This week saw the release of the fourth issue of literary art quarterly, The White Review; a very fine thing with content from the likes of Juergen Teller, Nick van Woert and Landon Metz and written contributions from Michael Horovitz and Deborah Levy. One of its editors is Benjamin Eastham – a writer himself he also works with the Hannah Barry Gallery on artists’ publications and, as of this week, he’s a contributor to our Bookshelf regular…
Watt Samuel Beckett
I bought this book in Rabat, Morocco. My girlfriend at the time and I stumbled across this sinister little English-language bookshop near the train station. It was Ramadan and a huddle of labourers were in the shadows smoking cigarettes out of sight of the police. I bought Watt in an old Grove Press edition. The owner complimented me on the choice. I read it on the train to Fez. The selection of that book, with its subject, setting and formal preoccupations, seems in retrospect weirdly serendipitous (for reasons too boring to go into). But it’s always the case with books, though we rarely acknowledge it, that their effect is predicated upon the circumstances of the reader. It’s for this reason that I hate Amazon and the e-reader – it disentangles reading matter from the physical circumstances of our own lives, puts literature at another remove. It all becomes the same text on the same screen – I hate it.
Speak, Memory Vladimir Nabokov
Some writers make you want to write; others want to make you give up. While Kerouac could be accused of encouraging talentless people to become talentless writers, Nabokov’s genius must be responsible for the premature curtailment of thousands of first novels, including several by me. To read one’s own writing after reading Lolita or Pnin is a profoundly dispiriting experience. Speak, Memory is Nabokov’s autobiography, and I’ve chosen it over his other works because it contains a passage about measuring his capacity for love against the physical universe that might be the greatest piece of prose ever written. Returning to this book is like washing dust from my eyes.
About Modern Art David Sylvester
A year or so after leaving university I started working with Hannah Barry Gallery in Peckham, interviewing artists and editing together artists’ books and collections of essays with my friend Alan Murrin. I’d never written on art before – my academic background was in literature and philosophy – so I bought a load of books and pinched other writers’ styles. The critic I most admired at this time, and most ruthlessly plagiarised, was David Sylvester. He has this beautiful, unhurried way of writing and his opinions, the conceptual frameworks that he applies to the works he sees, are precisely calibrated without ever being intrusive. His elegant, illuminating prose trips along beautifully, exuding a peculiarly English bohemianism, all raffish ties and Pigalle hinterland. His interviews with Francis Bacon are extraordinary too, a lesson in the art.
Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
I had a brief debate with myself about whether to include this. The number of people giddily evangelising everyone else to the cult of Foster Wallace long ago passed the point at which these things become irritating, and I don’t want to be the person at the table who looks shocked when you admit to not having read it and then rushes upstairs to get their spare copy and press it into your hands with a ‘you-must-oh-you-must’, because those people are shit. Having said that, it really is great and you should read it. You’ll bore everyone around you by talking incessantly about what a great guy Pemulis is, you’ll find yourself signing up to weird fanboy chat forums to debate Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, you’ll adopt the slang (hello, fantods) and everything you read for the next year or so will seem utterly inane. I suspect there will be a backlash, because Infinite Jest is at that supernova stage, but the backlash will be wrong.
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry BS Johnson
BS Johnson is a neglected hero of the British avant-garde, despite the recent efforts of Mark Thwaite and Jonathan Coe to bring him to a wider audience. Check out The Unfortunates, which consists of 27 unbound pamphlets collected in a box, the subject a sports journalist’s journey to Nottingham to cover a football match. There’s a ‘first’ pamphlet and a ‘final’ pamphlet, but the intervening 25 are to be shuffled and read in any order. Christy Malry’s Own Double Entry is perhaps the best introduction to his work. The eponymous hero records his life in an account ledger which tots up the wrongs done to him and the revenges he exacts, in what becomes a woundingly funny critique of a monetised culture twisted by obsession with debt. Sound familiar?
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry