Martin Langford, Neat Snakes (Puncher & Wattmann 2018)
This is a book of aphorisms, hundreds of them, most less than two lines long, the longest edging up to 10 lines. A book to be dipped into, perhaps, rather than read in a sitting, and probably only for people who have a taste for that sort of thing.
Which I do. As a teenager I loved G K Chesterton’s one-liners – ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised’ was a favourite. Around about that age (I was a religious teenager) I encountered the wonderfully contradictory advice in Proverbs Chapter 26 verses 4 and 5:
4. Do not answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear you grow like him yourself.
5. Answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear he imagine himself wise.(Jerusalem Bible translation)
More recently I used to enjoy the daily quotes on the government-issue desk calendar at work, especially after I learned (from Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, I think) that most of them became more interesting if you added ‘in bed’: ‘Forever is composed of nows in bed,’ for example.
Martin Langford’s aphorisms don’t share Chesterton’s (or Oscar Wilde’s) showy love of the unexpected; he doesn’t contradict himself as blatantly as the author of the Bible; and he doesn’t invite his readers to play innocently risqué games, though he may once have played the ‘in bed’ game himself, because on page 7 he demonstrates that the process doesn’t work in reverse:
The word and the body must search for each other in bed.
The general tone of these aphorisms is serious. Many of them fit Alexander Pope’s definition of true wit: ‘what oft was thought but n’er so well expressed’:
War will not go away if we promise not to think about it.
Banter is a way of exploring which claims will be allowed.
I am not bored by other people. But I am bored by the
limited nature of our interactions.
There are some that hint at narratives, that could be lines from lost movies:
Together we domesticate the silence.
At least, I first read that as a line from a possible love story, but on reflection, it could be a general statement about the nature of communication. Maybe that’s part of the pleasure of the book – individual pieces change their nature when you come back to them a second or third time.
Some could serve as invitations to readers to write their own essays:
The weigher of hearts keeps a list of the things we have laughed at.
Some are just plain enigmatic:
In some prisons, there is an answer on every door.
Useful insights abound:
When people defend a narrative, they are usually
defending their role in it.
The journalists are reviled for telling the lies that
we pleaded for.
Few believers can articulate their beliefs.
There are succinct reflections on art, particularly narrative art, on death, on sex, on power and competition. Though most of the aphorisms are couched as generalisations, there is a vulnerable intelligence at work in this book. These aren’t words of wisdom dispensed from on high, but insights rooted in experience and thoughtful observation.
I am grateful to Puncher & Wattmann and Martin Langford for my copy of Neat Snakes.