Home

Sharing my love of Larkin and James over @ShinyNewBooks! :D

14 Comments

I posted recently about my first read of the year, which turned out to be an absolute winner – “Somewhere Becoming Rain” by Clive James, which collects together all of the late critic’s writings about the great poet, Philip Larkin. The latter is, of course, one of my favourites – and if you follow me on social media, you’ll have witnessed my recent trials and tribulations in tracking down his individual collections (including a heavily defaced “Whitsun Weddings” which had been described as expertly refurbished – just look at it!)

Anyway…

“Somewhere Becoming Rain” will, I think, be one of my reads of the year; James is an erudite and entertaining commentator, offering real insight into Larkin’s work and also our changing perceptions of the poet. My review is up today on Shiny New Books and you can find it here!

“….readability is intelligence.” #somewherebecomingrain #philiplarkin

31 Comments

Somewhere Becoming Rain by Clive James

My love of the poetry of Philip Larkin is no secret; I’ve written about him numerous times on the Ramblings, and most recently my encounter with his last collection of poetry, “High Windows“. Larkin is a poet I first discovered at Grammar School and his verse obviously had a profound effect on me as I’ve returned to his work over and over again throughout the years. Clive James is also an author I first read a long time ago; back in the 1980s, in fact, when he was a regular television face and his memoirs began to appear. As I’ve mentioned before, however, I only recently came to realise quite what an erudite man he was, and his latest collections of poetry and essays have been a bittersweet joy to read. So when I became aware that a book had been issued containing all of his writings on Larkin (a man he knew and admired), it was basically essential that I should read it – soon! Alas, the Birthday and Christmas Book Fairies didn’t deliver, but I did of course have a book token – and so “Somewhere Becoming Rain”, which turns out to be James’ last published book, was the first one I read in 2020.

The title is drawn from “The Whitsun Weddings”, one of of Larkin’s most brilliant verses, and it’s a motif which obviously resonated with James as it recurs throughout his writings on the poet. The book collects together a wide variety of material, ranging from reviews in the 1970s through poems (in particular, one written about learning of Larkin’s death), letters from the poet to James, coverage of a play performance of Larkin’s life, ending with a piece from 2018 on the poet’s letters and a final coda with a moving memory of an encounter between the two men. It’s a wonderful and stimulating mix of material and absolutely compelling; not only for a Larkin-lover like me, I think, but for anyone who appreciates good writing.

Larkin has never liked the idea of an artist Developing. Nor has he himself done so. But he has managed to go on clarifying what he was sent to say. The total impression of High Windows is of despair made beautiful. Real despair and real beauty, with not a trace of posturing in either. The book is the peer of the previous two mature collections, and if they did not exist would be just as astonishing. (1974)

As I read these pieces, gathered from all sorts of scattered places and publications, I found myself wishing I’d had access to them before now. The range, as I’ve said, is broad and each piece brings great understanding to Larkin’s work. James always responds to the problematic elements in the poet’s life in a measured way, giving context and constantly reminding you how the poetry is what is important.

Larkin is the poet of the void. The one affirmation his work offers is the possibility that when we have lost everything the problem of beauty will still remain. It’s enough. (1974)

And one of the fascinating elements of reading a collection which ranges over such a long period is watching James’ responses reflecting the changing perceptions of Larkin in the world at large. The latter’s public image has been through many changes over the decades, with the publication of biographies and collections of letters exposing his private life in a way he would never have been happy about. Reading James’ take on this clarified for me how impossible it is to really know anyone from a biography, or only certain elements of their life; frankly, even completely knowing the other humans we spend our lives with closely is very difficult. To judge and condemn Larkin’s behaviour so unilaterally seems wrong. All of James’ pieces build up to create an insightful picture of Larkin the poet and Larkin the man; he was a complex human being, like so many artists are.

Humphrey Ocean [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Reading “Somewhere…” was not only a joy because of the light it shed on Larkin; it was also wonderful to spend time with the mind and writing of Clive James. He was such a witty and intelligent commentator, and I had to laugh out loud in places. Even his asides can be hilarious; for example, when discussing the behaviour of the audience at a one-man presentation of Larkin’s life by the marvellous actor Tom Courtenay, he comments: “Except for one member of the audience who had attended the event in order to die of diphtheria , there was scarcely a cough all evening. (2005)”

Larkin is often regarded as a lugubrious and downbeat poet – of the void, as James says – and yet he’s somehow uplifting and dryly witty. In a letter to James from 1982 he comments that someone once said, “Age is an increasing punishment for a crime we have not committed”, and much of his best work deals with our ageing and mortality. However, as James pointed out in 1973, “Good poetry transforms and enhances life whatever it says. That is one of the reasons why we find it so special.” I couldn’t agree more and Larkin certainly enhances my psyche whenever I read him. One particularly lovely element of the book was James relating his meetings with Larkin and reproducing some letters; this humanised the poet very much, and it’s obvious that James thought very highly of Larkin as a person.

I can’t praise this book highly enough, really, and as I said I wish I’d had access to the pieces collected here before. Certainly, his review of the “Collected Works” volume of Larkin’s poetry was particularly helpful in crystallising my feelings about the book. I’ve had it for decades but have had doubts about the fact that the poems are presented in chronological order, and never felt entirely comfortable with that. James’ review makes it very clear how consciously Larkin placed his poems in relation to each other in his published collections, and that of course is lost in the collected volume. Reading “High Windows” as published recently was a powerful experience and although it’s nice to have everything Larkin ever wrote, I think I will pick up his other collections too and read them as he wanted them to be read. That somehow seems very important to me now.

Reading “Somewhere Becoming Rain” was everything I wanted it to be, and more; my first book of the year is certainly going to be a candidate for my end of year best of! It also helped me come to a decision about my Larkin books. If you have a look at the image above I shared some years ago of my Larkins, you’ll see a certain biography at the bottom. I picked it up in a charity shop but have never actually read it because of its reputation, and for how it presents and interprets Larkin. James’ deals with this head-on and analyses its faults better than I ever can; and this clarified my mind wonderfully. So this is now my pile of Larkins, with no Motion biography – I don’t need to read it and it’s now in the donate box.

More individual Larkin books will be added to the pile as I continue to enjoy and be moved by his work. “Somewhere Becoming Rain” started off my reading year wonderfully; it’s an erudite, funny, profound and wonderful read; and if nothing else, the book has made me connect more deeply with Larkin’s verse and revere him even more as poet. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Here comes 2020! (well, almost…)

35 Comments

I can hardly believe it’s 2020, but there you go – it is, so Happy New Year to all readers of the Ramblings! Traditionally, I should be announcing all sorts of shiny reading plans and challenges for the new year (and new decade) but I haven’t got my head around that yet, to be frank. I have my eyes on a couple of low-stress projects involving translated literature, and of course there will be our Club week reads. So I shall ponder on plans for the next few days and a post will follow…

Meantime, just for fun, here’s an image of the books I read in December. I’ve got into the habit of taking a snap of each month’s reading, inspired by Andy Miller’s pictures on Twitter; however, December’s reading was a bit thin, thanks to me being screamingly busy at work and home. Never mind – a new month, a new year, a new decade and so hopefully more impetus for reading! 😀 As you can tell, I’m a bit behind on my reviewing and several of these will be covered in January. The Lem is for Shiny New Books, and was a great joy!

As for what my first read of 2020 will be? Well, it’s this:

That birthday book token is coming in very useful, because this *didn’t* arrive from Santa and I wanted it so much, so it was purchased straight after Christmas (ahem…) I love James’ writing and I love Larkin, so I’m hoping it will be the perfect read for me. What books are you starting 2020 with???

Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D

40 Comments

Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

A Poetic Interlude

20 Comments

Sentenced to Life by Clive James

One of the few books I’ve bought recently is this lovely collection of poetry by Clive James – “Sentenced to Life”. I wrote about his book “Latest Readings” back in 2015, and as I said at the time, James is someone whose been around most of my life, broadcasting and writing, and I’ve always enjoyed his work. However it was only recently that I became aware that he wrote poetry, when I watched a documentary about James, and I liked what I heard him read in the programme – so I was pleased to come across this book in the local Oxfam and I picked it up surprisingly quickly bearing in mind the state of the TBR… And after the intensity of all the 1951 reading and posting, it was lovely to dip into some verse in a relaxed way – the ideal companion to a bigger, non-fiction book I was reading.

Poetry is a tricky thing, and I’ve struggled with reading it in the past. There’s a danger of trying to read too much, too quickly, or of encountering verse that really goes over your head. With this book, however, I had no problems at all; it was one of most memorable poetry collections I’ve read in some time, and pretty much every poem spoke to me in one way or another.

James has, of course, been terminally ill for some time, and this knowledge of his condition is reflected in all the poems and also informs each one. It would be tempting therefore to expect a book of depressing verses, but that isn’t the case; yes, the poems are suffused with a kind of melancholy and resignation in places, but they’re also very life affirming and surprisingly positive in places. As James reflects on his life and the good times he had, he’s grateful for what he has left, taking pleasures in the simple things around him.

And what appears on the surface to be simple, easy to read poetry is, I suspect, more complex in structure than you might imagine. I’m remarkably ignorant of the technicalities of poetic structure, but these verses seemed to me to be very cleverly put together; I imagine making a poem easy to read without seeming facile is perhaps a lot harder than might often be acknowledged.

Author photo from slate.com

There are some really lovely poems here, and I was left with admiration for James’ many talents and sadness that he should be taking his leave of us some time in the not so distant future (although I believe he is having something of a charmed life at the moment, owing to new treatment, and is still writing a regular newspaper column – which is great news). One of the poems in the collection, “Japanese Maple”, has become justly famous and it is a very powerful piece. However, I thought I would share some lines from another one which took my fancy – “Event Horizon”. I can’t recommend this collection highly enough and very pleasingly I read that he continues to write poetry and a new book will be out soon –  more power to his pen!

But once inside, you will have no regrets.
You go where no one will remember you.
You go below the sun when the sun sets,
And there is nobody you ever knew
Still visible, nor even the most rare
Hint of a face to humanise nowhere.

Are you welcome to this? It welcomes you.
The only blessing of the void to come
Is that you can relax. Nothing to do,
No cruel dreams of subtracting from your sum
Of follies. About those, at last, you care:
But soon you need not, as you go nowhere.

In which I aptly read a particular book from the library…

13 Comments

Latest Readings by Clive James

In recent years, I’ve somehow lost touch with Clive James and his work; back in the 1980s he was ubiquitous and I used to enjoy his pithy TV appearances. I also had several of his books, “Unreliable Memoirs” definitely and I think some collections of his TV criticism. Alas, they disappeared at some point down the decades, and I hadn’t kept up with James’ career trajectory. So it was a surprise when I heard he’d translated Dante; then he appeared as part of a fascinating pair of BBC documentaries called “Rebels of Oz” (which I watched in the main for Robert Hughes, I confess). Alas, I learned from this of his illness and also that he was a poet himself.

latest readings

James is still with us, thankfully, and still writing, and recent reviews of his book “Latest Readings” (mainly from Annabel and Simon) made me very keen to reconnect with him. Let’s face it, we book bloggers love a book about books, and this one is a treat, charting Clive’s joyous relishing of reading during his twilight years. On the face of it, you might think that whilst coping with a terminal illness, books might be the last thing on your mind. However, for James books are a comfort and an obsession and he finds himself discovering and rediscovering volume after volume of treasures, with “Latest Readings” recording his thoughts and feelings about those books.

Needless to say, it’s a truly inspiring read. Some authors James writes about are ones I share his enthusiasm for, with his love of Larkin and his championing of Olivia Manning; others are writers I’m never likely to read, such as Patrick O’Brian. Regardless of this, it’s fascinating to read his views on them, and he always has something valid to offer; even when you don’t agree with someone’s tastes in books, it’s still interesting to hear what the think, and sometimes there’ll be that burst of recognition when he starts talking about something you love and you have that moment of connection. He’s also a witty commentator and I was reminded how much I always enjoyed his works and found myself wishing I’d kept on track with his more recent career.

LR ends up being something of a diary, as James very calmly and matter-of-factly intersperses his comments on the books with bulletins from his daily life, dealing with his illness. He seems sanguine about things, happy just to enjoy his remaining time and spend his days experiencing other lives and others worlds through the wonderful medium of print.

Clive-James

“Latest Readings” was as good as the reviews had me expecting it would be, and I’m moved to seek out more of James’ recent writings. In particular, I’ve had a look at some of his poetry collections and they seem the kind of verse that would definitely appeal to me. Books about books are a great thing, particularly if the author’s tastes inersect with your own, and this is recommended to anyone who loves reading about other’s people’s reading adventures!

(To read Simon’s review at Shiny New books click here; and for Annabel’s thoughts click here)

%d bloggers like this: