intense sensations

Author Archive

RakeRake by Matthew Caley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Poets are poor but readers of poetry are rich.

Rake is a slim book of poems by the rakish Matthew Caley, published by Bloodaxe Books. Some of the poems are tiny, four or five short lines. Some take up more than a page. But even with the long ones, if you like making notes there is plenty of space to do it. Or you can write your own poems underneath or beside Matthew’s if you are feeling frisky.

It is £9.99 well spent.

I chose to snuggle under the covers this cold Saturday morning and warm myself to its pulsing rhythms and insinuating cadences. Fancy an Acute Hot Knee?

If I behold your/rucked up dress, revealing as/it does one acute/hot knee in all its bare-assed/actuality, nothing//is composed.

Mmm, I don’t think he’s joking.

There is more. (This is not one of his short ones.)

I can’t do justice to his word placement. He is very cheeky with it.

There’s a poem here about a Giantess that caught my attention, after Baudelaire. Matthew’s take on it is quite erotic.

It’s not his only nod to the decadent Frenchman.

Baudelaire is clearly quite an influence, even when not named. He leads the London hipster to Hither Green (a very sexy poem), and then there is Bling, an acknowledged re-working of Les Bijoux.

My love is naked/almost, for knowing my kink/she keeps on her bling…

Tantalising, isn’t it? Or do you prefer the original?

La très chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur,
Elle n’avait gardé que ses bijoux sonores,
Dont le riche attirail lui donnait l’air vainqueur
Qu’ont dans leurs jours heureux les esclaves des Mores.

I feel richer for having Matthew Caley’s version. He leaves out the Moorish slave women in their happier moments, substituting a jangly American rock group called Audioslave. Witty?

You decide.

But, outrageously, Matthew’s rake claims to have had Jeanne Duval before Baudelaire did. In Brixton!!

This is some poetic licence!

It’s quite tricky to do humour in a poem. Even harder to do it in an erotic poem. But this collection aims high. The poems succeed in being erotic and funny at the same time.

How can you afford to be without this essential modern masterpiece?

Advertisements

A Sentimental Journey Through France and ItalyA Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Whether modern or old, the edition of a book is important. I am very fussy and perhaps even sentimental about this. For me a book is a physical object to be cherished for its sheer physicality as much as for its sentiment and sense. My first choice for A Sentimental Journey is the Oxford World’s Classics edition edited by Ian Jack and Tim Parnell. I like the font and the discreet signalling of notes with a little superscripted circle.

This Oxford edition contains A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings. The Other Writings are a sickly sweet love journal to his sweetheart, an adroit satire on political games played by obscure churchmen and some surprising sermons on such topics as feasting, concubines and enthusiasm.

Of these, A Sentimental Journey is easily the best. It is far and away the best. It is incomparable. It is sublime.

You might wonder what a clergyman is doing writing so wittily and sentimentally about his erotic experiences in France and Italy. But it is his very respectability that makes his sentimentality so piquant.

Mr. Sterne’s observations are never crude. He is a world away from Tobias Smollet’s toilet humour. You are given hints and you must find out the erotic detail for yourself. You must feel it. That is what Mr. Sterne is so very good at, making you feel. You must imagine yourself as the gentleman sitting next to the fille de chambre on the big hotel bed as she carefully searches for, then reveals, the quilted satin and taffeta purse she has made to hold the coin you gave her. You must wonder what you would have done had you been the Marquesina in Milan who was pursued by such a charming and witty clergyman. Would you, like her, have let him into your carriage?

I know I would.

That glimpse he gives us of his erotic adventure in Milan is, unfortunately all we get of Italy. The French portion of his journey occupies volumes one and two and the journal ends abruptly in Savoy, with Turin no more than a twinkle on the horizon. The work is unfinished. And yet, you might say, it is exquisitely finished.

It is impossible to do justice to Mr. Sterne’s work in a brief summary because he is so very brief himself. For readers only familiar with Tristram Shandy, it is astonishing how concise he can be. He is so concise you have to read the whole work to appreciate its beauty. He has put so much into it and, at the same time, left so much out. It creates ripples in your mind and in your senses. It is tantalising. It is perfect.

It is, truly, a classic.

doctor-thorne It’s only by reading War and Peace all the way through without skipping a few chapters or throwing large chunks away that you can appreciate the towering genius of Anthony Trollope. He did what Tolstoy refused to do. He shaped life to make it fit neatly into a novel. He crafted a cunning plot, fleshed it out with all-too-human characters, spiced it up with scandal and plenty of jokes and served it up as a frothy concoction entirely for our pleasure and amusement.

It’s fiction, of course, but it’s also, as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.”

Doctor Thorne has one of Trollope’s best plots. It’s the plot he was most proud of. It’s neat. It serves his purpose well. For his purpose, of course, is not simply to tell a story but to dish up some situations that can entertain us, make us laugh and make us think.

There are one or two old-fashioned moral dilemmas in the novel. I say old-fashioned because these days anything goes. Whoever heard of a modern politician with a conscience or a doctor with a qualm? What banker or businessman would balk at profit? Self-interest is these days synonymous with commonsense. We put ourselves first in everything, “because we’re worth it.”

But if you can rise above our contemporary moral landscape and imagine a world where people have a burning desire to do the right thing, then there is nothing at all old-fashioned about the pleasure you will get from reading this superbly crafted and highly readable book.

You don’t have to digest indigestible sentences or wrestle with intrusive philosophical tracts. Trollope writes beautifully and simply. He sums up moral dilemmas with admirable concision. He is a genius at putting things in a nutshell. He lets his characters speak freely but he makes sure they always speak to the point.

Frank is told almost every day that he must marry for money. Frank knows he has a duty to his family and doesn’t want to see it go to ruin. But he is in love with a woman who has no money and no social status. What should he do?

It’s a straightforward quandary and no other novelist could spin it out so delightfully for over 600 pages without making us conscious of the novel’s length. Trollope is never a chore to read, unlike Henry James who accused him of “a complete appreciation of the usual.” There are no murders here, no shoot-outs, no car chases, no weird drug problems, no psychopaths. Instead there is a delightful lightness of touch, a mastery of motive and character, and an elegance of expression that makes us see everything with absolute clarity.

This will not get stretched beyond credulity the way the plot of Downton Abbey was. But it is getting the same exposure, on prime time Sunday night television, with a script by Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes. I hope the script does the novel justice and the exposure gives Trollope the audience he deserves.

Lately my memory has become very unreliable. I keep waking up in the middle of the night with a recurring nightmare. It’s that I’ve reviewed the same book twice on my blog and expressed completely contrary opinions.

It has taken me five months to read this novel. I’d forgotten more than half of it by the time Natasha married Pierre. A compassionate author would have stopped there but Tolstoy had another 200 pages in him and was determined to give us every cruel word.

I formed some strong opinions of this book during those 200 pages. At the time they seemed very distinct and clear but they are fading fast so I’d better write them down quick before I forget them too.

Quite a lot has happened over the last five months. The six episodes of the latest BBC adaptation have come and gone. The actors and actresses have started to pop up in new projects. Andrew Davies has written half a dozen adaptations of other novels…

I heard that Andrew Davies ripped up War and Peace so that he could adapt it. He even threw large chunks of it away.

How I wish I’d thought of that!

I’m having therapy on my wrists because of the internal bruising caused by propping open its pages.

“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably,” wrote Tolstoy when he started this novel, “but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”

The word “inexhaustible” is the most important word in that sentence. Life is inexhaustible and so must you be. It is a sprawling, unforgiving novel that follows the structureless confusion of real life. Intentionally so. Every minor character gets a starring role and an extensive backstory. The peaks become troughs and then peaks again and then hillocks and then peter out across a plain of infinite flatness stretching towards a horizon that we never approach.

Anna Karenina is a tightly-focused vignette compared to this. Infinite Jest is flash fiction.

I’m glad I read it, though. It was five months well spent. But then living my life would also have been five months well spent. And in a way I was living my life. War and Peace is life. That’s what it is. Not a novel. Life.

And I’ve lived it. Definitely.

There is one other thing I am very sure of. I can be absolutely confident that I will never review this novel twice.

The Days of AbandonmentThe Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this book three stars but then a little voice in my head said, “Vanessa, be honest, this book is one of the most important books written by a living writer. How can you give it a lower rating than all those trashy erotica books you read?”

Well, the truth is I didn’t like the ending. It was too happy. It didn’t feel genuine. It was glib.

Not that sincerity is my strong suit. Some of you reading this may not know that I pretend to have a blog. It’s not really a blog. I simply paste my Goodreads reviews into it and pretend it’s a blog.

But I haven’t even been doing much pasting recently. My blog is suffering long Days of Abandonment. The most recent comment on my blog says “I miss your blogging.”

But instead of blogging I’ve been using the London Underground. I’ve been rubbing up against real people every day.

Last week I was on one of the most congested routes at the peak of the rush hour, on the Jubilee Line between Canada Water and London Bridge. The woman beside me was reading Troubling Love and the woman standing over us in the throng of people crammed into that carriage stooped and touched her book and said “Oh, you’re reading Elena Ferrante. Isn’t she just great? I’m about to finish The Story of the Lost Child.”

The startled stranger looked up at this weird woman on the Undergound. “Isn’t it fantastic? I had to read the last half really slowly because I didn’t want it to end.”

“I know! I don’t know what I’m going to read next. I have to read another one by her. What is that one like?”

“This one is good too. But have you read The Days of Abandonment?”

“No.”

“Oh you should! That is an amazing book. I really like the way she writes. She’s fierce. She’s kind of scary but I love it.”

I was deep into a Sweetmeats Press book at the time. I didn’t feel confident enough to lean across and say, “But weren’t you let down by the ending?”

And in any case, the ending is just a few sentences. The rest of the book is indeed scarily visceral and intense. And it’s all that scary visceral intensity that makes The Days of Abandonment a really important and thrilling book that will make you want to read everything by Elena Ferrante and enthuse about her to strangers on the Tube.

The rest of the book is not glib at all. Quite the opposite. It has the rawness of unadulterated truth. No wonder Elena doesn’t want you to know who she is.

Go and read all you can by her and tell all your friends about her, straight away!

Hollow HeartHollow Heart by Viola Di Grado
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I hope I never meet Viola Di Grado. Her latest novel, The Hollow Heart, has the authentic ring of autobiography. Pure imagination is incapable of inventing something this assured, this intense and vivid. It must be drawn from life.

And what a sick, doom-laden, psychotic life it is! The narrator, Dorotea Giglio, is a sensitive soul, quirky, morbid, self-obsessed and glum. But the most disconcerting thing about Dorothea is the fact that she is dead.

She is dead from the first sentence. She remains dead until the last.

You might wonder if there can be a plot in a novel when the main character, who is also the narrator, is dead throughout.

Well, let me assure you, this novel holds quite a few surprises. There is more than just a back story. Things happen to Dorotea after she dies.

First, things happen physically to her corpse. We are not spared the details. If you are squeamish you can skip the bits in italics but I don’t recommend this. The close-up scrutiny of her putrefying corpse is intrinsic to Dorotea’s story.

For although Dorotea has a scientific interest in bodily decay, she discovers there is more to death than this. There is spiritual change too. There is growth.

There is also an awful, chilling moment towards the end of the novel when you think something truly shocking and unforgivable is about to happen. I had my still pumping heart in my mouth.

I won’t spoil one of the best moments in the novel by telling you more about it. Suffice to say that Dorotea likes to tease.

She is playful with language too. “I died of optimism,” she laments. “I thought my suffering would end after I died.”

Suffering is only part of the process. Through suffering comes revelation. After revelation, something else. I’m not sure what to call it. Perhaps you could call it redemption but that sounds inappropriately religious. The novel is too subversive to fit into the tradition of religious doctrine suggested by the themes of suffering, revelation and redemption. It is a meditation on death that becomes a celebration of life. It celebrates, above all, a life rooted in the senses and expressed in words. Life holds possibilities the dead can only envy.

Because of this, the dead need psychiatric help. Your help.

As a disembodied ghost, Dorotea loses the ability to read. She can see the words on the page but she can no longer decipher their meaning. She can, however, write, and in writing she hopes to be rescued — rescued by you, the reader.

If that seems paradoxical, a greater paradox was that in reading her words I found myself rescued by Dorotea.

Yes, I think the word rescued is not too strong to describe what happened to me. It happened on a subconscious level. I didn’t realise the connection at first. But towards the end of the novel, having put it away in my bag and finished with it for the morning, I received a text from a friend whose father had just died. I didn’t know her father well but I suddenly had a strong conviction that I wanted to go to the funeral. Normally I avoid funerals. But this time I felt an irresistible compulsion to bond with my friend and pay respects to her father. What can I say? It was an epiphany. I felt different, very different inside.

It wasn’t until the next day when I pulled The Hollow Heart out of my bag again and found where I’d left off, that I realised that Dorotea had changed my attitude to the dead.

I am not going to attempt to put this feeling into words. I cannot begin to come near Viola Di Grado’s proficiency with language. I will just say that it was her words that brought about this change in me.

I no longer fear death. In fact I want to make friends with the dead. I long to embrace Dorotea as a sister.

Alas, I can’t say the same about Viola Di Grado. A writer this powerful is scary. I really hope to God I never meet her.

Total ChaosTotal Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books shouldn’t be rushed. Although Total Chaos is a slim book, written in short, punchy sentences, it is like a rich ragout, brimming with flavours, pungent, concentrated, sensual and intense. It should be savoured slowly. There is a lifetime of experience distilled into it.

At first I struggled. The names of people and places were strange to me. I was reading the English translation but it was an English I couldn’t understand. I had no idea who the characters were or what kind of lives they led. Although each sentence meant something in isolation, together they made my head spin and I became confused.

But Jean-Claude Izzo gives you everything you need to know in this novel. It’s not his fault if you don’t get it. He immerses you in Marseilles, his city. It is a fully realised Marseilles, though not the city the tourists know. He takes you to places tourists have never seen and shows you things you will want to forget.

In a few paragraphs he can sketch out whole lives. He blends and blurs the colours on his canvas like an impressionist painter. A fear-filled teenage scuffle is inseparable from the eroticism of the touch of a woman’s breast. Neapolitan songs mingle with Ray Charles and the sounds of old men playing belote. Tomatoes, basil, bay, meatballs, garlic and red wine merge with the scent of the sea as it crashes against the rocks, recalling the stories of Homer and Conrad peddled by an anarchist bookseller on Cours Julien.

This is very specific writing. The plot is dense but fully explained. I understood it finally but I didn’t enjoy it until I read the book a second time. Then I fell in love with it.

This is not a thriller. It is a celebration. It is a poem. It is a classic French crime novel. Mediterranean Noir. Making beauty out of chaos.


Books by Vanessa Wu

Lure of the Feminine

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 30,176 other followers

Twitter