PD Smith

Elisabeth’s Lists

23 March 2018 | cities, Guardian, Lisbon, Reviewing | Post a comment

We've just returned from a few days staying in Lisbon - a beautiful hilly city of cobbled streets, tiled houses and delicious food. You can see some of my impressions of the city on Flickr.

Before I left, I read Elisabeth’s Lists: A Family Story, by Lulah Ellender, a hauntingly beautiful meditation on life and death, spanning three generations of a family. The narrative is anchored in a book of lists kept by the author's grandmother. The lists range from inventories of household linen and a “register” of eggs laid by her chickens during the war, to what to serve at a cocktail party for eighty people. According to Ellender, “Elisabeth’s lists are her filing system for her troubles and her joys, triumphs and boredom”.

Ellender also explores how we use lists to bring order to the world: “these catalogues hold our chaos”. As his marriage crumbled, Einstein handed his wife an impossible list of Conditions for Marriage. Before he married, Darwin wrote down the pros and cons of marriage, eventually deciding a wife would be “better than a dog anyhow”.

My review of Ellender's book is published in Saturday's Guardian.

Inside the Mind of Marine Le Pen

06 March 2018 | Guardian, Reviewing | Post a comment

I've been reading former philosophy lecturer Michel Eltchaninoff’s study of the ideas of Marine Le Pen. One former senior figure in the Front National tells him: “Marine Le Pen doesn’t have any ideas. She only acts through instinct, because her brain is like a reptile’s. what ideas? What concepts? She’s an echo chamber, that’s all!”

But his fascinating ideological detective work shows how her thinking is deeply embedded in the tradition of French far-right thought: “Le Pen moves behind a mask and she is very good at the game.”

Read my review at the Guardian.

A Philosophy of Dirt

26 February 2018 | Guardian, Reviewing | Post a comment

I've just read A Philosophy of Dirt by Olli Lagerspetz. It's one of those rare books that are worth reading purely for the pleasure of observing a superbly subtle mind at work. Lagerspetz provides a master class in philosophical thinking, a lucid and rigorous analysis of a commonplace notion, one that opens up a new and fascinating view of dirt “based on our physical engagement with the world”.

You can read my review at the Guardian.

Owl Sense

18 February 2018 | Guardian, research | Post a comment

I've been reviewing Owl Sense, by Miriam Darlington. It's a wonderful account of the author's fascination with owls and an attempt to re-wild our imaginations with some primal owlishness. This bird has featured in our myths and religions from the beginning: the Chauvet cave paintings dating back to 36,000 BC, include the oldest depiction of an owl, an almost life-size version of a Long-eared Owl, whose penetrating gaze meets those entering the cave: “the artists understood something of the Janus nature of the owl, its troubling liminal status on the boundaries of light and dark”.


The Pixels of Paul Cézanne

04 February 2018 | film, Guardian, photography, Reviewing | Post a comment

I loved Wim Wenders' exhibition of polaroids, Instant Stories, which I saw recently at the Photographers' Gallery. There was a beautiful line in the exhibition by Wenders about polaroids:

"You couldn't help feeling
that you had stolen this image-object from the world.
You had transferred a piece of the past into the present."

Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire - the German title is so much better) has always been one of my favourite films ever since I saw it at university as a student of German.

So for all sorts of reasons I was delighted to be able to review his collection of essays, The Pixels of Paul Cézanne.

It didn't disappoint! Here's the first paragraph of the review:

Just like the camera in Wim Wenders’ films, his writing demands the “freedom to move”: “I need to be able to ‘circle’ an idea”. For this reason he chooses to write in free verse – or what he modestly refers to as “my odd verse” – for many of the essays in this illuminating collection. In his hands it becomes a playful and wonderfully malleable literary form that allows him to create a flow of images and ideas, a kind of rhythmic thinking: “visible blocks of thought”. Each line becomes a separate tracking shot as the writer-director moves restlessly around his subject, words crystallising into ideas in the same way as a narrative emerges during the editing of a film.

Read the full review at the Guardian.