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Wednesday, February 10, 2010
2666 Part 1: Critics
The first part of Bolaño’s leviathanic 2666 is named, after the logic of a Friends episode, ‘The Part About The Critics’. It’s a novel-sized chunk of text in its own right—something like 70,000 words—and it is indeed about critics, four in number: Jean-Claude Pelletier, from France; Piero Morini, from Italy; Manuel Espinoza, from Spain; and Liz Norton from England. All four are Germanists, and all four specialize in an obscure German-language novelist called Benno von Archimboldi. This is how the book starts:
The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier read Bruno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn’t realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D’Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse of bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him.
Each of the four has a similar reaction to Archimboldi, and as they age, each becoming prominent academics, they fall in with one another. Bolaño works hard to add detail and depth to characters who (like Archimboldi’s novels) perhaps run the risk of collapsing back into merely notional national-European figurative types: as if the story is a Continental version of the venerable old joke that begins ‘an Englishman, and Irishman and a Scotsman…’Continue reading "2666 Part 1: Critics"
Sunday, February 07, 2010
Tonight we’re gonna blog it like it’s 2666
Not tonight, actually: but sometime this week. I got Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 for Christmas, and now I’m finally getting around to reading it. As I’m sure you know, Bolaño wanted this huge novel published as five separate books—here’s the ‘Note From The Author’s Heirs’ with which the book opens:
Realizing that death might be near, Roberto left instructions for his novel 2666 to be published divided into five books corresponding to the five parts of the novel, specifying the order in which they should appear, at what intervals (one a year), and even the price to be negotiated with the publisher. With this decision, communicated days before his death by Roberto himself to Jorge Herralde, Roberto thought he was providing for his children’s future.
The note goes on to explain how blithely his executors disregarded this decision, hence the microwave-oven-proportioned book sitting on the desk in front of me. My plan is to blog my reading, book by book, as I go through it. I’ll start with book 1, ‘The Part About the Critics’, later this week. Wednesday, maybe. If you wanted to read along with me, comment and so on, that would be very nice. But I’ll understand if not. I don’t mind blogging in a vacuum. For are we not all, in an existential sense, ultimately blogging in a vacuum?
I have never previously read a Bolaño novel; but if this one’s half as good as the hype suggests, I daresay I’ll go back over his backlist. The Savage Detectives is supposed to be pretty good.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Behold The Man II
I’m thinking of writing a variant of this famous novel, with the following premise: a time traveller (an American) returns to the Holy Land c.AD33 with the following macabre mission: to shoot Jesus with a high-power, 21st-century rifle, after he has been crucified and resurrected but before he ascends to heaven. The early stages of the novel would make narrative play with the questions of who and why, teasing the reader with possible motivations—is he a radical atheist? An agent of Satan? Of a rival religion? Perhaps his intention is to prove that post-resurrection Jesus is unkillable (that, let us say, he has not simply spent three days in his tomb recovering from serious but not fatal wounds inflicted upon the cross). The later stages would pay off these questions, and reveal what happens when the ressurected Christ is shot at.Continue reading "Behold The Man II"
Saturday, January 09, 2010
Wyndham’s Chrysalid Puritans
I’m writing an introduction for John Wyndham’s excellent 1955 novel The Chrysalids, and as part of that I’ve been thinking about the representation of Puritans in mid-20th-century literature. Because, although they’re not identified as such, Wyndham’s fundmentalist-religious rural Waknuk dwellers, persecuting all genetic mutants in God’s name (’KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD. THE DEVIL IS THE FATHER OF DEVIATION. WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!’) are evidently a kind of Salem-Witch-Trial variety Puritan. Now it’s clear enough that one of the things Wyndham is doing here is channelling Miller’s Crucible (1953), translating that world, and its claustrophobic edge-of-hysteria paranoia, into a post-apocalypse future. But this is what I don’t know: what studies have there been of representation of analogue-Puritans in contemporary culture? I don’t mean actual studies of Puritan culture, or analyses of the Witch Trials themselves; JSTOR is chock-full of them. And I don’t mean dramatic or novelistic accounts of that culture, or those trials—although there’s lots of those too. Though Miller’s text is the one that casts the longest shadow, influence-wise, a very little searching uncovers lots of earlier or contemporary versions of the same thing: Shirley Barker’s novel Peace, My Daughters (1949), A Mirror for Witches (1933) by Esther Forbes, or Lyon Phelps’s play The Gospel Witch (1955). No, I’m talking about texts that deal, as Wyndham’s does, in imaginary religious communities clearly based upon Puritan culture without actually being Puritan; some Crucible or Scarlet Letter retread. The community in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film The Village would be another example of what I’m talking about.
I would assume that, in addition to the myriad studies of actual Puritan life and culture with which the library catalogues are so well supplied, there must be critical studies of the broader representation of ‘Puritanism’ in culture. What are they? Does anybody know?
Friday, January 01, 2010
Over on my review blog, and by way of reviewing to a bound proof of a Rollicking Big Fantasy Adventure due out in March 2010, I quote a John Lanchester article on video games.
About a year ago John Lanchester published ‘Is It Art?’, an essay in the London Review of Books on video games ... Lanchester considers gaming intelligently as a sort of invisible seismic shift in culture, and one of the things he’s good on is the difficulty of most video games. Here he is on Ken Levine’s 2K Boston/2K Australia game Bioshock, which he likes a great deal:
As a video game, BioShock fully subscribes to the conventions of the medium, and if you as a non-gamer were to pick it up and give it a try, it is these you would probably notice most. Not just the conventions of which buttons and levers you press to move about the world of the game (annoying and hard to recollect as these often are) and not just the in-game mechanics, such as the ‘plasmids’ which you have to inject to give your character the powers he needs, or the tapes which are conveniently left around for you to discover and play back to hear the story of Rapture; but also the whole package of conventions and codes and how-tos which become second nature to video-game players, but which strike non-gamers as arbitrary and confining and a little bit stupid. Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all – and it’s not by accident, either. One of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy. (It would be nice if a little bit of that leaked over into the book world.)
In the spirit of that admirable sentiment, I say: Tome of the Undergates is too easy.
I don’t mean to pick on Tome of the Undergates, by the way. It’s a very entertaining yarn, and is going to be huge. But Lanchester’s question interests me. Why should it be that people specifically prize ‘difficulty’ in their video games, but fight so thoroughly shy of it in their novels?
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Below the fold, brief thoughts on each of the seven Harry Potter novels in turn. As I was typing this out, the theme to Rawhide kept trundling through my head: ‘keep Rowling, Rowling, Rowling ...’Continue reading "Potter, Harry"
Friday, November 27, 2009
Friday Instant Quiz
The rules: identify the author of the following complete poem. No googling (google will turn this up pretty quickly, I think; and where would the fun be in that?). If you happen to know the answer for sure (because, let’s say, you have studied this author) you may keep it to yourself, with or without a smug ‘I know who this is’ comment posting, according to your taste. If this is easier than I think then the answer will become apparent immediately; if not, I’ll post the answer tomorrow.
Frost upon small rain—the ebony lacquered avenue
Reflecting lamps as a pool shows goldfish.
The sight suddenly emptied out of the young man’s eyes
Entering upon it sideways.
Friday, November 20, 2009
The Original of Laura
This month’s big book—it would have been nice to say ‘this year’s’, but having got hold of a copy I discover it more curio than cry-it-from-the-rooftops—is Nabokov’s last, unfinished novel: The Original of Laura. Three things:
This is a large, thick-paper, orgulous and ultimately self-regarding exercise in the material business of book-making. Plush. Each of Nabokov’s original note-cards is reproduced in facsimile form, with all his neat, slightly childish, un-joined-up pencil handwriting upon them. The text of each card is reproduced in type (‘Filosofia’ a variant of ‘the classic Bodoni font’) below; but (can you smell that? that whiff of gimmicry?) each of the facsimile note-cards is perforated such that they could be removed from the book ‘and rearranged’, says Dimitri Nabokov, invitingly, in the book’s preface, ‘as the author likely did when he was writing the novel.’
All of this seems to me very poorly judged. I can understand, from a practical point of view, Penguin wanting to make an ‘event’ book out of this title—not least because there’s so little here, practically speaking, of the actual novel to be excited by. But it is based on a false premise. Dmitri Nabokov’s introduction, despite his crotchety, old aristocratic manner, is actually inviting a sort of intimacy of the reader. He rehearses his father’s instruction that the unfinished book be burned, and then goes through the reasons why he did not do so, sniping at ‘the lesser minds among the hordes of letter writers that were to descend upon me’ as he does so. The whole book, from a physical point of view, is a sort of mummification. ‘You and I,’ it says, confidentially, ‘we understand the difficulties; we care about Vladimir and his literary genius—we share a filial duty. We respect his reputation too much to ... let us say ... carp at the rubbishy aspects of what is, viewed objectively, barely-a-fifth-finished project. Instead, with ritual solemnity, we shall play the game, and go through the motions: as if the book is still being written, as if the decision not to burn the MS could conceivably be based on aesthetic, rather than commercial, grounds.’ The book, in short, is being presented to us as a fetish.
But here’s the thing: I neither have nor want that sort of relationship with my imaginary Vladimir Nabokov. He is of course one of the twentieth-century writers I admire the most, even—for some of his novels—adore the most; but this admiration, and adoration, has never been about intimacy. He’s not the reader’s friend, or father-figure, or anything like that. He’s something much more aloof—that’s the whole point of him. This exercise in faux-filiality grandly misses the point.Continue reading "The Original of Laura"
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Fairy Tales and Adolescence
I was teaching Dickens (Davd Copperfield, since you ask) to a seminar of unusually bright third-years yesterday—we were talking about Dickens’ fondness for fairy tale tropes and figures. In part this involved us simply in identifying fairy tale tropes in the novel, which is fun, though rather limited: Copperfield is a regendered remix of Cindarella, for instance; like Little Red Riding Hood young David must pass through treachorous territory and overcome the vulpine Murdstone, who has dispatched his mother—or else, some in the seminar thought, must negotiate the trickier sexual wolfishness of Steerforth, dressed in friend’s clothing. (Plus, of course, David has a hood: ‘I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale in the newspapers at the low price of fifteen guineas’, ch.1). Several members of the group pulled out references to ogres and giants, to magical flutes, princesses and castles in the novel. But we also agreed that simply identifyig fairy tales elements was a pretty one-dimensional response. We wanted to go beyond just noticing that, in the words of Elaine Ostrey, ‘throughout his career, Dickens engaged in fairy tales on every level: he wrote them, defended them, alluded to them and used techniques from the genre in his essays and novels … Dickens defends the imagination and fairy tales in the same breath’ [Elaine Ostrey, Social Dreaming: Dickens and the Fairy Tale, (2002), 1]. So we talked a little about the critical context of this question: there have been various studies of Dickens and Fairy tales (Michael Kotzin’s Dickens and the Fairy Tale (1972) and Harry Stone’s Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Novel Making (1979) are two, for instance—Stone’s being probably the best, despite its limitations). Stone’s argument, broadly, is that the fairy tale element in Dickens work balances the for-want-of-a-better-word ‘realist’ element; that in his early books he doesn’t get these two rather contrary impulses to line up in a wholly effective way, but with the Christmas Books, Dombey and especially in Copperfield and Great Expectations he squares the circle, and creates realistic fairy-tales, or fairy-told realisms, which in turn generate unique and penetrating new insights, affects, kinds of fiction.
Friday, October 09, 2009
Booker IV: Coetzee’s Summertime
7th October 2009. Yesterday the Man Booker Prize winner was announced: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The bookies had shortened the odds on Mantel to 11/5, the shortest ever laid against a Booker shortlisted title; and the reviewers and critics were behind the title, so it was hardly a surprise. This morning’s Guardian goes with the front page headline Mantel of Glory, hardly the snappiest of puns (what should they have gone with instead? ManBookerTel? Mantel’s piece? Kiss and Mantel?) Underneath is a full colour photograph of Mantel’s beaming face: a study in circles. There’s something on the edge of unreality about her visage actually: ideally, even Platonically round, with round eyes circumferenced by two perfectly traced arcs eyebrows-to-bags, the whole emphasized rather than anything by the way the face is framed by the twin turned-in scimitar lines of her hairstyle. It’s like a face drawn by a cartoonist: not unpretty, exactly, even in its corpulence and middle-age—but not quite real.
To be expanded upon: why oh why will a science fiction novel never win the Booker? Possibly expand the ‘why oh why’ to a ‘why oh why oh why’.Continue reading "Booker IV: Coetzee’s Summertime"
Monday, October 05, 2009
Byatt’s Children’s Book
[Note The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is announced tomorrow. The date has crept up on me a little, caught me on the hop even—I have only three of the titles read-and-reviewed (half way through the Coetzee right now). But I persevere.]
So, A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book. This is an odd, densely crammed saga-novel: six hundred pages that read like nine hundred, moving a large number of characters from the 1890s through to the First World War. The density is created by the sheer quantity of research Byatt has pressed into the mould of her narrative—if not infodumping, exactly, then certainly info-kneading, or info-compressing. There’s no doubt that she knows this period very well ... which is to say, she certainly puts out great gouts of historical-cultural knowledge: about the Arts and Crafts movement of the fin-de-siècle; about anarchism and children’s literature; about the Jameson raid and Fabianism and Anarchism and life in the Potteries; about the Suffragettes and the establishment of the Victoria and Albert museum and the popularity of Peter Pan; and a great mass of other stuff about turn-of-the-century England and Germany. Queen Victoria dies on p.300, and from there the novel slides inexorably towards World War I. Density has its advantages, and by its end this novel certainly builds a considerable degree of heft, which gives its soap-like family births-and-deaths actual emotional momentum. But density can very easily become stodge, and it often does so in this book. It took me a long time to read, and for long stretches the reading process was a treacly-wading, not a smoothly-gliding, one.
In the middle of a swarm of characters is Olive Wellwood, a children’s writer, wife to a foxily unfaithful husband and mother to a large brood—I took her to be a fictional version of Edith Nesbit until, later in the novel, Nesbit herself crops up. There’s also weirdo-genius-artist Bejamin Fludd, a version of Eric Gill. I assume the point of fictionalising these famous folk is that it frees up Byatt to take these characters’ stories in the directions she wants without being constrained by actuality (which, I assume, is why some figures from the period appear in fictional guise—H G Wells, for instance—where others come along as themselves: William Morris, say, or James Barrie).Continue reading "Byatt’s Children’s Book"
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Man Booker Prize II: Mantel’s Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall is the family home of the Seymours, but they, and their house, appear only on the peripheries of this accomplished and much-praised novel. Centre stage is Thomas Cromwell, his rise: from bashed-about blacksmith’s son and vagrant to Henry VIII’s most powerful and trusted counselor. Mantel treads lightly, and with a wealth of leavening ordinary quotidian detail, through some rather over familiar history: Katherine of Aragorn on the way out, Anne Boleyn on the way in, Henry desperate for a male heir; and at the very end there are inklings of the coming import of Jane Seymour and the titular palace. But that’s not really what’s going on, because Mantel’s Wolf Hall is actually the court, where a higher-class of dog eats a higher-class of dog (‘The saying comes to him [Cromwell], homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man’ 572).
And indeed Mantel does the infighting and politicking of the nobles that swarm about Henry very well indeed, partly because the court is always parsed in the context of the country as a whole; the politics are to do with the larger realm, not merely a group of representative nobs. Courtiers constrained by one another and by the need to service Henry’s will; Henry constrained by his sense of what his own people, prone to riot and quick to voice their disapproval at their king shunting off his poor old wife for a younger model, will tolerate. Here’s Cromwell at home, with a servant he picked up in the continent and new to England:
It is late. Upstairs he closes the shutter, where the moon gapes in hollow-eyed, like a drunk lost in the street. Christophe, folding garments, says, ‘Is there loups? In this kingdom?’
‘I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners.’ 
Wolf Hall, in other words, is England. That’s well observed, I think.Continue reading "Man Booker Prize II: Mantel’s Wolf Hall"
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Man Booker Prize 2009, I: Foulds’ Quickening Maze
[Scott’s kindly post prompts me to realise a plan that had been half-heartedly floating around my brain, viz.: blogging reviews of this year’s actual Booker Prize shortlist as I make my way through them. To that end, some thoughts on Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze. Like Rohan said, it’s been a little too quiet around here lately].
Dr Matthew Allen runs a lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Epping Forest in 1840: John Clare, the mad peasant poet, is one of his patients. Alfred Tennyson comes to stay, to oversee the admittance of his brother Septimus, who is suffering from the melancholic ‘black blood’ of the Tennysons. The doctor has a brilliant idea for an automated wood-lathe, and persuades Tennyson to invest (something which really happened). The doctor’s pale daughter Hannah falls hopelessly in love with Tennyson (which may or may not have happened). The wood-lathe project goes bust. Various loonies hove into and out of view through the scintillant fog of Fould’s self-consciously fine writing: Margaret with her self-abnegating religious mania; witchlike Clara; Mr. Francombe, who believes that if he shits ‘he will poison the water, destroy the forest … and everyone in London will be killed’  and who is given an enema against his will, something Foulds describes in loving, revolting detail.* And above all there is Clare, who early in the novel wanders the forest and hangs-out with gypsies, but who becomes increasingly deranged as the book goes on. His perceptions of the natural world, and the whorls and eddies of his distorted consciousness gift the novel its most memorable moments. The final section describes with hallucinatory vividness his eighty-mile walk from London to Northborough, and is a superb piece of prose ... although it draws heavily, as of course is must, on Clare’s own, famous account of that walk.Continue reading "Man Booker Prize 2009, I: Foulds’ Quickening Maze"
Saturday, September 12, 2009
These beautiful lines from Australian poet Stephen Edgar’s ‘Dreaming at the Speed of Light’ (History of the Day, Blackpepper 2009) see the world from the perspective of a ray of light:
The falling autumn leaves would stall
Above the lawn, their futile red
A stationary fire;
The dog erupting from the pond would spread
In hanging glints its diamanté shawl
Of shaken spray midair;
The blue arc of the wave would climb no higher,
A gauze of glare
And water that would neither break nor sprawl.
It’s lovely, although it patently owes more to slow-motion cinematic photography than to notional saddles upon imagined rays of light. And isn’t there a problem here? Don’t these lines rather imply that time is somehow actually a contaminant? Take away the t-axis and everything is gorgeous and lovely; as if Edgar has revisited Keats’s Grecian Urn and decided that, you know what?--the pastoral is perfectly warm and lovely, thank you very much.
Still, it’s exquisite poetry. ‘Stall’ is exactly the right word, both in its sense and its clogging rhyme with ‘fall’ at the beginning, there; and the blue arc of the surfers’ wave neither breaking nor sprawling is excellent too (although ‘gauze’ isn’t the right texture to capture what’s being described, surely; and describing the red of the falling-stopping leaf as ‘futile’ seemed to me a bum note). But it all pales into insignificance beside the extraordinary loveliness of that dog, and its diamanté shawl. Bravo!
Thursday, September 03, 2009
Nixon on the $20 bill
Inherent Vice is a deceptively ordinary gumshoe tale set in 1960s California. The deception is of a meta sort, because whilst this novel indulges in lots of familiar, even (now) over-familiar Pynchoniana—the daft names, the terrible made-up pop lyrics, the oversalted stretches of dialogue breaking, suddenly, into long, gnarled ropes of prosey-poetic description—it lacks the conceptual hauteur, the encyclopedism and the tromp l’oeil profundity of Pynchon’s big books. In fact this is true to the point where it doesn’t really read like a Pynchon novel at all. It’s a Pynchon novel pretending to be something else.
I’m assuming the point, here, is about the way attentiveness to the particular, the minutiae, overwhelms the ability to parse a larger picture—like (in a key image) paying closer and closer attention to a crime-scene photograph until it begins ‘to float apart into little blobs of colour’. That’s one key reason why the protagonist is a stoner private investigator; and the case he is hired to investigate is one of prodigious, even fractal complexity: a property financier who goes missing; his wife’s lover; the financier’s girlfriend (who is also the P.I.’s ex); policemen who double as TV stars; smuggling; black panthers; rock bands; drugs; Aryan brotherhood, Vietnam, the mysterious and perhaps ubiquitous Golden Fang … it all has a place, and written such that it’s a taxing business trying to follow all the ins-and-outs. But that’s germane; Pynchon overplots, overcomplicates, because what he’s interested in is not the plot at all. Or more precisely, what he’s interested in is: not the coherence of the plot, but rather the moment of the cannabis hit, when some hitherto overlooked and almost certainly entirely irrelevant detail suddenly looms massively in your dope-piqued consciousness. That’s what the novel enacts. Or, at any rate, those are the moments that stuck in my mind.