Friday, June 20, 2008

Eluned Summers-Bremner

Eluned Summers-Bremner is the author of Insomnia: A Cultural History; the forthcoming books, A History of Wandering and Ian McEwan: Sex, Death and History; and many scholarly essays.

Last week, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Because I owe a book on the novelist Ian McEwan to a publisher by the end of July, most of this year has been taken up with rereading McEwan--or illicitly reading things like Bruce Chatwin’s biography and Kerouac’s On the Road for the History of Wandering I’ll be writing after that, but which I’m not allowed to work on yet. I was struck by how much I enjoyed (again) McEwan’s Saturday while simultaneously feeling short-changed by it as a book about the decision to go to war in Iraq. And I was struck by his having neurosurgeon Henry Perowne issue a statement about science one day cracking the secret of consciousness in a novel in which Perowne’s daughter’s recitation of a poem works the magic that frees the family from a hold-up.

Literary works conjure belief explicitly, but the suggestion that complete (scientific) knowledge is always just around the corner is magical thinking, too. I didn’t get really interested in the text until I realised the importance the narrative gives to the characters’--both Perowne’s and his daughter Daisy’s--voices as, I guess, material acts of language the consequences of which are extremely significant--life or death in this novel--but not predictable in advance. The voice is perhaps the knife-edge, the performative element, of language, like a surgeon’s scalpel: you can be a master of it without always knowing what will result. Anyway the book works well as an enjoyable thriller and McEwan is fabulous with detail: Henry’s squash game with his anaesthetist is wonderfully done, a mini-epic, but then so is Henry’s son Theo’s music and his breakfasts!

I’m about halfway through James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, and am not enjoying it as much as I thought I would--usually I enjoy foreign correspondent in a war zone books a lot, like travel stories but with extra danger and moral complication. I read a review before I read it which claimed that the protagonist’s unlikeability is a problem (he's a journalist who's been in Afghanistan), but I’m not sure whether it’s that that’s bothering me or something else. I think the conversations about politics read a bit too much like set pieces, so far anyway, although I expect in this area there’s always going to be a problem with things having been said in similar ways before.

I’m also part way through rereading both John McGahern’s Collected Stories and Colum McCann’s Fishing the Sloe-Black River, and reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City. I read McCann’s Zoli earlier this year for something I had to write, and Dancer before that, which was great, but I like these early stories better. I’m currently reading with an eye to writing things that might not be non-fiction--I don’t want to say fiction which might hex the attempt--in an upcoming period of research leave in London so I’m looking for things particular writers do well, kind of going back to creative writing school. I like the way McCann disciplines the natural music of his voice in these stories. I’m loving Pamuk's Istanbul so much I’m trying to read it slowly. It’s a city I haven’t been to yet, and there’s a peculiar pleasure in reading about a city you long to visit but haven’t yet gotten around to. The photographs are great too, but less unsettling than, say, W. G. Sebald’s photographs, more enjoyably than disturbingly haunting. I’m saving rereading John Updike up for the research leave, too--that’s going to be a lot of fun.
Read more about Insomnia: A Cultural History, including an excerpt as well as reviews at the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

Learn more about Eluned Summers-Bremner and her work.

--Marshal Zeringue