July 1, 2010

Greg Baxter: A Preparation for Death

Posted in Baxter Greg at 8:00 am by John Self

Here, out of a Jiffy bag sent on spec, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’m coming out and saying that at the top because I fear that otherwise, people might drift away from reading a long review of a book they don’t know by an author nobody’s heard of. I almost ignored it myself, this being one of those books that arrive unsolicited, few of which appeal and hardly any of which I finish. But something made me sample the preface, and once I did, I knew I was trapped until the end.

A Preparation for Death is a memoir of a few years in Greg Baxter’s life: let’s say the mid-2000s, though it’s hard to follow the chronology precisely, and anyway he swoops back into previous generations now and then. It’s an account of the years that led to and from the breakdown of his marriage and the breakdown of his ambition to be a novelist; when “no thought I had was quiet. Everything was a military march.”

Baxter, living in Ireland, came there from his US birthplace, and is of Austrian descent. The book doubles as a travelogue of his life and times: the ancestral homeland, the new hope:

No city in the world transforms in rain like Dublin. In the sunshine it is hard-edged and ugly and rank. In the rain it softens like a sponge, swelling, and all the open spaces narrow.

He teaches literature to make ends meet as an unpublished writer. “I come home and write for nobody, for an audience of zero.” He is deteriorating physically (“my face had turned a shade or two greyer – I looked like a jar of old rainwater”) and is self-lacerating about his own compromises.

But I am like anyone else – fear and apprehension rule many of my hours. And addiction to the dispensable. Because it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial, and have a thing or two in common with the man sitting beside you on the bus – whose acts are repetitions, whose memories are souvenirs, whose entertainment is palatable – than to become incomprehensible.

So: Baxter takes himself seriously. But if he doesn’t, who will? He is not at pains to come across as affable, and as a result I liked him all the more. Or do I mean I liked his book all the more? This is a book with no About the Author page; the entire book is about the author. One might say that that is true of any book, and that Baxter is just more honest about it.

Honesty is one of the book’s selling points, according to the blurb, and it’s true that nobody would invent some of the things Baxter admits to thinking. But what impresses most is the concrete prose, the defining solidity of almost everything he says: no ambiguity here, no fine writing, just aesthetic delight throughout at what he says and how he says it, which borders on physical pleasure.

My former housemate Elísabet – who is something of a sensation in her country, and only dates men half her age – writes very beautifully about sex because she is not afraid of what people will think. She says an orgasm is like a hand that reaches up inside her, grasps her by the spine, and shakes her like a rattle, an inch away from the death of one self and the rebirth of another. I have no capacity to write beautifully about sex. Often I am battling through the swamp of a dozen pints, the smoke of twenty cigarettes, and no sleep for days. The exercise is nauseating, and I feel like the young Orwell working in a small, hot, Paris kitchen.

Well, he may not write beautifully about sex, but he writes a lot about it. “I often feel one drink away,” Baxter says, “from whatever makes a dog hump women’s legs.” More often still he seems to be no drinks away, and seems to have the knack of finding women who want to let him hump their legs, and plenty more besides. There is – you can view this as come-on or turn-off as you will – a good deal of explicit sex between these covers.

What really drives Baxter, however, is the self-love of language and literature. He has a novelist’s touch for the deft pen portrait (“She walked two miles a day with a fat dog that couldn’t keep up with her”) and has no qualms about splicing in other writers to no loss of effect. “I used to measure my writing by its charisma – such was the way in which at that time I loved my fellow-man; according to the standards of other men [Augustine] – but now I measure it by its character.” A Preparation for Death reports on Baxter’s struggles to match his own high ideals. “All the books I admire are ogres – flawed, imbalanced, savage. They enhance me. Everything else reduces me.” He names names – Maupassant, Kafka, Schulz, Cioran, Bunin, Mansfield, Kharms, and on, and on – and reminds us that “whatever society degrades, a genius ennobles; whatever society embraces, a genius obliterates. It makes my heart clamour now just to think of them.” What reader cannot identify with that? (As I was writing this post, flicking back through the book for relevant passages, my own heart swelled and thrilled plenty.)

Baxter’s conscience is tortured, but his prose is clear. “I spent many years trying to interpret existence, when I ought to have been squandering it.” Now he is trying to intepret it again, he runs up against the same wall as every writer who ever tried hard enough. How to reduce to writing those ineffable moments, the sharing of which in language is the writer’s simple, but impossible, ambition?

By the time you have named it, you have forgotten it. The imposition of a word is the act of forgetting. A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.

A Preparation for Death is an account of the frustrations and consolations of literature. In struggling to do it justice, or at least explain its seduction (how it had its easy way with me, as I blushed and giggled like a teenager), I am reduced to impersonating Martin Amis on Saul Bellow, and just quoting paragraph after paragraph.

There are too many days in the week. Too many weeks in the year. Too much space to fill. I would like to have lived for an afternoon only, born at the age of twenty, dead eight hours later, experienced life, all by myself, in a corner apartment with a high view of a busy junction, an ambulance route, a metro entrance, the back of a restaurant, warring neighbours in the corridors, a broken television, an empty bookshelf, and learned only sensitivity, because I would have missed nothing, gained the same experience of life, and would not have grown so addicted to existence that the thought of not existing gives me indigestion and bad dreams.

This passionate ambivalence is all through the book, yet we keep getting trills of warning toward the end that it all might be altering forever. Baxter, we learn, is to become a father. That is why, on the penultimate page, “I plan to separate the self that I shall leave here from the self that will return: to cast the author of this book into a condition of permanent aimlessness,” for fear that otherwise “he will forget the perfection of inexistence. He will grow out of the despair that he worships.” This is the only indication we get of the tsunamic changes parenthood painfully brings. This is not a book about redemption or epiphany. There is light at the end, but it is still around a corner. The book is not about a triumph from disaster; the book is the triumph.

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39 Comments »

  1. leemonks said,

    Sounds tremendous, great review and thanks for bringing it to attention. How many cracking books are there out there, jostling for minor attention when other writers such as **** ******* are strangely renowned? I’ll order one.

  2. Not to mention ****** **** and *** ******.

    I’ll order one too.

  3. John Self said,

    I told you not to mention ****** ****, Charles!

  4. I think I may have spelt it wrong, actually.

  5. A great review John. It’s curious that I can agree with or recognise everything you say and yet have had a very different experience reading the book myself. I’ll publish my thoughts on the blog next week but I basically found the intense focus on himself to be rather suffocating. Just the repetition of the word ‘I’ began to grate after a while, a bit like being forced to listen to someone you don’t like very much talk about themselves all night. When the book opened out slightly and involved other people I became more interested and I found him more bearable nearer the end too. I didn’t get as much from the writing as you did, a failure on my part I’m sure, which I acknowledge in my review. I certainly don’t regret reading it though.

  6. John Self said,

    Then let’s consider this a Tony and Susan moment, Will!

    I was certainly aware as I wrote the above that my experience of A Preparation for Death was very personal (a fatuous observation: what else could it be?) and would not be shared by everyone. I even suspected some people might hate the book. But this is no place for second-guessing others’ opinions.

    Certainly it has been damned with faint praise elsewhere (“There are several apt similes and metaphors … For a more rewarding story of life in Ireland, I recommend Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha“), and a Sunday Times review I saw a couple of weeks ago recommended it while detailing mostly what the reviewer didn’t like. I can honestly – as honestly as Greg Baxter – say I never once found the book anything other than a delight.

    I tried to hint above at the difficulty in separating my feelings for the book from my feelings about the author: I don’t think I disliked him or his self-obsession, but then again I’m not sure it would have changed my feelings about the book if I had.

  7. Tom said,

    Great review, John – yet another book (and author) I might never have discovered if it weren’t for your blog. I’ll definitely have to pick this one up at some point.

  8. kimbofo said,

    I received a copy of this unsolicited, too, and put it in the probably-won’t-read-this pile. I think I will extract it now. Thanks for the great review.

  9. I am going to sell a copy to Roland.

  10. The power of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha has nothing to do with its portrait of life in Ireland and everything to do with its incredibly painful depiction of a marriage running onto the rocks.

    I mean seriously, Doyle’s books are rooted in Irish experience, but that’s not what makes Doyle so good. The Van, a brilliant novel, shows the slow death of a friendship and could be set in Turkey or China and would still hold the same truths.

    So I can’t say the person making the Doyle comparison holds much weight for me.

    It sounds slightly reminiscent of Bukowski. Is there any truth to that or is it just an impression I’ve picked up?

    Interesting review John, all the better for being of something I’d never heard of.

  11. Shelley said,

    Very thorough review.

    But love of language is self-love?

  12. John Self said,

    Not really, Shelley. I was just trying to make a combined point (not very clearly, unfortunately) that Baxter’s twin interests in the book – literature and himself – are so entwined as to be almost inseparable. He uses the language skills which he has developed, partly as a result of reading great literature, to write with great style and skill of his love of language and literature. It’s all very circular and reflexive. Which is not to say I didn’t still love it, but others (like William above) could find his self-interest tiresome.

    Max, an interesting comparison, which I am thinking about as I type. I think of Bukowski – I’ve only read one novel (Ham on Rye, which I loved) and a few poems – as being pretty straightforward as a writer: though no less skilful for that. Baxter is more of a stylist than that, I think, and although his prose is clear, what he says tends to come across as paradoxical and deliberately challenging. (In some ways he reminds me of a male version of Anne Enright’s narrator Veronica in The Gathering – though I disliked that character quite a bit.)

  13. Tom C said,

    I keep putting off writing a review of this book. I read it a month or so ago and really didn’t like it, because I found the main character just too self-indulgent, even obnoxious. The book is written reasonably well, but for me it lacked any message and was completely charmless. I didn’t find Baxter’s conscience tortured either! Tortured perhaps in the manner of a guilt dilettante who likes to feel his badness without doing anything about it. Sorry – I don’t mean to go on, and am fascinated by your review which as a similar discussion on Pechorin’s journal suggests – we all read the same book differently. Incidentally I have just read Tim Park’s book which I thought was rather good – but tortured in a different way!

  14. Steerforth said,

    When I read this quote:

    Because it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial, and have a thing or two in common with the man sitting beside you on the bus – whose acts are repetitions, whose memories are souvenirs, whose entertainment is palatable – than to become incomprehensible.

    it was like being thumped very hard in the chest. I felt both the relief and depression of recognition.

    I will have to read this book (and the Slinkachu-esque cover is superb).

  15. Roland wasn’t convinced. He’s not buying.

  16. Aldrin said,

    I’ll consider myself very lucky if I ever find a copy of this book. Thanks, John, for this amazing review, which I must say is a triumph as well.

  17. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Tom C, I’d be interested to read a review by you nonetheless. Your comment raises the whole fascinating (to me) area of what factors affect our feelings about books. Disliking the narrator, do you think you would have disliked the book so much if it had been a novel, and so clearly fictional rather than sold (partly) on its truth and honesty?

    The book is written reasonably well, but for me it lacked any message and was completely charmless.

    Ouch! As you know, I thought the book was written very well, and I do tend to subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “books are either well written, or badly written. That is all.” You say it lacked a message. I think this is probably true, but again I don’t think of that as a weakness. Nabokov, for example, repeatedly denied any message in his books. When asked why he wrote Lolita, he replied:

    It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.

    (At another place on the literary scale, Douglas Adams, when asked what the message was in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, replied: “No message. If I’d wanted to write a message I’d have written a message. I wrote a book.”)

    As to charmlessness, I suppose that charm, like comedy or beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    The comparison – or contrast – with Tim Parks’ book is an interesting one. Parks is just as self-obsessed as Baxter, ruminating on his problems and his place in the world more or less constantly (and in some ways his response is worse, as running off to a retreat for ten days affects his family, whereas Baxter – at the time the book was written – had no family, so his actions affected only himself). But Parks tempers it for the reader by being very self-aware and self-critical, disarming criticism. Baxter just ploughs on as though he doesn’t care. That, to me, is refreshing. He knows many people reading it will hate him, but the writing is more important to him than what people think of it. And of course, he will occasionally happen upon his perfect reader, who doesn’t hate him at all!

  18. Tom C said,

    John – thanks for your response. I don’t know why that book causes such a reaction in my – possibly over-reaction. Yes, had it been classed as fiction it may have helped a little, but I do feel that we have something of the “unreliable narrator” here anyway. I am not so bothered about the lack of message as such, just this one was a little too nihilistic, even self-indulgent for my taste. As I said, possibly I am over-reacting, and nothing I have written should be taken as detracting from your excellent review.

  19. Darragh said,

    The cover of Baxter’s book is laden with imagery, and I wonder what it all means. Who get’s things like these and arranges them in such a fashion and places them on the cover of an Author’s first published work? You don’t exactly find them knocking around the average house.

    In it, a small plastic man in a work outfit and cap is washing what he thinks is a window. Do we have to Guess if Zeus has been toppled, or is it just a watch on a desk. And what about the ladder? The tale of Jacob’s Ladder is a central theme, signaling mans assent to the Godhead, by virtue of reason, and is understood to be a futile attempt by some. Still there are others who wish to put man, in place of God. The process of “liberation” of man, according to them, is a lengthy one that cannot be considered in context of what we would call time. It is a work of eternity – hence the saying “There is no time”. Does the fallen clock allude to this? The film also comes to mind; dark images of demon’s, women contorting, snakes travelling through them, an enigmatic, eccentric postman’s dream as he prepares for death.

    And what of the plastic blue man? He looks like a communist revolutionary, except the uniform is blue. He has red hair, which is strange for a figurine. The Gael is the traditional copper-top, so could he be Irish? The significance of a Gael in a workman’s blue suit seems timely considering the revolution underway, their passing of a European Constitution with no reference to a spiritual heritage anywhere in its pages. Has Ireland been Sovietized without the populace even being aware of it? Could it be otherwise? We have Garrets granddaughters proudly leading the way of progress under the banner of ‘Generation Yes!’.

    The worker lives in a world of giants, oblivious of his predicament, the significance of his actions or the scene he acts out. Blue reminds me of the European Soviet, which signifies the death of Old Europe and Ireland as a distinct nation. The ‘Beast of Rome’ has been finally caged and his seminaries dried up like prunes never to secret their poison again. Great Work Lemass, nice one bro. Had you told your armed comrades that this was your dream you would have been gutted on the spot. Three cheers for Professor Laffan; wipe away your crocodile tears for us – the show is over. We await the dawn.

    Is Baxter aware of the import of these symbols, whatever they may mean? Could it be a mocking symbol of the Irish, that they work for their own destruction? Who knows, stage directors don’t talk. We should appreciate art for what it is.

    The bucket? I have no clue. Don’t window washers generally use them? The leather desk? Is it the desk of a managing director who knows the design when the profane don’t? What is in the background, top left? Is it a camera for a computer? – can’t be sure.

    Whatever of my references to the philosophical roots of moral relativism embodied in our new country, the reality is that we are now ‘legally’ citizens of an entity superior and antecedent to Irish citizenship, achieved by fraud. Such portents are normally glossed over as inconsequential. Look at our new shiny identity. At last all European’s are one happy family. It is telling that it costs €2 billion a year to try to convince them of this, an expense Coca Cola would choke on.

    What is certain, is that the pieces mean something, and that something is not explained in words and neither is the photographer’s intention. However the photographer is French. The 21st century is the century of moral relativistic hegemony and what some call “enlightenment”. The French modernists are particularly hostile to Europe’s spiritual foundations. They despise religion with such a passion that cannot be fathomed by an impartial witness. If he chose a red haired man, for an Irish book, and is a moral relativist, could it be a gesture of mockery?

    Does Baxter thinks of such things or is he used to swell the ranks of literary revolutionaries, unaware of what he lends his talents and energies to. Who chose the title? The overall impression I get is of a Great Work of world materialism.

    The world republic, neo-Platonism on steroids, seems underpinned by the principles of relativity and equality which has been described before. It is not out of place to discuss religion with reference to Baxter. His work is pregnant with it, but in my view without an historical context barring Milton. An Irish man once described it in this way:

    “Yet too great stress cannot be laid on the words of Pope Bennidict XV concerning the present day movement for a World-Republic. Unwary Catholics may be made the instruments of schemes of which they have no suspicion, and the success of which they would view with horror when too late”. In his Motu Proprio “Bonum Sane” July 25th 1920, on occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, by Pius IX, of St Joseph as patron of the Universal Church, Pope Bennidict XV, after having spoken of “Naturalism, that awful pest of our epoch” went on to say “The advent of a Universal Republic, which is longed for by all the worst elements of disorder, and confidently expected by them, is an idea now ripe for execution. From this Republic, based on principles of absolute equality and community of possessions, would be banished all national distinctions, nor in it would the authority of the father over his children, or of the public power over its citizens, or of God over human society, be any longer acknowledged. If these ideas are put into practice, there will inevitably follow a reign of unheard of terror. Already, even now, a large portion of Europe is going through that doleful experience and we see that it is sought to extend that awful state of affairs to other regions”. Lenin wrote in No.40 of the Russian organ, the Social Democrat, in 1915:”The United States of the World (and not only of Europe), that is the State formula of the union…until the day when the complete victory of communism will bring about the definite disappearance of every state, even purely democratic”. To proclaim that to follow Lenin’s principles is to work for the independence of Ireland is in reality a flagrant attempt to deceive innocent people. Lenin was consciously working, not for the independence of Ireland, but for the disappearance of Ireland as an independent state”.

    It’s not until the frenetic liberal equality agitators are put to the wall and shot or dragged off to the camps by those they called ideological brothers, that their quills run dry. This is now a standard occurrence in every revolution since the French one.

    The concept of time as an irrelevance comes strongly through the cover design and the book itself. Alexander Kojeve, the marxist economic planner and primary author of the modern pan-european socialist union ‘project’, of which we are enmeshed, was a Hegelian adherent. In his masterpiece, “An introduction to the reading of Hegel” he discusses in “A note on eternity, time and concept” the difference between the Platonic belief that “eternity can only be outside time”, whereas Aristotle, “discovers eternity in time”. The duality of the concept of time is its importance and irrelevance. Baxter had nothing but contempt for his time yet was driven by its relevance to him. If time truly meant nothing to him the author would likely never have written a book.

    Baxter says, “I used to measure my writing by its charisma -”Such was the way in which at that time I loved my fellow-men, according to the standards of other men” [Augustine] – but now I judge it by its character”. (P132).

    Baxter is struggling, fighting, raging – “If literature is a street brawl between the courageous and the banal – that’s the way I teach it, anyway – I bring the toughest gang I know: the pure killers, the insane.”. How far away from this imagery the cover picture’s sentiment appears. There is a sense of oppressive futility in it, of a grand design operating beyond the conceptualization of our Irish window cleaner.

    What is most striking in Hegelian materialism is not just its dialectic, but its eventual denial of transcendence. Getting there drove Hegel bonkers, and I am still wondering if he ever recovered. The onslaught of materialism on the human soul, the symbiosis of masters and slaves, eventually reaches a zero point where time appears to stop and eternity begins. Time becomes irrelevant. In today’s progressive world, all of the seasons appear to blur, the holidays and festivals of old, devoid of colour or meaning, the great soup of materialism darkening men’s hearts. The Christmas tree lights no longer come down from the streets, their messages lost, acts of charity become obscene and embarrassing, the truth a dangerous lie.

    It is not surprising that Baxter uses the Bible as a point and counter point. Treading the path, one inevitably comes up to the bars to rattle the cage.

    Baxter mentions Augustine a few times. Augustine’s eventual conversion and his mothers delight may be different to Baxter’s experience. The question of what God was doing before he made heaven and earth in Augustine’s “Confessions” finds a parallel in both the cover, the subsequent initiation, the book proper and its meaning. Is Baxter preparing revolutionaries in his seminary?

    Baxter also writes a book of “Confessions”. Augustine was an intellectually convinced Christian but was prevented from accepting the faith by weakness in dealing with sexual desire. After his conversion, time is explored in Book XI:

    “O Lord, since you are outside time in eternity,
    are you aware of the things that I tell you?
    Or do you see in time the things that occur in it?
    If you see them, why do I lay this lengthy record before you?
    Certainly it is not through me that you hear these things.
    But by setting them down I fire my own heart,
    and the hearts of my readers with love of you, so that we all may ask:
    Can any praise be worthy of the Lords majesty?
    I have said before, and I shall say again,
    that I write this book for love of your love.”

    Satan is a conscious figure in Baxter’s life, and this to me is his bravest act, his most honest admission. His brutal honesty climaxes in the culmination of the chapter. He proscribes the symbolism of “the indomitable victory Christ over sin and death” coming through his own victory unscathed, the ensuing eulogy suiting crowning the chapter’s end:

    “Since I see no bliss in heaven, let me live in hell,
    and eat ash out of a tree like that which grows in Paradise,
    and writhe my jaw on soot and cinder. Grant me strength and daring,
    that amongst men the adversarial in me is most conspicuous;
    make fire blaze from my shoulders; urge me to the middle of the fight,
    where most men are struggling, and I shall writhe a little,
    and in that writhing, discover.” (130)

    Baxter and Augustine appear on similar paths, akin to travelling through Dublin airport, as you glance through bullet proof glass from your moving platform at a man’s face who moves in the opposite direction. Your glance is of recognition of the journey, you both move, it is relatively the same thing you are doing, the destination being the determining factor.

    Baxter and Augustine confess, both desire to inspire their readers, both desire indomitable will’s of steel for the task, both are willing to fight, to suffer, both praise the majesty of their confessor, both request assistance.

    The imagery of the book cover suggests the Creator lives outside of time, he has cast off his watch, created only for the Plastic Paddy for him to believe he is doing something worthwhile. Will Paddy attempt the ladder, will he circumvent time only to find another reality?

    Augustine was a devotee of Manichee, yet converted. Is Baxter a modern day equivalent, as his opening quotation suggests. Yet if no conversion, what are we to make of his next work? Would it get published?

    “What sit we then projecting peace and war? War hath determined us…” (122).

    I met a man outside a pub once. He seemed confounded by what I had casually said about the world economy. He asked me my age. I said 36. I was asked by his giggling companion to ask him his age, as if this was some sort of game. It all seemed rather pointless to me, then. It still does.

    To rave about Baxter’s obvious ability to write, his witticism, his punchy change of pace, the base and the banal in sequence, raising and lowering the passions, the chaotic chronology, the Biblical climacteric chapter, followed by the reptilian slide to the end through Walters degenerative illness, would seem to me to miss the point about his life and the story he is telling of it. He covers more ground than Holden. The pain and the reaction reverberate in similar tones.

    Many of us all have talents, desires, admirable qualities, base lust. I am sure Jack the Ripper was a good surgeon at one time. He just decided to become an artist.

    I was in the Royal Hibernian Academy only recently, looking for a work a 69yr old bar buddy of mine had done, just to see if he was full if shit. I was pleased to see he was not and was impressed by his talent, although I never told him so. There was another work in the gallery that grabbed me. The female artist has pasted the pages of a book called ‘The History of Philosophy’ or something like that, into a glass frame. The pages started at the top left and moved chronologically to the bottom right. The pages had been burnt with little singe holes, progressively becoming more numerous as time advances, blotting out the words as they approached modern times. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle stood out clearly. There was a monstrous jump in time to the 15th Century, the trail of Philosophy being picked up then until today. It signified to me the degeneration of thought over time coupled with the disappearance of the page altogether by the time we reached our modern era. Buried within this message there was a gap of 1500 years or so, as if man had been on a philosophical holiday, only to revitalize after the reformation. The ‘Dark Ages’, I hear it called today.

    “Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” Isaiah 5:20

    I wonder how far into Time Baxter will go and if that journey will influence his next work. Will Time give up its secrets to Greg?

  20. Lee Monks said,

    Darragh: crikey bob, man! Did you by any chance have an extra helping of Ready Brek this morning? I salute you!

  21. Darragh said,

    Cheers Lee. For all of Baxters claims not to be interested in Politics, not one of them ultimately rings true. All books are political, because politics is just ethics in action. Ethics are based on philosophy and that on religion. Baxter mixes into his work philosophy, ethics and religion, but claims retreat from politics. He perspective is a by product of political and ethical history. His book lays bare what he has learnt about his life to date.

    The cover I found interesting and reflective of the book. But my comments, while lenghty, possibly obscure, are only so in inverse proportion to the rather banal, fence walking, navel gazing, torpid comments I have read so far. I find that dissatisfying.

    Did you find an ethical, moral or philosophical context to the book, or no? If so, I would be interested to read what they are, not comments on my comments. Put aside Baxters writing ability for a moment. Is he saying anything about life? I would think that a persons interpretation of life informs and shapes his abilities as a writer as much as his skill in rheoric. I dont acknowledge that annullment.

    And no, just a greasy fry in Dun Laoghaire.

  22. leemonks said,

    I have purchased this book and will read it as soon as I can; until then I can’t comment. Your admirable interrogation of the book is for others to engage with, for now. With regards to the cover itself, I do wonder (and this is just speculation of course) who had a hand in it, and why. It’s perhaps not as painstaking an exercise as we might expect, and unpacking it as you have (and we should expect that level of care in such a suggestive cover) might be far more industrious and interesting than the actual design decisions made. I really don’t know. I know many an author has grumbled before now as to different covers and so forth; that they prompt an incorrect expectation or force non-existent connotations to the fore. I wonder if Baxter was entirely responsible for the image – maybe John knows?

  23. John Self said,

    I don’t, and I’m refraining from linking to the cover designer’s website, as it has automatic music as soon as you enter, and no obvious way to turn it off (and I hate that).

    As others have observed, the cover is very reminiscent of the Slinkachu images. Perhaps the publisher or author wanted something like that but couldn’t get Slinkachu to do it.

    • Darragh said,

      Touche Lee. Steerforth and John Self noted that the cover is reminicint of Slinkachu artistry. But that definition aside, an interrogation of why the assortment of images are the way they are interests me. My assumption is that the ‘stage director’ read the book and is a philosopher, a modernist, and conceptualises the content for the reader at the get-go. One would think that from the content of the book, there might be a bit of skin, boots or other such stuff. Is he framing the argument of the book?

      I am reminded of Huxleys covers. So what is it about, and does he do the Author justice. I doubt Baxter was in Paris moving plastic men about the place, but could be wrong on that one. maybe they were out on the trash and Baxter was kipping on the sofa and left his watch on the table.

      • leemonks said,

        Indeed, it is interesting, and I particularly enjoy it when the choice of a cover, perhaps initially perceived (by me, anyway) as non-implicit and perhaps only tangentially relevant, falls into place and adds to the post-reading experience.

    • leemonks said,

      I hate websites with flashing images that are too busy and don’t allow me to surreptitiously read their website content without squinting into a vastly minimalised box on the screen. What with the tasteful, muted tones of Asylum I can skive quite easily without such eye-diminishing nonsense!

  24. […] John Self Few books this year have had me launch into such trills of praise as Greg Baxter’s A Preparation for Death. It is a vigorous, painful, bright-eyed wonder. Not everyone agrees: Will Rycroft found it […]

  25. […] to say: ‘I am not a man. I am dynamite’?”) . . . Speaking of Baxter’s book, John Self offers it a great deal of thoughtful praise, and he’s giving away five copies on his blog (you can sign up for the drawing until Saturday […]

  26. John Self said,

    Greg Baxter’s top ten memento mori.

  27. […] memoir published with Penguin Ireland. Here’s an interview with the Irish Times about it and praise for it […]

  28. amberruth said,

    As it was part of the deal in winning A Preparation for Death, I’ve returned with my opinion, and I enjoyed the book, of which I’ve written here: http://descriptedlines.com/a-preparation-for-death. And I quote myself (!), “But I have always admired those who rip their guts out as a spectacle in elegant language.” Thanks again John for hosting the contest!

  29. John Self said,

    Thanks for returning, amberruth: I’m delighted you liked the book, and I’m even more delighted that you wrote about it so eloquently. (I might add that your blog has a terrific typeface and type size which I would dearly love to emulate if I wasn’t tied to free WordPress hosting.)

  30. Amber Ruth said,

    Thanks for the compliments John, I’m honored! I’ve been an admirer of your well-thought and written book reviews for awhile. About my site, I’m extremely lucky to have a web-designer boyfriend–it’s almost like cheating!

  31. […] Greg Baxter: A Preparation for Death I like to think this book would have impressed and delighted me just as much even if I hadn’t approached it with no expectations. I think it probably would have, not least because it understands and articulates that in the world “it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial […] than to become imcomprehensible,” and is also aware of its own – of every piece of writing’s – fatal limitations. “A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.” […]

  32. LeeMonks said,

    I thought this was a tremendous piece of work. Yes, it’s all the things already mentioned: excoriatingly candid, deeply ambivalent and so on. And he does tread a very fine line throughout (and way over it for a lot of readers, judging by the comments and reviews I’ve read on here and elsewhere) but that’s largely what made it work for me. It’s a work that feels like an absolvement, a kind of vicarious catharsis, that seems to get bored with itself just in time to preclude you getting bored with it and moves on. It feels like a last-gasp stab in the dark that still manages to be playful and doesn’t seem to care less whether you’re reading it: as though you’ve stumbled upon a self-administered last rites stream of anger, a conflation of regrets and wants that has been filed and ratcheted into something invigorating and of great use and entertainment. Baxter has shamelessly ransacked his own past, as opposed to airbrushed, polished and edited it, to creat a work that will surely endure.

    And interesting to note one David Shields extolling it on the back cover: it fits nicely into his Reality Hunger argument.

  33. […] Baxter’s book A Preparation for Death was one of my reading highlights of last year. It’s just been released in what it pleases me […]

  34. […] debut A Preparation for Death – a collection of essays masquerading as a memoir – made a big splash with me but not many others. It was bold, unignorable, serious and sexy (or sex-ish, anyway). For his next […]

  35. […] Greg Baxter: A Preparation for Death I like to think this book would have impressed and delighted me just as much even if I hadn’t approached it with no expectations. I believe it probably would have, not least because it understands and articulates that in the world “it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial […] than to become imcomprehensible,” and is also aware of its own – of every piece of writing’s – fatal limitations. “A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.” […]


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