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Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Of George Konrad’s A Feast in the Garden:

I don’t know when I last felt so mutinous while reading a book. A Feast in the Garden is an absolutely dire novel, misconceived, opportunistic, inflated, poorly written, cynical and floundering. Little G.K. in a prospect of history. Of course, there are occasional decent things in it – at almost four hundred pages, how could there not be – but even they are somehow routine, and what repeatedly struck me was the novel’s stupidity, tactlessness and bad faith. Export-quality horseshit.

Of Péter Nádas’s A Book of Memories:

Had I not been reviewing it, there is no stage at which I would not have stopped reading A Book of Memories. I ached not to read it. I would have stopped happily after one page, after five pages, after a hundred and five, after seven hundred and five. My marginalia grew more and more virulently obscene, before finally drying up altogether as I lapsed into apathy. (…) It’s hard to say what makes it so prodigiously unsatisfactory; length, long-windedness, evasiveness, over-structuring, mediocre expression, absence of humour, absence of voice, smugness and preachiness, the persistent withholding of such ordinary amenities as names and ages and settings and incidents, a dully and vauntingly cerebral book about bodies (how disgusted D.H. Lawrence would have been with it!), racking up more and more and about less and less…

{Quotations end}

And this, in contrast to my previous maunderings, is the kind of critic who makes me reach for the word ‘magnanimous’. I praised Michael Hofmann’s long review essay on Zbigniew Herbert recently, and I never read his collected reviewery, Behind the Lines without a sense of awestruck gratitude. Here are just some of the reasons why it’s hard to think of anyone, certainly anyone in this neck of the muckball, to compare with him as a poetry critic, among the many other kinds of critic he is.

For a start, he is a poetry critic who also writes about fiction, cinema and art. There’s a rarity.

He is an English-language writer and English resident from the age of six or so who can describe England as ‘at the edge of my circle rather than at the centre of its own.’ He can lavish praise on the woeful Tom Paulin’s poetry all he likes and I still don’t mind, because this is someone whose true poetic gods are Trakl, Brecht, Montale, Celan, Benn. There’s another rarity in Anglophone quarters, or circles.

He is the kind of critic who can review his own former editor at Faber, Craig Raine, so badly the piece runs under the title ‘Raine Raine Go Away.’

Of all the New Generation pod people, he is by far the one who has remained his own man, most quirkily, self-damagingly even, as in his inexplicable abandonment of poetry and almost-gleefulness over it, as signalled in the pages of Poetry. (An upcoming Selected is listed in the new Faber catalogue, but there’s no mention of it containing anything new.) He is the most unpredictable, most unguarded, most risk-inviting and also at-risk.

And also because, now that I've hymned his flamethrowing, he also reads the things he loves (Bishop, Kees, Lowell, Muldoon, Berryman, to name a few Anglophones at least) with such complete command and writerly understanding of what needs saying, of what he can do for you as a critic and what would be mere insult to your intelligence. So yes, magnanimity.

And always a phrase-maker supreme. As ticked and noted in my copy of Behind the Lines:

Brecht’s attention to ‘the inessentials that are everything.’

Under the Volcano ‘eats light like a black hole.’

Early O’Hara is ‘practically unreadable… nowadays you need a machete to read it.’

‘Trakl once threatened to kill himself unless he were given credit by a sweet-shop owner.’

‘A note like tja, dieses Boulder? [‘Boulder, eh?’] is like the Odyssey in a sigh.’

And there’s more. Looking something up in putting this together, I found this online, much to my surprise.

Michael Hofmann. As magnanimous as only someone with a truly foul critical temper can be.

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