Archive for ‘2011’

December 30, 2011


I did not keep a record of what I read in 2011 – a decision that arose mostly out of laziness. I regret this now. I’d decided at the beginning of the year that I would Read the Russians, and in the event utterly failed to do so. I’m choosing not to see this as a personal failure because my reading habits opted of their own accord to make books about readers the theme for the year. It meant some great books, so I’m in no position to complain.

I did set myself more minor goals: to read/reread my way through Mervyn Peake and Flann O’Brien’s works because it was their birth centenary. I managed this, though in both cases I failed to blog about most of it. I also set myself to reading Samuel Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and again failed to blog about it. I began a series of posts on Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, and am about four books in. This will continue into the new year.

In 2012 I plan to finish my Antonia Forest reread. I’ll also (since his new book is rumoured to be coming out this year) be rereading my way through the works of Alan Garner with these fine people. I’m also planning to read my way through Gramsci’s prison notebooks. I’ve only read exerpts before, and those were excellent.

By now it is probably clear that I’m not doing a best books of 2011 list. But I’ve been thinking about it, and am reasonably sure that were I to write such a list, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! would top it.

September 18, 2011

Maeve Gilmore, Titus Awakes

Technically Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake, but only the fragment at the very beginning is Peake’s, and most of what I’ll be discussing is therefore his wife’s.

The situation as I understand it is as follows: Peake died in 1968 leaving only a fragment and notes for the intended fourth book in the Titus series, Titus Awakes. In the years following his death his wife Maeve Gilmore, with whom he had discussed the book, worked on a manuscript of her own based on these scraps of Titus Awakes titled Search Without End. According to Brian Sibley’s introduction to this book Gilmore did not initially plan to publish the book (though there’s no indication that she was against it). The manuscript was lost for some time but resurfaced early last year and was published in time for Peake’s centenary.

The result is a very strange book, and a very uncomfortable read.

To start with, Titus Awakes is closer in feel to Titus Alone than to the two books set in Gormenghast. Titus Groan and Gormenghast are both deeply strange books in many ways, but the world in which they are set is a self-contained one, and there’s a general sense of knowing where things ought to be (this is something that informs the plot to a great extent as well). Titus Alone represents a massive change stylistically – suddenly we’re in a world that Gormenghast hadn’t prepared us for, but that exists in the same universe. Suddenly we have cars and pretentious literary partygoers and surveillance technology. You don’t know where this world will lead you.

Titus Alone has Titus wandering, and trying to come to terms with a sense of self that isn’t centred around Gormenghast. Titus Awakes has, in some ways, more of the same, but many of the places Titus visits seem to make reference to Peake’s own life – particularly his World War II experiences. There is a meeting with an artist (Maeve herself?), some time spent in a hospital, and at the end of the book Titus travels to Sark (where the Peake family lived for some years) and appears to meet Peake himself. Gilmore sometimes captures the weird, dreamlike quality of much of Peake’s writing. Attempts to write like Peake (if that ever was the intent) fail – often Gilmore has her characters speaking with more like the narrator of the Gormenghast books than actual people.

Sibley states in the introduction that while the book “begun as an act of homage” it evolved into “a highly personal quest to understand her husband’s tragic descent into illness in terms of his artistic and literary brilliance”. This is the real problem – it is intensely personal. I suspect that the writing of it may have been cathartic, but it’s so uncomfortably tied up in Gilmore’s own relationship with Peake that for me, at least, it was hard to separate the two. I felt like an intruder all the time.

Gilmore has written another book about her life with Peake – the autobiographical A World Away. In terms of style and coherence that book is probably a lot better than this one. But what I took from Titus Awakes that I could not see in A World Away was a stronger sense of Peake and Gilmore as both being artists with a great sense of respect and understanding for each other’s work.But this, once again, is less about the book than the Peakes – however hard I try I find myself judging Titus Awakes on what it tells me about the relationship between  the authors rather than on its own merits. And that doesn’t feel right at all.

August 2, 2011

A Flann O’Brien project

This year is also Flann O’Brien’s birth centenary (he was born 5 October, 1911). I’ve read only a couple of O’Brien’s major works and I loved them. So to celebrate him and to educate myself I’m now planning to work my way through everything by him I can get my hands on. I’d originally planned a novel a week throughout August – I’m not sure that’s likely to happen, but I’ll be starting my reread of The Third Policeman tomorrow. Please do feel free to join in – he’s a brilliant writer and should be read more.

March 30, 2011

About books about books

I planned to read more Russians this year, and I’m still hoping it will happen. But a number of other factors (including a larger project that I seem to have let myself in for) have coincided to make sure that my reading thus far has had a different theme – that of books about books. I’m not counting literary criticism here (since that is necessarily about books) but I’m thinking of characters in books who read and think about what they read. So far this year these books have included Jo Walton’s Among Others, Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, and Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built. I’ve also read the most recent Karen Joy Fowler collection and Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, both of which engage with other works of fiction though not as directly. I’ll certainly soon be rereading Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family. I might even reread Northanger Abbey, since I haven’t visited it in a few years.

But: what next? What am I missing that has a protagonist’s reading as a major part of its plot? I need recommendations, internet.