Dear Associates,

I am the literary critical detective.

In my work I examine the mise en scene of classic detective stories carefully, paying attention to the smallest metaphorical detail, sifting through the facts and then distorting them according to my whim.
My friends have been kind enough to express some interest in my observations and so to this end I am making this journal available. I hope that you might also find it of some interest.

The Literary Critical Detective.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Dreaming of Reading Projects

I have never been afraid of long novels or large-scale reading projects.

I have read Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. I have read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, albeit in translation. I have read the three volumes of Alan Walker’s immense biography of Liszt.

And, of course, I have read long nineteenth-century novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

The pleasure of starting a large reading project is not one of intellectual or cultural snobbery. There is no intrinsic correlation between the number of pages a book has and its quality. Nevertheless, there is a joy there.

I have been dreaming recently of other reading projects. One common idea is to set out to read all the works of one author in the order they were published. You could, for instance, plan to read all of Agatha Christie’s 'Poirot' novels in sequence. I suspect, though, that repetition might doom this particular quest for many.

In the last week I have read two stories by Honoré de Balzac: ‘Sarrasine’ and ‘A Passion in the Desert’. I am now half way through the novel Eugénie Grandet.

This last forms part of the author’s great sequence, Comédie humaine or The Human Comedy. This run of connected narratives amounts to ninety or so texts in total.

Such a fact suggests a stunningly immense project: to read all of the novels that form La Comédie humaine. This project would be the work of a lifetime (just as it took Balzac his lifetime to write the books). I suspect it would also be largely impossible. It would certainly be extremely difficult to find English translations of all the novels.

I won’t be starting this reading project. Nevertheless, the very idea of it appeals.

Perhaps I will re-start the Poirot books after all.

Monday 23 July 2012

Around The World in Eighty Days: A review that is somewhat late.

Whilst it is only a coincidence that I read Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) whilst myself travelling, it is a useful one and has shed some light on the text for me. Allow me to share my thoughts.

I read the first one hundred pages of the novel here, amongst the supposed peace of my study; I read the rest in the real peace of the countryside, the River Wharfe rushing nearby.

I would not have had to pack this book if I had got down to the text quicker. I left on my real-world travels at the appointed hour but had for several days previously been putting off going on Verne’s literary journey.

If it’s true that I read the opening of the novel relatively slowly then it’s also true that I picked up the pace towards the end. This is not insignificant. My own reading speed – created in part, I think, by the pacing and structure of the text itself – mimicked that of its central protagonist, Mr Phileas Fogg. The second half of our hero’s voyage is a lot quicker than the first. For me, then, form and the reading experience mirrored content.

In actual fact I often found myself doing precisely what Fogg himself never does – lifting my eyes from the page and staring out of the window at the world around me. The characters are placed in jeopardy on nearly every page and episode flashes by after episode with the merest turn of the page. Eventually you run out of reading energy.

I would like to argue that what this text requires of you as a reader is a kind of sustained inattention.

The politics of representation in this book are complex. The episodes set in India, China, Japan and America are all problematic in their own ways.

In the end, this is an exciting, funny, absurd and troubling book. I found myself laughing out loud at that moment when the narrator compares Hong Kong to a Kentish town. It is also a little frustrating when Verne chooses to info dump – we are often told how heavy a ship is, for instance.

There is, though, fun to be had here.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Summer Reading in the Winter Garden

Two years ago, during the hot and stormy summer, I began to read that equally stormy and tempestuous novel The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

This work, like all Dostoyevsky’s work, is visionary and hysterical. It exists in a sweltering, sweating heat of paranoia and obsession.

I took to reading this novel in the Winter Gardens in Sheffield which, despite its name, is actually a kind of hothouse full of tropical flora. Here, amongst the ferns and trees, I read about Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin.

I had previously read the author’s Letters from the Underworld in an old paperback edition that I had bought at a local jumble sale for 10 pence. Come to think of it, I bought my copy of The Idiot from a boot fair.

Yesterday, in this high English summer which is really a kind of perpetual autumn, an endless October of rain, I returned to the Winter Gardens to read some of the letters Franz Liszt wrote during his first residence in Weimar (at which point, Dostoyevsky was in prison doing hard labour).

I sat there and read under towering ferns, the great beams of the roof looking like they had been transplanted into reality from China Miéville’s fictional city of New Crobuzon.


What a space in which to read.

Although I like to do my summer reading in the Winter Gardens, I like to do my winter reading in the snug warmth of a parlour, in front of a fire, dreaming of Wuthering Heights and Poirot’s broken central heating.

Saturday 30 June 2012

Into the Undercroft.

Today I visited what remains of a Twelfth-century Cistercian monastery somewhere near the edge of Sherwood Forest. In the dim light under growing storm clouds – the like of which had affected my reading of Kierkegaard only two days ago – I stepped down through a medieval arched doorway into the undercroft.

Here, in the cool air protected by the cold stone, History still felt like History and not a commodity, despite the attempts to treat it as such.

But of course, my experience of this space, as a Literary Critical Detective, was not just historical; it was also informed by the literary and the theological, if not actually the wholly spiritual.

There was a moment when I could almost imagine myself to be in those medieval spaces so beloved of gothic romance. If I squinted a little, and allowed my imagination to run away with itself, I could almost (but not quite) believe that this was what Udolpho looked like. A moment later I thought such a place could inspire a Poe-like tale.

I saw no casks of sherry during my visit.

Friday 29 June 2012

Not Reviewing Kierkegaard…

I have just finished reading Søren Kierkegaard’s 1849 work, The Sickness Unto Death. I read this text in the English translation by Alastair Hannay.

The Sickness Unto Death is a short, strange and sombre work. I will not attempt to offer a review of it here. This is a text that needs to be thought about carefully and with a certain amount of rigour and quiet reflection. If I were to comment on it now, having only just put the book back on the shelf, my comments could only ever be flippant, off the cuff and ill-considered. And it is precisely flippancy and ill-consideration that Kierkegaard is so concerned with in this work, and is so quick to warn us against.

So, to review the work now would be to have not heeded the lessons of the work itself.

Instead, I shall review my reading of the work. In doing so I will really only be reviewing myself as a reviewer, my reading practice and the structure of my reading life.

I started to read The Sickness Unto Death on Wednesday afternoon at precisely the moment when, after several hours of dank and depressing drizzle, the sun burst through the clouds. I could not help smiling. Here was a book whose very title seemed to be suggestive of doom and gloom; and yet here I was picking the most cheerful moment of the week to begin studying it.

However, things changed yesterday morning. The inclement weather set in. The rain struck down hard and fast, pummelling our roof and the courtyard below as though it were trying to flatten out some perceived imperfection in their forms. Then the lightening began, followed by claps of thunder that sounded like thousands of full whiskey barrels being rolled down a hill.

I could not help but think of that most ‘literary’ of thunder claps, the one that sounded out across Dublin on Thursday 16th June 1904 and which James Joyce caused to sound again in his depiction of that day in Ulysses.

I continued to read Kierkegaard, inwardly pleased at this pathetic fallacy.

Today, my reading of the final stages of the book was again accompanied by muted sunshine.

And what of my impressions? This is a book upon which you must concentrate as a reader. Of course, the setting in which we read a text is always important. When I return to this text in the future I will ensure that I read it in the quiet, away from the sound of thunder...

Thursday 28 June 2012

A Day Out: Inspiration and Clarity

It is important to approach the act of reading as clearly as possible, and this cramped study, the view of the courtyard and the noise from the street were proving too great a distraction. So, with my Literary Critical Detective bag carefully packed, I headed out of the building early one morning a few days ago. I was looking for both inspiration and clarity.

I travelled into the hills and villages.

What a joy it was to be en plein air once again. Even the weather was kind - it only rained briefly, albeit just as I sat down to eat my lunch. It is easy to see how the Romantics became entranced by these northern landscapes of both rugged and refined beauty.

There was much here from which to draw inspiration. Through the trees, up on a hillside, a church suddenly appeared, its square tower looking to have been cut out of the ground itself.

Opposite, a single gravestone lay almost forgotten behind an old rusty gate. The weeds had grown up around its base, so that it appeared to have fallen into the world directly from a nineteenth-century novel. This stone no doubt first stood tall in the 1800s, so this impression is only fitting.

Down below, the local houses and shops were crammed into the small patch of level ground in the middle of the valley cleft, the buildings’ stone work seemingly clinging to the sides of the riverbank, worried that at any moment it might give out, let go its grip and be washed away.

I have returned refreshed, ready to take up my reading once more. The fresh county air still fills my lungs.