‘Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.’ – Oscar Wilde
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
At what point does sacrificing for art stop being acceptable? When does the obsession to create stop being rewarded and become a sin? These are some of the questions posed by Ian McEwan in his Booker Prize winning novel Amsterdam, the story of two middle-aged friends with a former lover in common. One of the friends, Clive, is a composer who has been commissioned to compose an orchestra for the upcoming millennium, a piece he believes will be the most important work of his life, but he has yet to write the melody. While walking in the midlands, he commits a crime for the sake of his art that causes a rift between the two, forcing a chain of events that leads to the books dramatic conclusion. As with all McEwan books, the prose is drabbed with the English chill that we would expect from him, while the characters push their fate constantly forward through a series of errors that finish in the only bizarre way that it possibly could. Full of quiet fury and intense dialogue, you could cut the tension of Amsterdam with a knife, and McEwan asks questions of our modern society that should resonate deeply with anyone who dreams of creating art.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
This book is not a book. It’s a monster, an absolute beast that a small child would struggle to carry. Through a heavy use of footnotes and endless detail, Infinite Jest seems to multiply itself over and over, as if someone is sneaking into your room at night and adding pages while you sleep. There’s so much going on in this 1078 page book, most of it philosophical allegory, some of it satirical (Rush Limbaugh was a president of what was formerly the United States and the most feared terrorist group consists solely of Canadian amputees) that it can seem easy to get lost in its sheer depth. However, the common thread throughout is the tragic Incandenza family. James, the father, was a filmmaker who, in a move as subtle as a frying pan to the face, creates films discussing infinity and its effects on the mind. These films are described in abundance throughout the story and the footnotes, a prime example being when James and his mentally handicapped son would show a film that only consisted of the cinema goers entering the auditorium and sitting down to watch the film they were currently watching. However, when a film James made is released that hypnotizes the viewer into never wanting to stop watching the tape, infinitely trapped and not caring for anything else , Wallace makes us examine the point at which art becomes nothing but drooling, endless and meaningless entertainment. This book is cartoonishly strange, deeply profound, and frighteningly long, but if you have a month to spare, you will be a different person by the time you reach the last page.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
It’s a rare thing to see a novel that embraces a fast-paced plot while holding important and emotional thematic ideas to the light. Graham Greene did it with Brighton Rock, as did Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men. There is no doubt, however, that we can add Donna Tartt to the list, citing The Goldfinch as the platform from which she launches herself into the same sentences as these names. Tartt paints a beautiful and fulfilling picture of Theo Decker and his obsession with a painting, not only because of its beauty, but because the last memories of his mother that are wrapped up with it. The Goldfinch follows Theo from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, all the time carrying a beloved secret piece of art that could ruin his life. And yet, even with a range of dramatic characters and through all the excitement, the best moments are the slow ones, the scenes in the Nevada desert or in a quiet hotel room, the pauses when Tartt shows us she can really write. This novel echoes and reverberates, stealing breaths and heartbeats through its beauty, while keeping eyes glued to the page with its simplicity and action. While I doubt you could read it in one sitting (Goldfinch has 864 reasons to be called Dickensian), you will want to pick it up again whenever you have put it down.
The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher
Initially, Emperor Waltz seems overambitious, with three main characters who have no actual physical links and only literary ones, but Philip Hensher (author of The Northern Clemency, which was shortlisted for the Booker) writes in a way that is approachable and precise, but still fraught with intelligence; while the characters are centuries away from one and other, we can clearly see how they are linked in more ways than one. Split between A.D 203, 1922, and 1979, it may come off as random, but the selection of characters and settings is anything but. One of the main characters is the young German Christian, an unsure artist who studies in the new Bauhaus University in Weimar during the fallout from the First World War. Hensher captures the tone and feel of Post-war Germany with ease, but also plays with language well, reminding us constantly of the fact that Christian is actually speaking Germany, being formal when he has to be, and informal when he wants to be. Through letters and dialogue, Hensher shows Christians struggle with himself, his want to be a painter instead of an architect, and the daily efforts of being poor in Germany during this harsh time. There is no doubt that The Emperor Waltz is long, but like all books of this calibre, is certainly more than worth the time put into it.
Words by the inimitable Jack Williams
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