Faber Books Posts

Katherine Rundell, “Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne”

[I wrote this commentary about Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne on Facebook, the night of the Baillie Gifford award. ]

“Parnell and Pope and their many allies were men who believed that art had rules: that poetry was a monovocal exercise; that there was one poetic voice, and we should stick to it. Years later, when Samuel Johnson compared Donne’s ‘false wit’ withh Pope’s ‘true wit’, it wasn’t a throwaway comment: it was real anxiety that Donne might be nigh-on insane. His work, for Johnson, was improper and ugly and broken — it was ‘produced by a voluntary deviatuon from nature in pursuit of something new or strange’.

But that was exactly it. Donne did not want to sound like other poets. Human experience exceeds our capacity to either explain or express it: Donne knew it, and so he invented new words and new forms to try. He created new rhythms jn poetry: Johnson said that Donne, ‘for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging’. He was an inventor of words, a neologismist. He accounts for the first recorded use in the “Oxford English Dictionary” of around 340 words in the English language. Apprehensible, beauteousness, bystander, criminalise, emancipation, enliven, fecundity, horridness, imbrothelled, jig. (And for those who bristle against the use of ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘not interested’ rather than ‘lacking a vested interest’: Donne was the first to do so, and we must take it up with him.)

He wanted to wear his wit like a knife in his shoe; he wanted it to flash out at unexpected moments. He is at his most scathing writing about originality, and those who would steal the ideas of better men:

But he is worst who, beggarly, doth chaw [ i.e. chew]

Others’ wits’ fruits, and in his ravenous maw

Rawly digested doth those things outspew

As his own things . . .

Donne imagined his own words taken by another. He imagined them chewed up and expelled:

And they’re his own, ’tis true,

For if one eat my meat, though it be known

The meat was mine, the excrement’s his own.


To read Donne is to be told: kill the desire to keep the accent and tone of the time. It is necessary to shake language until it will express our own distinctive hesitations, peculiarities, our own uncertain and never-quite-successful yearning towards beauty. Donne save his most ruthless scorn for those who chew other wits’ fruit’, and shit out platitudes. Language, his poetry tells us, is a set, not of rules, but of possibilities.


Katherine Rundell’s “Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne” is a gorgeous biography of the poet. It is meant to be savoured. It is a like the old-fashioned biographies that were detailed but “Super-Infinite” has a very modern feel to it. Btw, the reference to “Super-Infinite” is from a sermon that Donne gave at the poet George Herbert’s mother’s memorial service.

…Magdalen Herbert…a woman who had been his patron and friend. Magdalen, he wrote, would ‘dwell bodily with that righteousness, in these new heavens and new earth, for ever and ever and ever, and infinite and super-infinite forevers’. In a different sermon, he wrote of how he would one day be with God in ‘an infinite, a super-infinite, an unimaginable space, millions of unimaginable spaces in heaven’. He loved to coin formations with the super- prefix: super-edificationa, super-exaltation, suoer-dying, super-universal, super-miraculous. It was part of his bid to invent a language that would reach beyond language, because infinite wasn’t enough: both in heaven, but also hereand now on earth, Donne wanted to know something larger than infinity. It was absurd, grandiloquent, courageous, hungry.

This splendiferous book is on the shortlist for the Baillie Gifford Prize 2022. The winner will be announced tonight, 17 Nov 2022.

Update: Katherine Rundell won!!

17 November 2022 / 15 Feb 2023

Katherine May’s “Enchantment”

The bestselling author of Wintering, Katherine May has written an exquisite meditation on living through the pandemic and emerging on the other side, in a different world, in a different setup, as a new you that is hard to recognise. May’s new book is called “Enchantment: Reawakening wonder in an exhausted age”. It is to be published by Faber Books in early 2023.

There is a gentle frailty exhibited in these essays. It is almost as if it mirrors May’s mental state of being but her voice becomes stronger as she nears the end of the book. It is almost as if she is reaching a crescendo, a moment of jubilation at discovering what may work for her to heal. Despite talking about herself and making it a very personal experience, undoubtedly many readers will recognise parts of themselves in these musings. There is also this acute sense of an overtly secular world (or at least that which is exhibited on social media platforms), there is a crying need to develop a comforting ritual, to help give a rhythm and a sense of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic world. The pandemic alert in March 2020 destroyed many lives, it snatched away food, financial, home, and health/ mental health security; if it did not take away lives, it made living a hellish nightmare. Even those who seemed to have survived are extremely fragile and not as robust as they may seem outwardly. There are many, many examples that May shares in her book about feeling centred in the ordinariness of mundane activities. It could be as common as stitching a button to sitting by a step well built around a spring and admiring the rose climber. In a similar vein she writes about how the chaos of the lockdown crumbled her ability to read. Her autism has nothing to do with it, but the pandemic has — she cannot sit still, she cannot concentrate, she cannot read. The present-day burnout has robbed her of a disciplined, complex and an unfathomable form of reading.

In her quest for this point of centeredness, she feels that our “sense of enchantment is not triggered by grand things; the sublime is not hiding in distant landscapes. the awe-inspiring, the numinous, is all around us, all the time. It is tranformed by our deliberate attention. It becomes valuable when we value it. It becomes meaningful when we invest it with meaning. The magic is in our own conjuring. Hierophany — that revelation of the sacred — is something that we bring to everyday things, rather than something given to us. That quality of experience that reveals to us the workings of the world, that comforts and innervates us, that ushers us towards a genuine understanding of the business of being human: it is not in itself rare. What is rre is our will to pursue it. If we wait passively to become enchanted, we could wait a long time.”

She is so right! In her wisdom, she shares her thoughts about living through flux as we have during the pandemic. It has been a nerve-wracking experience for everyone. IT has been a collective trauma that is going to take a long while to recover from. We need to find our solace. This is what she has to say about change.

“Change is the restless bedrock on which we’re founded. Lauren Olamin, the heroine of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series, makes a god out of change itself, ‘the only lasting truth in the world’. For her, the sacred is found in adaptation. Perhaps this is what I’m seeking too, the ability to step into the world’s flux, to travel with it rather than rasping against it, to let my own form dance across it. ‘We do not workship God,’ Lauren writes in verse. ‘We perceive and attend to God/ We learn from God… We shape God.’ It’s as good a truth as any, as holy a space in which to rest our minds: we are not the passive receipients of the numinous, but the active constructors of a pantheon. We make the change, and it makes us. Entering into that exchange — knowing the depths of permanence and the restlessness of movement — is the work of a lifetime.

How do we meet this kind of god, this irresistible force that roars through our existence like a hurricane? We adapt. We evolve. We rebuild and remake and renew. We listen to what it has to tell us, and undertake the work of integrating the new knowledge. Sometimes we read it in books. Sometimes we read it elsewhere, in scents carried on the air and the flight paths of birds. Sometimes we need to feel the tingle of magic to remind us what we believe.”

Next year, when the book is made widely available, buy it. You will not regret it. 

24 Jan 2023 ( First published on Facebook on 4 Nov 2022)

Reading over the weekend, 28 Feb 2022

Over the weekend, while recovering from anaesthesia in the gums (again!), I read and read and read. There was little else to do.

Barkha Dutt ‘s excellent reportage on the pandemic in India — To Hell and Back: Humans of Covid . It is very moving. ( Juggernaut Books)

My Pen Is The Wing Of A Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women — a fabulous anthology of short stories translated from Dari and Pashto. It is the culmination of a two-year project initiated by Lucy Hannah, funded by the Jan Michalski Foundation and managed by an editorial team led by Will Forrester. Bios of the authors cannot be printed in the book for their safety especially after the takeover of #Afghanistan by the #Taliban in August 2021. ( Hachette India)

Akwaeke Ezmi’s (They/them) You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty is an incredibly old-fashioned love story in modern trappings. They explore love after experiencing intense grief in this novel. It is unexpected as Ezmi is known for writing about the gender fluid spaces within an African social context, sometimes even with autobiographical elements. But this novel is freer, it is about Ezmi growing as a writer and not being confined to a single narrative, based on firsthand experience. ( Faber Books )

Acclaimed poet Ngyuen Phan Que Mai’s debut novel The Mountains Sing is an astonishing account of the Vietnam war. Is it fact? Is it fiction? Is it faction? Just read it even though it is not always easy given that it is based on meticulous research and oral histories too. I began it months ago, finished it this weekend. It needs long pauses between reading spurts. ( HarperCollins India)

The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan is the account of a cold case. Who betrayed Anne Frank to the Nazis? How did her family get on to the last train to Auschwitz? Why do people betray their own? Decades later, with the rise of fascism in many nations, this book is deeply disturbing to read but also essential. I think you should read it now. It is imperative that you do. Learn about operations that have not gone out of fashion. They still exist. The betrayal by one’s community is the most devastating betrayal ever. Judases exist. Even now. And that is what is extremely disturbing. (HarperCollins India)

Individual blog posts to follow.

28 Feb 2022

Hanif Kureishi’s “What Happened?”

Hanif Kureishi’s What Happened? is a collection of essays and stories that were published in various literary magazines and newspapers in recent years. The publications may be recent but it is an interesting mix spanning a few decades of his life. The essays are mostly autobiographical revolving primarily around his desire to be a writer, his determination to achieve his goal and once a published writer, inhabiting a literary world which was predominantly white and seemed to constantly sideline writers like him who were of a different colour.

The British creativity I grew up with – in pop, fashion, poetry, the visual arts and the novel – has almost always come from outside the mainstream, from clubs, gay subcultures, the working class and from the street. Many of the instigators might have been white, but they were not from the middle class, a group that lacks, in my experience, the imagination, fearlessness and talent to be truly subversive.

The truth is, the conservative fear of other voices is not due to the anxiety that artists from outside the mainstream will be untalented, filling up galleries and bookshops with sludge, but that they will be outstanding and brilliant. The conservatives willhave to swallow the fact that despite the success of British artists, real talent has been neglected and discouraged by those who dominate the culture, deliberately keeping schools, the media, universities and the cultural world closed to interesting people.

The essays that stand out are those that describe Kureishi’s awakening as an author, his descriptions of inhabiting the literary world and his firm opinions about racism. These have been consistent themes in his essays over the years but in this collection they are stand out as being extremely relevant. What really hits home hard is that Kureishi was writing about these subjects much before it became fashionable to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the creative industry. He was writing what he saw, experienced, and analysed. He made it his trademark to write about various subjects particularly the racial discrimination he saw daily. It is a perspective that was quite literally being whitewashed in mainstream media and literary platforms though chinks had begun to be visible. Hanif Kureishi is of Asian origin but he was born and brought up in UK. So he was like any other British child except he was made acutely aware of the difference because of his skin colour whereas he did not see himself as any different. But in his very moving essay remembering his friend David Bowie it becomes apparent that to some degree even colour does not matter, but the socio-economic station that you inhabit does. Bowie and Kureishi were a decade apart, they went to the same school in Bromley, but become firm friends later, probably when they joined showbiz.

From the time Kureishi began writing in the early 1970s till now, he has always been comfortable with who he is and his voice has never changed. His style of writing is predictable but never boring, if anything it has become sharper with age. What comes through extraordinarily beautifully in What Happened? is that Hanif Kureishi has not changed but the world has to a certain degree — the horrors of sectarian violence and racism that he was alerting us to over the years have only intensified. So commentators like Kureishi who speak confidently, sharing an opinion, continue to be relevant.

Read it.

22 Oct 2020

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