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Mini Modern Classics (3) Donald Barthelme

In Books on April 4, 2011 by Miche Tagged: , , ,

Back coverWell, this turned out to be a treat, but it didn’t start that way. I knew nothing of Donald Barthelme except that he was an American writer now dead. Seeing that the 75 pages of Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby (probably around 50 pages of a normal-sized paperback) contained no fewer than nine short stories, I feared that I was in for a series of those vague little vignettes that infest the pages of the New Yorker. And so, at first, it seemed.

In the title story, Colby’s friends decide that he has “gone too far” and must be hanged. It’s all very civilized on the surface: Colby is consulted about the music, there’s a discussion about whether to serve drinks, and about whether an indoor or outdoor hanging would be preferable. The comic tension between the awful act and the committee-style way it’s carried out sustains the humour of the story till the last full stop – but only just.

The second story, The Glass Mountain, just perplexed me. A weird allegory in 100 numbered statements (I nearly said 100 sentences, but number 80 is a full paragraph, perhaps to break the monotony), it left me wondering whether I should carry on reading. Fortunately, I did carry on.

The next story, I Bought a Little City, was the one that clicked. An impossibly rich man buys the city of Galveston, Texas, and tries to change it for the better. Maybe you can imagine how well that works out, but probably you can’t predict the ways it fails to work out in Barthelme’s telling. By now, I suppose, I was tuning in to Barthelme’s comic mode. Certainly I was starting to enjoy the stories. The Palace at 4 A.M. is a weird, funny and sad parable. Chablis is probably funny if you have a baby (or maybe it’s only funny if you don’t); The School is a great black comedy in which the pupils’ gerbils, fish, grandparents etc keep dying.

And so on. Lovely comic-serious playfulness.

Jings, my “to be read soon” pile is getting top-heavy already.

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Mini Modern Classics (2) Kingsley Amis

In Books on April 2, 2011 by Miche Tagged: , , ,

Amis books

The second of the Mini Modern Classics series (alphabetically by author) and the second story that I already own but have never got round to reading. It’s a bad habit of mine: I buy more books than I have time to read, and more DVDs than I have time to watch. Should I ever happen to find myself bed-ridden for three months, I won’t be short of entertainment.

I’ve been trying to recall when, and why, I stopped reading Kingsley Amis. I know I haven’t read any of his novels subsequent to The Old Devils (1986), though I’m sure I was still occasionally reading him in the Nineties. I never made a concious decision to stop. I just grew less fond of him: of the old man retreating into bufferdom, as portrayed by interviews and the odd TV profile, and of the misogyny I saw in Stanley and the Women. It’s nice to be reminded what a fine, observant comic writer he could be.

Dear Illusion (1972) concerns Sue Macnamara, a “long-legged girl of thirty” (Amis was about fifty at the time) who arrives with a photographer at the home of Edward Arthur Potter, an old and much-respected poet, to interview him for a Sunday paper magazine. She’s not sure that Potter’s everything he’s cracked up to be:

“The works of Edward Arthur Potter weren’t in my syllabus, Bowes. Anyway, one big thing about those works is that they’re damned difficult. I was brought up on stuff you could make a bit of head or tail of. I suspect Potter of not being as good as he looks or sounds, but only suspect. And the critics are no help. They nearly all think he’s great, but then they nearly all think people I know are bloody awful are great too.”

Poets whose work isn’t as good as it looks or sounds recur in Amis, and they’re often pretentious windbags. But Potter turns out to be entirely unpretentious. Despite the ridiculous business of trying to have a conversation while a photographer barks directions (“Could we have the glasses up again, please?” “Could you relax and look out of the window as if you’re thinking?”), Potter correctly reads Sue’s opinion of his work, and disarmingly admits to not being sure himself whether it’s any good or not. He writes, he says, in order to continue to function as a human being.

“Of course, if you look at it in one way, it’s rather like that business they call occupational therapy, where people weave carpets to take their mind off themselves and their problems. The point there is that it doesn’t make any difference to anybody whether the carpets are any good or not. I’ve been wondering for over thirty years, on and off, if it’s the same with my poems.”

A year passes, and Sue receives an invitation to a literary dinner in celebration of the great lyric poet on the publication of his latest collection. After tinned grapefruit, some sort of fish and chicken à la Kiev, she and the other guests (“A sports commentator, a girl who made boots, a television bishop in mufti…”) sit through various speeches in praise of poetry and Potter. But when finally the guest of honour speaks, he surprises almost everybody.

There’s something unsatisfying about the way tha art-as-therapy theme develops. Pieces fall into place a bit too neatly – I can’t go into this without plot spoilers. But it’s a good read and full of wrily-observed detail. So Amis goes back onto the “read again soon” pile. Next up: Donald Barthelme.

P.S. As I picked up The Old Devils from the shelf to check the publication date, I had a sharp and sudden recollection of the day I bought it, on the way to my granny’s house to paint her kitchen ceiling on a sunny morning 25 years ago. 25 years. God almighty.

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Mini Modern Classics (1) Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

In Books on March 31, 2011 by Miche Tagged: , , , ,

Akutagawa in PenguinI was wrong to say I’d never heard of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. I’d just forgotten the name; he was the author of Rashōmon. Indeed, the stories in this little book are contained in a collection I already own, but I hadn’t got round to reading them before today.

Digression: I’m not sure what the demarcation is between Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics, and it seems Penguin is equally unsure. Akutagawa is one of several authors in this series whose works are black-clad Classics.

There are two stories here, both first published in 1918. The Spider Thread is a brief parable about a sinner whose chance of escape from hell is thwarted by his selfishness. The main story concerns a misanthropic, obsessive painter at the court of a great lord in mediæval Japan. Commissioned to paint scenes from hell, he tortures his apprentices by making them model for him: he commands one to strip, then binds him in chains; he contrives for another to be attacked by an owl, and dispassionately sketches the man’s pain and terror. But there is one vital scene he can’t complete, because he can only paint what he has seen. His lord makes certain arrangements, and the result is a climactic scene of shocking cruelty.

The narrator is a courtier who tells the story partly from first-hand witness and partly through hearsay. The tone is conversational and at times almost rambling, with chatty asides such as “how shall I put it?” and “I am afraid that… I may have reversed the order of my story.” I expected to read this little book in about 40 minutes, but I found myself lingering over it to prolong the pleasure. The translation by Jay Rubin is, so far as I can judge these things, very good indeed (but it’s in American spelling – would it have killed Penguin UK to change color to colour?).

I will read more Akutagawa soon. But next up: Kingsley Amis.

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Penguin Mini Modern Classics

In Books on March 31, 2011 by Miche

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions (they’re just appointments with regret), but if I did the list would probably include “read more short stories.” So I looked at this boxed set of Penguin Mini Classics with booklust. Fifty literary snacks, half of them by authors I haven’t read, and quite a few others by writers I haven’t looked at in years. Even at Amazon’s discounted price, though, I balked at spending £80-odd all at once.

Then I got a letter from BBC Contributors’ Payments. I’d done a ten-minute session reading extracts for a Radio Ulster history programme a month or so before and forgotten all about it. So here was an unexpected payment of … £80.00. I found the extra £1.24 under the sofa cushion and placed my order.

Mini Classics boxed set

Mini Classics boxed set

But it’s one thing to buy a bunch of books and another thing to read them. There are twenty books from the Penguin Great Ideas series sitting on my shelves and mutely rebuking me. I bought them years ago and have read three.

So, over the next seven weeks and a day (events permitting), I aim to read a slim volume per day. Along the way I’ll meet some old friends (Saki, P.G. Wodehouse), make the acquaintance of writers I really ought to have known before (Karen Blixen, Donald Barthelme) and have another go at authors I haven’t been able to like before (Joseph Conrad, Henry James).

I’ll read them in the order they come in the box – alphabetically by author. So first up will be Hell Screen by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who I’ve never heard of.

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Not without a ring, you don’t.

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2010 by Miche

(See this Guardian article.)

Mr Fawlty, 81, said it would be impossible to continue running the hotel if forced to stop discriminating between “le ton” and the hoi polloi. “We get all sorts of rabble as it is. I go into the rooms to collect the breakfast trays and sometimes find the complementary Daily Mail has been absolutely untouched,” he says. “So of course I spit in their scotch broth at lunch. I’m only human.

“Just last week I let a twin room, in all good faith, to a couple of wholesome-looking and well-spoken young men. When they were checking out, they said the single beds had been a bit small, so they were very glad of the spacious bathtub!

“Time was when you could bash a Spaniard with a teaspoon and more or less get away with it. Nowadays, just because someone pays for a room, you’re expected to let them treat it as a room they’ve paid for! It’s political correctness gone coal. No, not coal. Wallaby?”

Asked for comment, Mrs Fawlty said: “He told me he had a dicky ticker. That was in 1968.”

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More shelves

In Uncategorized on September 11, 2010 by Miche

Miche Doherty
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Shelves

In Uncategorized on September 11, 2010 by Miche

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