David Rose’s Top Five for 2018 3rd December 2018 – Posted in: Blog

Every year we ask Unthank authors to compile an end-of-year list from the books they have read that year, one refreshingly unconstrained to books published in 2018. Any bibliophile worth his or her salts is an omnivore. We don’t just read what everyone is chattering about. What we choose to read, and when, may offer us a revelation of how things are, taking us on a journey through the corridors and byways our imaginations, emotions and fears have drawn us to unwillingly. The first in our seasonal series this year is David Rose. 


My five books come as two pairs and an odd one, although several of them are odd in their way.

In reverse chronological order: I have just finished Sue Prideaux’s new biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite! (Faber). I have never been able to take Nietzsche seriously as a thinker, partly due to the aphoristic scatter-gun approach, partly to his moustache (never trust philosophers with facial hair), but was curious as to why he exerted such baleful influence on that generation, including composers such as Delius and Mahler, who set him to music. Prideaux doesn’t really explain, since this is biography not exegesis, but she certainly recounts a fascinating, and pitiful life (a pity which Nietzsche would have abhorred, but it’s the only possible reaction, to his later madness, but also his chronic ill health from early manhood). Interesting to learn,  apropos composers, that although known for his idolizing and later rejection of Wagner, he was also an amateur composer himself, and famous among friends for impassioned improvisation at the piano.

This is Prideaux’s period: she has written previous biographies of Strindberg (which I read a few years ago) and Munch. Interestingly, they all tie in; in fact, she uses a lithograph of Nietzsche by Munch for the dust jacket. I must now  seek out her biography of Munch to complete the trilogy.

In the meantime, I did seek out Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (Penguin Classics), his only lucid book, and fascinatingly provocative; his critique of the Socratic tradition of reason and light being the antithesis of tragedy is sublime – I have never really swallowed the Aristotelian theory of Tragedy as a moral laxative, so Nietzsche’s impassioned theories – on the role of Dionysus v. Apollo, on the place of the chorus as central to the mystery, of psychological characterization in later tragedy as spelling the death of Tragedy in its religious and cultural guise – are all powerfully stimulating.

The other pair of books centre on Giorgio de Chirico, the Metaphysical and adopted Surrealist artist. I read the study of his work and life early in the year – a new addition to Taschen’s invaluable, inexpensive art series; well illustrated, with biographical detail brought to bear on the work, e.g. the fact that his Italian father was a railway engineer, in charge of building the railway system in Thessaly, explains both his birth in Greece, and the appearance in so many of his works of that melancholy train in the far distance.

 Then, some  months later, I received as a gift an American edition of de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros (Exact Change), which has a publishing history as surreal as the novel. Written in 1929 and published in France, it quickly disappeared, disowned by de Chirico. It was republished in France in 1964, then an anonymous translation into English was published in 1966 in New York, by a publisher who appears not to have existed – no publisher was ever traced to the address given, and the printer’s mark was registered in Belgrade. However, it was reviewed on publication, by the poet John Ashbery in Book Week, and that review forms the introduction to this 1992 edition, along with Ashbery’s translations of other short fictional pieces. The novel is fittingly strange, genuinely surrealist in that it has a meandering anti-structure and dreamlike texture – hauntingly illogical but precisely detailed, e.g. a building described as looking like ‘a German consulate in Melbourne’ (there is no evidence de Chirico ever visited Melbourne, but the description is inspired). No point attempting to describe the novel – the only comparison I can make is with the work of Paul Kavanagh. You have to experience it, and I believe you should.

The few essays, on art, travel etc. included, are also worth reading – on Courbet, on his own work, on silence – they have the lightning-flashes of perception of Lawrence, and add to the effect of his paintings, I find.

The mathematically odd book out is We Were Strangers, edited by Richard V. Hirst (Confingo), an anthology of short stories inspired by Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures, which is making an impact, and doing a brisk trade at Rough Trade as well as bookshops.

I have to say that Joy Division is not part of my musical field, but I did buy a CD of the album; I am pleased to say it made no difference to my enjoyment of the stories, since the point of the exercise is stimulation rather than replication. For example, the standout story, for me, is Nicholas Royle’s opener, ‘Disorder’, which uses all and only the lyrics of the complete album, using only the repetitions found in the original, cut up and reassembled to devastating effect, producing rhythms and cadences, and bleakly dark themes and phrasing, worthy of mid-period Beckett. A tour de force.  Other successes include David Gaffney’s ‘Insight’, whose weirdness is beautifully understated, Sophie Mackintosh’s ‘New Dawn Fades’, Louise Marr’s ‘Interzone’ (all stories are titled by the respective tracks). There is also good work from Jessie Greengrass, Jenn Ashworth, Zoe Lambert, Eley Williams, Toby Litt and Anne Billson. And a bonus: a graphic interlude by Zoe McLean, who also did the impressive design of the book.

I can understand why it is causing a stir, even if I don’t understand the original lyrics.


David Rose’s Meridian: A Day in the Life with Incidental Voices was published by Unthank in 2015 and is available in startlingly nice hardback and for your Kindle.

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