Book reviews 2018 - #15 through #20

#15 - “Imagination”, Mary Warnock, 1976

Pretty heavy duty philosophy, but with Warnock’s distinctive twists: art, culture and psychology all make an appearance.  It’s mainly a historical review rather than a standalone argument, with Hume, Kant, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Sartre and Wittgenstein as the main characters.

Key take out is the importance of imagination to the human condition.  Imagination is not ‘pretend’ or even ‘creativity’: integrated with perception, feeling and rationality, it lies at the heart of who we are and how we behave.

There.  You don’t need to read it now.

#16 - “A Smile in the Mind’s Eye”, Lawrence Durrell, 1980

A curio.  Part essay on the nature of the tao, part philosophical stroll, part memoir, this short book is probably of interest only to people who have read a great deal of Lawrence Durrell and want to fill in the gaps.  If you want to know about the tao, or to explore related philosophy, this probably isn’t the best place to start.

It was also written towards the end of Durrell’s life and to me he feels tired.  I read it and just felt a bit sad.

#17 - “Liquidation”, Imre Kertesz, 2003 (trans. Tim Wilkinson)

Kertesz was born in Hungary in 1929.  He was imprisoned in both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

Liquidation is the second of his books I’ve read; the first was ‘Fiasco’.  Neither was an easy read, in terms of both style and content.  Style-wise, we’re talking elliptical, strange, uncanny, with nested, looping perspectives and clever-bastard architecture.  Content-wise we’re talking ‘the human condition’ - especially human frailty – the difficulties of authentic communication and, of course, the Holocaust.

This is powerful, important literature and I loved it.  His work feels to me to be in the same space as Samuel Beckett, W G Sebald and Iain Sinclair.  Sometimes you get to the end of a paragraph and have no idea what just happened, but you feel something, and you know it’s big, important.  You can only let it settle inside you and do its work.

#18 - “The Order of Time”, Carlo Rovelli, 2017 (trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)

Right.  This is a tricky one.

On the one hand, this comes out of the Adelphi stable, which is the Italian publishing house overseen by Roberto Calasso.  As you know, Calasso is a genius of whom I am in awe, so the provenance is strong.

In addition, my dear friend Robin recommended this to me after seeing Rovelli in the flesh and having pronounced him to be a genuinely wonderful chap.  Rovelli is a theoretical physicist with the rare gift of being able to speak human.  Given the staggering importance of theoretical physics, and the implications of contemporary science for the future of humanity, I’m obviously hugely in favour of anyone and anything that can explain it to us.

On top of all that, this is a book about the nature of time – granular, stranger than we can possibly imagine, almost not the thing we think of as ‘time’ at all – which is definitely my kind of reading material.

On the other hand – this guy really gets on my tits.  There’s just something about him that annoys the hell out of me.  His style, possibly?  His metaphors and similes are systematically weak.  He leaps from impressive expositions of incredibly complex physics to trite homilies on the human condition in a single bound.  He tries to formulate a crypto-religious redemption in the face of the blistering reality his science is exposing and – to my mind – just feels naïve.  Some of the things he presents as profound insights are things I wrote down aged 22 and look back on now as preliminary.

Still, loads of people seem to think he’s fabulous, and his previous book ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ (which I also hated) has sold squillions of copies, so I guess it must be me.

#19 - “Is that a fish in your ear?”, David Bellos, 2011

This is a truly marvellous book that you should read immediately.  Bellos is a multi-award winning translator whose work I first encountered many years ago, though I didn’t realise at the time because I thought I was reading a book by Georges Perec.  Well, I was reading a book by Georges Perec, but the only reason I was able to read a book by Georges Perec was because someone had gone to the trouble of translating Perec’s words from French into English.

And that someone – to whom I am incandescently grateful, given the joy I derive from reading Perec – is David Bellos.  (I have emailed him to tell him so.)

“Is that a fish in your ear?” has the sub-title ‘The amazing adventure of translation’ and it is, in large part, the story of what translation is, and how it works, and how it doesn’t when it doesn’t.  It turns out that what we call ‘translation’ is merely one part of the more general process by which meaning is communicated between sentient beings, which means that a story of ‘translation’ morphs into an extended and beautiful riff on the nature of meaning, on the power of story, on the perils of communication and even what it means to be a human being.  (What is a human being, after all, if not a story-based animal that communicates meaning with other animals?)  Bellos writes with the assurance and authority that comes from being totally at ease with what he is doing; and both his argument and his illustrations are utterly engrossing.

I’m biased, of course, because I’m such a fan of Perec.  There are two or three places in the Bellos book where he references the kinds of literary or linguistic games that Perec would play.  Bellos talks about the meta-game of turning a game in one language into a game in another, where the nature of the game may itself be a game that can only be played in one language.  Acrostics, for example, embedded as clues in a French detective story - a story that is itself based on clues embedded in an unfinished story – can only be translated into English with extraordinary skill, flair and creativity.  Bellos has these things in abundance.  Reading him was a privilege.

#20 - “From Nicaragua with Love”, Ernesto Cardenal, 1986 (trans. Jonathan Cohen)

This is CityLights’ Pocket Poets #43.  I’ve been collecting the Pocket Poets for 30-odd years now.  The rule is: no cheating.  No internet.  No google.  No asking the bookseller to find something for you.  The book must find you.

This one found me in Skoob, under the Brunswick Centre.  According to the cover:

“The liberation theology of this impassioned poet-priest is inherent in his poetry as it is in his public life, for these poems articulate his hope for a “society of love” in Nicaragua, which is what the revolution means to him.”

It’s long intrigued me, this South American thing, where the boundary between politics and poetry is so blurred.

In this case, the poetry isn’t actually very good: but that doesn’t really matter.  How often do you encounter a poem like this?:


I’m surprised that I now read
    with great interest

things like
   the cotton harvest up 25%
from last year’s crop
   U.S $124.2 million worth of coffee exported
      up 17.5% from last year
a 13.6% jump in sugar is expected
      corn production dropped 5.9%
   gold dropped 10% because
of attacks on the contras in that region
likewise shellfish…

When did these facts ever interest me before?
   It’s because now our wealth
     meagre as it may be
   is intended
      for everyone.
         This interest of mine
   is for the people, well,
         out of love
       for the people.  The thing is
now these numbers amount to love.
The gold coming out of the earth, solid sun
cut into blocks, will become electric light,
drinking water,
         for the poor.  The translucent
molluscs, recalling to mind women, the smell of a woman
coming out of the sea, from their underwater caves
and colourful coral gardens, in order to become
pills, school desks.
         The holiness of matter.
      Momma, you know the value of a glass of milk.
The cotton, soft bit of clouds,
         -   we’ve gone to pick cotton singing
         we’ve held clouds in our fingers –
will become tin roofs, highways and
the thing is now what’s economic is poetic,
      or rather, with the Revolution
the economy amounts to love.



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