I Put a Spell on You by John Burnside

I Put a Spell on You by John BurnsideYearning for Youth

If books were rivers, I Put a Spell on You would be the Great Ouse – meandering, slow and full of interesting little fish. John Burnside’s memoir is deliciously written, with some truly beautiful passages. Interspersed are short musings/thoughtworms/digressions on various subjects. The first is on glamour – not the glamour of celebrities (‘manufactured bedazzlement’) but that of its old connection with magic and wonder. That glamour, Burnside suggests, is where love resides. These asides, given with the air of a man holding forth to his acolytes, are excellently wrought.

The memoir itself describes Burnside’s many loves, flings, near misses and missed opportunities, each chapter of which is tied to a song with a particular resonance to the drama that unfolds, and which creates a form of mix tape that traces the emotional high-points of his youth. You don’t have to be an aficionado of the sounds of the 60s to read the book, but having a device on hand to play the songs as you read is well worth it. What it achieves best is that through this memoir you are shown a fresh view into the workings of this great poet; the fascinating digressions and mercurial narrative show the superb grasp of language on offer.

However, there is a rather ugly undercurrent to this memoir, which is, at a base level, a list of his conquests (or the ones who got away). Phrases such as, ‘It’s not often that I remember the faces of men or boys’ do not help ameliorate this feeling. Also, at no point does Burnside bring his wife or children into the narrative; it is almost entirely a navel-gazing exercise, and though he has no reason to do so (it is his memoir, after all) there is a feeling that you have just been party to a particularly passive aggressive attack on their relationship. Maybe the darker edges of his personality are so bared to show us all the clearer that ‘the tedium of grown manhood’ is society’s fault, not his. I have not read either of his two previous memoirs, so cannot say if this is a continuing theme, but for me there was something all too predatory in his yearning for the sexual abandon of his youth.

Despite these failings, when Burnside’s language catches, it burns bright, beautiful and supremely lyrical, and even when I was cross with him for his attitude and behaviour, I was still drawn deeper into the glamourie (‘a charmed condition where everything, even the most commonplace of objects or events, is invested with magical possibilities’) of his language, and those who choose to read this book will not be disappointed.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I Put a Spell on You, John Burnside
Jonathan Cape, RRP £16.99, 288pp