Monday, 29 March 2010

Teenage Kicks

Here is a link to my review in the Telegraph of three books for teenagers: Keren David's thrilling debut, 'When I was Joe,' William Nicolson's witty 'Rich and Mad', and Jane Smiley's powerful, gentle 'Nobody's Horse.'

Friday, 26 March 2010

Pride and Punctuality

I wonder if anybody has ever attempted a study of lateness in literature? The business of catching means of transport is often (unsurprisingly) absent from the pages of fiction; however, it is very rare that two characters who arrange to meet don't meet. You never see a person in a novel sitting disconsolately at a table with half a pint in front of them, holding a phone in their left hand whilst attempting to do the Guardian Quick crossword with the other (and getting stuck on number four down). Lateness has always fascinated me: I can never work out how, or why, somebody can miss an appointment, even allowing for traffic, tantrums, and random acts of God. Imagine if you were late for a duel - your entire honour would be besmirched, and you'd be cast out of society. Or if, instead of going to Gatsby's party, you decided you had to clean the bathroom, and when you arrived there was nobody left. The only instance of lateness in literature I can think of causes violent death - if Romeo and Juliet had arranged their diaries a little better they might have lived to hear the patter of tiny Montagues. Of course there's always the White Rabbit - but he's in a state of constant tardiness, so you could argue that actually he's always on time.

The one thing that rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of lateness, is that if somebody is late for meeting you, you can wait. And oh what pleasures can be gained from waiting. The art of waiting deserves a treatise in itself. It's practically the only time in a city like London where you can achieve a certain sort of stillness and watch everybody else being late for their appointments.

This week has been mostly characterised by caffeine, the abiding spirit of punctuality. I've been immersed in Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, in which nobody is late, and I've started de Balzac's Black Sheep. If enough people are late I might be able to finish it by next week.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Interview on LitBlog

Here is a link to Alex Riley's interview with me on LitBlog

Friday, 19 March 2010

Henry Hudson and William Roper-Curzon

I'm writing a short story for the artist Henry Hudson. He's a proponent of the new grotesque, and makes marvellous Hogarthian pictures out of plasticine. They are alive, haptic, roisterous. Here is the biography which appears in a pamphlet for the show, with a short excerpt from the story, which is titled 'Henry Underground'.

I've also been to a show by William Roper-Curzon, who does intricate drawings. One that particularly hooked me was Diana and Actaeon. Titian and Ovid, two of the layers that slide beneath The Liberators. The Actaeon story, in its violence, its poignancy, is always startling and shocking. The hunter stumbles upon the virgin goddess as she bathes; for his impudence, he is turned into a stag, and torn apart by his own dogs. You don't spy on a goddess.

"He flies through grounds where oftentimes he chased had ere tho;
Even from his own folk is he fain, alas, to flee away.
He strained oftentimes to speak, and was about to say,
'I am Actaeon. Know your lord and master, sirs, I pray.'
But use of words and speech did want to utter forth his mind." (Golding)

The Latin is as follows: "clamare libebat,
'Actaeon ego sum, dominum cognoscite vestrum.'
verba anima desunt; resonat latratibus aether.'

Golding misses the terrible, haunting contrast of the lack of words with the 'latratibus' - barkings - 'resonat' - resounding - in the air.

There are many theories as to why Diana exacts such terrible punishment upon the innocent Actaeon. Perhaps the myth stemmed from Actaeon's arrogance in boasting that he was better than the goddess at hunting (always a bad thing to boast in front of a god, I find); perhaps there is at the story's root a veneration for a female cult, where a goddess' statue was washed, and men were not allowed; it was only in later versions that the myth was eroticised. Whichever way, the suddenness of Actaeon's death is a reminder of our own fragility as we hunt through the forests of the world. I think that Roper-Curzon's drawing captures that wildness and that haunting sense of impermanence beautifully. The lines tremble, as we too tremble at the hunter's fate.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Amos Oz and Kimberley Quinn

Here is a link to my reviews of Amos Oz's mystical, fable-like new children's book, and Kimberley Quinn's - well, you'll see if you read the review.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Wandering Week

This week has been a week of wandering, without much wondering. The streets of London are wet and cold, and I have trod most of them, in the rain, my satchel swinging at my side.
I have received my marvellous copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses - truly a thing of wonder. It's Arthur Golding's translation, published by the Folio Society in goat-skin. To open it, hold it and read it is in and of itself an act of grace and beauty. If ever there was a case for the real book, this is it. They have interleaved the poem with Titian's paintings - my favourite, of course, being Bacchus and Ariadne, which partly inspired The Liberators.

'...Thus desolate and making doleful moan,
God Bacchus did both comfort her and take her to his bed.
And with an everlasting star, the more her fame to spread,
He took the chaplet from her head and up to heaven it threw.'

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Skippy Dies

Read my review of the marvellous Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, a brilliantly witty and poignant tale set in an Irish public school:

Euripides Fragment 25

Stumbled across this fragment of Euripides:

pheu! pheu, palaios ainos hos kalos echei;
gerontes ouden esmen allo plen psophos
kai schem', oneiron d'herpomen mimemata,
vous d'ouk enestin, oiomestha d'eu phronein.


Alas, alas, how the old tale holds truth;
we old men are nothing but noise
and appearance; we creep along, imitations of dreams,
there is nothing in our minds, though we think that we are sane.

Beautiful and sombre and quite heartbreaking.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Reading of The Liberators

Click here to listen to Philip Womack reading The Liberators


This is the cover - the drawing is by David Wyatt.


Philip Womack's new book, THE LIBERATORS, has been published by Bloomsbury and is now available from all good bookshops.