Book: A Light that Never Goes Out

From Coronation Street to court cases, Tony Fletcher’s biography is full of fantastic facts and incendiary quotes, but somehow lacks sparkle 

-Kathryn Bromwich

a light that never goes out

Remember when Morrissey was known for his ground-breaking music and lyrics, and not for being a massive racist cock? Firstly, I should admit that the Smiths are one of the few bands whose entire discography I could sing along to word-for-word. Deep down, I still believe that anyone who doesn’t feel this way must have skipped the Sulky Teenager phase altogether, which, surely, makes them incomplete human beings.

Yet, what with This Charming Man being played to death in every ‘indie room’ throughout university and Morrissey’s increasingly unpalatable views, it is easy to forget just how exhilarating a band they were. Throw your mind back to your teenage years, when the Smiths were the only ones who really understood your literary aspirations, staunch liberalism, loneliness, existential gloom, vegetarian leanings and pathetic love life. And then start reading this book.

Incredibly, this is their first comprehensive biography since Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance in 1992. And as such it is certainly thorough: music journalist and former Keith Moon and REM biographer Tony Fletcher has been meticulous in his research, procuring exclusive facts through interviews with all the key players (excluding Mike Joyce and, naturally, Morrissey). At 700 pages and over a kilo, even the most obsessive Smiths fan – vegan, brooding, and with a life-size cardboard cutout of a naked Morrissey in their bedroom – will be satisfied.

Early on, Fletcher promises not to focus unduly on Morrissey, but acknowledges that a Smiths biography centred mainly on Johnny Marr would miss out on much of the brio and flourish that made the Smiths what they were. The book makes a good job of covering both of them in detail, while not forgetting bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, giving ample space to the unfair royalties rates and subsequent court case.

Starting with a fawning intro and an unnecessary reference to 500 Days of Summer, the book finds its stride when it describes, in remarkable detail, the first meeting of Johnny Marr and Morrissey. The two bequiffed young Mancunians, with their shared Irish stock and working class credentials, bonded over their love of Sandie Shaw, songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, and Patti Smith.

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Book: Thomas Bernhard, Extinction

Benhard’s last novel is a spectacular and compelling prose piece that rails against Austria, the world, and three-ring binders

-Kathryn Bromwich

Between the first and the last page of this remarkable and singular novel, newcomers to Bernhard will be surprised to find only one paragraph break, neatly dividing the book into two exact halves: one of thought and stasis, and one of, er, very little action.

Left-wing academic Franz-Josef Murau lives in a self-imposed exile in Rome, where he consorts with the local bohemian arts intelligentsia. He lives in a sumptuous Renaissance palazzo overlooking the Pantheon, and sustains himself by ostensibly teaching German literature to his eager student Gambetti, while instead inculcating him, over leisurely strolls and coffees, with a deep-seated nihilism. The book starts with Murau receiving a telegram that tells him his parents and brother have been killed in an accident back in Austria. This unleashes a cantankerous, unsentimental internal monologue that shows Murau is keen not to romanticise his parents and brother after their death. For the following hundred pages, we are treated to a diatribe describing his hatred of his entire family (dead and alive, with the exception of academic Uncle Georg), his hatred of Austria, and specifically of Austria’s Catholic National Socialist mentality, of photography, diplomas, Goethe, and three ring binders.

The monologue quickly marks Murau out as an unreliable and not entirely likeable narrator, prone to exaggeration, repetition and petty grudges. His thoughts, however, presented in Bernard’s virtuoso prose, are compelling and full of vitriolic wit. His misanthropy is matched by a love of culture, a passion which his family does not share. The author plays with the ambiguous overlap between himself and the character. Both are criticised in their home country for being a ‘Nestbeschmutzer’ (one who dirties his own nest); there are some meta bits about Murau recommending Thomas Bernhard to Gambetti, and Murau talks at length of writing a work called Extinction.

Upon hearing news of the accident, Murau has to head back to his family’s luxurious estate in the Austrian mountains, magnificently named Wolfsegg, for the funeral. The staunch, efficient work ethic of Central Europe, symbolised by Wolfsegg’s agricultural lifestyle, is constantly pitted against the chaos and vibrancy of places like Rome or Cannes. The company he keeps in Rome – including an archbishop and the finest female poet of his generation – are deified, while his two sisters, who we are repeatedly assured are no beauties, and especially his dead mother, bear the brunt of Murau’s anger.

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Book: Alasdair Gray, Lanark

Dazzling, haunting and erudite, Gray’s four-volume monolith is a tour de force inside the mind of the most hilariously pathetic character in literature since Ignatius J. Reilly

-Kathryn Bromwich

About fifty pages into Lanark, the homonymous protagonist walks into a mouth at the side of a road, sliding down feet-first into a mysterious sanatorium where the doctors and nurses set about curing his dragonhide. This sets the tone for the rest of the story – or at least half of it. The monumental work is comprised of four books, starting with Book Three. The Epilogue, which appears a few chapters before the end of the book, provides a meta-deconstruction of the book itself, including references to all the authors Gray has plagiarised, such as Franz Kafka and Flann O’Brien.

Half of the book is set in a dystopian fantasy world where there is no sunlight, and where the inhabitants have to contend with a corrupt and impenetrable bureaucracy. Lanark is a mysterious outsider, a man of few words who is quickly befriended by the charismatic local debauchee Sludden and his group of fawning hangers-on. The other half of the book, more prosaic but just as riveting,  is set in mid-Century Glasgow, following the adventures of Duncan Thaw, art student and all-round catastrophe of a human being – ostensibly based on Gray himself.

It took Gray thirty years to write (and illustrate) this book, and this is apparent throughout. Linguistically, politically, poetically, it is magnificent and poignant, while always remaining eminently readable and full of humour. However, the funniest and most scathing aspect of the book is Duncan Thaw: a hilariously pretentious and revolting amalgam of Stephen Daedalus and Ignatius J. Reilly.

Book: André Gide, L’Immoraliste

Based as it is on misanthropy, ennui and lewdness, it is tempting to describe The Immoralist as a pamphlet to Modernism

-Kathryn Bromwich

That The Immoralist (1902) was criminally ahead of its time is a given. In a pre-Chatterley, pre-Burroughs, pre-Henry Miller era, André Gide’s candid and unjudgemental depiction of an outwardly immoral and selfish man came as a bolt from the blue. Now the modern world has more or less caught up with it, and Gide’s work reads as freshly as if it were published today.

Brilliant Parisian scholar Michel, married to the delicate Marceline partly out of duty to his father, partly out of boredom, grows sick with tuberculosis. In his slow convalescence, he discovers a joie de vivre he had never known: in his own words, ‘daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance.’ Once found, however, this feeling proves difficult to hang on to, and Michel finds that he can only recapture it in the company of young boys.

Like in Hesse’s Siddhartha, the protagonist first experiences the world of the intellect, and is later on in life awakened to the possibilities of bodily pleasures. While the former transcends the mind and body dichotomy to achieve a state of Nirvana, the latter unsuccessfully tries to balance the two, resulting in existential anguish and dissatisfaction. The conversations with his nihilistic acquaintance Ménalque express dialectically the difficulty of finding a balanced stance in relation to society. Yet he is not a figure altogether worthy of hatred: there are elements of Dostoyevsky’s innocent Prince Myshkin in Michel’s frank attitude to his feelings, and Gide’s unwillingness to condemn him makes the reader makes the reader question their own standpoint.

Highly innovative and pithily written, it proved to be a milestone for 20th century literature, influencing Camus and Sartre, among others. The novella encapsulates the spirit of the following decades, prefiguring the early 20th century interests in primitivism, sexual instincts, and repression.

Book: Lars Iyer, Spurious

Mediocre academics face their utter inadequacy, irrelevance and stupidity in Lars Iyer’s hilarious blogpost-sized snippets

Danny Byrne

How fitting that a book called Spurious, that started life as a blog, should be a frontrunner for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. This not being the Booker, Spurious is neither a state-of-the-age doorstopper, a fictional resurrection of a misunderstood historical personage, nor a parochial lament warbled from the banks of the Liffey. It is instead a series of blogpost-sized snippets following the repetitive interactions of a tragi-comic double-act – the down-at-heel narrator Lars, and his hilariously harsh friend W.

Lars and W. are relatively undistinguished philosophy tutors at English universities, and both are united by a feeling of utter inadequacy, irrelevance, stupidity and, well, spuriousness in the face of their intellectual heroes. They meet, talk, drink, despair and console, but mostly W. just mercilessly – and hilariously – abuses Lars. In one particularly funny passage, W. compares their friendship with that of Blanchot and Levinas – except whereas the French philosophers exchanged correspondence of depth, significance and high seriousness, W. and Lars draw each other pictures of cocks on the internet. Their problem, W. notes, is that neither of them is a Kafka – they are both Brods.

Spurious is an un-English book in several ways – partly because of its complete lack of interest in the mode of mainstream, lyrical realist fiction that is so dominant in this country, but also due to its subject matter and tone. W. and Lars’s heroes stem from the tradition of continental modernism – from Kafka, Heidegger, Blanchot and Beckett to Bela Tarr – and they are infused with a very European anxiety. The book also owes a great deal to Thomas Bernhard, who is unmentioned but whose presence is unmistakable throughout.

Following the distancing technique employed by Bernhard in novels such as The Loser and Old Masters, the entire narrative is reported to us by a narrator (Lars), who is the passive figure in most of the interactions. Thus the book consists for the most part of the thoughts and opinions of W., though the only narrative access we have to him is second hand. This introduces an aspect of what James Wood calls ‘double unreliability’ – we know that W. has been rewritten by Lars, but we don’t know to what extent. As in Bernhard, the characters’ voices are subsumed in the act of narration, reinforcing the insurmountable distance between art and life, and the fundamental impossibility of writing.

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Book: Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level

Lavishly praised by politicians, viewed with optimism by many, and full of fascinating statistics, The Spirit Level is seriously eye-opening stuff — but will it change anything?

-Kathryn Bromwich

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone is a form of ‘evidence-based politics’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two social scientists specialising in epidemiology at the University of York. Analysing statistics from all over the world, they look at the income differences within countries and how this affects social problems. The results all demonstrate that inequality has a direct correlation to almost all social ills: mental illness, bad health, teenage pregnancies, violence. Scandinavia and Japan are doing very well, while the USA, the UK and Australia are doing the worst.

No shit, Sherlock, one might say. But Wilkinson and Pickett go further than this. Not only are these problems associated with those at the lower spectrum of society, but inequality negatively affects those at the top as well, decreasing life expectancy, levels of trust and happiness throughout the country. The richer the people at the top are, the more likely everyone else is to feel dissatisfied, disappointed and worthless.

The book ends on a note of great optimism, with the authors seeming to believe that, now that the research has been made, politics worldwide will change to create more equal societies. This is possibly the only book to receive unequivocal praise from all main political parties in the UK, having been embraced by everyone from David Cameron to the Milibands. But is it really going to change things? As much as I’d like it to, it looks unlikely.

I read The Spirit Level in the wake of the London riots, at a time when the ‘scum or mistreated’ debate dominated everyone’s lips. The riots could have been a wake-up call to the public to realise that hey, isn’t it surprising that there aren’t any upper middle class kids smashing up windows? Perhaps years of deprivation might not be beneficial to ‘broken Britain’? But the Conservatives insisted and insisted that there was absolutely no political reason behind the riots, and that these kids were just intrinsically evil. The Tories might say they want greater equality, but the way they are going about achieving it is roundabout at best. Extensive statistical analysis and proof isn’t going to change how the majorityof the population thinks — unless, perhaps, the tabloids decide to heavily endorse this book. Until that day, the nature vs nurture debate will be at a standstill.

Book: Roberto Bolaño, 2666

As difficult to describe as it is fun to read, 2666 is  not so much a book as a mystical experience

Kathryn Bromwich

2666 is currently making its way round among my friends. I was lent it first, then I passed it on to someone else, who in turn gave it to another friend, and the waiting line is getting longer every day. It’s the sort of book that you want everyone to read so you can discuss it, repeatedly and in awe. There is no exaggeration in the review that follows.

Bolaño intended for 2666 to be published as five separate books, but his literary executors shrewdly put them together into one, extraordinary, posthumous monolith of a book. The logistics of carrying it around were an issue in themselves, but its bulky presence was a comforting weight in my bag, promising me the most exciting Tube journeys home I have ever had. A lazy way to describe it is to say it’s an antidote to the short attention span of the modern world, etc, but such petty concerns as ‘the modern world’ are negligible when applied to something as momentous this book. A much more appropriate response can be found here. It is not so much a book as a mystical experience.

2666 is as difficult to describe as it is fun to read. It starts off with an academic conference about the mysterious reclusive writer Benno von Archimboldi — and then the plot starts to do various unexpected things. The rest of the book includes three hundred murders, several degrees of insanity, the Holocaust, lengthy discussions about literature and publishing, a character called Baroness von Zumpe, graphic sex, the most beautiful sentences you will ever read (Natasha Zimmer’s translation is superb), and some absolutely terrifying imagery. It reads like a Werner Herzog film. Herzog, in fact, is the only filmmaker who could ever hope of making a film out of this eminently unfilmable book. The results would either be grandiose, catastrophic or both.

I can’t shake off the feeling that, if I only read this book enough times, I will discover the meaning of life.