I Put a Spell on You by John Burnside, book review: Digressions, confessions and magic


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One of the pitfalls of memoir writing is failure to transcend the personal, the author succumbing to solipsistic catharsis. There is no way anyone could level this charge against John Burnside's recent work however, because it is not just a memoir but also a collection of (sometimes apparently random) "digressions" into subjects such as "glamour", narcissism and freakishness.

While you may be tempted to skim some, most deserve to be read carefully; those subjects that the author does not reimagine he discusses with freshness and urgency – his tiny yet astonishing essay on the old Scots word "thrawn", which everyone should read, as they should his sixth digression on aloneness and community, is a case in point, and an antidote to our culture of fear and conformity.

Some passages had me cheering, passages that contain lines such as: "the beglamoured exist as the antithesis of that world… and their visions… give the lie to the Authorised Version of existence", "There is real virtue… in being of no use…" and "For the not-thrawn, all belonging has to do with possession… [which] is the very antithesis of belonging – is nothing more, in fact, than a routine enactment of being present in which attentiveness is sacrificed for an illusion of ownership."

Even the conventional autobiographical passages are elevated by Burnside's desire to penetrate the essence of things. Here he dissects a single note from a Nina Simone song sung by a "desperate", fly-away girl he knew in his youth, a note which echoes along a Proustian trail of association that ends with the word "glamourie": "I imagine that somewhere… she had discovered the power of the sustained note, and she had obviously sung like this before, for herself more than anyone – to deflect criticism, no doubt, but at the same time, to reassert some vague hope she had, a hope that, as the songs all begged to know, and in spite of much evidence to the contrary, love is real… I see now that that was what I was responding to: that hope." It is "that hope", the pursuit of and flight from the various states known as "love", that is at the heart of Burnside's treatise – and Spell is a treatise as much as it is a memoir, having much in common with works by Montaigne, Pessoa, and Sebald.

For all its impersonal enquiry, there were occasions when the personal intruded all too uncomfortably, however. I was embarrassed on behalf of Burnside's wife and children because he never mentions them; in fact, he does not contemplate anyone very much but himself (his mother being an exception). Burnside is married, but Spell reads like the memoir of a single man: a man who considers going home with a woman he meets in a bar, getting in touch with the "real love" of his youth, who lists every woman he has ever been attracted to but his wife, and asserts that his rejection of his youthful love was justified – even complimentary – because "the options offered by the outside world were all of them beneath us". What this says about Burnside's wife isn't hard to infer.

Setting the real person, whoever that may be, and his relation to this "memoir" aside, though, as well as retaining reservations about some of the statements, when Burnside hones in on something, there are real rewards. I recommend this treasury, notebook, journal, repository, treatise and meditation, because at times it constitutes not just brilliant, but essential reading.