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.

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.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A ‘long’ decade – the 1870s

I have recently written about the gravitational pull that certain decades seem to exert on us at times. I remarked upon the curious coincidences in my reading  - suddenly, the 1870s seemed to loom large. However, the more I think about it the more I think that my calculations were slightly wrong. I actually think that my equations omitted one or two key factors which would have been evident if I had paid closer attention to my own reading trajectories.

It is now a cultural, historical and literary-critical commonplace to refer to the ‘long’ nineteenth century, meaning (roughly) the time from the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s The Lyrical Ballads through to the beginning of the first world war (or at least until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901).

It is completely absurd but my reading in my capacity as The Literary Critical Detective seems to have orbited around a ‘long’ decade, a long 1870s.

Here are some of the key events that I might be inclined to pick out.

1869 - Amy Fay arrives in Germany and begins to study piano with Tausig
1869 - Alphonse Daudet, Letters from my Windmil
1870 - Death of Charles Dickens
1871 - Birth of Marcel Proust
1871-72 -  George Eliot, Middlemarch
1873 - Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days published
1873 -  Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina published
1880 - Amy Fay, Music-Study in Germany published
1880 - Emile Zola, Nana published
1883 - Death of Richard Wagner in Venice
The pull of this long decade has been strong and for the time being I continue to be held by it. I wonder what I will find at its centre. Will I find a kind of singularity? And if so, will this act like a passage to some other place and time? After penetrating to the heart of this historical moment will I suddenly find myself in another decade entirely? In Paris in the 1890s? In inter-war Britain, the moment of the classic whodunit novel? Maybe. I might just start back at the beginning of Dame Agatha’s oeuvre.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The books that remain ‘To be read’

It is customary for writers of blogs such as this to discuss the books that remain languishing on their shelves – the novels that they bought but have never quite got around to reading. More precisely, they discuss their ‘to be read’ pile.

I have always been very conscious of the books that I haven’t read.

I don’t actually own a vast number of texts myself as there isn’t much space in my study. Even here, though, in my own limited library, there are many volumes that I have never opened. Walking into a large well-stocked reading room or even a local second-hand bookshop can be an intimidating experience at times.

With this in mind, I have decided that I may well start to read some of the texts that remain, for me, ‘to be read’. In the coming weeks I expect to read some, but probably not all, of the following books, none of which I have worked my way through before:

Ngaio Marsh, Off With His Head
Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days
Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations
Agatha Christie, Cat Among the Pigeons
Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes
Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death
Leo Tolstoy, The Sebastopol Sketches
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Written down like this, the list strikes me as one of great diversity. It is, of course, this very diversity that is so essential if one is to read fully. And now to begin.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Agatha Christie and Plato in the sunshine:

For a short while this morning the sun burst through the clouds. I was quite taken aback. A beam of light suddenly beat its way through my half-drawn curtains, lighting up the section of my book shelf devoted to classic whodunits. There, to my left, the spines of my Agatha Christies shone out brilliantly, the titles glinting in the unexpected radiance.

Sadly enough, my first reaction to this sunlight was to pull the curtains shut – the spines of the books on my shelves are already damaged enough. Then, I started to wonder whether I should take this as a reminder to re-read these (mostly) brilliant novels.

Reading in the sunshine can often be difficult. The light can glare off of the white page in such a way as to make it impossible to focus on the words. Sometimes it can be too bright.

I have, as it happens, read Agatha Christie’s books in the bright light of the Mediterranean sun. Several years ago I had the good fortune to travel to Greece. My reading on that occasion was incongruous to say the least: the Dame’s Hallowe'en Party and Mrs McGinty’s Dead. But, what would have been more fitting? If I had read Plato?

Actually, about a year ago I can remember reading Book VII of Plato’s The Republic in the English autumn sunshine. The light glared and I found myself slightly dazed. It was as though I had myself just stepped out of the cave of the famous allegory.

It has clouded back over now. I’ve opened the curtains once more. I no longer run the risk of being dazzled.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Approaching the final furlong…

I am now reading the final stages of the novel Nana by Zola. I am inclined to say that I am in the final furlong as I’ve just read the amazing sequence set at the Grand Prix de Paris horse race at Longchamp. This occasion is a crucial turning point in the novel as it marks a high-water mark in the eponymous hero’s social ascent. Moreover, the horse that bears her name comes home first in defiance of the odds, a result which eventually leads to the death of her lover, its owner, Vandeuvres.

This sequence is wonderfully written (I should say that I’ve read it in translation). It is an exhilarating piece of prose that manages to capture the thrill of the occasion whilst simultaneously offering a devastating social portrait. During the depiction of the race itself I actually found myself caring about which horse won.

This sequence reminded me of an equivalent scene in an even more brilliant novel – namely, the horse race in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which was published just three years earlier. Tolstoy’s prose is, in this passage, viscerally exciting and filled with danger.

Now I’m trying to think of other great sporting scenes in classic literature. I’m thinking here of texts that are not explicitly sporting texts. There is, of course, the great Poirot novel by Dame Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links.

Can you think of any others?

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Some rushed thoughts on narrative pacing…

I have started thinking about the question of narrative pacing or, to phrase it another way, literary rhythm and tempo. This rhythm is at work at the level of the sentence, the paragraph and the text as a whole. It is vital to the success of any piece of writing.

The best texts show an awareness of this. Just think of the way that the rhythm of Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘condition of England’ novel Mary Barton (1848) markedly changes in its final third. Here, we find a kind of literary accelerando as the characters set off on a river chase. Think, too, of something like Proust’s modernist masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27), which, despite its immense length, manages to engage with the reader every subordinate clause. For the mature Marcel, of course, this was simply a question of style.

Classic murder mystery texts can be a little one-paced at times. Whilst there is an inevitable speeding up of events as we approach the great detective’s gripping dénouement, the tone is too often too even, the beat just a little flat. From the opening line clues are scattered in front of us. Everything is important, even the unimportant red herrings. And, let's admit it, in this genre the writing is usually quite workmanlike. Neither Dame Agatha Christie nor Dame Ngaio Marsh were great prose stylists. Description is often left at the door.

It is for this reason that certain texts stand out. Take, for instance, the last book in the Poirot sequence (although far from being the last written), Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (published 1975). This has an altogether different structure and pace. This is a murder mystery that for the most part lacks a murder. This a text of foreshadowing and nostalgic reminiscence.

For all that I love the classic mysteries I often wish that they were more stylish.