My family in England has generously sent me two big boxes of books for Christmas. So in the best tradition of reviewers and blurb writers, I shall tell you about them before I’ve read them, starting with the smallest (132 pp) and ending with the fattest (618 pp).
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman is subtitled ‘Confessions of a Common Reader’. She probably had in mind Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays ‘The Common Reader’, but it is nothing like that book — well, not much. It is much more, to use a hideous expression much loved by the BBC when it proposes to bore us with trivia, ‘Light-hearted.’ But this is interesting trivia; anecdotes about things found in books, (marginal notes, kippers), typos or rather ignorances in menus in foreign restaurants, (Greece is rich in those,) the cruelties people commit on books as physical objects, the delight of children in cruelties committed by story characters, and many other things to please enemies of the Kindle. Anne Fadiman is someone who loves books; real books.
Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin, tells us why. This was not I think intended by Calvino to become a book; it is a collection of essays on ‘Classics’, using the word in the older sense. Nowadays anything over a year old that hasn’t been thrown out is called a ‘Classic’: this book itself is so labelled. (Thus one has to read it to find out why one should read it.) Calvino’s essays here however range from Homer, through Ariosto, Cyrano de Bergerac, Voltaire and Diderot, then Tolstoy, Hemingway, and (only now pushing the edges of the term ‘Classic’) ending with Raymond Queneau and Cesare Pavese.
Next, Gabriel Josipovici’s Infinity, the Story of a Moment. Josipovici is sometimes so obscure that one wonders if he is putting it, and us, on, but this looks promising: it comes under the broad heading ‘novel’ and consists of a long interview with a fictional composer, in fact based on Giacinto Scelsi, of whom even music lovers such as myself can I think be forgiven for not having heard. Without, as I say, having yet read it, it looks as if it will turn out to be a rambling reflection on music and related subjects, with the ‘Novel’ structure as its alibi. A very handy literary trick; I used something similar in my ‘Anatomy of Wireless’ (available free to anyone who asks), which purports to be, and indeed contains, a technical history of the development of Wireless Communication, but is also an excuse for talking about Proust, feminism, life, the Universe, and everything.
Next, Monsieur by Emma Becker, translated by Maxim Jakubowski, whose name does not appear, as it should, on the cover. This is a novel dealing with that politically incorrect and therefore very attractive subject, a sexual relation between a very young woman and a much older man. It is interesting that of the three novels on this theme that I have read, two have been written by women, and only one of them, the one written by a man, (Nabokov’s Lolita), showed any serious disapproval of the man. Will this one ‘redress the balance’? What balance? What have novels, or life come to that, to do with balance? Anyway, it will probably be the first of my new books that I read; it has been months since I read a novel, and this one, at 370 pages, will (if it’s any good) be just right for the season.
Now to the heavy stuff. I have a long-term interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, both as a theory of the mind and as a therapeutic technique. There probably cannot be ‘objective evidence’ for the ‘actual existence’ of such things as the unconscious, the super-ego, etc. — it’s hard to see what could count as evidence, or existence, for mental (as opposed to physical, brain) entities. But theories are just that; explanatory constructs implying no entities. I also have a long-term interest in Marxism. In fact I ‘believe in’, as one says, both Freudianism and Marxism. So V.N. Voloshinov’s Freudianism, a Marxist Critique, translated by I.R. Titunik should be a treat, even if (perhaps especially if) it attacks long-cherished beliefs. The blurb suggests that, if I agree with what he says, I should in consistency abandon either psychoanalysis or Marxism. In fact I hope and intend to hang on to both.
Slightly lighter (I would guess) is a book of essays by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, One Way and Another. These are on subjects of such wide general interest as Tickling, (about which he has apparently also written an entire book), Clutter, and Talking Nonsense (and Knowing When to Stop. I had better read that first.) Psychoanalysts can often be very funny. Sometimes even intentionally so.
That’s enough, indeed probably more than enough, for today. There remain two really huge tomes, but I shall write about those another time.
Once again, Merry Christmas.