Tag Archives: book review

You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, by Jonathon Keats (OUP, 2016)

Keats Jon (2016)

Fuller is intriguing and Keats’s account of him brisk and enjoyable, but it slightly lost focus as it went on — or perhaps it found a different focus from the one it started with. After a brief biographical introduction that notes the extent of Fuller’s self-mythologization, the core of the book consists of six chapters exploring themes that Fuller himself was intrigued by: mobility, shelter, education, planning, environment, and peace. By the last two, Keats freely wanders away from Fuller’s actual works and instead gives considerable space to more recent projects that have parallels to what Fuller envisaged. In the last of these chapters, which considers strategy games and simulations, Fuller is a marginal presence.

Keats writes crisply and punchily, like a good long-form journalist, though it felt as if the writing were looser by the end. It’s surprising, indeed astonishing, that there are no illustrations. I guess any likely reader of this book knows what a geodesic dome looks like, but I’d have liked a photo or a diagram of his Dymaxion vehicle, for instance.


A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting, by Richard Burton

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (2013), by Richard Burton


I’ve finally caught up with Richard Burton’s biography of poet Basil Bunting (1900-1985), published two years ago.  It’s a hefty, generous biography: generous in the length of its quotations from never-printed, rarely reprinted, and otherwise difficult-to-obtain materials; generous in providing both a biography and a series of critical readings, in the old critical-biography mode, and indeed a fairly detailed account of the critical reception of Bunting’s books; and generous to Bunting in — unlike many classic critical-biographies — not judging him or offering any overt interpretation of his character or his behaviour. If there is a covert interpretation of the life inscribed in the narrative, it’s the well-known one: that he was neglected for much of his lifetime and redeemed by the composition and publication of Briggflatts. It’s also seems to be implied that, until the Second World War, Bunting as man hadn’t completely come into adulthood, and that he was transformed by his wartime roles and responsibilities. A moment in Bunting’s mid-teens, when he threatened to leave the Quaker boarding school to which he had been sent, becomes a kind of reference point for later self-destructive moments, but only in the vaguest of ways: Burton is reluctant to interpret what was going on in Bunting’s faintly angry, frustrated, and mildly paranoid teenage outburst, so while the later episodes are similar, the narrative repetition doesn’t  amount to interpretation of the poet’s psyche or to narrative patterning.

All that is good. I enjoy reading biographies, but I worry about the distortions that they involve in order to create a compelling narrative, and I worry about the marketing-driven need to have a major new revelation (usually sexual) to offer to the world, around which the narrative must then be shaped.  Bunting’s teenage crush (or whatever it was) on Peggy Greenback, and his being reunited with her 50 years later, offers potential to create that kind of biography, but Burton doesn’t over-work it.  (In the Literary Review, Matthew Sperling drew attention to Bunting’s relationships with teenage girls, and Burton has responded briefly on the Infinite Ideas website about the difficulty of interpreting what was going on.)

Burton can get away with writing a biography without an overbearing interpretation or narrative line because Bunting’s life is itself full of interesting developments.  His Quaker-inspired opposition to the First World War is moving and fascinating.  His adventures in Persia are sometimes hilarious — I’d previously heard the one about his joining a mob who were baying for his blood — but Burton also conveys Bunting’s love for the country and its culture.  Bunting’s contempt for a southern English political and cultural establishment is a consistent connecting thread.

Generous = Hefty

Generous = Hefty

Burton can also get away with it because Bunting himself is such a vivid and at times hilarious teller of his own life. As Burton acknowledges, Bunting the anecdotalist at times seems to have taken a leaf from the master of unreliable memoirs, Ford Madox Ford, who was briefly his employer, so the record may well be exaggerated and in other ways distorted, but the stories are consistently engaging.  As well as being sceptical about the written record, Burton is alert to the theatrical elements in Bunting’s self-fashioning, especially late in life when he was able to play the role of Grand Old Man and Last-Living-Modernist. But his scepticism isn’t pushed into the position of reductive debunking.

If there’s a weakness in the narrative, it comes in the post-Briggflatts years, from 1966 to Bunting’s death, where Bunting himself seems to have begun to believe that his best years were behind him, creatively, and where Burton cannot find, or is unwilling to impose, any other narrative shape. The narrative can only be one of waiting for death; or, worse still, waiting for death while being forced, through financial necessity, to take a series of visiting professorships at universities. This phase is kept lively by Bunting’s contempt for universities, north American Creative Writing programmes, and the Arts Council, but by the late 1970s even those possibilities have evaporated.  Burton tends to flit around more freely in his source materials, so that a 1983 letter to Jonathan Williams will be followed by one from 1973 to Hugh MacDiarmid (p.488) (and of course, between those two letters, MacDiarmid had died, so that Bunting’s remarks about having ‘just’ written to MacDiarmid, when ‘just’ might seem to refer to 1983, is momentarily disorienting.)

I imagine most readers will come to this biography because they already know and love Bunting’s poetry. Reading it is no substitute for reading the  poetry, and only in small details does the biography (as distinct from Burton’s critical discussions) illuminate the poetry.  But Bunting is an intriguing character, and, by standing at one remove from him, quoting generously and framing documents sensitively and sympathetically, Burton allows us to reach our own conclusions.

Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson

Under the name @Oniropolis, Darran Anderson maintains a fascinating Twitter feed, full of images of utopias and dystopias from film, fiction and video games, and imaginings of buildings and cities from the medieval to the modernist.  I think it must have been through his Twitter feed that I learned he had a book coming out — Imaginary Cities (London: Influx Press, 2015) — and I awaited it eagerly.


Now that I’ve made time for it, I’m sorry to say I’m disappointed: disappointed because although there are all sorts of fascinating snippets and glimpses within its pages, a modest level of editorial intervention could have made it a better book, and even within that projected work there is the potential for something stronger.

Imaginary Cities is a rich and sprawling work drawing on wide knowledge of fiction, essays, film, and the history of architecture and urban design. It’s not illustrated, perhaps surprisingly, but texts that Anderson quotes from present such vivid descriptions that, having laid it aside, you might be forgiven for believing there had been images.  It’s concerned with the cities and buildings that Europeans and North Americans have imagined from the late middle ages onwards. It’s about — if an argument can be boiled down from its 570 pages — the way that the perfected building is always shadowed by its potential to become a ruin, and how the actual city is shadowed by never-to-be-built future cities. ‘All cities are built with their ruins in mind, even if only subconsciously’ (p.35).

Who is it written for?  In some ways –in its footnotes, its broad range of literary and scholarly reference — it looks like an academic book, but in the way it’s constructed, it’s more like a popular crossover book: something like A. Roger Ekirch’s At day’s close: a history of nighttime (2005) or Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France (2007). It’s rich in particular instances and anecdotes drawn from wide reading, but reluctant to engage in a explicit deeper analysis of those materials. Like other works in this genre, although Imaginary Cities often documents its sources with scholarly care, it doesn’t bring its arguments to the foreground, and it certainly doesn’t engage with other scholarly writing in the field.

At the level of production, there’s something particularly frustrating about the quality of the footnoting. True, this sort of book doesn’t have to observe all the scholarly conventions, but if you’re going to give a footnote reference (and the book uses footnotes, not endnotes), there are some basic things to get right.  Repeatedly, Anderson gives page references to books without indicating which edition he is using.  In some cases it may be there’s only one edition, but I can say with some confidence that’s not true of Gulliver’s Travels (quoted on p.55), Great Expectations (quoted p.243) or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (quoted p.281). Page references like these are of no use to anyone, except perhaps the author, if he has the relevant editions on the shelves.  At worst they give a bogus appearance of scholarliness to the book.

The book has been let down by poor typesetting.  On p.18 we encounter the following horror:


Not, as you might think, a footnote cue to note 45, but one to notes 4 and 5.  The unconventional habit of placing the note cues before the terminal punctuation in a sentence is annoyingly frequent, but not consistent.  On p.199 a semi-colon goes stray and is placed at the beginning of a line. On p.202 a quotation from Werner Herzog begins without a quotation mark, and it appears for a moment as if it were Anderson and not Herzog who had ‘hired two drunks from the next town.’  There are plenty of similar instances.

The prose also needed better copy editing. If you’ve decided not to end a sentence with a preposition (‘with which it was once imbued’, p.135), it’s a good idea for you or your editor to delete the trailing preposition and not print ‘with which it was once imbued with’. Facts and names needed checking for typographical errors and errors of fact: The Alchemist was written by Ben Jonson (not ‘Johnson’, p.94), the protagonist of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is Marlow (not ‘Marlowe’, p.54), and Paul Klee painted an Angelus Novus, not an ‘Angeguls’ (p.258). Miss Havisham appears in Great Expectations, not Bleak House, and she’s not called ‘Miss Havisahm’ (p.243).

This kind of carelessness or informality extends to the organisation of the exposition. In a discussion of dystopian films (p.346), Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) is mentioned first by its title, and discussed for a half a paragraph before the director’s name is dropped in.  The date isn’t given at all. Perhaps I’m not this book’s ideal reader, and Anderson is assuming that everyone knows who the director is? Or perhaps he’s assuming that we can all look it up on the internet?  Or, to think about it another way, Anderson seems unconcerned with the linearity of reading and of conventional exposition. Early on, he remarks that ‘All cities are subject to the Rashomon effect’ (p.22): to the film illiterate, or semi-literate, like myself, this was baffling until p.129, where in a discussion of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, he goes on to say, ‘The real becomes unreal and the unreal becomes real.’  At least, I think that’s what he means by the Rashomon effect.

The non-linear quality about the exposition suggests that by earnestly reading the book through from start to finish, I’ve been going about it in the wrong way. It might be better to treat it as an anthology rather than an argument, and to dip into it at random. It quotes generously, and I’ve come across a variety of passages that I’d like to investigate for my own purposes, as well as being reminded of books that I should have read and films I should have seen.  But to treat it as merely an anthology wouldn’t do justice to the moments where Anderson brings his ideas into focus pithily and forcefully.  Some examples.  There’s his account of the utopia of the seventeenth-century utopia ‘Christianopolis’, devised by Johannes Valentinus Andreae: ‘Its egalitarianism is extended only to those bearing scrotums’ (p.102).  There’s his characterisation of the monsters Mothra and Gorgo, in post-war Japanese films, as ‘fervent architectural critics’ (p.169).  Of the nuclear appcalypse that never came: ‘Instead, we spent forty years destroying our cities in our imaginations and wondering what we’d do in our four minutes of freedom’ (p.174). And there’s his account of futuristic cities of monorails and bridges:

Following the law of unintended consequences, bridges over land will offer shelter and cast shadows. What happens in these havens and hideouts is the stuff of further multiplying stories. There is always a shadow, sometimes literally but always symbolically to our advances. (p.321).

Shadows are everywhere in this book.

There’s a significant amount of writing and photography about cities and ruins at the moment. Imaginary Cities steps beyond nostalgic ‘ruin-porn’ to think about the longer intertwining histories of utopia, dystopia, and ruin.  Had it positioned itself explicitly against sentimental thinking about ruins, or found some other larger argument, it could have achieved a clearer sense of direction without sacrificing its richness and range of reference.