Putney: love in the time of #MeToo

Sofka Zinovieff’s most recent novel was meant to be a cross-section of a child’s first love, flayed and pinned back by the discerning scalpel of adulthood to show such a love for what it really is. But while Putney lands at the intersection of love and abuse, it then sits there idly, doing absolutely nothing.

zinovieff, putneyPutney · Sofka Zinovieff
Harper, 2018 · 384 pages, hardcover

The seventies were a decade of anything goes. Daphne, the girl at the forefront of Zinovieff’s novel, is the product of a Greek-English household too busy with the art world, with the national resistance in Greece and with a lover each for mama and papa to parent her in any meaningful way.

Unlike the Daphne of myth, who could appeal to her father for protection against Apollo’s lust, this Daphne enjoys it willingly enough when she finds herself recipient of Ralph’s affections. This willingness is at the center of Putney as Zinovieff tries to define juvenile love alongside an adult’s reckless touch when consent cannot be real. Continue reading

Sarah Perry, the Essex Serpent

Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent is a bizarre tale. It’s bizarre not because of its serpentine mystery, but because it’s a good novel when everything about it would say otherwise.

Sarah Perry, the Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent · Sarah Perry
Custom House, 2016 · 417 pages, hardcover

You couldn’t say that Essex Serpent is historical fiction or mystery or thriller, nor does it have a Victorian pastiche or the effervescent pall of fantasy about it. Or it does, but not quite. It’s a curious novel but one clearly meant for the present day, the present year, a sort of amalgamation of past place and present principle. It’s odd. Continue reading

How to make love stay?

Still Life with Woodpecker is a most postmodern postmodern fairytale.

Still Life with WoodpeckerStill Life with Woodpecker · Tom Robbins · 1980
No Exit Press, 2001 · 277 pages, paperback

For a man who can end a sentence with dildos and wax poetic about a good sucking off, it’s going to be a hard guess as to how he managed to end his story with individualism and true love. Tom Robbins takes an obvious pleasure in the process, delighting in a vocabulary that lends itself well to diarrhea of the mouth.

He’s also, incidentally, a fantastic storyteller. Continue reading

The Adolescent: Dostoevsky the dramatist

School-age grudges and backroom bargains line up the chips against ladies’ secrets and counterfeit fathers in The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and one that built on his previous work with surprising maturity.

The AdolescentThe Adolescent · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1875
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2004 · 608 pages, paperback

Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, said of Dostoevsky that the man “seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Though he was talking about The Brothers Karamazov, which Nabokov called a “straggling play,” the comment holds for The Adolescent, a gossipy soap opera done in high style. Continue reading

Oedipus Rex

We all know the basics: Oedipus offed his father and married his mother.

Three Theban PlaysThe Three Theban Plays: Antigone – Oedipus the King – Oedipus at Colonus
Sophocles · c. 441-406 BC
Robert Fagles translation · Penguin, 2008 · 430 pages, paperback

Oedipus the King, though, isn’t about the incestuous prophecy, but instead about Oedipus’ relentless pursuit – no matter the cost – of the truth, what he does with that truth and how he’s treated in spite of it all.

More than the story of ancient myth and its piecemeal modern echoes – thank you, Herr Freud – Sophocles gave us the measure of the man: integrity unmatched, good intentions to the last, a sense of justice that places no king above the law.

It’s a shame we only remember the sullied reputation. Continue reading

Lois Lowry, The Giver

For Hamlet, death was the great equalizer: kings and slaves decay just the same. But for Lois Lowry, in her regimented community of The Giver, it’s life that’s the leveler of men.

Lowry, the GiverThe Giver · Lois Lowry · 1993
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 · 225 pages, paperback

The Giver peeks into a hermetically sealed life, one lived entirely, to use today’s jargon, within a safe space. The Giver shows us that the results of strict equality and protected contentment are extraordinarily far from the imagined kumbaya.

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Red Sparrow is red herring espionage

Reading Jason Matthews’ spy novel Red Sparrow is like wrapping Le Carré around a dime store romance, a reputable disguise for when you’re embarrassed to be seen with it. Red Sparrow is a thriller for appearances’ sake only (and because CIA men don’t write romance)? A shame – because Matthews has real talent.

Matthews, Red SparrowRed Sparrow · Jason Matthews · 2013
Scribner, 2014 · 431 pages, paperback

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Sickness, Thomas Mann and the nihilism of reality

Mann, the Magic MountainThe Magic Mountain · Thomas Mann · 1924
John E. Woods translation · Vintage, 1996 · 720 pages, paperback

There are few novels that give sickness its due. There are even fewer that play with it as a state of mind or treat it as the defunct policy of nation states.

Though Thomas Mann began work on The Magic Mountain in 1912 when he visited his ailing wife at a sanatorium (which served as the model for the Berghof of his novel), his writing soon bent to a different angle when war broke out two years later. By the time he completed it in 1924, the sickness of the body had become further distorted into the sickness of the body politic, and his novel became a reification of the period’s irrationalism. Continue reading

¿Que dijiste?

Comemadre feels like a troll, and we can’t figure out if Larraquy is an actual proponent of the prurient and the shocking, of the crass and irreverent, in modern art, or if he’s cleverer than all of us and having a damn good time with parody. Either way, Larraquy took exhibitionist art and made it literary.

ComemadreComemadre · Roque Larraquy · 2010
Heather Cleary translation · Coffee House Press, 2018 · 129 pages, paperback

Where is the tipping point that turns life into unlife? What does that infinitesimally small tick on the clock feel like, sound like, taste like? And can we replicate it for the living?

Argentinian author Roque Larraquy’s novel is a century’s quest for understanding the in-between. Larraquy sweeps religion aside, turns a deaf ear to the philosophers and rejects blasé methods of questioning. Instead he approaches the metaphysical realm from a purely physical standpoint, dabbling first in guillotines and then moving on to live installation art. Through the length of his novel, the body is central to his question: what is the moment of death like?

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Pocketful of innuendo

Fifty-four pages of “pimps, cuckolds, lovers and clever women” (as its rear proudly advertises) – a mere snippet to the full Decameron. A handful of minutes is all we need to romp about in these short and saucy tales.

Boccaccio, Mrs RosieMrs. Rosie and the Priest (from the Decameron) · Giovanni Boccaccio · 1348-‘53
Peter Hainsworth translation · Penguin, 2015 · 54 pages, paperback

This pocketsize book from Penguin, first in the publisher’s line-up of 126 minor works from major writers, includes four stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron. No introduction, nor even a whiff of context, substantiates its content, and the result is a picture of Boccaccio as a street bawler in tight leggings, pulling the ears of passersby and peddling lewd tales.

It’s quite delectable.

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