Belgium & Luxembourg

Belgium_luxembourg_6.9781743213919.pdp.0

Belgium & Luxembourg
By Helena Smith, Andy Symington & Donna Wheeler
Lonely Planet – £14.99

This sixth edition of Lonely Planet’s Belgium & Luxembourg is every quintessential, literary expectation one has come to expect of said publisher’s assimilation of the most informative of travel guides. At 310 pages (excluding Glossary, Behind the Scenes and Index), it both informs and inspires the reader in equal measure.

For instance, even before reaching the fully explained, full-colour ‘Top 15’ (which, in chronological order consists of Bruges, Brussels, Grand Palace, Carnival Capers, Flemish Primitives, Luxembourg City, Chocolate, Castles, Belfries & Begijnhoven, Belgian Beer, Flanders Fields, Art Nouveau, Antwerp Art & Fashion, Museum of Remembrance, Art Cities and Caves of the Ardennes); one of the book’s three authors writes: ”My childhood bedroom in Sydney was decorated with postcards of Van Eyck Madonnas, but it wasn’t until a couple of decades later, during a couple of Europe’s coldest winters, that infatuation turned to love. My first impression of Antwerp was one of sheer wonder, the guildhalls of Grote Markt glinting as snow fell at the Christmas market, and the dimmed, richly cosy interiors of the Rubenshuis and the Museum Plantin-Moretus. This sense of quiet magic has accompanied each subsequent visit, whether it’s to galleries or gigs in Ghent, or for family time in a 17th-century farmhouse” (‘Why I Love Belgium & Luxembourg’).

In so doing, she has already inadvertently – or perhaps not so inadvertently – bequeathed the reader with a sense of anticipation – if not beguiling wonder. And in a round-a-bout kind of way, this already confirms that the book has done its job.

Before getting into the actual body of the book itself (which invariably kicks off with the country’s capital, Brussels), there are assorted sections entitled ‘Need to Know,’ ‘First Time Belgium & Luxembourg,’ ‘If You Like…,’ ‘Month by Month,’ ‘Itineraries’ and ‘Travel with Children,’ which, for all intents and the most helpful of personal purposes, is self explanatory.

Following an abundance of information on the various regions, the travel guide concludes with ‘History,’ ‘The Belgian People,’ ‘Creative Cuisine,’ ‘Arts & Architecture’ and naturally, a rather hefty section on ‘Belgian Beer.’

So in all, Belgium & Luxembourg makes for a rather fascinating read in its own right. That it just happens to include an assortment of maps and tips, makes it all the more so.

David Marx

Advertisements

The Long Hangover

long

The Long Hangover –
Putin’s New Russia and The Ghosts of The Past
By Shaun Walker
Oxford University Press – £20.00

Evgeny had been invited to Red Square for the parade and planned to attend; he liked the fact that 9 May was still celebrated. But although he enjoyed wearing his army jacket, festooned with medals, and he took understandable pride in being part of the victory, his bearing and tone were very different to the official propaganda. He spoke of the war as a terrible, not a glorious, experience: of loss and violence and unspeakable imagery. I doubt he would have wanted to dress his great-grandchildren up in Red Army uniforms, as if for a party.

We don’t need blind patriotism. We need the truth!

If you really want to know the truth about modern day, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, then read this overtly courageous and compelling book.

Written by Shaun Walker, The Guardian’s Correspondent in Moscow (and previous Correspondent for The Independent), The Long Hangover – Putin’s New Russia and The Ghosts of The Past, does, as its title might suggest, address both the past and the current. Or, to be a little more blatant, the good, the bad and the ugly; in which all three, the biggest and without any shadow of a doubt, one of the most captivating countries on the planet is deeply mired.

Thorough, to the point, occasionally melancholic, yet exceedingly readable, Walker has herein captured all the inflammatory essence of modern day Russia, by way of re-telling what ought to have been told many, many years ago.

Furthermore, a lot of the said telling is more than humanistic, if not quintessentially regal in its execution. This is directly due to The Long Hangover being wholeheartedly anchored within a sphere of real people. Ordinary people.

Quite often, extraordinary people, of which the following excerpt from the conclusion of chapter two’s ‘The Sacred War,’ is a most pertinent example: ”Evgeny’s lines were well rehearsed. He rattled off figures and dates with the precision of someone who had told his story a thousand times before. If I had returned a month later, I suspect he would have repeated the same sentences almost verbatim, in the way that distant memories coagulate into set monologues. And yet, despite that, the old man’s voice became rasping and he would gulp for air, as if he had surprised himself by the emotions the stories still raised, seventy years and hundreds of tellings later.”

Indeed, there are many occasions where one has to simply put this book down – and reflect upon what one has just read.

Be it Walker’s account of the entire Kamlyk people being deported en masse in 1943 (”People think only dogs can sense this kind of thing, but the livestock also knew something bad was happening. It was such chaos, such a terrible, terrible scene. The dogs ran after the trucks as we drove away, howling like mad. I’ll never forget that scene”), or recounting the words of former President Yeltsin – and now Putin’s – Chief of Staff: ‘I was delighted that the end of Communism had come about. But the Soviet Union was my homeland. That was different. How can you be happy about your homeland collapsing?”

In the words of Peter Pomerantsev (author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible): ”in this skilful and vivid book, Shaun Walker allows us to understand the region’s current affairs through ordinary and extraordinary people’s experience of an un-dealt with past.”

As a further caveat, I’d also like to add that The Long Hangover may well be the best book I’ve read on modern-day Russia in years.

David Marx

Portraits From Life

life

Portraits From Life –
Modernist Novelists & Autobiography
By Jerome Boyd Maunsell
Oxford University Press – £20.00

Every instance of autobiography is as unique as the life it relates.

Let it be said that biographies and autobiographies can be a profoundly risky phenomenon. Especially when one considers that they are the only books some people will ever read; which, given the degree to which those responsible for writing them can pick and choose what to leave in and what to invariably leave out, really is quite something.

After all: ”A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages.”

What’s more, there is a subliminal tendency on behalf of most readers, to simply abide by what has been beguilingly bequeathed.
As if it were gospel.
As if written in stone.
As if forged upon the template of the ever increasingly curious mind.

Forever more.

There is of course a flip side, which is just one of the reasons I was lured into reading Portraits From Life – Modernist Novelists & Autobiography by Jerome Boyd Maunsell.

An overtly compelling read that endeavours to divulge the difficulties and possibilities of autobiography, by investigating seven canonical Modernist writers (Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, H. G. Wells and Edith Wharton); the book rightfully takes most, if not all of the above to task: ”[…] grasping only a part of life, or an aspect of character, cannot be helped. There is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative. For this reason, biographers cherish the elusive essences which define characters: the telling glances or moments that reveal a whole person […] Yet can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?”

It is precisely the reflective regaling of said fluidity of most people’s lives – their true ”sense of character caught only on the move” if you will – which wholeheartedly accounts for any form of underlying plausibility within biographical writing.

That said, it is surely all in the telling?
Or perhaps more importantly, the light and shade thereof, which, as Maunsell well knows, is so (cunningly) capable of immense literary sparkle: ”[…] taking heart from Leon Edel’s memorable image of the biographer struggling with the multiplicity of ”intractable” facts, or the ”tons and tons” of material left behind by many lives, Portraits From Life aims to arrive – if only for a moment or two – at that ”tiny glowing particle” which contains the ”human personality.”

And arrive these 216 pages most undoubtedly do, even if one does feel the need, the temptation or the simple desire to actually cross decipher – especially where Conrad (in relation to Ford Madox Ford) and Stein (in relation to Pablo Picasso) are concerned.

David Marx

Stalin: Waiting For Hitler

stalin

Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941
By Stephen Kotkin
Allen Lane – £35.00

It cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, without religion; by these methods one may indeed gain power, but not glory.

          Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince, 1513)

Here he is, the greatest and most important of our contemporaries… In his full size he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the present. He is the most famous and yet almost the least known man in the world.

          Henri Barbusse (Stalin, 1935)

Can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?

          Boyd Maunsell (Portraits From Life, 2018)

To perhaps consider this book a testament to analytical thoroughness, would be an understatement. To perhaps consider it as a biography of someone who was forever on the move – having wrought both undeniable (social) change and suffering to the largest landmass on the planet – might just as equally evolve unto colossal understatement.

Having not long read Boyd Maunsell’s Portraits From Life, I cannot help but feel that it is increasingly and idiosyncratically clear that ”there is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative.” Wherein many ”biographers cherish the illusive essences which define characters […]. A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages” (Oxford University Press).

At 909 pages – excluding the most extensive Notes and Bibliography I have ever come across (not to mention a Preface, List of Maps, Credits and Index) – Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941 is surely to be read with an underlying knowledge that its author, Stephen Kotkin, has approached his subject with all the adroit acumen one would normally associate with a propulsive quest for the truth. A quest, which, given the most complex of ideological barbarity to which its subject wholeheartedly subscribed, really, really is no mean feat.

Kotkin himself concludes the end of the first chapter (‘Equal to the Myth’) with the words: Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.”

Just as the unspeakably unpleasant, if not grotesque excuse for a president, Donald Trump, currently proves equal to that of his own egocentric, inflammatory folly; Stalin most definitely proved equal to the myth of his own (nigh impeccable) design. As if some sort of perplexing providence were enjoying a field day of reflexive history. A deadly, tempestuous hybrid of history at that: ”Like the twisted spine of Shakespeare’s Richard III, it is tempting to find in such deformities the wellsprings of bloody tyranny: torment, self-loathing, inner rage, bluster, a mania for adulation.”

‘A mania for adulation,’ which, much like today’s Trump, was in and of itself, a self-perpetuating myth; wholeheartedly stepped within the colossal realm of far too much considered violence and vendetta. Although the prime difference betwixt Stalin and Trump is that the former ”radiated charisma” (albeit ”the charisma of dictatorial power”).

As much partially explains why one cannot help but agree with The Times‘ George Walden, when he writes: ”one of the tragedies of Kotkin’s book is its eerie and troubling relevance today.” Indeed.

With immense authority and terrific aplomb, Stephen Kotkin has herein written and compiled perhaps the benchmark of a work, by which all other works on the subject will surely be compared – for many years to come.

Compartmentalized into three distinct parts (‘Equal To The Myth,’ ‘Terror As Statecraft’ and ‘Three-Card Monte’), along with a Coda (‘Little Corner, Saturday, June 21, 1941’) each of these fourteen chapters bequeath the reader with yet another saga over which Stalin fundamentally presided.

Akin to a literary monster with yet countless more heads to essentially come to historical terms with, this book enables the reader to refer to almost any part – with fleeting random – and still become both enlightened and entranced at the degree to which Stalin unashamedly moved. Not to mention of course, the undeniable effervescence with which Kotkin is able to keep unbelievable, political pace.

Yet believable it is.
Even when addressing many of Stalin’s opposing cohorts – be they Russian, American, British or indeed German.

For instance. Chapter eleven – simply entitled ‘Pact’ – opens with the following two quotes:

In his present mood, the PM [Neville Chamberlain] says he will resign rather than sign alliance with Soviet.

          Sir Alexander Cadogan
          (British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs,
          private diary entry, May 20, 1939)

Hitler: The scum of the earth, I believe?
Stalin: The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?

          David Low
          ‘Rendevous,’ Evening Standard, September 20, 1939)

If said quotes (alone) weren’t enough to trigger a veritable tsunami of discussion, already on the second page int the chapter, Kotkin addresses the thorny issue of Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop (whom unsurprisingly, Hermann Goring had already dubbed ”Germany’s No. 1 parrot”).

In relation to being more than instrumental in devising and convincing Hitler to make a deal with Stalin, the author writes: […] Ribbentrop operated by intuition and strove to be ”radical,” rarely invoking limits (or consequences), which pleased Hitler no end. And what could be more radical, in its way, than a deal with Communist Moscow?”

So no matter from which angle one decides to address the vast trajectory of Stalin: Waiting For Hitler, Stephen Kotkin has a superlative, if not very substantial answer.

Thereby accounting for the second unquestionable instalment of a landmark achievement – the first being its predecessor Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, which, according to Lucy Hughes-Hallett of The New Statesman was ”exhilarating, compelling, terrifying and utterly gripping.”

Lest one forget, this book concludes in 1941- the year Germany invaded Russia – so there is clearly more to come. I for one, can’t wait.

David Marx

Why Dylan Matters

dylan.jpg

Why Dylan Matters
By Richard F. Thomas
William Collins – 12.99

Immature poets borrow, mature poets steal.

               T. S. Eliot

The academics, they ought to know. I’m not really qualified. I don’t have any opinion.

               Bob Dylan

Two days ago, the ever mercurial Bob Dylan will turn seventy-seven.
Now I don’t know about you, but most seventy-seven year old people I know, or have known, aren’t like Bob Dylan.
A man forever searching.
Discovering.
Forever on some sort of quest to find out.
To find out what exactly, is beyond any form of what he’d no doubt consider as claustrophobic clarification. There again, any remote form of clarification in the hands of Dylan is akin to the utmost of artistic denial.
Which is just one reason why Dylan matters.
And there are, needless to say, many, many others.

The songwriter’s endemic evolution alone ought to surely be cast as one of them – if not one of the most unwittingly profound – as the George Martin Lane professor of the Classics at Harvard University, Richard F. Thomas, writes in this informative book’s second chapter, ‘Together Through Life’: ”And so it has continued with Dylan’s constant evolution through the decades, with some fans disembarking and others coming back onboard, and newer, younger ones signing up for the first time. It is an essential part of Dylan’s genius that he is constantly evolving as an artist. This is not true of the artists of similar longevity, say Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, or Bruce Springsteen. Inevitably that constant evolvement creates periods of experimentation and exploration, some less successful than others, but always moving restlessly toward something, and with the music of the last twenty years now having reached, and sustained, a third classic period.”

It’s as if Dylan has enjoyed a number of very varying musical careers; the very first of which, his astonishing sixties output, fundamentally sealed his artistic fate.

A fate, which, when compared with sixties cohorts, The Rolling Stones for instance, exemplifies evolution as it truly ought to be (but more often than not, isn’t). Reason being, The Stones last terrific album was released well over forty years ago, whereas Dylan’s last magnificent album was released as recent as 2012 (The Tempest).
Might this be another reason why Dylan matters?

As already mentioned, Dylan matters for a great many reasons – far too many to list and address in this review.

Why Dylan Matters however, comes from an entirely different perspective, essentially that of the Classics, as Thomas makes clear: ”For the past forty years, as a Classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of these ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today, and incapable of being contained by time or place. That’s why Dylan matters to me, and that’s what this book is about.”

By way of comparative relation, these nine chapters, along with the book’s Conclusion (‘Speechless in Stockholm’), do much to substantiate the author’s thinking. There again, like Ovid, Homer and indeed Virgil himself: ”The art of Bob Dylan, no less than any other works produced by the human mind in its most creative manifestation, can be put to work in serving and preserving the humanities […] through a genius that captures the essence of what it means to be human.”

Analytical, forthright and overtly persuasive, Richard F. Thomas has herein written a book that’s a veritable joy to both read and behold – even if just to be reminded of the following: ”Songs were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic…I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was. Nobody bothered with that. If you told the truth that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well that’s still well and good. Folk songs taught me that.

David Marx

Local Colour

smith

Local Colour
By Sam Smith
Indigo Dreams Publishing – £6.00

Slow, older men, indulge their miserable
natures behind moustaches and with
snarling commands to their dogs.
[…].
The searching nurse, a lift of her chin, unsmiling
comes towards him with a lesbian’s swagger. He
believes himself infested with rats and frogs;
and the world of men is of no help to him

                                       How Elusive Is Truth?

I have to say, the initial batch of these poems (out of a collection of thirty-seven), merely
passed me by, as if a mere creeping murmur of rain. As if a writer still searching; and as an immediate result thereof, ultimately trying way too hard.

That said, by the time I stumbled upon the final three lines of ‘Mocked By Windows’

cleaners and the homeless keeping warm
mocked by windows
divisions of glass

it became a little more clear that Sam Smith – nothing to do with the much over-rated singer of the same name – clearly has a vision of sorts. Even if said vision does appear to suffer as a direct result of becoming side-tracked – if not a trifle blighted by far too much tangential information.

For as potentially in depth as the poem which opens this review, ‘How Elusive Is Truth,’ undoubtedly is, it’s horribly let down due to such crass’n’caustic, throwaway lines such as:

for a semi-liquid shit, which dock and dandelion
leaves didn’t shift, only spread. His awkward attempt to wash
the stink off saw him part fall into a galvanised sheep-trough
(my italics).

One could pertain to arguing that eccentricity can sometimes make for a frivolous, yet high water-mark of literary prowess, although on this occasion, such, most definitely isn’t the case.
As such, Sam Smith may well pertain to a certain, poetic promise, which Local Colour both hints at and occasionally dip into; but really, that’s about it.

David Marx

The Plural of Us

plural

The Plural of Us –
Poetry and Community in Auden and Others
By Bonnie Costello
Princeton University Press – £37.95

When will we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love.

          ‘The Future of Us’

Poetry’s ‘we” can be highly nuanced and variable […]
marking overlapping and concentric circles.

          ‘Speaking Of Us’

In the final chapter of this highly focused book (‘The Future of Us’), Bonnie Costello endeavours to once more enter, and finally come to terms with the great chasm of an elongated, and at times self-induced ambiguity; by highlighting the non-definable space that surely lies betwixt the most pronounced personal of ‘I,’ and the most assumptive universal of ‘we.’

In so doing, she reinvests a certain assertion that the reader might readily agree with what is at best, a poetically endorsed thesis, wherein analysis takes centre stage almost throughout these 225 pages ( excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Biography and Index). For example, when she writes: ”Whatever the scale of relations, being is always already being ”with” – ”we are pressed, pressed on each other” – and one effort of the poetry is to discover meaningful unity within this condition of proximity, for ”we have chosen the meaning /of being numerous;” are we to readily agree?

What does the authoress essentially mean when she writes of ”meaningful unity”?
As for the ”condition of proximity,”this surely differs in relation to each and every varying circumstance?

I have to confess to initially being drawn to The Plural of Us – Poetry and Community in Auden and Others, largely due to the Auden in the title. For along with Eliot and both Dylans’, Auden is for me, the quintessential poet of the twentieth century.

As such, I was inquisitive to embrace the rather scientific formality of the subject matter ([…] some poetry seeks to harness the rhetorical power of the first-person plural to posit and promote community, often where there is social fragmentation. It can also alert us, intentionally or not, to the pronoun’s dangers and exclusions […]), within the context, or at least within the realm of the Auden trajectory.

Rather like Costello herself: ”He is perhaps the preeminent modern poet for thinking about groups and group organization, intuitively and in the abstract, but he is he rarely fixed to a particular theory or ideology for long. He is the poet of ”private faces in public places,” and of ”private stuff”and ”public spirit,” interested in the tensions and continuities between our intimate lives and our historical relations. He loves theories and doctrines, sometimes to the detriment of his verse, and passes through them like the pages of a calender, but the questions remain the same, and give coherence to the process. He is a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with, in part because he is always thinking, always changing position and genre.”

One could readily assert that it was said change that enabled Auden to remain at the vanguard of true poetic thinking.
Even to this day.
All the more so I’d have thought, simply because he did wrestle with (and love) theories and doctrines. Even if he did pass ”through them like the pages of a calender.”

That Bonnie Costello substantiates the fact that Auden was ”a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with,” accounts for much this book’s adherent allegiance to that of deciphering what its title suggests.

As not once does Costello remotely deviate or straddle off course.

There again, she appears to understand Auden all too well: ”As a ventriloquizing poet, always playing us back to ourselves so that we may hear what we mean, he is highly sensitive to the many postures and tonalities that can arise in the use of the first-person plural.”

In and of itself therefore, many could readily assert that this book is something of a first within its field; or, as Jahan Ramazani, the author of Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres, has since written: ”Bonnie Costello’s exquisite book brilliantly explores how Auden and other poets use the first-person plural to conjure collectivities into being even as they also unsettle them. Her rigorous and commanding reflections on the pronoun ‘we,’ her luminous close readings, her deep knowledge of lyric poetry, and her nuanced yet cogent arguments make this book a model of literary criticism.”

As the title The Plural of Us might suggest, this book circumnavigates the plurality of humanistic value in such a way that sheds new light on an oft, far too forgotten subject.

David Marx