I tend to read mainly for research, and that means reading in clusters, not just books about the topic, but books around the topic too. I’m working on a profile for Nick Kyrgios, so there are a lot of books on tennis, which (like cricket and baseball) seems to produce good writing for some reason. Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open is excellent, it was co-written with the Pulitzer-prize winning memoirist J.R. Moehringer. It’s very honest, and driven by a rare emotional dynamic, not dissimilar to Krygios’s own. Agassi hates tennis, but feels somehow chained to it, and compelled to achieve in spite of, or even because of, his hatred.
Like many non-fiction writers, I’m drawn to John McPhee’s work, because his structures are so finessed. Levels of the Game is one of the most famous examples: it’s a double profile of Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, that uses a tennis match at the US Open as a structuring device. A single misstep would destroy it, but there aren’t any missteps. Its perceptiveness about racial dynamics in tennis is sadly almost as relevant nearly fifty years later, recently dissected in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which has a long chapter on Serena Williams and uncompromising blackness. On the technical side, Brad Gilbert’s coaching book Winning Ugly is worth reading even if you don’t play the game. Like Napoleon said, a coward can shed the blood of a thousand heroes.
I have an ongoing project about 20th century literature that touches on nine different authors, so I’m slowly making my way through their work, and some biographies too. At the moment its Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth, which is quite an old-fashioned piece of ultra-biographical, almost Freudian, criticism. (Like his poet subject, Booth calls Hull home). Some sections really stuck in my craw (like pooh-poohing Larkin’s co-worker/confidante/lover as a social and intellectual inferior), but it’s so dedicated to linking Larkin’s work and life in such a painstaking and deeply researched way, it’s still interesting even when it’s unpersuasive. Which is often.
The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector is another ongoing concern, and, like David Lodge said about Henry Green, a ‘writer’s writer’s writer’. (Like Henry Green, she also ended up thinking literature was overrated). Her translator and biographer (Why in the World) Benjamin Moser deserves a lot of the credit for introducing her to a non-Portuguese-speaking audience, and A Breath of Life is one of a suite of ‘new’ books he has overseen the transmission of (it’s a posthumous novel, which had never been translated into English before). Lispector is sometimes compared to James Joyce, but she’s probably never read him, and her work has a cutting strangeness that is totally unique. ‘Should I make up a story or do I allow my chaotic inspiration free rein? There’s so much false inspiration. And when real inspiration arrives and I don’t realize it?’ A Breath of Life is real, chaotic inspiration.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I chanced on a book called Computer Generated Short Stories, that really seems to share some of Lispector’s ‘foreignness’ and sense of the uncanny. It’s a project compiled by a programmer called Jeff Lee, who ‘stitches’ found texts together with an algorithm that keeps them readable. It’s not something you can sit down and drink in in one go, but it’s full of odd phrases and sentiments that leave a lasting impression. Come across a sentence like ‘I’ve seen myself drained and irritated by this world that is morally like an insect dealing in rag dolls for the desperate’, you have to re-remind yourself there is no human sentiment involved. Apart from your own, reading it.
It was a conversation about the effect of technology on literature that led me to robo-writing. Prose is very difficult for Artificial Intelligence to mimic, and this might offer some clue about modernism’s failure to radically alter non-poetic literature. In particular the essay seems like a really robust and evergreen form, not much changed in a couple of centuries. Read Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, and it could have been written now—then try listening to a popular song from the same era. Exploring this persistent quality took me to Brian Dillon’s Essayism. I usually like his writing a lot, but this one seems a bit fussy.
My partner are I are translating the Dao De Jing as a way of studying it together. It’s quite different from what I’d anticipated, touching on statecraft as much as spirituality (when an ancient Chinese ruler needed a Mandate of Heaven, these things were not as inimical as they feel now). Many English versions turn this into a concept of ‘self-rule’, rather than more literal governance. Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation, which is called Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way is one of the best attempts at straddling the mystical and the imperial. It’s so elegant, clear, and simple, and that deceptive simplicity is a kind of ‘doing by Not Doing’, a mirror of the book’s philosophy.
In the realm of the more mundanely political, I’m trying to come to terms with nativism as a response to globalism, and the narrative around the defence of Western/European/white ‘civilization’. Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe got a rapturous reception from the right side of politics, but not surprisingly many sections feel clumsy and overcooked. Pretending that Islamism is more of an existential threat to Europe than racist nationalism is a hard sell after World War Two, and so the author has to keep his thumb on the scales. Murray sent me back to White Nation by Ghassan Hage, which is remains so good and fresh. A real shame its author now feels less present in Australian public debate.
Richard Cooke is contributing editor to The Monthly magazine. His first book, on the role of place in twentieth-century literature, will be published by Black Inc in 2018.