Feb 10, 2010

Regarding unnecessary second readings

There are two sins in the enterprise literary journalism which, when combined, announce amateurism louder than any other failings can: reviewing an old book for no particular reason; and then remaining more or less within the parameters of synopsis. It is on this injurious marriage that the pages of university arts sections such as this are generally founded. 

Published at the end of 2009, Second Readings is a collection of fifty-two reviews by Eileen Battersby, all of which are guilty of these two journalistic failings. Over the course of a year, Battersby, the Literary Correspondent for the Irish Times, publicly revisited classics such as The Great Gatsby and Ulysses, and each time returned with virtually nothing to say about a book that hadn’t already been said in the relevant Wikipedia entry.  

Battersby has an annoying habit of outlining the plot of a novel in the present tense, even if the plot in question takes place in the past tense. “A boy falls in love with a rich girl,” begins Battersby on The Great Gatsby. It’s as if she’s pitching the novel as an idea for a film. But what’s worse are the big finishes that follow each full-length synopsis. “The more closely one examines this story concerned with surfaces, the more closely one grasps the depth of Fitzgerald’s wasteland symbolism and the ironic use he makes of a billboard optician in a narrative in which so few characters see all that clearly.” Martin Amis, a master of the literary journalism himself, said once that he didn’t want to write a sentence that anybody else could have written. Contrast that noble aim with Battersby’s sentence on Gatsby, itself a close relative to millions penned by undergraduates worldwide. 


Meanwhile, her review of Ulysses is fraught with mixed metaphors, bad grammar and the gushing platitudes for which she is renowned.  “Like a thief in the night, James Joyce […] exploded all notions of traditional narrative.” The reader recoils at the news that thieves, a frightening enough group as it is, have added explosives to their armoury. “Bloom’s morning begins in Eccles Street preparing breakfast, defecating and tending the cat.” The reader now turns green, at first with envy (darling, why don’t our mornings prepare breakfast or tend the cat?), and then in disgusted relief (thank heavens our mornings don’t defecate, the kids are bad enough!). “Ulysses is a stylistic and linguistic tour de force.” Finally the reader yawns. 

It is unclear whom Battersby had in mind when she composed these pieces. They are, in essence, full-length synopses of random classics, and though it is true that there is more to a good novel than its plot, it remains nonetheless an important aspect of all but the most stylistic of novels. In almost every review, Battersby gives the game away for those who haven’t read the book in question, and bores to tears those who have. These are book-reports more than they are reviews – This, this and this happens; see, teacher I’ve read it! – and they should therefore be introduced, like their cousins on Wikipedia, with a spoiler-warnings.

It might be useful at this point to contrast Battersby’s ‘second reading’ of Ulysses with a meditative piece on the same book by John Berger, an art critic who seems to have written hardly a dull word in his life. Let’s call it the Batter. / Berger comparison. “Ulysses is like an ocean,” reflects Berger, “you do not read it; you navigate it.”  And later, “To compare the book with an ocean again makes sense, for isn’t it the most liquid book ever written?” This is sort of writing that elevates criticism to an art form, and which The Irish Times should make it its business to publish on a regular basis. Whereas Battersby pushes her unwary reader into her own dishwater retelling, John Berger sprinkles him with salt water, preparing him for the odyssey to come.

Instead of a spoiler-warning, Battersby introduces her collection of book-reports with an entirely forgettable celebration of reading, entitled ‘The Reader in the Hammock’. “People read at night, on the train, on the bus, at work, at school, maybe not in church, but at meals, in restaurants, when waiting for the washing machine to empty, for the bread to bake, for the mechanic to service the car, for the windows to somehow manage to wash themselves.” And it’s my understanding that Battersby had one eye on a dog-eared copy of The Faerie Queen even as she composed this passage. It seems ridiculous to have to say it of The Irish Times’s Lady in the Library, but Eileen Battersby would do well to stop for a moment, perhaps as she waits for the washing machine to empty, and actually think about the novel she was reading while waiting for the mechanic to service her car. 

“A good reader,” said grouchy old Nabokov, “is a re-reader.” And a good re-reader, I’m sure he would agree, is a re-examiner. If Eileen Battersby shows little evidence of being a re-reader, she shows even less of being a re-examiner.

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