2018: wot i read*

*disclaimer: i have drunk a LOT of hot chocolate & this post was written on, hahahaha, a massive sugar high

i haven’t posted in months! because i had some kind of unpleasant insomniac episode & screwed up a coursework submission & now my uni is coming after me, & also my housing situation has gone to s h i t, & also some weird shit is going down with my Personal personal life. also i’m writing too many things at once.

i’m in the process of getting my sleeping problems sorted out (i had an appointment with a campus doctor who pretty much just told me to google it), & i’m getting back into a routine with my running, i.e the cornerstone of my mental health. jo & lucy & i have had to find a new place for next year, because our asshole landlords didn’t tell us they’re planning to turn my bedroom (MY bedroom, as in the CUTEST bedroom, which i SLEEP in) into a bathroom this summer. but it’s okay! because we’ve found a super cosy old house with an actual fireplace & an upstairs bathroom &, wait for it, that ultimate luxury: double glazing.

also: do you guys think i should cancel my gym membership & buy a waffle iron? because i’m starting to think i should cancel my gym membership & buy a waffle iron. i don’t know, guys, it’s been a weird few months.

anyway. my favourite person in the whole wide world is visiting me soon. & i’m reading a very unknown mervyn peake novel. & i’ve got into dandelion hands. i need to wrap up this post & go to bed. basically: my reading in 2018 ran the gamut, as usual. i only included books i read cover to cover & individual short stories, so the high doses of mallarmé & t.s eliot & keats aren’t on there, nor are all the academic essays & random bits of seneca & martial & dryden that you read when you do a 17th century lit module.

i’ll be back with more bullshit soonish, depending on how far i get my life together this week!

 

  1. Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh

i finished 2017 on kind of a waugh kick, & read this over a pretty terrible few days in early january. it’s bitter & brilliant (generally speaking, with waugh everything funny is sad & everything sad is funny). i just wish i’d been able to appreciate it more at the time. anyway, i thought this passage was beautiful.

“Don’t you think,” said Father Rothschild gently, “that perhaps it is all in some  way historical? I don’t think people ever want to lose their faith either in religion or anything else. I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence. I think all these divorces show that. People aren’t content just to muddle along nowadays… And this word “bogus” they all use … They won’t make the best of a bad job nowadays. My private schoolmaster used to say, “If a thing’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well.” My Church has taught that in different words for several centuries. But these young people have got hold of another end of the stick, and for all we know it may be the right one. They say, “If a thing’s not worth doing well, it’s not worth doing at all.” It makes everything very difficult for them.”

  1. Among the Bohemians, Virginia Nicholson

i enjoyed this so much. it was one of the few things i could get really interested in over those few weeks. there’s loads of fascinating stuff about the bloomsbury circle & some very juicy anecdotes. my JAM. i want to go hang out with all these guys. especially viva king, goddamn.

  1. Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

this one struck… close to home. her writing stops my heart.

  1. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger

a reread on the train back to norwich in the new year. not my favourite salinger (that’s prolly seymour: an introduction) but there’s nothin like this book for when you want to punch something. that makes it sound like i was punching the book. i wasn’t doing that. i just find it a weirdly cathartic read.

  1. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

i’d never read it before & i enjoyed it so much. i love the way vonnegut invents verbs whenever he needs a new one.

  1. Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo

this was one of the weirdest things i read for my course this year. think mexican wuthering heights, except chronologically it goes all over the place & also you aren’t quite sure who’s dead & who isn’t, because practically everyone seems to be a ghost.

  1. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

unbelievably i had never read this before. it’s very good but i like her fairy tales much more. i was amused by how much i related to this, tho.

  1. The Garden Party and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield

read for my course. this is full of bright haunting images. in my head all her stories look like monet paintings.

  1. Reckless, Cornelia Funke

an old favourite from when i was a kid. it’s strange, though- altho it was marketed as a young adult novel i’m not sure it really is. the protag, jacob, is twenty-four- too old to be the hero of a kids’ book, really- & difficult, tough, strange. he’s a fantastic character & the book is terrifying in the way of really, really good fairy tales. i reread it while the beast from the east had us snowed into our flat & everything was white & glittering & me & lucy were making proper hot chocolate every day, the kind you make with a big bar of really good 70% dark. good days. i love cornelia funke.

  1. Pére Goriot, Honoré de Balzac

this book fucked me up. some of balzac’s character analyses… whew. i got so hooked on what he’s selling that i ended up writing the most dramatic piece of coursework of my life on it. see:

Goriot’s love reduces him to an undignified asceticism- because it is real and the real makes demands, lines one’s skin, drains one’s fortune. Easier to do as most of Balzac’s Paris does: renounce it and live in comfort. ‘Our heart is a treasure chest, and if you empty it out you are ruined’.

  1. Henry IV, William Shakespeare

also studied for my course. love this play. it’s a happy place for me. falstaff! also, i find hal to be a really acute portrait of a certain sort of person- well-meaning but calculating, with a theatrical performativity that isn’t quite spontaneous, with a perfectly sincere streak of heroism & the ability to shape-shift at will. you think i’m joking?

  1. Anne of the Island, L.M Montgomery

i reread lucy maud’s books about once a year, when i get the itch. i wanted to reread this one bc it’s anne’s uni experience, as well as maybe being my favourite of the anne books (up there with house of dreams). i just… i will never be tired of these books. the emily trilogy is easily my favourite of lucy maud’s inventions, but the anne books just make everything seem brighter without ever being preachy or condescending, or seeming to skip over the really tough stuff. i owe a LOT to l.m, i really do.

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield, Anthony Goldsmith

the less said the better.

  1. Two Gentlemen of Verona, William Shakespeare

what the fuck even is this. it’s ridiculous. it also has this piece of stunning poetry dropped into the midst of a bunch of utter STUPIDITY:

For Orpheus’s lute was strung with poets’ sinews,

Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,

Make tigers tame and huge leviathans

Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.

  1. Chronicles of Avonlea, L.M Montgomery

i remember only one of the stories from this, the fucking hilarious hurrying of ludovic. i love how well-known characters just scurry in & out of the frame all through this book. also, everyone loves anne SO MUCH, & talks about her in such flattering terms, like… how does l.m pull this off? if any other author did this about any other character i would call bullshit. but because it’s anne- & because we know that anne is a wonderful whimsical sweetheart who occasionally exudes HUGE dumbass energy- it works.

  1. Further Chronicles of Avonlea, L.M Montgomery

clearly i was on a kick.

  1. The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare

big yikes.

  1. Henry VI Part Two, William Shakespeare

i was super confused for a second until i remembered that i started with this one bc it’s thought to have been written before parts one & two. i remember absolutely nothing about it.

  1. À Rebours, Jean-Rhys Huysmans

oh, fuck me, this book. it’s a nightmare procession of decadent BULLSHIT. it’s all crack to me. fellow wilde disciples: this is thought to be the book that corrupted dorian gray. you know that chapter of dorian that everybody except me seems to hate? the one that’s basically just a torrent of jewels, books, flowers & half-hinted debauches? (the one that happens to actually be my favourite chapter, whoops.) this book was obviously a huge inspiration for that, because that chapter kinda reads like a riff on à rebours. except des esseintes is somehow even more horrible than dorian. & there’s lots of stuff about my boy gustave moreau. no, i don’t have a the sirens laptop sticker. no, it isn’t next to my cartoon oscar wilde & secret history quote & birth of venus stickers.

  1. Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend

a lovely whimsical book about a lady who ditches conventional spinisterism to go live alone in a village & become a witch & also possibly a lesbian. what a fucking icon. also there are some sensuous metaphors, y’all.

  1. Henry VI Part Three, William Shakespeare

there are two terrifyingly brilliant soliloquies given by gloucester (i.e richard iii) in this, & i take my copy down & reread the last one when i hate everything.

  1. Bluets, Maggie Nelson

so good i can barely talk about it. pure poetry, tbh.

  1. The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

the novel the movie carol was based on. it’s very good. highsmith gives me shivers. those little cogs & wheels that showed the hairpin turns of ripley’s brain are just as effective when it comes to all the terrifying twists & plunges of a love affair. read this over a weekend visit to see one of the most important people in the world to me.

  1. The Blue Castle, L.M Montgomery

i read this whenever i need to get shit STRAIGHT in my head. it always fixes me right up. some of l.m’s most gorgeous nature writing went into this. a seasonal montage chapter sounds like a terrible idea but it’s so gorgeously done here that it makes me want to ditch this century & set up camp on mistawis w/ barney & valancy & their dumb fat cats. no, but seriously: this book reminds me of what is real & important in life. it’s also deeply, deeply funny.

  1. Henry VI Part One, William Shakespeare

i remember liking a lot of stuff here, but like… there’s these big symbolic set-pieces of dialogue that read really weirdly. but it’s one of his earliest plays, so, you know, dude gets a pass.

  1. Wise Children, Angela Carter

all about the sweat & glitter & greasepaint & uh, incest of a huge showbiz family (one side well-established shakespeare actors, the other side taking whatever dancing gigs they can). it’s hilarious. i adored it.

  1. Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare

so… that happened

  1. Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector

this was so vivid to me that it made me terribly uncomfortable. it’s a story about a girl living in abject & miserable poverty in brazil, told in bizarrely luxurious prose, the kind of rich & textured writing that lives in weird colours & gets inside your head. i read it in the same day that i read the last act of titus andronicus & the combination made me feel like i was absolutely off my head for days.

  1. Anne of Avonlea, L.M Montgomery

this has some of my favourite characters & episodes of the series. just… miss lavendar… & davy… & the bit where they all go for a picnic in the woods… & mr harrison… incidents that are more alive to me than a lot of my own memories.

  1. Captive Prince, C.S Capat

this trilogy is NUTS. i read the first chapter, wasn’t convinced, & then went on to polish off all three books in just under two days. i was up til four, five in the morning reading. it’s a trilogy with a dumb tropey concept straight out of fanfic but it’s about sexual tension. it’s agonising & you can practically feel the whir & tick of character development beneath the whole thing. i really wasn’t expecting to like it as much as i did. there’s a lot of humour there, too, without which it would have probably sucked.

  1. Prince’s Gambit, C.S Capat

this is my favourite book of the trilogy. it’s so much fun!

  1. Richard III, William Shakespeare

bRILLIANT. nuff said. (terrible segue: i have a teddy bear who my friend ibby & i decided one day to name by opening my complete works of shakespeare at a random page & picking the first name we saw. he ended up being called catesby after richard iii’s evil valet.)

  1. Kings Rising, C.S Capat

filled, hilariously, with political machinations.

  1. The Fiery Pantheon, Nancy Lemann

i aspire to be walter. i love the weird rhythms & patterns of lemann’s writing.

  1. The Comedy of Errors

what the hell, honestly.

  1. Magic Flutes, Eva Ibbotson

the marketing of eva ibbotson’s romance novels is so stupid & patronising it makes me furious. yes, it’s a good thing they were reissued at all, but with those stupid captions i’m surprised anybody read them. they even changed the titles, for god’s sake. anyway: i love these books. they’re pretty magical: really funny, carefully-drawn modern (ish) fairytales. this one involves a huge austrian castle that is pretty much a character in its own right & a heroine who was the reason i wanted to hack all my hair off when i was eleven. this book is also everything i know about opera.

  1. A Company of Swans, Eva Ibbotson

the love with which eva ibbotson writes of brazil floors me. also, her characters are wonderful.

  1. The Prelude, William Wordsworth

i studied this for reading texts. there’s some sublime passages. it’s kind of an epic poem about the experience of reading.

  1. Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

read because i adore the ghibli movie. the book is even funnier, although as pure fantasy i think the film hits more of my personal sweet spots.

  1. Love’s Labours Lost, William Shakespeare

hahahaha. there’s some serious zingers in this. i think it’s suffered in comparison with much ado, but this is funny as hell in its own right. moth & armada & biron & rosalind & the princess are all brilliant characters.

  1. The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon

not sure there’s anything quite like this. it reads like a song. one of the best books on isolation i’ve ever read.

  1. Sarrasine, Honoré de Balzac

you wander into an empty theatre. the stage is covered in statues of apollo. on closer inspection, you realise that the statues are of young girls. there is dust on your fingers. the statues begin to sing. you notice that you are holding a trowel. what are you doing here? the girls are laughing at you now. you do not know why. perhaps your tie is knotted wrong.

  1. The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman

i lost my mind & blew over a hundred quid on a sandman folio box set in second semester. i don’t read many comics but the sheer scope & creativity here- even in its earliest stages- blows my mind.

  1. S/Z, Roland Barthes

this was the most intellectually gruelling book i’ve read since (& possibly including) ulysses. i found it so hard to get my head around that when it actually started making sense to me it was so rewarding. it’s a very thorough deconstruction of how our minds & our narratives interact & work, & the underlying systems that hold stories together.

  1. The Sandman: The Doll’s House, Neil Gaiman

um, this one is fucked up. it’s also the first issue i ever read of sandman. i was thirteen, obsessed with neil gaiman, & had to get my mother to write me a note saying i was allowed to take it out of the library, because the sandman was prohibited for the under-16s.

  1. The Sandman: Dream Country, Neil Gaiman

so beautiful. i adore the midsummer night’s dream story.

  1. A Song For Summer, Eva Ibbotson

in general, i think this is the weakest of her romance novels, but there’s still loads of really charming stuff about it. to be honest, though, a lot of this one just gives me dragonfly pool deja vu; the concept of the Extremely Liberal School Filled With Rich Unpleasant Children And Surrounded By Palatial Countryside was done so well there that it kinda overshadows this. still: i love marek. her heroes & heroines are all very well individualised (to say that they often belong to the same trope system), but i don’t think she has another character quite like him.

  1. The Sandman: Season of Mists, Neil Gaiman

so brilliant. the artwork for hell is spectacular. i’m a huge sucker for lucifer narratives in general.

  1. The Sandman: A Game of You, Neil Gaiman

wtf. kind of a heartbreaker.

  1. Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare

rereading this felt like reading a whole different play to when i read it for school aged twelve, probably because my school sucked. it’s so much funnier than i remember. & i know this gets said about shakey all the time, but it really is all about the language w/ this one.

  1. The Sandman: Fables & Reflections, Neil Gaiman

‘soft places’ knocked me down.

  1. A Countess Below Stairs, Eva Ibbotson

i refuse to use the stupid new title. i’m so bitter. anna is one of my favourite ibbotson heroines. (& muriel might be one of my favourite ibbotson villains. she’s so awful it beggars belief.)

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

SEXY.

  1. Richard II, William Shakespeare

one of my favourites. over the course of the play- as richard falls from political grace- he has to grapple with who he is as a human being now that he is no longer a king. & in this way his humanity blossoms, he struggles, there’s lots of narcissism & christ comparisons- & also a really silly funny scene where aumerle receives & issues so many challenges to duels that he runs out of gauntlets & has to borrow one.

  1. King John, William Shakespeare

two things MADE this play. a) the bastard of faulconbridge (he got his own post). & b) queen constance’s grief speech. listen. i had goosebumps. BUMPS. OF GEESE.

Death, death: – O amiable lovely death!

Thou odiferous stench! sound rottenness!

Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,

Thou hate and terror to prosperity,

And I will kiss thy detestable bones;

And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows;

And ring these fingers with thy household worms;

And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,

And be a carrion monster like thyself:

Come, grin on me; and I will think thou smil’st,

And buss thee as thy wife! Misery’s love,

O, come to me!

  1. Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms, Rosemary Tonks

the first collection included in bedouin of the london evening, which is amazing. i studied this for a conference at the end of summer term. the conference ended with me getting ostracised by a whole bunch of people & us kicking someone out of our housing arrangement, so… whoops? people are really sensitive about books over here, you guys.

anyway, i posted the speech i gave here.

  1. The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare

yes anti-semitism but also: shylock is complex. the prejudice is 100% present. but shylock isn’t a stereotype, he’s a fully realised human being. portia made me gag a bit. but this has some of the most beautiful passages i’ve come across in shakespeare. (the film adaptation is bangin, too.)

  1. Iliad of Broken Sentences, Rosemary Tonks

the other part of bedouin. lots of greco-roman myth gets dragged into this one. it’s jazzy.

  1. Henry IV Part Two, William Shakespeare

oh, god, this play makes me sad. you can feel the cosy grubby world of part one crumbling away. falstaff 😦

  1. Ada or Ardor, Vladimir Nabokov

one of my favourite books i read last year. wrote about it here.

  1. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote

i’d never read it before. i really liked it. holly is so WEIRD.

  1. House of Flowers, Truman Capote

read a few of his short stories after tiffany’s. i barely remember anything about this one.

  1. The Diamond Guitar, Truman Capote

on the other hand i have a super vivid memory of this one. read it while my mother was driving me back from uni with a carful of luggage at the end of june. it’s a #nohomo story about a prison romance, basically, complete with wrenching betrayal & heartbreak.

  1. A Christmas Memory, Truman Capote

nope, the memory’s gone.

  1. Vathek, William Beckford

another favourite. wrote about it here. i really want to read beckford’s travel diaries.

  1. The Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare

falstaff gets the shit kicked out of him by a bunch of irritated, fabulous ladies.

  1. Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare

i was laughing so hard reading this that my mother knocked on the door to ask if something was wrong. such bliss, my brothers.

  1. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

i have no idea where to start. everyone else knows this already, because everyone else read this in like 2007, but the hype is real with this one.

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K Rowling

i started rereading the books in the summer & had a great time. i honestly don’t care what stupid shit j.k’s said on twitter this week. these books gave me so much joy (& scared the shit out of me so delightfully) when i was a kid & the magic’s still there for me.

  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K Rowling

rereading the books for the first time in ages reminded me just how weird & funny they are. a lot of that seems to have got lost in the transfer in the past few years.

  1. The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst

god, this was such a find. i didn’t really like the swimming-pool library, so i was surprised to find how much i loved this. it’s full of dust & shadows & prose so gorgeously (over)wrought that it physically hurts. reading it took it outta me but in a weird way i couldn’t put it down. i think i finished it in about three days, despite how dense it is.

  1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K Rowling

i just love this one.

  1. Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin

read for my 19th-century russian lit module. it’s very, very funny. pushkin is razor-sharp when it comes to absolutely trashing onegin. he does not spare his characters. his rendering of tatiana is a perfect balance of tragic & hilarious.

  1. A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov

maybe my favourite discovery of the year. it’s a fierce, unsparing look at the psyche of one very weird character- a guy who is privileged, charismatic, ruthless, creates scenarios & manipulates people into feeling for him & then keeps on falling into his own play-acting. is he a sociopath? he’s capable of great feeling. it’s one of the most tragic & passionate & desperate things i’ve read all year. it’s about what it’s like to feel like a patch of darkness, wanting there to be something good in you.

  1. Sejanus His Fall, Ben Johnson

brilliant terrifying play about rome as a totalitarian police state. stunningly reminiscent of stalinist russia in a lot of ways, particularly the chinese whispers aspect of everyone telling tales on their neighbour.

  1. Dentaphilia, Julia Slavin

i was assigned this as reading for a cw class. it’s brilliant. horrifying. the narrator is an awful human being, as far as i’m concerned.

  1. A Real Doll, A.M Homes

more cw reading. when i read this i started laughing out of sheer disgust. i say that as someone who has been known to give dramatic campfire readings of thomas the tank engine pornography. it’s about a teenage boy & his little sister’s barbie doll. i think it’s kind of great but huuuuuuuuge yikes.

  1. Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol

oh my god, this book is OUT there. i love nabokov’s analysis of it.

  1. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower

i read the short story (again, for cw). some of the prose is extraordinary. i dreamed of some of the images in it- the field of heather like the fleece of a giant animal tossing in its sleep, for instance.

  1. Fathers & Sons, Ivan Turgenev

the last page killed me. i was on a silent study floor of the library at the time & i was crying so hard i think i disturbed several history students who were trying to work.

  1. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Nikolai Leskov

chilling. this feels incredibly modern (something that comes up again & again in nineteenth-century russian lit). i love his flat deadened tone. really scary.

  1. Crime & Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

gah. what do i even say. this book is, for me, a reference point for so much stuff in my life.

  1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

i’d read it when i was twelve or so but i connected with it more this time, which prolly doesn’t say great things about the progress of my maturation. i relate to patrick a whole lot.

  1. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

this book is so ridiculous & kind of irritating but it also really got to me. the ending is genuinely devastating.

  1. Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson

love jeanette winterson. loved this book. the dog-woman is marvellous. the twelve dancing princesses section… whew.

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dyou like my bedhead

  1. Dangerous Liasons, Choderlos de Laclos

this was one of the books that i read this christmas holiday, when i was still reeling because i could finally read for pleasure after the crush of coursework. i enjoyed it so much. it also contained what is easily the hottest line of anything i’ve read this year, possibly ever, which is Very well: war.

  1. The Box of Delights, John Masefield

my dad showed me the old bbc series every christmas when i was a really little kid, & i kept remembering it & getting super nostalgic, so i read the book. i’m glad i finished the year on this. his prose is poetic & dreamy & kind of perfect. there’s a very interesting thread of paganism running through the book in its myths & history, as well, & masefield doesn’t seem to fear that; it becomes part of the narrative, even the central narrative of the thousand-year-old cathedral.

*

so there you have it. i’m gonna post a list of the stuff i intend to get read this year, i think. in the meantime i’d love to hear what you guys thought of any of the stuff i’ve banged on about here.

happy new year ❤

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this is from that one time i got to feel up some old-ass books & it was great

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vathek: screwball grotesquerie

guys. guys. this book is WILD.

the whole thing is basically a sublime farce/orientalist pipe-dream of william beckford. this dude was a fascinating character- an arabian nights-obsessed dreamer with far too much money who extravagantly squandered his youth wandering all over europe having affairs with men, women & demons of all descriptions. his travel books are wonderful, apparently. i’d love to get my hands on one. he was inevitably exiled from english polite society, & ended up sequestering himself to translate arabic manuscripts for years on end.

then he made a public mockery of himself by building this gothic monstrosity, which, i mean, look at it:

rutterdelplate11fac66whole

it’s hilarious & over-the-top & it collapsed in 1835. three years after beckford sold it for £300,000. i swear to GOD, william.

anyway, vathek. my edition sums it up as ‘the ruthless caliph vathek’s journey to superb damnation among the subterranean treasures of eblis’. it’s a nasty little fairy tale: the caliph is childish, rapacious, cruel. it’s also very, very funny.

this is mostly because of the hilarously deadpan nature of beckford’s prose. the novel opens thus:

“Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun Al Raschid.  From an early accession to the throne, and the talents he possessed to adorn it, his subjects were induced to expect that his reign would be long and happy.  His figure was pleasing and majestic; but when he was angry, one of his eyes became so terrible that no person could bear to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired.  For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions, and making his palace desolate, he but rarely gave way to his anger.”

full disclosure: i tried reading this several years ago, when i was fourteen or so. somehow, probably due to vague preconceptions about anything written before 1800, the humour completely escaped me & i just felt alienated. this time my cynical eighteen-year-old soul latched right onto it. i was laughing out loud.

one particularly memorable passage comes when vathek, displeased with a man who comes bearing treasure from beneath the earth, literally kicks him out of the palace; the guy, who is some sort of ambiguous demonic creature, rolls up into a ball & just… keeps rolling, as you do. he rolls in his spherical state all around the city, kicked along by vathek & a gathering horde of people, until eventually he rolls up a mountain & off the side of a precipice into an abyss.

“The ball, indeed, in passing from one apartment to another, drew every person after it that came in its way, insomuch that the whole palace was thrown into confusion, and resounded with a tremendous clamour.  The women of the harem, amazed at the uproar, flew to their blinds to discover the cause, but no sooner did they catch a glimpse of the ball than feeling themselves unable to refrain, they broke from the clutches of their eunuchs, who to stop their flight pinched them till they bled, but in vain; whilst themselves, though trembling with terror at the escape of their charge, were as incapable of resisting the attraction.”

it’s so awful & so funny.

but there’s more there than black comedy. overall the novel’s pretty fanciful- it doesn’t take itself enormously seriously- but there’s some very strange & wonderful episodes scattered throughout. a personal favourite of mine is a bit where nourounihar (naive love interest) & gulchenrouz (even more naive pretty boy) are told by their household that they’re dead, & wake by a twilight lake, believing themselves to be in the afterlife:

“She recollected also, that herself and Gulchenrouz had been sick and dying; but all these images bewildered her mind.  Not knowing where she was, she turned her eyes on all sides, as if to recognise the surrounding scene.  This singular lake, those flames reflected from its glassy surface, the pale hues of its banks, the romantic cabins, the bull-rushes that sadly waved their drooping heads, the storks whose melancholy cries blended with the shrill voices of the dwarfs, every thing conspired to persuade them that the angel of death had opened the portal of some other world.”

then there’s a scene that reaches a high baroque level of screwball grotesquerie, where vathek stages a ceremonial procession as a cover for sacrificing the city’s fifty most beautiful young boys to a demon; the machinations of vathek’s mother, carathis, who shouts at vathek whenever he reverts to decadent indolence, which is often; the terrifying underground landscapes of eblis’s halls, eblis being one of the more down-to-earth & restrained characters of those who populate this novel.

eighteenth-century literature can be a tough nut to crack; the only other novels from the period that i’ve read & can think of off the bat are candide (which is brilliant), the vicar of wakefield (which is ghastly), & robinson crusoe (which dickens accurately described as the only universally popular book that has never made anyone laugh or cry). vathek is, obviously, not a conventional novel of the period- it’s probably one of the most out-there books ever written- but there’s an impish quality to the humour & a self-indulgence to the passages of decadence that really got me. i enjoyed the hell out of it.

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ada or ardor: love on black wings

so, it’s a love story. it’s a perverse, amoral, self-satirising, deeply romantic & generally iridescent love story.

the premise: a romance between a brother & sister. completely unabashed. given the same narrative treatment as any conventional romance, if you overlook, of course, the plot obstacles presented by the illegality of marrying one’s sibling. &, you know, the fact that the narrator is of course (this being a nabokov novel) a fellow of enjoyably dastardly unreliability.

it’s also a book of layers upon layers. puns in english, russian, french & latin, often snidely half-explained in nabokov’s own notes on the text. there’s a meta element- the novel is written within the novel by van veen, the narrator, & edited by ada veen, his lover/sister, so that every so often- usually after a particularly provocative passage- there’ll be a little [really, van] or [this isn’t how i remember it at all]. then there’s the part where the novel actually takes place in a weird alternate universe called antiterra- i’ll admit this puzzled me for about three hundred pages, during which i did a lot of flicking back & forth wondering why there were cinemas & fast cars when van veen kept repeating, insistently, that the year was 1884, & what the whole deal was with electricity, for that matter (a forbidden topic, it seems, on antiterra).

then there’s a tolstoyish digression on the texture of time, which i found both heavy going & distinctly tongue-in-cheek; the funniest if-you’re-reading-this-it’s-too-late note i’ve ever seen; transgressive sexual weirdness (alternately sumptuous, farcical or coolly ironic) that only seems less shocking than that of lolita because of how casual van veen is about it; & several doctors all mysteriously named rabbit in various languages.

there’s such an imaginative richness to nabokov’s prose, & i’d rather excerpt it than pick it apart. this bit’s from part one, which centres on van & ada’s first summer together.

“In this our dry report on Van Veen’s early, too early love, for Ada Veen, there is neither reason, nor room for metaphysical digression. Yet, let it be observed (just while the lucifers fly and throb, and an owl hoots – also most rhythmically – in the nearby park) that Van, who at the time had still not really tasted the Terror of Terra – vaguely attributing it, when analyzing his dear unforgettable Aqua’s torments, to pernicious fads and popular fantasies – even then, at fourteen, recognised that the old myths, which willed into helpful being a whirl of words (no matter how silly or mystical) and situated them within the gray matter of the star-suffused heavens, contained, perhaps, a glowworm of strange truth. His nights in the hammock (where that other poor youth had cursed his blood cough and sunk back into dreams of prowling black spumas and a crash of symbols in an orchal orchesta – as suggested to him by career physicians) were now haunted not so much by the agony of his desire for Ada, as by that meaningless space overhead, underhead, everywhere, the demon counterpart of divine time, tingling about him and through him, as it was to retingle – with a little more meaning fortunately – in the last nights of a life, which I do not regret, my love.”

i mean, look at that- it cartwheels through parody, wordplay, phantasmagoria, musicality, & ends up half a love letter.

ridiculously, unsurprisingly, i found myself rooting for the ada-van love story. the novel should be an act of moral contortionism, but van, as narrator, brushes the incest pretty much aside, & so any such wrangling is left to the reader. oh, & van is a complete ass, by the way- aggressive & absurd, often thoughtless, sometimes cruel. & passionate, & sometimes even compassionate, & with a dark distinct sense of humour.

ada is a funny one, more impenetrable than van- they share a certain thread of moral bankruptcy, but she seems even dreamier, even more out-of-time than van; arrogant, a little wild, obsessed with orchids & insects. (i love these little passions nabokov’s characters have.) both ada & van are complex, frustrating, funny; they make whimsical references to mansfield park, execute bizarre ploys to lock their little sister up so they can go & bang each other in peace, write each other letters in insanely convoluted codes…

& then there’s lucette, the novel’s ophelia, who might be my favourite character- her plotline is strange & tragic & wonderful & has true moral gravitas, i think. there’s a scene where she & van, meeting for the first time in years, spend hours talking in a dingy bar, & she starts to emerge as someone who could have been good had life not ruined her- one of zweig’s ‘god’s stepchildren who have no hope, but feel that their earthly existence can be justified only by loving and being loved.’ & nabokov lets her talk & talk:

“‘I enjoy- oh, loads of things,’ she continued in a melancholy, musing tone of voice, as she poked with a fork at her blue trout which, to judge by its contorted shape and bulging eyes, had boiled alive, convulsed by awful agonies. ‘I love Flemish and Dutch oils, flowers, food, Flaubert, Shakespeare, shopping, sheeing, swimming, the kisses of beauties and beasts- but somehow all of this, this sauce and all the riches of Holland, form only a kind of tomen’kiy-tonen’kiy (thin little) layer, under which there is absolutely nothing, except, of course, your image, and that only adds depth and a trout’s agonies to the emptiness. I’m like Dolores- when she says she’s “only a picture painted on air.”‘”

the whole book’s wonderful, but there’s something special about the lucette plotline to me. nabokov devotes a peculiar compassion to unrequited love- & it’s visible here perhaps even more clearly than in lolita & pale fire.

it’s a hard book to talk about because there’s subterranean treasure in every page. where do you even start? i loved it, of course. it’s a huge novel, lit by stars & spilled diamonds- the kind where every human being is also a firebird, a conjoined water-nymph, a monster with black wings. it didn’t move me the way pale fire did, but that’s an unfair comparison; i’m not sure anything’s ever moved me quite the way pale fire did. ada or ardor is its own brand of fantastical.

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opals & thunderstorms: the dreamscapes of rosemary tonks

my speech from the uea ‘reading matters’ conference 2018. performed whilst pacing around the auditorium in a dressing-gown & a faceful of fake diamonds.

rosemary tonks’ poems take place within a kind of highly extravagant dreamscape. she’s generally regarded as a quintessential poet of the sixties, but i’m not sure that’s really true. time is unstable in this dreamscape of hers- it’s decaying, like the rotting boards of the parisian waterfronts in blouson noir, like the velvet nights that her poems often take place within, as they swoon towards daybreak & the dream is over.

her poems are filled with anonymous hotel liasons and electric lights. they are poems of blood-caked traffic, of dust and narcotics, of modern life. but they also flicker with a half-lost past. the yellow fogs of victoriana are everywhere, and she has the romantic preoccupation with the divine dreamers and somnolents of classical mythology. soho is orpheus’s dark and tangled underworld; ‘hypnos follows me all day in a silk dressing-gown,’ says her narrator.

then there’s the opium-smoke that is the dark breath of her world. in sofas, fogs and cinemas, ‘the light is brown as laudanum’. then europe is suffocated by ‘hot fogs and poppies’. the victorian obsession with the idea of the east as the faraway magical “orient” is all over her writing. the result of these collisions of modern and victorian attitudes is a kind of wooziness, a decay of time. when tonks lived alone in paris, she swore that she met baudelaire one night on an empty street. here, in her dreamscape, she peels up the pavements to let out the ghosts.

and the resulting decay is voluptuous. tonks constantly manipulates our wonder and our disgust. there’s passages of overripe fleshy grotesquerie- for instance, ‘could i not read as well the tradesman’s hand/ with its magenta creases- whose soul turns blandly/ on a sirloin mattress to smile at the next meal?’ images of meat, of flies on meat, are everywhere.

but then there’s passages of luminous, synaesthetic loveliness, often to do with dreams- so long as they’re distant. in ace of hooligans: ‘the dream in fluent opal swam against his eyes/its waters sumptuously baited as the sea’. in ‘running away’- ‘i was a hunter whose animal/ is that dark hour when the hemisphere moves/ in deep blue blaze of dews/ and you, brunette of the birdmusic tree,/ spatter in spat diamonds/ drunkenly.’ aside from the sheer sensuous beauty of those lines, i think ‘birdmusic tree’ references the arabian nights’ tale ‘the talking bird, the singing tree, and the golden water’- again mingling the geography of this dreamscape of hers. it isn’t quite london or europe or the vague scheherazadian east, but a fantasy-place where they all meet and fragment.

her imagery of rotting flesh and turning meat- of erotic mortality- makes sense in this context; wonder and disgust are both valid reactions because her dreamscapes- her dark cities- are in a constant state of bloom and breakdown. there’s the ‘shabby thrilling twilight of the street’; the ‘rank elegance’ of rome; and, ultimately, in her poem ‘escape’, she acknowledges this- ‘and your soul knows half the flavour/ lies underfoot in dirty flagstones’. the beauty of decay is their enchantment. it’s what makes her dreamscapes so strange and so wonderful.

‘…the light is brown as laudanum…’

rosemary tonks on cinemas:

No, I … go to the cinema,
I particularly like it when the fog is thick, the street
Is like a hole in an old coat, and the light is brown as laudanum.
… the fogs! the fogs! The cinemas
Where the criminal shadow-literature flickers over our faces,
The screen is spread out like a thundercloud – that bangs
And splashes you with acid…or lies derelict, with lighted
              waters in it,
And in the silence, drips and crackles – taciturn, luxurious.
… The drugged and battered Philistines
Are all around you in the auditorium …

i love her so much. this is from ‘the sofas, fogs, and cinemas’- which is a very sort of colloquial poem, in its way. it’s full of those ellipses, full of hesitations & slow admittances- it sounds a little like one side of a conversation in the dark. it’s lovely to read aloud.

‘the criminal shadow-literature’. damn. the illicitness of the dark anonymous movie-theatre, the space within which dreams- bloody, ecstatic, horrendous- are enacted. & ‘lies derelict, with lighted waters in it’- it’s cinema as a subterranean reflected landscape, the mirror within which, like narcissus, we see ourselves distorted.

& the almost victorian atmosphere of her poetry- she’s praised as a poet of the sixties & of course that’s all over her work, but she seems to me to be a poet, also, of the londons beneath that. she peels the layers from the pavement to get at the past. ‘the light is brown as laudanum’- that, to me, conjures up victorian spectres, victorian malaise (& holy hell, what a line). & then there’s her obsession with the fog- it shows up all through her stuff.

i love her i love her i love her.