What are you reading? – 24 May 2018

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

May 24, 2018
Stack of books
Source: iStock

Richard Howells, professor of cultural sociology, King’s College London, is reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels (Flamingo, 1991). “If Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse is (arguably) Cambridge’s best-known fictional college, then St Angelicus is almost certainly its smallest. It has only six fellows, all unmarried, and a collection of ancient musical instruments. This is the setting for Fitzgerald’s novel, nominated for the Booker Prize, which reads like a piece of period whimsy to begin with, but evolves into not only a cross-class love story but a more subtle reflection on whether or not we should believe in phenomena that we cannot observe. And no: they’re not just talking about theoretical nuclear physics here, despite all the overt references to the Cavendish Laboratory and to Rutherford. These are epistemological questions much more appropriate for discussion at the quietly cerebral St Angelicus than the famously riotous Porterhouse. The food, however, is indisputably better at the latter.”

Maria Delgado, professor and director of research, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, is reading Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama (translated by Esther Allen; New York Review Books, 2016). “First published in 1956, this once-neglected existentialist novel is now regarded as an Argentine classic. It is set in 18th-century Paraguay, and its treatment of the gradual fall of the conceited governmental administrator Don Diego de Zama remains a corrosive treatment of colonialist excess. Narcissistic and self-deluded, he anticipates a posting to Peru that never materialises. The prose is often Kafkaesque in mapping the labyrinthine corridors of colonialist bureaucracy, and the novel’s brilliance lies in layering Zama’s feverish ramblings against wider considerations of Latin American identity. Revisiting the novel after more than 20 years through Esther Allen’s precise, poetic translation reminded me of the clipped precision and lasting political resonances of di Benedetto’s writing. Lucrecia Martel’s painterly, surreal cinematic adaptation is released in the UK later this month.”

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University, is reading Indira Ghose’s Much Ado about Nothing: Language and Writing (Bloomsbury, 2017). “Ghose nicely balances an easy-going critical style with some real perspicacity. She deftly provides the cultural context required to make sense of behavioural codes such as early modern notions of honour, masculine supremacy and sprezza­tura. Much of her attention is dedicated to a close examination of the play’s language, not an easy thing to do considering that, second only to The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado is Shakespeare’s most prosy play. In the case of Beatrice and Benedick, for instance, Ghose is intrigued by the ways in which their vivacious and acerbic discourse contrasts with the ‘ornate and stilted’ language spoken by the play’s courtly characters. Later she adds, ‘Beatrice and Benedick refuse to respond to romantic cues and turn potentially saccharine sentiments on their heads.’ A precise and concise critical account – highly recommended.”

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