Book Review: Essential Bukowski

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Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), Essential Bukowski: Poetry, Fourth Estate, paperback, 218pp, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 00 822515 5 (British edition; US edition also available)

 

“To the whore who took my poems” opens:

some say we should keep personal remorse from the poem,

stay abstract, and there is some reason in this,

but jezus:

12 poems gone and I don’t keep carbons and you have my

paintings too, my best ones; it’s stifling:

are you trying to crush me out like the rest of them?

 

Bukowski was a vastly prolific poet, far too prolific for the good of his reputation and for his readers’ patience, but writing was a lifeline for Bukowski. It made sense of a crazy world and a crazy life. It was a way of fending off despair and madness and anger that would have turned his heart black. He wrote more than he needed to and more than any half-critical reader would have wanted him to. He wrote because he had to. When his publisher John Martin restricted publishing his collections of poetry to a volume a year (when Bukowski produced enough material for three collections a year), Bukowski claimed he was being suffocated. Bukowski had a point but Martin also had one. One volume a year was commercially viable and kept the cream of the recent years’ production circulating, though Bukowski claimed some of his best material was never collected. Besides, Bukowski published prodigiously in fanzines and obscure journals. The real issue was not about making work available but control of the poet’s reputation. For a man who had deep-seated resentment towards his authoritarian father, any constriction on the publication of his writing might have felt to Bukowski like a constriction on his windpipe.

Anyone facing the task of selecting the best of Bukowski’s poetry has questions to answer to his own satisfaction: What is most characteristic of the poet? Of the many repetitions of a theme, which version is better to select: the grandly sweeping or the concisely understated? Do popular favourites select themselves or should I exclude poems that fans might expect to encounter? Beyond these questions is the sheer effort of reading and digesting thousands of poems in an analytical frame of mind. The editor also has to decide how to balance the expectations of long-time fans with neophytes who may never have read more than snippets. Every selection of highlights such as this volume has also to be an introduction to the poetry, in this case the work of a poet very diverse in range, tone and subject. Almost the only constants are the use of free-verse form and lack of meter and rhyme.

Editor Abel Debritto points out in his introduction to this new selection, that these 92 poems represent 2% of Bukowski’s surviving output. Almost all of the poems (dating from the late 1950s up to 1994, the year of Bukowski’s death) are in chronological order, allowing us to see Bukowski develop as a poet and a thinker. This is – if needed – final proof that in old age Bukowski never went soft or sold out and never lost his talent. If anything, the late poems are even crisper and drier than the early works. I’ll confess my favourite poem, “no. 6”, a lovely poem about watching horses at the track, made the selection and I’m happy for it.

In Essential Bukowski we encounter the poet as a raging juvenile, a street-preaching philosopher who does not believe in philosophy, a son in revolt, a cynical lover, a furious and bereft widower, an American citizen living through a supercharged global stalemate, a writer passing judgement on art, an old sick man staring death in the face. We get poems as vulgar, desperate, funny, exciting, beautiful and incomprehensible as the world itself. The only significant aspect of Bukowski missing here is the poet as father; instead we have Bukowski as poet paternally admonishing the young, all the time his raddled face creased with a half-smile.

Bukowski writes of cats and men that survived impossible odds and stories of people driven mad by the accumulated infringements upon logic, dignity and humanity. We get stories. We get aphorisms. We get – paraphrased – the letters of fans, lectures of girlfriends and the homilies of teachers. There’s no fat and no repetition. It is a curious fact that although Bukowski wrote a fair number of wholly redundant poems, he never wrote a redundant line, barely even a misjudged word.

So much of Bukowski’s poetry is personal (even internal) that it comes as a relief when we see others in his verse. He writes of the poor. “if I suffer at this / typewriter / think how I’d feel / among the lettuce- / pickers / of Salinas” and the bums in a downtown homeless shelter. When we think of Bukowski we might picture him in a wide-collared shirt in a 1970s’ poetry reading or being interviewed on French television ten years later; it is easy to overlook the poet’s Depression-era childhood. “we ain’t got no money, honey, but we got rain” is a poetic recollection of Bukowski’s past, shot through with threads of cynicism, sadness and painful beauty.

Although Bukowski is considered a poet of the underworld, an inveterate drinker, brawler and womaniser, any reader of one or two books by him will tell you he was also a great reader. He grieved at the burning of the public library where he educated himself. It is fitting that almost the longest poem in the book is a hymn to the time he spent in that library and the writing he encountered there.

Among the best-known poems here are “the genius of the crowd”, “the bluebird”, “Dinosauria, we.”, “one for the shoeshine man” and “the shower”. The selection is very good and the length of the collection is right. The poems are all effective and assured. Beyond that the collection itself is well-paced, balancing shorter and longer pieces, biographical and general, humorous and grave. That is a tribute to the editor’s skill. A collection based purely on popularity or the editor’s own taste would probably not have worked as well as this selection. There’s not a poem here that does not, having read it, make you feel more alive and more human. For sheer reading pleasure and consistent quality of content, Essential Bukowski really is the best Bukowski book published.

Edit: It has come to my attention that the American version has 95 poems, not the 92 in the British edition. One of the poems dropped is about Marina, Bukowski’s daughter, hence the peculiar omission of that aspect of Bukowski’s poetry and life in the collection I reviewed. Nonetheless, the British edition is still a fine collection and thoroughly recommended.

18 November 2016

My other Bukowski reviews

On Love: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/09/24/review-charles-bukowski-on-love/

On Cats: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/review-charles-bukowski-on-cats/

On Writing: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.WJbosPl_s5k

Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/

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Review: Charles Bukowski, On Love

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Charles Bukowski (ed. Abel Debritto), On Love, 2016, Canongate, 216pp, pb, ISBN 978 1 78211 730 8

The third volume in the series of new publications of Charles Bukowski’s writings collects poems on the subject (loosely) of love. The new collections edited by Bukowski scholar Abel Debritto use original manuscripts or first printed appearances, usually in low-circulation poetry journals. Debritto correctly identifies serious editorial interference in the posthumous Black Sparrow Books of Bukowski’s poems and has taken pains to use Bukowski’s original texts where possible.

This is the first of the new series to contain no prose. It benefits thereby. Although Bukowski did publish a few mixed collections – and there are times when his verse turns conversationally prosodic – the changes in tone and density give those collections (and the recent collections) an odd fast-slow-fast feeling. The poems in this volume date from 1957 to 1993 and span the poet’s entire mature career. The poems are ordered chronologically. Some of the poems were not previously collected and a handful was never published at all.

The range of love here is great. The majority of these poems were written about and to Bukowski’s lovers. The most prominent among those are Jane Cooney Baker, Linda King and Linda Lee. There are two poetic eulogies to Jane, seared by grief following her death in 1962. He describes their bodies and snatches of dialogue suggest Bukowski’s relationships with them. Other women go unnamed in the poems and they may or may not be these prominent women in the poet’s emotional landscape.

There are poems of frank sexual excitement and reflections on the absurdity of sex. (These are the poems Black Sparrow decided not to republish.) There is a tender poem written about an anonymous pick-up. “I sit up in bed at night and listen to you / snore / I met you in a bus station / and now I wonder at your back / sick white and stained with / children’s freckles / as the lamp divests the unsolvable / sorrow of the world / upon your sleep.” Another recalls a stripper who enchanted the poet as an adolescent. Others are more passing acquaintances. There the regret about a relationship ended by an argument is more self-centred, like that of a gambler misplaying a hand of cards. Bukowski does not always come out of the poems looking so gallant, which the poet knew well enough. Bukowski is always willing to tell tales against himself for the sake of an insight into human behaviour – or just to raise a smile.

As it turns out, the most delightful and unalloyed poems are to the poet’s only child, Marina. He writes of her as an infant, a child, an adolescent and a woman. The poems document their mutual affection despite Bukowski’s difficult relationship with her mother (“old snaggle-tooth”), who also has some poems to her in the collection. Bukowski’s own parents are mentioned but bitterness towards a bullying father, and a mother who would not take young Bukowski’s side, lasted until the end of Bukowski’s life.

Bukowski writes of his first love – reading – and of other strong bonds of affection, to his typewriter and the “unbelievable gallantry” of his old car as it is towed away to the scrap yard. He writes a eulogy to a trap-driver who raced in Los Angeles at the tracks Bukowski frequented. It is odd that there is no poem specifically about his love for horseracing, but that poem “a magician, gone” stands as a tribute to the sport he loved and the respect he had artists in all fields. The perennial favourite “the bluebird” is included. It is one of his most touching poems, sad in its joyfulness, shot through with loneliness and fierce protectiveness. “there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I pour whiskey on him and inhale / cigarette smoke / and the whores and the bartenders / and the grocery clerks / never know that / he’s / in there.”

The selection is fitting, as it includes favourites (such as “for Jane”, “shower”, “the bluebird”) and unknown poems; it covers the major figures in Bukowski’s life and hits notes of pathos and hilarity. The decision to order chronologically has its drawbacks (one cannot read poems about one period or one lover, as they were written at different times) but we do see Bukowski’s concerns change as he ages. At the end he writes a heartfelt message to his future widow, which makes a fitting ending. Throughout the book are (black-and-white) illustrations of photographs and Bukowski’s own paintings and drawings. The famous Bukowski cartoon protagonist Hank makes many appearances – lumpen, laconic, lecherous and laughable.

The collection is fine, readable and accessible, yet has a single flaw: it is simply that it is thematic. With the exception of a collection of writings on horseracing, Bukowski himself never published a collection on a single subject. His range is part of his outlook; he wished to be able to cover life in the telling vignette and also to provide the vast and grandiose overview of humanity. He wanted to write about crowds, cities, ages, civilisations and philosophy as well as writing about a man and a woman in bed together, the dog in the street, the man at the typewriter. Bukowski’s urge was not only to encompass the grand and intimate but to be able to do so – if he wished – in a single page and for that reason the approach of any thematic collection is inappropriately limited for a writer such as Charles Bukowski.

But never mind. This is a bracing, amusing and enjoyable collection of Bukowski’s poems faithfully presented as he wrote them. And that is good enough to unhesitatingly recommend On Love.

24 September 2016

My other Bukowski reviews

On Cats: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/review-charles-bukowski-on-cats/

On Writing: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.WJbosPl_s5k

Essential Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/book-review-essential-bukowski/

Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/

The Madness of Vincent Van Gogh

“Until now, the way of testing whether or not someone had good biographical knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh was to ask them about the famous ear-cutting incident. The answer ‘he cut off his ear’ informed you the speaker had only a hazy comprehension, whereas the knowledgeable person replied ‘in actuality, Van Gogh cut off only part of his ear’. Now new information suggests that Van Gogh did indeed cut off his whole left ear. On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (closes 25 September), accompanied by an excellent catalogue, attempts to get as close as possible to the truth about Van Gogh’s physical and mental illnesses.

“The confusion about the ear incident sprang up during Van Gogh’s lifetime. On the 23 December 1888, Van Gogh was living with Paul Gauguin at the Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin announced his intention to leave Arles after persistent rows with Van Gogh. Deeply anxious and depressed, Van Gogh slashed his ear with a razor. He presented the ear wrapped in newspaper to a prostitute at a local brothel. The next day police discovered Van Gogh unconscious in his house surrounded by blood…”

Read the full review at Spiked, 26 August 2016 online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-madness-of-vincent-van-gogh/18680#.V8WS0PldU5k

 

 

Re-reading John Wyndham, I

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John Wyndham (1903-1969) was a writer of the novel of ideas, where broad ideas take priority over character, mood, dialogue and naturalism. He follows a chain of events that present characters with situations and choices which illuminate the author’s themes. Wyndham’s mature novels have a lot in common with the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. Wyndham had a great variety of occupations before the war and the breadth of his experience shows up in his later writing. His early writing was stories for pulp magazines, mostly American, writing in the genres of crime and science fiction. These were published under pen names. The early stories have been reprinted and are worth reading. They are rich in ideas and provocative conceits; they are not too distant in that respect to the stories of J.G. Ballard.

During the war Wyndham worked in military intelligence and his experience of viewing the destruction of war first hand led him away from fantasy towards stories set in the present day. The experience of mundane reality overturned by the catastrophic became a staple of his literary thought thereafter. His first published novel was The Day of the Triffids (1951). It is that novel and the subsequent one, The Kraken Wakes (1953), which will be discussed here.

Wyndham was the product of a childhood during the Great War, the instability and rise of authoritarian regimes in the 1920s and 1930s, the Great Depression and the shattering experience of World War Two. This was followed by the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. Underpinning all of Wyndham’s post-War fiction is the consideration of competing mutually antagonistic ideologies which explicitly and implicitly shape his outlook on the survival of mankind. This is sometimes in the form of overt discussions of Communist and Capitalist reactions to alien threats (Triffids, Kraken, Midwich Cuckoos); at other times the competition is a matter of inter-species rivalry (Triffids, Kraken, Midwich Cuckoos, Chrysalids, Web)

The Day of the Triffids follows the narrator Bill Masen, who awakes in a London hospital to discover that the majority of the human race has been blinded by a supposed shower of comet debris (later mooted as an accidental transmission of a weapons satellite). Masen has a number of unnerving encounters with the blind before rescuing a young woman called Josella. Josella had been a socialite and novelist before the comet. Together they discuss leaving London to find a rural retreat. They join a small group of sighted people who plan to help a limited number of blind and to form a new society based on rational and pragmatic considerations. Before this group can depart as planned Bill and Josella are kidnapped and forced to serve as leaders of bands of blind people. These groups are depredated by sickness and attacks of the triffids (newly developed ambulatory plants cultivated for their nutritious oils and which are capable of stinging to death people). Bill and Josella are separated and flee London. Later reunited, the pair forms a small family group and attempt to survive on a farm surrounded by triffids.

The triffids are not the subject of the story. Indeed, they are little more than a means to hasten the break-up of society and add an element of the unknown to an otherwise mundane catastrophe – widespread blindness. Wyndham is not interested in triffids per se but in examining how societal norms fragment under pressure and how difficult it is for man to adjust his expectations under extraordinary circumstances. Old habits and customs outlive their usefulness; sentiment can undermine necessary pragmatism; excessive ruthlessness can impose intolerably inhumane conditions; good intentions can lead to barbaric outcomes. Wyndham follows different approaches and examines the viability and validity of each.

The novel was an enormous success, sold very well and was critically well received. The concept of the triffids entered common parlance. The story was filmed a number of times but the only adequate dramatization is the 1981 BBC television adaptation, available on DVD. That adaptation hit a sweet spot between faithfulness to the original text while making necessary adjustments for the format. It captures the spirit and letter of the novel and is highly recommended. There are a number of radio readings of the novel which are also effective and recommended, especially the Roger May reading for BBC Radio 4/4 Extra.

 

Triffids is superbly constructed. Wyndham tells the story in such a way that explores many branching possibilities: the serving of large groups of the blind by the sighted and also their abandonment; scavenging a living in an urban environment and farming in the country; the adherence to traditional values of Christian society and the establishment of a pragmatic humanitarian alternative; the imposition of authoritarian feudal serfdom and how it must – in the main – collapse. As a novel of ideas it follows characters living these alternative realities rather than the narrator describing them. The narrator’s life is tied into the farming of triffids. Being a triffid expert, Masen is in a position to supply first-person narration of background to one of the two alien elements in this fictional world (the other is the development and –putatively accidental deployment – sophisticated satellite weaponry).

There are logical faults to Triffids which are plot devices. Almost as soon as the catastrophe takes place, characters are committing suicide and succumbing to despair. In reality, people would have been waiting for aid and for their eyesight to return. The arrival of the triffids in London is unrealistically hasty. The plague (apparently artificial) kills most of the blind within days. These elements artificially accelerate the phases of the story and inject surprise, conflict and tension. The despair of the blind cements the irrevocable loss of sight; the confrontation with the triffids as soon as the day after the disaster brings forward the theme of inter-species rivalry; the plague clears away the surviving blind, ends attempts to aid the blind and removes our protagonists from cities and sets them on the road. One can acknowledge the effectiveness of Triffids’s overall pacing and progression while still finding the plague’s artificiality irksome and the immediate suicides of the blind jarring.

Josella is an example of Wyndham’s highly competent female characters. Wyndham’s co-educational experience at the progressive Bedales School left him with a lifelong belief in the equality of men and women. His fiction is full of strong female characters. There is a speech given by Coker in Triffids which presents what one might take to be Wyndham’s beliefs. It is worth looking at this speech, not least because it is sometimes misunderstood.

Coker confronts a woman at the traditionalist Christian group in Tynsham Manor when he discovers that an electrical generator has been going unused because the women there (the only sighted persons at the manor are women) have not worked out how to operate the generator. He chides her not just for her group’s lack of competence but more for its lack of initiative. She retorts

“It’s not my fault if I’m not any good at things like that.” “I’ll differ there,” Coker told her. “It’s a self-created fault. Moreover, it’s an affectation to consider yourself too spiritual to understand anything mechanical. It is a petty, and a very silly form of vanity. […] Hitherto we have been able to afford to amuse ourselves with that kind of mental laziness and parasitism. In spite of generations of talk about the equality of the sexes there has been much too great a vested interest in dependence for women to dream of dropping it.”

Coker goes on to say that the myth of female impracticality in matters technical was one fostered in a post-War British society to allow women to concentrate on domestic matters and ensure that men went on uncontested in mechanical professions. Now such niceties are unsustainable and women – every bit as competent as men when trained – must learn as much as possible for the advanced society to survive. Coker’s point is that the practice of learned helplessness is one that can only be sustained in a sophisticated, well-ordered, safe society. Wyndham points out the social construction of gender roles, suggests that change is not only possible but absolutely necessary in certain circumstances and might anyway be welcome otherwise. Not only that, he has the discussion take place in a situation germane to the setting and the narrative. It is typical of Wyndham to address sophisticated sociological points in unobtrusive ways within the context of his fiction. This is true of all his books but particularly Triffids and The Chrsyalids. Though Wyndham was writing within the conventions of Britain of the 1950s and 1960s – with a consequent dated tweeness to some of dialogue, which can be off-putting to new readers  – his ideas were as advanced and considered as any author of the time. How much he chafed at the restraints of British social mores and publishing norms can only be guessed at. Wyndham may not have been a radical but he may have wished to be more direct about matters sexual and violent and in terms of swearing.

Wyndham’s prose is rarely discussed but it is one of the great strengths of his books. It has the restraint of English middle-class emotional reserve and the crispness of American crime noire diction. His humour is dry. (A pub sign bears “a reputed likeness” of General Montgomery.) Adjectives are carefully chosen, adverbs rare and there is no straining for literary effect, though there are passages that both memorable and evocative simply through the quality of the prose. Wyndham can be elegiac as well terse. Poignant encounters are underplayed, leaving the reader to draw out the terrible implications. Readers are implicated as silent observers walking alongside Masen as he sees the blind confronting practical difficulties to succeed and fail.

That famous jibe of Brian Aldiss, that Day of the Triffids is an example of Wyndham’s “cosy catastrophe” is quite wrong. It is true, as Aldiss observed, that the hero spends much of the later chapters living with his companion in a world unfettered by law and economic contingencies in a land of supplies so plentiful that they are effectively unlimited. Characters repair to deserted saloon bars to discuss tactics and Masen considers himself liberated from social strictures that numbed him. But just because this adventure takes place in urban and pastoral England populated by the middle-classes, it is quite wrong to assume that the matters Wyndham approached were somehow less serious than the wave of “hard sci-fi” novels of the 1960s. Wyndham is always interested in characters testing their social situation and responding to change. Science, creatures and disasters are merely means by which to effect change in the social, economic and political status quo.

Far from existing in a cosy dream of middle-class liberation, Masen witnesses death by murder, suicide and illness; he assaults and is assaulted, and deals with the consequences of kidnapping and attempted rape. Masen is forced to be brutal and cold-hearted in order to save himself and to confront his innately selfish desire for self-preservation. All of this seems more pointed and real because it takes place in the world we inhabit. Rather than taking place in a space station or on a foreign world or at some time in the distant future, we experience an alternative reality which is theoretically only hours away. We confront our social assumptions and reconsider our fragile existence supported by a highly developed economic system.

 

The Kraken Wakes (1953) shares many similarities with Triffids. The novel is presented through the eyes of a couple of journalists, Mike and Phyllis Watson, observe the approach of alien spacecraft while on a honeymoon cruise. The craft descend into the sea. Soon the couple learn that the phenomena is widespread and unexplained. One of the leitmotifs is the mutual hostility of the capitalist West and Communist East and the suspicion that the opposing side is responsible for the unfolding events. This Cold War conflict makes scientific research, dissemination of accurate information and working in a common cause difficult at times impossible.

Phyllis is another of Wyndham’s strong women. He makes clear that Phyllis is actually the better journalist and more farsighted of the couple. Together the couple report on attacks on unexplained sinking of ships which causes worldwide disruption to travel and trade. It becomes clear an alien intelligence is engaging in marine warfare which humanity is ill-prepared to confront. The Watsons travel to Escondida, a tropical island, to document attacks by sea tanks on human habitations. The attack kills many of their colleagues and presents mankind with a new peril. The next phase of the attack on humanity is the melting of sea ice and the raising of worldwide sea levels. In a setpiece narrator Mike Watson describes high tide breaching the Thames walls and flooding London. London abandoned and much of Great Britain in anarchy, the Watsons flee in order to attempt surviving at their Cornish holiday home, now an island.

The subject of outright alien invasion is less approachable than Triffids, which features only one improbable element – a mobile, man-killing, carnivorous plant. For Kraken Wyndham has to introduce an alien species (never described in the novel), sci-fi technology and global warfare between mankind and aliens. Every new element adds distance between the fictional reality and the reader’s experience. The reliance on newspaper and radio reports likewise detaches readers from the events discussed, though the modern fictional approach (derived from sci-fi movie) of describing individual vignettes through the eyes of multiple characters (or an omniscient narrator) would have been more unsatisfactory. Wyndham’s approach has at least the advantage of brevity and avoids the dislocating effects of multiple perspectives and unnecessary secondary characters. Kraken does the same by having the Watsons personally involved at the arrival of the alien species and following developments closely as journalists. (Something similar happens in The Midwich Cuckoos, subject of a future post.)

The subject of global warming is prescient and precedes Ballard’s Drowned World by nine years. There are many effective scenes but the changing phases of the war feel disconnected and most are viewed from a distance. John Wyndham’s social – even anthropological – preoccupations touch upon environmental disaster and geopolitics. Though enjoyable and with a number of memorable set pieces (such as the attack of the sea tanks in Escondida and the flooding of London), The Kraken Wakes is a less effective novel than The Day of the Triffids. It ends in an almost identical situation – an isolated small group moving from a rural retreat to join a more populous group in order to form a new society – but because the Watsons’ situation and setting are less completely described and explained as the product of the evolution over a period of time, Kraken is less narratively satisfying and emotionally powerful. At the end of Triffids, when Masen’s group flees from their farm under duress we share in their mixture of emotions: we feel their anxiety and loss but also the sense of joyful release.  We can imagine the farm and its setting, whereas the Watson’s cottage and surroundings is barely described. Significantly, in Kraken the message the Watsons get is that the battle against the alien lifeform is all but won, whereas in Triffids the struggle is yet to begin in earnest.

Both novels share the themes of inter-species rivalry, the threat Cold War conflict, the catastrophic decline of established societies and economies, the struggle for life in an anarchic setting and the more overarching theme of remaking society better after disaster. Both are powerfully grounded in reality but use invented threats as the catalysts for sudden upheaval. Though Kraken has perhaps the more dramatic imagery – sea tanks attacking a sleepy tropical island village at night, London streets flooded and peopled by lone bandits – it is Triffids that is more satisfying as a whole.

While many high-brow social novels and technologically prescient sci-fi stories have become dusty curiosities, Wyndham’s novels live on as exciting stories, incisive in social comment and memorable in imagery. Wyndham’s best novels are as serious, intelligent and thought-provoking as any fiction produced in the immediate post-War period in Britain.

French literary censorship

“Two of French literature’s most enduring works of the early modern period, Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal, faced prosecution on grounds of obscenity. The two cases were prosecuted by the same lawyer, Pierre-Ernest Pinard, in the Sixth Correctional Court, where indicted authors were tried alongside petty criminals, disturbers of the peace and common sexual deviants. One author was condemned and one acquitted. The Censorship Effect examines the causes and consequences of the trials.

“On Christmas Eve 1856 a little-known writer called Gustave Flaubert was indicted on charges of ‘outraging public morals and religious and good manners’ for the serialisation of his novel Madame Bovary. Revue de Paris published the novel in serial form but the cautious editor made many cuts to the text (so many cuts, that an exasperated Flaubert demanded that the journal publish a disclaimer to the effect that what was being printed was only fragments of the novel). Emma, the protagonist of the novel, embarks on sexual affairs and lives an indulgently materialistic lifestyle to combat the boredom of her marriage to a provincial doctor. The depiction of the heroine’s lewd and immoral conduct – in addition to the fact that there is no express condemnation of her actions – raised the suspicion that the novel might lead astray female readers and arouse male ones…”

Read the full review online on Spiked, 28 April 2016, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/the-waltz-of-censorship/18293#.VyHyV_ldU5k

 

A Dictionary of Untranslatables

“Everyone who speaks a foreign language will have experienced the frustration of not being able accurately to translate a word of their native tongue, as well as the delight of encountering a new word which explains something not manifest in their own language. When the latter instance proves useful or common enough, it results in a loan word being introduced into another language. This occurs when the word describes something specific to a place or culture: kangaroo, kayak, manga, teepee, tsunami, typhoon.

“Loan words can also succinctly express something that is burdensomely complicated to describe: Gesamtkunstwerk (a complete work of art combining disciplines generally considered discretely); a portmanteau-word (a neologism which fuses two existing words and combines their meaning, for example ‘smog’ from ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’); and so forth. A further order is loan words which describe abstractions that are specific to a culture or are neologisms coined by writers to express particular concepts. In these cases, the very meaning of the words is difficult to translate; hence we get loan words such as Dasein, kitsch and nous.

“Just as there are no exact synonyms, there is no exact translation, as every word has different origins, connotations and usage. Beyond that, there are philosophical problems with the use of language itself…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 11 July 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/blueprints-of-babel/15367#.Vd-CWvldU5k

David King: The Commissar Vanishes

“When we think of images of the revolution of October 1917, we often think of the running figures on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd and soldiers lining up to fire on demonstrators outside the Winter Palace. However, although the former is a genuine reportorial photograph, the second was a staged reconstruction. Our most immediate associations and impressions are visual rather than verbal or statistical. Canny propagandists have long known that. Part of the work of totalitarian regimes has been not just the creation of useful lies but the suppression of uncomfortable truths. It is an oft-repeated truism that we so easily overlook the appalling famine in China during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) which claimed the lives of between 18 and 45million people because there is not one verified photograph of the effects.

“Beginning in 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia – in addition to a military campaign – deployed falsehoods in order to win the civil war. The doctoring of published images was one way of ‘correcting’ history as it was being written (and ceaselessly rewritten). By the time of Stalin’s ascent in the early 1920s, it was already common practice to suppress and alter images. What changed under Stalin was the scale and the necessity of such alterations. One by one, Stalin eliminated old opponents and comrades alike. Being faithful to the party line or being close to Stalin was no protection. Stalin’s paranoia struck down the loyal comrade just as his jealousy struck down the popular comrade. Occasionally the disgraced comrade’s entire family would be liquidated for good measure…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 13 June 2014, here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/the-vanished-and-the-defaced/15161#.Vd-AwPldU5k

Gilbert Stuart: Pathology of Genius

“Can you name the artist whose work has been reproduced more often than that of all other artists in history combined? The chances are that the artist’s name, Gilbert Stuart, won’t leave you any the wiser, yet it is Stuart’s portrait of President George Washington that adorns every US one-dollar bill. Stuart (1755-1828) was the most renowned portraitist in early American history. He painted the first six presidents and his work was admired and sought after by high society.

Yet despite this acclaim, there were contemporary comments about the uneven quality of Stuart’s work. While some portraits are vivid and lifelike, combining observed reality and flattering idealisation, others seemed awkward and cold. People observed how inconsistent Stuart’s style could be, even within single pictures, which led to suspicions that a pupil or one of Stuart’s children was responsible for poorly painted areas that conflicted with Stuart’s known competence. Bitter disputes arose between art historians over attribution of paintings ascribed to Stuart, and works once deemed authentic were relegated to museum basements as fakes…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 28 March 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/gilbert-stuart-and-the-pathology-of-genius/14850#.Vd9-wPldU5k

William S. Burroughs: Letters, vol. 2

“Volume 1 of William Burroughs’s letters took readers from 1945 to 1959, following his frequent changes of location from New York to Texas, Mexico City, Tangiers and Paris, as he turned his hand to junk pushing, cannabis growing, pea farming, psychopharmacological investigation and – finally – writing. Burroughs skipped bail and left Mexico for good after accidentally shooting his wife dead, leaving their son Billy to be raised by his grandparents in Florida. During this early period, letters were a vital conduit for Burroughs’s political and intellectual ideas and for the continuation of friendships, principally with Allen Ginsberg.

In Volume 2 we pick up the story with Burroughs living in Paris, just having sent off the proofs of Naked Lunch to the printers…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 30 March 2012 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/12298#.Vd94GPldU5k