Monday, May 12, 2008

Not as good as The Enigma of Arrival

Well, I wrote 31 poems over April, give or take the flimsiness of some of them - plenty of drafts to work on, throw out, find again in three years' time, etc.

I've just finished VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, 'his comic masterpiece', as the blurb oddly has it. Odd because the comedy seems subservient to the overall realist intent - an element of the style rather than an end in itself. This is one way that Naipaul writes like Dickens, whose influence he alludes to both here and elsewhere: there's the tragi-comedy of Mr Biswas's serial failure (failed masculinity is a dominant theme); but there's also the comic detail used to sketch character, or strictly caricature. For example, the Tulsi brother-in-law Seth is identified with his cigarette holder - early on in the novel it seems to reflect his power and authority, but later the contrast between it and his poorer clothes becomes absurd. It seems particularly Dickensian, the use of a material tag to sketch and limit a character, transforming into something more complex as the character but not the material tag develops. (But I can't think of an example from Dickens offhand...)

In the end A House for Mr Biswas is not as good as The Enigma of Arrival, but better than Half a Life (aka half a book (miaow)). I don't crave endings/triumphs/closure. The Engima of Arrival, a book which opened my eyes to the ways it is possible to write about landscape using people as a setting (as opposed to the other way round), certainly offers nothing of the sort. But Biswas is perhaps just too long. The relentlessness of his fate (delivered in the prologue for good measure) is awful and thrilling, but the last 150 pages are a long last straight to plod down with him.

I'm also enjoying Peter Riley's The Llyn Writings (the missing circumflex sends its apologies), bought on the strength of the fantastic poem that sits at the front of his website.

The Penguin Classics Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida is excellent. it contains older classics like Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades', Gogol's 'The Overcoat' (translated here as 'The Greatcoat'), Dostoyevsky's 'Bobok' and Leskov's 'The Steel Flea'. (But I disapprove of excerpting Lermontov's 'The Fatalist' from A Hero of Our Time; a bit reader's digest-y.) Then there are lots of later, mainly shorter pieces. The pick of the ones I've read so far is Leonid Dobychin's 'The Father' - two short pages and absolutely breathtaking - lucid. deceptively simple stuff, worth the entrance fee on its own etc etc.

What next, though?


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