Super-infinite

Not, then, a maths post on the infinite, but rather a brief but very warm recommendation for Katherine Rundell’s biography of John Donne.

Having no young children around, we have a good rule which helps to keep Christmas relaxed — no exchanges of presents (I can really recommend that too!). But we might wander down to the bookshops a day or two before, and get ourselves a couple of new books we might particularly enjoy reading over the holidays. I went to Heffer’s planning to buy Irene Vallejo’s much praised Papyrus. However, browsing around, I found myself gripped by the first few pages of Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. So that’s what we bought. And I have now read it with great enjoyment over the last few days. I can certainly see why the book won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.

Her pieces in the London Review of Books in recent years show that Katherine Rundell can write wonderful prose, of great zest and imaginative power. And she has been a prize-winning author of books for children. She brings her immense gifts for story-telling and her stylistic panache to her academic work as an English scholar, here recounting Donne’s quite extraordinary life and so illuminating his poetry.

Rundell’s title Super-infinite comes from one of Donne’s own new formations, and the paradox is impatient with the limitations of language and what it can be used to describe. The book stages an often thrilling meeting between Donne and Rundell, and its basis is this supple, flexible wordplay in which sentences jump between registers and tones, between this world and the next, between everything and something more. On a portrait of the young Donne, soulful and seductive: ‘He wore a hat big enough to sail a cat in, a big lace collar, an exquisite moustache.’ On his despairs and griefs, and the deaths of his family members and too many of his young children: ‘He was a man who walked so often in darkness that it became for him a daily commute.’ On the violence of his style: ‘He wanted to wear his wit like a knife in his shoe.’ Phrases such as these do the work which literary critics are sometimes afraid to do. They attest to love, and perform that love, and in so doing Rundell returns us to a Donne who is new yet old, nicely paradoxical, his own man and everyone’s.

I can’t put it better than that, from from Daniel Swift’s review in the Spectator. I couldn’t put Super-Infinite down and was even left wanting more.

So now, having devoured the book so quickly, I suppose I will need to wander now down to Heffer’s again, to pick up a copy of Papyrus.

2 thoughts on “Super-infinite”

  1. I’ve had this book on a to-read list for a while now, and your comments made me move it up. (I’m now planning to read it next.)

    I find Daniel Swift’s review a bit off-putting, though. Will I enjoy sentences which “jump between registers and tones”? And, as often happens when a reviewer selects individual images or sentence to praise, I find myself thinking they aren’t actually very good, and if they’re the best this book has to offer, perhaps I should read something else (such as what Swift describes as “John Carey’s idiosyncratic and brilliant 1981 study John Donne: Life, Mind and Art).

    What, for example, is “wear his wit like a knife in his shoe” meant to convey? That it’s hidden? Unexpected? That he’ll fight dirty? And where / how in the shoe? Tucked in by his ankle, easily reached by his hand? Or a blade that flicks out in front like Rosa Klebb’s in From Russia with Love?

  2. I read Super Infinite over two days, and I can confirm that it’s interesting, very readable, and left me wanting to know more about Donne.

    It didn’t help me much with his poetry, though — it’s better on his life and times — and I wonder if the book seems different (and better) to readers who already know and like Donne’s poems. To me, it seemed Rundell did a lot more telling us how wonderful his poetry was than showing us. It’s an issue she’s aware of

    You cannot claim a man is an alchemist and fail to lay out the gold. this, then, is an undated poem, …, known as ‘Love’s Growth’ (p 16)

    Yet even then she makes claims that she doesn’t make convincing; for instance: “Read the opening stanza and all the oxygen in a five-mile radius rushes to greet you.” It does?

    Is Donne worth reading? Comments like these are perhaps helpful, though not necessarily encouraging:

    It’s sometimes said the more you read Donne’s verse, the more you love him, and the more you read Donne’s prose, the less you can bear him. (p 133)
    … he could write a twelve-line sonnet that would take you a week to read, … (p 262)
    The pleasure of reading a Donne poem is akin to that of cracking a locked safe, and he meant it to be so. (p 299)

    I’ve found the poems rather impenetrable in the past. I’ve nonetheless resolved to try again; and since both Daniel Swift’s review and Super Infinite itself, in “further reading”, point to John Carey’s John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, and since it does look interesting, and possibly illuminating, I’ve decided to try it next.

    *

    It’s now clearer what Rundell had in mind when saying Donne “wanted to wear his wit like a knife in his shoe”, because the sentence continues, ” he wanted it to flash out at unexpected moments.” Did he, though? It’s another time when Rundell seems more inclined to tell than to show. All of her knife imagery seems overstated. “Donne’s counter-blazon takes that tradition and knifes it in a dark alley.” (p 133) And “His poetry sliced through the gender binary and left it gasping on the floor.” (p 21)

    The “gender binary” one is at least attached to a particular, quoted poem. It’s about this from ‘The Undertaking’:

    If, as I have, you also do
    Virtue attired in woman see,
    And dare love that, and say so too,
    And forget the ‘he’ and ‘she’ …

    With a second example:

    It’s in ‘The Relic’ too: ‘diff’rence of sex no more we knew / than our guardian angles do’ — for angels were believed to have no need of gender.

    Did Paul in Galatians 3:28 — “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” — leave the gender binary gasping on the floor and, if not, why think Donne did? Complete with the questionable use of “binary” as a noun, it seems a projection of present-day concerns onto something in the past that would be better understood in a different way.

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