THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION – J.G. Ballard (1970)

This review is more or less a random collage of fragments that appealed to me: fragments of reviews found on Goodreads, of the book’s preface by William Burroughs, of Hari Kunzru’s introduction, of a 2019 text by Rob Doyle in The Irish Times, and quotes from Ballard & the book itself.

Part of this review also went through an additional process, as I asked an AI to attempt to integrate & summarize some of these fragments into a coherent whole – but I don’t think it did very well on that front.

My editing is fairly minimal, not zero. I also wrote a few sentences or parts of sentence of my own.


The Atrocity Exhibition

In 1964 J.G. Ballard’s wife died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving him to bring up their three children alone. In 2007, when he was already terminally ill, Hari Kunzru interviewed him. “I was terribly wounded by my wife’s death. Leaving me with these very young children, I felt that a crime had been committed by nature against this young woman – and her children – and I was searching desperately for an explanation . . .  To some extent The Atrocity Exhibition is an attempt to explain all the terrible violence that I saw around me in the early sixties. It wasn’t just the Kennedy assassination . . . I think I was trying to look for a kind of new logic that would explain all these events.”

The Atrocity Exhibition is a challenging read that takes the reader on a journey into the abstract and hallucinatory realm of Ballard’s writing. It crosses over from his more familiar territory of cold and sterile science fiction and delves into a world reminiscent of Burroughs. The central narrative is elusive, making the reading process difficult, but for some it might be worthwhile if you are up for the challenge.

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HAUNTED WASPS – Shirley Jackson & Iain Banks (1959 & 1984)

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

The Haunting Of Hill HouseI thought We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a 5-star read, so imagine my surprise that I couldn’t connect with this book, written three years prior by troubled soul Shirley Jackson. It’s a bit of classic, and no less than 13 of my friends on Goodreads have read this as well, 12 of them rate it positively, most whip out even 4 or 5 stars.

It started out alright, but when Eleanor Vance arrives at the strange old mansion in the hills, things soon become a bit boring. I felt Jackson managed to convey the psychological horror much better in Castle.

I can’t fully put my finger on it, but I think my main issue was the tone in which Hill House was written. There’s a faux objectivism in the scientific endeavor of Dr. Montague’s semi-paranormal research that felt a bit flat, as it was echoed in Jackson’s tone. Add to that a certain detached irony in Jackson’s narrative voice: that irony made it so that the story didn’t feel real to me. As a result, I became less and less engaged with the characters, and also the house itself gradually lost its attraction, to the point I simply didn’t care anymore, making me stop at the halfway point.

Another thing that killed it for me was the fact that the proceedings were fairly obvious, the story fairly transparant in its method – admittedly also because I read some reviews upfront. Jackson sets up a creepy environment – via a house that has a geometry that is slightly off and a history of suicide, etc. – and in that environment the main character can then start her descent into madness. I didn’t feel there was much mystery in that.

Jackson didn’t convince me during the first half that there was enough of interest to pursue Eleanor’s mental journey, even though I feel she did manage to make her an interesting character, at least at first, when she brakes free from her sister.

I’m truly disappointed, I expected a lot after the triumph that was We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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THE POWER OF THE DOG – Don Winslow (2005)

The Power of the DogIt’s been ages since I read a proper crime novel – about 30 years since I’ve gobbled up the detectives of Jef Geeraerts in my very early teens, and about 25 years since I’ve read the historical whodunit An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, the 19th century police procedural The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Red Ripper by Peter Conrad, a true crime title about Andrei Chikatilo, a Soviet serial killer who murdered & mutilated over 50 women and children.

Popular culture being what it is, I’m obviously no stranger to the genre in other forms, and I count Michael Mann’s Heat as one of my favorite movies.

Enter Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, a 543-page novel that chronicles the Mexican drug trade and the DEA’s involvement in the War on Drugs from 1975 to 1999, with a short epilogue in 2004. The book took 6 years to research and write, and it is its realism that is one of its main draws – next to a bulk of other strong suits.

10 years after its publication, Winslow published a sequel, The Cartel, and in 2019 he finished what has become The Cartel trilogy with The Border. I don’t think Wilson envisioned writing a trilogy from the start, but either way The Power of the Dog works perfectly well as a standalone work.

I’ll probably end up reading the entire trilogy – this first one is a brilliant 5-star book – but I’ve had my fix for now, so it might take me a year before I’ll start The Cartel.

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2022 FAVORITES

I started 39 titles in 2022, one more than last year. It seems like I read a bit less speculative fiction, a bit more Dutch, a bit more non-fiction. That trend might continue, it might not, we’ll see, but I think it’s safe to say Egan, Robinson, Harrison and Flemish authors L.P. Boon & J.M.H. Berckmans will remain regulars on this blog.


Before I’ll get to this year’s favorites, a bit of blog stats for those of you who are interested in such a thing. Traffic has more or less stabilized, there’s hasn’t been a spectacular jump as in each of the previous years, only a slight increase. 43,529 views and 23,946 21,108 visitors – about 5000 and 3000 more than in 2022. Lots of the traffic is still driven by my writings on Frank Herbert. The most successful posts I wrote in 2022 were Chapterhouse: Dune, Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders.

As for all-time stats, my most read reviews so far are those for Dune Messiah (4334 views since published), Children of Dune (3589) and Piranesi (3201). There’s 8 posts with over 2000 views, an additional 14 posts with over 1000 views now, and an additional 45 with over 500 views in total. I’ve been blogging for 7 years, and so far I’ve published 297 posts.


As always, a big thank you to everyone who has read what I wrote, and an extra special thanks to those that have commented, linked or pressed the like button: much appreciated, it doesn’t go unnoticed. My best wishes to you and yours for 2023 and beyond.



FAVORITE READS

As for the actual favorite book list: below are the titles I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2022, six books in total. If I had to pick one, I’d go for Lapvona, an absolute joy in its daft & honest brutality, or maybe Too Like the Lightning – a singular, marvelous book that easily outclasses about everything published in speculative fiction these days. Both non-fiction titles deserve an additional highlight here too: monuments to both human intellect and the wonder & incredible complexity of reality.

Honorable mentions for Haushofer’s The Wall (1963), Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), McKillip’s The Changeling Sea (1988), Roger van de Velde’s Recht op Antwoord (1968), Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders & The Will to Battle (both 2017), Felix Timmermans’ Boerenpsalm (1935) and KSR’s Pacific Edge (1990), The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) and The High Sierra: A Love Story (2022). All more than excellent reads, well worth your time.

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VENOMOUS LUMPSUCKER – Ned Beauman (2022)

Venomous LumpsuckerNed Beauman’s 5th novel doesn’t seem out of character: Ned is British, born in 1985, son to an economist and a bookpublisher/journalist, and student of philosophy in Cambridge. Venomous Lumpsucker seems entirely like the kind of book such a fella would write: witty, very contemporary and with a healthy dose of late stage capitalism free market criticism.

Single genre classifications being very last century, Venomous Lumpsucker is a near-future-satirical-clifi-thriller. While to book is not an outright triumph, Beauman makes the combination work, and I liked it quite a bit. Its 294 pages are brimming with ideas.

The book’s main problem is that it doesn’t know where its heart is – not genre-wise, mind you – but qua content: Beauman doesn’t seem sure to be sad or humorous about the demise of our current ecological constellation.

My dust jacket has it like this: “Gripping and singular, Venomous Lumpsucker is a comedy about environmental devastation that asks: do we have it in us to avert the tragedy of mass extinction? And also: do we really need to bother?

It seems to me that the fact that Beauman seems unsure himself got in the way for me as a reader to fully emotionally engage with the book. As such, it is more a novel of ideas & action than one of emotion.

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SPIRIT ISLAND – R. Eric Reuss (2017)

Spirit IslandAnd now for something completely different: a board game review, even though I shouldn’t use ‘completely’ – Spirit Island has both narrative and speculative elements, so it might be of interest to some of my regular readers too.

I have no intention to write more about board games on this blog – for the simple reason I don’t play them enough – but I did want to write a review for this particular one, because I’m smitten with it.

R. Eric Reuss’ game design is incredible, and as such Spirit Island is a monument to human creativity. It is no surprise it has become so highly acclaimed.

Spirit Island is a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players – make that 6 players if you get the Jagged Earth expansion. Currently, it’s ranked as the 10th best game on BoardGameGeek’s overall rank, and as the 10th best strategy game too. It has also topped the influential People’s Choice Top 200 for solo games for three years straight, this year finishing before Mage Knight and Marvel Champions. It’s considered a complex game, but if you put your mind to it, the rules are pretty straightforward and easy to remember after a game or 2. Thematically, Spirit Island is about natural spirits that try to defend an island that is being overrun by colonizing invaders – aptly sculpted in hideous plastic.


Before I dive into the game play, let me first say a few words about myself as a board gamer, so that you get a bit of an inkling where I stand on that front.

My interest in the gaming hobby – aside from computer games in the nineties – started with Magic: The Gathering, but I’ve never truly thrown myself into that game, basically because I was already in my 30ies and unwilling to invest the time and the cash to become a dedicated player. As a kind of ersatz MTG I bought Dominion, a solid title, even though I don’t take it of the shelves anymore.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve especially developed an interest in abstract 2 player games, most notably some developed by Kris Burm: YINSH, TZAAR, ZÈRTZ, DVONN, PÜNCT and LYNGK, all part of the GIPF-series, all highly rated on BoardGameGeek’s abstract game ranking. Incredible games really, easy to teach, lots & lots of depth. If you like pure strategy full-open-information games like chess or checkers, they are more than worth looking into. I have other abstract games too, of which Azul and Hive stand out – not because they offer depth, but because they are simply fun to play, with non-gamers as well. I guess I should also mention Santorini.

Over the years, on weekends with friends, people brought Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Citadels and a bunch of other stuff – I liked it all. During lockdown, piqued by the hype, I decided to give Wingspan a go. A friend of mine bought Dune: Imperium – a fantastic, nail-biting game, and that convinced me to buy Terraforming Mars – a game I had been eyeing for years, in part because of my interest in science fiction.

Both Dune & TM convinced me I could actually deal with complex games, and it turned out I also liked the solo mode of Terraforming Mars – even though rote fairly quickly set in. Discovering I liked games solo as well turned out to be crucial, because a big problem with board games is finding people that want to play the game you want to play. Spirit Island – supposedly great both as a solo & multiplayer game – had caught my attention for quite some time, and I decided to take the jump.

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THE EVOLUTION OF AGENCY: BEHAVIORAL ORGANIZATION FROM LIZARDS TO HUMANS – Michael Tomasello (2022)

The Evolution of Agency Michael TomaselloI thought developmental and comparative psychology professor Michael Tomasello’s 2019 book Becoming Human: A Theory of Human Ontogeny was brilliant and rigorously argued. Imagine my surprise to find the first three chapters of this short work (164 pages) practically insulting because of sloppy writing and terminological vagueness.

As a result, I decided to call it a day – even though, admittedly, the remaining chapters (about the agency of apes and humans) might play more into Tomasello’s strengths as a researcher. I guess it’s my loss – 32.48 euros to be precise – but I cannot but operate using inference if I read scientific books: if your base is brittle, I’m not going to risk dwelling in a superstructure that seems solid. It’s a form a prejudice, yes, but my time is limited, and there’s way too much else to read & learn.

Even if I didn’t read it completely, I do have a few thoughts and criticisms to offer, and I hope this review will offer some food for thought.

For starters, let me quote the blurb from MIT Press, so that you know what the book is about:

Nature cannot build organisms biologically prepared for every contingency they might possibly encounter. Instead, Nature builds some organisms to function as feedback control systems that pursue goals, make informed behavioral decisions about how best to pursue those goals in the current situation, and then monitor behavioral execution for effectiveness. Nature builds psychological agents. In a bold new theoretical proposal, Michael Tomasello advances a typology of the main forms of psychological agency that emerged on the evolutionary pathway to human beings.

Tomasello outlines four main types of psychological agency and describes them in evolutionary order of emergence. First was the goal-directed agency of ancient vertebrates, then came the intentional agency of ancient mammals, followed by the rational agency of ancient great apes, ending finally in the socially normative agency of ancient humans. Each new form of psychological organization represented increased complexity in the planning, decision-making, and executive control of behavior. Each also led to new types of experience of the environment and, in some cases, of the organism’s own psychological functioning, leading ultimately to humans’ experience of an objective and normative world that governs all of their thoughts and actions. Together, these proposals constitute a new theoretical framework that both broadens and deepens current approaches in evolutionary psychology.

Before I’ll discuss the book itself, it is of note that the blurb makes a curious distinction in the very first lines. Aren’t these organisms that have “feedback control systems” biological? Aren’t these systems itself biological? Didn’t these systems evolve biologically? I can’t fully put my finger on it, but I have the feeling this is the crux of the matter at hand, and the conceptual quagmire on which Tomasello builds his theory, the ontological reason for his vagueness and his at times muddled thinking. I’m sure the last sections of the book on human social normative psychology won’t suffer as much from this problem as his first chapters – if they even suffer from it at all – but if you present your book as an evolutionary account, you better start it right.

Anyhow, the remainder of this text consists of a few thoughts and examples that are in no way an attempt at a full critique or discussion of the parts of the book I did read.

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THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT – Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

The Years of Rice and Salt Kim Stanley RobinsonOne has to admire Kim Stanley Robinson for the breadth of his work. He has published 19 novels, 2 works of non-fiction, 8 short story collections and 4 novellas. If you just look at the novels, you see a wide variety of angles. Still, his topics remain steadfast: the evolutionary & ecological nature of humans, what human societies could amount to  – progressive, utopian thinking – and how science and technology ties into that.

The Years of Rice and Salt is no dystopian near-future story, nor an account of prehistorical homo sapiens, nor a clifi thriller, nor an hard SF tale of terraforming or interstellar travel. It’s what’s called an alternative history.

As a starting point Robinson lets the black death wipe out 99% of the European population, instead of – current best estimate – 65%. What follows is, in 652 pages and 10 chapters, a history of seven centuries “on an alternate Earth in which Islam and Buddhism are the dominant religions. (…) the New World is discovered by the Chinese Navy, and the Renaissance is played out as a conflict between a Middle Eastern Islam and Chinese Buddhism.” (Kirkus)

Robinson basically wrote 10 novellas that are entangled because they each figure the same three characters, each time reincarnated – as “orphaned Indian girl, Sufi mystic, African eunuch, Sultan’s wife, Chinese admiral, dourly brilliant alchemist, feminist poet, village midwife, glassblower, theologian, etc.”

The Kirkus review is on point in that it names the book at times a bit “ponderous” and “overlong”, and also Laura Miller expresses some of that sentiment in her 2002 review for Salon. But it would be foolish to discard the book just because of that: The Years of Rice and Salt is a tour-de-force.

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THE EVOLUTION OF THE SENSITIVE SOUL: LEARNING AND THE ORIGINS OF CONSCIOUSNESS – Simona Ginsburg & Eva Jablonka (2019)

The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul Learning and the Origins of ConsciousnessAs with most of my non-fiction reviews, I’ll first give a general overview & appraisal of the book. After that there’s a lengthy section with quotes and paraphrases of stuff I want to keep on record, and those could be of interest to you too.



What is the mind?
It is the sound of the breeze
That passes through the pines
In the Indian-ink picture.

Ikkyū Sōjun, 15th century



The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness is a mammoth: 482 pages of text, 62 pages of notes, 72 pages of bibliography and an index of 28 pages. It took a decade to write.

Eva Jablonka is a microbiologist & evolutionary theorist with a Ph.D in genetics. She is especially known for her interest in epigenetic inheritance, and she co-authored the landmark Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life with Marion Lamb. That book was published in 2005 by MIT Press – with a revised edition in 2014 – and on the strength of this book I’ve added it to my TBR. Simona Ginsburg is a chemist with a Ph.D. in physiology.

The title is a bit misleading in the sense that the moniker ‘sensitive soul’ might sound New Age-ish, but make no mistake: this is as scientific as non-fiction can get. Jablonka & Ginsburg use the term ‘soul’ as an hommage to Aristotle, and the next two quotes elaborate a bit on that, and at the same time set the stage:

The Aristotelian soul is the dynamic embodied form (organization) that makes an entity teleological in the intrinsic sense – having internal goals that are not externally designed for it but that are dynamically constructed by it.

&

From an evolutionary point of view, understanding the transitions that resulted in the three Aristotelian goal-directed systems is enormously challenging. The first problem, understanding the transition to the first living system, to the nutritive (/reproductive) soul, is still not fully solved, although great strides have been made in this domain. Very little is known about the second, understanding the transition to subjective experiencing, the evolutionary origin of the sensitive soul. The third, understanding the transition to rationalizing, symbolizing animals, to the rational (human) soul, is one of the hottest topic in present-day evolutionary-cognitive biology, and progress is being made. All of these goal-directed systems are the products of chemical and biological evolution, and there is an evolutionary continuity between them.

The book has two distinct parts: the first a history of the biological conceptions of ‘consciousness’ and some of its philosophical foundations – from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and William James, via Pavlov and Skinner to contemporary neuroscience. The second part looks more closely at major (neuro)biological transitions in the evolution of the mind, and basically sketches the evolution of neural systems and how learning ties into that. It should be stressed that most of the book is about minimal animal consciousness, not about human consciousness.

Instead of trying to summarize the book in more detail, I’ll quote some of the praise I found on the MIT website – and I can say after having read it, none of it is hyperbole. But first let me quote the blurb to give you the general idea:

A new theory about the origins of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the evolutionary transition to basic consciousness. What marked the evolutionary transition from organisms that lacked consciousness to those with consciousness—to minimal subjective experiencing, or, as Aristotle described it, “the sensitive soul”? In this book, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka propose a new theory about the origin of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the transition to basic consciousness. Using a methodology similar to that used by scientists when they identified the transition from non-life to life, Ginsburg and Jablonka suggest a set of criteria, identify a marker for the transition to minimal consciousness, and explore the far-reaching biological, psychological, and philosophical implications.

After presenting the historical, neurobiological, and philosophical foundations of their analysis, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose that the evolutionary marker of basic or minimal consciousness is a complex form of associative learning, which they term unlimited associative learning (UAL). UAL enables an organism to ascribe motivational value to a novel, compound, non-reflex-inducing stimulus or action, and use it as the basis for future learning. Associative learning, Ginsburg and Jablonka argue, drove the Cambrian explosion and its massive diversification of organisms. Finally, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose symbolic language as a similar type of marker for the evolutionary transition to human rationality—to Aristotle’s “rational soul.”

Here’s Axel Cleeremans, Director of ULB Neuroscience Institute in Brussels, Belgium:

This massive and challenging book is by far the most thorough attempt at exploring consciousness from a biological and evolutionary perspective. Most impressive is the successful integration of philosophical, historical, neuroscientific, and biological considerations in addressing this most vexing question: How and why did consciousness emerge out of biological activity?

Or Jean-Pierre Changeux, honorary professor at the Pasteur Institute in France:

It is the best synthesis I know about consciousness. It includes a fascinating history of the concepts and discoveries about consciousness together with an outstanding presentation of the most recent scientific data, theories and philosophical speculations.

And finally Cyriel Pennartz, from the University of Amsterdam:

Based on the view that consciousness subserves fulfillment of an animal’s needs and goals, Ginsburg and Jablonka take us on an engaging journey from Aristotle to contemporary neuroscience, culminating in the daring but well-informed hypothesis that consciousness coheres with complex forms of learning. This book made me think differently of the Cambrian explosion of life, the roots of animal cognition, and the very origins of human thinking. This accessible and inspiring book offers a wealth of information and deep thought for everyone interested in the rich interface between biology, psychology, and philosophy.

Last year I read Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind by Russell Powell, a true intellectual feast. Ginsburg & Jablonka’s book touches on many of the same themes, but frames them differently. Powell’s book is about the nature of evolution, minds, and the possible implications for astrobiology, Ginsburg & Jablonka focus on learning and the evolutionary history of neural systems, including a chapter on jellyfish and the likes that was more informative than Jellyfish by Lisa-Ann Gershwin.

For a wee bit of critique: I would have liked a bit more sections on (the neurology of) mental representation. To me it felt as if Ginsberg & Jablonka don’t fully engage with this part of the consciousness problem, especially as I’ve read Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories – a book specifically about that. I would have liked to read the authors’ take on what Rosenberg wrote.

Anyhow, what makes this book a joy to read is its enormous scope, and what makes it truly amazing is its attention to detail on nearly everything it touches: this is no quick pop-science overview of the latest research, no, this is the real deal: interdisciplinary scholarly work of the highest order.

The book is clear and self-contained, and requires no previous knowledge, but at times it is tough reading nonetheless – especially parts of chapter 8 were beyond my level of interest of understanding. This will be different for different kind of readers, but this is obviously an academic book, so your mileage may vary.

Jonathan Birch’s 7-page critical essay on the book in Acta Biotheoretica is well-worth reading, he summarizes it in just two sentences: “Ginsburg and Jablonka’s thesis, in short, is that second-order conditioning involving novel, compound stimuli is a signature of consciousness. This kind of learning cannot happen, they claim, if the stimuli are not consciously experienced.”

If the subject matter interests you, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Together with How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life: The Emergence and Evolution of Prokaryotic Cells by Jan Spitzer – coincidentally about the first Aristotelian transition – it is the best book I’ve read all year.

I’ll leave you with a whole lot of quotes and insights I wish to preserve for myself.
 

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BOERENPSALM – Felix Timmermans (1935)

Boerenpsalm Felix Timmermans (Broucke Davidsfonds)As I’m reading a mammoth book at the moment – The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Evolution of Consciousness by Simona Ginsburg & Eva Jablonka – I’m posting something I’ve written earlier in Dutch, to signal I’m not on a hiatus.

This post is about A Peasant’s Psalm, Felix Timmermans’ best novel. In it, a farmer recounts the story of his life: his connection to the soil which he works & his natural acceptance of his and his family’s fate. It is a life both of hardship and sorrow & of beauty and joy.

Boerenpsalm was translated in German, French, Spanish, Danish, Czech, Norwegian, Polish, Slovakian, Serbo-Croatian, Latvian, Sardinian and Afrikaans. Timmermans’ metaphors are unsurpassed, and lovers of vitalist literature could do worse hunting down a translation: the book is a triumph.

I hope to post that review on the consciousness book in about 2 or 3 weeks.


Felix Timmermans (1886-1947) was bij leven een erg populaire en veelgelezen schrijver. Toch is zijn oeuvre in de vergetelheid geraakt, en wellicht heeft dat met de kwaliteit ervan te maken.

Jeroen Overstijns herlas in 1997 het grootste deel van zijn werk, en weerhoudt enkel Boerenpsalm: “Pallieter blijft een historisch belangrijk curiosum en Boerenpsalm een groots boek.” Volgen Overstijns valt “er weinig moderniteit te ontdekken in het oeuvre van Timmermans, in tegenstelling tot de verzamelde werken van schrijvers als Gerard Walschap, Louis Paul Boon of Cyriel Buysse”.

Overstijns beschrijft in Ons Erfdeel ook Timmermans’ poëtica, “op essentiële punten negentiende-eeuws, of toch op zijn minst premodernistisch. Niet alleen door de preïndustriële setting, de benepen onderdanigheid en de vaak cyclische (agrarische) tijdsopbouw, maar vooral door de onverholen humaniteitsclaim (…) en het in wezen steeds harmonische, overzichtelijke wereldbeeld dat uit de werken spreekt, gevoed door een permanente idealistische onderstroom.”

Boerenpsalm was al jaren niet meer in druk, en door de ijver van Bart Van Loo is er in 2022 een nieuwe, populaire uitgave – inclusief voorwoord, illustraties van Koen Broucke en wat kleine teksten van Gaston Durnez. Het is een fraaie hardcover, en ik ben blij dat het boek opnieuw verkrijgbaar is, want het is inderdaad een groots, meeslepend boek.

Paul de Vree schreef het in 1936 al duidelijk in DWB: 

Geen hooge filosofie, geen verfijning, geen weekdoenerij, maar de openhartige, eenvoudige, onmiddellijke biecht van den eenzaat die een boer is in strijd met zijn zwakten, zijn have, zijn grond en God. Graag vertelde ik de vreugden en de bekommernissen van dezen Wortel (…) Maar dat alles vertelt ge niet met de kracht, de spanning en de beladenheid die van Timmermans’ woorden uitgaat. In langen tijd heb ik geen werk onder handen gehad dat zooveel klimaksen bereikte binnen het bestek van een paar honderd bladzijden.

Boerenpsalm is een genot om te lezen, omwille van Timmermans’ taal en het krachtige verhaal van boer Wortel.

Mijn enige voorbehoud is misschien het quasi afwezig zijn van politiek. Timmermans schiep met zijn boer Wortel een personage dat tegenslagen kent, geliefden ziet sterven en uitgebuit wordt door hoge heren, maar dat, ondanks periodes met veel negatieve gevoelens, uiteindelijk toch content is en blijft.

Is Timmermans daardoor schuldig aan collaboratie met de uitbuiters? Relativeert hij zo niet te sterk de structurele ongelijkheden en de onrechtvaardigheden door iemand te laten zien die simpelweg een content karakter heeft, iemand met een groot talent voor geluk? Het antwoord op die vraag is wellicht ja. Bouwt iemand die niet afbreekt immers wel echt op?

We kunnen Timmermans zeker niet beschuldigen dat hij de miserie en het ongeluk dat de kleine man te beurt valt onder de mat veegt. Maar hij onderzoekt de machtsmechanismen amper, het blijft bij een enkele verwijzing naar de kasteelvrouw van wie hij zijn boerderij huurt, en één keer merkt Wortel op dat de wereld slecht verdeeld is: “Dat God de hazen en de fazanten alleen voor de kasteelheren geschapen heeft, gaat er bij mij niet in.”

Langs de andere kant zou je kunnen zeggen dat Timmermans louter een bepaald aspect van de werkelijkheid toont: er bestaan toch arme mensen die ondanks alles content zijn? Dat kan best zijn, maar dat gaat voorbij aan de kern van de zaak: als die tevreden arme mensen niet arm zouden zijn, en niet uitgebuit zouden worden, dan zouden ze nog contenter zijn, nog gelukkiger, met significant minder besognes & kopzorgen.

Bovendien: wat is content? Speelt er soms geen zelfbedrog: “Wat zou ik met een kasteel kunnen doen als er geen mesthoop vóór de deur ligt en de kiekens niet in huis floreren?” Het is in dat verband tekenend dat ook de blinde dochter zich duidelijk schikt in haar eigen lot: ze is liever blind dan doof of zonder reukzin, terwijl het overduidelijk is dat blind zijn een veel grotere beperking is dan niet kunnen ruiken of doof zijn. Op die manier laat Timmermans – al dan niet onbedoeld – toch een deel van een machtsmechanisme zien: mensen die zich schikken in hun lot.

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EMPTY SPACE: A HAUNTING – M. John Harrison (2012)

Empty Space M John HarrisonI liked everything I’ve read by Harrison so far: Light, Nova Swing, the 2017 short story collection You Should Come With Me Now, and his latest 2020 novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. I liked it a lot. And I plan to read a whole lot more of Harrison too.

But I stopped reading Empty Space at 60% in. Not that it doesn’t have merit. The novel got glowing reviews on Speculiction and A Sky of Books and Movies. Paul Kincaid has called the entire trilogy “the most significant work of science fiction to have appeared so far this century” in the LA Review of Books. I can see why, but no – more on that later. On a sentence level, Harrison is a master, a poet. On a scene level, he manages to evoke much – technically he’s brilliant. The same goes for the emotional level: he is an expert in painting characters with only a wee bit of language.

But besides all that, I have come to realize the particular game Harrison plays in this particular novel simply does not interest me. For me, there was not enough story, and too much meta-puzzle.

Maybe I’ve overdosed on postmodern deconstruction at university? Then again, that was over 20 years ago. And I’m still interested in these matters. I’m still interested in the politics & epistemics & metaphysics & biology of representation and language. I agree with Harrison that we should be aware of the artificiality of our fictional entertainment. But I’m not sure if Empty Space works as a political-poetic manifesto.

I will look into some of these matters in the remainder of this text – not so much a traditional review, but an essay using interviews and reviews to ponder this particular branch of literature & art.

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LAPVONA – Ottessa Moshfegh (2022)

Lapvona MoshfeghOttessa Moshfegh is well known for My Year of Rest and Relaxation – the book that topped most year-end lists in 2018. That book dealt with depression and solitude in contemporary New York, and this new one is quite a jump from that. Appealing to genre readers and literary fans alike, Lapvona has a few very small fantasy elements, and is set in a fictional fiefdom somewhere in medieval Europe.

One of the protagonists is Marek, a 13-year old disfigured boy who is abused by his father yet retains a strong faith amid the hardship of a shepherd’s life. To say much more would spoil the fun – although some readers might not think this book fun: Moshfegh incorporates scenes that boarder body horror, depictions of rape, humiliation and cannibalism. Lisa Allardice in The Guardian said it like this: “Her work takes dirty realism and makes it filthier.” Even though such filth might evoke some level of disgust, there is a clear playfulness and humor in the book too.

Not that is not serious stuff, or mere gore for the sake of gore. Let’s quote Publishers Weekly again:

Moshfegh’s picture of medieval cruelty includes unsparing accounts of torture, rape, cannibalism, and witchcraft, and as Marek grapples with the pervasive brutality and whether remaining pure of heart is worth the trouble—or is even possible—the narrative tosses readers through a series of dizzying reversals. Throughout, Moshfegh brings her trademark fascination with the grotesque to depictions of the pandemic, inequality, and governmental corruption, making them feel both uncanny and all too familiar.

Yes – this is fictional, even fantastic, but I have seldom come across a book that is so sharp and insightful about today’s world & our shared reality. Let’s dig a little deeper.

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PERHAPS THE STARS – Ada Palmer (2021)

Perhaps The Stars Ada Palmer UK hardcoverThere are benefits to blogging: being part of a conversation, just as Ada Palmer with her writing wants to be part of the conversation. When I was on the brink of finishing Perhaps The Stars, Agnus Burke – from the excellent Utopia in the Works, a blog focused on rereading Kim Stanley Robinson – commented on my review of The Will to Battle, the previous book in Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. That comment helped me tremendously in pinpointing exactly what I wanted to say in this final review.

Before I get to that, a short recap for those of you who haven’t read the previous reviews. Perhaps the Stars is the fourth and final book of Terra Ignota, a series that started with Too Like the Lightening, a book that blew me away and that I rank among the best books I’ve read – in my review I try to explain why.

Book 2 and 3 were excellent as well, but not fully on the level of Palmer’s debut. And so I wrote lengthy analyses, trying to spell out my feelings. 8,600 words on Seven Surrenders, most notably on the series’ metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D. and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building. And 6,400 words on The Will to Battle, on the epistemic nature of the text & its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world, and about J.E.D.D.’s problematic motivation for his involvement in the coming war – linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem.

These reviews are a testimony of an ongoing reading process, and I wouldn’t have written certain parts with what I know in hindsight. I don’t think that’s a problem, as they serve as a mapping of sorts to the problems Palmer presents her readers – she has been vocal about one of her goals: getting people to think and engage with these books. So I won’t alter these reviews retroactively, that would defy their pondering, searching nature – except that I will add one remark to my review of Seven Surrenders, out of intellectual fairness.

Now that I’ve finished the full series, this final review – 5,500 words – will also serve as my thoughts on the full series, and for those thoughts I’ll start with Burke’s comment. I’ll also discuss some other stuff that wasn’t fully to my taste this time, and I’ll end with a few short discussions: on free will, on J.E.D.D’s. nature & the fallacy of fiction being a real world guide, on J.E.D.D.’s trolley problem motivation, on the trolley problem itself & on a few of the series’ gender aspects.

In short, I think Palmer did an amazing job – an insane amount of work – crafting her narrative construction, providing tons of great ideas and sets and characters and twists and genuine moments of awe – but, and this may seem paradoxical for a novel full of really insightful stuff, I think the main philosophical foundation of the four Terra Ignota books is uninteresting and unproductive. How’s that for a cliffhanger?

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MENUET – Louis Paul Boon (1955)

Menuet Louis Paul BoonA post in Dutch, about one of the key works of Louis Paul Boon, a Flemish author born in 1912. He died in 1979, days before he was to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.

Menuet Minuet in English is an existential work about just three characters: a doubting, socially awkward man, his wife, and their young, cynical maid. Boon embeds their story in a stream of authentic newspaper clippings about accidents, murder and the like.

It has been translated into English, French, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Polish, Danish and Italian. You could do worse than hunt down a translation: Menuet packs a lot of punch for its short length: only 101 pages, but it manages to confront its readers with their own outlook on life.

Next post will be in English again – probably a review of Perhaps the Stars, the final book of the absolutely brilliant Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer.


Menuet wordt algemeen als een van de belangrijkste romans van Louis Paul Boon beschouwd, en hijzelf rekende het ook bij zijn beste werk. Niet slecht voor een boekje van 101 bladzijden dat naar eigen zeggen op 2 à 3 weken werd geschreven, in juni 1954.

Het boek gaat over een arbeider in een vrieskelder en de moeilijke verhouding tot zijn echtgenote en het jonge meisje dat bij hen mee het huishouden doet. Boon doet in 3 hoofdstukken hun relaas: eerst een hoofdstuk dat de man vertelt, daarna worden min of meer dezelfde gebeurtenissen verhaald door het meisje, en als laatste krijgen we het perspectief van de vrouw.

Boven de tekst – of eronder, in sommige drukken – is een strook van 8 regels opgenomen waarin allerlei krantenartikels worden samengevat. De artikels zijn volgens Boon authentiek – hij verzamelde ze gedurende een jaar – en berichten over ongelukken, moord en andere miserie. Een “modderstroom van faits-divers” zegt de achterflap, een stroom “die zich met de diepste ondertoon [van de romantekst mengt], zodat de subjectiviteit van de persoonlijke ellende [wordt opgenomen] in de algemene tragiek van de menselijke samenleving.” De roman zelf houdt het qua toon en proza trouwens heel wat luchtiger dan dat stukje flaptekst uit 1967.

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THE WILL TO BATTLE – Ada Palmer (2017)

The Will To Battle Ada Palmer hardcoverAda Palmer’s Terra Ignota tetralogy has me gripped. I read the first two in a month at the beginning of this year and took a bit of a pause before I started this third book: I needed a bit of air – these books are dense.

To recap: I absolutely loved Too Like the Lightning – I don’t think I’ve read a better debut ever. It’s not for everybody, but do yourself a favor: read my review to check out if it could be something for you. I also liked Seven Surrenders a lot – even though I had some remarks about what Palmer tried to do philosophically: about the metaphysics of the book, its ethics & its apparent gender essentialism. I wrote a 8,600 word analysis of all that and more, if you’re interested in such a thing.

This review won’t be as long, but still a hefty 6,400 words. The conceptual questions I voiced in my analysis of Seven Surrenders are not resolved in The Will to Battle, and there isn’t that much new information on these matters to analyze. Still, there’s enough to build upon what I wrote.

In my analysis, I will limit myself to two things. First a further discussion of the epistemic nature of the text and its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world. I’ve also changed my opinion a bit on the science fantasy matter, mainly because of an essay Palmer wrote online.

The second thing I’ll look at more closely is J.E.D.D.’s motivation for his involvement in the coming war: it is linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem – things I wrote about in my text on 7S as well. J.E.D.D.’s motivations are problematic to say the least – not wholly out of character.

Before I’ll get to the analytic part, I’ll do a quick assessment of the novel without spoilers – that could be of interest to those that have read none or one or two of the first books.

Just to be clear: I liked The Will to Battle a lot, probably a bit more even than Seven Surrenders. It was a bit less exuberant, less cartoonish, and it dwelled less on the problematic sides of 7S.

Book 4, Perhaps the Stars, has 608 pages of small print and slim margins – quite a difference with the 350 pages of normal print in The Will to Battle. I tend to avoid door stoppers, but the fact that I’m very eager to read it nonetheless attests for Palmer’s narrative powers. I’ll read one or two short books as palet cleansers, but I hope to post a review/analysis of Perhaps the Stars before the end of August. Stay tuned.


GENERAL APPRAISAL – spoiler free

I think it’s safe to say The Will to Battle is a transitional book, getting us from the more or less finished story of the first half to the series’ finale: a big battle, as in so much traditional speculative series. Continue reading