Madeleine Bourdhouxhe: La Femme de Gilles

Daunt Books, best known as a bookshop chain in affluent parts of London, is also a publisher. As well as issuing contemporary fiction such as Philip Langeskov’s story Barcelona, Daunt has been quietly – perhaps too quietly – reissuing some very interesting 20th century authors, including Jiří Weil and Sybille Bedford. When I saw praise for this reissue, accompanied by an image of its striking cover (by AKA Alice), I was sold.

Madeleine Bourdouxhe: La Femme de Gilles (Daunt Books)

La Femme de Gilles (1937, tr. 1992 by Faith Evans) was Bourdouxhe’s first novel. It opens in unignorable style, with the title character, Elisa, making soup as she awaits her husband’s arrival home from work. The thought of him arriving “paralyses her completely,” but not because she fears him. She is “giddy with tenderness … stock still, panting for breath.” Indeed, “overcome by the thought of his return … her body loses all its strength.” When he actually arrives, we are lost:

When she speaks his name, it comes out as brief and wet as a whisper: saliva fills her mouth, moistening her curved lips and escaping at the corners in two tiny bubbles.

My response to all this was cooler than Elisa’s, somewhere between wondering whether there’s a female-on-male equivalent for the word uxorious (there is, though it never really caught on), and thinking Get a room! But it turns out that this overblown responsiveness – ultradevoted, hypererotic – is an important foundation for the story to come. After all, if Elisa didn’t adore her husband so much, it wouldn’t matter as much when he starts to have an affair with her younger sister, Victorine. “Desire takes hold suddenly, out of nowhere.” It happens in a short scene, made appropriately turbulent but also somewhat weakened by the flickering shifts from one viewpoint to another – from Gilles to Victorine and back again. The rest of the story is told exclusively through Elisa’s eyes, and it’s easy to see why Bourdouxhe chose to show the birth of Gilles’ and Victorine’s affair this way – efficiency, for one – but it dilutes the unity of the narrative. I also wondered how the book might have worked if we had continued to be limited to Elisa’s viewpoint, and if our discovery of the affair had not taken place until her own, partway through the book.

But it is what it is, and is not less interesting because of it. Indeed, it’s an intense blizzard of a journey through Elisa’s head as she struggles to come to terms not only with the affair, but with her own knowledge of it. Subjugated, housetrained – and still deeply in love – she rationalises it, turns the situation around by thinking of what she still has rather than what she has lost. “At least nothing is irrevocably broken: he is living with her, after all, he is sleeping by her side… As long as he is still there, he’s still hers.” It gets worse, when Elisa does confront her husband, and finds herself taking the role of agony aunt for his relationship issues; no indignity is too low if it means that he still needs her. “She kept saying to herself, ‘It’s like an illness, a terrible illness gnawing away at him…'”

All of this, of course, cannot come to any good (“Elisa is advancing through happiness to annihilation”), though the mechanism of Elisa’s downfall is surprising and satisfying, even if the outcome itself is only one of those. I read this book fairly soon after Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, another reissue of a book little-read in the UK, and the two books have much in common: the modern air, the inevitable ending, the account of a woman hemmed in by expectations: society’s, or her own. This edition of La Femme de Gilles comes with an afterword by its translator, Faith Evans, which provides much context and insight into the book and its author. Take the title, which is untranslated because it is untranslatable without losing its subtlety. Femme means both wife and woman, and the ambiguity is essential to reflect the balance of Elisa’s status. Attention to detail like this help us see why Bourdouxhe late in life said of this, her debut novel, ‘Every now and again I think about it, and I think – “That’s not so bad”.’

Jona Oberski: A Childhood

Pushkin Press, two years into new ownership and going from strong to stronger, is one of the few publishers I buy books from on reputation alone (see also: NYRB Classics, CB Editions, Penguin Modern Classics). Their untouchably handsome Pushkin Collection titles, designed by Clare Skeats and David Pearson, are usually new translations of overlooked 20th century world fiction. This is a slight variation: a reissue of a book already translated: the first English edition was published thirty years ago. Fortunately, Pushkin’s eye has not dimmed: this tiny novel, which Alan Sillitoe called “the book of this damned century,” was worth reissuing.

Jona Oberski: A Childhood (Pushkin Press)

A Childhood (Kinderjaren, 1978; tr. 1983 by Ralph Manheim) is a short book – on normal sized pages it would be below 100 pages; in the Pushkin Collection it stretches to 127 – and this will be a short review. What to say about it other than to admit that it approaches perfection? So engaged was I while reading it that I didn’t even mark any notable passages as I went, so this review will be light on quotes.

But there might be another reason why I didn’t. The key to the book’s success is its absolute submission to the viewpoint of its narrator, a boy who is seven years old at the book’s end. So the language is plain, unaffected, with not many memorable sentences or shiny turns of phrase. We are completely within the boy’s head, and we take from the events only what he takes. When the book opens with his mother saying, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here,” we might suspect otherwise, but there is no authorial irony overlaid: the narrative is entirely unadulterated (pun intended) by grown-up insights. In the opening scenes, the boy is first in darkness and then has his eyes closed, and the trust he must put in his mother to guide him fairly represents the reader’s dependence his words.

This is a rare achievement and a delight, because my experience is that very few narratives do restrict themselves completely to their character’s viewpoint, and they lose plausibility and connection as a result. A third person narrative is typically told through one character’s eyes at a time, yet how often I find myself howling in horror when a narrator starts describing or contemplating things that no real person ever would in that situation. Often this is background detail or ‘helpful’ colour: a character reflecting on their job or home life in a way that nobody really would, except that it saves having to convey the information to the reader more subtly. Take this story by thriller writer Matthew Reilly, where a character looks out a tower block window in Manhattan and notes the buildings he can see, and then devolves into guidebook gabble with: “In the concrete jungle in between the river and the Empire State, the keen tourist would find Grand Central Station, fashionable Fifth Avenue, and on the banks of the river itself, the UN building.” That is an extreme example, but it’s remarkable how few writers really do control the viewpoint properly. William Golding is one: in The Inheritors, Pincher Martin and The Spire he gives the reader only what his characters might be thinking. It makes for harder work, but the benefits – involvement, plausibility, intensity and force of narrative – are multiple.

Oberski balances the information carefully. There are a few details which direct the reader on what might be happening: references to a country the family wants to travel to, a decoration the boy’s mother sews on his coat. Only later do we get specifics, as the information might reasonably have seeped into the boy’s consciousness. What we see is clear but concealed. In writing about it this way, I am withholding details artificially, and anyway it is not a surprising or unique setting, but I do think it worth reading cold, without much advance knowledge. Where the technique is most effective is when the boy is viewing adult emotions without experiencing them himself: the reader can feel them strongly, with the boy as a symptomless carrier, but without seeming to be manipulated. (The manipulation is there, but it feels as though the reader is doing some work along with the author, so it slips smoothly by.) And there is a powerful swell of direct emotion as the book ends, and a pleasingly ambiguous future is suggested. We are left only with a beautifully judged epigraph facing the final page, which seems to bolster the idea, never far off, that this was as much memoir as novel.

For my foster parents
who had quite a time
with me.

A word in conclusion about the cover image. The delicate illustration is by Eleanor Crow, and is based on the cover image for the Dutch edition. However it seems very likely that the original drawing was based on this photograph of Franz Kafka at four years old (as pointed out by Steve Mitchelmore, when I tweeted the cover). An odd connection: anyone with any understanding of this should make free in the comments section below.

Oberski and Kafka

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

Whenever R.E.M. released any of their last half dozen albums, I used to say that they should call it Return to Form: that, after all, was what everyone was desperately hoping for – though without much hope. In reality there were always critics handy who would call it that anyway. Return to form is such a loaded phrase, ostensibly positive but carrying ahead of it the acknowledgement that the recent work has been sub-par. On the other hand, it does say that there was a form worth returning to.

And as for us – the consumers – because we have human loyalties, we want artists we admire to continue to produce good things, and it is tempting to overstate its quality to make our expectations fit. I consider myself a long-term liker of Martin Amis’s work, growing to love his stuff gradually (The Rachel Papers, Success, Other People) and then suddenly (Money) around twenty years ago. But I haven’t thoroughly loved one of his novels since 1997’s Night Train (the brilliance of which was revealed to me over four readings, with much assistance from Janis Freedman Bellow’s brilliant essay). Yellow Dog (2003) was messy, with great bits (Clint Smoker) and baffling bits (101 Heavy). House of Meetings (2006) I admit I can’t remember much about. The Pregnant Widow (2010) had a cracking prologue – a return to form! – but quickly turned into the only Martin Amis novel I haven’t finished since Dead Babies. Lionel Asbo: State of England was hammered by its title before the start, but it was often funny. And now – spoiler alert – I find myself questioning what I have just written, because I liked The Zone of Interest so much I wonder if I need to reevaluate my view of those recent works. It’s not just me. Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, a reliable critic, breached the embargo (which ends today) and reached for the superlatives. Mark O’Connell, another astute reader, found himself wondering, “Am I crazy or is this actually very good?”

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest tells us not much in its blurb, just that this is “a violently dark love story set against a backdrop of unadulterated evil.” But it would be impossible to write about the book without discussing its setting. Few readers will come to it unprimed, but for them Amis teases, pulls back the sheet slowly: we’re in the KL or sometimes K-Z, then the Kat Zet, then – oh no, oh yes – the Konzentrationslager. The term becomes fuller each time, until we cannot ignore it: we are in Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, or more accurately in the ‘zone of interest’ (Interresengebiet), an area 40km² around Auschwitz that was commandeered by the Nazis to shield the camps both from Allied attacks and from the outside world knowing about them. One of the curiosities of books about the Holocaust is that I always feel that no subject could be more written on and over, yet I invariably discover just how little I know. Amis, in his 8-page afterword (how often do new novels come with those? Maybe he knows it’s a return to form too), details dozens and dozens of books that have informed the novel, which I found astonishing. It seemed to me a character-driven story, and only on flicking back can I see how the research has gone in subcutaneously, not visible on the page (there’s no what we might call ‘As you know, Bernhard…’ dialogue) but clearly informing every line.

The principal characters are three narrators, whose voices alternate. First is Angelus ‘Golo’ Thomsen, nephew of Martin Bormann and employed at the Buna-Werke, the I.G. Farben rubber factory within the Zone of Interest. “Almost hourly, here,” says Thomsen, “you felt you were living in the grounds of a vast yet bursting madhouse.” Orders have just been received to build a third concentration camp – later known as Monowitz – on the site of the Buna-Werke, which causes additional stress for the already highly-strung camp commandant, Paul Doll – our second narrator, and known to his colleagues as “the Old Boozer.” It is not just the pleasures and sorrows of work that unites Thomsen and Doll: Thomsen, a big broad Amisian giant, is a renowned … what’s the German for ‘cocksman’? – and is deeply in lust with Doll’s wife Hannah. Thomsen’s observations on Hannah Doll are in keeping with their setting in a place filled with all the animal urges but not much love. She is “certainly built on a stupendous scale: a vast enterprise of aesthetic coordination,” and, more bluntly, “I said to myself: this would be a big fuck. A big fuck.” Doll has his own erotic interest, though limited: “You’re seldom tempted, because so few of the women menstruate or have any hair.” Golo Thomsen and Paul Doll both open their narratives with promises of variation: Doll reports “acute tension, then extreme relief – then, once again, drastic pressure” as a minor triumph over adversity makes way for the much greater headache of the construction of the third camp. Thomsen begins – starts the book – with Amisian repetition:

I was no stranger to the flash of lightning; I was no stranger to the thunderbolt. Enviably experienced in these matters, I was no stranger to the cloudburst – the cloudburst, and then the sunshine and the rainbow.

But these promises of highs and lows are wildly optimistic: for most of the book the only way is down, and we get there with our third narrator, Szmul. He opens his narrative with no hope at all. “We are the saddest men in the history of the world … we are infinitely disgusting, and infinitely sad.” We are the Sonderkommando, the Jews who work in the gas chambers, who cheated death in order to spend their time scurrying over dead Jews for valuables. “Nearly all our work is done among the dead, with the heavy scissors, the pliers and mallets, the buckets of petrol refuse, the ladles, the grinders.” Szmul’s chapters are short: he is a man who has almost run out of things to say, whom language has begun to fail.

Language is central here. That might seem a needless observation, but one thing few deny of Amis is his ability still to swing a sentence with all his original power. Here, the language fits the subject and story in several ways. There is the blunt physicality of the descriptions: Szmul’s list of tools above, or “smashed-up, forty-kilo corpses,” which says everything in five words. There are the euphemisms: Doll’s role is in “Protective Custody”; the Wannsee conference, which rubber-stamped the Final Solution, was about approving “the proposed evacuations to the liberated territories in the east.” There is the doublethink: Doll reflects that after Szmul has outlived his usefulness, he “would have to be dealt with, by employment of the apt procedure.” At a lower level, too, Doll’s language distorts: his descriptions of body parts are untranslated (Titten, Brustwarten – those places where you might expect a man like him to become tongue-tied). This apt discord extends to modern phrases unexpectedly used: “This was going to be an absolute nightmare!” reflects Doll, on the building of the third camp, and we might detect pretty savage irony there too. Amis adds lightness of a sort with an extravagant range of very long German words (“tinkertoy accumulation” as Tod Friendly in Time’s Arrow put it), a comical excess of language from Kriegsgefanngnisse to Klempnerkommandofuhrer to, beautifully, Militarbereichshauptkommandoquartier.

Comical excess is a trademark of Amis’s, but can you have comedy in Auschwitz? (Can you have a love story set there?) Can it be funny? Can it meet comedy’s requirement of triumph over adversity? (The cloudburst, then the sunshine and the rainbow.) Certainly there is comedy of sorts here: discomfiting, ugly comedy, like the broad irony when Doll, speaking of the Sonderkommando like Szmul, writes, “Ach, I can hardly bring myself to set it down. You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend…” The comedy works because it only serves to highlight the horrors. The Germans worry about how they are going to keep order, keep the new arrivals in a state of blissful ignorance about their fate. Once, when struggling to dispose of the bodies of Jews, the German soldiers try blowing them up. Paul Doll, wondering why he can hear “popping, splatting, hissing,” asks and is told:

“It went everywhere. There were bits hanging from the trees.”

“What did you do?”

“We got the bits we could reach. On the lower branches.”

“What about the upper bits?”

“We just left them there.”

Is this real? Did Amis dare to invent it? Anyway the use of “it” to describe the remains of Jews is a euphemism of another sort, a kind of protective custody for the Germans to prevent them from associating their actions with people. Similarly, Doll uses “Stücke” (literally, “pieces”) to describe the Jews when accounting for them and calculating his requirements for the third camp at Auschwitz.

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

The Germans worry too about how quickly the Jews who are selected for work in the camp die, not for humanitarian reasons, but because it is inefficient, and there are passionate exchanges between those Germans for and against treating the working Jews better, in order to prolong their productivity. They worry about the smell of the corpses, how far it will travel and signal the truth. There are so many horrible details – the smells, the selections for who will work and who will die, the use of surgeons during interrogation – that it does seem surprising that the characters in The Zone of Interest remain so strongly in the foreground. Thomsen and Doll are on a collision course, Hannah Doll is trapped between them, and Szmul is in hell, disgusted by his sense of self-preservation, and for others a welcome conduit for disgust. “Why don’t you rise up?” Doll asks him. “Where’s your pride?” Then:

Ach, if they were real men – in their place I’d … But wait. You never are in anybody’s place. And it’s true what they say, here in the KL: No one knows themselves. Who are you? You don’t know. Then you come to the Zone of Interest, and it tells you who you are.

“No one knows themselves.” A theme here is the ineffability, the unknowability, of what and how in Auschwitz. (We don’t even ask about the why: “Here there is no why,” Amis reminds us via Primo Levi in his afterword: the phrase also gave the title for a chapter of Time’s Arrow.) We see it as a clash not just of civilisation against barbarism but between worlds: a world which makes sense and a world which does not. Thomsen sees his cat catch a mouse which, while dying in its jaws, “seemed to be smiling an apologetic smile.” What, Thomsen, wonders, was it saying? “It was saying, All I can offer, in mitigation, in appeasement, is the totality, the perfection, of my defencelessness.” What was the cat saying? “It wasn’t saying anything, naturally. Glassy, starry, imperial, of another order, of another world.” It is perhaps the “hidden world” that Thomsen believes in, running alongside our own and existing “in potentia; to gain admission to it, you had to pass through the veil or film of the customary, and act.” (Nicely understated, the “customary”, to describe what the Nazis deviated from with the Final Solution.)

This other world that the Nazis have made for themselves, and for others, is, Thomsen discovers, endless, incapable of being seen beyond, like “the great Eurasian plain, which stretched over twelve time zones and went all the way to the Yellow River and the Yellow Sea.” We get a sense of men involved in a task they cannot escape, that has taken on a life of its own – they are engaged in a Vernichtungskrieg, a war to nothing. The Zone of Interest succeeds because it puts us there and gives us an alarming perspective, of the ordinary human feelings and actions of the people engaged in the worst horror of all. (Szmul observes that “I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour, every minute of human history, you would find no exemplum, no model, no precedent.”) They make occasional protests of detachment from what is happening – “I’ve never seen one good reason for all this fuss about the Jews,” says one of Thomsen’s colleagues, and his friend Boris adds, “Golo, who in Germany didn’t think the Jews needed taking down a peg? But this is fucking ridiculous, this is” – but they have no power to stop it, and no interest in doing so anyway. Doll discusses the “need to do something” about 250,000 Poles with his notoriously violent colleague Mobius, and asks if they know what is in store for them. No, says Mobius, they hope they’ll just get dispersed. “But it’s too late for that.”

Again there is bitter humour as Thomsen and a colleague discuss the rationale for killing not just Jewish men, but women and children. “Those babes in arms will grow up and want revenge on the Nazis in about 1963. I suppose the rationale for women under forty-five is that they might be pregnant. And the rationale for the older women is while we’re at it.” So the jokes come hobbled; but no, we don’t expect comedy in a story about Auschwitz. Tragedy, however, comes pre-installed. The challenge for a novelist, whose job is to make things up, is to engage such responses in a new way, and in book which is all told from the point of view of those responsible for the killing. One of the most affecting scenes in The Zone of Interest comes when Szmul unearths from the ground and reads to his Sonder colleagues a testimony from another Jew (“who is gone now”) and which reports a young child challenging the Sonderkommando: “Why, you are a Jew and you lead such dear children to the gas – only in order to live?” But Szmul’s colleagues respond in protests as he reads, repeating the only word that makes any sense here:


Many of the men had tears in their eyes – but they weren’t tears of grief or guilt.

“Stop. She ‘made a very short but fiery speech.’ Like hell she did. Stop.”

“Stop. He lies.”

“Silence would be better than this. Stop.”

“Stop. And don’t put it back in the earth. Destroy it – unread. Stop.”

Paul Kingsnorth: The Wake

Click here to read my review in the Sunday Times of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which is the first crowdfunded novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is, in addition, written in a ‘shadow tongue’ which mixes Old English with variant spellings of modern words, though that might not make it unique in Booker history – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas had one section (‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’) which had a similar linguistic approach. Have there been any others?

Paul Kingsnorth: The Wake


Jonathan Gibbs: Randall, or The Painted Grape

Recently I read Here and Now, the letters of J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster (I don’t recommend it). In it, Auster claims that he never reads his reviews. It’s not an uncommon stance, but I wonder how true it is of writers generally. At a literary event a few years ago, I met two Booker-winning authors. Both, when I was introduced to them, immediately had a strikingly clear recollection of everything I’d written about their books (which, given that it wasn’t all complimentary, was awkward). I raise this because the author of this book, Jonathan Gibbs, is what we might call a friend of this blog. He has commented here, and we follow one another on Twitter, and occasionally exchange tweets. I have never met him or spoken to him, but is that necessary these days to be considered to ‘know’ someone? He is also a critic whose insight I admire and a blogger whose fluency I envy. So, ‘knowing’ Gibbs, should I review his book? Should my review be trusted? Is this a fair review, or does it just look like one?

Jonathan Gibbs: Randall, or The Painted Grape

Randall, or The Painted Grape is published by Galley Beggar, which is in a shortlist of one for Overachieving Small Press of the Year, having published Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Comparisons with McBride will not flatter many debut novelists, but Randall stands on its own. When deciding how to judge it, I thought of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart last year: not perfect, but full of excellent things; a good novel, but a very good first novel.

Randall is about the Young British Artists scene of the 1990s (has anyone written a novel about them before? Like many great ideas, it seems so obvious now). The difference between the real YBA scene and the one in Randall is that here, Damien Hirst died young and before he became famous. That’s helpful because, viewed one way, there are enough similarities between Hirst and the novel’s title character to raise a lawyer’s eyebrows. Ian Randall Timkins, his sitcom-geek surname wisely abandoned to better enter into modern legend, is an artist whose reputation exceeds him, whose work sounds terrible, but who is framed so beautifully by Gibbs that we feel the intoxication of what it must have been like at the time, we believe the excitement and forget that his work “might just be the most pointless, vacuous, unforgivable and irredeemable shite.” Randall is, in short, in the business of bullshit, with the emphasis equally on both words.

That is at the heart of the book: the curious relationship between art and commerce. The book is narrated after Randall’s death by his old friend Vincent, who was a City trader and has now written a book about Randall. He is delivering it to Justine, Randall’s widow and Vincent’s ex, when she discloses to him some extraordinary work that Randall has left behind. Vincent and Justine’s exploration of the work – paintings that appear calculated to be obscene and offensive to everyone whom knew Randall well – and their quandary over what to do with it form the frame of the book, with Vincent’s memoir of Randall spliced through their story.

Both parts have momentum, and like any good first person narrator, Vincent is more important to the story than he might initially appear. He peppers the book with Randallisms, the bons mots of his friend that he wrote down avidly at the time:

“Conceptual art – art you don’t have to see to get.”

“Modern art – art you don’t have to like to buy.”

“Art is the occult practice of omnipresence, of getting in people’s faces when you’re not there to do it.”

This helps Randall with the important business of making a name for himself, which is at least as important as making art. After all – another Randallism – “There’s only two things you can do with art: make it, and buy it. Everything else – talking about it, thinking about it, selling it, looking at it – either comes under one of those two, or doesn’t count.” Naturally, Vincent makes a useful foil to Randall, both as a friend and a fictional character, with his financial background. There is much interesting stuff about how art and money work together and rub off on one another, even how their jargony worlds are closer than the difference in levels of respect they enjoy might suggest. Not for Randall the fate of Mark Rothko who – according to Randall – killed himself because he met the people who bought his paintings. Ownership is another key element of Randall – of art, of ideas, and of other people. It also makes us think about how we respond to art (“the confidence trick of looking at it”, as Vincent has it), the conviction of our opinions and how swayed they are by reputation or personal knowledge (and this applies to books too, which means my rambling introduction above wasn’t entirely meaningless). There are scenes and exchanges on these subjects which had me rereading them in wonder.

So in many ways Randall doesn’t feel like a debut, or rather doesn’t feel like the many debuts which have been written too early, before the author knew what they wanted to say, how to say it and most importantly, how the two meet. It has style and aplomb, and is brimful of brilliance. Gibbs can turn a simile (even if he doesn’t always like them as a reader): “Her smile was short and tight, like the smile of someone struggling with a key in a lock.” He has the mot juste for most occasions, as when one of the subjects of Randall’s posthumous porn paintings is described as wearing an expression of “eager surprise”. He gets how people behave: when Vincent meets Justine, whom he is not really over, for the first time in years, and they embrace, we read about

the way that, after a long moment, that he would have had still longer, she moved her hands to his arms, just above the elbows, and gave him two brief squeezes there, the signal to disengage…

And these are just from the first few pages.

In other ways Randall does feel like a debut. It doesn’t always match its own high standards, particularly the Great Day of Art – the scene that the words, and splashes of Randall Yellow paint, on the cover come from – which is a description of a tiresome event that doesn’t transcend its subject. The closing scenes, too, are disappointing – or frustrating, after the delight of the book generally – where a confrontation between Justine, Vincent and Randall’s son Josh feels forced, and the very last line appears to reveal something which eluded me, or else was a joke about the art world that I didn’t get.

The subtitle of the book comes, we learn, from Abraham Cowley’s poem ‘Ode of Wit’: “Like Zeuxes Birds fly to the painted Grape.” It refers to verisimilitude, and to how we tell the difference – and whether there is one – between art and something that just looks like art. Randall, anyway, looks like a good book – that handsome design, that publisher pedigree – and sure enough, it really is.