Books round-up: Boxing day reads Kick back with Sacks, Bukowski and a curious cat

The overarching sentiment in 'My Own Life', which announced his illness to the world, is that of gratitude

Lucy Scholes
Friday 18 December 2015 15:30

If you’re looking for a literary menu to counteract the frivolity and excess of the festive season, here are four bite-size suggestions for the discerning Boxing Day reader. First up is Gratitude (Picador, £9.99), a collection of four final extraordinary essays from the brilliant neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks who died earlier this year. In “Mercury”, written as he was turning 80 two years ago, and before he’d received his cancer diagnosis, he celebrates old age, stating that when the time comes he’d like to “die in harness”.

The other three essays see this wish granted, and he faces the end of his life with unrivalled grace and dignity. The overarching sentiment in “My Own Life”, which announced his illness to the world, is that of gratitude.

“Above all,” it ends, “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” While in “Sabbath”, originally published just two weeks before he passed away, a heart-wrenchingly honest account of his troubled relationship with his parents and the Jewish faith after he came out, he cogitates on “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself”.

Unfortunately there’s very little peace to be found within the minds of the characters of Austrian author Thomas Bernhard’s celebrated philosophical novella Walking (University of Chicago Press, £10.50), translated by Kenneth J Northcott.

It’s not the easiest of reads – an account of the conversations between the unnamed narrator and his friend and walking companion Oehler, the two men’s discussion inevitably drawn back to that of the fate of a mutual friend of theirs, Karrer, who recently went mad and is now in an asylum – but there’s an absurd humour lurking between the lines.

Bernhard’s writing, according to Roberto Calasso, the author of my third pick, The Art of the Publisher (Penguin, £5.99), was defined by his “supreme idiosyncrasy”, something that made it very hard to choose an image for the front cover of his five-volume autobiography when it came to be published by Calasso’s Italian publishing house, Adelphi. “Form,” Calasso argues, is everything: from “the choice and sequence of titles published … to the texts that accompany the books, as well as the way the books are presented as objects,” including covers, graphics, layout, typeface and paper.

This volume, translated from Italian by Richard Dixon, is a collection of 11 essays, all of which address the fundamental question: Why be a publisher? Written with passion, intelligence and not without a certain flair for a story, it’s a treat for any bibliophile, a manifesto/memoir that proves he’s a master of the art form he’s arguing for.

And last but not least, slightly lighter fare, albeit from a rather unexpected source. The original Dirty Old Man Charles Bukowski reveals a softer side of both his personality and his pen in On Cats (Canongate, £12.99).

With this collection of poems and short prose pieces Bukowski joins the ranks of writers like TS Eliot with a celebration of our feline friends, though as befits his style, Bukowski’s particular take is a far cry from the whimsy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats: “my cat shit in my archives/he climbed into my Golden State Sunkist/orange box/and he shit on my poems/my original poems/saved for the university archives./that one-eared fat black critic/he signed me off.”

All the same, he sees nothing but “grace and glory” when he looks at the animals, completely besotted by the apparent streams of waifs and strays he and his wife adopted.

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