Friday, December 29, 2006

Books of the Year 2006

As usual, everyone else is doing it, and noone asked us. Which is fine, because we couldn’t possibly pick a winner – plus we only read about three books this year that weren’t published by friends. So. Here’s an informal, unordered list of books we read in the last few months, that we enjoyed, that didn’t make it into these pages but that we’d recommend, and, in some cases, why:

The Mad Man
Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man (1994) was conceived as a grand Fuck You to apologetic novels about the gay experience in the age of AIDS: as the protagonist John Marr researches deeper into the life of a former professor, he finds himself increasingly drawn towards his mentor’s sexual practices, which seem to have been assiduously erased from the impressions gathered from even his closest friends. The book sets out to catalogue, Sade-style, the most extreme excesses of dirty sex – sex with homeless men, foot fetishism, piss sex, shit sex – and to find in them as much validation and humanity as any other sexuality. Delany’s prose is frequently disturbing to the point of nauseousness, even for hardened readers such as us, but his genius is never in doubt. Must read more Delany: a new book, Dark Reflections – his first full-length novel since Mad Man – is due next year.


Earlier in the year, I read two novels by Peter Handke, Across (1983) and Absence (1987). This was prompted by the repeated entreaties of Steve at This Space and Mark at RSB, who both claimed him as one of the unacclaimed and unfairly maligned greats. So. I wanted to like them, but they really got under my skin. There was something extraordinarily loveless about them – not just misanthropy, but a real self-hatred, and a kind of sexless passion. There’s also a terrible dichotomy of a writer who clearly hates modernity and its embodiment in America, but longs for wide-open spaces, grand vistas and a very American kind of freedom. I didn’t write about this then because I didn’t want to judge a prolific writer on the contents of two (oldish) novels – and they have stuck in my mind more strongly than much else I’ve read this year, so I expect I will return…

What to say about J-K Huysmans’ A Rebours (‘Against Nature’) except: tortoises, tortoises, tortoises. The STML family seat has a tortoise, named by the Grande Dame ‘Milly’, for the Millennium Dome, as it was acquired in the year of our Lord Blair, and is fed each day with live snails crushed by the matriarchal foot – a truly horrendous procedure. We also spent some time this year on the Twain-blessed isle of Mauritius, home to one of the finest specimens of Giant Tortu found upon the earth: a most magnificent specimen (more of this later). But nothing can compare to Huysmans’:

Against Nature

The tortoise was the result of a fancy which had occurred to him shortly before leaving Paris. Looking one day at an Oriental carpet aglow with iridescent colours, and following with his eyes the silvery glints running across the weft of the wool, which was a combination of yellow and plum, he had thought what a good idea it would be to place on this carpet something that would move about and be dark enough to set off these glaming tints… Alas, there could be no doubt about it: the negro-brown tint, the raw Sienna hue of the shell, dimmed the sheen of the carpet instead of bringing out the colours… Des Esseintes accordingly decided to have his tortoise glazed with gold.

… Soon it struck him that this gigantic jewel was only half-finished and that it would not be really complete until it had been encrusted with precious stones… asparagus-green chrysobels, leek-green peridots, olive-green olivines – and these sprang from twigs of almandine and uvarovite of a purplish red, which threw out flashes of harsh, brilliant light like the scales of tarta that glitter on the insides of wine-casks.

And so on. You know the rest. Suffice to say that nothing enlivens a bus trip through Hackney more than tales of decadence, and Huysmans should be taught in schools, and downloaded to all the jewel-encrusted phones.

From one libertine to another: A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography illuminated the life of Frederick Rolfe, the sometime Baron Corvo, in ways that couldn’t help but be reminiscent both of Delany passim and of the Alexander Maitland biography of Thesiger we’ve mentioned previously. Corvo was an enigmatic figure who published a number of experimental novels and biographical sketches in the early years of the twentieth century which are now largely unknown – through no fault of the writing. But it is Rolfe – or Corvo’s – life which has come down to us, a flurry of insane wanderings, incomplete, incomprehensible battles with publishers, newspaper attacks on rivals, pleas and threats to the Catholic church which denied him a priesthood, and paeans to his beloved Venice, which gave him refuge on the glittering lagoon which finally took his life. “Make a trip with Corvo,” reads the dedication in my copy, “and life will never be the same again.” Not wrong.

Funny Books
George Saunder’s Pastoralia and, for shame, David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day have been our humours these long cold months: one read by part in baths from here to January, the other read aloud, stoned, in a cottage in Sussex – all funny books should be consumed like this. George Saunders’ tellings of an American hinterland entirely populated by low-wage actors enacting historical dioramas is especially brilliant: somewhere, in a valley in the great South-East, there are people living day to day in their Separate Areas, Thinking Positive / Saying Positive, and, when the crunch comes, pretending to catch and eat small bugs. In fact, when the time comes, and there’s no goat in the chute, they actually catch and eat small bugs. Not to be missed.


Luther Blissett’s Q kept us going for several days in a hammock: a rollicking read of surprising thud and blunder in the sixteenth century as the forces of the reformation and the counter-reformation rage across central Europe. Sure, you’ve probably all read it before, but we’d been meaning to for ages and the sheer horror, bloodshed and sacrifice carried us away. What’s wonderful about this book is the way that the contemporary politics of the authors shine through the devastation of the period: all utopias are immanent at all times, and need only the raised voice of the believer to be called forth, even if they end upon the wheel. Stewart Home puts it better, but, gottverdammt, this is good stuff.
Torture Taxi

And then there’s Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson’s Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights. There have been a wealth of political, American books in the last few years, promising to lay bare the full scale of the abuses we – and I do mean we – are heaping upon our fellow man in the name of terror, but few do so with the honesty and dedication that this little book offers. Paglen and Thompson are investigative journalists: two individuals who set out to trace, as best they can, the outlines of a plot they fully admit are beyond the ken of civilians, but which none of us can, in all good conscience, bear to ignore. So they interview plane spotters, aircraft controllers, and the women with big hair who man the empty desks of those who make beasts of us all.

Fair warning: skip this para if you’re queasy. Now. But in a room not far from here, men are having their penises slit with razor blades in your name; electrodes are being attached to wet flesh in order to extract ‘truths’ which are disowned as worthless the next day; human beings are being broken on new wheels to provide us with a hazy sense of security which we don’t trust anyway. There are monsters abroad, and if Paglen and Thompason’s badly xeroxed boarding passes and flight plans save one man from the Dark Prison of international obscurity, they’re going to heaven. Read more books.

Adair, Vian, Conrad

Ach, we’re tired. But honourable mentions go to Gilbert Adair’s lyrical Love and Death on Long Island, which is more about a few square feet of Hampstead than we’d supposed, and kept conjuring visions of Ian McEwan panting over a box of kleenex; Conrad’s short stories in ‘Twixt Land and Sea, which painted Mauritius a darker and more heavy place than we found it (God it’s lovely, and so’s he, but diff’rently), and Boris Vian’s J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (‘I spit on your graves’) which we finally got around to reading, and which shocked and excited in the prescribed (and proscribed) measures.

We’ve read much more of course, and would like to have written more – two-thirds of the way through Alan Moore’s fantastic Lost Girls, for example, and haven’t even got started on our long-awaited Pynchon – but we’ll have to wait, and leave the rest to others. Catch us down the pub if you can. The New Year brings strange changes, and lots of work, but hey, we hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves, and hope to see you back here soon, or soonest, or whenever you can drag yourselves away. Merry Saturnalia – here’s to us.

tags: Personal History + Recommended | permalink | 5 Comments

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Homeric Age

Heroes are unfashionable these days, but we are unrepentant in our reverence for Wilfred Thesiger, last of the great explorers, as he is dubbed by Alexander Maitland’s recent biography. Born in Addis Ababa to British parents in 1910, by the time he was twenty Thesiger had tracked animals in the bush, crewed on Icelandic fishing boats, attended the coronation of Haile Selassie, the “colour and savagery” of which left a strong and abiding impression on him, and planned and led an expedition to discover the source of the Awash river, deep in the closed Sultanate of Aussa. The latter trip, into one of the last blank spaces on the map of Africa, took him through the lands of the Danakil, one of the Horn of Africa’s most fearsome tribes, who took pride in castrating their defeated enemies (using their traditional curved dagger which, this author can attest, they still carry today).

One of those lives that simply could not be lived today, Thesiger’s took him first to the now-infamous Darfur region of Sudan as an Assistant District Commissioner in the 1930s, about which he spoke fondly and where he, among other things, raised twin lion cubs as house pets before shooting them on their first birthday “for their own good”, and undertook arduous week-long treks on horse and camel to outlying stations which were to prepare him for his future journeys. The war saw him a key player, alongside Orde Wingate, in Gideon Force, which liberated Abyssinia from a particularly brutal Italian occupation – and, notably, returned it to Abyssinian rule shortly thereafter – as well as in the famed Long Range Desert Group.

After the war, Thesiger became famous for his books documenting his double crossing of the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, Arabian Sands, and his time spent among the peoples of Southern Iraq, The Marsh Arabs, alongside numerous other works. Arabian Sands is an extraordinary book, capturing the magnificence of one of the least hospitable places on earth (as seen below), together with informed, passionate but unsentimental portraits of its Bedouin inhabitants. The Marsh Arabs is in much the same vein, including startling portraits of the grand reed architecture of the marsh peoples and boar hunting among the waterways. Both are testaments to a vanished, destroyed world: the Bedu irrevocably changed by the arrival of motor vehicles, the marsh arabs by the Ba’athist draining of their lands, which, despite now-stalled restoration attempts in the aftermath of the Second Iraq War, are now less than one tenth the size they once were.

Thesiger published his own autobiography, The Life Of My Choice, in 1987, a wonderful read for the adventurously inclined, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty short on anything approaching feeling or emotion. This only served to inflame our more prurient interests, largely because for us there has always been a constant and undeniable homoerotic motif running below the surface of much of Thesiger’s work.

Whether it is the intense friendships with other boys at prep and public school; the beautiful, otherworldly figures of his Nuer porters in the Sudan; his constant companions in the Empty Quarter, Salim bin Ghabaisha (right) and Salim bin Kabina; or his extended family of Samburu houseboys and servants in Kenya in his later years; Thesiger’s pen, and camera, seem to linger over male adolescents and young men wherever he travels. Despite this, and his notable lack of a wife, he maintained an aura of hardbitten asexuality throughout his life, up to his death in 2003.

Now comes the authoritative biography by his friend and amanuensis Alexander Maitland, and we read it, we must shamefully admit, desperate for new information. We were not disappointed, but the information we came to – and which, for once, we have no desire to spell out here – left us with a bitter taste in the mouth. Thesiger could be overbearing and occasionally cruel but he was in no way a bad or unpleasant person, and it is clear his sexuality was formed early in such a way as to make him reject most intimate contact for the rest of his life. On second thoughts, we would rather not have known this.

We can’t blame the biographer for this: it is his duty, and probably the most telling detail about an otherwise fairly straightforward and plain-speaking man. That the rest of the book is made up of daily minutiae and extensive quotes from Thesiger’s own writings – which, to be honest, we have and have read already – does not help matters.

We’d be very happy indeed if this post, which we’ve been meaning to write for ages, got one more person interested in our hero, but we’d advise against the biography. For the life, read the auto-version. For the expeditions, read Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs and The Danakil Diary, and for the stunning photographs (which illustrate this post, courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum) see Maitland’s far more enjoyable contribution to the legend: Thesiger: A Life in Pictures. Many, unprurient, pleasures await.

tags: Recommended + Reviews + Travel | permalink | Comments Off on The Homeric Age

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Go To Statement Considered Harmful

Continuing various themes from the previous post, the shortlist for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke awards was announced on Monday. Knowing STML’s fondness for a healthy dose of literate Sci-Fi, you may or may not be surprised to hear we haven’t read any of the books – with one important exception.

Accelerando, a novel by Charles Stross, despite being published by Time Warner Behemoth-owned Orbit, is available for free download from the author’s site,, and is well worth it (providing you go buy a dead-tree copy after, of course). As we have noted before, the best Sci-Fi springs from a cheerful disregard for boundaries, both literary and academic, and Accelerando skips lightly from Freudian psychodrama to grand space opera, from future-comedy shtick to AI, genetics and molecular biotechnology. Read all about the quite wonderful Stross (“Regrettably, I’m monolingual in human tongues”) and the New Wave of Scottish Sci-Fi here. (New? And what, Banks is old now?)

(I might add that anyone who prefaces a novel with a quotation from Dijkstra will always get my attention. Man needs a memorial. Julian, are you listening?)

It’s also possibly significant that this is the first ever all-British shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke, confirming the UK’s long-established dominance of the weirder forms of (English-language) genre fiction (Geoff Ryman’s an honorary Britisher, despite Canadian birth). The winner will be announced at the the Sci-Fi London festival in April.

tags: Awards + Recommended + Science Fiction | permalink | 1 Comment