Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2003

Nick Hornby
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  • Robert Lowell: A Biography—Ian Hamilton
  • Collected Poems—Robert Lowell
  • Against Oblivion: Some of the Lives of the 20th-Century Poets—Ian Hamilton
  • In Search of J.D. Salinger—Ian Hamilton
  • Nine Stories—J. D. Salinger
  • Franny and Zooey—J. D. Salinger
  • Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters/Seymour: An Introduction—J. D. Salinger
  • The Ern Malley Affair—Michael Heyward
  • Something Happened—Joseph Heller
  • Penguin Modern Poets 5—Corso/Ferlinghetti/Ginsberg


  • All the Salingers
  • In Search of Salinger and Lowell
  • Some of Against Oblivion
  • Pompeii by Robert Harris (not bought)

So this is supposed to be about the how, and when, and why, and what of reading—about the way that, when reading is going well, one book leads to another and to another, a paper trail of theme and meaning; and how, when it’s going badly, when books don’t stick or take, when your mood and the mood of the book are fighting like cats, you’d rather do anything but attempt the next paragraph, or reread the last one for the tenth time. “We talked about books,” says a character in Charles Baxter’s wonderful Feast of Love, “how boring they were to read, but how you loved them anyway.” Anyone who hasn’t felt like that isn’t owning up.

But first, some ground rules:

1) I don’t want anyone writing in to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read. I know that already. I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less. My intentions are good. Anyway, it’s my money. And I’ll bet you do it too.

2) Similarly, I don’t want anyone pointing out that certain books I write about in this column are by friends—or, in the case of Pompeii, by brothers-in-law. A lot of my friends are writers, and so some of my reading time is, inevitably, spent on their books. I won’t attempt to disguise the connections, if that makes anyone feel better. Anyway, it’s been five years since my brother-in-law, the author of Fatherland and Enigma, produced a book, so the chances are that I’ll have been fired from this magazine before he comes up with another one. (I may have been fired even before this one is published, in September.)

3) And don’t waste your breath trying to tell me that I’m showing off. This month, maybe, I’m showing off a little. (Or am I? Shouldn’t I have read some of these books decades ago? Franny and Zooey? Jesus. Maybe I’m doing the opposite: Maybe I’m humiliating myself. And maybe you have read all these and loads of others, in the last fortnight. I don’t know you. What’s—ahem—a normal amount, for someone with a job and kids, who watches TV?) But next month I may spend my allotted space desperately trying to explain how come I’ve only managed three pages of a graphic novel and the sports section of the Daily Mirror in four whole weeks—in which case, please don’t bother accusing me of philistinism, laziness, or pig- ignorance. I read a lot this month a) because it’s the summer, and it’s been hot, and I haven’t been working very hard, and there’s no football on TV and b) because my eldest son, for reasons we don’t need to go into, has spent even more time than usual stuck in the toilet, and I have to sit outside on a chair. Thus do books get read.

This month, it went something like:

Against Oblivion →

Lowell → In Search of Salinger → Nine Stories → Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters → (Pompeii) → Seymour: An Introduction → Franny and Zooey

The Robert Lowell–Ian Hamilton thing began with Anthony Lane’s intimidatingly brilliant review of Lowell’s collected poems in The New Yorker: Lane mentioned in passing that Hamilton’s biography was still the best available. Even so, I wouldn’t have bothered if it hadn’t been for several other factors, the most important of which is that my baby son is called Lowell. We named him thus partly after various musicians—Lowell George and the blues singer Lowell Fulson—and partly because of Robert Lowell, whose work we had never read (in our defense, he is no longer terribly well-known here in England, and he isn’t taught in school), but whose existence persuaded us, in our untrustworthy hormonal state, that the name had a generic artistic connotation. Our Lowell will almost certainly turn out to be a sales manager for a sportswear firm, whose only contact with literature is when he listens to Tom Clancy audiobooks once a year on holiday—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On top of that, I had recently watched a BBC documentary about Ian Hamilton himself, who was a good poet and a great critic, and a mentor to Barnes, Amis, McEwan, and that whole generation of English writers. (There is, by the way, an exceptionally good new BBC cable channel here, BBC4, which shows documentaries of similar merit and obscurity every night of the week.) And I’d met him a couple of times, and really liked him, not least because he wrote an enthusiastic review of my first book. (Did I mention that he was a great critic?) He died a couple of years ago, and I wish I’d known him better.

I still wouldn’t necessarily have tracked down the Lowell biography, however, if I hadn’t spent a weekend near Hay-on-Wye. Hay is a weird town on the border of England and Wales which consists almost entirely of secondhand bookshops—there are forty of ’em, within a few hundred yards of each other—and one of which is an immaculately stocked poetry store. That’s where I found Hamilton’s book, as well as the Penguin Modern Poets collection, purchased because Corso’s lovely “Marriage” was read at a friend’s wedding recently. I bought the Ern Malley book (for a pound, pure maybe-one-day whimsy, doomed to top-shelf oblivion), and a first edition of Something Happened (because it crops up in Mark Moskowitz’s Stone Reader), elsewhere in the town. Buying books is what you do in Hay, in the absence of any other options.

Despite all these various auguries, I hadn’t necessarily expected to read every word of the Lowell biography, but Hamilton is such a good writer, and Lowell’s life was so tumultuous, that it was gone in a couple of days, like an Elmore Leonard novel. Sometimes, in the hands of the right person, biographies of relatively minor figures (and Lowell’s influence seems to be receding fast) are especially compelling: They seem to have their times and cultural environments written through them like a stick of rock, in a way that sui generis major figures sometimes don’t. Lowell, it turns out, is the guy you can see just behind Zelig’s shoulder: He corresponded with Eliot, hung out with Jackie and Bobby K., and traveled around with Eugene McCarthy in ’68. He also beat up his own father, had endless strange, possibly sexless extramarital affairs with innumerable young women, and endured terrible periods of psychosis, frequently accompanied by alarming rants about Hitler. In other words, it’s one of those books you thrust on your partner with an incredulous cry of “This is me!

And as a bonus, I felt I learned more about the act of creating poetry from this one book than I did in my entire educational career. (A line from a letter Lowell wrote to Randall Jarrell that I shall endeavour to remember: “In prose you have to be interested in what is being said… it’s very exciting for me, like going fishing.”) In the end, the psychotic periods make for a wearying rhythm to the book, and perhaps Hamilton’s criticism of the poems tends to be a little too astringent—the Collected Poems runs to twelve hundred pages, but Hamilton seems to argue that we could live without a good eleven hundred and fifty of them. And this is a poet he clearly loves.…

But it’s a great biography, and now I was off on this Hamilton kick. I bought Against Oblivion, his book of little essays about every major twentieth-century poet bar four—Eliot, Auden, Hardy, and Yeats—absent because their work is, in the critic’s view, certain to survive; it’s in the bathroom, and I’ve got through half of it. (Shock news: Grown-up critics think e.e. cummings sucks. I honestly didn’t know. I read him at school, put him in the “good” box, and left him there.) I vaguely remembered the story of Hamilton’s attempt to write a biography of Salinger: It ended up in court, and Salinger actually broke cover to give a deposition to Hamilton’s lawyer. Hamilton admits that Salinger’s victory left gaping holes in the book he wanted to write. He was denied permission to quote from letters that are freely available for inspection in various libraries. I’m still glad I read it, though. I learned things—that you could earn $2,000 for a short story in the 1930s, for example. The stories about Salinger hustling for work, and dining gaily with the Oliviers in London, make one feel almost giddy, so unlikely do they sound now; and when the Hamilton mind goes to work on the stories, it’s something to see.

The realization that you could polish off a major author’s entire oeuvre in less than a week was definitely part of the appeal—you won’t catch Dickens being pushed around like that—but it was still tougher work than I thought it would be. Just about every one of Nine Stories is perfect, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is fresh and funny, but Seymour: An Introduction… Man, I really didn’t want to know about Seymour’s ears. Or his eyes. Or whether he could play sports. The very first time I met him he blew his brains out (in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”), so to be brutal, I never really developed as much curiosity about him as Salinger seems to want of me. But whereas I was expecting something light and sweet, I ended up with this queasy sense of the psychodramatic: I knew that I wouldn’t be able to separate the stories from the Story, but I hadn’t expected the author to collude in the confusion. Hamilton is especially good on how Buddy Glass, apparently Salinger’s mouthpiece, creates and perpetuates myths about his alter ego.

I read Pompeii in between Nine Stories and Raise High the Roof Beam…. It has to be a rule, I think, that when a family member gives you his new book, you stop what you’re doing and read it. Having a brother-in-law for a writer could have turned out really, really badly. He could have been more or less successful than me. Or he could have written books that I hated, or found impossible to get through. (Imagine if your brother-in-law wrote Finnegans Wake, and you were really busy at work. Or you weren’t really a big reader.) Luckily, his books are great, and a pleasure to read, and despite my trepidation—I couldn’t see how he was going to pull off a thriller which ends with the biggest deus ex machina the world has ever known—this is, I reckon, his best one. Oh, and he read just about every book there is on volcanology and Roman water systems, as well as every word Pliny wrote, so my admiration for my sister has increased even further. Has she been sitting there listening to stuff about Roman water systems for the last three years? I now understand why her favorite film of recent years is Legally Blonde. How could it not be?

I read 55 percent of the books I bought this month—five and a half out of ten. Two of the unread books, however, are volumes of poetry, and, to my way of thinking, poetry books work more like books of reference: They go up on the shelves straight away (as opposed to onto the bedside table), to be taken down and dipped into every now and again. (And, before any outraged poets explode, I’d like to point out that I’m one of the seventy-three people in the world who buys poetry.) And anyway, anyone who is even contemplating ploughing straight through over a thousand pages of Lowell’s poetry clearly needs a cable TV subscription, or maybe even some friends, a relationship, and a job. So if it’s OK with you, I’m taking the poetry out, and calling it five and a half out of eight—and the Heller I’ve read before, years ago, so that’s six and a half out of eight. I make that eighty one and a quarter percent! I am both erudite and financially prudent! I admit it: I haven’t read a book about an Australian literary hoax (which, I repeat, I bought for a quid), and a handful of essays about people like James Wright, Robinson Jeffers, and Norman Cameron. Maybe there are slumbering pockets of ignorance best left undisturbed; no one likes a know-all.

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