Local Colour

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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

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The Plural of Us

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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

The Origins Of Happiness

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The Origins Of Happiness –
The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course
By Andrew E. Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard,
Nattavudh Powdthavee &George Ward
Princeton University Press – £27.95

What matters to people must be the guidelines for our policies.

          Angela Merkel.

Wealth is like seawater. The more we drink, the thirstier we become.

          Schopenhauer

Most people would contest to not really caring about the origins of happiness; but rather, just being happy in the right here, right now. And to a certain degree (or should that read, dilemma?), who can really blame them?

After all, happiness, whatever it may be or however it is perceived and considered – is surely a mere off-shoot of contentment? That altogether ethereal, rather effervescent something, which we all fundamentally strive for throughout our entire lives.

But doesn’t happiness per se, come at a price (and a fairly hefty one at that)?

So far as a multitude of cancerous advertising moguls are concerned, happiness can be both bought and devoured by way of delusional diversion. The so-called American Dream being the perfect example, which is where the above opening quote by Shopenhauer truly comes into play. For ’tis indeed true, that the more seawater we drink, the thirstier we become. This partially explains why so many Americans are burnt out at such a young age.

Not to mention why America just so happens to be one of the most stress induced nations on the planet.

The Origins Of Happiness – The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course, does as such, make for an almighty interesting and persuasive read: ”Our aim is ambitious – it is to revolutionize how we think about human priorities. Inevitably the findings at this stage are approximate. But it is better to be roughly right about what really matters than to be exactly right about what matters less. Our findings should therefore be judged not by comparison with a state of perfect knowledge but with the prevailing ignorance.”

‘The prevailing ignorance’ being the key three words here, as it is something which ought to be considered one of the great scourges of humanity. And ultimately happiness.

Reason being, ignorance – in all its vainglorious glory – has to be (one of) the most profound origins of unhappiness.
Responsible for a multitude of sins.
Whether the crucifixion of he we continue to refer to as having suffered for our sins, the rise of the Nazi Party, Donald Trump, or the heinous, continuing success of The X Factor.
Ignorance is indeed, responsible for so much unhappiness, a prime example being the belief that money will surely obliterate unhappiness.

This book’s second chapter ‘Income’ (its first being ‘Happiness over the Life-Course: What Matters Most?) addresses the dictum which many subscribe to as being the ultimate be all of all things.

To be sure, it opens with the following: ”Does more money buy more happiness? It does, but less than many people might think. There two extreme views, both equally fallacious. On the one hand there are careless studies claiming that money makes no difference. This is certainly wrong, if we are talking about life-satisfaction as the outcome. On the other hand, there are millions of individuals who think that more money would totally change their well being. For most people, this too is a delusion.”

Upon reading the above, many might consider that the five authors herein traipse the easy road by essentially sitting on the literary fence, but this really isn’t so. The rest of the chapter, in fact the book as a whole, delves into far more involved analyses, by way of numerous (statistical) comparisons between Britain, the United States, Germany and Australia; making for a book, which, as it’s secondary title suggests, is as equally scientific in approach as it is sociological.

To quote Princeton University’s Alan Krueger: ”Rooted in the best-available evidence for each stage in life, The Origins Of Happiness provides an ambitious and comprehensive analyses of what leads to a satisfying life, from childhood to old age.”

David Marx

Leonardo Da Vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster- £30.00

Leonardo’s fantasies pervaded everything he touched: his theatrical productions, plans to divert rivers, designs for ideal cities, schemes for flying machines, and almost every aspect of his art as well as engineering.

Largely due to his work, dimensionality became the supreme innovation of Renaissance art.

The portrayal of the landscape behind Lisa contains other tricks of the eye. We see it from high above, as if from a bird’s-eye view. The geological formations and misty mountains incorporate a mix, as did much of what Leonardo produced, of science and fantasy. The barren jaggedness evokes prehistoric eons, but it is connected to the present by a faint arched bridge […]. The horizon on the right side seems higher and more distant than the one on the left, a disjuncture that gives the painting a sense of dynamism. The earth seems to twist like Lisa’s torso does, and her head seems to cock slightly when you shift from focusing on the left horizon to the right horizon.

Where most biographies start with an Introduction, Leonardo Da Vinci – The Biography – a most terrific of book if ever there was one – embarks upon a list of principal characters; all of whom fall within the ‘Primary Periods of Leonardo da Vinci’s Life.’ This is then immediately followed by a colourful, four-page Timeline – which almost acts as something of an inadvertent reminder of just how much da Vinci achieved in his lifetime.

Thus by the time one has reached the actual Introduction itself (endearingly entitled ‘I Can Also Paint’), one has already gleaned an undercurrent of periodic knowledge. And if there’s one thing and one thing alone that one ought to equate with Leonardo da Vinci, it is surely knowledge.

That said, to say Walter Isaacson herein deciphers and homes in on someone who was very clearly a most complex human being, is something of the quintessential understatement.

Such a simple, albeit effective line as ”vision without execution is hallucination,” is as surely alluring from a reading perspective, as it is most profound within the parameters of da Vinci’s work itself. Might as much stem from the openness of the author’s approach throughout these thirty-three chapters; most, if not all of which, are underlined by a more than regal, sensible and what’s more, relatively current grounding: ”[…] when Steve Jobs climaxed his product launches with an image of streets signs showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Leonardo was his hero. ”He saw beauty in both art and engineering,” Jobs said, ”and his ability to combine them was what made him a genius.”

Moreover, one does feel the need to openly admit that such grounding is as equally aligned with daring, as the very first of the above three opening quotes – with regards Leonardo’s technical fantasies – ought surely substantiate.

After all, such daring is itself immediately clarified by the following, wherein Isaacson writes: ”His letter to the ruler of Milan is an example, since his military engineering skills then existed mainly in his mind. His initial role at the court was not building weapons but conjuring up festivals and pageants. Even at the height of his career, most of his fighting and flying contraptions were more visionary than practical.”

I do indeed rather like the author’s use of the word ‘contraptions,’ which again, focuses on the subject’s potentiality, as opposed to a seemingly fawning conglomeration of all that da Vinci achieved throughout his lifetime. As such, these 525 pages (excluding Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Sources, extensive Notes, Illustration Credits and Index) are just as much an appreciation of Leonardo da Vinci’s life, as they are a chronological re-telling.

Suffice to say, there’s an entire chapter devoted to The Mona Lisa which is as equally revelatory as it is informed.
If not scientific in description.

Throughout the chapter, Isaacson bequeaths both the reader as well as the art lover, with oodles to ponder upon. Not to mention, continue thinking about: ”Covering Lisa’s hair is a gossamer veil, worn as a mark of virtue (not mourning), which is so transparent that it would be almost unnoticeable were it not for the line it makes across the top of her forehead. Look carefully at how it drapes loosely over her hair near her right ear; it is evident that Leonardo was meticulous enough to paint the background landscape first and then used almost transparent glazes to paint the veil over it […]. Depicting veils came naturally to Leonardo. He had a fingertip feel for the elusive nature of reality and the uncertainties of perception. Understanding that light hits multiple points on the retina, he wrote that humans perceive reality as lacking razor-sharp edges and lines; instead, we see everything with a sfumato-like softness of the edges. This is true not only of the misty landscapes stretching out to infinity; it applies even to the outlines of Lisa’s fingers that seem so close we think we can touch them. We see everything, Leonardo knew, through a veil.”

That Isaacson’s previous books, among others, include Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, A Benjamin Franklin Reader and Kissinger: A Biography; one invariably knows one is in good academic, if not well researched company whilst reading this most audacious and engaging of biographies. Along with a menagerie of colour plates, reproductions and r-produced diagrams throughout, Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography is a veritable treasure-trove of literary finesse, analyses and a whole lot more besides.

David Marx

I Love You Leo A

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I Love You Leo A
By Rosa Aneiros
Small Stations Press

     And stay close to groups of women unless you want to spend the whole journey being          ogled like a piece of merchandise! Discretion has never been their strong point!

Part travelogue, part resolute reflection on the human condition, I Love You Leo A is a harmless and enjoyable enough read; but once you’ve reached the end, that’s essentially it. You’ve reached the end.

There’s no literary after thought. Nothing that fundamentally lingers in the mind. Nothing that compels one to re-visit the varying travels and thoughts our protagonist Leo has embarked on; which is okay, although I personally rather enjoy being touched or moved by what I’ve just read.

To be sure, the two main things I came away with having read these 263 pages, was: who was responsible for daubing ”I love You Leo A” on the various walls and flyovers amid Leo’s travels, and, perhaps more interestingly, a brave and altogether vivid portrayal of Istanbul towards the latter part of the book:

”This is the real Istanbul. The Istanbul of contradictions. A combination, sometimes tense, sometimes so natural it’s strange, of modern and ancient. Decadence and technology meet and sometimes give way to conflict[…]. They can’t help feeling nostalgic for their sultans and their leadership of the Eastern Mediterranean, and yet they want to be a real bridge between Asia and Europe. Tradition weighs down too heavily for them to advance, and yet they don’t want to do away with their own history and customs so they can be accepted as another group of Europeans.”

Having lived in a predominantly Turkish neighbourhood of Berlin, I can honestly vouch that all of the above is resoundingly true. Turks do not ”want to do away with their own history and customs.” As such – well in Berlin at least – they’re absolutely not ”accepted as another group of Europeans.”

That said, what truly jumped out of this book, was authoress, Rosa Aneiros, coming totally clean with the following (with regards to Istanbul): ”The black market is too lucrative a business for policemen and officials to pass up. Blackmail and corruption are an everyday occurrence.”

So there you have it: only read this book if you (really) want to know what makes Istanbul tick. Other than that, you’ll probably find I Love You Leo A somewhat forgettable.

David Marx

 

Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare –
Place, ”Race,” Politics
By Shaul Bassi
Palgrave Macmillan 

It is certain that, without Machiavelli, Shakespeare’s tragic theatre would not have been the same.

          (‘Neocon and Theoprog: The New Machiavellian Moment’)

We should continue to insist that race is less a property of an individual or group than a cultural and political process with no basis in science (pace the current obsession with genetics). As a consequence, there is no contradiction in dropping”race” as a noun while keeping all its morphological variants that point to it as a process and a relation: racism, racist, racial, racialization, and raciology. Concurrently, to investigate human difference in Shakespeare, we may start making a better use of the less compromised and more nuanced category of ethnicity.

          (‘Iago’s Race, Shakespeare’s Ethnicities’)

William Shakespeare has always been relevant, and this occasionally hard hitting book ensures that perhaps now, today, more than ever. Reason being, I’m hard pressed to think of a particular era in my lifetime, where racism was so devoutly entrenched at the forefront of the everyday. Especially within the wide-open expanse of such varying and inflammatory portals where social media – which, lest it be said, we all partake in on an almost daily basis – plays such a resolute part.

A medium, where let’s face it, there can be absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that an entire array of Iagos’ await to condemn and criticize; way beyond any reasonable doubt where racism, is jut as ugly and festering a cancer today, as it has ever been. One need only behold the prime influential cancer growth that is Donald Trump – the President of the United States of America no less – who, for whatever vile and vindictive implication, remains as openly and acutely racist, as it is humanely possible to be.

In all, we live in profoundly dangerous, incendiary times, of which Trump (very closely followed by his many mortals in crime) is doing his up-most-best, to further instil and promote an already volatile society. A society, where the afore quoted ”racism, racist, racial, racialization and raciology” appears to be flourishing un-checked to such a worrying degree, that it is nigh out of control. And if it isn’t out of control, it’s dire, deplorable trajectory appears to have most certainly been (fully) embraced by Britain’s purveyors of Brexit; which, given the full title of this book, triggers the thinking as to where William Shakespeare might have stood on the fiasco that is Brexit.

Furthermore, were one to hurl the likes of Italy’s Niccolo Machiavelli into the equation – which this most simmering of an evocative book does more than handsomely – one ought to indelibly know that one is in for one hell of a literary read.

To be sure, as such is already made abundantly clear in the ‘Introduction: Country Dispositions’ where Shaul Bassi writes: ”This experimental set of readings aims to ask what special relations might obtain between the Italy of Shakespeare and the Italy of a certain line of modern thought, as mediated above all by the work of Machiavelli. Capitalizing on these critical orientations, Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare examine aspects that have remained largely unexplored, arguing that the productive dialogue between the early modern and the postmodern […] can be usefully supplemented by a consideration of key moments of the long pre- and post-independence history of Italy, a country that at the time of Shakespeare was a mosaic of disparate political entities and that only in the nineteenth century, when Shakespeare was first imported into Italian culture, became a unified state.”

Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare – Place, ”Race,” Politics, is a totally clear-cut analyses of that which its title purports to; although it does need to be stressed that it is the most timely pertinence with which it has been written, which fundamentally accounts for its rather unfortunate, albeit current relevance: ”[…] in contemporary Europe, a continent that is increasingly multiethnic but also socially deteriorating and fragile, where the foreigner, especially if her religion or skin colour is different from the majority, is liable to become a convenient scapegoat”’ (‘Fixed Figures: The Other Moors Of Venice’) – my italics.

The whole idea of the ‘scapegoat,’ is what surely describes today’s (predominantly) Western society at best, that, if noting else, is just one of the many, many reasons these 201 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Bibliography and Index) warrant both reading and embracing.

David Marx

 

A History of Modern French Literature

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A History of Modern French Literature –
From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century
Edited by Christopher Prendergast
Princeton University Press – £41.95

”In Shakespeare’s time ”century” didn’t mean a hundred years; it meant a hundred of anything […]. As for the French term siecle, this didn’t originally mean a hundred years either.”

               (‘Introduction 1’)

There is a certain irony in the fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is celebrated as the inventor of modern autobiography. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau was obsessed with origins, and he offered in his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men) one of the most influential accounts of natural man ever written.

               (‘Rousseau’s First Person’)

To describe this book as an exceedingly well analysed and tantalizing tomb of French induced, literary depth, might initially appear as something of a detriment to not only the book, but also the vast complexity of French literature itself. Reason being, it is so much more than that which the title might initially suggest. As it’s also a historical, as well as philosophical analyses on the subject; which, in and of itself, has more of a complex trajectory than one would ever care to fully comprehend.

As Michael Wood, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University has since been noted as saying: ”This is a tremendous achievement, bringing into a single volume much of the best writing and thinking on French literature that is currently available anywhere.”

Can’t really argue with that, as most of its 652 pages (excluding a List of Contributors, Acknowledgements and Index) are a quintessential revelation in themselves; just as the book’s editor, Christopher Prendergast, nigh substantiates in Introduction (I): ”I have already used the word ”glimpse” in connection with one of the contributions. The term could be generalised to encompass the whole book as a collection of glimpses, angled and partial snapshots (which, with variations of scale, is all history can ever be). On the other hand, it is not just an assortment of self-framing windows onto the French literary-historical world. It’s unfolding describes, if in patchwork and fragmentary form, the arc of a story centered on the nexus of language, nation and modernity.”

A History of Modern French Literature – From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century is a book which one can obviously read from beginning to end; but it’s also a book that can be dipped into at random – as if a most inviting reference work.

For instance, Wes Williams’ third chapter ‘Marguerite de Navarre – Renaissance Woman‘ opens with enough inviting and informative information, one is simply enticed to want to read more: ”Sometimes described as the ”first modern woman,” Marguerite de Navarre occupies an extraordinary place in French Renaissance culture. Commonly referred to simply as ”Marguerite,” in part because of the secondary meaning of the name as ”pearl,” she was, as well as sister to King Francois I, a skilled political operator in her own right, working to effect change within the French court and on the wider European stage.”

Likewise, Christopher Braider’s seventh chapter ‘Moliere, Theater, and Modernity,’ which begins: ”The classical tragedians of seventeenth-century France are routinely said to have invented the modern stage. A key element was the three ”unities” extrapolated from Aristotle’s Poetics, demanding that a play’s action unfold within a single natural day; be confined to a single, readily identifiable place; and exhibit the logical consistency required to convey an air of internal natural necessity and coherence.”

To be sure, almost all of the book’s thirty chapters begin and intrigue with that of a similar persuasion; which, to once again quote Princeton’s Michael Wood, accounts for A History of Modern French Literature being ”highly readable and full of energetically pursued arguments […], it will last for a long time, precisely because its notions of history are so flexible and imaginative.”

Indeed, if nothing else, this book almost underlines the fact that the history of literature, can only benefit from disciplined speculation with regards the possibilities of the past.

Once again, Christopher Prendergast reasserts as much mid-way through ‘Aims, Methods, Stories,’ when he writes: ”[…] the loss of the historical sense as that which demands that we try to understand and appreciate the past (here the literary past) on its terms rather than our own, while remaining aware that we can never fully see the past from the point of view of the past. On the other hand, if the past is another country, it is not another planet, nor are its literary and other idioms, for us, an unintelligible babble.”

The book commences in the sixteenth century with the formation of a modern national literary consciousness, and ends in the late twentieth century with the idea of the national coming increasingly into question; especially with regards both the inadvertent as well as the inherited meaning of what being French actually means, beyond the geographical border(s) of mainland France itself.

As such, A History of Modern French Literature is as compelling, engaging and uncompromising as that of a lot of the actual subject matter itself.

David Marx