James Ley

Colm Tóibín’s eleventh novel, The Magician, is a dramatisation of the life of Thomas Mann. It begins in 1891 with the death of Mann’s father, a successful businessman from the north German city of Lübeck, whose last agonised words to his fifteen-year-old son are, ‘You know nothing.’ It ends in 1950, five years before Mann’s death at the age of eighty, when he returns to Europe after a long period of exile in the United States, by which time he is one of the century’s greatest novelists and a respected public intellectual. Cop that, dad.


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Along Heroic Lines by Christopher Ricks

by
August 2021, no. 434

The first essay in Christopher Ricks’s Along Heroic Lines is the text of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, an honorary post he held from 2004 to 2009. He takes as his subject the formal distinction between poetry and prose. If one is going to be a professor of poetry, the least one can do is arrive at a satisfactory definition of one’s object of study. To this end, Ricks summons to the witness stand an august procession of English poets and critics – Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson, W.H. Auden, A.C. Bradley – and considers their authoritative pronouncements on the matter, only to arrive at the inconvenient conclusion that a strict line of demarcation is difficult to sustain.

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Harold Bloom was one of the last of the so-called ‘Yale critics’, who shaped the terrain of literary criticism in the latter half of the twentieth century. Bloom died in October 2019, and his final book, Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles, arrives two years after his death and caps a long and controversial career. In this issue, James Ley surveys this swansong by a critic who ‘came to style himself less as a theorist and more as a theologian of literature: the high priest and only admitted member of his own private religion’.

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Harold Bloom died in 2019 at the age of eighty-nine. Always prolific, he continued working until the very end. Throughout his final book, he digresses at regular intervals to record the date, note his advanced age, and allude to his failing health. At one point, he reveals that he is dictating from a hospital chair.

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The Living Sea of Waking Dreams begins, self-consciously, at the limits of language. Its opening pages are rendered in a prose style that is fragmented and contorted. Sentences break down, run into each other. Syntax is twisted into odd shapes that call into question the very possibility of meaning. Words seem to arrive pre-estranged by semantic satiation in a way that evokes Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett at their most opaque: ‘As if they too were already then falling apart, so much ash and soot soon to fall, so much smoke to suck down. As if all that can be said is we say you and if that then. Them us were we you?’

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It is curious the way certain books can insinuate themselves into your consciousness. I am not necessarily talking about favourite books, or formative ones that evoke a particular time and place, but those stray books that seem to have been acquired almost inadvertently (all bibliophiles possess such volumes, I’m sure), and taken up without any particular expectations, books that have something intriguing about them that keeps drawing you back.

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In today's episode, we present James Ley’s hilarious and deeply serious review of The Trials of Portnoy by Patrick Mullins. James channels the memorable prose of Philip Roth himself. Mullins’s book chronicles the legal spat that surrounded Penguin's attempt to publish Portnoy's Complaint, Roth's controversial novel that was considered lewd and offensive by Australia's censuring authorities. 

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Okay, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this country. For a start, we have this profoundly stupid and deeply irritating myth that we’re all irreverent freedom-loving larrikins and easygoing egalitarians, when it is painfully obvious that we have long been a nation of prudes and wowsers, that our collective psyche has been warped by what Patrick Mullins describes, with his characteristic lucidity, as ‘a fear of contaminating international influences’, and that we are not just an insular, conservative, and deeply conformist society, but for some unaccountable reason we take pride in our ignorance and parochialism. And let’s not neglect the fact that we are cringingly deferential and enamoured of hierarchy. Oh yes, it’s all master–slave dialectics and daddy issues around here. Why the hell else would we keep electing entitled, smirking, condescending autocrats?

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Andrew McGahan’s first novel, Praise (1992), concludes with its narrator, Gordon Buchanan, deciding – perhaps accepting is a better word – that he will live a life of contemplation. This final revelation is significantly ambivalent. The unresponsive persona Gordon has assumed throughout the novel is something of an affectation. On one level, he is playing the stereotypical role of the inarticulate Australian male, but his blank façade is also defensive; it is a cover for his sensitivity. For Gordon, life is less overwhelming in a practical sense than in an emotional sense. His true feelings are a garden concreted over for ease of maintenance. He feels that the defining quality of human relationships is doubt, and this doubt confounds expression. ‘I’m never certain of anything I feel about a person,’ he says, ‘and talking about it simplifies it all so brutally. It’s easier to keep quiet. To act what you feel. Actions are softer. They can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and emotions should be interpreted in lots of different ways.’

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It is commonly accepted that the modern European novel begins with Don Quixote. Lionel Trilling went so far as to claim that the entire history of the modern novel could be interpreted as variations on themes set out in Cervantes’s great originating work. And the quality that is usually taken to mark Don Quixote as ... ... (read more)