Jonathan Cape

Every time I open Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother, that Sam & Dave lyric ‘Hold on, I’m comin’!’, pops into my head. Is it ars poetica? Hold on: language, arranged in a holding way, might help us manage loss, though no hold will forestall it. I’m coming: the radical presence of the poetic speaker, whose ecstatic ‘now’ of speech exists in strange tension with the past, a thing lost, that full and irretrievable ‘then’. Anne Carson has written memorably of the strange telescoping of now and then in lyric poetry. This is the dilemma of the poet–lover: ‘pinned in an impossible double bind, victim of novelty and recurrence at once.’ Or, as Vuong puts it, ‘[t]he way Lil Peep says I’ll be back in the mornin’ when you know how it ends.’

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A Writer’s Beginnings begins: ‘My mother died today.’ One could be excused for thinking that one was reading not a memoir but a Campus Novel without the ‘p’, an experience that Howard Jacobson will suffer later in this book. Who could read this incipit without hearing the famous beginning: ‘Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.’ Jacobson, on the other hand, knows. He continues: ‘It is 3 May 2020. She is ninety-seven years old.’ I cannot recall whether Albert Camus specifies his protagonist’s mother’s age in L’Étranger (1942). A Camus novel is surely a Campus Novel without the ‘p’, the latter a sub-genre that Jacobson will both live out teaching English at a polytechnic in a defunct football stadium and come to write. Indeed, so insistent is his use of the locution ‘we’ll come to that later’ that one could be excused for thinking prolepsis a Finklerish (see below) rhetorical device. Give Howard Jacobson enough trope and he’ll surely hang himself.

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Sir John Richardson published the first volume of his monumental A Life of Picasso: The prodigy, 1881–1906, in 1991. The second volume, The painter of modern life, 1907–1917 illuminating the Cubist years, followed in 1996. The next volume, The triumphant years, 1917–1932, appeared eleven years later and gave rise to speculation as to how Richardson, then seventy-three, could complete his ambitious task with nearly thirty years of prodigious production on the artist’s part still to be covered. Now we have the fourth and final volume, The minotaur years, published posthumously – Richardson died in 2019 – with a lot of assistance. It’s the shortest, least compelling volume of the series.

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More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

by
December 2021, no. 438

Studying The Crucible in English class engendered fierce competition for the part of John Procter, drawn as we schoolgirls were to his irradiating idealism and dogged pursuit of truth, and besotted by his nobility. The play’s force remains even as the passage of time has worked upon subsequent rereadings. When resisting false allegations of witchcraft, Proctor’s plea is harrowing: ‘Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’

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What distinguishes graphic novels (aka ‘big fat comic books’) from other books is how completely the page registers movements of the maker’s hand. Before we begin the business of reading, we look, and what we see is not margin-to-margin Helvetica or Times New Roman: it’s the mark of the makers, be it Alison Bechdel or Kristen Radtke or Mandy Ord. We might even think of the making of comic books as being closer to letter writing than novel writing. Accustoming ourselves to the style of a particular graphic novelist (‘Aha! That’s how Bechdel depicts euphoria!’) is a large part of the pleasure of reading comics – the business of aligning one’s own visual point of view with the maker’s. Perhaps this is why autobiographical works have been such a vital force behind the rebirth of comic books as ‘graphic novels’.

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‘I just want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised as compassion, compassion disguised as anger.’ These are Maggie Nelson’s words to her partner, artist Harry Dodge, as the two negotiate the shapes of love, family, and gender. These include Harry’s gender fluidity (‘I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers’), children, and marriage, which they ‘kill ... (unforgivable). Or reinforce ... (unforgivable)’ when they rush to wed ahead of the Proposition 8 legislation that, for a time, eliminated same-sex marriage in California.

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The ‘land of smiles’ was what they called Prague under German occupation during World War II – at least the Germans did. Few locals. Fresh vegetables and meat were available (to Germans) in quantities unknown back in Germany. Until close to the end, there were more than a hundred cinemas operating in the city, as well as theatres, concert halls, and numerous other places of entertainment. After all, Goebbels was not only passionate about culture in general, but keen, he said, to initiate a ‘lively cultural exchange’ with Czechoslovakia in particular.

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During a 1995 television interview on Charlie Rose soon after the publication of Martin Amis’s The Information, another long novel, there is a moment when, as Rose begins to read the opening passage, Amis’s mouth visibly slackens. Silently he intones the first lines. His hand (often tentatively raised toward his chin in interviews) searches out his forehead. There is a spectral waver in his gaze, a registering (as if accommodating, or incorporating, new information). He looks adrift, unmoored. Free-floating. One has the sense of a man assimilating his own self as it is spoken back to him. For a moment, he seems precarious.

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Scanning my bookshelves, I see a dozen or more of the distinctive green spines of Virago Press. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Virago imprint was a guarantee of good reading by women writers whose works were rediscovered and sent out to find a new public. I had read Margaret Atwood, Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Taylor for the first time in hardcovers; Virago made them new. Kate O’ Brien’s The Land of Spices, banned in Ireland, had been hard to get. Here it was in Virago green, with a perceptive introduction to put it in context.

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The world evoked by British nature writer and historian Helen Macdonald in her new collection of essays is haunted by no end of unsettling and shrouded presences. The sight of a flock of starlings gives her a shiver of fear. Why? Because in her imagination the flock connects with a mass of refugees. The sight of falcon eggs in an incubator makes her unaccountably upset. Then she remembers that she, too, as a very premature baby, was once kept alive in just such a box. And on it goes.

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