In an effort to make room on my dining table where I work, so we can eat Christmas lunch on it, I’m clearing the pile of books yet to be reviewed, here’s my last batch for 2019:
Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin by Clive James
When James died a few weeks ago, I reached for his last book to read in homage to him. James was a life-long fan of Larkin, and this slim volume collects all his writing on him into one place, together with some previously unpublished material. I must admit, I have not read much of Larkin’s work, barring those few oft-quoted poems, and his collection High Windows, but I did love reading about the poet and his work through James’ voice, and of course, want to read more Larkin now.
Included are James’ reviews of the various collected editions of his poems and letters, writing on Larkin’s love of jazz, some correspondence between James and Larkin. As you read James’ writing, you do hear his voice and never more than in his review of High Windows where he writes, ‘The total impression of High Windows is despair made beautiful.’ That’s such a Jamesian description. In a review of Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin, he takes Motion to task: ‘to suggest, for example, that Larkin’s last great poem ‘Aubade’ broke a dry spell of three years is to ignore the possibility that a poem like ‘Aubade’ takes three years to write, even for a genius.’
Also included are two poems by James about Larkin, the second of which, ‘A Valediction For Philip Larkin’ was published in the LRB after Larkin’s death, which mixes James’ love for the man with his characteristic wit:
Friends will remember when their turn comes
What they were doing when the new came through.
I landed in Nairobi with eardrums
Cracked by the flight from Kichwa Tembo. You
Had gone, I soon learned, on safari too.
A lovely book. James will be much missed. (9/10)
Long Drawn Out Trip by Gerald Scarfe
This should have been reviewed in full for Shiny, but I rain out of time, so here’s a short write-up instead.
Scarfe was a sickly child suffering terribly from asthma. Growing up during the war, terrified every time he had to put on his ‘claustrophobic Mike Mouse gas mask.’ His education suffered from his frequent hospital visits. He could draw though, and aged sixteen won first prize in a competition in The Eagle, a certain artist from Bradford also entered and had to make do with a consolation prize – the only time David Hockney has come second. Young Gerald continued to hone his craft as a draughtsman at his uncle’s advertising agency, but he didn’t enjoy…
‘prostituting my ability. I already felt that the whole point of being an artist was to use my craft to tell what I saw as the truth. This advertising was lies – attempts to hoodwink the public. I am sure my later work was a strong reaction to all this. An effort to put down on paper what I really felt in a truthful way. The uber truth.’
Scarfe went on to work for many publications as a cartoonist or artist. He even went to Vietnam as a war artist for a while, which also had a big effect on him when he saw the truth of what was happening. Scarfe takes us through all the stages of his career, from making witty films for the BBC, working with Pink Floyd and Disney and in opera, to his falling out with The Sunday Times. He shares the highs and lows of his career which is fascinating, and allows him to keep his family out of the book, although there is a lovely portrait of him and his wife Jane (Asher) in one of the photo sections. For a man of such passion, he comes across as a lovely chap. He takes it out in his work instead. Look under the dust-jacket of Scarfe’s memoir, and the full savagery and wit of his caricatures is revealed on the boards of the hardback in full colour. My scanner couldn’t accommodate the full covers – it’s probably a good thing that it cut off Nixon’s penis nose!!!!
I enjoyed Scarfe’s memoir very much. He writes with self-deprecating wit about his outsider’s view of our wicked world. (9/10)
Across the Void by S.K. Vaughn
Vaughn is a pseudonym for a successful novelist/Hollywood writer. Just as well I don’t know who he is, as I ploughed through 454 pages of this tosh hoping it would get better. (I wish I’d read Laura’s Goodreads review first). Commander May Knox wakes up in the sick bay with amnesia as the only survivor of an accident with only the ship’s AI, whom she calls Eve, for company. The Hawking II was on it’s way home from its mission to Europa. But it’s not going to make it. May needs to fix the comms and power and find a rescue.
Leaping on the superb The Martian‘s bandwagon, and appropriating Gravity’s one woman in space trope too, this has screenplay written all over it, but as a novel it was pretty rubbish. May was poorly written, and as the main character that is a big, big problem, and given that the book is set just 40 years in the future, there is no way that she would survive what happens to her given the conditions she has to endure. Also the AI, Eve, was underdeveloped – there was such scope for Eve to go wrong in an interesting way – like Dark Star or 2001, that I was surprised and then bored when that possibility didn’t happen and instead it went all James Bond villain on us. (5/10)
Source: Review copy. S.K. Vaughn, Across the Void (Sphere, 2019) hardback, 454 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)
Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story by Paul Auster
Auster wrote this short story in 1990, and in 2009, Faber reprinted it as a hardback illustrated single, with illustrations by Isol. I see it’s become a very collectable edition selling for upwards of £50 now, so no affiliate links this time. The story is, however, included in most editions of Auster’s screenplay for the film Smoke.
If you’ve seen Smoke, starring Harvey Keitel, you’ll be familiar with Auggie Wren, who takes a photograph of the junction his cigar shop is situated on at the same time each day. This short story was the inspiration for the film. Auggie spins a Christmas shaggy dog story to his friend who has to file a Christmas short story for a newspaper but is struggling to get inspiration. It’s utterly charming, full of the coincidence that Auster does so well, and the illustrations are quirky and lovely. (10/10)
Source: Own copy.