REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 105

Bloomsbury and the Poets & Life of a Counterfeiter

by Nicholas Murray, Yasushi Inoue (trans Michael Emmerich)

If, like me, you thought Bloomsbury was the preserve of a handful of turn-of-the-century intellectuals, then let Bloomsbury and the Poets re-educate you. From Arthur Rimbaud to Charlotte Mew to Jean Cocteau to WB Yeats, Bloomsbury has housed a large and varied cast of poetic heavyweights and Nicholas Murray’s splendid little book documents centuries of literary digs, rivalries and poetry punch-ups, all in a single quarter of London.

Henry James, who visited the area in the 1880s, called it ‘dirty Bloomsbury’, while Ford Madox Ford (writing in the early 1900s) described a Bloomsbury ‘of dismal, decorous, unhappy, glamorous squares’. From these somewhat inauspicious roots, Murray charts Bloomsbury’s rise and rise, documenting the comings and goings of its verse-scribbling inhabitants via a virtual walking tour of the area.

While his geographical approach makes the book an ideal guide-in-situ (it moves from Gordon Square to Regent Square to Marchmont Street and so on), the muddled chronology occasionally makes the text difficult to follow. To remedy this, at least for the bedtime reader, a fold-out map would be a useful addition. Similarly, I felt some frustration with the restlessness of the tiny chapters, which often left me wanting more. But if Murray’s full-length offering, Real Bloomsbury (Seren), is as lively and readable as Bloomsbury and the Poets, this should offer a deeper, more expansive engagement with his subject.

Overall, this is a delightfully bite-sized hullabaloo of a book, perfect for a walking tour with friends. The writing is energetic, witty, and authoritative, demonstrating an astonishing breadth of reading and research. Its function, really, is to provide sufficient nuggets of historical gossip to fuel an idle afternoon in London, and for this purpose, it works wonderfully.

In many ways, Yasushi Inoue’s Life of a Counterfeiter couldn’t be a more different text. This newly translated triple-bill from Pushkin Press contains the title story and two others (‘Mr Goodall’s Gloves’ and ‘Reeds’) both of which are published in English for the first time. What struck me about Inoue’s prose is how beautifully, and how startlingly incongruous it seems when read against the prevailing prose style in the UK. Inoue refracts his central concerns (mismemory, nostalgia, identity) through long, flexing sentences of extraordinary depth and mystery. These are sentences so rich you can swim in, creating a kind of ecstatic prose which accumulates fragment by fragment.

Where modernism and existentialism failed to make a lasting impact on British culture, Japanese culture has embraced these modes as conceptual frameworks, perhaps in part because the latter has natural affinities with non-realistic and imagistic modes of representation. (Think of Kabuki theatre, for example.) For me, the release this offers from the tyranny of ‘realism’ in terms of both form and content, is so refreshing as to feel like waking following decades asleep. The strangeness of Inoue’s non-realistic techniques in fact produces a perversely vivid sense of the human experience.

Where British and North American literature aims for pithy quotability, Inoue’s prose builds slowly, layering motifs, symbols and memories into a palimpsest of half-glimpsed experiences. His narrators are always unreliable, reflecting the glare of their own belatedness to those histories which have made them, and Inoue beautifully captures the unreality with which we so frequently experience life. Blurring memoir with daydream, he builds accumulatively on moments of metaphor, exploring his larger concerns with such subtlety and lightness of touch that the effects are closer to poetry than prose.

In ‘Reeds’, which opens with the narrator reading a newspaper article, Inoue writes: ‘uncertainty, I suspected, was what made the incident seem like good material for a lead story’ and without doubt, uncertainty is one of Inoue’s elements. To uncertainty I would add imperfection, disintegration, and incompletion. Life, he argues, consists of a series of misremembered fragments: scenes or threads, which we must place end to end only after the event itself. As readers, let us hope that Michael Emmerich translates more of Inoue’s work (he published fifty novels and over a hundred short stories before his death in 1991), and that Pushkin Press continues to support the publication of such astonishing and vital works as this.

Amy McCauley writes for New Welsh Review online and in print.

Life of a Counterfeiter


previous review: The Brethren
next review: The Hitting Game


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