good on technology, something many contemporary writers are still afraid of, and quotes emails and texts with a reverence usually reserved for letters. She is aware that we communicate differently online, is alive to how ambiguous and easily-misconstrued these messages can be, and gets those registers just right. She’s not completely damning of technology, either. Trying to work out Bobbi’s true feelings for her, Frances “decide[s] to start reading over [their] old instant message conversations” one night:

It comforted me to know that my friendship with Bobbi wasn’t confined to memory alone, and that textual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary.

How is this different from Bendrix poring over Sarah’s diary in The End of the Affair? One of the most common criticisms of the internet is its permanence, but have we not always been recording our innermost feelings on things that will outlast us?  

Published in 2017, Conversations with Friends must also mark the first appearance in fiction of the Netflix generation. Bobbi and Frances have a very casual relationship with film and TV, putting things on to zone out in a way that seems completely true to how we live in 2021. That said, they have good taste (of course they have), and the novel is deliciously cineliterate. All the way through, its frank, almost screwbally depiction of female friendship smacks of Greta Gerwig and, sure enough, the novel does not leave us without a reference to Frances Ha. However, where a ninety-minute film can get away with a threadbare plot, a three-hundred-page novel can’t, and perhaps my biggest issue with Conversations with Friends is how it meanders. Frances and Nick break up and get back together one too many times; the alcoholic father thread seems to be coming from a whole other kind of Irish novel; and the late-in-the-day illness of our main character is such a clichéd way of injecting energy into a flagging text. I wish Rooney had had the courage of her convictions and stuck to her conversations, rather than falling back on these false notes of melodrama, because as a chronicler of how we communicate in the twenty-first century, she is peerless.

by George Cochrane

Conversations with Friends is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.

The Second Mania: A Jamesian Diary

For years I steered clear of Henry James. My mother had long championed The Portrait of a Lady, which sounded rather too fey and effete, and looked rather too long. When I learned that he was John Banville’s, one of my favourite writers, favourite writer, I was disappointed. When I became hooked on Donna Leon’s series of Venetian murder mysteries, I instinctively sided with the unconvinced Commissario Brunetti who, however highly cultured, is not cultured as highly as his wife, a Jamesian scholar lovingly lavish with his epithet of ‘The Master’. My root prejudice probably went back to university and Ezra Pound’s needless defence of Dante: ‘For sheer dullness one reads Henry James, not the Inferno‘.

But it was in my last year as a student that a dear musicologist friend of mine lent me The Turn of the Screw, which he had read on account of the opera that his favourite composer, Britten, had made from it. This looked more appealing than The Portrait of a Lady: it was shorter, for one thing, and the blurb was enticingly gothic. Elliott gave it to me with a glowing review, having read it in one wintry, nocturnal, fireside sitting. At the moment of reaching ‘the part with the ghost’, he had looked up, caught his reflection in the dark window, and spilled his whisky with fright. I told my mother about this new borrowing. ‘I hate The Turn of the Screw,’ she said. ‘The only Henry James worth reading is The Portrait of a Lady.’

It’s strange how memories twine themselves around the most convenient chronology. Even now I have to remind myself that The Turn of the Screw was not the first Henry James that I read. It was the first Henry James that I had, on my bookshelves, but there it remained for a good eighteen months while I, for once the educator rather than the educated, spent a year teaching English in Ravenna, a small city about a hundred miles down the road from Venice. As with every Italian town there was a Via Mazzini, but Ravenna’s appeared to be semi-officially known as the Via dei Poeti for its dozen or so panels, which sported quotations from not only the poets but also from the artists, novelists, popes and psychiatrists who had spent time in the place and had had something to say about it. There was T. S. Eliot and his French poem ‘Lune de Miel’; there was Oscar Wilde and his early prizewinner ‘Ravenna’; there was a postcard from Klimt and appreciative grunts from Freud. And there was Henry James and a few lines from his essay on the city, which one can find collected into his Italian Hours: ‘For Ravenna, however, I had nothing but smiles – grave, reflective, philosophic smiles, I hasten to add’, just in case we suspected him of outright, vulgar happiness.

But it was not until the following April that I read more than this panel. It was The Aspern Papers, a novella similar in brevity to The Turn of the Screw, and it was divided over my journey back to Northumberland for the Easter holidays, which began on the gorgeous Apennine line from Faenza to Florence and finished on the ungorgeous one from Leeds to Newcastle. Between the two there was a flight, on which I recall reading nothing. I probably would not have completed The Aspern Papers that day had I not fought with my then-fidanzata soon after landing. We sat on the train in silence, side by side, I with The Aspern Papers, she with an Italian translation of Daisy Miller. The frostiness between us was entirely Jamesian, but I feel that his characters would have oiled it over with strained, elegant civilities.

The Aspern Papers, then, was (or were) my introduction to Henry James. I loved it. But unusually for any book of mine, still more so for one so beloved, I do not remember where it came from. I can point to the provenance of most of the volumes on my shelves. This one was second-hand, from the beautiful old Penguin range with the bone-coloured backs and spines and the oval frame around the title. I have no recollection of buying it; why would I have bought it, with my avowed, uninformed denial of The Master’s mastery? I can see myself seduced by the edition, its slightness, its synopsis, its Venetian setting and its story of a hallowed poet’s prying biographer, scrupling at nothing to prise the surviving letters from the aged innamorata, certainly not at preying on the confidence and marital hopes of her niece. Yes, I can see myself falling for that. I am certain that I did not go out to Ravenna with The Aspern Papers, yet I had them with me when I took that train to Florence. I must date it, then, to the Christmas holidays of 2016-17, probably as a stocking-filler; I cannot imagine having found it on the foreign-language shelves of any of Ravenna’s bookshops, still less having forgotten such a find.

As much as I loved The Aspern Papers, I waited maybe another six months before finally picking up The Turn of the Screw at around the same time as belatedly reading another nasty, lurid, poisonous little tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Reinstalled in my family home in Northumberland, which I watched over with my parents at work and my brother at university, my thoughts had taken a turn for the dark; perhaps I saw the frame of Bly in my own rural residence. Still the taper burned slow: it was not until a year later, now living and working in Florence, that the Jamesian impulse fully seized me. The brother got me The Ambassadors for my birthday; I meanwhile snatched up every two-euro second-hand copy that I could find in the Paperback Exchange. Some I had vaguely heard of, such as The Wings of the Dove; some not at all, like The Awkward Age and Roderick Hudson, his first novel. Each time I returned to the shop there seemed to be a new one, sneaked into the box beneath the shelves. It was as if someone was drip-feeding them to me.

Of course, there is a world of difference between reading and collecting, and James understood the perils of the second mania. He understood how one can be possessed with the desire to possess, simply for possession’s sake. We see it in The Outcry, which I bought in a booksale at the Harold Acton Library on the Arno’s south bank: an American with a bottomless chequebook tussles with an English lord for an heirloomed portrait, which over the course of the novel spikes and falls in value depending on the identity of the supposed artist. It is beneath Beckenridge Bender to pay anything less than a huge, headline-grabbing sum, and it is beneath Lord Theign – who desperately needs it – to accept any at all. Never does James give us any details about the portrait itself, its dimensions, its medium, its uniquities, for none of that is of the least interest to either party. All that matters is the having.

The first mania only compounds the second. Starting with The Ambassadors would put many a reader off for life, but since beginning with The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and Roderick Hudson, I have battled through subsequent longueurs in search of the chills I have come to presume. The Jamesian world is a labyrinth, and characters you’ve met before glide through the passages: the sculptor Gloriani, for instance, a major player in the Rome of Roderick Hudson and a guest at a number of Parisian socials in The Ambassadors. My current desideratum, meanwhile, is a lesser-known novel named after the Princess Casamassima, née Christina Light, Roderick Hudson‘s bored, self-loathing siren.

Were it by any other writer, I would search for that Princess among the Amazons. But all of my Jamesian buys have been occasional, none premeditated, and if Henry James has infected me with the acquisitiveness that rules so many of his characters, he has also infected me with the desire that rules almost all of them: to do things properly. The Beckenridge Bender of the twenty-first century would log into eBay, locate a first edition of book and bid ten times its asking price, blowing all rivals out of the market. But the breadline has necessarily attuned my sympathies more to the impoverished Lord Theign, who affects indifference to the point of…well, that you’ll see when you read it. Like him, I shall feign insouciance and bide my time until I should cross paths with The Princess Casamassima, as Roderick Hudson does, ultimately and fatally, in the unlikeliest of places.

by Harry Cochrane

This piece was written in summer 2019. A second Jamesian diary entry will be out soon.

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

I can’t imagine a career in medicine leaves much time for writing novels, so the fact that practising oncologist Austin Duffy has just released his second is impressive enough. What’s more impressive still is the quality of that novel. Low-key, but with a cumulative power that sneaks up on you, Ten Days is a deft and affecting meditation on grief and memory.

Image Credit: Brian Podolsky/EyeEm/Getty Images

The rather nondescript title refers to the Ten High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar. The novel begins on the eve of these, with sixteen-year-old Ruth and her goy father, Wolf, on the plane from London to New York. In the baggage rack above them are the ashes of Wolf’s recently deceased wife, Miriam, whose dying wish to have her remains scattered on the Hudson they are on their way to honour. At least, that is the official reason for their visit. Wolf, however, has a few more things on his agenda, including selling his London property and arranging for Ruth, who has only packed for ten days, to stay on in New York and live full time with Miriam’s Jewish family. It is unclear, initially, where he will be going.

The day after their arrival, the pair join Miriam’s family at their home in Queens for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a tense occasion. Cremation is all but forbidden in Judaism and so the very fact of Miriam’s ashes is an uncomfortable one for her devout relatives. Doubly so that Wolf is carrying them. Irreligious and a serial philanderer, Wolf has only recently re-entered Ruth and Miriam’s lives after a long estrangement and has never been popular with his wife’s side of the family. Nor his own. Under no illusions about how he treated her mother, Ruth is outwardly hostile to Wolf and the pair are constantly bickering. Fortunately, Duffy knows what a teenager sounds like:

‘So what do you want to do today then?’
She ignored him, so he had to repeat the question.
‘Nothing’ Ruth said, not looking up from her phone.
‘Well we have to do something.’ […]
‘I told you already,’ she said. ‘I’ve got plans.’

Now doesn’t that ring true?

Of course, Ruth’s uncommunicativeness is intensely painful for her father. Even more so when he does occasionally get through to her. For instance, during one of their exchanges, he cracks a joke that makes her laugh and “for just a minute there was no tension between them and they sat like any other father daughter.” But only for a minute. Duffy is excellent at these glimpsed moments. A photographer by trade, Wolf is alive to them too. The following sentence comes from the dialogue above, where I have put the ellipsis:

When she did look up for a split second it was Miriam’s face staring back at him. The reddish tint to Ruth’s hair, it was all Mir, her complexion darker than normal in the light they were sitting in. He didn’t want to move an inch in case she disappeared.

These misrecognitions become more frequent as the novel goes on, so much so that we start to question Wolf’s mental state. Clearly he is grieving, but is there also something else?

All the while, the world around our characters is carrying on as usual. That’s the cruel thing about grief, the indifference of others, and there is surely nowhere more indifferent than New York City. Duffy evokes the place well. During their stay, Wolf takes Ruth on a tour of her mother’s old haunts and shows her the exact bit of pavement where he said goodbye to Miriam after their first date:

Ruth was silent and they both stared and at the same time moved towards the totally nondescript patch of sidewalk that he was pointing at, absorbed for a few moments by its imaginative stimulus and – for the pair of them if for nobody else on the planet – its historical resonance.

The way we invest places with memories – place attachment – is one of the novel’s central concerns. Later on, Wolf visits Miriam’s old flat. Though it has been renovated beyond almost all recognition, “as if the past was an infectious disease that had been stamped out,” Wolf recognises it instantly. But when he is dead and gone, and his memory gone with him, what will remain of Miriam then? Especially in a city like New York, where the landscape is always changing, where life is moving at a million miles per hour, memory will always be losing ground to modernity.

In this context, religion does still seem to have a place in the modern world. For all Wolf’s sneering, it is a fact that Miriam’s Jewish family are better at remembering than he is; the pictures of long-dead ancestors on their walls, their rituals and litanies are all ways of keeping the past alive. Duffy makes a compelling case for this but doesn’t overstate it. Rather, Ten Days is a novel of character and connection, a story of memory that has continued to live in mine.

by George Cochrane

Ten Days is published by Granta and is available here.

Kate Clanchy – How to Grow Your Own Poem

How to Grow Your Own Poem is a title well chosen. It pops the myth of ex nihilo creation, which as Kate Clanchy repeats throughout the book, is not how people write poetry. It invokes Keats – if poetry does not come like leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all – and it puts poetry right in the ecosystem, a breathing and pulsing kingdom of life. If the poet, the title implies, gives words the care and nourishment that a gardener gives their garden, a poem will naturally result.

Clanchy believes in composing poetry as ‘a fundamental human activity…something we need to do and of which, even more than dance and music, we are deprived in the modern world.’ Hence the ‘Permission to Write’ sections, intermittent pages of sedative prose to help the reader/writer bypass their personal ‘shit detector’, as Hemingway called it but Clanchy doesn’t. Generally, though, there is very little holding forth across the book’s seven chapters, which share a broadly similar structure. Here’s a poem; here’s what it’s doing; here’s a prompt; now it’s your turn. The exemplars come from poets alive, dead and undiscovered, as Clanchy’s own students, some of them not yet into their teens, see their work set alongside the Audens, Duffys and Armitages. The comparison is often to their credit.

Image Credit: Macmillan

The cues and exercises in How to Grow Your Own Poem tap into the primal, rhythmic impulse in all of us, the urge to shout and chant while stomping a foot. One of the first tasks revolves around Edwin Morgan’s ‘A View of Things’:

what I love about dormice is their size
what I hate about rain is its smear
what I love about the Bratach Gorm is its unflappability…

When Morgan’s finished, it’s ‘Your Turn’, a fixture in every chapter. Clanchy has her reader use Morgan’s poem as an ‘ion engine’, while ‘making sure that all your details are real and concrete and come from your own experience’. She then shows us how her sixteen-year-old student Han Sun Nkumu responded:

    …What I love about long drives is stopping for coffee
What I hate about love is that it is undeniable
What I love about love is that there is no maths involved

After which we might wonder who really should have been the Scottish Makar.

How to Grow Your Own Poem is without doubt the ‘practical book’ that Clanchy wanted. But if she puts admirable trust in the student-poet’s ear, she stakes very little on their boredom threshold, fighting almost pathologically shy of verse mechanics. Her advice generally holds for all poets, whether unestablished or establishment: it is always worth being reminded that ‘poems have plots’. But the poet in love with their craft, the poet who could talk about poetry’s cogs and tunings all day, will be disappointed by a subchapter called ‘Couplet Island’ in which Rumi is translated into distichs without rhyme or repeated rhythm: hardly couplets. When Clanchy does broach the term ‘iambic’ she questionably explains it as ‘limping’, and declines to scan a single iambic line to illustrate her point.

Thus How to Grow Your Own Poem diametrically opposes Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, where poetic form is treated with crusading zeal and bouncing nerdery. Quite apart from delighting verse mechanophiles with the expected Frydian brio, the latter makes for a more recognisable read than Clanchy, who eschews such passé units as the paragraph. This often sinks her into the annoying habit of hitting enter before each new sentence, but sometimes it makes a point. ‘It often helps me to think of the white space as enormous. / As all of time and all of space. / Infinitely big, and very cold. / My sentence is a moon buggy across endless frost’. And so on. It’s another example of Clanchy giving us an example. How to Grow at least makes us think seriously about the difference between poetry and prose, a difference that can be reduced to nothing so facile as formatting.

As a primer, the book is still a little too primary school, appealing to our poetic impulse but to none of our curiosity. It makes no apologies for its classroom origins, however, and in the classroom it will find its true calling. We can riff on Morgan’s listicle at home, finding all sorts of weird reasons behind our loves and hates, but our poem will feel incomplete until we share it with someone else. Composing poetry may be a private activity, but Clanchy never lets us forget that it always demands an audience.

by Harry Cochrane