Tuesday 2 September 2008

Books read recently:

All Souls by Javier Marias. A multi-layered novel of a Spanish academic adrift in Oxford, which he finds, is a town outside time, frozen in treacle. It is from the perspective of a man who has since moved on, whom 'time has caught up with' that he looks back on his intrigues, affairs and obsessions in the ancient university town. More than just a novel on academic life in many ways, among them the brilliant analysis of the source of Arthur Machen's unique horrors, the juxtaposition of two ideas which taken seperately are not horrific at all, but when put together can evoke horror by their association. It's an idea that applies to a larger context than the creation of uncanny stories, like everything in Marias' TARDIS-like novels.

Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici. 18th-century English country gentleman Westfield, a self-appointed philosopher, is plagued with insomnia. He engages Samuel Goldberg, a Jewish writer, to read him to sleep. Somehow the assignment changes in nature, and Goldberg is expected to write an original composition to lull his patron to sleep with each night. The 30 chapters of this book are nothing so straightforward as the stories Goldberg might write - instead, they're meditations on the process of storytelling, on the past and how it touches the present, on art, music, literature (especially the warhorses of the western canon) and philosophy and the relation they might bear to wisdom. Good stuff, very elegant and economical in style and packed with substance to mull over. In a way this is the sort of allusive, nuanced, symbolic and formally ambitious book that's tailor-made for me to enjoy. And I enjoyed it.

Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye To Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. Linked in setting and several characters, Isherwood's 'Berlin Novels' are really a novel and a collection of linked vignettes and short stories. 'Mr. Norris' is the story of a rather pathetic, yet unscrupulous conman who plays out his convoluted, doomed tricks - they really seem more like the gambits of some misguided, compulsive entertainer than the shrewd strategems of a criminal - against the backdrop of a Germany on the brink of the Nazi era. 'Goodbye' is a more or less autobiographical portrait of the growing tensions in Berlin, among the politically involved, the opportunistic and the just plain hapless natives and expatriates. It's the portrait of the end of an era. Both books are memorable for more than just the context that gives them their initial interest.

The Lambs Of London by Peter Ackroyd. Perhaps the most satisfying novel by Ackroyd I've read since 'The Last Will and Testament of Oscar Wilde'. It's about Charles and Mary, their strange, bookish, lives and a young man who forges Shakespeare documents and a play and the obsessions that drive literary endeavour. 'The Clerkenwell Tales' was a bit disjointed, and 'The House of Doctor Dee' didn't quite pull off the mystical leap, but this one is a perfect miniature (read it on a sunday afternoon, if you can, with a ginger kitten worrying at your toes) with much going on.

Maigret And The Ghost by Georges Simenon. Another one of Maigret's excellent novels about the Parisian inspector Maigret. The sensational crime involves art treasures, intrigue, forgery and a doomed young artist. The matter-of-fact way in which Maigret goes about resolving the conundrums ground the story in everyday realism in typical Simenon fashion. Madame Maigret finally gets a more prominent part, and finally gets to have a lunch date with her chronically overworked husband. A nice touch.