Jun 11, 2019

hornby on craft

I’m reading Nick Hornby’s collected book criticism from The Believer magazine called Ten Years in the Tub and lapping up every word. How is it that reviews from more than a decade ago hold my attention so powerfully? Hornby notes what he buys and what he actually reads in a month’s time; he mixes old and new alike, so the reviews are more essays in general than trendy topics. Here are a couple of highlights I’ll be thinking about for a while.

On Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin:

It’s a neat plot, but Death and the Penguin isn’t a plotty book: Kurkov gives himself plenty of room to breathe (it’s actually more of a long, rueful sigh) and that’s pretty cool in and of itself. This is a literary novel—Kurkov loves his weltschmerz as much as the next guy—but he doesn’t see why weltschmerz shouldn’t come bundled up with a narrative that kicks a little bit of ass. Sometimes it seems as though everything in the arts (and I include sports in the arts) is about time and space—giving yourself room to move, finding the time to play…My copy of Death and the Penguin is two hundred and twenty-eight pages long, and yet it never seems overstuffed, or underpowered, and it manages to be about an awful lot, and it never ever forgets or overlooks gesture or detail. And I already said it was funny, didn’t I? What more do you want? At that length, you couldn’t even reasonably want less.

And on Nashville, because the book also veers into other topics, like all good criticism:

Robert Altman’s Nashville is one of my favorite films—or, at least, I think it is. I haven’t seen it in a while, and the last time I did, I noticed the longueurs more than I ever had before. Maybe the best thing to do with favorite films and books is to leave them be: to achieve such an exalted position means that they entered your life at exactly the right time, in precisely the right place, and those conditions can never be re-created. Sometimes we want to revisit them in order to check whether they were really as good as we remember them being, but this has to be a suspect impulse, because what it presupposes is that we have more reason to trust our critical judgments as we get older, whereas I am beginning to believe that the reverse is true. I was eighteen when I saw Nashville for the first time, and I was electrified by its shifts in tone, its sudden bursts of feeling and meaning, its ambition, its occasional obscurity, even its pretensions. I don’t think I’d ever seen an art movie before, and I certainly hadn’t seen an art movie set in a world I recognized. So I came out of the cinema that night a slightly changed person, suddenly aware that there was a different way of doing things. None of that is going to happen again, but so what? And why mess with a good thing? Favorites should be left where they belong, buried somewhere deep in a past self.