In the race for poetic immortality, a few get to enter the Pantheon. Others seem destined for the library store of history…

Against Oblivion is a fascinating and eye-opening book. Written by Ian Hamilton, a British poet, biographer and critic, it was his final (posthumously published) work, dating from 2002. It consists of a series of potted biographies-cum-short critical appraisals of 45 poets who were active and published in the twentieth century. According to Hamilton’s introduction, the book’s genesis came when he was approached to write a modern version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Thinking this a decent idea, if a little gimmicky, Hamilton says that he duly went back to Johnson’s book to get some ideas and inspiration. However, of the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets ‘immortalised’ by Johnson,  Hamilton says there were a number he’d never heard of at all, and of those names he recognised there were not many he had read in great depth.

This set Hamilton’s mind off in a different direction, and it seems that he was soon pondering which of the twentieth century poets he had planned to include would still be read in decades and centuries to come.  If Johnson’s book was any indication, it seemed that very few would survive. Hence the approach of  Against Oblivion as it appeared in its final form, which outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the poets put forward. For good measure,  a representative poem or two or three is printed at the end of each section. The resulting book is interesting, provocative and enlightening.  What Hamilton doesn’t do (though it is implied in a few instances) is make himself a complete hostage to fortune by coming out and explicitly saying who he thinks will be for posterity’s chop and who will survive to be read in ages to come. While he gives some hints about who he’d back to survive, the odds for most of them are not probably good since this seems to be just the way these things go.  As he states in the introduction, “it does seem a fair bet than in, say, one hundred years from now, about half of the poets I have chosen […] will have become lost to the general view”.

If you are interested in poetry in whatever capacity, I would highly recommend you take a look through this book if you come across a copy. It’s not perfect, but it is supremely good at getting you thinking, and some of Hamilton’s judgements are very sound indeed. He was a very good writer, capable of a memorable turn of phrase. In the months to come I think I may take a closer look at some of the poets mentioned in the book, and see if I agree with Hamilton in his judgements.

It remains to be seen what role the internet may have in terms of keeping alive the names and works of poets otherwise destined for obscurity and ultimate oblivion. In a sense the internet acts as a place where anything is available at any time. To go back to Samuel Johnson’s lives of the poets for instance, had you read that twenty years ago and come away with a sudden urge to take a look at some of the works of, for example, Thomas Tickell, Mark Akenside or Thomas Sprat, it might not have been easy. Chances are most public libraries would not have the works of these men in store. University libraries would perhaps have been a better bet, but even then there’d have been no guarantee you could have tracked their works down easily. With the internet, however, suddenly almost everything is to hand. It doesn’t mean forgotten poets will be widely read again, but it means that things otherwise forgotten now have far more potential to be recalled at some future point.

Anyway, here’s the list of poets Hamilton includes in Against Oblivion.  For the record, there are 8 poets on it I’ve never heard of. There are 7 I’ve heard of but never read.  There are 12 whose work I’d say I know pretty well (and extremely well in a few cases). The rest I know and have read a few poems by over the years.

(Note: the list does not include Yeats, Hardy, Eliot or Auden. Hamilton does not write about them in his book since he states with some certainty that enough has already been done to establish their names in the canon for posterity. Do you agree?)

Rudyard Kipling

Charlotte Mew

Robert Frost

Edward Thomas

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

DH Lawrence

Ezra Pound

Hilda Doolittle (HD)

Marianne Moore

Robinson Jeffers

Rupert Brooke

Conrad Aiken

Edna St Vincent Millay

Hugh MacDiarmid

Wilfred Owen

EE Cummings

Robert Graves

Hart Crane

Allen Tate

Stevie Smith

Norman Cameron

William Empson

John Betjeman

Louis MacNiece

Theodore Roethke

Stephen Spender

Elizabeth Bishop

Roy Fuller

RS Thomas

Randall Jarrell

Weldon Kees

Henry Reed

John Berryman

Dylan Thomas

Alun Lewis

Robert Lowell

Keith Douglas

Philip Larkin

Allen Ginsberg

James Merrill

James Wright

Gregory Corso

Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath

 

Who do you think will be forgotten in another hundred years? Who do you think will survive? And is there any twentieth century poet not in Hamilton’s list who you think stands an equal chance against oblivion? Feel free to leave a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Very Wise Guy: A review of “A Man Without a Country” by Kurt Vonnegut.

I recently re-read this book by Kurt Vonnegut. In fact it was the first book of his that I ever read, and though I’ve naturally gone on to read most of the others, this is a book I keep coming back to because it is a bitter-sweet delight.   It only takes you a couple of hours to read, but I think Vonnegut’s thoughts and ideas stay long in the mind afterwards.

Subtitled “A memoir of life in George Bush’s America” this book will delight those who still revile that odd character who did impressions of the President of the USA.

There’s much more to this book, however, including as it does Vonnegut’s wry, cynical, exasperated and very funny observations on everything else worthy of ridicule, from the more vapid aspects of culture (in both his native US and elsewhere), semi-colons, Western man’s love affair with fossil fuels and even the pros and (mostly) cons of early Saab cars. In fact the passage on Saabs had me coughing and spluttering with laughter as much as the engines in these cars. There is a man near me who drives an old green Saab of a certain vintage, and every time I see it I can’t help laughing. People passing me at the time must think I’m odd, but I don’t care. You see, at those moments I’m with Kurt, and he makes you laugh at the absurd in life, and that’s a very good thing.

Written in a delightfully laconic and earthy style, this is the equivalent of passing a lovely afternoon with someone older, wiser and far funnier than yourself. It reminded me of Spike Milligan at his best. Like Spike, Vonnegut is a master of adopting an unexpected perspective on things, in order to expose some of the absurdities of life and thereby prove that, in Milligan’s phrase,  “nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living”.

WG Sebald: A review of his collection “Campo Santo”.

sebald
Campo Santo is a posthumously published selection of works by the German writer WG Sebald. It would be unfair to say this book is for completists only, but it would help if you’ve read at least a couple of his major works before you come to this book, because I would not recommend it for people who are new to his writing. This collection stands as a companion to his longer works, since it amplifies some of the themes and concerns dealt with in those books.
“Campo Santo” actually refers to a few chapters of an aborted work about Corsica from the mid 90’s. These passages are full of Sebaldian atmosphere and observation and as such are worth reading. I’m guessing, too, that reading them is as close to looking into his notebooks as we are going to get: you can enjoy them as stand alone pieces, and there are some memorable passages of description, which as usual are leavened by interesting and quirky facts.  However, to my mind Sebald was clearly still finding his way through this material, trying to find the right perspective to bring to bear, and overall it lacks some of the focus and drive of a ‘finished’ work.

The rest of the book contains essays, reviews and speeches made over three decades. Again, they all help give us more perspective on the other books and may well send you off to re-read them. They also reveal much about Sebald’s views on his own writing and literature in general. There are two pieces on Kafka, several on the relationship between German writers and recent German history, and a review of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin which, unlike most British reviews of anything by/ about Chatwin, doesn’t fall into the trap of either praising him to the skies on the one hand, or slamming him as overrated and repeating the more outlandish gossip about his life on the other. Sebald sticks to Chatwin’s writing itself, and confirms himself as a generous, perceptive and above all shrewd critic once again.

Overall this book overall exhibits a quality I really value in Sebald, which is how he tackles extremely important and fundamental questions about european culture in an engaging and original way.

A Review of “Whatever it is I don’t like it” by Howard Jacobson.

This book is comprised of selected newspaper columns written by Howard Jacobson over the last ten or so years in the The Independent newspaper. I gave up buying newspapers a good while ago, so it’s good to have his columns collected here in book form.

Some readers will recognise the title as a quotation from the song sung by Grouch Marx in Horse Feathers. Others may miss the reference and reasonably infer that this book is the collected grumblings of a grumpy old man. Either that or the latest collection of rants from Tory misfit Jeremy Clarkson. 

Not so. Although Jacobson is frequently angry and indignant in these selected newspaper pieces, and though he is now a gent of a certain vintage, this book as a whole covers a far wider emotional and intellectual range. Nor does he write about cars much. And it turns out he actually likes quite a lot, too.

Chief among his loves has got to be the english language and the good old fashioned essay. How many times have you read a column in a newspaper and thought “what a load of…” or “how much was this hack paid to dash this off?”. You could never level these charges at Jacobson, since at his best he shapes and hones the language of his journalism as much as he does in his novels. As for the structure of his columns, they aren’t rambling or inconsequential in the way of many another columnist I could mention (try some of Jacobson’s lesser Independent colleagues for a start). In fact, you could give any one of these pieces to an A Level student as an object lesson in how to set out one’s stall, elegantly develop a line of argument and come to a pithy conclusion. I think Jacobson would quite like that, since the state of education in modern day Britain is something he returns to more than once.

The best thing I can say about these pieces is that, just like his novels, they will make you laugh but they will also make you think. You may agree with him at times, just as you will disagree with him at others. But Jacobson never ever gives less than his best and never wastes his readers’ time. Just as well, then, that his best newspaper pieces have been collected here, since they probably will be still read when The Independent and all the other print newspapers have gone the way of the dodo.

So rather than lump this book in with the ramblings of all the other grumpy old men, keep it instead with your collection of columns by writers like Kurt Vonnegut (“A Man Without a Country”) and Primo Levi (“Other People’s Trades”): good men and first-rate writers with something original to say, and a precise, elegant style in which to say it.

My only bone of contention is that at one point Jacobson expresses a liking for Michael Gove. In the light of this pip-squeak’s record so far as Education Minister, I don’t like that opinion, so I hope that, like Groucho,  Jacobson has others.

Primo Levi- A Brief Introduction.

I’m currently reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table which has in turn made me want to find out more about his life and also chemistry. Here’s a lovely video I wanted to share which deals with both topics.  Being filmed in Levi’s alma mater in Turin adds to the atmosphere.

Last words from ‘The Leopard’.

Giuseppe-di-Lampedusa-in--006

Lampedusa, London, 1930’s: Publication and fame were still a long way off, but he demonstrated his ‘monster’ talent even then.

As I wrote the other day here the fact that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published only one full length novel is not grounds for too much sadness, since he did leave other literary remains behind.

The real Lampedusa fanatic will want to hunt down his various notes on literature. In the early 50’s he agreed to give informal lectures on writing and writers to a few select young acquaintances. Lampedusa was formidably well read and loved English literature most of all, and his lecture notes are the fruits of much of this reading. I don’t go out of my way to read literary criticism, but I enjoyed reading this and find it refreshing to get a non-english perspective on writers and writing we think we know so well based on our own received opinions and assumptions. If you can track them down it’s also worth reading Lampedusa’s perceptive notes on Stendhal, which I guarantee will make you want to look (or look again) into the Frenchman’s work.

If you want something a little less specialised, in recent years his Letters from London and Europe have been published. Between 1925 and 1930, long before The Leopard was even conceived of, Lampedusa travelled a little and wrote letters to his cousins back home in Sicily. Their nickname for him was the ‘monster’, and this is the term he uses to refer to himself throughout these letters. Most of them detail his travels around London and the rest of the UK.  Despite being a Southern European by birth, Lampedusa was an ardent anglophile. He loved our literature and our language, and these letters demonstrate how much he was fascinated by our country. Despite his status of published author lying a long way off in the future, even around the time he was writing the letters Lampedusa shows he was a born writer, with the power to engage his readers and bring what he describes alive. Just as well, then, because the Britain of the 20’s and 30’s was a radically different place. So not only do these letters reveal more about their author, but they also give glimpses of how life was in a very different time.

Anyone who loves Lampedusa’s work has to have a look at Ian Gilmour’s The Last Leopard, which is a fabulous book and first-rate biography. It combines a narrative of Lampedusa’s life with pithy commentary on his literary works, and relevant comments on the social and historical context. What I think truly makes Gilmour’s book a cut above is his seemingly total understanding of Italy, Sicily and Lampedusa’s works. Written with full access to Lampedusa’s archive (including items retrieved by the author himself from the bombed out shell of Lampedusa’s former Palermo home, some forty years after the US air raid that put paid to things) Gilmour gets right under the skin of this incredible writer. Coming in at just over 200 pages, this book has the additional virtue of being short (itself perhaps a reflection of the fact that Lampedusa’s day to day life was rather monotonous and his literary output pretty small). However, what Gilmour has to say he says with insight and authority and does full justice the man and his masterpiece. This being a shorter biography it gives you plenty of energy left to go straight back into The Leopard and other works. Lampedusa could have written more, but into his one novel he poured the experience and insight of a lifetime. His other works may be the literary equivalent of left-overs, but take everything together and you’ve got a whole banquet of words.

And  that’s that, surely?

Well thankfully. It seems the cupboard is note entirely bare just yet and I understand that Lampedusa’s letters to his wife are soon to be (perhaps even have been) published in his native Italy. Let’s  hope an english translation quickly follows.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa- What can you read once you’ve read “The Leopard”?

 A round-up of some of the Italian author’s less well-known work.

Italian author Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa remains justly renowned for his 1950’s masterpiece “The Leopard”. Since the book’s publication in the late fifties, a short while after the author’s death from lung cancer, it has won him a level of renown and respect that he never knew when alive. Sadly it is his only finished long work, one which demonstrates that this literary late starter had finally found his voice.  Readers who fall in love with that book (and we are legion) and who want to read more by him are therefore faced with a dilemma.  Luckily, he left behind other works, and what little else there is repays the effort for the devotee.  

For english-speaking readers there are quite a lot of editions of Lampedusa’s works around. Some of these are not in print, but most can be tracked down second hand. A very good place to start after “The Leopard” is any edition of his works that includes the autobiographical sketches usually translated under the title of “Places of my Infancy”. According to Ian Gilmour’s biography (see below) Lampedusa worked on these sketches while in the middle of writing The Leopard. The novel is based in large part on his own family’s history, so it seems that the necessary imaginative engagement with the past brought a significant number of memories to the fore. The sketches are pieces that see Lampedusa  reminiscing about the Sicily he knew in the very early twentieth century when he was a small boy.  The Leopard therefore opens a window on the world of Sicily and one of its aristocratic families in the mid- to-late nineteenth century, while the “Sketches” act as  a companion piece,  shedding light on the early influences of one particular Sicilian aristocrat. Before really getting to know Lampedusa’s work I was virtually ignorant about Sicily, having little to go on but a few cultural cliches (most of them I’m ashamed to say concerning the Mafia). While the Sketches aren’t as gory or gripping as “The Godfather Part II” perhaps, it is at least refreshing to learn that there was a part of Sicily that stood at as far and as genteel remove as it’s possible to get, while Lampedusa’s descriptions of the Sicilian landscape come close to the quality of description he attained in The Leopard. 

The short story “The Professor and the Siren” is often published together with the Sketches, and remains the other well know minor work. It’s one of my favourite short stories, and is set in Turin in the 1930s. It charts the odd friendship of a world-weary younger man and an older professor of the Classics. The Professor tells his new friend the story of a remarkable romance which occurred when he was a very young man back in Sicily, an entanglement which changed his life and influenced him even to the end of his days. As the story’s title suggests, the object of his affections was not entirely human and was a figure from Sicily’s ancient Greek past.  , The author harks back to the classical vein of storytelling, which saw gods and other immortals interact with men. It can be read as a fable, but it is just as easily read at face value as a tale of memory, love, loss, ageing, and passion. It’s quite different to The Leopard and indicates that Lampedusa was not just a one trick pony.

Less good is “The Blind Kittens”. This has been in print for years, and isn’t exactly a short story (though it can just about be read as one). It is in fact the remaining draft for the opening chapter for his next novel, which he was working on at his death. It was intended to deal with Sicilian society some decades on from The Leopard, but it doesn’t have the grace and ease of the earlier work. However, we must remember that Lampedusa was an ill man when working on it. It’s not a bad piece of work. It just suffers by comparison with a greater one. However, it continues in the vein of the author commenting on his fellow Sicilians, and echoes some of the previous novel’s wry and resigned descriptions of Sicilians and the national character.

Primo Levi: Other People’s Trades.

I can’t believe this book appears to be out of print and only available second hand.

On the surface, an Italian chemist with a flair for autobiographical and discursive writing, with a very sad and turbulent personal history, has very little in common with an english teenager. However, I can pinpoint exactly what it was that made me buy this book when I was much younger. It was because I’d read of Levi and his major work “If This is a Man” in the newspaper. And it was also because, having seen this book by him in a shop, I picked it up and read a couple of pages.

Even at a young age, with barely enough knowledge to follow what I was reading fully, I must have known on some level that this was a very special writer. I think the intriguing titles of the essays got me first. Then the tone of the writing. It’s knowledgable and authoritative, but never patronising and its disarmingly personal. As a result,  I have had this book for many years, and it’s survived numerous house moves and culls of otherwise unwanted books. I always come back to it. It is a collection of essays which the late Italian writer published in the Turin paper La Stampa over a number of years. Of course Levi is most well known for his memoirs of the Holocaust, and the books that dealt with that event are very much the product of a writer forcing himself to recollect, to tell people and to stand as a public witness.

The essays contained in this book, by contrast, show another side to Levi, in which the private man invites his readers to take a look at the world around them in his company. The equally enchanting The Periodic Table is very similar to this book in tone and approach, showing his ability to observe and note things of interest that in turn can alter a reader’s perceptions of things for the better. While Levi’s life and his work in chemistry form the backbone of Table, this book by contrast ranges even wider. Levi was an endlessly curious man it seems, endlessly fascinated by the world about him and the people who inhabit it. Hence the title of “other people’s trades”, as each essay is the work of a man who is not interested in just his own little world and opinions, but someone who is interested in what is going on around him. Thus the essays reflect on many disparate topics, from the moon landings to the language of schoolchildren, from the fear engendered by trying to learn a language in your sixties to the wonders of looking at things through a microscope.

The book, then, contains the Levi mix of autobiography and a fascination with chemistry and natural history that we get in his other works. However, the mood is by and large lighter. When I was  younger I  was in no doubt at all that these were the words of a wise man, and a man with a great deal to teach other people.  As I’ve got older and come back to these essays the quality in them that I have come to value most is their humanity and love of life.  Although written for newspaper consumption, there is nothing throwaway about these pieces. The willingness to stop time for a moment, to think about those things which matter, and then to elegantly sum up your thoughts in writing is a timeless skill. Levi had this ability in spades,  and for this reason I don’t think I will ever tire of this book.