Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Nov/Dec 2010

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Nov/Dec 2010

Nick Hornby
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  • How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer—Sarah Bakewell
  • The Broken Word—Adam Foulds
  • Book of Days—Emily Fox Gordon


  • Book of Days—Emily Fox Gordon
  • The Master—Colm Tóibín
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea—Barbara Demick
  • Family Britain, 1951–1957—David Kynaston
  • The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger—Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Something has been happening to me recently—something which, I suspect, is likely to affect a significant and important part of the rest of my life. The grandiose way of describing this shift is to say that I have been slowly making my peace with antiquity; or, to express it in words that more accurately describe what’s going on, I have discovered that some old shit isn’t so bad.

Hitherto, my cultural blind spots have included the Romantic poets, every single bar of classical music ever written, and just about anything produced before the nineteenth century, with the exception of Shakespeare and a couple of the bloodier, and hence more Tarantinoesque, revenge tragedies. When I was young, I didn’t want to listen to or read anything that reminded me of the brown and deeply depressing furniture in my grandmother’s house. She didn’t have many books, but those she did own were indeed brown: cheap and old editions of a couple of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, for example, and maybe a couple of hand-me-down books by somebody like Frances Hodgson Burnett. When I ran out of stuff to read during the holidays, I was pointed in the direction of her one bookcase, but I wanted bright Puffin paperbacks, not mildewed old hardbacks, which came to represent just about everything I wasn’t interested in.

This unhelpful association, it seems to me, should have withered with time; instead, it has been allowed to flourish, unchecked. Don’t you make yogurt by putting a spoonful of yogurt into something-or-other? Well, I created a half century of belligerent prejudice with one spoonful of formative ennui. I soon found that I didn’t want to read or listen to anything that anybody in any position of educational authority told me to. Chaucer was full of woodworm; Wordsworth was yellow and curling at the edges, whatever edition I was given. I read Graham Greene and John Fowles, Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe, Chandler and Nathanael West, Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick, and I listened exclusively to popular music. Dickens crept in, eventually, because he was funny, unlike Sir Walter Scott and Shelley, who weren’t. And, because everything was seen through the prism of rock and roll, every now and again I would end up finding something I learned about through the pages of New Musical Express. When Mick Jagger happened to mention that “Sympathy for the Devil” was inspired by Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, off I trotted to the library. It didn’t help that I was never allowed to study anything remotely contemporary until the last year of university: There was never any sense of that leading to this. If anything, my education gave me the opposite impression, of an end to cultural history round about the time that Forster wrote A Passage to India. The quickest way to kill all love for the classics, I can see now, is to tell young people that nothing else matters, because then all they can do is look at them in a museum of literature, through glass cases. Don’t touch! And don’t think for a moment that they want to live in the same world as you! And so a lot of adult life—if your hunger and curiosity haven’t been squelched by your education—is learning to join up the dots that you didn’t even know were there.

In some ways, my commitment to modernity stood me in good stead: those who cling on to the cultural touchstones of an orthodox education are frequently smug, lazy, and intellectually timid – after all, someone else has made all their cultural decisions for them. And in any case, if you decide only to consume art made in the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first, you’re going to end up familiar with a lot of good stuff, enough to last you a lifetime. If your commitment to the canon means you’ve never had the time for Marilynne Robinson or Preston Sturges or Marvin Gaye, then I would argue that you’re not as cultured as you think.  (Well, not you. You know who Marvin Gaye is. But they’re out there. They’re out here, in Britain, especially.)

Over the last couple of years, though,  I’ve been dipping into Keats’ letters, listening obsessively to Saint-Saens, seeking out paintings by Van Eyck, doing all sorts of things that I’d never have dreamed of doing even in my forties; what is even more remarkable, to me, at least, is that none of these things feel alien.  There wasn’t one single Damascene moment. Rather, there was a little cluster of smaller discoveries and awakenings, including

  • Laura Cumming’s magnificent book A Face To The World, one of the cleverest, wisest books of criticism I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t have picked it up in a million years if I hadn’t known the author, and I ended up chasing after the self-portraits she writes about, which involved visiting galleries and Old Masters I’d carefully avoided until she taught me not to. (I read this book during my laughably unjust and almost certainly illegal suspension from these pages last year, so I was unable to recommend it to you then, but you should read it.)
  • The Professor Green/Lily Allen song ‘Just Be Good To Green’. I am old enough to remember not only the Beats International version, ‘Dub Be Good To Me’, but the SOS Band’s original, ‘Just Be Good To Me’. And I’m not saying that the Professor sent me off screaming towards Beethoven’s late quartets (very good, by the way); I did, however, find myself wondering whether, when a song keeps coming round again and again and again, like a kid on a merry-go-round,then there comes a point when you have to stop smiling and waving. Saint-Saens is a new artist, as far as I’m concerned, with a big future ahead of him.
  • A new pair of headphones, expensive ones, which seemed to me to be demanding real food, orchestras and symphonies, rather than a wispy diet of singer-songwriter.
  • Jane Campion’s beautiful film Bright Star, which turned Keats into a writer a recognised and understood.
  • During promotional work for Lonely Avenue, the project I’ve been working on with Ben Folds, the two of us were asked to trade tracks for some iTunes thing. Ben recommended an early Elton John album and the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. I bought the Rachmaninov, because the enthusiasm was so unaffected and unintimidating.
  • And now, Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, ‘How To Live’.

I had never read Montaigne before picking up Bakewell’s book. I knew only that he was a sixteenth-century essayist ,and that therefore he had therefore wilfully chosen not to interest me. So I am at a loss to explain quite why I felt the need, first to buy, and then to devour ‘How To Live’. And it was a need, too. I have talked in these pages before about how sometimes your mind knows what it needs, just as your body knows when it’s time for some iron, or some protein, or a drink that doesn’t contain caffeine or absinthe. I suspect in this case the title helped immeasurably. This book is going to tell me how to live, while at the same time filling in all kinds of gaps in my knowledge? Sold.

Well, ‘How To Live’ is a superb book, original, engaging, thorough, ambitious and wise. It’s not just that it provides a handy guide to Hellenic philosophy, and an extremely readable account of the sixteenth-century French civil wars; you would, perhaps expect some of that, given Montaigne’s influences and his political involvement. (He became mayor of Bordeaux, a city that had been punished for its insurrectionist tendencies.) Nor is it that it contains immediate and sympathetic portraits of several of Montaigne’s relationships – with  his wife, his editor, and his closest friend La Boetie, who died in one of the frequent outbreaks of the plague, and of whom Montaigne said, famously, “If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.” The conventional virtues of a biography are all there, and in place, but where Bakewell really transcends the genre is in her organisation of the material, and her refusal to keep Montaigne penned in his own time. In just over three hundred pages she provides a proper biography, one that takes into account the hundreds of years he has lived since his death; that, after all, is when a lot of the important stuff happens. And the post-mortem life of Montaigne has been a rich one; he troubled Descartes and Pascal, got himself banned in France (until 1854), captivated and then disappointed the Romantics, inspired Nietzsche and Stefan Zweig, made this column possible.

He did this by inventing the medium of the personal essay, more or less single-handedly. How many other people can you think of who created an entire literary form? Indeed, how many people can you think of who created any cultural idiom? James Brown, maybe; before ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ there was no funk; and then, suddenly, there it was. Well, Montaigne was the James Brown of the 1580s.  In his brilliant book ‘1599 – A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare’, James Shapiro says that Montaigne took “the unprecedented step of making himself his subject”, thus enabling Shakespeare to produce a dramatic equivalent, the soliloquy. Of course, you can overstate the case for Montaigne’s innovative genius. It’s hard to imagine that, in the five hundred-odd years since the Essays were first published, some other narcissist wouldn’t have had the idea of sticking himself into the middle of his prose: Montaigne invented the personal essay like someone invented the wheel. Why he’s still read now is not because he was the first, but because he remains fresh, and his agonised agnosticism, his endearing fumbles in the dark (he frequently ends a thought or an opinion with a disarming, charming “But I don’t know”) becomes more relevant as we realise, with increasing certainty, that we don’t have a clue about anything. I’d be surprised and delighted if I read a richer book in the next twelve months.

And then, as if Montaigne’s hand was on my shoulder, I discovered Emily Fox Gordon’s ‘Book Of Days’, a collection of personal essays. I had read a nice review of them in the Economist, but had presumed that they’d be nicely written, light, amusing, and disposable, but that’s not it at all: these are not blogs wrapped up in a nice blue cover. (And is it OK, given the Believer’s no-snark rule, to say that some blogs are better than others? And that one or even two have no literary merit whatsoever?) There are jokes in ‘Book Of Days’, but the writing is precise, the thinking is complicated and original, and just about every subject she chooses – faculty wives, her relationship with Kafka, her niece’s wedding – somehow enables her to pitch for something rich and important. If you are interested in writing and marriage –  and if you’re not, then I don’t know what you’re doing round here, because I got nothing else, apart from kids and football – then she has things to say that I have never read elsewhere, and that I will be thinking about and possibly even re-reading for some time to come. In Sarah Bakewell’s introduction to ‘How To Live’ she quotes the English journalist Bernard Levin: “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put the book down at some point and say with incredulity, ‘How did he know all that about me?’” Well, I haven’t yet had that experience with Montaigne, probably because in my admittedly limited excursions so far, I’ve been looking for the smutty bits, but I felt it several times while I was reading ‘Book Of Days’. ‘The Prodigal Returns’, the essay about Gordon’s niece’s wedding, turns into a brilliant meditation on the ethics and betrayals of memoir-writing, contains the following:

“What do I enjoy? Not staying in hotels, apparently. Not gluttony, not parties, not flattery, not multiple glasses of white wine. What I seem to want to do – ‘enjoy’ is the wrong word here – is not to have experiences but to think and tell about them. I’m always looking for excuses to avoid sitting down at my desk to write, but I “enjoy” my life only to the extent that even as I’m living it, I’m also writing it in my mind”.

Well. Obviously that’s not me, in any way whatsoever. I’m an adventurer, a gourmand, a womaniser, a bon viveur, a surfer, a bungee-jumper, a gambler, an occasional pugilist, a Scrabble player, a man who wrings every last drop from life’s dripping sponge. But, you know. I thought it might chime with one or two of you lot. Nerds. And it certainly would have chimed with Montaigne.

I’m afraid I am going to recommend yet another epic poem about the Mau-Mau uprising – this time Adam Foulds’ extraordinary and pitch-perfect ‘The Broken Word’.  It will occupy maybe an hour of your life, and you won’t regret a single second of it. Foulds has written an apparently brilliant novel, ‘The Quickening Maze’, about the poet John Clare, in whom I have obviously had no previous interest, but this has the narrative drive of a novel anyway. Set in the 1950s (der, say the people who know all about the Mau-Mau, which I’m presuming isn’t every single one of you) It tells the story of Tom, a young Englishman who, in the summer between school and university, goes to visit his parents in Kenya, and is drawn into an horrific, nightmarish suppression of a violent rebellion. If there were money to be made from cinematic adaptations of bloody, politically aware but deeply humanistic long-form poetry, then the film rights to ‘The Broken Word’ would make Foulds rich.

Such is his talent that Foulds can elevate just about any banal domestic conversation; in the last section of the poem, Tom is attempting to seduce a young woman at university, and the dialogue is full of “no’s” and “That’s not nices”, the flat commoplace rejections of a 1950s courtship. But what gives the passage its chilling power is everything that has gone before: how much of the violence Tom has seen is contained in him now?  The control here is such that the language doesn’t have to be anything other than humdrum to be powerful, layered, dense, and that’s some trick to pull off.  Why the Mau-Mau uprising? At the end of the poem, Tom and the girl he has been forcing himself upon are looking in a jewellers’ window; the children they would have had together, born at the end of the 1950s and early 60s, sent to English public schools, are as we speak running our banks and our armies, our country, even.

These are three of the best books I’ve read in years, and I read them in the last four weeks, and they are all contemporary –  ‘How To Live’ and ‘Book Of Days’ were published in 2010, ‘The Broken Word’ was published in 2008. So despite all my showing off  and namedropping, a narrative poem published two years ago and set in the 1950s is the closest I’ve come to the ancient world. But then, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Great writing is going on all around us, always has done, always will.

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