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On Philip Terry

Colin Burrow

12 July 2017
... If the world​ of experimental poetry makes you think of pseudy dudes in black 501s and Doc Martens, then I would prescribe a small daily dose of Philip Terry, for whom being experimental chiefly means being thoughtfully rebellious and funny. In his translation of Dante’s Inferno (2014), Terry is guided through the hell that is the University of Essex (where he is professor of creative writing) by the Beat poet Ted Berrigan ...

On Ilya Kaminsky

Colin Burrow: Ilya Kaminsky

24 October 2019
... Ilya Kaminsky​ was born in 1977 in Odessa, the Ukrainian city named after Odysseus. In his first full-length collection of verse, Dancing in Odessa (2004), he let his readers in on a ‘secret’: ‘At the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing, I began to see voices.’ When he was 16 his parents were granted asylum in the US and left ‘Odessa in such a hurry that we forgot the suitcase filled with English dictionaries outside our apartment building ...

Cumin-coated

Colin Burrow: Two Novels about Lost Bellinis

14 August 2008
The Bellini Card 
by Jason Goodwin.
Faber, 306 pp., £12.99, July 2008, 978 0 571 23992 4
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The Bellini Madonna 
by Elizabeth Lowry.
Quercus, 343 pp., July 2008, 978 1 84724 364 5
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... Are there too many novels about missing Old Masters? Anyone who reads Jason Goodwin’s The Bellini Card might be forgiven for thinking so. It’s about a search for a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror which was supposedly painted by Gentile Bellini during his visit to Istanbul in 1479. It relentlessly assembles all the standard fixtures and fittings of the sub-genre: exploitative forgers, dodgy art dealers, even dodgier descriptions of Venice, a blonde contessa who allows her hair to fall ‘in golden sheaves’ before she fences with our hero (who has the rare distinction of being an Ottoman eunuch detective, which alleviates the rich diet of cliché a little) and reveals that she has Something to Hide ...

Semi-colons are for the weak

Colin Burrow: Bond Redux

19 December 2013
Solo: A James Bond Novel 
by William Boyd.
Cape, 322 pp., £18.99, September 2013, 978 0 224 09747 5
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... Morning dearie’. Bond heaved himself awake. A set of teeth was grinning at him from the glass next to his bed. He was in an Innov8 2000 Profiling Hospital Bed with full electronic tilt control. Two tubes ran out of his side to drain the cavity where his right lung used to be. The nurse was trying to put her arm around him to help him sit up. ‘Now Jimmy … ’ ‘My name is … ’ What the devil was it? ‘Don’t mumble, Jimmy ...

On Michael Longley

Colin Burrow: Michael Longley

18 October 2017
... There are​ few contemporary poets as likeable as Michael Longley. That’s not because his poems are simply amiable, but because he looks at things hard and clearly and invites his readers to share his acts of seeing. In his new book, Angel Hill (Cape, £10), even a cataract operation is an opportunity to celebrate sharpness of vision: ‘My eyeball’s frozen ...

Slice of Life

Colin Burrow: Robin Robertson

30 August 2018
The Long Take 
by Robin Robertson.
Picador, 256 pp., £14.99, February 2018, 978 1 5098 4688 7
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... Robin Robertson​ is something of a specialist in pain. He usually describes what painful events look like from the outside rather than how they feel from within. It’s often as though sufferers are so entranced by the appearance of what’s happening to them that they can’t actually see how bad it is. There is a fine slight poem from Slow Air (2002) called ‘Break’ in which a woman is washing glasses in the sink and hears a dull click, like a tongue, under the soap suds ...

On Les Murray

Colin Burrow: Les Murray

26 July 2017
... Bunyah is​ a valley about 300 km north of Sydney in which the Australian poet Les Murray grew up, and to which he returned in 1985 as ‘my refuge and my homeplace’. Over-educated readers might imagine from its title that On Bunyah (Carcanet, £14.99) is a set of philosophical meditations which belongs on the shelves next to, say, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty ...

On Alice Oswald

Colin Burrow

21 September 2016
... another’ is followed by twenty seconds of silence ‘and then a chaffinch starts and/then another’ is followed by another twenty seconds of silence ‘and starts and starts’. This allows Oswald to do what she has always wanted to do, which is to represent being in time, where things recur and repeat, and in which attempts to pause and linger on the moment get thwarted by the necessary flow of time ...

No Way Out

Colin Burrow: John McGahern

20 October 2005
Memoir 
by John McGahern.
Faber, 272 pp., £16.99, September 2005, 0 571 22810 0
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... John McGahern is an extraordinary writer of charm and violence. His most recent novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002), has a looseness and a gaiety which it took him nearly seventy years to allow himself. His earlier work marked him as one of the great writers of claustrophobia. His novels tend to evoke small places – single houses or tiny communities – and to crush into those places a set of family and moral ties that make them feel even smaller and tighter ...

Halifax hots up

Colin Burrow: Writing (and reading) charitably

21 October 2004
Havoc, in Its Third Year 
by Ronan Bennett.
Bloomsbury, 244 pp., £16.99, September 2004, 0 7475 6249 0
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... I’m one of those writers who likes to stay with what he knows,’ James Gillespie, the persistently apolitical hero of Ronan Bennett’s third novel, The Catastrophist (1998), says. Gillespie, now a novelist, was once a historian. In his PhD he had argued that ‘the great political and religious upheavals of the 16th century owed little to ideological or doctrinal conviction, and everything to the Tudor state’s perpetual need for cash ...

It’s a lie

Colin Burrow: M.J. Hyland’s Creepy Adolescents

2 November 2006
Carry Me Down 
by M.J. Hyland.
Canongate, 334 pp., £9.99, April 2006, 1 84195 734 8
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... Both of M.J. Hyland’s novels – only two so far – are written from the perspective of weird adolescents. Both books are strong, awkward and unobvious in ways that get under your skin. How the Light Gets In (2004) presents the world in the first-person present tense of Lou Connor, an Australian teenager who escapes from her family, which is impoverished in every way, by staying with a family in America ...

A Hee-Haw to Apuleius

Colin Burrow: John Crowley's Impure Fantasy

1 November 2007
The Solitudes 
by John Crowley.
Overlook, 429 pp., £7.90, September 2007, 978 1 58567 986 7
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Endless Things 
by John Crowley.
Small Beer, 341 pp., $24, May 2007, 978 1 931520 22 5
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... John Crowley’s novels are hard to describe. His best one, Little, Big (1981), is probably something you might call ‘fantasy’. It contains talking trout, and little people, and witches in New York, and an attempt by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to rule the world again, which is thwarted by a family who possess a magic deck of cards. What makes it not quite fantasy, or perhaps fantasy askew, or impure fantasy, is that its magic is invariably seen only out of the corner of the eye, as a flicker in the undergrowth; most of its characters aren’t quite sure they believe in what they think they might have seen ...

Adam to Zeus

Colin Burrow: John Banville

11 March 2010
The Infinities 
by John Banville.
Picador, 300 pp., £7.99, March 2010, 978 0 330 45025 6
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... There’s a revealing slip near the start of John Banville’s new novel. Ursula Godley, whose husband lies dying upstairs, reflects on her son and daughter: ‘These are the creatures she carried inside her and gave birth to and fed from her own breast, phoenix-like.’ A phoenix can never feed its young because there is only ever one of it at a time ...

She Doesn’t Protest

Colin Burrow: The Untranslatable Decameron

12 March 2009
Decameron 
by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by J.G. Nichols.
Oneworld, 660 pp., £12.99, May 2008, 978 1 84749 057 5
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... In Florence in 1348, shortly after two of its biggest banks collapsed because the English king had defaulted on a loan, roughly two-thirds of the population died of the Black Death. Egg-shaped buboes swelled up in the victims’ armpits or groins, and then black bruising spread across their bodies. According to Giovanni Boccaccio, whose father and stepmother died during the outbreak, the disease was so infectious that pigs who nuzzled the discarded clothing of the dead began instantly to writhe in agony, and then dropped down dead ...

Echoes and Whisperings

Colin Burrow: Colm Tóibín’s ‘Oresteia’

31 May 2017
House of Names 
by Colm Tóibín.
Viking, 262 pp., £12.99, May 2017, 978 0 241 25768 5
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... At the start​ of Aeschylus’ Oresteia a watchman sees a flaming beacon. This is supposed to be the sign that Troy has fallen and that Agamemnon is coming home from the Trojan war. The watchman briefly rejoices. Then he says (in Richmond Lattimore’s translation): ‘The rest/I leave to silence; for an ox stands huge upon/my tongue. The house itself, could it take voice, might speak/aloud and plain ...

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