Books Read – January 2020

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

Since he died recently, I thought I’d revisit Alasdair Gray’s work. Many years ago now, I read 1982 Janine, which I enjoyed, mostly I think for its depiction of how boys in our society are repressed into a masculine indifference to feeling and emotion (a favourite theme of Obooki’s) – though often in summaries of Gray’s work, you’ll find the book referred to (dismissed) as pornographic. Since then I’ve read a few of his other books (Something Leather, Kelvin Walker, the beginning of Lanark), which have not measured up to my initial impression, and disinclined me to read further. – And I’m not sure Poor Things has changed my opinion: basically a Frankenstein story, it gives Gray scope to rant on about socialism and Scottish nationalism (or at least his hatred of the English – although perhaps not quite as strongly here as in other novels). It’s entertaining enough, I guess. (The footnotes contain a poem by “Kipling”, which fails to deceive for 2 reasons: 1) it doesn’t scan properly (a curse of the prose writer turning to poetry); and 2) the views put forward about empire are not Kipling’s, but Gray’s).

An Explanation of the Birds, by António Lobo Antunes

I read half of this several years ago, and this month read the other half, without any attempt at reminding myself of what had happened before. It appears to be a story of a man on holiday with his girlfriend, who intends to split up with her and ultimately commit suicide because of the failure of this and past relationships. The story is told in part as the random reminiscences of his acquaintances when confronted by his suicide, all mixed up together with the on-going narrative in meandering sentences as is Lobo Antunes’ way. My impression – which is my general impression of Lobo Antunes – is that his wonderful style is somewhat let down by his uninteresting subject matter – hence, no doubt, the reason why I stopped reading it a few years ago.

Contes Français, by Various

A collection of c19th French short stories, the best of which was (er) Pushkin’s The Duel. I remember reading all Pushkin’s short stories once, but curiously don’t remember this, which has to be the best duel story of all (though I guess I should re-read Lermontov). Now I look closer at the table of contents, it was included because it was a translation by Mérimée (?): – all the other stories were of French origin (Balzac’s was probably the next best – though typically unBalzacian), including some writers (Erckmann-Chatrian, Coppée) I wasn’t previously familiar with.

The Land at the End of the World, by António Lobo Antunes

Even though I knew I had another copy of this book under another title and I’d already read it, I still went ahead and bought it and read it again. Luckily I don’t really remember much that I read: – only having the impression while reading that I’d read a book before by him in which a man recounted his experiences in the Angolan war while sitting in a bar chatting up a woman. The book is a denunciation of the Portuguese involvement in Angola, and the Salazar government generally. Enjoyable enough if you like dense, meandering sentences – and particularly if you also like your books to contain at least one metaphor per line.

A Dream of Something, by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini’s one of my favourite film directors, but I’d not read any of his literary works. This is a novel about young men coming of age in Pasolini’s native Friuli, and is a reasonable instance of the genre.  The latter half of the novel is almost entirely to do with socialist insurrection and unemployed workers’ demand for jobs.

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

I started reading this last year due to some Defoe anniversary, and because there was a copy at my father’s house and I had a lot of time to kill. If I hadn’t had a lot of time, I imagine I’d have given up, since it isn’t always the most interesting narrative. I remember giving up pretty quickly on Journal of the Plague Year; and it strikes me in general that Defoe wrote the kind of books which would actually be more interesting if they were factual – i.e. merely knowing Journal of the Plague Year is fictional makes it even more boring than if it wasn’t. A few things interested me about Crusoe: his occasional relative morality (that it was just his Christian paradigm which made him think cannibalism was wrong, but really he shouldn’t be judging the cannibals by his own moral standards); and the fact that he only turns from his sinful life to Christianity because he ends up on a desert island (though I don’t think this is Defoe’s point).

I also read Beaumont & Fletcher The Maid’s Tragedy, which was very good – at least for the first 4 acts, before it descended in traditional tragedy fashion into the unlikely death of every single character. There’s a nice emotional set-up, which – unusually for ex-Shakespearian Jacobean tragedy – is reasonably psychologically. (I was driven to read it – I already had the text – after coming across a comment in the introduction to The Mock-Tempest – a re-working (?) of the Shakespeare play – largely about the beginnings of Restoration theatre, about how the underrated Beaumont & Fletcher were very popular at this time).

3 thoughts on “Books Read – January 2020

  1. How I love Robinson Crusoe. As a youth, I read the beginning, the unloading of the ship, so many times. It seems I owned an abridged edition of the book, since it began with the shipwreck and then the magnificent catalogue of stuff.

    I read that second Antunes novel – “the glassy glitter of the cheap metaphors I loved” and then some. Suppose I should read another.

  2. Yes, it’s a book that certainly benefits from a children’s edition – although there’s times of life (adolescence / early adulthood) when I’d have had a much greater tolerance for boredom.

    I have, I think, all of Lobo Antunes’ books that are in English. I was going to read Knowledge of Hell and not this. I’ve started that before too, and would say it has an even greater density of metaphor. I love the beginning of it where the author claims the Algarve doesn’t really exist but is merely an elaborate stage production put on by the Portuguese government for the sake of British tourists.

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