Book Review

Three Books About Books By Bookish Lads

on ian flemming, jackie kerouac, karlo knausgaard

The following discusses three interesting – to me – books, all of which I have recently acquired.

Two were written by men about dead prolific male writers, while the most recent is written by a woman about a prolific male writer who still lives, yet seems to have prolificked himself out of literary success (i.e. he has written too much) through needlessly doubling down on casual sexism and also publishing a truly awful book “about” football.

We’ll start with the Ian Fleming one.

Double O Seven James Bond: A Report by O.F. Snelling (1964)

Published just after the death by heart attack of Ian Fleming (“rest in power, king”, as the internet says), tho written just before literature’s greatest loss since Marlowe’s Deptford stabbing, this bizarre blog-post-of-a-book is not a pseudonymous North American printing of the Kingsley Amis-penned The James Bond Dossier, which I presumed when I bought it.

Oswald Frederick Snelling – despite the stupid name – was a real person, an antiquarian bookseller, who wrote this weird book as a sideline and, I learnt after purchase, rushed it out ahead of Amis’ more famous (and, I imagine, better) non-fiction book on Bond.

Snelling’s “report” is satisfying neither as literary nor cultural criticism, and it fails also to offer much biographical information on Fleming.

It isn’t analytical, and only on a few occasions does it reference materials outside of the Bond novels themselves. Snelling’s book contains five sections and the longest – almost half of the book – retells every sexual encounter Bond has and the second longest retells how he kills every villain. It’s basically that scene from I’m Alan Partridge where he recreates the intro to The Spy Who Loved Me, but instead of a two minute gag in a sitcom, it’s a two hundred page book.

I’d be lying if I denied that I enjoyed it – it’s like Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp but badly written and about James Bond – but other than altering me to the fact that the BBC once broadcast an hour long chat between Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler (unavailable in Canada, boohoo), it didn’t really tell me much I didn’t know.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Fleming (tho not a long time since I’ve read any Bond), and I suppose this made me want to revisit those texts that I enjoyed so much a decade and a half ago when I was an ignorant provincial bumpkin, tho I doubt it would be a good idea.

Fleming, of course, was a massive lad, and Snelling tries to keep up, but the enthusiasm with which he writes about Fleming’s enthusiastic discussion of food, clothes, cars, guns and women shows he didn’t quite have the knowledge base that the maestro did.

Double O Seven James Bond: A Report is an energetic book, a fast read full of nostalgic discussion of Bond, but if it’s the best book I read in this little collection of books, then I’m about to have a shit few days.

Jack Kerouac: a chicken essay by Victor-Lévy Beaulieu (1972; translation by Sheila Fischman 1975)

Jack Kerouac: a chicken essay is one of several books I own published by Coach House Press, which means this Canadian indie has been going for almost fifty years: impressive!

I don’t know what the chicken in the title refers to, but I’m guessing “essai-poulet” is a pun or a reference in the original French. Maybe not. Perhaps the phrase is something very 1970s that has been forgotten. Perhaps – and maybe more likely – it’s a reference to one of the (somehow, many!) Kerouac books I haven’t read.

I feel like I’ve read a lot of Kerouac.

Kerouac was prolific, and what Beaulieu’s non-fiction book made me think about, remember, was how emotive I found those books of his that really landed with power. Big Sur, the edited version of On the Road; the titles of the other ones I loved have been lost to time (the one where he’s a forest fire warden at the start, I loved that); that third one, the title of which I don’t remember, was gifted to me by a friend, who I recently did a “zoom chat” with for the first time since I moved to Canada, I think, so I hadn’t really spoken to him in over two years. Whoops.

Anyway, halfway thru Jack Kerouac: a chicken essay I sent him the following DMs:

picture of the book, comment: you should try to get hold of a copy of this, i think you'd really like it
it's a postmodern biography of kerouac, basically.
written by a quebecois writer in the early seventies, about kerouac's french canadian roots, is the overarching idea, but it's more just a discussion of his writing and his life and the beats as a group and kerouac as somehow detached from them, the writer argues because he was brought up by french canadians rather than more established american parents.
it's good, but a bit sleazy, as writing from that period tends to casually be
the writer is still alive but old and hs english language wikipedia time is just a list of times he claimed that racist things he'd said on radio shows weren't racist, and also for leading a campaign to ban children in Quebec from learning english.
everything i know about Quebec separatists I learned from infinite jest, and this guy sounds like he'd fit in

But as I read on, during another bland day of Canadian, pre-vaccination, lockdown, my mood travelled far more towards the careening psychological collapse of Kerouac and away from the rising (tho engaging) arrogance of the then up-and-coming Beaulieu.

It made me very sad, reading about Kerouac.

It made me very sad to remember reading, enviously almost, the tragedy of Big Sur while still kinda believing that a book or two published, now, for me, would give me the freedom Kerouac failed to find.

Of course, it didn’t, and Kerouac made a considerable amount of money from On the Road and his subsequent works, and my total lifetime earnings from poetry remain far below triple figures, even if I’m calculating in the much more giving Canadian dollar.

Nothing happens my life; Kerouac reached that point, too, and barely eked out a decade of life once he did.

I don’t know if I want to plumb the depths of my twenties throughout my thirties but – like Jack did when he finally got a book deal – I have many many many unpublished (unpublishable?) manuscripts buried in the cloud.

///

Beaulieu’s book reminded me of Geoff Dyer’s book about DH Lawrence, which reminded me of where I bought my copy of that, in a hipster indie bookstore in Brooklyn. That was more than ten years ago. That was a time when I truly felt hope. I don’t think it was the last time I did (I felt hope throughout 2018 and I believe I might do again), but Beaulieu’s book reminded me of what and why I connected with Kerouac’s writing when I was younger.

I am sad, I am bored, I am known to produce writing that provokes only apoplexy, enthusiasm or apathy; I want to keep writing, but like Kerouac, I can only write what I am and right now, I’m nothing at all.

Dear Knausgaard by Kim Adrian  (2020)

Published by Fiction Advocate.

It’s been a while since I read Knausgaard. It’s been a while since I wanted to.

There were several years where I waited, hungrily, for a new Knausgaard book to appear, even purchasing obscure magazines and journals that included essays by him, once visiting Oslo, I think even before the third or fourth volume of My Struggle had been translated into English, and just staring in awe at the sheer size of the sixth tome next to the others.

I couldn’t read Norwegian, and with the eventual translation of more Knausgaard than I wanted (oh, no, Home and Away: – which is probably what put me off post-fame Knausgaard forever: oh, no: everything I’ve heard about the Seasons quartet and his irl personal conduct which has implied very much someone who has ignored the self-knowledge he implies with his writing), I lost the impetus to do so; yet I knew, hungrily, as I looked at the fascinating photo essay in the Viking Ship Museum about how they moved the ancient ships across the city in the early 20th century (or maybe even earlier, I don’t remember), that waiting for me years in the future was a My Struggle book twice the size of the others.

Eventually, when it was finally released, I was barely employed and living in cold cold Canada, and the expense and annoyance of buying a hardback book was just too much for me to handle, so I didn’t read it until many months after it was first available, something that would have been unbelievable to that naive, youthful, probably-still-with-hair scott manley hadley of a decade ago, staring at that incomprehensible paperback in Norway.

///

I first read about Knausgaard in the New Yorker, I remember doing it on a plane, maybe if was even when I went to New York that time I bought my first Geoff Dyer, ten years and several lifetimes ago.

///

I’m writing about Knausgaard here instead of Kim Adrian, which is the kind of patriarchal, homosocial treatment of the canon that is discussed frequently in this very engaging epistolary essay.

Framed as a series of unsent letters written to Knausgaard (Adrian is a reader of his work, not a personal acquaintance, tho she had seen him read – as I once did, too, in a massive whitewashed church somewhere in mad Tory west London), Adrian writes about why she felt My Struggle was a powerful book , and the reasons why it connected with her.

Adrian debates with friends and family members the merits and demerits of Knausgaard’s work (as with all conversation of his post-My Struggle quartet, Adrian is unenthusiastic without being cruel), focusing on his use of structure, of characterisation, the power of his use of detail and the really bleak pervasiveness of his reactionary, small c conservative opinions, which serious engagement with his work makes undeniable. 

Dear Knausgaard is a great read, and like the two previous books mentioned in this post, it matches the style of the original writer, and does an excellent job of advocating for Knausgaard.

Though I’m not going to run and buy any Fleming (I’m pretty certain there are copies of almost everything he wrote in boxes in my parents’ garage), I think I’ll pick up one of the (slim) Kerouacs I haven’t read next time I see one, and maybe I’ll buy the Knausgaard book about Edvard Munch. Though maybe not: there are so many books that are less of a potential risk.

bye bye bye bye bye keep readin’

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