Thursday 26 June 2014

Book review: Public Enemies, Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy (2011)

It's easy to think that a person with no particular interest in either of these authors might find this book a bit tiresome. The best parts deal with public criticism; both authors are apparently prone to such, although they're obviously best-known in their native France (Houellebecq was living in Ireland at the time this book was published - he may still do so for all I know). However for those who like Houellebecq's novels the book contains an interesting contrast in styles and attitudes towards life. Houellebecq has something of Eeyore about him while Levy tends toward the Appollonian, the shining knight wreathed in garlands striving off to do battle with his enemies.

The idea for the book apparently arose after a dinner the two men attended, and so they decided to down lances and amicably write about their fears, their literary loves, their philosophical predilections, and their fathers (more on fathers than mothers). It's a little bit contrived, but so are these two writers, both of whom live their lives very much always in the context of their public personas. It should be remembered that in France Houellebecq, at least, is hated by many; his progress in the Anglosphere I think has been a bit smoother. As for Levy, he's got money and is also an intellectual; perfect fodder for critique right there, I suppose.

As for where they sit on the ideological spectrum, I suspect that Houellebecq's pronouncements make him suspect-looking from either side. Levy probably is of the left, but not in it. Contradictory characters, it seems.

Houellebecq's hang-dog demeanour in the book lets him hide, however, an advantage. In the end, he comes out of the contretemps looking like the stronger writer; there's just something a bit too glamorous and steely about Levy for my taste, something adopted as a pose in view of the planned publication of the correspondence. Houellebecq seems to be the more subtle thinker, also. But these are probably not important considerations. From my point of view the most important thing going into this book was to understand better one of my favourite authors. Now, to get a better handle on Levy I have ordered a couple of his books. To orient myself. To better understand.

Monday 23 June 2014

Book review: Forty-one false starts, Janet Malcolm (2013)

Among all these fabulous pieces my stand-out preference is a 72-page article about the editor during the 80s of a New York art magazine, originally published in the New Yorker, partly because it attests to the writer's abiding interest in the arts; she would never have thought to do the piece unless she had not personally been affected by the change in editorial style of Artforum, you think. A long article, the piece has that deep structure which is so hard to distinguish at first, but which all along is working to organise the writer's words. It contains extended sections of direct speech from art critics, mainly, but also from artists. The topic is such a strange idea though it coheres - but this is the kind of odd thing that fans have come to rely on Malcolm to deliver.

For journalism students the name Malcolm is almost shorthand for intelligence and quality in journalism, and this book delivers both in strong doses, like a good morning coffee. You wonder how the stories were assigned, or dreamt up, whichever the case may be, but you are constantly delighted with the acute eye of the writer, the depth of research, and the commitment to delivering strong stories. Like the Katrina Strickland book I reviewed a few days ago, this is a keeper, because it's pretty certain that one day you'll want to go back and reread one of the pieces because it will have remained with you in some way you cannot immediately anticipate.

There is plenty here to puzzle over and to think about. This is a very strong book, despite the drab cover which has something decidedly belonging to 70s amateur design about it. Of course, the pieces range in time over a period of 30 years, so appropriating that particular aesthetic is not out of place. It just doesn't do justice to the power and colour of Malcolm's writing.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Book review: Affairs of the Art, Katrina Strickland (2013)

In her excellent book, this journalist has done much more than add her piece to post-feminist commentary. There's a lot to learn in here for anyone with an interest in Australian art, which is a sphere most usually isolated from what happens in the rest of the world. So it's not just a book by a woman about women for women. Because most Australian artists in the relevant periods - the Modernist period and the period immediately following it - were women, and women tend to outlive their husbands, most of the subjects in the book are women. But not all.

In any case the most interesting thing for me personally was learning about things like the value of art. A good take-away for anyone who collects art is to make sure you have good documentation for your acquisitions. A gallery receipt might come in handy sometime, say 30 years down the track, if provenance becomes an issue.

That's on the practical side. Beyond that, there are tons of interesting stories in here not just about how women have handled their dead husbands' affairs but about how the art market works. For this reason alone the book can be profitably recommended to read for anyone who has an interest in art.

Strickland prior to writing this book had written about art for a major Australian daily newspaper, and over the course of writing the book she gained valuable insights into the way different people - let's say, different women - have handled the posthumous business of art dealing. The insights she developed over time give her license to make value judgements about people. So it's interesting to read at the end of one chapter her salute to Lyn Williams - widow of painter Fred Williams - who emerges from reading the book as a kind of superlative model of an artist's widow, at least as far as we are allowed to see by reading the book.

But the kinds of relationships that exist over time change and so the general relationship between the widow and the estate also changes for later generations, as we can see by reading about cases that came after Lyn Williams. There is a generational shift in the role of the artist's partner, and this emerges in the way the estate is handled for people living later. Robert Klippel's estate, for example, is being handled by his son, Andrew. So it's not always about women wielding power.

In many cases it is, however, and for biographers as well as auctioneers dealing with these women it can be a fraught business. How a widow relates to the memory of her partner becomes something that other people have to adjust themselves to, sometimes with explosive results. And so the personal enters the public sphere, in a way that we usually see only with pop stars and movie stars. The art world is a lot quieter, usually, than popular culture, so it can offer different kinds of lessons to us all.

Monday 16 June 2014

Rereading Houellebecq

A most extraordinary thing has happened. I have read Michel Houellebecq's 2012 novel The Map And the Territory for the third time. It's of particular significance because it's frequently the case that I do not even get past the first 50 pages of a book. For particularly bad books, that is. Houellebecq's novel has allowed me to metaphorically snuggle up with emotions and ideas that have made me happy in the past. In this way, the rereading of the novel for the third time is a kind of virtual comfort blanket where the overriding sentiment is a kind of gentle nostalgia, a fond regard on what has passed that stands in opposition to the bright exaltation that suffused my being when, in my childhood, I finished a particularly gripping novel. I still remember finishing the Tolkein saga, for example, and I can happily say that finishing The Map And the Territory for the third time was nothing like that. This time, I felt pleasantly sad, as though I was aware of having done something pleasant for the final time.

Or like looking back over the past week and thinking about all the wonderful television shows I have watched; the police dramas, the comedy shows, the news telecasts. All of them leave a residue on your soul that is not removed by future viewing, but which rather is somehow enhanced as in a palimpsest so that new things appear amid the old, things belonging to the old but which were not visible yesterday, and these things become visible in a muted and subtle arrangement.

Not unlike in the final works of Jed Martin, the hero of Houellebecq's novel.

It would be natural for me to go on and reread Houellebecq's 2005 novel The Possibility of An Island, a reading that could then segue into my finishing Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault, since they both deal with cults. It doesn't really matter which one I read because I will always be looking for the emotional effect that rereading The Map And the Territory produced in me; if I don't find it in one book I can always try another, and another ad infinitum. There are an unlimited number of books in the world to choose from. So I can go on picking up books, trying a few pages, then possibly putting them down again if the desired effect is not achieved. I can then class the successful candidates as "books to read when mildly depressed". Maybe I can make a new narrow focus blog dedicated to this one concern, and generate a following of mildly depressed people throughout the world. Then the blog can be turned into a book and become a bestseller.

That's something to look forward to, but it's unlikely, as the requisite dedication and application of my mental faculties on such a small area appears right now to be completely beyond me. I shall just go on shuffling through my book collection and scanning the new release tables of independent bookshops in search of the next book that will attune itself to my mood.

Saturday 7 June 2014

A day trip to Brisbane

Distance can remind us what is important. For example, yesterday I decided in the early morning to go to Brisbane to see the galleries so I got in my car, filled it up with petrol, and drove the 100km down the highway to the capital, where I parked under the gallery. I ate lunch in the cafe next to the library and mooched around finally ending up in the bookshop in the Gallery of Modern Art where I bought a book on Rauschenberg and one on Francis Bacon - this latter purchase a gift for my daughter - and then headed down to the State Gallery where there was a collection of watercolours on display.

The watercolours all showed scenes of Queensland and dated from the earliest colonial times to the 1950s. The thing that struck me about them is the temptation on the part of the painter to depict the atmosphere. There were dark, cloud-hung views of the Glasshouse Mountains, a steamy, blue view of Moreton Bay with a schooner making way, and an overcast sky above Brisbane and its potent river. I left the gallery, returned to my car, and headed back up the highway. I had only been in Brisbane for about an hour but it was enough to remind me that I belong at home with my mother, that we have a symbiotic relationship, and that it is only with her that I can be at peace. Even though I only spent a little time in Brisbane the sensory overload was too much; there was too much to see and to do.

Usually when I go to Brisbane I visit the bookshop in town but not this time. I felt full with happiness as I headed back north with the traffic making patterns around my car and the road streaming out ahead like a banner signifying rest.

On the way down there had been on the radio a discussion about how to commemorate war and it featured a man who spoke about service and how, instead of inane, knee-jerk celebrations of war we should rather give our time in service such as in a nursing home. So maybe my time looking after my mother enables me to feel what those men long ago felt about the wars they served in. Giving time to someone else in service is a kind of brake on ambition, it slows you down, you are tied to a large, immovable object. It grounds you. It defines you. It also gives you time to dream, though your dreams might be imbued with a substance as slow-moving and dark as the Brisbane River. I walk through this substance and breathe in its essence.

When I returned home yesterday I felt better. It was where I belong, among my books, with my kitchen, and with the routine of meals and phone calls that punctuate and give form to my days. Days that pass one after the other in stately procession. Days of hope, days of small joys, days of quiet despair.