Entertaining Ideas by Kate Briggs

If ever a book was going to be guaranteed to give me a book hangover, it was “This Little Art”. I was so immersed in it that reaching the end left me completely boggled, wanting to read but not know what to pick up next. Fortunately, I had a little more Briggs to carry on with…

I thought I had first read about “Entertaining Ideas” on Anthony’s excellent blog, Time’s Flow Stemmed (which I highly recommend!) although I can’t see a review on there currently. However, wherever it was, the book sounded fascinating, so I sent off to France for it and it’s been sitting waiting for its proper reading time – which of course was straight after Briggs’ other book, and it actually made the perfect companion!

“Entertaining Ideas” is subtitled “The Long View” and the latter is the title of a highly-regarded novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which is probably not as well-know as it should be. Briggs takes an unusual look at what is in fact an unusual book – because “Long…” tells the story of its heroine’s life in reverse, starting with old age and moving backwards. Briggs looks at this concept, wondering how to do a ‘short’ reading of a long novel, before going on to consider the whole idea of not only telling a story in reverse, but whether in fact a novel can be *written* in reverse, starting with the ending and moving back to create what comes before.

…Books open up onto and into other books: she describes seeking out a Goethe reference, but not finding it. But finding something else instead, and how this in turn directs her to a different book, and to something else – an unfolding that is as unpredictable as it is unnarratable and unmaterialisable…

In the process, she draws in all manner of writers and thinkers, from Dickens and Poe up to Foucault and Ali Smith. It’s a heady and fascinating mix, and as a coda to “This Little Art” was in many ways the ideal continuation of Briggs’ thoughts on writing. And one element I found particularly fascinating was that I had previously read a book which featured a life told backwards, and it was not this one; it was “Time’s Arrow” by Martin Amis, who was, of course, Howard’s stepson… “Long” was published in 1956; “Time’s” in 1991; which is, I think, very interesting, and according to Briggs, Amis has never made any comment about the connection in structure and theme.

Briggs muses upon whether the response to the two works is conditioned by the subject matter: Howard’s book considers a woman’s life (therefore presumably of less interest to male critics) whereas Amis takes on a large theme (a Nazi’s life) which is therefore automatically treated with more gravitas. Certainly, there has been a resurgence of interest in what is classed as “middlebrow fiction” from the 20th century, but it still probably isn’t take as seriously as perhaps it should be.

Books that send you off to look for other books are a Good Thing….! 😀

For such a short work (58 pages – although the type *is* very small…) Briggs packs in an awful lot of ideas, and I finished this, straight after “This Little Art” with my head buzzing. This is the best kind of writing – the sort which makes you think about books and art and life, and look at things differently. If you’ve read or are going to read “This Little Art” I highly recommend tracking down “Entertaining Ideas” if you can – it makes a wonderful companion piece, as well as being an excellent work in its own right! 😀