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The Omnipotence Of Caprice

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If you don’t subscribe to the London Review Of Books, you can only read the first paragraph of James Lever’s review of The Humbling by Philip Roth online but that is probably all you need:

Here’s a novella of slightly over 30,000 very plain words – Philip Roth’s shortest book since The Prague Orgy – structurally straightforward, winnowed of syntactical excitement, sterilised of jokes, rhythmically muted, baldly plotted, low on confrontation, low on tension, low on brilliancies and generally low all round. Here, the writing temperature has sunk below even that of Everyman: it’s prose as utilitarian as you can get without making the flatness of the style into an ostentation. It opens with a verdict, rapped out with judicial impatience: ‘He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent … His talent was dead.’ The text that follows is so shorn of obvious sorcery that you’re tempted to read the first four words half as a challenge, daring you to think the verdict is autobiographical – a prophecy or a lament. Or a boast: the magic hasn’t been lost so much as abjured, like Prospero’s.

Except it isn’t. Lever’s review is brilliantly biting but also deeply knowledgeable and sympathetic and in the end he concludes that, no, Roth hasn’t lost his magic at all. Wonderful stuff and Me Cheeta has gone straight in the basket. If only the LRB only reviewed fiction…

Written by Martin

22 January 2010 at 09:31

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To mark their thirtieth anniversary, the London Review of Books have made the whole of their latest issue available online. Which is nice. The LRB can be a bit hard work but this issue contains Daniel Soar on Sebastian Faulks’s “high-class bodice-rippers” which is good fun:

But if the women are special because they’re more modern than their surroundings, they also make Faulks’s readers feel special because they’re begging – or, more usually, ‘imploring’ (as in ‘her body, independent of her, implored his attention’) – to be made aware of things we know but they have yet to discover. They are attractively virginal, or effectively so, apparently innocent in a prelapsarian sort of way, but they aren’t the passively naive recipients of male attention that Mary (above) presents herself as being, with her ‘little sense’ of the effect her inverse filmy stuff might have on the ‘clothed man standing opposite’. They will their man to do to them what they want, or what he wants and they know – but don’t exactly know – that they want too. Sometimes, as in Birdsong, Faulks is happy to have his woman be the seemingly uneager quarry of a determined man (though being unlocked obviously changes her mind); but usually the heroine’s basic message is: ‘Ravish me.’ The man in Charlotte Gray, a Hurricane pilot with a roving eye and chicken legs, says, ‘You’re a very determined woman, Charlotte,’ after she makes it impossible for him not to have his way with her thanks to a stray movement of her hand. So if these women are the fantasies of a sensitive modern male, they are also autonomous enough, as fictional creations, to be fantasising into existence the very type of sensitive male who has created them. This is quite a metafictional trick.

Written by Martin

31 October 2009 at 10:16

Posted in books, criticism

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