(Moment from the Flux by Serena Caulfield)


Absolutely On Music

I feared that, ten pages in, plodding through the density of detail within Absolutely On Music would be like reading back issues of Gramophone or BBC Music in my dentist’s surgery, passing time until, teeth newly glistened, I was free. And I was wrong. Not about Gramophone or BBC Music, whose terribly serious reviews can forge both a blissful euphony and a contrived spontaneity in a single sentence, but about this book, a conversation between a writer and a conductor, both Japanese, in which they are at one in their shared passion for music.

Not just any music, but classical music. And unlike the vast majority of reviews in Gramophone or BBC Music, which veer between curmudgeonliness and highfalutin post-mortems, Absolutely On Music springs from author Haruki Murakami’s long love affair with the magic which floats from the depths of an orchestral pit.

If you have little time for classical music and think it a harmless adjunct to examining French plonk in a supermarket, this book is not for you. However, if – like myself – you have hovered time after time over a scrum of tightly packed musicians in an illuminated pit, sepulchered in the darkness of a venue, with absolute fascination and no little befuddlement about how the orchestra works, this book is a must.

It is arguable that an orchestra’s raison d’etre, even its bete noire, is the conductor, who has no equal in any other form of employment, except perhaps a mechanic bent over an engine, or a surgeon tinkering with a dodgy heart, for they are responsible for extricating a rhythm you would like to hear.

And I use ‘extricating’ advisably, because the conductor – Absolutely On Music offers an eye witness exposition of maestros Karajan and Bernstein at work – must disentangle the music from both the score and the orchestra’s interpretation of it. Conductors adopt different strategies to disembarrass what the composer intended, and even today we talk of Karajan or Bernstein in reverential or hushed tones for when they struck gold and had an overwhelming sense of the composer’s concentrated aspiration.

Murakami is the reverential and star struck pupil in this series of interviews with the patient and encyclopedic conductor Seiji Ozawa, for three decades the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra  and San Francisco Symphony, among others, and who, as a young man, worked alongside geniuses like Bernstein, Karajan and Glenn Gould.

Murakami plays a cd or a vinyl recording of Brahms First Symphony or Bartok’s the First Concerto or Mahler’s First Symphony, asks Ozawa question after question, and the conductor’s replies, a brief riposte or a long dissection, a thrust following a parry, are never less in breadth and content the equal of an impeccable dissertation. ‘What’s the comma in the score for,’ asks Murakami. ‘It means, take a breath here,’ answers Ozawa.

To see a world in a grain of sand, indeed.

Daniel Pembrey

The Harbour Master


Canal. Amsterdam. Netherland

The discovery of a sex worker’s corpse in Amsterdam harbour opens a Pandora’s box of troubles for detective Henk van der Pol, who is closing in on retirement after 30 years of solid service with the police.

The problem with Henk who is based at the IJ Tunnel 3 station, and the source of the antipathy between himself and his superiors, including the blatantly ambitious Sebastiaan Bergveeld, is his curiosity.

He doesn’t let sleeping dogs lie, and inevitably his wrecking ball approach to following up leads both antagonises the criminal underworld with ties to Hungary, and ruffles the preened feathers of the political and police elite.

It is not, fortunately for the reader, in Henks’ nature to look the other way, although his journalist wife and student daughter, Nadia and Petra, must often wish that he would refrain from bringing his work home – which is a barge – or on holiday – Brussels.

Labelled by some as the Henning Mankell of Amsterdam, Daniel Pembrey, who grew up in Nottinghamshire and divides his time between London and Amsterdam, hasn’t lumbered Henk van der Pol with the introspection or the Scandinavian angst of Inspector Wallander. Henk van der Pol, au contraire, is reasonably content with his lot, and his only vice is the odd beer and dodgy choice of music.

The essence of a crime novel is the intricate web of intrigue and mystery which untangles with the closing of each chapter, and Pembrey does so with guile.

The Harbour Master reads as two short novels segued by a common thread: in this instance, the Tozser brothers, on a collision course with Van der Pol once he sticks his nose into their hobbies: prostitution, blackmail, fraud, extortion and intimidation. They are, however, mere seeds in a plot which, a few deaths later, spreads like ink on cotton.

A stolen painting, the murder of a diplomat, the kidnapping of a politician, the fate of a blood diamond and a woman beaten black and blue in a hotel, conspire to remove Van der Pol from the insufferable claustrophobia of Amsterdam’s Rosse Burt, and an international dimension is added to his probing.

More seedy than dangerous, unless you are one of the barely clad unfortunates behind a window being ogled by tourists, the Rosse Burt is never in danger of being a scene stealer whenever Pembrey the stylist unpeels Amsterdam, but you can see the promise of this notorious district in future Van der Pol investigations. For most of this engaging novel, Henk van der Pol is on a fast moving train without brakes, short of likeminded colleagues but not friends, and his denouement in The Harbour Master is handled with aplomb by Pembrey.

Eric Beck Rubin

School of Velocity

Unusually for me, I finished School of Velocity, all 224 pages of straightforward prose, where each word is as important as a note on a staff, in one sitting, a tribute to the author’s dexterous handling of the potential minefield of music as overarching metaphor in fiction.

But Rubin wears his knowledge of classical music lightly, with the expertise of Tom Wolfe incorporating space technology in The Right Stuff, so that fiction is so deftly embroidered by fact that pianist Jan de Vries, who is in the prime of his career when a major setback occurs, could be mistaken for a genuine Columbia recording hopeful.

That he isn’t is due to Rubin’s skill in making the music and its colourful appendage of descriptions and definitions a slave to the story, which, though decades pass, is suffused by the presence, real and imagined, of the mercurial Dirk Noosen, whose walk-on role during Jan’s lonely adolescence is a shadow which long outlives the light which spawned it.

Dirk, who gets the best dialogue, is not as fully fleshed out as Jan, for it is unlikely that the narrative arc, especially when the latter is crippled by auditory hallucinations and his career as a performing artist suffers, could have borne the weight of both. So we see the charismatic and mysterious Dirk through the eyes of Jan, with whom we are on intimate terms, because he is as self-revelatory as Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Brilliantly but tactfully, as we revisit the pianist’s bitter-sweet memories of  unresolved encounters with his adolescent soulmate, Rubin strips the gloss from Dirk for the reader long before Jan sees the woods for the trees.

Or does he? Is it the author’s intention that the profligate Dirk is a Dutch Sebastian Flyte to the aesthetic Jan’s Charles Ryder, where whatever once bound them together is never clearly defined. After all, one swallow does not a summer make.

Luminously unfolded until the surprising denouement, this is a novel about the repercussions of repression and a lifetime of regret, and the volatility of revisiting unanswered questions and unspoken passions.

Simon Armitage



A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield

This engaging and timely revisiting of the Great War during what is for countless families the centenary of many a great uncle’s death, such as my own in September last, is not the first time this truly visionary poet has illuminated further our understanding of the horrors of war, in which 20,000 from the British Army were slaughtered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

‘Slaughtered’ is a much abused word, but here it is appropriate because they were, as the diarist Alan Clark contentiously and famously stated, lions led by donkeys to their deaths, ‘on an appalling and unprecedented scale,’ notes Armitage.

As the presenter of The Grear War: An Elegy on BBC television two years ago, Armitage is on terra firma. Then, he wrote seven poignant poems derived from or inspired by correspondence or mementoes of the time, including In Avondale – a mother is informed that five of the eight sons she sent to war will not return – and Considering the Poppy, inspired by a poppy (now faded and glass encased in the British Museum) from the Western Front that a soldier bequeathed to his wife.

Armitage has never failed to be affected by poets like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves who reflected directly on the horror of war and who drag the reader with them through the barbed wire and mud. It is arguable that Armitage has written more poems about this cataclysmic event than some of the famous Great War poets, such as Francis Ledwidge.

There is too, more so in England than in Ireland, which suffered a political meltdown in its aftermath, a tradition of contemporary poets (Ted Hughes) revisiting and vicariously imagining what these young men must have gone through, a not impossible task thanks to the graphic verse of Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose voice, alongside that of A.E. Housman, is discernible in A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield.

Although A Shropshire Lad was published a decade before the war, it has portents of a great calamity around the corner, and Armitage, and this is my take, weaves Housman’s Romantic pessimism and Virgil’s Georgics to great affect, particularly Virgil’s tendency to offer vivid insights into agriculture and nature.

Armitage’s tone, naturally, is as didactic as Virgil, but the mood is darker, with the realisation that the restoration of life prior to the war, a great Virgilian theme, is unlikely and, in any case, impossible after the apocalyptic onslaught:

‘A time will certainly come in these rich vales

When a ploughman slicing open the soil

Will crunch through rusting spears, or strike

A headless iron helmet with his spade

Or state, wordless, at the harvest of raw bones

He exhumed from the earth’s unmarked grave.’

The backbone to this collection, with aerial photographs which have never before been published, is a road that runs straight as an arrow from the towns of Albert to Bapaume, and which dissected the Battle of the Somme. You sense the weight of incompressibility of the utter wastefulness of life on the poet’s shoulders, but bloody good poems surface, like the bleached bones of young men doomed a century ago.

Gerald Murnane


“They went on waiting until the old man, the timber worker and part-time owner-trainer, had spent the measure of his grief,” concludes one of the outstanding memoirs of this or any other year, by a writer little heard of outside his native Australia, whose story, like that of Sir Flash in Chapter 22, is simply told, and yet with an elegance to do justice to his life long passion for horse racing.

Lord Pilate and Bill Coffey is the most moving conclusion to any book I have read in a long time, the denouement perfectly weighted by a craftsman who makes writing look easy, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but oh what an end, an ending to make you wish you had somebody to share it with.

But reading is a solitary act, most of the time, and for most of his sporting life, Murnane, who has the gift of being droll, candid and moving in one sentence, was a solitary presence at race meetings. His passion for the turf – his father was a gambler – became an obsession before he had ever seen a horse gallop, a marriage ignited by the incantation of horses’ names in a broadcast.

He regales in his lack of connectivity in the modern world (his mobile phone has been in the boot of his car for fifteen years, and he has never been on a plane) but horseracing is one of the few sports, including bullfighting, which has not radically changed in a century. But reporting of it has, and as fewer meetings appear in the Australian press, Murnane fills in the gaps by listening to the radio.

“The images are accompanied by feelings, some easy to report – such as my willing one or another horse to win – and others difficult indeed to describe,” he admits. Murnane never met anyone whose interest in the sport matched his own and although he has enjoyed the company of mutual enthusiasts, racing was and remains something he could never wholly explain to anyone else, wife and children included.

Something For The Pain, however, goes someway to bridge that gap. It is also insightful into his background – the gambling dad, the Catholic upbringing (his idea of holiday relaxation is to visit a cathedral from his childhood in Bendigo), the merry go round with booze, education – a melting pot of occasional low-grade misery (when he was alone) which sires teeming lines like this: “During the seven years between my leaving school and my meeting up with the young woman who was later my wife for forty three years, I had only three girlfriends, and the total length of time during which I was thus provided was about six months.”

We would all like to know better the secrets of human nature, who we are, how we think and what we do: Murnane once explained that what did affect him was not some actor wailing on stage but the sight of a trainer leading back towards the saddling paddock his only horse and breadwinner who had come close to winning a big race, only to fade in the straight for a minor prize. “Fate, through the agency of horse racing, was leading him on, treasing him, seeming to promise what it might never deliver.”

Worth buying for that sentence alone.






Thomas Bell



So inimitable is Thomas Bell’s style and his unerring eye for the type of detail other writers might ignore, for fear their narrative might lead to stagnation, that Kathmandu is truly a one off, for I doubt if anybody else is capable of the writer’s bloody minded persistence and his facility for telling it as it.

It soon becomes evident that the extraordinary in the greatest city of the Himalaya may nonetheless be common place, such as the myriad traditions which govern the intricate and – to the Western world – unfathomably cruel caste system, or the very real presence of gods and goddesses, whose expositions by Bell are the equal of the superb The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple.

I flew into Calcutta reading The Age of Kali, a bunch of essays distilling a decade’s travel in India, and whose title is a reference to the Hindu concept of time being quartered into four epochs: the continent is now in the age of Kali, an age – in Dalrymple’s words – of corruption and disintegration, and his book, beginning with the slaughter by untouchables of high caste villagers in the village of Barra, is bookended by bloodshed. Or, at the very least, that is my memory of it.

There is, too, much blood in Bell’s city, described as a carnival of hypocrisy and sexual license and a paradigm of failed democracy.

In Calcutta, I was distracted by a local newspaper report of how a middle aged man in the Hatapara village of Malda, was drugged and tied up to be sacrificed at the altar of the Goddess Kali, but was rescued by neighbours before “the swing of the chopper.” Here was on-the-spot validation of Dalrymple’s accounts in his book, which I had dismissed as far fetched.

The would-be sacrificial victim was lured to a puja by neighbours, drugged with a plate of prasad, his face covered in vermilion and his neck placed on a block by a tantrik. This was four years ago, and it is this bizarre but ancient civilization near the top of the world, where hundreds of castes and ethnic groups are thrown together in Kathmandu, regarding each other with indifference and occasionally contempt, which is unearthed and illuminated by Bell’s no nonsense reportage.

He does not seek to emulate the prosaic peaks of Dalrymple, but his sentences, short snapshots of Kathmandu’s moveable feast, memorably and clearly explicate how the locals propitiate either omnipresent gods or flesh and blood political rulers with sacrifices or zealous devotion.

Bell’s writing is precise and lucid: not all good English is good journalism, but all good journalism is good English.

He is brilliant on the idiosyncrasies which are part and parcel of Kathmandu’s fixation with black magic and political intrigue, from the spirit infested season in the month of Chaitra when kitchkandi under bridges threatened the unwary, to the dancing priests of the Harisiddhi goddess temple, recognised by their women’s clothes and grotesque masks, from the early nineteenth century tyranny of Bhimsen Thapa to Nepal’s Maoist revolution of the mid-1990s.

Thomas Bell is impelled by curiosity and an old fashioned, almost naïve spirit of adventure, but Kathmandu, because of his resourcefulness and bravado, deserves its place alongside Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah. I shall dip into it for years to come.











Alessandro Gallenzi


The Tower


Vatican skullduggery in the Middle Ages has proved rich pickings for authors in the wake of Dan Brown’s global success, but Alessandro Gallenzi’s third novel, his most ambitious to date, follows in the footsteps of another Italian master, Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose pioneered semiotics years long before The Da Vinci Code.

Gallenzi’s historically factual protagonist, Giordano Bruno, tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition, shares the intellectual heft of Franciscan friar William of Baskerville in Eco’s novel: there is even a medieval labyrinthine library in The Tower, but the unlocking of a centuries old mystery is fast forwarded to contemporary Jordan, the responsibility of an accident prone but affable English sleuth, Peter Simms. What he lacks in gumption, he makes up for in perseverance.

Undoubtedly, parallels with In The Name of the Rose surface – the undermining of the Gospel by cosmic pluralism – but Gallenzi seems more interested in the ongoing discord at the interface between religion in the factious Middle East and the digitization of literature.

Simms and philologist Giulia Ripetti, a character not fully fledged, are summoned to a meeting in Jordan to probe the apparent theft by a Jesuit priest – who has naturally vamoosed – of a priceless 16th century manuscript by Bruno. Simms and Ripetti are in an out of meetings in a modern and huge Tower of Babel, where an American company, Biblia, is bent on having all the world’s literature digitized by 2020.

‘The centres of wealth and economic influence are shifting,’ Simms is told. Data is the new oil. Data and content.’ Yet Simms is a head and legs type of man, so we are always kept on the move, and Gallenzi ratchets up the tension when the story spreads its wing to Jerusalem.

Before the plot becomes viscous with suspense, Gallenzi in alternate chapters introduces us to Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, the author of the missing manuscript, and who is remembered today not for what he achieved in life – his practice of mnemonics and his development of Copernican cosmological theories – but the manner of his leaving, burned at the stake in Rome.

This isn’t a plot spoiler, as Bruno’s fate is well known to anybody with a cursory interest in the Inquisition or who has seen his famous Obi Wan Kenobi-like statue at the Campo de Fiuri, within spitting distance of the Tiber, into which his ashes were dumped.

To his credit, with inventive dialogue and a lucid explication of the arguments which polarised the Roman Church, Gallenzi humanizes what otherwise would have read as a humdrum roll call of Bruno’s cosmological and mathematical achievements.

Splendid as they are, it is only when the Inquisition gets their hands on him after a wild goose chase throughout Europe, and the noose tightens, that we begin to vicariously imagine his state of mind between the years of his arrest, torture and execution. Gallenzi, who could be forgiven for excessive use of poetic licence to depict the horror of Inquisition justice, refrains, and we enjoy spending time with the stubborn Bruno the man, not the myth.

The Tower allegorizes the semiotic fate in fiction inspired by factual events: the search for truth must wade through the currents of failure.

Joe Neal : Poet

Anatomy of a poem.

‘Lipizzaner waves confront the pebble strand, breaking into froth of a trot, then beating back again.

As an image, Lipizzaner works: the poet isn’t merely commenting on the equestrian dance of the sea as it fragments on the shore, but the allusion to the famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna is indicative of a stylized control.

Nature as dressage. But there is more. The poet informs us that the implosion of the wave, its ‘beating back again’, results in the ‘crescendo charge of white brigade, booming at the shrinking shores in bright magnificence.’ I imagine the writer, trousers rolled up, footwear in hand, standing in the sea, captivated while in the process of remembering, like the man standing on the precipice, intoxicated by the sea of fog in the Caspar David Friedrich landscape, or I can picture the poet, genuflecting before the sea’s operatic denouement, ‘the dulling soon with tide’, or rooted to the source for the poem, in homage to Turner who reputedly tied himself to the mast to better understand a storm at sea. It could read too as a lament by a defeated and exiled Trojan remembering how the siege of Troy was unlocked by the sea and the gift of a horse. ‘To part at hissing isthmus hinterland’. Widening the scope of this imagery further, perhaps the soldier licking his wounds might see between the poet’s lines the attack by serpents of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his offspring, Thymbraeus and Antiphantes, by sea serpents.

Assault of the Sea appears early in Still Rise the Sun by Joe Neal: it is a small poem of 14 lines and no line is more than seven syllables in length. In a single line, Joe packs a powerful punch. ‘As diffracted light makes a spectre of myself with rainbow halo round a saintly head’ from High Spirits, or ‘a stealth of noddle mushrooms nudge the soil away and discreetly swell upon themselves’ from The Awakening.

This should not surprise us: primarily, he is a poet of observation, a sentient presence in a world who does not trespass or interfere but allows his inner eye to reveal, rather than be quietened, by the power of harmony. I have often wondered if at heart Joe was a throwback to the Romantics, because the lyric essence of much of his work has both the energy and the vision of the Lake Poets, what I experience continuously in poems like A Branch Too Far, where

wet white crystals clutch at unaccustomed

Brightness from the sky in late December

Melt of snow – creased now with drag-tail dent

As creature trails its mark in progress

To the tallest tree,’ where Joe’s take on nature is unafraid of being semi-autobiographical, or where poetry, the simple act of marrying vision and pen, becomes, most satisfyingly for the poet, a means of understanding. These poems are too, for someone who spent his early years roaming the Welsh countryside, fond tokens of time, shifting snapshots of memory and the volcanic impatience of the imagination, for the poet is traipsing across thin ice. The world he knew is being eroded as surely as the great Arctic ice is melting; time and again, careful not to bathe in nostalgic or varnish the past as one would a conker to preserve it against all on-comers, Joe can sign off with subtle regret. The second stanza in Living Memory is unambiguous and word perfect.

Gone too the red-brack farm

With tench-filled pond

From whence I saw

Lashing eels slime rain-soaked

Grass en route to breeding sea;

Now there’s only stench of factory

And grim clouds chasing off the sun.’

To wholly appreciate Joe Neal’s gifts it is necessary to hear these poems spoken and performed: his voice is as April light on stained glass, his diction the catalyst as the incandescent wattage of the words are liberated from the page. Reading the poems again and again, as it has been my pleasure on so many occasions and yet too few, I can picture the stressed syllables unsheathing their chrysalis:

‘Hush, savour now the silence

Of the white wide-faced owl,

Surprised by cloud-redempted moon’ from The Awakening.

Consensus about the function of poetry and its fate in an age dominated by social media and the regrettable trend of truncating sentences and abbreviating words is far from collective, and although English is mature enough and sufficiently adaptable to embrace the baffling and the semi-comprehensible, ready to become graspable in a newly direct way, what is striking about the poets who interest me is their hunger to forever see a world in a grain of sand. And I believe free verse, whether writing for the eye or the ear, has allowed the poet to escape the iron talons of regimental metrics.

When Joe closes That Pure Thing with the five line stanza,

For we’ve built a room inside

Our cluttered living space

Where no proud furniture

Can detract from what we share

That pure thing we call love,’ he, perhaps inadvertently, is remembering that the Italian word for room is stanza, and a room is an independent part of a house, and yet, of itself, not a home, and a stanza plays the same role in a poem, like an enfilade of rooms in a house.




Lying’s as easy as sliding off an ostrich


Re-fashioning the bricks

of ruined reputation

– caught scrumping groolas

from the orchards where we lived,

I joined the Cubs and dibbed

my vow of honesty,

to always tell the truth;


But Bob-a-Jobbing Week

put apples of temptation

in my way again, buying

Dandelion and Burdock

pop with money earned

for trimming someone’s grave;


Though not a Catholic,

I attest this now

for historical

integrity and wait

Joe’s stanzas manifest their core, though in different ways, as utterly natural, writing as the spirit moves him, but never with insincerity, and I suspect that Joe’s experience as a professional actor gives him tremendous faith in the arc of his sentence, so that the poetry communicates, and makes its point, which should be the function of all treasurable writing.

Aeneas Astray


There is a memorable scene in Robert Graves’ I Cladius where the poet Virgil is summoned by Augustus to recite from the Aeneid before the imperial family.
No pressure then. But Virgil was a trained orator, acclaimed for his reading of the Eclogues in Roman theatres before an enthusiastic but critical audience.
Virgil’s habit was to release extracts from epic poems in gestation, with intervals of months and even years, a source of frustration for Augustus, because the evolving Aeneid cemented his divinity for posterity.
The provenance of the relationship between the poet and Rome’s first emperor was turbulent: post the bloody mayhem of Octavian and Mark Anthony’s proscription, which did for Cicero, the estate of Virgil’s father was confiscated.
And though he was compensated once Octavian morphed into August, Virgil didn’t forget the land confiscations in either his Bucolics or Eclogues.
Later in life, as the Aeneid found its legs gradually, and as Virgil traced the historical line from Aeneas to Augustus, (derided by Seamus Heaney for its imperial certitude), both patron and poet were singing from the same hymn sheet.
The aforementioned theatrical reading of the hexameters before the imperial family is comically imagined by Graves – the yawning of the lascivious Livilla – for plot considerations, but in reality Octavia fainted at Virgil’s mention of her recently departed son, Marcellus.
Because of his patron, Virgil adopts an axiomatic connection in the Aeneid’s dozen books between the exiled Trojans and the early Romans, and the future Roman state the descendants of Aeneas are destined to found.
Seamus Heaney relates in Stepping Stones how Father Michael McGlinchey at school first referred to book VI of the Aeneid (book IX was the set text), in which the Sibyl of Cumae, a prophetess, takes Aeneas to the Underworld to see the spirits of the dead, including his father, and the yet unborn.
Aeneid Book VI, which Heaney had more or less finished at the time of his sudden death, mirrors the poet’s life-long love affair with and passion for the ancient text, the charged yearning of Fr. McGlinchy’s lament: ‘Och boys, I wish it were Book Six.’
“That was when the seed that would grow into this golden bough was first planted,” said Catherine Heaney at the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in June. “I have said before that it became a kind of touchstone for him. He himself called it ‘a constant presence’ – and it was a text that he would return to time and again in his work and at pivotal moments in his life.”
How does Heaney cope with Virgil’s mellifluousness? Rather well, because he has to surmount the first and tallest hurdle, namely segueing the ancient corridor between Virgil’s time and ours’.
And thus the voice and the words are unquestionably Heaney’s: the dead Palinurus tells Aeneas-
‘Now surf keeps me dandled/The shore winds loll me and roll me.’ The choice of loll for somebody who has drowned is perfect, but only Heaney would have seen the connection. Palinurus, the trusty pilot, lolling involuntarily like a doomed ship.
In Edith Hamilton’s translation, the Sibyl warns Aeneas that the descent to the underworld is easy, but “to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven, that is labor indeed.” Heaney eschews elaboration: “But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air/That is the task, that is the undertaking.’
Many lines which float giddily on the memory are, admittedly, buoyed by effortless metaphorical dexterity:
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.
Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf.
Heaney once wrote that what the reader experiences in translation is radically and logically different from what the native speaker experiences, “phonetics and feelings being so intimately related in the human make-up.” He had a tendency to demur at the torpor of translation.
When Robert Lowell translated Homer’s The Killing of Lykaon, he viewed his task as one voice running through multiple personalities, and Heaney was an admirer of Lowell’s version of Brunetto Latini canto in Near The Ocean.
And at a reading by 17 poets of Heaney’s poems to mark his 70th birthday in Dun Laoghaire, the most memorable was the most moving and alos the only translation, Mid-Term Break read in Lithuanian by Tomas Venclova, a reminder that tone is everything in the writing of poetry.
And so it is with this translation of Aeneid VI, the verbal texture of Heaney (read aloud ‘The ravenous triple maw /Yawns open, snaffles the sop it has been thrown/ Until next thing the enormous flanks go slack) encapsulates Heaney’s attitude to telling a story of a yearned for encounter with a departed father.
But Aeneid Book VI is ‘neither a version nor a crib’, perhaps a form of homage, having drawn on Virgil’s last work following the death of his own father in 1986, and the birth of his first grand-child.
One section of the translation, The Golden Bough, opened Seeing Things in 1991, but in the last years of his life, having cleared the pitch for five decades, Heaney set upon the translation in its entirety.
Heaney believed that the poem arrived with self-consciousness giving way to self-forgetfulness: what I admire most about his Aeneid Book IV is the realisation that only because love is strong enough is the meeting brought about between father and son, between the living and the dead.

Harlan Coben

The prolific Harlan Coben sells by the proverbial bucket load: with The Stranger, we are in territory he has revisited so often, the edifice of American bourgeois civility and the perfect families which support it.

With Coben there is always something rotten at the heart of this Norman Rockwell suburbia, where the middle aged, wrapped in cotton wool, have nothing more important to worry about than whether little Frankie is making the sixth grade lacrosse team.

Until, that is, a stranger comes a knocking, and a little ol’ hospitality is the last thing playing on his mind.

Coben’s forensic attention to domestic detail – the invasion of social media into the home – is as relentless as verdigris in The Stranger, which pivots on the chance encounter between socially smug Adam Price, a father of two young boys, and a stranger.

Price, having a beer with managers and bankers in the local American Legion Hall, is warned by the stranger that his wife has been telling him porkies about her last pregnancy.

Rather than ask his wife, Corinne, about the alleged deceit, Price waters the seed of doubt planted by the stranger.

He plays detective on her bank account, and when a bill from Novelty Funsy paints her in a less than reverential light, a Pandora’s Box is well and truly opened.

As Coben ruthless disentangles the Prices’ marriage,  the ensuing discordance sparks simultaneous avalanches in the lives of other victims of the mysterious stranger, all of whom have one thing in common: secrets best kept buried.

A young woman who prostitutes herself to pay college fees; a fiancée coping with the payback of sex tapes released on the Internet and a mother who invests in a fake pregnancy test.

The story switches from first to fifth gear in a nano second after Price confronts his wife with his investigative booty. She, overnight, disappears, raising the suspicions of neighbours who consider themselves like glue in the community.

Armed only with a credit car invoice, a retired cop and a techno savvy son who inserted a locator app in his mum’s phone – as you do – before she hightailed out of town, Price begins a frustrating search for his missing spouse.

As the hurdles mount up – stolen money, unexplained phone calls, more strangers in the night – Price sniffs a greater and complex conspiracy.

There are, admittedly, implausible resolutions in The Stranger, but if you are a sucker for the Coben diet of the corny, cliché and unoriginal, as everybody of note seems to be in Cedarfield, ‘loaded with up with wealthy hedge fund managers…and other financial masters of the universe types,’ you will surf the improbable plot turns with patience and grace.

Coben mixes the saccharine with the toxic. In Cedarfield, men are drawn to two types of women: those who offer lust filled nights with legs in the air, or moonlight walks and canopies.

The wholesome Price is at home with the latter, despite the occasional temptation at work, but the creature comforts of a strong marriage are no bar to the corrosive forces of envy and betrayal in small town Americana, where scrutiny is both a hobby and a blood sport.

Coben the writer eschews the predilection for excessive violence so endemic among his Scandinavian brethren like Jo Nesbo: this is a bodice-ripper free zone. Coben’s strength is a plot with more twists than Chubby Decker, and a broader message that on line privacy in the home and paranoia are a volatile mix.