THIS WEEK’S NEW BOOKS REVIEWED | FEATURE
BOY ON FIRE: THE YOUNG NICK CAVE
Mark Mordue (Allen & Unwin)
With Bad Seeds gigs repeatedly pushed further into the ether because of Covid, there have been some Nick Cave-related things to soften the blow. On the aural side of things, L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S – a contemporary classical album by Cave [pictured, top – credit Steve Parke] and Nicholas Lens – and Carnage, made with Bad Seed and soundtrack composing partner Warren Ellis. On the visual side, 2020’s Stranger Than Kindness book accompanied a Copenhagen exhibition of the same name, while the weighty Boy On Fire covers the early years of Cave’s life. Its writer Mark Mordue was working, with Cave’s collaboration, on a broader biography until the death of the musician’s son Arthur in 2015. Boy On Fire… is what was salvaged, written with the “full support” of Cave.
The reader is vividly transported back to 1950s Warracknabeal in Victoria in the early chapters – Cave’s father a schoolteacher, his mother a librarian – and then onto the small city of Wangaratta in 1959. Cave later regretted not basing his novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, here rather than the American South, as it was primarily influenced by growing up in “country Australia… not from listening to murder ballads.”
There is plenty of humour in Boy on Fire – an incident of Cave’s childhood choirmaster, one Paul James Harvey, reading an article espousing PJ Harvey’s influence on 1997 Bad Seeds album The Boatman’s Call and proudly relaying this to his latterday congregation – and beautiful moments, as well as delinquency and sadness. Mordue calls on a cast of many: Cave’s family, schoolfriends, and maverick arty bandmates including Mick Harvey and the late Rowland S Howard. He does a fine job of joining the dots between the outlaw Ned Kelly, literary classics, Leonard Cohen, The Stooges, Alex Harvey, and David Bowie – how these figures and more shaped the young Cave and the art he created.
When punk kicked off in Australia, with the likes of The Saints and Radio Birdman, Cave was already cooking up a storm in Melbourne with The Boys Next Door.The book ends in 1980 as that band board a plane to London, drummer Phil Calvert writing “It was the best thing that ever happened to any of us”; they soon became The Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds later emerging from their wreckage.Cave survived addiction and tragedy to create a remarkable and ever-growing body of work: singer Anita Lane credits him with “this incredible drive that’s got him through everything. He’s a workaholic.” Hopefully Mordue will write a follow-up to this highly engaging biography very soon.
Price: £20. Info: here
words DAVID NOBAKHT
Roy D Hacksaw (Earth Island)
Having had the privilege of a being a victim of toilet roll bombardment by the author in question here, I find myself already endeared to the cover of Roy’s new novel – and if Bugger Banksy is as entertaining as his band Hacksaw, then we are in for a real treat. We all love and embrace the elusive yet iconic Banksy, but what about those chosen few, who lives have been turned upside when a new ‘Banksy’ has graced their building? That is the premise for this utterly entertaining novel, as a couple who are trying to keep their covert ‘business’ a secret suddenly find the eyes of the world on them while a steady stream of improbable characters converges on their Welsh barn.
Roy has worked hard to flesh out these bright and breezy characters, and the comedy comes thick and fast, making for an easy read. The Bristolian has obviously spent a lot of time on our side of the bridge and demonstrates a good appreciation of Welsh humour, far surpassing the lazy “hilarity” of the likes of Gavin & Stacey. An interesting take on a fascinating subject matter, Hacksaw has the ability to see things from an aspect few would have thought of and with that has created this captivating little story.
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words CHRIS ANDREWS
THE INSOMNIAC SOCIETY
Gabrielle Levy [trans. Maren Baudet-Lackner] (Hodder & Stoughton)
Here, Gabrielle Levy does an admirable job characterising her hodgepodge collection of insomniacs and draws from a varied palette of types, demonstrating how anyone, from any strata of society, can lose their sleep. Protagonist Claire is a complex, unapologetic individual who remains relatable and likeable throughout difficult passages, and the supporting cast provide a varied and interesting look into the different ways people can fall apart: the unrelenting punishment chronic tiredness deals out to those who can’t sleep. The alienation they suffer from can at times feel exhausting for the reader – though perhaps that’s the point.
The book is relatively short, and therein lies its greatest weakness. Levy’s characters are genuinely interesting and sympathetic people, and the first acts of the book build an intriguing picture of their problems and potential redemption. By the end, however, Levy is resolving these issues at a breakneck pace, more concerned with the final conceit of her novel than with giving her characters the complex, interpersonal resolutions they deserve.
Maren Baudet-Lackner’s translation is clear and precise, with few editorial errors and a consistent voice. Clunky dialogue exclamations occasionally show the artifice in the translation, but by-and-large Levy’s characters shine through.
Price: £8.99. Info: here
words JOHN MCLOUGHLIN
MONSIEUR DE PHOCAS
Jean Lorrain [trans. Francis Amery] (Dedalus)
Originally written a century ago, Lorrain’s readers follow his titular lead, Monsieur De Phocas, as he soirees around a decadent late 19th century Paris in search of a cure for the deviant and brutal desires that plague him. Populated by a colourful cast of eccentric and roguish members of high society, and punctuated with moments of violence, Monsieur De Phocas’s exploration of an opium-riddled underworld is equal parts sensational and depraved.
Comparisons have been drawn between Lorrain’s novel and the likes of Wilde and Huysmans, but many readers may also detect both narrative and thematic parallels with Ellis’ American Psycho. Both tales follow lead characters who present themselves as steeped in wealth and success as they glide through the upper echelons of their respective societies, and both are cursed with a proclivity for depraved acts of violence.
Such a comparison also reveals the core failing of Phocas, for while Ellis sought to ultimately provide a commentary on American society, the inclusion of Lorrain’s violent acts seem to rest primarily on their potential to shock. Despite being peppered with many brilliant glimpses of the evils and oddities that may have populated fin de siecle Paris, it’s that glaring lack of wider insight that prevents Phocas being anything more than a fun opportunity to gawk at a bygone era.
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words ALEX PAYNE
Rosalind Hudis (Seren)
This incredible collection from Hudis is an expertly curated, visually transformative delve into the viscera, emotion and obsession of art restoration. Hudis somehow finds infinite ways of exploring the subtle science and agonising art that goes into bringing paintings back from the dead. And it is this personification of the subjects, the metamorphosis of restorer to surgeon, seducer and saviour that makes these poems so immediate and so fascinating.
Consolidant finds the restorer working on the image of a lady: “We turned on the infa-red on her / exposed her particles, saw her sticky traces, / a past life of beeswax in her crevices.” The dying paintings are not only brought back from the brink by the restorers’ work, but also given new life as 3D characters, ensouled beings – re-ensouled after years of neglect – by Hudis’ verses.
Every aspect of the restorative procedure is given analysis, and the endless approaches Hudis takes to show this is a feat in itself. The spatula, the hose, the chemicals, the lamp are instruments of butchery or beauty, depending on the presentation and the perspective. Under ii moves the reader’s gaze to the subject being restored: “I sense the restorer’s eye, probing / Even down here, the heatless, base layer, he raises / my temperature minutely / … But I long for water’s memory.”
Hudis gives reference to some of the works she has used as her inspiration in the end notes; these, albeit interesting, are hardly needed as the poems are so illustrative on their own. A slight segue into the historic lives of women who have lived beyond the confines of their time and gender allows west Wales-based Hudis a welcome exploration of Llangrannog through the eyes of 19th century navigator Sarah Jane Rees.
The dreadful tale of Reading 2 Diorama made me want to explore more of the writer’s work not concerned with art, as the poem brought “puppet-jaws” around the child whose “eternally unseeing” mother is left to mourn. But the image that stayed with me most was that of the painted lady, made slowly invisible by the power of time and light as the restorer brings his own steady hand to strengthen her fading one. She Dies First On The Left: “The side the sun falls / … We grasp / as she grasps the bed rail / with her weak hand / where touch drops away.”
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words JOHN-PAUL DAVIES