Non-Fiction of 2013

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A selection of the best non-fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013. Also see the best fiction of 2013.

 

Armenian_sketchbook2An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman (Maclehose Press)

Grossman  made a two-month trip to Armenia in 1961. Some accounts say he needed the money, travelling there as part of an official commission to edit an overlong novel by an Armenian writer, but he also needed to get away from Moscow where officers had arrived at his apartment and confiscated the manuscript of his great novel Life and Fate. Not only had his magnum opus been ‘arrested’, his marriage was in tatters.

He writes of how one never forgets arriving  in a foreign city for the first time, in this case Yerevan:  ‘Its autumn leaves have their own unique way of rustling; there is something special about the smell of its dust, about the way its young boys fire their catapults.’ Sometimes you worry the prose might slip into swooniness but Grossman’s  romanticism is always tempered by the real, even at his most Dylanesque —

I saw warriors, knights, thinkers, swindlers, hucksters, poets, builders, astronomers and preachers. I saw collective-farm chairmen, physicists and engineers who built bridges.

— and it sits alongside an impish sense of humour: arriving in Yerevan, he notices the washing lines with ‘sail-like brassieres of hero-mothers’ and market stalls with eighteen-inch-long radishes ‘that seemed to be belong to some phallic cult’. He is  cynical about the criticisms being unleashed against Stalin, not because they are untrue but because they are expressed by those who previously worshipped him.  Grossman can be hard-nosed but is always alive to the contradictions of existence: Armenia’s always stony landscape yielding orchards of peaches; ordinary lives afflicted with tragedies yet loyalties surviving eternal (like the wife he meets who turned up at the Siberian camp where her husband was serving nineteen years and lived in a hut outside the gulag). His travelogue ends with an Armenian wedding, a tour de force that leaves more famous literary travel writers in a dull shadow. No other writer of our times has expressed with more unsentimental admiration the nature of what it means to live with a sense of nobility.

 

tuneinThe Beatles: All These Years: Vol I: Tune In, Mark Lewisohn

If The Beatles matter to you there will be no regrets about purchasing Tune In and reading every word of every page; by the time you finish you will be eagerly awaiting the next two volumes. If you just like biographies and rose-tinted evocations of the past then you may find this one a bit  too detailed in its obsessive recording of nostalgia-free details. The family backgrounds, covered in the opening chapters, have never been so well recorded and what seems remarkable, until you take into account Liverpool’s history as a port, is that three of the fab four (but not Ringo) owe their existences  to Irish emigration. The fictional Heathcliff most probably shared such a provenance and although there is no reason why the biographer should allude to such a ‘connection’ it may help explain Lennon’s enduring class hatred of those who have too much because others have too little. Given how much non-fictional material there is to be going on with, Mark Lewisohn cannot afford such speculation and one has to admire how skilfully he manages the facts accumulated over his many patient years of research. The reader is there as an invisible observer, following Julia Lennon as she leaves her sister’s home at 9.45 to return home, having told Mimi her son John is a drain on her own financial resources. She is going to catch the No 4 going towards Penny Lane and then change buses but a learner driver, an off-duty policeman who might have been drinking, prevents this ever happening. Lewisohn, recording everything known and everyone’s reactions, does not need to mention ‘My Mummy’s Dead’.

 

lockedoutLocked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class Life, ed. David Convery (Irish Academic Press)

We wait for the future of the past and ask ourselves wonder where did it go wrong: the defeat of the  Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1914; the departure of Larkin for America; the nationalist optic and Connolly’s absorption in it; 1916, the War of Independence and the conservative, Catholic government it engendered. It is difficult to work out the percentages but a combination of these factors between 1914 and the emergence of a partitioned Ireland in the early 1920s led to class-based politics being marginalized. It did not have to happen and working class militancy had been reinvigorated by the campaign against conscription in 1918. By the 1930s, with the Church in its ascendancy, left-wing ideas were the work of the devil and instead of a welfare state emerging there was the industrial school system. Self-organization by working people was more in evidence in local factory and pub leagues for soccer, something not noticed by the president of University College Dublin who in 1964 condemned the notion that Irish Education was class-based, a ‘pseudo-problem’ given that the country was ‘extremely classless’. Such a convenient idea, for those who are not working-class, is still conveyed by the media unless wrapped in nostalgia as in the spurious idea that Yeats’ ‘September 1913’ was inspired by the Dublin Lockout, advanced by Dan Mulhall in the Irish Times last year. All these topics are the subjects of the essays in Locked Out, commendably written in straightforward English by writers who do feel the need for  the gooey porridge of academic prose.

 

SUKShitsville UK, Monty Canstin (Carpet Bombing Culture)

Difficult to know who is behind the text and photographs of Shitsville UK other than it is not Monty Canstin. Cities, towns, boroughs and sundry aspects of the UK are alphabetically arranged and each entry comes with photographs and scathing text: ‘Coltswold is an old Saxon term for ‘cuntbin’ – a parcel of land set aside for the most odious of ponces to reside upon’; Cambridge is ‘a rotten and diseased coagulation of reeking, uneducated, inbred libertines with more money than brain cells – and that’s just the University’; Cardiff has ‘rugger buggers urinating over one another freely in the streets’; Chichester has traffic jams caused by ‘4X4 ‘Chelsea Tractors’ ferrying the horse faced nobs from Bosham to Waitrose and back’. There is a laugh-out-loud moment for every page of this neo-Class-War  diatribe on the state of contemporary Britain. More fun can be had by replacing some of the entries with ones from the Republic.

 

DDRDeleuze’s Difference and Repetition, Henry Somers-Hall (Edinburgh University Press)

Unless spoon-fed on Deleuze from a very young age, Difference and Repetition is not an easy book to get your head around. Part of the difficulty is Deleuze’s tendency to take it for granted that his readers can readily follow his often oblique references to other philosophers; such references are not made explicit and yet many are central to the argument being developed in Difference and Repetition. A guide is fairly essential and the best one available in print is written by Henry Somers-Hall as part of the Edinburgh Philosophical Guides series. There is another guide from the same publisher, Gilles Deleuze’s difference and repetition: a critical introduction and guide, by James Williams and first published ten years ago, but it is a more advanced commentary than Somers-Hall’s and, unfortunately, its page references to Difference and Repetition are based on an earlier edition than  the one now available (translated by Paul Patton, reprinted by Bloomsbury in 2013).  Somers-Hall’s guide not only uses the new edition but each of his six chapters, following the introduction and the five chapters of Deleuze’s text, is sub-divided by page numbers into different sections of the text. Given the density and difficulty of reading Deleuze for the first time, this is the only way to proceed and, for an even slower pace, there is a useful online exegesis  (http://sketchingapresent.com/slow-reading) that has yet to get past Deleuze’s introduction but will have served its purpose admirably if it doesn’t stall along the way. And for the bigger picture and an overview of key terms and ideas there is The Deleuze Dictionary (also from Edinburgh University Press).

 

DMFor Who The Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, David Marsh (Guardian, Faber & Faber)

We know that language is always changing and that there are good reasons to be wary of prissy language prescriptivists but it doesn’t follow that just because a growing number of people confuse disinterested and uninterested we should forget the useful distinction between the two words. Nor should the word iconic be allowed to lose its meaning because lazy writers think it sounds better than ‘famous’ or ‘well known’. And, while in preaching mode, the misuse of lesser and few does matter. David Marsh, production editor and writing-style guru for the Guardian, thinks so too but in this book he gets the message across without the kind of pontificating just indulged in (yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition and Marsh approvingly quotes HW Fowler: ‘The power of saying People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.’). Marsh’s style is  always witty and there is more than one good laugh to be enjoyed along the way; as when he dismisses as myth that Guardian reports about the explorer Vivian Fuchs ever carried the headline ‘Fuchs Off to Antarctic’, though he admits to ‘Sir Vivian Fuchs For Antarctic’ and ‘Sir Vivian Fuchs At Palace’.  Humour is balanced with practical advice, some by way of tweeted exchanges with @guardianstyle, reproduced as footnotes on each page (‘HOW can you justify “syllabuses” not “syllabi”?’ ‘Well it’s not Latin, for a start’). If you want a useful book on matters grammatical without getting bogged down in linguistics, consider keeping a copy of For Who The Bell Tolls by the bedside.

 

BSOOutsider, Brian Sewell (Quartet)

For those who have  heard him on television (seeing is less important), Brian Sewell  so perfectly personifies de haut en bas that choosing to read anything by him can seem unthinkable. But in his articles on conceptual art, now brought together in Naked Emperors, it is hard not to share his hauteur when it comes to  some aspects of contemporary British art. He  quotes a writer who praises Tracy Emin for her misspellings, as with Picaso: [Emin offers] ‘a whole new possibility of the notion of Picasso … the missing letter makes you look twice…’. Sewell describes  this comment as ‘ekphrastic bilge’ and you think, yes, he  has a point. Personally, I prefer Lucian Fred even if  Sewell regards him as a minor painter, ‘a footnote in the history of art’. That’s the trouble – and the delight – with Sewell: he goes too far.

Outsider, the first volume of Sewell’s autobiography, is a startling read and pleasingly upsets most people’s expectations of  his life story. He was born into a posh family on his mother’s side but he was illegitimate, making his upbringing cash-poor while rich with cultural treats (taken by his mother to the National Gallery on Connoisseurs’ Day, when a charge of sixpence applied in order to keep the hoi polloi at bay). He received no formal schooling until his stepfather eased him into a private school during World War II.

Outsider is written with verve, a style that suits the author’s honesty and insight, and the first of the two chapters on National Service superbly relates how he came to realize that the moral baggage he carries is excess weight when faced with the realities of army life: ‘To a callow youth who had never suffered worse than six strokes of a cold schoolmaster’s cane, and suffered those unseeing, the nose to nose aggression of the purple swollen face, the spray of spittle from the open mouth, the screaming volume of the insults and the orders were a monstrous and terrifying phenomenon – and worst of all was the business of having to shout back, repeatedly – ‘louder!’ the most dread command – ‘I am a prick, a poofter and a pile of shit, dear Corporal!’ Proust-like delicacy is not Sewell’s forte.

After two years in the army, he returns to the Courtauld Institute and, under the directorship of the not-yet-exposed Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt, acquires the education in art history that becomes the bedrock of his visceral antagonism to conceptual art. In 1958, Sewell begins work at Christie’s and there are astonishing tales in Outsider of the company’s incompetence: the subject of a 17th-centuty Dutch panel is described not as Christ on the Road to Emmaus but Three Men going for a Walk in a Wood. This was pure ignorance on the part of a public school-educated twit but Sewell also spills the beans on dodgy dealings and rogue ‘experts’ in the art world.

Outsider comes to an end when the author loses his religion and finds sexual promiscuity, only to discover that his homosexuality means Christie’s will not deliver on its promise to make him a partner. He leaves the company and his life takes a new turn (Outsider II).

 

TmCThe Mattering of Matter: Documents from the International Necronautical Society, Tom McCarthy, Simon Critchley, et al. (Sternberg Press)

Tom McCarthy, the author of the excellent 2011 novel C founded  the International Necronautical Society along with the not-so-excellent Simon Critchley: a mixed bag then and prone to high jinks for the literati. But there can be no doubting the relevance for our times of some of the material to be found in The Mattering of Matter and a good example is the reminder that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is the literary bible for those who espouse ‘austerity’ as the necessary medicine for our economic ills. Credit is written into not just the body politic but the body itself and the ‘euro of flesh’ is demanded not by literally cutting out the heart (what use is a dead worker?) but, the next best operation, squeezing welfare services to the minimum. Ireland, it follows, will enjoy a ‘good’ economy in the sense that Antonio was a ‘good’ man to Shylock:

Ho, no, no, no, no; — my meaning in saying he is a good man

is to have you understand me that he is sufficient

To be ‘sufficient’ is to be in possession of a sound credit rating but Antonio’s capitalist speculations become overstretched and repayment of the debt is imperative. To make Ireland good again — and  protect the wealth of solicitors, vets, big farmers, doctors, higher civil servants, politicians et al —  the less advantaged must bleed. The body pays — but not the bodies of  everyone.

 

 

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