Wednesday, November 10, 2010
This, the control panel tells me, is my 199th post to The Valve. It will also be my last, and rather than simply drift into silence I thought I’d mark the fact by saying goodbye. Like Rohan, I’ve decided it’s time for me to move on. I began a contributor here in Jan 2006; signing off towards the end of 2010 has a nicely Presidential-termish ring to it.
And it is long enough, I think. A forum like this needs to renew itself periodically, and would grow stale indeed if the same old voices simply churned the same old and the same old over and again. Not that I haven’t had a blast, because I have. Were it not for this Literary Organ I would never have met some of the smartest critical minds it’s been my pleasure to know. Writing here, and for this audience, has stretched me (in a good way), stimulated me, brought me a great deal more pleasure and insight and joy than contumely—though, of course, there’s been a fair bit of that too. But above all it has taught me an immense amount. I’m very grateful. Thank you everybody: I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve. Which is my cue to put on the magic ring and slip, invisibly, away.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
I cough like Horace
In the ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’, Pope says of himself: ‘There are, who to my Person pay their court/I cough, like Horace, and, tho’ lean, am short.’ Kenneth Haynes (in his excellent 2003 study of English Literature and Ancient Languages) has this to say about the couplet:
Pope presumes the reader’s acceptance of three facts about Horace: that he was fat; and short; and coughed. That he was fat and short he himself admits (Epistles I.20.24; Epistles I.4.15); the cough is puzzling. In a note to the Twickenham edition, John Butt writes that Horace refers to his cough in Satires I.9.32. Untrue; in that passage, Horace recalls a prophecy made when he was a boy that he could not be done in by poison, the sword, pleurisy, cough or the gout, but destroyed by a prattler. [p.97]
Haynes thinks Pope has ‘conjured an asthmatic Horace in order to be able to share another trait with him.’ But this doesn’t make much sense.
I’ve another theory. When Pope writes ‘I cough like Horace’, he means (and intends us to realise that he means) that his—Pope’s—cough sounds, onomatopeically, like the name ‘Horace’. A heavily aspirated initial wheeze, followed by the sibilant release of the cough itself. It’s a word-game, a gag, and leads on to the two facts about the poet.
The Valve. Solving those niggly literary problems, one by one.
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Anthony Burgess’s Moses
I was pleased to pick this up, for next-to-nothing, in a second-hand bookstore. Hard to come by, never-reprinted, minor Burgessiana. But, my, what an eccentric performance it is! An 18-book epic poem on Moses’s life, written in more-or-less undisciplined, sprawly, four- or five-beat variable lines. This is what Burgess says in his foreword:
A few years ago I was commissioned, along with Vittorio Bonicelli and Gianfranco de Bosio, to provide the script for a television series on the birth, life and death of the prophet Moses. I found collaboration difficult and was forced to work entirely on my own, leaving emendation, addition and subtraction to be more or less improvised—by Bonicelli, de Bosio, who was the director, Vincenzo Labella, the producer, the actors Burt Lancaster and Anthony Quayle—while filming proceeded in Israel. The major aesthetic problem was a linguistic one, as it always is with historical or mythical subjects, and I found the only way out of the problem was to precede the assembly of a shooting script with a more or less literary production—this sort of epic poem you have now in your hands. To have written Moses first as a prose novel would have entailed the setting up of a somewhat cumbersome mechanism, in which the devices of ‘naturalism’ would have led me to an unwholesome prosaism both in dialogue and récit. Verse moves more quickly, and the rhythm of verse permits of a mode of speech midway between the mythical and the colloquial. Out of this homely epic I made my script, but the poem, such as it is, remains and is here for your reading.
It’s not entirely convincing, this, as a justification. Poetry, surely, doesn’t move ‘more quickly’; its compression, indeed, has the opposite effect; and writing verse surely doesn’t inoculate Burgess’s text against the debilitating ‘midway’ tone. In fact the poem itself swerves distractingly from the high-pompous King-Jacobean (‘I am come to deliver them out of the hands/Of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land/Unto a good land and a large’, 36) to the slackly discursive (‘One hundred and seventeen thousand/Five hundred and sixty-seven. That is the latest/Computation, your divine majesty’ 62) and the bathetically mundane (‘“Time to get up,” she said. “You have ruling to do.” 112). More, posterity has not been kind to some of Burgess’s handed-down-on-stone-tablet pronouncements (‘none of us will ever see a film of Beowulf,’ he ringingly declares at the end of his foreword).
At any rate, here’s the IMDB page for the resulting fillum. You can see what Piero Sbragia from Sao Paolo thought of it: ‘I’ve seen this movie just because of Burt Lancaster. The whole picture is bad. The direction, the cinematographer, the actors. The only exception besides Lancaster is the score by Ennio Morriconne.’ ‘Hansbearnl’ from the Netherlands agrees: ‘Worst Moses ever ... and the biggest question: where did the director get the story from?’ Well. Indeed.
Tuesday, June 01, 2010
Two years late on this, I know. I mentioned to a friend that I’d never seen it, and his bug-eyed astonishment persuaded me I ought to give it a go. I’ve seen it now. Verdict: fairly jolly.
Longer verdict: for much of its length, this almost lives up to the ideal; the ideal being that the title is short for Irony Man. There’s some movement in this direction, with Downey Junior’s wisecracking screen persona, but only some. In fact the heart of the film (the gleaming, metallic, circular heart) is clumsily, even painfully unironic. It’s the dream narrative of US military involvement in the Middle East: one American is able to go to Afghanistan, kill only the bad Afghans, leave all the virtuous Afghani men women and children alive, and then leap clean away into the sky having Done Good.
Iron Man’s suit, classically, is a wish-fulfulment dream of invulnerability, in medieval-knight or Ned Kelley mode. What this film adds is a twopetal garnish to that ancient human fantasy: first, the magic-carpet dream of jet-flight mobility and second, the equally potent dream of perfect moral choice. For Stark’s magic suit comes fitted with software that allows him not only to see everything (from the kid’s icecream blob falling from his cone, to the wicked Taliban fellah hiding behind the wall) but also to lock-on and, assisted by his silky-voiced computer advisor, discriminate good from bad. That’s the film’s major mendacity: that accurate moral judgement and effective ethical action are predicated upon an ontology of perfect, mechanical invulnerability. The exact opposite is the truth. Our ethical potential is grounded in our vulnerability.
The next stage in the analysis would be to trace this misprison, the belief that ethical behaviour must be grounded in invulnerability, deeper into the US psyche: the obsession with guns, the catastrophic foreign policy. But that would be a large and complex task, and beyond me at the moment. Intuitively, though, I wonder if there’s something in it.
Monday, May 10, 2010
The Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd
I put up a brief post on this topic in another place, making one rather simple point: that however much fun there is to be had at the expense of daft theories that Bacon, Oxford, Dr Who or Queen Elizabeth herself wrote Shakespeare (and there is lots) it’s worth at least considering the extent to which the sorts of cryptographical games Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespearites engage in are actually versions of what respectible literary critics do all the time: deriving large, internally-coherent theories from textual detail. Rich Puchalsky, of this parish, disagreed:
But cryptography is not really part of the same thing as close reading, or reading through psychological theory, or any of the other standards. It’s not something that can really be said to potentially exist somewhere in the mind of the ordinary reader. Also, the main reason for laughing at that crowd—well, one of the main reasons—is the political disreputability of their interpretation. They can’t believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare because clearly only a noble could have done it? That’s an argument that they always refer to. That’s deeply conservative, and not in a Burkean way—in a typical enforcing-social-hierarchy way.
The second point here seems to me incontestable, and the first persuasive.
But the real reason I’m posting this is to air a brief exchange I had with an actual large-as-life Oxfordian who stopped by the blog. Below the fold, his and my exchange.Continue reading "The Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd"
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Solar Second Opinion
Not at all a bad novel, this. I’d go so far as to call it really quite a good novel. Densely rendered in a way that builds its world and, above all, conjures its clunky central character into life—it is in essence a character study: onetime Nobel-prizewinner but now dried-up, weak-willed, venal, tubby Michael Beard: one quarter endearing to three quarters monstrous egotism, selfishness, sexist objectification of women and worse. The plot has to do with the latter stage of his double-crest career; having stolen a (dead) junior colleague’s research he makes a big splash with a new solar power technology to address global warming. The detail is well handled; the pages turned. But there’s a ‘but’ and the but is: but it’s not funny. It’s trying to be funny, but it is not funny. At no point is it funny. McEwan perhaps thinks his delineation of character is richly droll, but it is solidly, painfully, unavoidably not. He might even (this is harder to credit, but you never know) think his awful, groaning set-pieces are funny, but they are not funny, not in the least funny, totally lacking in Funny: Beard on the ice at the north pole takes a whizz, freezes his willy and, when his chapstick falls down his trouser leg, thinks his todger has dropped off. I guarantee you the sentence I have just typed, there, is eighty times funnier than McEwan’s treatment of that scene. And the sentence I have just typed isn’t in the least bit funny. There’s a scene on a train where Beard silently battles with a passenger who, he thinks, keeps eating his crisps, only to discover later that they’d been the stranger’s crisps all along. As John Crace, I think it was, pointed out in the Grauniad, this is one of the oldest and hoariest of anecdotes—McEwan has another character spiel a quantity of meta acknowledgment of this fact, but it still feels old.
The book it most reminded me of was Golding’s Paper Men: another amazingly ill-advised, profoundly unfunny late-career attempt to write a Hilarous Comic Novel that was, like this one, quite interesting in other ways. Solar shares with Paper Men a self-reflexivity (the real theme of McEwan’s novel is not global warming, but the sense of an unearned easy-ride in life predicated upon a celebrity the owner doesn’t really deserve: a famous writer’s lament), and some lovely chunks of prose. Paper Men ends well, though; where Solar‘s ending is very weak.
Two things, then, occur to me. One is an answer to the question: but why is McEwan’s novel so desperately unfunny? The answer, I think, is that his timing is shit. The McEwan Prose(TM) may be, and often is, an effective instrument; but it is a ponderous one, a slow-build and accumulatory one. It’s simply incapable of the necessary pace or nimbleness required to make a person laugh. Tant pis, you might say; and there are genuine satisfactions to be had from this book—you should read it; your time would not be wasted. Except that it leaves the reader wondering why McEwan thought he ought to write a comic novel, or why any people not previously having suffered serious brain damage might think it worthy of shortlisting for the Wodehouse prize. McEwan is an interesting and worthwhile, if overpraised, writer of novels; but he’s not fit to shine Wodehouse’s shoes when it comes to writing prose.
The other thing, though, has to do with the sort of ‘literary prose’ that is so dominant in writing today. To be more precise, I wonder the extent to which one of the satisfactions this sort of prose offers isn’t exactly the same thing, inflected slightly differently, offered by the observations of stand-up comedians. When a laugh-merchant makes an observation, we may laugh because we recognize the object. When Nabokov writes ‘the gas ring put out a sudden blue claw’ we experience a sort of delight of recognition: ‘yes! Yes! that’s exactly right! that’s just what it looks like when the gas ring is lit!’ Updike (say) is very good on that, and McEwan punches his weight. Except that a stand-up comedian is able to parlay that delighted recognition, that articulation of the familiar that makes it come new to us, into laughter. McEwan can’t do that.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Anthony Everett is a philosopher at the University of Bristol who, in ‘Against Fictional Realism’ [The Journal of Philosophy, 102:12 (2005), 624-49], makes the argument that fictional character’s aren’t ‘real’ in the way actual characters are real. What interests me about his case is not that I tend to disagree—for, after all, what does that matter?—but that his detailed professional-philosopher’s case seems to me to miss something important about the way actual fiction, and indeed actual life, goes.Continue reading "Fictional Characters"
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Filling in one of the holes in my Nabakovoid backlist; I know the English-language novels pretty well, but one or two of the Russian-language ones have so-far slipped my net. In fact I had previously been put off reading this one by Julian Symons’ strangely simpering blurb-quotation on the back cover of my 1974-vintage Penguin paperback (my Dad’s old copy): ‘a quiet charming novel about the upbringing of a Russian émigre with a passion for trains and a yearning romanticism about girls.’ It turns out that this endorsement is not only watery, it’s wrong in every single word, except the antepenultimate one.
Well, I suppose it’s right about the hero of the tale being a Russian émigre. But the novel is much more forceful, more brightly coloured, and more (deliberately) glorious than Symons lets on. Martin, the hero, grows up in Russia; flees the Revolution with his mother to Switzerland, and thence to Cambridge university to study. The novel as a whole makes a salutary counterexample to those who think Nabakov’s schitck was an ‘aesthetics of cruelty’; for it is a novel about goodness, and beauty, and quite deliberately lacks melodramatic tension, although it is actually brimming with Nabokov’s trademark rapturous gorgeousness. Actually, it’s a sort-of precursor to American Beauty, without this latter text’s suburban clunkiness and mauvaise foi. In his introduction, Nabokov notes that the ‘certainly very attractive working title (later discarded in favour of the pithier Podvig, “gallant feat”, “high deed") was Romanticheskiy vek, “romantic times”, which I had chosen partly because I had had enough of hearing Western journalists call our era “materialistic”, “practical”, “utilitarian” etc.’ The novel assiduously seeks out the aesthetic rapture of its versions of, as it were, the plastic bag stirred by the breeze:
Uncle Henry’s bête noire was to him the twentieth century. Now this amazed Martin, since in his opinion one could not imagine a better century than this one in which he lived. No other epoch had such brilliance, such daring, such projects. Everything that had glimmered in previous ages—the passion for exploration of unknown lands, the audacious experiments, the glorious exploits of disinterested curiosity, the scientists who went blind or who were blown to bits, the heroic conspiracies, the struggle of one against many—now emerged with unprecedented force. The cool suicide of a man after his having lost millions on the stock market struck Martin’s imagination as much as, for instance, the death of a Roman general falling on his sword. An automobile advertisement, brightly beckoning in a wild, picturesque gorge from an absolutely inaccessible spot on an alpine cliff thrilled him to tears. The complaisant and affectionate nature of very complicated and very simple machines, like the tractor or the linotype, for example, induced him to reflect that the good in mankind was so contagious that it infected metal. When, at an amazing height in the blue sky above the city, a mosquito-sized airplane emitted fluffy, milk-white letters a hundred times as big as it, repeating in divine dimensions the flourish of a firm’s name, Martin was filled with a sense of marvel and awe. [120-21]
Saturday, March 13, 2010
My favourite line from this American Book Review piece: Michael Berubé on Lawrence’s Women In Love. ‘It’s like someone put a gun to Nietzsche’s head and made him write a Harlequin romance.’
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Martin Amis’s Pregnant Widow
This novel is not as bad as I expected it to be. It’s bad, certainly; but not that bad. I’d say ‘it’s not as bad as Yellow Dog‘, but that would be redundant. Nothing could be as bad as Yellow Dog. Having Amis personally come to my house to administer a lava enema would hardly be as bad as that novel.
Monday, March 01, 2010
Wellsian Swearword Question
I’m still thinking about 2666; when my thoughts have mulched down a little more I’ll post an overview. But in the interim I’m puzzling over this: the opening paragraph of H G Wells’s Food of the Gods (1904).
In the middle years of the nineteenth century there first became abundant in this strange world of ours a class of men, men tending for the most part to become elderly, who are called, and who are very properly called, but who dislike extremely to be called--"Scientists." They dislike that word so much that from the columns of Nature, which was from the first their distinctive and characteristic paper, it is as carefully excluded as if it were--that other word which is the basis of all really bad language in this country.
I give up. What is that other word which is the basis of all really bad language in this country? Does it rhyme with ‘scientist’? Does is start with the letter? I’m sure I’m being stupidly dense here, but ... does anybody know?
Saturday, February 20, 2010
2666 Part 5: Archimboldi
[Previously: one, two, three and four]. It ends with the fifth section: ‘the Part About Archimboldi’. And, apart from being (obviously) about Archimboldi, the reclusive German novelist who so obsessed the Critics in part one—this section not only ends the novel but is about endings, I think, although in a rather veiled way. The structure is a more-or-less straightforwardly linear narrative of Archimboldi’s life. His birth-name is Hans Reiter. The son of a one-legged First World War veteran and a one-eyed woman, he grows up near the Prussian North Sea coast. As a boy he is fascinated with the bottom of the sea; he dives repeatedly (on two occasions he comes close to drowning), reads about seaweed, daydreams about the submarine world. He grows very tall, and remains an odd, singular, friendless child. Come WWII, he is mobilized into the regular German army and fights mostly on the Eastern Front—he is even awarded the Iron Cross for bravery, although his bravery is actually a kind of passive recklessness predicated upon a state of mind that would welcome death. Although he is badly wounded, he does not die. Recuperating, he discovers the manuscript memoir of a Jewish Soviet writer called Boris Ansky—this enables Bolaño to interrupt his tale with a lengthy digression on Ansky’s revolutionary fervor and disillusionment in Moscow 1920s/30s, and in particular his friendship with Evraim Ivanov, a science fiction writer. I was very interested to read a novel about an imaginary Soviet science fiction writer. In my opinion, there should be many more novels about imaginary Soviet science fiction writer than there are. Anyhow, Ivanov falls foul of the purge, and is executed; and it’s unclear what happens to Ansky, although presumably he is killed in the war. Recovered from his wounds, Reiter is sent back to the front, and the book hurries through the rest of the war.Continue reading "2666 Part 5: Archimboldi"
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
2666 Part 4: Crimes
[Previously: part 1; part 2; part 3] And so we come to it, the notorious fourth section: ‘The Part About the Crimes’. It is, as people warned, a thoroughly grueling read: 300 pages mostly filled with detailed quasi-forensic descriptions of the bodies of many many raped and murdered women.Continue reading "2666 Part 4: Crimes"
Saturday, February 13, 2010
2666 Part 3: Fate
[Part 1 here; Part 2 here]. Part 3, ‘The Part About Fate’, is not, despite its title, about destiny in the abstract, but rather about its main character. His name is Quincy Williams, but ‘everybody at work called him Oscar Fate’, and that’s what Bolaño calls him too. Fate is a journalist working for a niche New York magazine. At the beginning of this book his mother dies, and we learn about Fate’s vaguely L’Étrangerish reaction to his bereavement. He deals with his mother’s effects, and then flies out Detroit, where he interviews an ex-Black Panther called Barry Seaman, for a magazine article—Seaman is now an elderly and rather eccentric preacher, and Bolaño includes one of his (lengthy) sermons, unabridged. In Detroit, a sickening Fate (he vomits several times, perhaps because he has a stomach bug, perhaps in psychosomatic reaction to his mother’s death) is called by his New York editor. The magazine’s sports reporter died recently, and has not been replaced. Despite not having any experience reporting sport, Fate is to go down and report on a big boxing match in Santa Teresa, Mexico. Fate flies to Tucson and drives over the border. The rest of the book is taken up with a lengthy, and perhaps over-detailed account of Fate’s doings in Santa Teresa, the build-up to the fight (between a Mexican fighter called Merolino and a Yankee called Count Pickett). Said build up soon begins to feel interminable, and the actual fight is rendered in a deliberately anti-climactic manner. Indeed, I’d say that up to the point the whole section is pretty hit-and-miss: duller than either of the two earlier sections, and exhibiting several nontrivial problems in the representation of its central character.Continue reading "2666 Part 3: Fate"
Friday, February 12, 2010
2666 Part 2: Amalfitano
[Part 1 here] ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ is a little over a third the length of ‘The Part About the Critics’, and it picks up one of the characters from the first section: the academic philosopher at the Mexican University of Santa Teresa, Amalfitano. It is one undivided piece of prose, although it falls in the telling into two roughly equal parts. In the first we learn that Amalfitano, whom the critics were sure was gay, ‘had a daughter who always lived with him. Hard to believe but true’ ; we learn all about the mother of this child, a crazy Spanish girl called Lola, in Barcelona. Amalfitano’s passive, suffering love for Lola is only a small part of this; much more space is given to the story of Lola’s passion for an insane poet, whom (she claims) had sex with her once at a party in Barcelona. The poet is now confined to an asylum in Mondragón, near San Sebastián (in Spain), and Lola abandons Amalfitano and their small daughter to hitch-hike there. She hangs around for a while, eventually meets the poet, sleeps in a cemetery, has sex with pretty much any man who approaches her, makes her way up to France, occasionally sending Amalfitano letters detailing her adventures. In Paris she gets work as an office cleaner, and has another child, a son this time. When she returns to Barcelona she has AIDS. She sees her husband and daughter, and then hitch-hikes away again.
This vision of Lola lingered in his mind for many years, like a memory rising from glacial seas, although in fact he hadn’t seen anything, which meant there was nothing to remember, only the shadow of his ex-wife projected on the neighbouring buildings in the beam of the streetlights, and then the dream of Lola walking off down one of the highways out of Sant Cugat, walking along the side of the road, an almost deserted road since most cars took the new toll highway to save time, a woman bowed by the weight of her suitcase, fearless, walking fearlessly along the side of the road. 
Then the action shifts to Mexico, where Amalfitano has taken a university position. He lives in a house with Rosa, his (now) grown-up daughter. His life seems settled enough externally, but actually Amalfitano is a mass of anxieties. Some of these are more-or-less rational—a serial killer is murdering Santa Teresa’s young women by the hundreds, and he (and we, the readers) are concerned about the safety of his daughter. But some are harder to understand. When the critics visited Amalfitano’s house in Part 1 they noticed a weatherworn book hanging pegged to a line in the back garden, about which Amalfitano behaved strangely. In this part we discover this reason it is there—a geometry textbook hung, originally, in imitation of a Duchamp readymade, but which assumes enormous though inchoate symbolic significance for Amalfitano.Continue reading "2666 Part 2: Amalfitano"