Hornby and Cunningham: In Praise of Two Writers

Having heard that Nick Hornby's latest book was about four people who meet while preparing to commit suicide, A Long Way Down remained for a few extra weeks at the bottom of my must-read list. Who needs another depressing contemporary novel when the world at times seems filled with almost apocalyptic sadness? Of course, that proved wrong. And I should have known better having read High Fidelity (and seen the film ) and How to be Good. Hornby changes a reader's life by holding up a mirror to the ordinary, through ordinary people, yet still managing to ask the "big questions" as the book jacket says. His writing is so smooth, easy and fun that you don't really know you've just confronted the rather complex matter of your own life's purpose. No, I don't have an answer yet. Maybe I'll just have to read it again!

Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days -- a written triptych -- is simply rapturous in its poetry, and sweeping in its scope . . . and not just because one of the recurring characters speaks lines from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. A review in the London Review of Books by Jacqueline Rose reckons the sum of the novel better than I could . . . "This is Cunningham’s most ambitious novel and, for me, his finest. Leaves of Grass is the text spoken by the characters, but he has named his novel after Specimen Days, which brings the ecstasy of Whitman’s poem back to ground: it was, as Whitman explains, written from the impromptu jottings of his ‘gloomy experiences’ of the war as he sat beside the corpses of the dead, and at Temple Creek where he was recovering from the paralytic stroke that had prostrated him. Folding one Whitman inside the other, Cunningham leaves open the question whether the ills of culture, his nation’s capacity for desolation, can ever be redeemed by the poet’s – or the novelist’s – vision."

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