What I’m reading this month – Feb 19

Cover of Penguin Modern Classic version of Lucky Jim by Kingsley AmisI used to think it funny, all the novels written about novelists. Life must be pretty fascinating, hey? But I believe it’s an admixture of the impulse to write what you know and the desire to have a character capable of making the observations and feeling the feelings you want and articulating them in ways you appreciate. At any rate, when I was younger and certain that I would myself be a novelist, these books were great. A double articulation, as the sociologists might say, representing a way of living that I recognised and also educating me and shaping me to cultivate that very way of living. Deep calls unto deep et cetera.

I’m in a different line of work, now, with a different set of aspirations. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn now – often by accident – to books about university lecturers. It’s a set of micro-politics I recognise, and it illustrates the inner reflections and motivations of people I might become or people I might have to work with to continue becoming what I want to become.

I caught a bit of his before Christmas with Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, which was definitely about a set I knew, though it was also redolent of its time. I didn’t enjoy it much, mostly because I thought Wilson was so satirical as to remove any scrap of pity or interest we might have in literally any of the characters. In Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis writes about a similar world in a more or less similar time, and he is similarly detached and ironic about his own creations. But not to the same degree, and there are a few characters that he is clearly siding with. Even the protagonist – the eponymous Jim who, we are told, is lucky, though we see little evidence of it – is coming across as heroic. We meet him as a reprobate, something of a waster, but Amis suggests enough puzzles and deeper currents to draw us closer to him. As a result, he gains our sympathy in a way no one in Wilson’s world ever does.

I bill this as “stuff I’m reading this month”, but in truth I’m nearly through it already. I wasn’t too sure, remembering the film version, which bumped up the slapstick elements and painted Jim as nothing but a drunk. (I mean, he is that, but.) I thought he was kind of play-acting at his haplessness, but the novel’s illumination of Jim’s interior gives us much more. We believe, for one thing, his lack of confidence in a way Ian Carmichael could never convey. And in the climax of what we might call the second act, where he is driving his rival’s girlfriend home in a taxi nicked from a departmental colleague, he inhabits the existential hero in a way that would make Camus smile and nod:

More than ever he felt secure: here he was, quite able to fulfil his role, and, as with other roles, the longer you played it the better chance you had of playing it again. Doing what you wanted to do was the only training, and the only preliminary, needed for doing more of what you wanted to do.

It’s not quite hedonism; the listlessness of post-war British youth prevents that.

It’s also worth noting, as a parting shot, that Amis has some apt things to say about the precarity of the early career scholar and the nostalgic gripes about grade inflation to satisfy the marketisation of higher education. IN 1954! That wheel sure spins.

Cover image of The Grey King by Susan CooperSpeaking of spinning wheels, I’ve been continuing on the nostalgic treadmill with bedtime reading for the kids. We had begun The Dark Is Rising from Susan Cooper just at the start of December, and it was very well timed. And though each book is determinedly seasonal, we’re plowing through in sequence. This is where we’re at just now: the fourth of five, called The Grey King. And besides the exciting flight down the hill mid-way through Over Sea Under Stone, I would say this is the most memorable for me of all of them. I was a big Arthur nut as a kid, and this book really nourished that. Alongside that, it developed in me a fascination with Wales that endured through my pre-teen years and has me occasionally scratching my head to have arrived here, now. I have three children to turn to for expressions and pronunciation, but before they were even dreamt of, I had this book. Much of the third chapter, when Will Stanton meets the albino Bran Davies, is a pronunciation lesson, and it gave me whatever cred I was able to curry with my kids. Bran gives Will a list of local landmarks and invites him to pronounce them.

Bran moaned softly. “I was afraid of that.”
“Well,” said Will defensively, “that’s exactly what they look like. Oh, wait a minute. I remember Uncle David said you pronounce f like v. So that makes this one ‘Avon Divvy.'”
“Duvvy,” said Bran. Written in English, Dover. The Avon Dyfi is the River Dovey, and that place over there is called Aberdeen, which means the mouth of the Dovey, Aberdovey. The Welsh y is mostly like the English u in ‘run’ or ‘hunt.'”
“Mostly?” said Will suspiciously.
“Well, sometimes it isn’t. But you’d better stick to that for now. Look here-”

Riveting stuff.

It goes on like this for a few more pages. It also describes the hills as green with grass and brown with bracken, and we get legends and magic and harps aplenty. Also a shot dog, which I remembered but thought came later in the book and so didn’t adequately brace my children for, but they handled it alright.

My complaint with it, much like with the other books after the first, is the immense passivity of the protagonists. Action seems to happen around them, and their job is as more to witness than to ask. Danger is hinted in epic fashion but not really exposed. The Grey King, I’ll allow, does better at this than the others, which may also be why it endured with me more than the others.

Cover image of The Mabinogi by Matthew FrancisSince I’m getting my Welsh on proper-like, and since I’m liable to be done Lucky Jim very soon, I thought I’d give this a go, too. It’s a story/poem/legend/piece of scholarship I’ve been meaning to pick up. Seren Books commissioned contemporary retellings a few years ago from a range of Welsh authors, and I keep seeing them and coveting them at bookstores and events. I haven’t yet invested, but I will, and part of my holding off was my lack of due familiarity with the source material.

This new poetic setting by Matthew Francis should be a better introduction, then. He still plays with the text – the translated text, as Francis is “neither a Welsh speaker nor Welsh-born” – but he is under no command to update the stories. He’s an alert poet, however, and as he got into the project, he “began to see how the very aspects that made a prose treatment difficult could prove a strength for poetry”. We shall see.

My wife picked this up at the Wales Book of the Year awards. It was shortlisted but didn’t win, but she thought this was one that needed to be on our shelf. For the cover alone, it’s worth it. Faber does gorgeous work with its poetry collections (one of my most treasured physical volumes period is Seamus Heaney’s collection of Yeats) and this is no deviant. Holding it is a pleasure; I hope for the same when I read it.


Is a scorecard required on reflections from the last month’s worth of reading? I don’t think so, except to say that Rushdie’s memoir is a powerful testament to the excellence of fiction. When you’re making it up, you can stop before it gets flabby and before you despise the main character too much. You get to choose what you put in. I mean, you do with memoir, too, but many things are a matter of public record, and you look like you’re hiding something if you keep it out. As a result, what could be a really compelling focus on a character in some pretty adverse conditions both of and not of his own creation continues into a name-dropping self-justifying wank fest that leaves us glad, at least, that we never married him. I’ll be reflecting on Rushdie in a more professionally minded blog for work next week, when we hit the 30th anniversary of the fatwa that called for his life. When it’s ready, I’ll link it here.

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