Out of Silence

OUT OF SILENCE, my book of New & Selected Poems, published last year by Smith/Doorstop, is now available as an ebook for £5.95.

I wouldn’t be mentioning this, except it’s a book I’m especially proud of, and although only six of the poems are actually new, I like to think they’re pretty good – one in fact, “Winter Notebook”, just might be the best I’ve written so far.

There are reviews by Rosie Johnston & Norbert Hirschhorn on London Grip here …

There is also a review by John Lucas in PN Review No. 22, which is only available on line to subscribers, but which I can give you a taste of here …

“Harvey’s voice is very much his own, rueful, comic, engagingly informal … how good a poet he is of the passing moment, its unexpected pleasures …”

So, if you’ve been meaning to get hold of a copy but have never quite got around to it (or want a second copy for your Kindle!), you can buy the ebook from Amazon … or from the publisher …

The print version, of course, is still available, and I notice Foyles have it on sale for £7.76 if you order on line from Foyles …

Alternatively, if you’d like a signed copy, with or without dedication, at the cover price of £9.95, send me an email at john@mellotone.co.uk

Harvey-Out of Silence

Anthony Doerr

Until quite recently I hadn’t heard of the writer Anthony Doerr (and still don’t know how to pronounce his name). But there was a short story of his in Granta, the American Wild issue, and despite it having the kind of title that most days would send me running quite fast in the opposite direction – it’s called “Thing With Feathers That Perches in the Soul”– I sat down to give it a read. It was only 11 pages, after all.

The upshot was I liked it; liked it a lot. Looked up the author, who, it turns out to be around 40 and to hail from Cleveland, Ohio. Went in search of other things and found a novel called About Grace.This is how it’s described in Doerr’s own website …

Doerr’s second book, a novel entitled About Grace, is about a hydrologist named David Winkler who occasionally dreams events that later come true. The book tries to ask questions about snowflakes, predetermination, the nature of family, and the intersections of the human and natural worlds.

… which didn’t exactly seem my natural cup of tea and turned out to be – and excuse me for this – somewhat over-brewed. To be a tad more specific, I found it overlong, with a central section that sat uneasy between the rest, and in places over-written – Doerr writes with elegiac beauty about human frailty and the power of nature, weaving complex metaphors into a literary carpet of dazzling numinosity and with a long middle section that sat uneasily between the rest, said the Evening Standard, that well-known arbiter of literary taste.

But because I did like some of the book a good deal, I went back to the stacks and came up with a collection of stories under the title, Memory Wall. Just six stories (with a extra one added for the UK paperback edition: seven stories, then, of which four are, I think, quite brilliant, and the other three merely very good indeed.

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The writing is quite matter-of-fact, straightforward even, but with lyrical touches; the characterisation clear and distinctive; the settings range from middle America to South Africa via Lithuania. The title story, and at 85 pages by far the longest in the book, centres around the wavering mind of an elderly white South African woman in a country radically divided by race, money and class; in “Afterworld” another ageing woman is increasingly swamped by memories of her childhood friends who perished in the Holocaust while she survived; in the additional story, “The Deep”, the main character is a boy who has been told that, because of a heart defect, he will not live beyond his middle teens.

Difficult material with a propensity, one might think, for strong emotions and tragic endings. Tick the former, though the writing keeps them well controlled, but nix the latter. The one thing that links these stories, and which, in the current literary climate, renders them unusual, is the almost complete lack of ironic distance, the way in which Doerr endows them with a positive humanism which stays just the right side of sentimentality, while allowing for tears.

I read these stories not just with a sense of joy, but also of awe. I could never write stories like that, I thought, when finally I laid the book aside. I want to write stories like that, I thought, and one day I might try.

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March Reading

  • Memory Wall : Anthony Doerr
  • When The Light Goes : Larry McMurtry
  • The Illuminations : Andrew O’Hagen
  • The End of Vandalism : Tom Drury
  • Complications : Atul Gawande
  • Clothes Music Boys: A Memoir : Viv Albertine
  • Selected Poems : James Schuyler

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Plus, of course, more David Kynaston – currently around 1952.

Oh, and the marvellous portrait of Schuyler reproduced on the cover of his Selected Poems is by Fairfield Porter.

February Reading

  • Death of a Red Heroine : Qui Xiaolong
  • A Loyal Character Dancer : Qui Xiaolong
  • When Red is Black : Qui Xiaolong
  • An English Affair: Sex, Class & Power in the Age of Profumo : Richard Davenport-Hines
  • Duane’s Depressed : Larry McMurtry

plus I’m still reading Circular Breathing – The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain : George McKay and, inevitably, yet more of David Kynaston’s Family Britain.

Portraits of a Lady

One way or another, quite a lot of my time last year was spent with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady – time well, if sometimes frustratingly spent. Why, for instance – and for those of you who don’t know the story, spoiler warning ahead – having sent Isobel, the lady in question, off to Europe in search of a broader, deeper experience of life and landed her in Florence in the machiavellian arms of her suitor, Gilbert Osmond, does he then jump the story forward several years, depriving us of the crucial early days of their marriage, the loss of a child and Isobel’s realisation that she has made a serious misjudgement?

Is it because he feared that to write about those things would draw him, unavoidably, into melodrama and sensationalism?

As a gay and, by all accounts, mostly celibate man, did he find himself lacking the experience and understanding that would enable him to write about such matters with conviction?

Or was it something to do with the architecture of the novel as James conceived it, two halves arranged around a centre that the reader is left to fill in retrospect, using what he tells of Isobel’s feelings about the trap she has walked into, the contrast between before and after being all the more shocking for it being presented to us so suddenly?

But when, as the months elapsed, she followed him further and further and he led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air…

I thought of this again a week ago, rewatching Jane Campion’s film version of the novel for the first time in a number of years. Like James, she leaves those early married years unseen, the changes in Isobel’s fortunes evident in the manner of Nicole Kidman’s playing, her physical appearance, the suppression of hope or spirit. A life without life or air, indeed.

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Kidman is, I think, excellent, unlike, for my taste, John Malkovich, whose Gilbert Osmond is, in voice and affectation, far too reptilian, too lacking in charm, far too obviously an embodiment of evil for Isobel not to have seen through him sooner.

Campion and her screenwriter, Laura Jones, do make changes and additions … none more extreme, or faintly ludicrous, than the early scene in which Isobel fantasises about being groped by three of her suitors and potential lovers at the same time. And Isobel’s sexuality, repressed if not by personal inclination then by the mores and morals of the time, is allowed freer expression throughout. It only takes Osmond’s touch to send poor Isobel to the edges of hysteria way beyond James’ “she felt her heart throb with a kind of delicious pain”. But then this is, or was, 1996 and no longer 1881.

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The end of the novel, like a great deal of James, is ambiguous. Having returned to England on account of her cousin’s fatal illness, Isobel is confronted again by her American suitor, Caspar Goodwood, who has been pursuing her since before page one. Aware of the mistaken tragedy of her marriage, he urges her not to return, but she makes clear that, like it or not, her duty is to go back to her husband and that duty she will fulfil. ‘”As you love me, as you pity me,” she pleads, “leave me alone!”‘ Goodwood does no such thing.

He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her, and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free.

If the implications were not sufficiently clear, James himself made these additions in his 1908 revision of the novel …

His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard oƒ those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when the darkness returned she was free.

Additions which, had it been in existence at the time, might have given James a shot at that year’s Bad Sex Award.

But ‘free’ … what does that mean? Free from her obligations to her husband and thus free to take up with Goodwood? Free from the thrall of sexual passion, which, now experienced, she can turn her back on and resume a life of duty? The darkness, after all, is what she associates with Osmond.

She walks away from Goodwood – they have been in the garden – and back towards the house.

In an extraordinarily short time – for the distance was considerable – she had moved through the darkness (for she saw nothing) and reached the door. Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

In the novel there is one further short scene: Goodwood follows Isobel to her friend Henrietta’s lodgings in London and is told she has started out that morning for Rome; when he turns away in disappointment, Henrietta seizes his arm and urges patience (as if the poor man has not been waiting long enough) a patience that James himself suggests in a 1908 rewrite, has, on the spot, added thirty years to his life.

Campion ends her film at the moment of Isobel’s pausing at the door; she may well know where she is heading, the decision she is making; Campion leaves it for us to decide what that decision will be.

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Writing on the Wall

Grim news for some publishers, some writers in the Nielsen BookScan figures for 2014 – those wishing to keep print books afloat in a growing ebook tide, at least. Sales of printed books are continuing to decline and none worse than adult fiction, which led the way downwards with a fall of 7.8% in numbers and 5.3% in revenue. Hardback adult fiction sales fell by 11.6%, though the Nielsen research director said this was “really more migration to ebooks rather than real decline.”

We’ll see.

What was interesting was the fact that while fantasy, horror, romance, eroticism, crime and all the usually successful genres of adult fiction were floundering, just three areas showed movement in the opposite direction – short stories, graphic novels and westerns.

Westerns!

Perhaps,while continuing to ignore those voices suggesting a return for Charlie Resnick or Frank Elder, I should think seriously about ploughing further back into my writing past and consider reincarnations of Wes Hart …

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Jared Hawk …

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or Jedediah Herne?

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The Aftermath of War

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Last year I was bowled over by the emotional force of David Finkel’s The Good Soliders, a work of nonfiction journalism in which he writes about the time he spent embedded with the US 2-16 Infantry Battalion, on front line duty in Iraq. I wrote about it here …

In Thank You For Your Service, he follows some of those soldiers back from Iraq to an America that seems, to many of them after what they have experienced, to be a baffling, often uncharitable place; a place filled, for them, with memories and nightmares that no regimen of pills, however powerful, can set properly  to rights, and where suicide has overtaken enemy fire as the biggest killer of army personnel. These are men who have been at the heart of a maelstrom of fear and violence and who are now struggling to reattach themselves to wives, children, families, ordinary lives; some – many of those here – do so with the aid of programmes of therapy and readjustment, some virtually alone.

Again and again, Finkel strips back situations in which couples fight, make up, fight, make up, fight some more, break up, get help, come back, walk away. Where women – young widows, wives – stumble, dazed and often close to the poverty line, from one seeming catastrophe to another. Where men are told, go back there in your mind, remember, work through it, write it down. Come to terms.

This is not a book without generosity and hope: the respect Finkel shows for those he writes about is, I think, absolute. But it is unflinching and hard to take in other than small doses, and I was ever grateful for the opportunity to mark the page and set the book aside, get up, get a little air. Thankful, yes, for what you’ve got.

New Year’s Reading

New year, new books! Some from Santa, chimney soot still caught in the corners, others courtesy of a pre-Christmas shopping excursion to the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town. The order is the order in which I’ll probably read them … the Byrne is my current designated bedside reading, while the Finkel, which I’ve already started, and which it would be dangerous to read too close to dream time, is, like its predecessor, The Good Soldiers, cut so close to the bone – and perfectly so – that I can only take it in small doses, a chapter at a time.

  • Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel
  • How Music Works : David Byrne
  • Full Measure : T. Jefferson Parker
  • Infidelities : Kirsty Gunn
  • Circular Breathing – The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain : George McKay

Poetry

  • Ancient Sunlight : Stephen Watts
  • Ex-Ville : Rhona McAdam

… and I shall be slowly but pleasurably working my way through David Kynaston’s history of post-war Britain, with the second volume, Family Britain 1951 – 57.

LA Crime Books of 2014

The Los Angeles Review of Books critic and commentator Woody Haut saw fit to include Darkness, Darkness in his list of favourite crime novels published in 2014.

Here’s the list, as Haut says, in no particular order :

  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little Brown/Picador)
  • Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf)
  • The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine (Tam Tam)
  • Brainquake by Samuel Fuller (Hard Case Crime)
  • Half World by Scott O’Connor (Simon & Schuster)
  • There Ain’t No Justice by James Curtis (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre (Crown)
  • Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol (Old Street)
  • Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (Pegasus)
  • Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool Productions)
  • The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette (NYRB Classics)
  • Futures by John Barker (PM Press)

And here’s what he has to say about Darkness, Darkness

The world-weary, jazz-loving Nottingham copper Charlie Resnick is back, tracking down a case with origins in the UK’s 1980s miners’ strike. This is one of the always-interesting Harvey’s best, mixing, as it does, the personal and the political. If, as advertised, this really is Resnick’s final appearance, he goes out, after some three decades traipsing across the mean streets of Nottingham, in style. Harvey’s Darkness, Darkness, like Nicol’s novel, switches between the present — Thatcher has only recently keeled over at the Ritz — and the past. A heartfelt portrait of the East Midlands then and now, it’s further evidence of not only how the past affects the present, but how the present demands a revision of the past.

I should point out that Woody Haut is a good friend – we often pass one another taking our early morning exercise on Hampstead Heath, he’s the one running, I’m walking, and meet for coffee every so often to talk books and movies and bemoan the latest inconsistencies in the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team – but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time one of my 20 or so crime novels has made its way onto one of his lists of favourite books. Might just be something to it, then. Other than cronyism, that is.

Books of the Year, 2014

The major discovery for me this year has been the work of the American writer Paul Hendrickson: having started with Hemingway’s Boat, his most recent book – a brilliant, spiralling accumulation of stories about Hemingway and, yes, his boat, but, more importantly, his family, friends and acquaintances – I read through his other work with equal enjoyment and fascination.

This was part of a tendency, unusual in my past reading history, to get more pleasure from non-fiction rather than fiction. David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, for instance, an account of being embedded with a battalion of American military personnel in Baghdad, I found utterly compelling, humane and, where individual soldiers were concerned, non-judgemental. Thank You For Your Service, in which Finkel follows some of those same people back into civilian life, is high on my list of books to read in the New Year.

Finally, to note that this list doesn’t include books I’ve re-read during the year and which, since they include such as Middlemarch, Portrait of a Lady, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Mrs Dalloway, and a pile of Hemingway short stories, would have just about taken over.

The list is organised in order of reading.

  • Tenth of December : George Saunders
  • Benediction : Kent Haruf
  • Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson
  • The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt
  • Dare Me : Megan Abbott
  • Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer
  • Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson
  • The Good Soldiers : David Finkel
  • The Living & the Dead : Paul Hendrickson
  • Lila : Marilynne Robinson
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