Regularly added bite-sized reviews about Literature, Art, Music & Film.
Voltaire said the secret of being boring is to say everything.
We do not wish to say everything or see everything; life, though long is too short for that.
We hope you take these little syntheses in the spirit of shared enthusiasm.
(by Samuel Richardson) (1748)
The Varnished Culture mentions this merely to brag: longer than War and Peace (it’s the longest novel in English at approximately 984,870 words), this account of virtue chased and trashed is the novel’s version of continuous cricket: mad in detail, slow in execution, passionately related. Told in letters, very long letters, the correspondents spend what seems a year recalling a year but a crowded year. Take this book to a desert island; it will endure and also make a crackling blaze.
Coleridge nailed Richardson’s “close, hot, day-dreamy continuity” and Priestley (in Literature and Western Man) commented: “The whole fantastically elaborate business of Clarissa and Lovelace, over which so many eighteenth-century readers wept, could only exist in an over-heated evangelical -erotic dreamland.”
Walter Allen, in The English Novel, was a little more brusque: “…Richardson was mad – mad about sex, and I doubt whether it is possible for the critic who comes to Clarissa after reading Freud to deny that the novel must have been written by a man who was, even though unconsciously, a sadist in the technical sense; the loving, lingering, horrified, gloating descriptions of Clarissa’s long-drawn-out sexual humiliation at the hands of Lovelace, the rape that is constantly threatened and constantly deferred until, when it occurs, it has an additional horror simply because of its long postponement, provide an element of quite inescapable pornography…”
Are these reactions in fact overreactions, testimony to the length and depth of Clarissa? Mark Kinkead-Weekes, in his Samuel Richardson: Dramatic Novelist, considers that “Clarissa is the finest novel of its century“* and cautions against casting Miss Harlowe as an angel and Lovelace as a demon: “Clarissa’s tragedy is an exposure of a materialist and acquisitive society; of the moral decay of both the aristocracy and the ‘middle class’“** – a “struggle for Clarissa to come to terms with her fear of sex, her readiness to cast herself as a victim, her melancholy, and her morbid longing for death – or her spiritual pride, which is for Richardson at the heart of it all.”+ Lovelace’s “gaiety, his apparent candour, his wit and charm, even his rakehell insouciance and energy…[pose] a trap for the unwary and superficial here…For in [the] opening volumes we see him mostly through the eyes of Clarissa…“^[*Page 1. **Page 124. +Page 488. ^Page 142.]
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(by Kenneth Clark)
Really a compilation of scripts for a television series, this book, much ridiculed and parodied over the years (remember Monty Python’s “Are you civilised? Have you been civilised recently?”), is a wonderful, personal, informed view of humankind and culture from classical times to the then present (1968). Elegiac, nostalgic, pessimistic; almost everything in the arts since has borne out Clark’s view that “we can destroy ourselves by cynicism* and disillusion, just as effectively as bombs.”[* A cynic being a “man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan.] Continue Reading →
(by Howard Friel)
Hysterical (yet deeply researched and readable) tract, designed to prove that Chomsky is Yahweh and Dershowitz is Satan. The author is obsessed with extrapolating individual examples of injustice (of which there are many) and rendering them into a damning case against Israel, without apparently considering the existential threat invoking these crimes and misdemeanors.[Peter notes: recently I received a comment from somebody called Hans, who said: “Obviously you’re a shill for the Israeli worldview.” I mulled this one over, considered my usual response of either offering a grovelling apology or expression of gratitude for being noticed, but I find neither apposite in this case, nor can I let this one go:
…and a Mr Campbell has recently added: “Those Gazan children throwing rocks at the Israeli tanks invading land that the UN says belongs to Palestine …are a real existential threat to Israel. In a pig’s eye.” Talk about an unscrupulous argument!]
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(dir. Roman Polanski) (1974)
Superior latter-day film noir, replete with sophisticated non-plot (something about diverting public water for private purposes), has Faye Dunaway getting away with scenery-chewing, due no doubt to difficulties with character (‘She’s my daughter! She’s my sister! She’s my daughter…’).Continue Reading →
(by Ezra Pound)
The commonplace book of a madman, lines of breathtaking beauty (e.g. Canto IV, LXXIV, the closing fragments) jostle with crude, didactic ravings against usury and Jews. A pox on he who gave Pound an economics book! Or convinced him to attempt a poetic epic without structure, a theme or any cohesive idea at all. Still, it’s a lunatic mess well worth skimming.Continue Reading →
(by Gore Vidal)
A knowing, rollicking account of the early Republic. Vidal smashes the Jeffersonian myth but creates a more interesting figure of history in lieu. Burr’s uneasy, half-respectful relationship with Alexander Hamilton, whom he ultimately killed in a duel, is particularly interesting, although contentiously handled.
Vidal paints a vivid, unflattering portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the ultimate effect of which is to confirm his stature. But it’s a close-run thing: here is Burr reflecting on the 3rd President:
“He was the most charming man I have ever known, as well as the most deceitful. Were the philosopher’s charm less, the politician’s deceit might not have been so shocking…Had Jefferson not been a hypocrite I might have admired him. After all, he was the most successful empire-builder of our century, succeeding where Bonaparte failed. But then Bonaparte was always candid when it came to motive and Jefferson was always dishonest. In the end, candour failed; dishonesty prevailed. I dare not preach a sermon on that text…Later Madison tried to explain Jefferson to me. ‘Politically, he thinks you too independent. Personally, he fears a rival.’ ‘He does not fear you.’ ‘Because I am part of him, and no rival.’ ‘I am?’ ‘He thinks you are, and so he is afraid of you.’ ‘What should I do?’ Madison simply grimaced. Obviously there was nothing to be done with such a man. I shall never know – who will ever know? – what Madison really thought of his remarkable friend.”Continue Reading →
(by Hannah Kent)
Once the reader accepts the book as a claustrophobic minuity, s/he will find this wintery Icelandic saga is worth the solitary confinement; a lucid and authentic small tale of murder and retribution, with as much cause for optimism as in a Ken Loach film. Ken Loach should buy the film rights.[Update note: Ms Kent’s second novel is due out. No pressure, but….] Continue Reading →
(dir. J. Berlinger & J. Sinofsky) (1992)
A great, ambling account of a yokel murder case. One of the Ward boys (farmers with arrested development, putting it mildly) ups and dies; the State thinks one of the other Ward boys dun it. Film-makers get an extra half-star for inhaling near the Ward boys. Note to DA’s pathologist and the defence attorney: never appear on film again. It’s all a little exploitative, but unmissible all the same.Continue Reading →