Category Archives: Memoir

Jack London On Adventure

jack

Jack London On Adventure –
Words Of Wisdom From An Expert Adventurer
Skyhorse Publishing – $12.99

The thought of work was repulsive. I didn’t care if I never settled down. Learning a trade could go hang. It was a whole let better to royster and frolic over the world in the way I had previously done. So I headed out on the adventure path again.

                                                                        ‘The Artist As Adventurer’

Obviously written during an era when adventure was a complete and all circumnavigating way of life, one which was undeniably, deeply instilled within the fibre of ones’ being – rather than subscribed to by those who merely dabble in misadventure over the weekend – the writer Jack London certainly lived the life.

A life of his own design that is; which, regardless of how you care to look at it, was in and of itself, commendable.

Indeed, throughout his unfortunately brief life, he remained a free spirit of which Jack London On Adventure – Words Of Wisdom From An Expert Adventurer is something of a literary window, as the above opening segment wonderfully illustrates.

As opposed to being a mere linear overview of London’s entire works, this handsome little book is devised in such a way that it more dabbles and regales upon certain eras of London’s literary prowess: ”This gave them the seeming of ghostly masques, undertakers in a spectral world at the funeral of some ghost. But under it all they were men, penetrating the land of desolation and mockery and silence, puny adventurers bent on colossal adventure, pitting themselves against the might of a world as remote and alien and pulseless as the abysses of space.”

I have recently been asked to write the Foreword for a terrific new book on London entitled The Iron-Heeled Century: Rereading Jack London by the author, Anthony James; and amid my investigation(s), this is a fine and altogether brazen read – rather like the subject himself.

One which sheds oodles of light on an oft misunderstood, underrated writer (of whom George Orwell, among others, was a renowned fan).

David Marx

The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,

eliot

The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,
Volume I: 1898 – 1922 (Revised Edition)
Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
Faber and Faber – £35.00

As the English language becomes ever increasingly ingrained within the rancid fibre of acute simplistic-speak; signed, sealed, delivered and ultimately designed for a dumbed-down society of nothing other than moronic moguls – should it be at all surprising that the art of letter writing, essentially died decades ago?

Just so long as (hordes of) white males continue to replicate the switch-blade nuance of many a Camberwell gangsta, and their female equivalents, the saccharine, cloying annoyance of those (s)advertising carpets and/or motor-car-insurance as if on a penultimate edition of Strictly, then we may as well kiss the English language goodbye.

Indeed, the rich and varied language of the likes of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett and Richard Burton et al, is moving ever further aside to make way for The Eastenders- Sun-Speak of folly induced, cretinous, turgid, wank, innit?

All the more reason to remind ourselves of how very potent and powerful, inspiring and influential (not to mention wondrous and majestic), language actually can be. And this revised edition of The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, is as good a place to start as anywhere.

Home in on almost any of these 817 pages (excluding List of Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Introduction, Preface to the Revised Edition, Biographical Commentary, 1888-1922, Abbreviations & Sources, Editorial Notes, Glossary of Names, Index of Correspondents & Recipients along with a General Index), and one will be immediately reminded of what I write.

I would hasten to add that it might help if one is actually interested in the subject matter and the rather magnificent work(s) of T. S. Eliot; but to all intents and linguistic purposes, much of the language herein is of a f-a-r higher standard than that which would nowadays, be hurriedly dashed off by text.

Furthermore, it is surely an indicative sign of the times, that there are so many letters. There again, we are talking of someone who made (some of) their living by way of being an outstanding writer. There again, Valerie Eliot, has since 1988, continued to gather material from libraries and private sources in Britain and America for use in subsequent volumes. Of the correspondence that has come to light, a good many letters date from before 1923, so a revised edition of Volume One has been prepared to take account of approximately two hundred new items.

It might thus be said, that the new letters fill important gaps in the record, notably enlarging our understanding of the genesis and eventual publication of The Waste Land. Valuable, too, are letters from the earlier and least documented part of Eliot’s life, additional correspondence with family members in America along with an ever widening circle of friends and contacts.

Assimilated together, they undoubtedly give a far more detailed picture of not only the poet’s engagements, friendships and daily movements in London during and after the First World War, but they also shed much light on that of his reading materials: ”I received last night by the post a package bearing a label which indicted that it came from the offices of The Dial. When opened, it was found to contain The House of Dust by Conrad Aiken, and nothing else. There was no enclosure or inscription to indicate why the volume was sent to me. It occurred to me that it might be intended for review; and if so, I fear it was a piece of naughtiness on your part at Conrad’s expense.”

Naturally, it might be said that it is with reference to quite possibly his greatest work, The Waste Land, that will invariably invoke and trigger the most enthusiasm among readers.

This, alongside his wanton debt to the equally brilliant poet, Ezra Pound, are mentioned throughout a number of letters in the final quarter of the book, with, as the letters flood by, ever increasingly clarity: ”My only regret (which may seem in the circumstances either ungracious or hypocritical) is that this award should come to me before it has been given to Pound. I feel that he deserves the recognition much more than I do, certainly ‘for his services to Letters’ and I feel that I ought to have been made to wait until after he had received this public testimony. In the manuscript of The Waste Land which I am sending you, you will see the evidence of his work, and I think that this manuscript is worth preserving in its present form solely for the reason that it is the only evidence of the difference which his criticism has made to this poem” (to John Quinn, September 21st 1922).

With exquisite letters written entirely in French by his friend, Jean Verdenal, there are also a number of doodlings and drawings by Eliot himself, that, along with two wonderful sections of black and white photographs; all in all account for The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, being the masterful tomb of regal recollection that it is.

David Marx

The Unravelling

unraveling

The Unravelling –
High Hopes ad Missed Opportunities in Iraq
By Emma Sky
Atlantic Books – £9.99

The fourteenth chapter of this overtly credible book opens with a line from Thucidides: ”The strong do as they can – and the weak suffer as they must” (‘Melian Dialogue’). A frank and somewhat discerning line, which, if you really think about it, depicts the whole valiant Iraqi debacle rather well.

But what instinctively separates The Unravelling – High Hopes ad Missed Opportunities in Iraq from a plethora of its contenders, is how intuitively insightful its 363 pages have been put together by its author.

Emma Sky was working for the British Council during the invasion of Iraq, when the ad went around calling for volunteers. Appalled at what she saw as a wrongful war, she signed up, expecting to be gone for a month. Instead, her time in Iraq spanned a decade, and evolved into a personal odyssey so unlikely that it could be a work of fiction. The literary result of which are these twenty-eight chapters (excluding a List of Abbreviations, Preface, Maps, Prologue: The Iraqi Enquiry, a Glossary: Political Parties and Militias, Acknowledgements and Index), many of which radiate with a propensity that suggests: having been there, I’d really like to share my experience with the rest of the world.

Or at least, those who may actually care.

It’s a war-torn memoir of sorts, that has been concisely conveyed and written with a certain panache, not often found amid publications of this persuasion.

As The Guardian has since pointed out: ”The Unravelling reads almost like a novel: a detailed and darkly humorous account that tries to understand everyone involved, Iraqis and Americans, on their own terms… Sky’s argumentative, chirpy and intelligent personality is thoroughly engaging.”

Indeed it is, which accounts for just one of the many reasons why this book – which was nominated for The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2015 – is so very readable.

David Marx

Sudan Days

sudan

Sudan Days
By Richard Owen
Matador – £15.00

This ceremony has to be gone through, involving an inaugural speech, and the cutting of the tape, the symbolism of which is by now well enough understood, with the usual accompaniment of a large crowd, beef, beer, drums and dancing. The chosen head of the local government and some of his most honourable aldermen tuck up their gowns and join gravely and without self-consciousness in the terpsichorean exercise. Somehow it all seems perfectly appropriate, natural and dignified, where the Lord Mayor of London, dancing to a barrel-organ at his own show, with this robes tucked up, would not.
                                                                                            (‘The Nilotic South’).

Sudan Days transports one back unto another era; anther time, where the entire fanfare of the British Empire glistened to the tune of God and country and a whole lot more besides. For such was the resolute belief that South Sudan’s cantankerous, impending ”mealstrom of revolution and war” could be thwarted from Downing Street – in one mere swoop of the mighty pen.

Naturally it wasn’t, and it goes without saying that those involved, such as the author of this book, Richard Owen, found themselves shunted to the varying sideline(s )of miscalculated, political calculation: ”Over simplification is dangerous in historical affairs; but it is fairly accurate to separate the first and second quarters of the century, and to say that the main objective of the first was the establishment of order, sound administration and economic stability, whereas that of the second was political advance leading up to self-government.”

Herein lies the essential trajectory of these eighteen chapters as a whole (not including the Author’s Introduction and Preface), which, as already mentioned, visits another time and another place.

Written in such a way that is both compelling and oddly captivating, Sudan Days is as equally considered as it is colourful in both imagery and tonality: ”I know that my colleagues were not all paragons, that the Government we served made errors, that I personally made some gross ones; and that among the Sudanese themselves, from the highly-civilised urban intellectual to the bush-living primitive, there were thugs and scoundrels, as there are from Chicago to Vladivostock. Yet in nearly all that kaleidoscopic mass of humanity there were contrasting virtues.”

Just as there still are (I guess).

David Marx

A Heaven of Words

Wescott

A Heaven of Words – Last Journals, 1956-1984
By Glenway Wescott
Edited by Jerry Rosco
University of Wisconsin Press – $24.95

I sing wine and I drink water.

As the author of Wild Animals I Have Known: Polk Street Diaries and After, Kevin Bentley states, this (at times) overtly colourful and enlightening book is ”a frank and insightful collection of later journals from a brilliant gay writer and Lost Generation survivor.”

That it is ”full of literary and sexual anecdotes, wise ruminations […] and poignant reflections on growing older as a writer and lover of men,” does much to recapture not only a lost generation, but a lost time. An era, that when things happened, they were truly special amid the people to whom they were actually happening, rather than beamed across the planet – for all and sundry to see and share and comment upon – a mere few seconds after they’ve taken place.

The more than aptly titled A Heaven of Words (Last Journals, 1956-1984) is an inadvertent reflection, as well as confirmation of such; whereby the acutely observational Glenway Wescott (clearly never one lost for meditative thoughts nor words), mirrored all that he saw through his own, honest and highly intellectual prism of nuanced portrayal.

”Observation of pleasure” was after all, his ”religion.”

As mentioned in the title, these 279 pages (excluding Index and a section called ‘A Glossary of Glenway Wescott’s Contemporaries’), begin in 1956 and conclude in 1984. Along the way, there’s a menagerie of simply terrific one-liners, the altogether witty and esoteric likes of which, one doesn’t stumble across everyday: ”He introduced me to Jesus Christ, and also to the Queen of Romania,” ”[…] partings have to be a rehearsal for the great aloneness,” ”The verb ”belittle” was an invention of Thomas Jefferson’s,” ”What pain is to the body, shame is to the mind,” ”There is nothing stranger than life, unless it is literature.”

As with all great writing, the reader is transported unto another place, wherein the translucence of one’s own imagination is extraordinarily viable to be both educated and enhanced simultaneously. Take the following passage for instance, where, on May 13th 1957, Wescott wrote: ”I am an aging genius, with an insufficient talent; now pregnant with certain books that I have been gradually labouring at for years; in extremely unhappy circumstances in some ways; extraordinarily independent but with very little liberty; kept in extraordinary luxury here at home but penniless otherwise; perhaps due to be famous before long, perhaps more apt to fail, to sicken, to disappear from the picture. Yet there are a few things I know more about than anyone else alive.”

It is just such idiosyncratic insinuation that enabled Wescott – who began his writing career as a poet but is best known for his short stories and novels – to live the charmed life he did. Whether as part of the American literary expatriate community in Paris during the 1920s or revelling amid the company of such celebrated writers as Jean Cocteau, Somerset Maugham, Christopher Isherwood and (one of my all-time favourite poets) W. H. Auden – much of which is captured throughout this wonderful recollection in earnest.

David Marx

But You Did Not Come Back

come back

But You Did Not Come Back
By Marceline Loridan-Ivens
Faber & Faber – £12.99

”Surviving makes other people’s tears unbearable. You might drown in them.”

But You Did Not Come Back is a spell-bindingly chilling, yet nevertheless utterly beautiful book which absolutely needs to be read. It’s admittedly harrowing in parts, but this is nothing other than a pitiful indictment, if not regal reflection upon the human race of which we all (at times, rather unfortunately) find ourselves a part.

These one hundred pages – which resolutely refuse any form of pathos let alone exposition – touch on the sort of love that is all resounding.

All transcending.
All things one actually wants to believe exists amid the (only occasional) human trait of magnanimous giving and complete unselfishness: ”Far from life, the life that was asking me to live again, a life full of silences, missing people, deception. The life where you didn’t exist.”

In brief, this book is the author’s letter to the father she never know as an adult; although the impact of his influence over her entire adult life, appears seemingly immeasurable.

In every way. In every accountable manner possible.

In brief, the book conveys how, at the age if fifteen in 1944, Marceline Loridan-Ivens was arrested in occupied France, along with her father. They were both sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. When they arrived, they were forcibly separated. Though he managed to smuggle a last note to her via an electrician, she never spoke to him again – the heartbreaking trajectory of which accounts for this book’s poise, power and poignancy: ”When we passed by, some of the women would come closer to the electrified fence and whisper questions to us; they didn’t have their children anymore, but still wanted to hope. We’d ask them if they had a number. No, they’d reply. Then we’d raise our arms to the heavens as a sign of despair. Our tattooed number was our opportunity, our victory, and our shame. I’d helped build the second railway line that led directly to the gas chambers where their children had just been thrown. Now I was going to sort through their clothes.”

Apart from the memory of her father and that of the above, the book is a consistent reminder of just how powerful the human mind is. Countless examples of which are both tender and unbelievable: ”My memory had to shatter, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go on living […]., I’ve always thought it was my fault if they sent her to the gas chamber. Francoise and her beautiful eyes haunted me for a long time, like a reprimand, a sister in misfortune.”

Of this utterly engrossing, unputdownable book, Le Magazine Litteraire wrote: In literature, every so often, there comes a miracle, a book, a text, an author, a writing style, a way of recounting something […] saying things about life and death” – with which it’s nigh impossible to disagree.

A very strong contender for my book of the year.

David Marx

Instrumental

Instrumental

Instrumental – A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music
By James Rhodes
Canongate – £16.99

          My solution? Fuck the lot of them. Play what you want, where you want, how           you want and to whom you want. Do it naked, do it wearing jeans, doing it                 while cross-dressing. Do it at midnight or 3 p.m. Do it in bars and pubs, halls           and theatres. Do it for free. Do it for charity. Do it in schools. Make it                         inclusive, accessible, respectful, authentic. Give it back to whom it belongs.               Don’t let a few geriatric, inbred morons dictate how this immortal,                               incredibly wonderful, God-given music should be presented. We’re bigger               than that. God knows, the music is too.

So writes, if not screams, James Rhodes in Track 18 (‘Beethoven, Piano Concerto No.5’) of his insatiable love for classical music in Instrumental. A book which really is a powerful, perplexing and at times, poignant head-rush of a helter skelter ride.
Or read.
Or journey.
Or indeed, many things. The most important of which is its most turbulent and profound, disturbing, soaring, honesty.

To be sure, reading the 275 pages of this book is occasionally akin to reading a book on the Holocaust; wherein so many of the words on any given page have the potential to morph unto some sort of death dance before our very eyes. As if readily inviting us to dismantle everything we know and understand to be be morally correct – and start all over again. Only from the ultimate premise of pain and shame.
Then more pain and shame.
And then more.

Concert pianist, TV presenter and writer, James Rhodes, was sexually abused – over a number of years – as a child, and this unapologetically candid memoir is his literary coming to terms with everything that that entails.

As such, Instrumental is tough, stark and perhaps everything you’d expect it to be: ”I’m not going to write about the sex in detail. For a number of reasons. Some of you might read it and use it to fantasise about. Some of you might read it and judge me for getting a boner at the time (on occasion). Some of you will read it and just feel nauseous and indignant. But most of all I don’t want to go into detail because I don’t think I’ll make it out the other side if I do, especially when you can just buy a copy of the Daily Mail if you’ve the urge to feel titillated, nauseous or judgemental. Cheaper, quicker, less traumatic for me […]. The sexual abuse went on for nearly five years. By the time I left school aged ten I’d been transformed into James 2.0. The automaton version. Able to act the part, fake feelings of empathy, and respond to questions with the appropriate answers (for the most part). But I felt nothing, had no concept of the expectancy of good (my favourite definition of ‘joy’), had been factory reset to a bunch of fucked settings, and was a proper little mini-psychopath.”

Admittedly, as the (entire) title of the book and the opening quote of this review suggests, this isn’t a memoir that relentlessly dwells on the negative trajectory of sexual abuse.
Rhodes is by no means, a solipsistic Jesuit on heat.
He has after all, always had the pristine beauty of music to fall back on, which is evidently clear right from the outset.

In the book’s Prelude, he writes: ”You and I are instantly connected through music. I listen to music. You listen to music. Music has infiltrated and influenced our lives as much as nature, literature, art, sport, religion, philosophy and television. It is the great unifier, the drug of choice for teenagers around the world. It provides solace, wisdom, hope and warmth and has done so for thousands of years. It is medicine for the soul. There are eighty-eight keys on a piano and within that, an entire universe […]. For every genuinely thrilling rock band, film score or contemporary composer, there are several thousand piles of shit that are thrust upon us at every opportunity. The industry behind it treats us with almost zero respect and even less trust. Success, rather than being earned, is bought, paid for, whored out and pushed onto us manipulatively and insidiously.”

It is this passion, this anger, this frustration, that along with his son, has ultimately enabled James Rhodes to survive; and I for one, am extremely pleased and relieved that he has. For anyone who has the chutzpah, the clarity of mind and the all round conviction to come out and call Simon Cowell a cunt, really is a top, top human being.

David Marx