Friday, 2 March 2012

Books of February 2012

I read a few very good books in February. Apart from a couple of poetry anthologies (I recommend Andrew Motion's From Here to Eternity) and an exhibition catalogue (for the brilliant Grayson Perry exhibition about which I have failed to blog) everything I read last month was on the Kindle, and most of it was stuff I'd got very cheap in various Kindle sales.

The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilcher
This was a lucky find. It's a strange and compelling book which I consumed avidly on the tube, but it's going to be hard to describe it without making it sound awful. It's mostly about an alcoholic drinking. Here instead is the first paragraph:
Before the mafiosi appeared in my apartment in the company of the dark-complexioned poetess Alberta Lulaj, before they wrenched me from my drunken sleep and set about demanding — first with dissembling pleas, then with ruthless threats — that I arrange for Alberta Lulaj’s poetry to be published in the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, before there began the tempestuous events I wish to recount, there was the eve of those events, there was the morning and the evening of the preceding day, and I, from the morning to the evening of the preceding day, had been drinking peach vodka. Yes indeed, I had been drinking peach vodka, brutishly longing for one last love before death, and immersed up to my ears in a life of dissolution.
Tony and Susan by Austin Wright
Compelling and clever. Susan is more-or-less happily married to a brilliant surgeon and they have three children. But a long time ago she was briefly married to neurotic Edward, who was obsessed with what seemed an unrealistic need to be a writer. Out of the blue Edward sends Susan a novel he has written, with the double-edged comment that she was always his best critic. But it's not a pleasant novel and it's not clear what Edward's motive might be. If it's "about" something maybe it's about being a reader, or maybe it's about the creepiness of domesticity. It's very readable though, I stayed up late to finish it in one day.

Graven With Diamonds: the Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt, Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy by Nicola Shulman
This has been on my Amazon wishlist for ages. I'm quite fond of Wyatt's poetry, though I only really knew about the usual anthologised ones and the question of whether or not they were addressed to Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII was king for quite a long time, and most of this book is about the period when his court was very French-influenced, in the years between Henry falling in love with and marrying Anne Boleyn. Courtly love abounded:
Love was newly fashionable. In the previous reign, English continence in matters of love had greatly impressed a visiting Italian: ‘he had never noticed anyone, either at court or amongst the lower orders, to be in love’ he said, ‘… either the English were the most discreet lovers in the world, or they were incapable of love’. But now, in the 1520s, the young and chic of Henry’s court were all at it, tossing and pining on their pallets for love, or saying they did in lyric poetry.
Shulman is very good on the use that people made of the poems, how they got passed about and altered, and used in games which only later might look a little dangerous:
‘I write by this… I mean by that’ wrote one scribe at the bottom of his poem, just in case his surreptitiousness had gone unnoticed. Accordingly, they were often attracted to those works of Wyatt’s that could usurp their own apparent subject matter and turn into poems about the poems themselves. That may make Tudor courtiers sound like French doctoral students, which they were not; but they were young and self-involved and their poems were the vehicle for that most fascinating of all things, their own social drama.
I also really like her characterisations of the major figures, like Henry VIII:
A flash of this ribaldry comes down to us in a book that was doing the rounds of Wyatt’s circle in the early 1530s, in which someone has written ‘presto para servir’ (ready to serve) and others, beneath it, the doubtful coda ‘forse’ (perhaps). But the king would have no particle of sympathy for an ungallant sentiment like that. For him there could be no forse about his eagerness to serve. He was sincere in all his doings. If he were alive today, he’d be Canadian.
Anne Boleyn:
Anne was a bridge-burner by nature, not a conciliator, and a termagant to boot. As Henry’s companion, she had never been one to cut her cloth. Henry’s letters swim with mollification and – in response to some lost rebuff – the sort of shaken dignity one sees in a senior dog in retreat from an unexpected cat.
and Wyatt himself:
As for courtly skills, there was no shortage of these with Wyatt, one of the few Englishmen in history to be held suspiciously smooth by a senior French diplomat.
Also you have to love an author who, when discussing C. S. Lewis' interpretation of some poems, points out that "There is only one joke in the Narnia books" (and footnotes a reference to it -- it's in The Silver Chair, apparently).

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