A Painful Summary

100345897916916239_K9VLdzu9_fI’m sorry to say that the last two posts were ones that I had in reserve and which just popped up on the blog automatically.  I also need to apologise for not getting round and visiting you during the past few days.  Somehow I managed to trap a nerve in my neck while I was asleep and to anyone who has yet to explore this particular form of self-inflicted torture I can only say don’t bother.  The pain is excruciating and doesn’t go away once the nerve has been released.  Seven days on I can still only look to my right or left by turning my whole body and looking up or down other than by eye movement is a definite no go.

This has not only got in the way of writing, it hasn’t done much for my reading either.  I was around three-fifths of the way through Richard House’s monumental The Kills, long-listed for this year’s Booker, when disaster struck and now that I can pick up a book again I’ve had to leave it to one side in order to prepare the books for this year’s Summer School.

Richard House works in the same department as I do, so I tackled his book with mixed motivation.  There was a touch of collegiate solidarity in there, mingled with an interest in the unusual narrative organisation and maybe just a smidgin of terror lest I should meet him in the corridor and have to admit I hadn’t read it.  Two and a bit sections through I’m appreciating it rather than enjoying it.  I don’t think it’s a book you easily enjoy given its subject matter.  As far as I’ve got the main concern is the financial wheeling and dealings behind the allied withdrawal from Iraq and the complete disregard for life shown by the people who hope to make their fortunes in this arena.  House has a lot to say about the way one human being is willing to prey on the weaknesses of another and so from that point of view it doesn’t make for easy reading.  However, the narrative swings along at a pace and the first section Sutler is particularly gripping.  I’m looking forward to getting back to it when the Summer School is over.

In preparation for that I’ve just started on another Booker nominated novel, Michael Frayn’s Headlong, which tells the story of academic Martin Clay’s vain attempts to prove that a painting belonging to a neighbour is a missing Bruegel, without, of course, letting said neighbour in on the secret.  I read it when it was first published in 1999 but I’d forgotten just how funny it is and what a frighteningly accurate depiction of the research process it offers.  I hope I’ve never been quite as ruthless in my attempts to steer people away from my own particular area of academic concern but I can’t swear that I’ve never felt similar anxiety when a colleague has appeared to be showing too close an interest in what texts I’m pouring over and why.  Teaching it without baring too much of my own soul is going to be a challenge.


15 thoughts on “A Painful Summary

    1. I love his plays as well, Jenny. I started out as a drama student and so that is where I first made his acquaintance. Do you know ‘Copenhagen’? It’s very different to “Noises Off’ but I think the best thing he’s ever written.

  1. Hi, Alex. Though I don’t know if it qualifies as being in the same category as a pinched nerve, I’ve often awoken with a stiff neck on one or both sides, and the pain of neck trauma is indeed not only annoying for one’s daily activities, but also extremely painful. Now I know what was meant first-hand when people told me I was being too “stiff-necked” about some literary issue or other! As to telling a colleague or friend what one thinks of their work, I’ve usually found that as the saying goes, honesty is the best policy, though it has to be carefully thought out and constructive criticism with praise and blame in the proper proportions. Which is to say, if you really don’t like the book or have trouble with it, it’s best before commenting also to think of some positive things you can say about it without running into another old saying, i.e., “damning it with faint praise.” I don’t know if that helps or the advice is too general, but serious thought about a colleague’s work that goes beyond a careless “It just didn’t grab me,” or “I don’t know why, but i didn’t like it” is what’s required. Our job as academics and critics and just good readers is to know the “why” of the “what,” why we liked or didn’t like something. That way, even if the work didn’t impress us favorably, our comments can be helpful. And you know also that I’m not preaching at you, just commenting, because the gist of your remarks above suggests that you are already aware of what I’m talking about, the responsibility of the position you’re in. Ta!

    1. Oh yes, I wouldn’t have any problem being honestly constructive about it. It’s the thought of not having anything to say about it that I’m trying to avoid:)

      I also have the problem that a friend is the partner of someone else who has been long-listed. I’m hoping the short list will solve the problem of which I eventually have to root for.

  2. Alex, I am wincing in sympathy – is it something that will respond to treatment, or just to time? Headlong sounds very appealing, around the idea of a lost masterpiece – whether misplaced or misappropriated!

    1. Time, I’m afraid, is the only cure. Imagine having a whopping great bruise at the base of your skull. You just have to wait for it to go away. It’s a lot better today, though and I think another three or four days should see it healed.

  3. Sympathy pains for you here. I’ve never had a pinched nerve like that but I know a few people who have and understand just how horrible it is. I hope you continue on the mend. So glad you are at least able to pick up a book again!

  4. There was a very good article in the Sunday Times arts supplement yesterday about this book in the context of how authors are experimenting with e forms of writing.

    I winced when you described that problem with your neck. I’ve heard about trapped nerves but never realised they could come upon you while asleep. Poor you… hope it does get better soon

    1. Given what I’d heard round the department, I was actually surprised at how little experimentation there is in ‘The Kills’. I have what is called the enhanced version, so all the bells and whistles, and in truth there isn’t that much. You certainly don’t need what’s there to follow the story.

      Thanks for the sympathy. Today is the first day that I’ve been really convinced it is going to get better.

  5. Owwwwww! How horrid. Pain is so hopelessly distracting, somehow, so it’s not just the fact of being in pain, it’s the cessation of life as we know it while it lasts. I send huge sympathy. I am off to the dentist in half an hour to get what I presume is a cavity fixed. I’d rather not be doing that, either. I think I must have missed the post in which you said which of the book selections was chosen for the summer school. Is this one literature and art, then? I’m really bad with chunksters, so I think even if I feared bumping into a colleague, I would exert all my powers to find a few good summaries online to crib from! What a good community member you are to read it so thoughtfully.

    1. The Bears are holding their paws for you. We have a dread of dentists in this house even though the one I go to is very good – as dentists go.

      Yes, we’re doing the Investigating Art topic for the Summer School. I’m enjoying re-reading the books but it does raise the issue of how you translate details of one art form into another. I suspect we will all have some reference point when it comes to the Bruegel but the works in the other two are likely to be less familiar. I’ll be interested to see I’d that becomes a topic of discussion.

  6. I hope it eases off really soon. My copy of The Kills has just arrived – but I need to make to read the doorstop of a book – but I love spy stories, so am looking forward to it.

    1. Richard House gave a friend of mine a signed copy and then she had to get it home from work on the bus. I don’t think her back has recovered yet. The neck is much better thanks. How are the kittens settling in?

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