Quotable Words: On Jack London

Great lead to a TLS review of a new bio of Jack London.

White Fang, First EditionWhat he sought was an impassioned realism”, Jack London wrote of his alter ego, the striving novelist Martin Eden. “What he wanted was life as it was, with all its spirit-groping and soulreaching left in.” One often wishes that London himself had left out the groping and reaching. For all the wide-eyed breathlessness of his characters and the hurtling momentum of his prose – “To live! To live! To live!”, says Wolf Larsen in The Sea-Wolf (1904) – he was a better writer when he slowed down and even stood still, overcoming his fear that inertia meant creative death. Only then could he abstain from the romantic posturing and philosophical maundering of “London the amateur Great Thinker” (as H. L. Mencken called him) and register the undramatic, minor-key world around him – everything that other writers of the Strenuous Age were too exhausted to notice. He might declare, at the height of liquor-fuelled self-regard, “I have ten thousand august connotations” (as he does in his memoir John Barleycorn [1913]), but he is more convincing when he sharpens his observational skills against the one irreducible fact of life named in White Fang (1906): “They were meat”, London writes of two Klondike travellers monitored by a hiding wolf, “and it was hungry”.

Nice work by Marc Robinson. (Full review behind pay wall, sorry). I particularly love that “amateur Great Thinker” jibe by Mencken. A widely applicable term, methinks.)

Critical Words: Adam Mars-Jones

A sharp-penned LRB regular makes short work of Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. Here’s the lead:

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If Taiye Selasi’s debut novel was as fascinating as its acknowledgments pages the book would be a triumph. Acknowledgments in books have gone the way of Oscar acceptance speeches in recent years, with ever more exhaustive tributes – though in the case of a book no prize has yet been awarded. Selasi’s list contains more than 150 names, and begins: ‘I am so very grateful to God, and (in alphabetical order, from the bottom of my heart) Andrew Wylie …’ It’s an unusual version of alphabetical order that gives Andrew ‘the Jackal’ Wylie pride of place and the proper proximity to God. (If Wylie was actually a god he would be Anubis, near the top of the list without any fancy footwork.) In fact the tributes here are arranged by alphabetical order of first name or, more eccentrically, title. There’s a run of family accolades: ‘Dr Juliette Tuakli my beloved mum, Dr Lade Wosornu my brilliant father, Dr Wilburn Williams my dearest dad’. Three parents, and all of them doctors. If there isn’t a novel in that then there’s no justice – but it isn’t this one.

The rest is behind the pay wall, but you can read John Lanchester on Spanish banks or Michael Wood on “Behind the Candelabra” for free.

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