Category Archives: Literary Criticism

C.K. Williams on Whitman


C.K. Williams on Whitman
Princeton University Press

But which of us isn’t a similar jerry-built motion machine? Which of us doesn’t sometimes feel that we’re weird pop-ups of impulses, ambitions, desires, and dreams? But we don’t live in poems, even those of us who are poets; unlike Whitman, we plunge into our poems, but then we emerge: we are the makers of our poems – Whitman’s poems made him; he existed in them in a way he existed nowhere else.

Whether Marc Chagall or Jimi Hendrix. Sylvia Plath or Tom Waits – ought not a similar persuasion be applied to most true artists who essentially live both inside of and with their art? It’s hard to think of any of these artists, including Walt Whitman, in any other way, which, to varying degrees, is exactly what this fine little pocket book addresses.

That C.K. Williams on Whitman is deeply entrenched within the parameters of (fine) poetry, most certainly helps it along its way; and is therefore, all the more readable for it. As Robert Pinsky has written: ”This is the exuberant, true book of a poet, of two poets: a personal, illuminating, and beautiful demonstration of the truest reading.”

That it most definitely is.

From such musicality as:

The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and
shouted jokes and pelts of snowball…

to such colourful and kaleidoscopic revelation as: ”Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind: pop, pop, pop. The images, the ideas, the visions, the insights, the proclamations, the stacks of brilliant verbal conjunctions, the musical inventiveness and uniqueness: one after the other, again and again, in a form that reveals them naked, unmodulated, undimmed by any apparent resort to the traditional resources of poetic artfulness.”

Phew., as a lover of poetry and the occasional analysis thereof: what more could one ask for?

David Marx


Everyday Stories


Everyday Stories
By Rachel Bowlby
Oxford University Press – £14.99

As the promotional material puts it: ‘Have you thought about how much of life goes missing from your memory? Many fantastic and special moments become blurred together after a while and it feels like life just rushes by, too fast for us to grasp,’ ‘Every moment is worth keeping,’ the publicity says at another point.

The above train of thought becomes ever increasingly evident as the years do indeed seem to hurtle by.

As John Lennon once sang: ‘So this is Christmas/And what what you done?/Another year over/And a new one just begun.”

Such a lyric, just like many sections of this book, might well jolt many a reader, or in Lennon’s case, listener, into the grim realisation that the older one gets, the shorter the years invariably become. Although such sociological pronouncement has been addressed by many a writer over the years, who, by way of their own submission, has had to wrestle with many a trajctorial overload of pristine truth(s).

Virginia Woolf comes to mind, whose own work is unsurprisingly brought to bear in Everyday Stories, where Rachel Bowlby quotes extensively near the beginning of the eighth chapter, ‘An Ordinary Mind on an Ordinary Day’: ”Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this.’ Examine, for a moment, an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there […].

Like the 176 pages of this book as a whole (excluding Series Introduction, Bibliography and Index), much can, and ought to be gleaned from the above words; primarily that we need to endeavour to enjoy each and every moment. That is, before the ”evanescent or engraved […] everyday sharpness of steel” ceases to truly mean anything – just like it has for so many people.

So next time you decide to linger on your mobile phone for forty minutes or so – merely surfing amid the disposable wank sensation of atomic nothingness – think again.

Better still, read this thought provoking book.

David Marx

The Essential Goethe


The Essential Goethe
Edited by Matthew Bell
Princeton University Press – £27.95

He was committed to empirical observation, but he disliked the mental and physical apparatus that accompanied science: contrived experimental conditions, doctrinaire theoretical models, and arid mathematical methods, as he saw them. His allergy to the formal scientific method limited his progress but also inspired some of his more interesting ideas.

The above, rather like much of this inviting and at times, complex anthology of one of Europe’s most influential thinkers and writers, reads like a modern day assimilation of the most acute comprehension. It’s as if Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, perhaps the most profound artist of the German Romantic period, were waxing lyrical only yesterday – for such is the translation, not to mention the interpretation of (t)his vast body of work.

And what an unquestionably vast, cohesive and pertinent body of work it continues to remain. As given its sheer dexterity and enormity, is what fundamentally accounts for the work itself successfully alluding to the fact that The Essential Goethe is a one-off.

A one-off, definitive representation like no other.

One of the prime reasons being, it provides English language readers with easier access than ever before, to the widest range of work by ”one of the greatest writers in world history.” Amid these 1007 pages, Goethe’s work as a poet, a playwright, a novelist and an autobiographer, is more than confidently and comprehensively revisited by Matthew Bell – himself a Professor of German and Comparative Literature at King’s College, London, whose previous books include Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology and Melancholia: The Western Malady.

As he has written in the book’s Introduction: ” The volume has been produced first and foremost with the general reader in mind, though we hope it will also prove useful for students of European and comparative literature, where Goethe is an important but often inaccessible figure. Readers will find many of Goethe’s canonical works here.”

Indeed, from ‘Selected Poems’ to the Shakespearianesque Egmont (translated by Michael Hamburger), from Faust. A Tragedy (translated by John R. Williams) to the second of Goethe’s novels, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; from ‘On Literature and Art’ (which includes ‘Shakespeare: A Tribute (1771),’ ‘Simple Imitation, Manner, Style (1789),’ ‘Response to a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1795),’ ‘Winckelmann and His Age (1805)’) to ‘On Philosophy and Science’ (which among others, includes ‘A ‘Study on Spinoza (c. 1785),’ ‘Observation on Morphology in General (c. 1795),’ ‘The Influence of Modern Philosophy (1817),’ ‘Colours in the Sky (1817-20),’ ‘Problems (1823),’ ‘Analysis and Synthesis (c. 1829)’ and ‘A More Intense Chemical Activity in Primordial Matter (1826)’); this utterly breath-taking appreciation, can only be described as something to behold, appreciate and what’s more, be inspired by.

Where else might one read: ”For all that he abhorred chaos, he knew it could be creative. For an opponent of the revolution, he invested a remarkable amount of creative energy into trying to come to terms with it. What alienated Goethe most from his fellow Germans was the advent of Napoleon, whom Goethe admired and the young generation of German nationalists demonized. But Goethe had long since abandoned any thoughts of German nationhood or even a unified national culture. After Italy, Europe and the wider world mattered more to him.”

Whether ‘drunk on exaltation’ or ‘brimming [with] tears’ amid ‘the mordant storm,’ the Frankfurt-Am-Main born Goethe, was a both a poet and a philosopher of pristine brilliance and, given the era, urgency; a facet I believe the opening quote of this review rather substantiates.

There again: ”Like his father, Goethe took academic study and scholarship very seriously, and both were avid art collectors. Goethe was well read in art history and aesthetics, philosophy, theology, and science. He firmly believed that any creative work, even the very direct and life-orientated poetry that is one of his hallmarks, had to be informed by ideas from these fields; in this broad sense he was a determinedly philosophical writer. This is the Goethe whom the reader will meet in these pages: a lover, a thinker, a scholar, a practical man, a controversialist, a writer of very diverse moods and urges.”

David Marx

Existentialism and Romantic Love


Existentialism and Romantic Love
By Skye Cleary
Palgrave Macmillan – £63.00

Other people are a fact of life.
                                          David Cooper.

Love is a passion to be chosen and mastered, not sacrificed to.
                                          Skye Cleary.

I’d highly recommend this most excellent of books, just on the strength of its final chapter ‘Simone de Beauvoir and Loving Authentically’ alone. Reason being, there’s so much to be gleaned, so much to be inspired by, so much to go and away and think about.

And perhaps act upon.

It is because Existentialism and Romantic Love traverses the most complex and complicated of emotions we oft refer to as love – in a most self-defining manner, profoundly more reflective than an array of dreadful Hello and Cosmopolitan magazines combined – that fundamentally accounts for its validity. That it does so from an existentialist perspective which is resoundingly thought provoking throughout all of its seven chapters (Introduction and Conclusion included), propels the book in its entirety unto a literary place that is simply more commendable than commendable.

Authoress Skye Cleary already reminds us in the book’s Introduction that: ”not all mirrors can provide accurate reflections.”

Such pronouncement in itself, is enough to trigger colossal bouts of pensive persuasion amid love’s fraternity of analysis and assessment. Be it of the self. Or one’s relationship with another. As more often than not, we instinctively think we know about these things – but in truth, we don’t

In a world where capitalism and its grotesque ugly sister, advertising, have become inherently more instrumental within modern day relationships than that of love itself – which, lest it be said, absolutely isn’t tangible – it’s no surprise that mutual conflict can sometimes supersede the initial kernel of romance.

Or, dare one actually say it, love.

For want of a perhaps more definitive description, said miasmic maze of psychological undoing is coherently addressed in this book’s aforementioned final chapter: ”Beauvoir agreed with Sartre that conflict is a fundamental part of life because we clash with other freedoms. Nevertheless, embracing the conflict is a necessary part of life because transcending (pour-soi) is not easy, and giving it up means giving up existing. Transcendence is necessary to being a sovereign subject, which Beauvoir defines as actively, assertively, ambitiously, creatively, and courageously pushing oneself forward in the world, overcoming oneself, going beyond the given in life to be an agent in one’s life, and engaging in projects that one creates for oneself.”

Suffice to say, it is of vital importance to actually know and comprehend the above to begin with.

But again, due to economic demands and the smokescreen, diversionary importance of having to keep up with the myopic folly of such complete and utter bollocks as that of what other people may be wearing and driving, ”going beyond the given in life to be an agent in one’s life,” isn’t always as easy as it may sound. Reason being, such distraction as that promoted by the ideology of Hello Magazine et al, goes a long way in diluting and perhaps ultimately confusing what is truly important in life: ”Beauvoir did not mean that the need for others should be taken in the Machiavellian sense of using each other as means to ends. Rather, each individual acts in the context of society […]. The important thing for Beauvoir is acknowledging that the world is shared with other people and that one way or another individuals depend on the community for survival, self-definition, and meaning.”

”Each individual” acting ” in the context of society,” is a most potent force to be reckoned with. Perhaps one of the most important. This partially explains why so much of British society, and American society even more so, has been crumbling away in recent years.

After all, both places could all so readily be defined by what former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once described as there being ”no such thing as society.”

As such, never has love, existentialist or otherwise, been in such short supply. All the more reason that one should truly investigate this most authentic, fascinating and quintessentially timely of books.

David Marx

Will Self and Contemporary British Society


Will Self and Contemporary British Society
By Graham Matthews
Palgrave Macmillan – £58.00

There’s no denying the fact that Will Self, like Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and perhaps even Julie Burchill, is a writer of high velocity’n’vitriol in the most equal of considered measure. Whether reading about his work or the actual works themselves, Self never fails entertain and taunt, question and provoke.

At best, he never fails to least idiosyncratically inspire.

Much the same can be applied to Will Self and Contemporary British Society, which is why I should imagine Graham Matthews – who is Associate Professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China – initially embarked on writing the book to begin with. As one can tell almost immediately, that Matthews is probably as eclectic in his reading as Self is in his writing.

There’s an undeniable correlation betwixt the two; although admittedly, the man in question flies high and untethered amid the unknown vortex of invention, whereas the author of this book writes about that invention: ”The review is typical of Self’s work and displays his predilection for combining the quotidian with the absurd: banal subject matter with scholarly rigour; flights of imaginative fancy with commonsensical assertions; the ephemeral with the eternal. He is often presented as a bilious individual but, like many satirists, is content with his bile, and presents his excoriating criticism as preferable to the morass of hypertrophy, hypocrisy and illimitable dullness of the contemporary world” (‘Introduction’).

Absolutely spot on.

Self would, from a literal perspective at least, far sooner hyperventilate through the ”hypocrisy and illimitable dullness of the contemporary world” in every which way imaginable.

Of whom else for instance, would a critique pertain to and be ”transported in and out of quintillions of vaginas,” whereby ”sex is always already a discursive practice,” due to ”the essentialist notion that biology is destiny?”

Writing in the fourth chapter ”Fucking and fighting’: Will Self and Gender,’ Matthews traverses through the gender persuasion and much of the aforesaid, by tackling head-on, the hopeless Viagra of Victorian values in writing: There is no sex that is not already viewed through the prism of gender performativity. Instead the social appearance of gender is policed by a series of compulsory frames that are determined by the binary ethics of sexual difference. In a similar way, Self disputes normative assumptions regarding masculinity and femininity and their relationship to biological sex to argue instead that masculinity, and by extension, gender, is not predominantly determined by biology but by social norms. For Self, gender is indeterminate, not essential:

Yet whenever I’ve voiced this sense of indeterminacy which surrounds my masculinity and inheres in my very encoding – the combinations of deoxyribonucleic acids that make me one – men smirk, women laugh, and the consensus is that I could not be any more of a man if I shaved my head, pierced my foreskin, shoved a rag soaked with butyl nitrate in my face and joined a conga line of buggery.”

Thus, to determine if not describe these 172 pages (excluding Notes, Bibliography and Index) as a calibrated confluence of academia and an inflammatory roller-coaster, wouldn’t be too far off the mark.

As Dr Daniel Lea (who is the Principal Lecturer in Contemporary Literature at Oxford Brookes University) nigh substantiates: ”Graham Matthews’ study is an excellent introduction to Self’s writing, which is accessible in approach without ever sacrificing intellectual depth or complexity. There are many interesting theoretical interventions throughout which give it range and bite, and he expertly captures the violence, virtuosity, and vitriol of his subject.”

Indeed, each of the book’s six chapters penetrate right through the high-octane embrace of current-day, benign and rather dormant, literal languidity – for which one ought to be eternally grateful. For which one ought to yelp Halleluja from a menagerie of indeterminate rooftops.

That ”Self’s work should be considered as fragments of a larger, necessarily incomplete satiric project that deconstructs contemporary myths by portraying them at their most grotesque and degenerate extremes,” is what partially makes both him and this excellent book, so very, very readable. There again, when ”considered in its entirety, Self’s work reveals itself to be part of the long tradition of English literature that links the act of writing to social responsibility.”

David Marx

Criminal Capital


Criminal Capital – How the Finance Industry Facilitates Crime
By Stephen Platt
Palgrave Macmillan – £19.99

So it’s just been announced that Deutsche Bank avoided paying tax by delving into yet more of an in-house bonus culture. Really? Surely not?

Of this eye-opening book on the globally corrupt, banking system, former federal agent and author of The Infiltrator, Robert Mazur writes: ”Stephen is a leader in financial crime writing. This book will catapult your understanding of how criminals compromise financial markets.”

That, it most certainly does in no uncertain terms; Criminal Capital – How the Finance Industry Facilitates Crime by Stephen Platt is one of those (un)reassuring reads which both confirms and stipulates, that what you suspected to be true, really is true.

That’s to say: the only reason banks exist is to generate money – regardless of how this is fundamentally done: ”Laundering and facilitation lie behind the infliction of misery and suffering on countless millions of people, and allow the perpetrators to get away with and retain the proceeds of their crimes. Very few bankers knowingly assist such people (albeit there are some notable exceptions); the vast majority would be aghast if confronted with the results of the abuse of their institutions by criminals. The fact that such abuse is more likely to result from negligence on the part of the banks than from a deliberate policy to facilitate crime and launder money ultimately, however, matters little – the end effect is much the same.

Indeed, the end effect is very the same; at the very pinnacle of which, many people would argue preside the numerous powers that be. Be it he who they call Osborne, who enables, if not condones such incomprehensible practices to continue; and they whom much of western society wholeheartedly subscribe to known as Google and Facebook et al.

Naturally, the money has to be siphoned off somewhere, somehow, and where better to turn for such clandestine advice, than your friendly High Street Bank?

Wanna know more?

These eleven chapters pack a terrific punch, right into the global gut-rot of financial depravity. It’s simply loaded with laundering shenanigans, which, much to the chagrin of the elitist one per cent, most definitely needs to be read – if not acted upon.

David Marx

The Annotated Poe


The Annotated Poe
Edited by Kevin J. Hayes
Foreword by William Giraldi
Harvard University Press – £29.95

One of America’s most renowned of writers, Edgar Allen Poe’s vast body of works have been adapted many times over for both stage and screen; the trajectorial inspiration of which has unsurprisingly influenced numerous illustrators and graphic artists – the latter of whom, this altogether glorious book acknowledges.

As William Giraldi writes in the Foreword of The Annotated Poe: ”With Whitman you get the searing soulfulness, with Melville the fixed intransigence, with Thoreau the contented sedition […]. But in S. W. Hartshorn’s famous 1848 daguerreotype of Poe, so much of his work is somehow perfectly there, myriad threads from the poems and tales. In this pallid photo, Poe’s face speaks the dread truth of his depth.”

In all honesty, this most inspired of books should come as no surprise, other than the degree to which it really has been stupendously well conceived and compiled. Inspired being the key word here, for that’s how best to describe these 395 pages (excluding Appendix, Further Reading, Illustration Credits and Acknowledgements).

Other than traversing what can only be described as a superlative assimilation of work(s) by way of photographs and colour illustrations, The Annotated Poe comprises in-depth notes that are conveniently placed alongside the tales and poems to further elucidate the American writer, editor and literary critic’s biographical, historical and own literary allusions (not to mention sources, obscure words and passages).

Like Poe’s own marginalia, Kevin, J. Hayes’s marginal notes do much to accommodate ”multitudinous opinion,” wherein he divulges his own views and interpretations; as well as those of other writers, critics and that of the man in question.

Moreover, of particular interest is Hayes analysis of Poe’s work and all-round approach to writing in the book’s spirited Introduction: ”Along with the good, he was consuming a lot of bad writing – but he found ways to learn from whatever he read. Poe divided books into two basic types: those that allow readers to immerse themselves in the author’s thought; and those that encourage readers to develop their own thought. The second category, which he labelled ”suggestive books,” Poe subdivided into the positively and the negatively suggestive. The first type suggests what it says, the second by what it could have or should have said. Whether positively or negatively suggestive, a book could fulfill its essential purpose: to provoke the reader’s (or writer’s) thought […]. Though Poe would not fully articulate his theory of novel combinations until later in his career, his short stories exemplify novelty from the beginning of his fiction career. Poe was a shameless magpie, borrowing and appropriating freely. In ”Morella” (1835), for example, one of the tales that appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, he combines aspects of sentimental fiction, supernatural tales, German metaphysics, and folk legends to create a challenging and original tale about death, resurrection, and the power of the will.”

Along with an abundance of captivating (predominantly colour) artwork that does much to lure the reader into investigating further, are the many opening, idiosyncratic and irresistible, sparkling sequences – of which there many.

Be it ‘Metzengerstein’ (”Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to the story I have to tell? I will not. Besides I have other reasons for concealment. Let it suffice to say that, at the period of which I speak, there existed, in the interior of Hungary, a settled although hidden belief in the doctrines of the Metempsychosis. Of the doctrines themselves – that is, of their falsity or probability – I say nothing. I assert, however, that much of our incredulity (as Bruyere observes of all our unhappiness,) vient de ne pouvoir etre seuls”); ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (”I was sick – sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence – the dread sentence of death – was the last distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution – perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill-wheel. This only for a brief period; for presently I heard no more”); and/or of course, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (”During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit”).

Let it be said then, that this is a terrific book in more ways than one can possibly imagine – primarily because it’s so very inspiring.

As Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University has written on the dust-cover: ”Poe startles and enchants, but he springs traps for the unwary. There is no better guide through Poe’s magic house of mirrors than Kevin Hayes, who brings a wealth of expertise to his annotations. This handsomely produced edition is a treasure-house for Poe novices and initiates alike.”

Can’t (and won’t) argue with that.

David Marx