Friday, June 30, 2006

This one sounds good

Paul Collins reviews David Standish's Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface at the Voice.

"You see, I am bad, aren't I?"

Lots of good things this week at the Guardian Review. I was especially transfixed by Lucasta Miller's piece about John Bridcutt's new book Britten's Children:

In the archive at the Britten-Pears Library is a small exercise book inscribed on the front 'EB Britten, Form V, Rough Work'. Inside, the owner has repeated his name in different formats - Edward Benjamin Britten, B Britten and so on - and has added his address, that of his parents' home, '21 Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, Europe, The Western Hemisphere, The World, The Universe'. This apparently simple relic of childhood offers a conundrum: the notebook itself, of American origin, could not have been available to Britten as a prep-school boy. Bizarrely, it turns out that the author of these Molesworthian scribblings was at least 25 at the time of writing and already feted as the leading composer of his generation.

Other good things: Tom McCarthy on Tintin; James Fenton on Gibbon's autobiography; and Gordon Burn on Francis Bacon.

(I do wish I could see the exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery in London, I am lazy about seeing art but I've got a thing about Francis Bacon, in fact one of my favorite recent discoveries--the quotation from Georges Perec I wrote about a few months ago and will give again below--is a favorite partly because it makes me think of Bacon:

It is not that you hate men, why would you hate them? Why would you hate yourself? If only membership of the human race were not accompanied by this insufferable din, if only these few pathetic steps taken into the animal kingdom did not have to be bought at the cost of this perpetual, nauseous dyspepsia of words, projects, great departures! But it is too high a price to pay for opposable thumbs, an erect stature, the incomplete rotation of the head on the shoulders. . . .

Opposable thumbs, an erect stature, the incomplete rotation of the head on the shoulders: only in Bacon the stature is crumpled, the flesh dragging off the bones Beckett-like.)

Eighteenth-century tidbits #3

From Richard Bradley, The Gentleman and Farmer's Guide For the Increase and Improvement of Cattle, viz. Lambs, Sheep, Hogs, Calves, Cows, Oxen. Also the best Manner of Breeding, and Breaking Horses, both for Sport and Burden, 2nd ed. (1732):

We may observe, that as no Creature is generally so voracious as an Hog, so a Sow that has Pigs, is the most mischievous Creature that we know. It has, besides its own natural Disposition to Gluttony, a Wantonness which induces it to prey upon every Thing which falls in its Way, or it can get within its Power. We see its ill Nature, in its Disposition to prey upon its own Pigs; and it would even be well if its voracious Appetite would end there. But what melancholy Instances have we had of the Mischief done by Sows that had Pigs, in the wounding, and even in the eating of little Children, where there has not been due Care taken of them? I could mention several Cases of this Nature. Some are now living, who wear the Marks of their savage Inclination; and others who mourn the Loss of a Child. However this Paragraph may be thought out of the way by some People, I think it no Imprudence to insert it, to prevent for the future such Mischiefs. We must consider, that at first all Hogs were wild; and we know, how tame soever, they are the most voracious Creatures. But though they have a spirit equal to Tygers, Bears, or Wolves, the Way to civilize them, is to feed them well, and keep them in Plenty of Victuals; for, I have experienced in a Tyger, which I was very familiar with, that he never attempted any Thing in the savage way, or endeavoured to insult his Keeper, or the Persons about him, but when he wanted his common Subsistence, or convenient Nourishment.


Andrew O'Hagan on Margo Jefferson's On Michael Jackson at the LRB (no subscription required):

What is it about fame that can make people unbearable to themselves? In the right conditions - the wrong conditions - a dreamy and over-watched person of sizeable talent can turn steadily into a tragic being, as vulnerable to the psychically destructive forces of the age as the great heroines of the 19th-century novel or the doomed figures of Romantic opera. Moral captives such as Emma Bovary and Tess Durbeyfield have destruction written into their code of happiness, as does Cio-Cio-San or Verdi's Desdemona, suffocated by bad men or bourgeois custom but most effectively by a public (an audience) that loves to be complicit in the undoing of women and the aestheticising of their pain. Once you get to Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe or Billie Holiday or Lena Zavaroni, the thrill has become a fetish, and you can see how self-change and death-throes have become in a rather naked way the bigger part of their performance. Michael Jackson has all of that by rote, and is distinguished among such figures as a black man who wants to be a white woman; a person who wants to unperson himself, to become something beyond nature, something entirely concocted of private fears and public desire.

I really liked O'Hagan's novel Personality; he's got a new novel coming out later this summer, a curiously empty US Amazon page says the book will be published here by Faber and Faber in August (that is something I must read) but here is a more convincing page for Be Near Me at Amazon UK.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A vast and wondrous estate

Matt Borondy interviews Toni Schlesinger at the identity theory website about her remarkable book Five Flights Up and Other New York Apartment Stories. Here's Toni on living in New York:

On the most basic level, I love the continuous action of New York. The same way I love being in a dark theater space, a film, a casino, a newsroom. Nothing stops, nothing ends, nothing dies. I love the celebration of artificial life that is implicit in cities, all human-made.

On the most personal level—my life is not about family or houses with kitchens. I am interested only in reading and writing and performing and talking with others who do the same.


On the other hand, I don't know if I really care where I live. It is about who one talks to, what one reads, writes, creates. Whenever I have felt homeless, it had to do with feeling thrown out of my work for a moment. I have only realized that in recent years. But I feel as if I am living on a vast and wondrous estate when my work is going well and I am immersed in this or that story. I am working on a very strange story that happened in New York which will be a book. I spend days reading about a certain street and how they sold spyglasses on the street and there used to be pirates and I go there constantly in my mind. I am also working on a film about a small-town murder. There is a 1920s Tudor house in the story, and that in a way has become my home, in which I wander through the rooms thinking about this and that and all the secrets up the stairs.

Nanny confessionals

Caitlin Flanagan reviews Suzanne Hansen's You'll Never Nanny in This Town Again (in the Atlantic, via Powell's Review-A-Day: it is a thoughtful and engaging essay, much the best thing of hers I've read.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Eighteenth-century tidbits #2

John Gregory, A Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man with those of the Animal World, I.142:

A sedentary, studious life greatly increases this natural weakness of constitution, and brings on that train of nervous complaints and low spirits, which render life a burden to the possessor and useless to the public. Nothing can so effectually prevent this as activity, regular exercise, and frequent relaxations of the Mind from those keen pursuits it is usually engaged in.

On that note, I am off to the gym....

Brenda Maddox on matters Joycean

at the TLS.

This is a good list

that makes me want to read Nick Brooks' novel The Good Death.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Rael thing

David Ng has an interesting (and quite positive) review of Houellebecq's latest up at the Voice; I have been itching to read The Possibility of an Island (I absolutely loved The Elementary Particles, actually I've been wanting to reread that as well), picked up a copy last week at the Morningside Bookshop when thwarted on trashy novels but I am not quite sure when I'll have time for it. I like the feeling, though, of having a lot of books I'd like to read and not enough time for them; it is always a sign of encroaching depression when I find myself thinking how impossible it is to find something good to read.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The light reading fit came on very strongly

after some days of (relative) virtue in which I read vast quantities of Swift and Godwin and Malthus (and it all came together around one of those blinding insights that surely should have been obvious to me much earlier--advocates of human perfectibility are often enemies to or at least ambivalent about human reproduction--thus the strange obsession with population control that leads to Swift's imagining "A Modest Proposal" in the first part of the century and Godwin convinced that in the future people will become immortal and stop reproducing sexually & Malthus's horrible sarcastic cynicism about poor Godwin's rather lovely naivete--all right, enough of this, must save for the chapter...).

On Thursday I found myself hankering after trashy science fiction but was curiously thwarted (Morningside Bookstore has inconveniently moved their SF/fantasy novels to the downstairs annex, what a pity, and I forgot the B&N was on summer hours); on Friday I picked up a stack of used mass-market ones from the guy with the great collection of suchlike outside Milano Market on Broadway--I had already walked past but was irresistibly drawn back out of a combination of novel-allure & also guilt that I haven't bought anything there since I've been back--and late that night devoured a minor early Marion Zimmer Bradley novel I happened not to have read before, Star of Danger. Those Darkover books are absolutely delightful to me, they are so earnest and so trashy and yet so good all at the same time, and progressive in their politics in a wonderfully dated way.

On Saturday I had to go to B&N again to get two things I most immediately needed for work (possibly this was rationalization, both could have been obtained just as well at the library), but I lost all restraint and bought lots more things than was at all sensible (I find myself buying the most books when I've got the least time to read them; when I'm really on a good novel-reading kick, they almost all come from the library, the purchase works as a substitute for actual reading).

However in this case my purchases included two wildly (wastefully!) extravagant hardcover novels which I have now also devoured: Charles de Lint's Widdershins (very good, his books are always extremely enjoyable though somehow he is not quite as much to my taste as some others like Emma Bull for instance); and Laurell K. Hamilton's brand-new Anita Blake novel, Danse Macabre.

I held out against these ones for a long time, then happened to pick up a used one & loved it; I was sorry when the early private-investigator vibe devolved into out-and-out erotica, yet I still can't resist them when I see them in the bookstore. Hamilton's got a great voice for this character/narrator & while there is much, much, much too much detail about various things I don't really care about (and I am mystified by the aesthetic that makes these men with ridiculous eye-colors and waist- or sometimes even ankle-length hair and wearing corsets and silk and mostly bare-chested RAVISHINGLY ATTRACTIVE rather than cringe-makingly ludicrous) I did just read it in one hypnotic sitting, she's got a very particular storytelling talent that I greatly enjoy.

(Publishers Weekly review, as given at Amazon: "The uniquely complicated life of Anita Blake, the St. Louis–based necromancer, gets even more complicated when Anita discovers she may be pregnant in the 14th novel in bestseller Hamilton's vampire hunter series (Micah, etc.). Her sexual magic powers require multiple lovers, so there are six potential fathers. One possible dad, werewolf Richard, has trouble understanding that, baby or not, Anita's still a federal marshal who raises the dead and executes vampires. In addition, terrifying, life-threatening obstetrical challenges are involved, since the maybe-mommy has to deal with vampirism and several strains of lycanthropy coursing through her veins"--oh, and the most hilarious detail, not sure it is meant to be funny though, is that Anita has to go to the hospital to get tested for Vlad's syndrom and Mowgli syndrome: as the doctor tells Anita, "you only need the Mowgli test if you've had sex with a shapeshifter while he's in animal form"; Mowgli syndrome!).

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Martha Nussbaum's furious and devastating New Republic review

of Harvey Mansfield's book on manliness is up at Powell's Books - Review-a-Day.

The Scottish play

I saw Macbeth in Central Park last night and found it wonderfully good--also the outdoor setting greatly amplifies what's going on. Seeing the silhouettes of those trees over the back of the set as we get near the whole Birnam Wood thing . . . it was really, really good, hairs rose on the back of my neck at various points exactly as they should.

There was nothing cutting-edge or innovative about the production, it was all pretty much traditional (I have mixed feelings about this--good cutting-edge is incredibly exciting, bad cutting-edge distracting and pretentious), and extremely well done. Everyone delivered their lines as though they understood what they were saying, it was excellent (whoever coaches them on the line-reading stuff deserves a medal); Liev Schreiber absolutely superb, Teagle Bougere as Banquo and Sterling Brown as Macduff both also strikingly good, Weird Sisters good too, all quite delightful in other words. Jennifer Ehle as Lady M perhaps somewhat less good than the others, but more than good enough, and she looked beautiful in a very old-school Hollywood way. (She has a way of delivering her lines that I have heard before, there must be some acting teacher disseminating it out there; the effect is as though there's a sort of strangled sob in the throat, it quickly grows wearing. I was trying to think where it was so familiar to me from, and I remembered that the last show I saw in the park was that production of The Seagull with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he did exactly the same thing, only more so. I did not think that one very good, the naturalism of Chekhov isn't really suited to the large-scale acting that's necessary on that kind of outdoor stage; also it was the hottest night ever, and--this makes me think of my grandmother, it is so much the kind of thing she would have observed--all you could think about was how awfully hot and scratchy the dresses and suits the actors were wearing must be. Last night it rained quite a bit, at one point in the first half I was almost sure they were going to stop, but thank goodness they went on, it was a wonderfully good performance: I think sometimes slight adversity leads to greater intensity and concentration among the actors.)

Macbeth is really a thriller, it's partly why it's staged so often and so well (Lear in contrast is a play--does Harold Bloom say this? it's the kind of thing he would say, at any rate--scaled too large for the stage, it's so much about division and subtraction but it works by way of insane addition and supplement, like adding the whole Gloucester plot from Sidney). I remember loving Ngaio Marsh's Macbeth-based Light Thickens when I was younger; it would be much harder to use a production of Lear as a way of moving your mystery plot forward.

My main thought after seeing these two Shakespeare plays this week (other than that I love Shakespeare, & that life is good when I get to see things like this) is that I have a burning desire to see a play by Euripides in the near future. I can't say why this came on me so strongly, but actually for a long time I've had kind of a thing about him--what I really want to do is write something (possibly even a play, more likely a novel) that's basically an adaptation of The Bacchae. Something about that play's treatment of reason and irrationality speaks to me very strongly, though I found it harder to teach than any of the other plays on the Lit Hum syllabus at Columbia. In high school I once played Medea, that's an amazing play too; but The Bacchae is special....

Ian Jack on rejecting Martha Gellhorn's last published piece

at the Guardian Review. It's an interesting piece (though perhaps too much an unsuccessful attempt to let oneself off the hook for something--what? not unforgivable, but painful in the remembrance); rejection considered for once from the editor's point of view. This is something we should hear about more often.

It's never the animal's fault

I am secretly curious to read this woman's book about exotic animal trainers, but I cannot believe she wrote this about her marriage--yep, it's the latest installment in the train-wreck Times Modern Love series....

Friday, June 23, 2006


Alasdair Gray blogs about his childhood memories of the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, which has recently been renovated:

When taking my private unofficial stroll through the upper galleries one morning I found three were hung with all Edvard Munch's greatest paintings and prints. It was a maturing experience. Before then I had been mainly excited by views of the fantastic, erotic heavens and hells in books of pictures by Blake, Aubrey Beardsley and Bosch. I wanted to make my life exciting by painting catastrophic biblical events in modern Glasgow settings - the deluge, for instance, flooding Kelvingrove Park up to the level of Park Circus. Munch painted hell in the rooms and streets of Oslo, a city not unlike Glasgow, and he was a realist! His white suburban villa with scarlet Virginia creeper, shown at night by street lighting, was creepy and sinister but not fantastic. Munch, like adolescent me, was obsessed with loneliness, sex and death - his people look lonely, all his women are victims or vampires. He showed me great art can be made out of common people and things viewed through personal emotion.

(I love the part about catastrophic Biblical events in modern Glasgow settings! I first read Alasdair Gray when I was fifteen or so, his Lanark was one of many recommendations--of mixed quality, I must admit; this was certainly one of the best ones--I culled from Anthony Burgess's demented 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. I like Norman Mailer, and of course literary judgments are subjective, but Ancient Evenings can pretty certainly be said not to be one of the best novels published in English between 1939 and 1984 or whatever.)

The only other book of Gray's I've read is Poor Things; his fiction leaves you with indelible memories of it, I must reread those two and check out his others, but in the end there is something too trippy/grotesque about his imagination for me to throw myself into his books the way I want to.

Actually, it's funny, that list he gives--Blake, Bosch--is very telling, he clearly knew himself early as an artist. I was just thinking the other day--what prompted that?--that I must have some serious Blake re-reading when I can fit it in. I don't think it suits my personality, I am more Enlightenment/matter-of-fact, but I would like to write a grand epic English fantasy novel of a Blakean kind--oh, wait, Philip Pullman did that already....

(Thanks to Bookslut for the Gray link.)

The fiction issue of the NYRB

(not that it's all fiction-related, of course, not by any manner of speaking) is on the newsstands and some of it's available online without a subscription.

Jonathan Raban has a thoughtful essay on Updike's new novel that made me feel with a clean conscience that I really do not need to read it myself; ditto Gabriele Annan on Irene Nemirovsky and Christian Caryl on Gary Shteyngart, in both cases novels that sound good-quality but not for me.

More immediately appealing: a very good piece by John Gray (subscribers only) about Isaiah Berlin; Darryl Pinckney on black minstrelsy, Bert Williams and Caryl Phillips' Dancing in the Dark (Pinckney concludes that "as academic theorists become ever more triumphalist concerning the elevation of vernacular culture, the black novelist as alternative historian is free to return to the nobility of defeat as a grand theme"); and
Tim Parks on Beckett's prose.

I must admit (it's morally low) that I could hardly enjoy this one as the Grove Beckett volumes are sitting reproachfully on my shelf and I must not read them until I have finished drafting my book manuscript, but it's an interesting and highly thought-provoking essay:

For those of us who were long ago enchanted by this prose and believe it second to none, there will always be a certain sadness in the reflection that Beckett achieved fame through the theater and will be remembered by a wider public only for his plays. Yet there are obvious reasons why Beckett's peculiar aesthetic was more immediately effective on stage. Some of the most intriguing pages of Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett come from actors who recall the author traveling to theaters all over Europe to follow productions of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, and Happy Days, telling them not to play their parts realistically, never to inquire about the characters' lives outside of a text, and, in general, to deliver their lines so far as possible in a flat monotone. "Too much color" was his frequent, head-shaking objection during rehearsals. Once again he was uneasy with the potential for sentimentality in what he had written.

Yet the actors often felt he was quite wrong and that the plays worked better with a lively, realistic delivery, a position to which Beckett himself eventually began to come around. The fact is that the flesh-and-blood presence of the actors on stage creates for the spectators a sense of reality and identification which the absurd plots and dialogues then undermine, so that the tension behind all of Beckett's work between affirmation and denial is dramatized for us in the contrast between the believable actor and the inexplicable, disorienting world he is in. At the same time, the conventions of the theater, which trap us respectfully together in an intimate space for a pre-established time, make it far more likely that the skeptical will follow a Beckett work from start to finish and have time to be enchanted by the rhythms of his writing. If few get through The Unnamable or How It Is, almost everybody can watch Godot to the final curtain.

But most importantly of all, the theater allows both silence and physical movement to come to the fore in a way they cannot on the page. A blank space between paragraphs simply does not deliver the anxiety of a hiatus in a stage dialogue. Only in the theater, as the audience waits in collective apprehension for the conversational ball— between Didi and Gogo, Hamm and Clov—to start rolling again, could Beckett's sense that any deep truth must be located in something, or nothing, beyond speech come across with great immediacy. Likewise the actors' interminable and pointless movement back and forth across the stage is a more immediate statement than the words of a page-bound narrator telling us of his aimless daily wanderings. When we watch the plays, the impotence of language to explain the characters' experience is powerfully evident. Conversation serves above all to pass the time.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Michael Feingold profiles actor Alvin Epstein

at the Voice. I had impossibly high expectations for the Actors' Shakespeare Project King Lear at LaMama (aside from everything else, a very dear friend of mine--an old theater partner to boot--did the production design), but I realized as I watched it that I have too strong an idea of the play myself to give myself over to someone else's interpretation. I've taught it four times and read it countless more and I especially have strong opinions about line readings and the delivery of Shakespearean language. (Here's Charles Isherwood's review for the NYT, I don't disagree with it--there were many good things, and how can you go wrong watching a play like this anyway?)

Further thoughts:

1. I saw the Olivier television Lear from the early 1980s at an impressionable age, and it still colors my sense of the play's characters and atmosphere despite a Spinal Tap-ish Stonehenge-type dry ice problem. I haven't seen it since the mid-80s for sure, but in my memory of it Olivier is slightly over-the-top (and very rosy-cheeked) but Diana Rigg as Regan and Leo McKern as Gloucester are absolutely unbeatable. I have too many favorite lines in this play even to think about giving quotations here....

2. There is something quite amazing about seeing Alvin Epstein on a stage. I saw Epstein a year or two ago in the really quite extraordinary production of Endgame at the Irish Rep (he played Nagg), and I found myself thinking at several points during the performance the other night that nothing in this production was as moving as almost everything about that Endgame, and that while I do find Beckett (that play in particular) almost unbearably poignant it is not quite right that the balance should be this way between the two productions. But think of the magical thing about theatrical performance, that quality Joseph Roach just calls "it": something about charisma and personal contact that makes you want to touch the hem of the actor's garments.... Epstein performed with Marcel Marceau, played the Fool to Orson Welles's Lear, played Lucky in the American premiere of Godot and Clov in the American premiere of Endgame. Surely some sort of pollen clings to him, a pollen that will be transmitted to those who act with him or even just experience his performances from the audience? I love performance history. I have this sense too when I teach the eighteenth-century drama lecture at Columbia, of a sort of shadowy exoskeleton of performances that if you concentrate hard enough come to life in a most bodily and material way. It is quite unlike the experience of reading novels.

John Lanchester is blogging the World Cup

at the London Review of Books, and it's quite excellent, though I am wholly ignorant of everything having to do with football. (Other than to say that I think both Among the Thugs and Fever Pitch are very good books, though quite different from each other-- my taste runs more to the former.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A lifelong dream

has recently come true for me, I thought I would get confessional for a moment & share the story of its coming to fruition. Ever since about 1993 if you asked me about what one really decadent and luxurious item I coveted for my home but thought I would never attain for various reasons both economic and practical, I would have said "a photocopier"! And last week I had to buy a new computer and printer since attrition had me down to one pair where I really need two (one for home, one for office), and I got a new laptop from Dell which is fairly exciting in itself; but THRILLINGLY when I looked at laser printers I saw that for the unbelievably low price of $169.00 I could get the CANON ImageCLASS MF3110 Laser Multifunction Printer - Copier - Scanner. I have just set it up--haven't copied or scanned anything yet--but I rest amazed at the wonders of modern technology....

Inking in the mothholes

Hugo Williams at the TLS on the poetically inclined Captain Rendall of the Coldstream Guards: so Regency....

Monday, June 19, 2006

Someone came up with a very clever title

for this article....

(Thanks to A. for the link.)

Radical drag

A quick time-out to recommend Jake Arnott's latest, Johnny Come Home. It's blurbed by David Bowie ("Whenever he's got a new book out I drop everything"), and I've now got a serious Bowie/Bolan fit coming on due to this novel's appealing early seventies London gay glam/terrorist scene (seriously, read the book, it's like a much more elegantly written version of James Ellroy crossed with Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist with a bit of Patrick McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto thrown in for luck). Also there is a very good sex scene in Chapter 17. When I ordered it from Amazon UK, I also splurged on the omnibus Long Firm Trilogy, I read them all one by one as they came out so it was strictly speaking unnecessary (more unnecessary than usual, I mean) but it seemed like a good thing to get and save for a rainy day.

(I feel about Arnott somewhat the way I feel about Mark Billingham: very, very good writers doing interesting and often quite beautifully executed versions of genre stuff. I found Arnott's first novel at the public library so that was particularly delightful, it is such a mixed bag what's there on the new books shelf that you really perk up when you get something that's actually high-quality writing: that's also where I first read Neil Gaiman, obviously I knew who he was but I hadn't really read Sandman to speak of & I picked up Neverwhere at random & was just spellbound, what a fun novel--and how delightfully unexpected to get it when it might as well have been something completely undistinguished to while away an hour or two.)

(I never watch movies, but if I had a copy of The Krays to hand I would be popping it into the DVD drive around now....)

Eighteenth-century tidbits #1

From David Hartley's Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, And His Expectations (1749), ("To examine how far the Desires of the Sexes towards each other are of a factitious Nature, and deducible from the Theory of these Papers"):

. . . Young Persons hear and read numberless Things, in this degenerate and corrupt State of human Life, which carry nervous Influences of the pleasurable Kind (be they Vibrations, or any other Species of Motion) to the Organs of Generation. . . . It is usual for these Desires, after some time, to fix upon a particular Object, on account of the apprehended Beauty of the Person, or Perfection of the Mind, also from mutual Obligations, or Marks of Affection, from more frequent Intercourses, &c. after which these Desires suggest, and are suggested by, the Idea of the beloved Person, and all its Associates, reciprocally and indefinitely, so as in some Cases to engross the whole Fancy and Mind. . . . The Theory here proposed for explaining the Nature and Growth of these Desires shews in every Step, how watchful every Person, who desires true Chastity and Purity of Heart, ought to be over his Thoughts, his Discourses, his Studies, and his Intercourses with the World in general, and with the other Sex in particular. There is no Security but in Flight, in turning our Minds from all the associated Circumstances, and begetting a new Train of Thoughts and Desires, by an honest, virtuous, religious Attention to the Duty of the Time and Place. To which must be added great Abstinence in Diet, and bodily Labour, if required.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

One of the outrageous luxuries

of being an academic, at least in the very fortunate version of academia in which I find myself, is that I can spend the day reading Plato's Republic and count it work rather than play.

I hadn't read it properly through since I was a teenager; I was always annoyed when I was a Young Person by the way grownups would tell you very seriously that you couldn't understand Dickens or Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or whoever until you were older & while that then as now seemed to me absolutely ridiculous (there is nothing to stop a sensible fourteen-year-old from reading any of those) I do always feel that the philosophical writings I read while young open themselves up to me far more readily and enjoyably when I come to them again a bit later on in life. (Plus this translation by Tom Griffith is wonderfully good, seems both colloquial and accurate, makes me wish I could read Greek though.)

I am on the whole too frivolous to read a lot of philosophy for fun and yet if you're secretly (as I am) deadly in earnest about reading and thinking and the good life, of course Plato is quite irresistible. Here's a taste, in case you don't have the demented luxurious pleasure of picking up and reading the whole volume yourself:

I imagine someone with a healthy and self-disciplined disposition will awaken the rational part of himself before going to sleep, feast it on fine arguments and enquiries, and so bring himself into a state of harmony with himself. As for his desiring part, he will expose it neither to want nor to excess. He wants it to go to sleep, and not disturb what is best in the soul with its pleasure or pain, but allow it all by itself, solitary and pure, to follow its enquiries and reach out for a vision of something--be it past, present or future--that it does not know. The same goes for the spirited part of the soul. He will calm it down, and avoid getting into a rage with anyone and going to sleep with his spirit in a state of turmoil. Before retiring to rest he needs to pacify two elements in the soul and awaken the third, which is the birthplace of reason. Under these conditions, as you know, he can most easily grasp truth, and the visions which appear in his dreams are least lawless. . . . What we need to know is that there is in everyone a terrible, untamed and lawless class of desires--even in those of us who appear to be completely normal.

(Also and more frivolously I find that the whole bit about forms makes me distractingly think of those Wayne Thiebaud cake paintings; I like them, and yet if I were him I would have just made actual cakes; I read an article a few years ago about an artist who--and Thiebaud was not happy about this, either--baked the cakes from his paintings, it seemed to me slightly pointless and I was also horrified to learn that she didn't make them edible, I could at least see the point if you made them and then put them in a case and had people eat them. Of course this is all quite irrelevant, from the point of view of Socrates the baked cake is an imitation as well as the painting. I also find that when I read twentieth-century philosophers I have the problem of taking their thought-experiments too literally and spinning them off into science-fiction scenarios and rather missing the point....)

There is a passage from the Symposium that is always at the back of my head as an ideal for living (now this is a very personal confession--don't laugh, or at least don't laugh too much), not the exact words so much as the idea: unfortunately the copy I use when I teach it is at the office, and the wording of that Benjamin Jowett translation that's available for free online is not quite so much to the point but I will perhaps give it anyway, it's the charismatic latecomer Alcibiades talking about the wholly unglamorous Socrates and I think that secretly any teacher must want to be something like this:

And now, my boys, I shall praise Socrates in a figure which will appear to him to be a caricature, and yet I speak, not to make fun of him, but only for the truth's sake. I say, that he is exactly like the busts of Silenus, which are set up in the statuaries, shops, holding pipes and flutes in their mouths; and they are made to open in the middle, and have images of gods inside them. I say also that it is like Marsyas the satyr. You yourself will not deny, Socrates, that your face is like that of a satyr. Aye, and there is a resemblance in other points too. For example, you are a bully, as I can prove by witnesses, if you will not confess. And are you not a flute-player? That you are, and a performer far more wonderful than Marsyas. He indeed with instruments used to charm the souls of men by the powers of his breath, and the players of his music do so still: for the melodies of Olympus are derived from Marsyas who taught them, and these, whether they are played by a great master or by a miserable flute-girl, have a power which no others have; they alone possess the soul and reveal the wants of those who have need of gods and mysteries, because they are divine. But you produce the same effect with your words only, and do not require the flute; that is the difference between you and him. When we hear any other speaker, even very good one, he produces absolutely no effect upon us, or not much, whereas the mere fragments of you and your words, even at second-hand, and however imperfectly repeated, amaze and possess the souls of every man, woman, and child who comes within hearing of them. And if I were not afraid that you would think me hopelessly drunk, I would have sworn as well as spoken to the influence which they have always had and still have over me. For my heart leaps within me more than that of any Corybantian reveller, and my eyes rain tears when I hear them. And I observe that many others are affected in the same manner. I have heard Pericles and other great orators, and I thought that they spoke well, but I never had any similar feeling; my soul was not stirred by them, nor was I angry at the thought of my own slavish state. But this Marsyas has often brought me to such pass, that I have felt as if I could hardly endure the life which I am leading (this, Socrates, you will admit); and I am conscious that if I did not shut my ears against him, and fly as from the voice of the siren, my fate would be like that of others,--he would transfix me, and I should grow old sitting at his feet. For he makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul, and busying myself with the concerns of the Athenians; therefore I hold my ears and tear myself away from him. And he is the only person who ever made me ashamed, which you might think not to be in my nature, and there is no one else who does the same. For I know that I cannot answer him or say that I ought not to do as he bids, but when I leave his presence the love of popularity gets the better of me. And therefore I run away and fly from him, and when I see him I am ashamed of what I have confessed to him. Many a time have I wished that he were dead, and yet I know that I should be much more sorry than glad, if he were to die: so that am at my wit's end.

And this is what I and many others have suffered, from the flute-playing of this satyr. Yet hear me once more while I show you how exact the image is, and how marvellous his power. For let me tell you; none of you know him; but I will reveal him to you; having begun, I must go on. See you how fond he is of the fair? He is always with them and is always being smitten by them, and then again he knows nothing and is ignorant of all thing such is the appearance which he puts on. Is he not like a Silenus in this? To be sure he is: his outer mask is the carved head of the Silenus; but, O my companions in drink, when he is opened, what temperance there is residing within! Know you that beauty and wealth and honour, at which the many wonder, are of no account with him, and are utterly despised by him: he regards not at all the persons who are gifted with them; mankind are nothing to him; all his life is spent in mocking and flouting at them. But when I opened him, and looked within at his serious purpose, I saw in him divine and golden images of such fascinating beauty that I was ready to do in a moment whatever Socrates commanded: they may have escaped the observation of others, but I saw them.

I think I must go and read all of Plato's dialogues straight through, I never did it that way (and on a more self-indulgent note, perhaps it's also time for the every-few-years ritual reread of my favorite novels by Mary Renault, in particular The Last of the Wine which I must have read at least ten times when I was a child & which is no doubt partly responsible for my passion for Thucydides).

And in the NYTBR letters section

James Wood offers an interesting defense/clarification of his recent piece on Flaubert:

In their letters to the editor of the Book Review, James Walling (April 30) and Morris Dickstein (May 7) are right to enter their qualifications about my review of Frederick Brown's biography of Flaubert (April 16), but I think a demonstrable case can still be made for Flaubert as a founder of the modern novel - and, as I added in my review, of many kinds of modern narrative. Our indebtedness, whether we like it or not, extends to, among other things: the fetishizing of visual detail; the inverted relation between background and foreground detail (or habitual and dynamic detail); the sacralization of art; the privileging of the music of style over the recalcitrance of 'unmusical' subject matter (Flaubert's famous desire to write a book about nothing); the agonizing over aesthetic labor - all this looks pretty new, and different in many ways from Balzac's great achievements and solutions, not least because these new Flaubertian anxieties cannot be solutions. You might say that Flaubert founds realism and simultaneously destroys it, by making it so aesthetic: fiction is real and artificial at once. And I could have added two other elements of modernity: the refinement of 'free indirect style'; and the relative plotlessness of Flaubert's novels. All this is why different writers - realists, modernists and postmodernists - from Stephen Crane to Ian McEwan, from Kafka to Nabokov to Robbe-Grillet, all owe so much to Flaubert, and have been so keen to lay claim to different novels of his.

I don't at all disagree with Dickstein's caveat that Flaubert's obsession with form, rhythm and 'the sentence' inaugurates a potentially sterile aestheticism; I once wrote an essay, 'Half Against Flaubert,' in which I said exactly that. I also agree that there are wonderfully messy writers like Dreiser and Hardy who, by Flaubertian standards, are beyond the aesthetic pale, and shouldn't be. My claim for Flaubert's primacy wasn't evaluative but factual: personally, I'm of two minds, or two hearts, about Flaubert. Henry James's devoted recoil from Flaubert's aestheticism (the devotion of an aesthete, the recoil of a moralist) seems the right response.

(I will take the opportunity here to say that one thing I learned this year is that my next academic book is almost certainly going to be about realism and the particular detail, so I read this with particular interest: I've got kind of a thing for Flaubert, he's pretty high up on my reread list once I get done with this summer's work....)

A rather wonderful review

in the NYTBR by Harold Bloom of Rebecca Goldstein's 'Betraying Spinoza', a book I definitely want to read (but the review also takes me back to the days of the Bloom Shakespeare seminar I took in grad school, it was quite amazing & I can still in my mind's ear hear him reading Edmund's bastard soliloquy in that flat and yet somehow also quite perspicuous voice, Bloom's way of reading aloud is completely unactorly and yet lets some meaning of the words come through that would be worse served by more eloquent reading); also, Sean Wilsey praises Alison Bechdel's 'Fun Home'.

Friday, June 16, 2006

At the Guardian Review

I am reminded why I have read more books by Ian Rankin than by Orhan Pamuk, what I have to look forward to from the Icelandic crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason (see here for my thoughts on his excellent Jar City) and how fun it is to see a friend's book praised by a worthy critic.

I think I have a favorite book of 2006

and I haven't even finished it yet (common sense kicked in late last night), but it is absolutely beautifully written/drawn and astonishingly literary and yet completely unpretentious and altogether one of the funniest and most striking things I have read in, well, forever: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. It's so Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that I think I must also go and reread that book, which I haven't read since high school; and of all the things I love about it (it's a graphic novel/memoir about Bechdel's father and the enigmas of identity), my absolute favorite is what she's done with the books he's reading in many of the scenes. Absolutely brilliant! Take up and read!

Here's Douglas Wolk's review at Salon (I rarely click through to Salon because of the annoying watch-an-ad-for-a-free-day's-pass thing, but in this case it's worth it, especially because Wolk includes a page from the book so you can see its charms up close & personal); and thanks to The Dizzies for the link and the original recommendation.

At the London Review of Books

John Lanchester on Wal-Mart and an extremely charming essay by Thomas Jones about the early days of home computing:

I soon also took out – or had taken out on my behalf – a subscription to Micro User, a magazine vast swathes of which were entirely incomprehensible to me, but which every month included the code for a BASIC game. The monthly game, and other software, later came free with the magazine on a floppy disk. But if you didn’t have a disk drive, you would have to type in the code for the game yourself. So I would come home from school, settle down at the computer with a plate of Marmite sandwiches, and spend much of the evening, not entirely unlike a medieval monk, absorbed in transcribing pages of code. Peering at the screen through my NHS spectacles for hours on end can’t have done my already poor eyesight any favours.

Shades of the Davidson family's TI99/4A, the unbelievably addictive Munchman and the tragedy of typing in huge long programs in BASIC (programs you didn't really understand, needless to say, and could certainly not have written yourself) and then losing them to some power-related problem (do you remember the wretched cable-and-tape-deck arrangements from those days?)....

Thursday, June 15, 2006

I nurse a not-very-secret passion

for the writings of William Godwin: it's strange, I find him in many ways an absurd and maddening character--he can be completely infuriating, not just occasionally but a lot of the time--and I certainly don't approve of him wholeheartedly in the way I do some other of my favorite eighteenth-century writers and yet he just gets to me.

I've been reading back through The Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin with something near delight (and seriously if I had $840.00 to spare I would so buy those volumes, I have already regretted not buying them before, here are their charming details and in fact Pickering and Chatto offer a 50% discount if you're an academic and the title's in your university library so we're really talking about $420 and yet that still seems more than is sensible, I must just keep on checking the volumes out of library after library).

So: Godwin, not really an admirable character especially in his financially embarrassed later life (and this has nothing to do with what I think about his character, but here are some pictures); there are countless books about Godwin and his circle(s), many of them very good, but one of the first I ever read was William St. Clair's fascinating The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family, and I definitely recommend it if you have a general but not (or not yet--I warn you that they're very compelling) obsessive curiosity about all these people.

Most of what I think about Godwin this time round I must save for my chapter, but it required massive self-restraint not to jump up from the pages & blog his craziest and most striking pronouncements every half an hour. I resisted the urge to stick the volumes full of irrelevant post-its, I am already writing about the broadest questions having to do with character and society and perfectibility and nature and nurture, but I found myself thinking that I must write a non- or at least not-very-academic essay at some point about Godwin and the contours of his thought. (There will certainly not be space in the chapter for this sort of thing.)

Godwin has this strange quality, he is a man of the most compellingly rational intellect--he has a sort of muscular way of thinking that makes you feel as if you are grappling with, oh, a cat that you're trying to pop into a bag--and yet there is a kind of passion and waywardness that makes him go through the chilliest reason to imagination and come out the other side into a strange sunlit forceful rational creativity. He is so cerebral, you can't help but think of his giant brain, and yet really the organ you feel his writing most resembles is a heart, like when you dissect calves' hearts in high-school biology: you can hardly believe their fibrous muscularity. And of course he is seriously interested in education, which is one of my passions.

So I will restrict myself here to a few of Godwin's thoughts on writing and authorship, first of all from an essay titled "Of the Duration of Human Life" in which Godwin suggests that "of the hours that remain when all the necessary demands of human life have been supplied, it is but a portion, perhaps a small portion, that can be beneficially, judiciously, employed in productive literature, or literary composition":

It is true, that there are many men who will occupy eight, ten, or twelve hours in a day, in the labour of composition. But it may be doubted whether they are wisely so occupied.

It is the duty of an author, inasmuch as he is an author, to consider, that he is to employ his pen in putting down that which shall be fit for other men to read. He is not writing a letter of business, a letter of amusement, or a litter of sentiment, to his private friend. He is writing that which shall be perused by as many men as can be prevailed on to become his readers. If he is an author of spirit and ambition, he wishes his productions to be read, not only by the idle, but by the busy, by those who cannot spare time to peruse them but at the expence of some occupations which ought not to be suspended without an adequate occasion. He wishes to be read not only by the frivolous and the lounger, but by the wise, the elegant and the fair, by those who are qualified to appreciate the merit of a work, who are endowed with a quick sensibility and a discriminating taste, and are able to pass a sound judgment on its beauties and defects. He advances his claim to permanent honours, and desires that his lucubrations should be considred by generations yet unborn.


An author ought only to commit to the press the first fruits of his field, his best and choicest thoughts. He ought not to take up the pen, till he has brought his mind into a fitting tone, and ought to lay it down, the instant his intellect becomes in any degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.

Godwin suggests that most writers will be able to spend only two or three hours before the intellect clouds and the author "no longer sports in the meadows of thought, or rvels in the exuberance of imagination, but becomes barren and unsatisfactory," though he supplements this with further thoughts in the succeeding essay titled "Of Human Vegetation":

[T]he intellect cannot always be always on the stretch, nor the bow of the mind for ever bent. In the act of composition, unless where the province is of a very inferior kind, it is likely that not more than two or three hours at a time can be advantageously occupied. But in literary labour it will often occur, that, in addition to the hours expressly engaged in composition, much time may be required for the collecting materials, the collating of authorities, and the bringing together a variety of particulars, so as to sift from the mass those circumstances which may best conduce to the purpose of the writer. In all these preliminary and inferior enquiries it is less necessary that the mind should be perpetually awake and on the alert, than in the direct office of composition.

(It's funny, I have always found something exactly like this to be true, I expect there are exceptions and some writers have superhuman powers of concentration but I find two or three hours of actual writing is the most I can ever manage, I hit about 1500 words if it's fiction or perhaps more like 2000 if it's academic stuff and I'm working from notes and quotations and I can just feel my attention lagging, it's time then to turn to reading and note-taking and editing if it's academic stuff or just general staring-blankly-at-the-wall if it's fiction--one of the reasons I find fiction-writing far more of a torment, that forced downtime/recharging is so boring compared to what you get to do when you're working on a massive academic project!)

And one more piece of sensible advice from Godwin (this is good for novel-writers and dissertation-writers alike--and Godwin is after all one of only a handful of major philosophers who also wrote novels, it is part of his appeal for me, there are philosophers who write like novelists--Hume! Derek Parfit!--but this is a different thing altogether) in an essay that I find equal parts ridiculous and appealing, "Of Self-Complacency":

[I]f we would enter ourselves in the race of positive improvement, if we would become familiar with generous sentiments, and the train of conduct which such sentiments inspire, we must provide ourselves with the soil in which such things grow, and engage in the species of husbandry by which they are matured; in other words, we must be no strangers to self-esteem and self-complacency.


We cannot perform our tasks to the best of our power, unless we think well of our own capacity.

But this is the smallest part of what is necessary. We must also be in good humour with ourselves. We must say, I can do that which I shall have just occasion to look back upon with satisfaction. It is the anticipation of this result, that stimulates our efforts, and carries us forward. Perseverance is an active principle, and cannot continue to operate but under the influence of desire. It is incompatible with languor and neutrality. It implies the love of glory, perhaps of that glory which shall be attributed to us by others, or perhaps only of that glory which shall be reaped by us in the silent chambers of the mind. The diligent scholar is he that loves himself, and desires to have reason to applaud and love himself. He sits down to his task with resolution, he approves of what he does in each step of the process, and in each enquires, Is this the thing I purposed to effect?

In conclusion, to make an already lengthy post even longer, I have been generally virtuous but notaltogether able to resist the call of light reading:

I first heard about Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which turned out to be a remarkably good read, I highly recommend this one--it's written in alternating chapters, boy and girl voices, by the male and female co-authors, and while I found the girl's voice more compelling the counterbalance between the two is extremely appealing) at the very good mostly-young-adult-fiction blog Bookshelves of Doom. And when a copy happened to come my way some weeks later I just sucked it down, what an enjoyable read--it lasted me exactly the Amtrak trip from New York to Philadelphia, it was horribly early last Saturday morning and only a really good book would have kept me from trying to get a little more sleep.... Also I see the book has an ingeniously designed promotional website, go and look and marvel.

And in small bites along with meals (which is singularly inappropriate given its subject matter) I have been consuming the also quite excellent My Sister's Continent by Gina Frangello (Carrie Frye recommended this to me, and she was quite right, it's just the kind of novel I love; it was one of the Litblog Coop picks recently and there's some good stuff at that site). Extremely well-written (it's a sort of reimagining of Freud's Dora case, set in contemporary Chicago--a story of twins), deeply engaging, quite dark in sensibility. Interestingly covers remarkably similar ground to Marcy Dermansky's Twins (here were my thoughts on that book last September, if you scroll down); and yet the two books could not be more different, it is an appealing example of the way writerly temperament or sensibility colors every sentence of a book. (However I will add that though I really, really liked both novels and highly recommend them I now want to read a novel about female twins that does not feature parental abuse, anorexia, etc. etc. and instead depicts them as more or less happy and functional in the way that most people we know in life seem to be! It makes me think the twin thing in most novels is far more a literary conceit than a naturalistic depiction of the particular and peculiar aspects of the relationship between identical twins, this strikes me as a pity. Any recommendations on more realistic twin novels?)

Two particularly good things

in this week's New Yorker, only one of them available online (an excellent essay about the composer Morton Feldman by Alex Ross). For some reason the aesthetic stringency that strikes me as often pretentious or unappealing or too self-consciously difficult in literary avant-garde work (for lack of a better term--I realize "avant-garde" by now has a hilariously musty whiff of the 1950s, or the 1920s for that matter) entirely and overwhelmingly appeals to me in music, I'm not sure why this should be so. The whole piece is worth a read, click on the link, but the work of one of my colleagues this year at the American Academy has sensitized me in particular to the topic of unconventional notation and I was especially struck by this paragraph:

Not long after meeting Cage, Feldman opened up his own compositional Pandora's box, in the form of 'graphic notation,' which did away with the routine of writing notes on staves. One day at Cage's apartment, Feldman produced the first of a series of pieces titled 'Projections,' whose score consisted of a grid of boxes. The player was invited to choose notes within the boxes, which represented high, middle, and low ranges. A subsequent series of works, which began appearing in 1957, specified pitches but allowed the performer to decide when and how long they should be played.

The other essay to look out for is a piece by Oliver Sacks on stereoscopic vision, it's quite wonderful & if you've got the magazine lying around you must pick it up & turn straight to that page (and see also Alice's reflections on the topic) or buy it while it's still on the newsstands or go and read it at the library....

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

My colleague Jim Shapiro

has won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2006 for his book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599! Very exciting. I've had it on the TBR pile for a while, but must move it up to the top (not that prizes really matter, but still): also next week I'm seeing (oh, how appealing) both Lear and Macbeth, so if I read it it will put me in the right mood....

Tune in, turn on, drop out

Ann Marlowe reviews Robert Greenfield's biography of Timothy Leary and B. H. Friedman's Tripping: A Memoir at the New York Observer and finds the first "a powerful argument against the inchoate belief shared by many who have used psychedelics—and I was one—that tripping almost automatically makes you a better, more enlightened person. Though Mr. Greenfield maintains an evenhanded tone, the effect of his accumulation of detail is to show that Timothy Leary was a scumbag—a charming, energetic and inventive scumbag—despite decades of taking LSD."

Human freedom and genetic determinism

Jerry Coyne has an extremely good piece in this week's TLS (no subscription required, do take a look) on the thirtieth anniversary edition of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and the collection of essays titled Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Thing. You know what, I am so just going to go ahead and buy those two (even though of course I already have the non-anniversary Selfish Gene), it is wholly justifiable because it's for my book....

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Trains and blue denim

Yesterday I made a literary pilgrimage, due to the kindness of a generous intermediary, to meet one of my great literary heroes: Albert Murray. I blogged last summer about the last installment of his miraculously enjoyable novel sequence, The Magic Keys, and as sometimes happens the blog post made a connection and helped this visit come about.

Mr. Murray is far on in years, but it was extraordinarily moving to hear him range widely over topics American and anthropological and literary and cultural--casually talking of "Duke" and "Count," can you imagine?!?--all with a view towards thinking about education and human potentiality. And then he read out loud to us passages from The Omni-Americans and from Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers which clearly is a book I must read in the near future.

If you were only going to read one of Murray's books, surely it should be The Seven League Boots, which is a stunning novel & one I am eager to read again (but though I've bought two or three copies over the years I always press them on someone who I think must read it, it is an extremely favorite novel of mine).

I will not soon forget the sound of Mr. Murray's voice and the expression on his face as he read and chuckled wheezily at Mann's humorous faux-Biblical incongruities.

Demented beach reads

(is it really possible to read at the beach?) at the Village Voice. Go and take a look, it's a highly eclectic mix--and here's my take on Lionel Shriver's Double Fault, which I highly recommend:

Photographed kissing the phallic statuette she received when We Need to Talk About Kevin won the 2005 Orange Prize, Shriver wore a look of satisfaction so intense as to verge on impropriety. Now Serpent's Tail has reissued Shriver's 1997 Double Fault, an utterly compelling tale of love and envy in which Willy (short for Wilhelmina) and Eric meet on a Riverside Park court, fall in love, and marry without adequately comprehending the damage their changing national rankings will wreak on this union between two deeply competitive professional tennis players. The short span of an athlete's career means that Willy at 23 considers herself already middle-aged, and a devastating knee injury proves impossible to overcome. Fortunately, making one's mark as a novelist is not subject to the same physiological constraints.

I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin when I read it last year; this novel is perhaps somewhat less accomplished on strictly technical grounds i.e. prose style (see Cressida Connolly's review at the Telegraph, courtesy of Frank Wilson) and yet it's just as compelling, I have found myself thinking of it again and again in the past couple weeks since I first read it.

You do not often read a really good novel about relationships between women and men that addresses the fact of envy and competitiveness, and this book is exceptional on that count. I can hardly think of anything else I've read in recent memory that so closely captures the painful dissatisfactions of being female:

Willy was ordinarily content with her own figure; it was taut and neat. But as Eric approached in the moonlight, she was aware that her breasts, while small, sagged just enough to fail the pencil test. She recited to herself that she was in good shape, that all women have a layer of subcutaneous fat; when Eric put his hands on her waist Willy heard in her head the very phrase, subcutaneous fat. Her own trunk was smooth and bland, with none of those conniving, thinking ripples musing over his chest. Eric sighed as he traced her hip, but Willy found the slight flare too wide and envied him the clean, parallel shoot to the thigh. . . . He smoothed his left hand from her hip to her thigh, teasing his fingers up and inward, and she panicked at what he could possibly find in the absence between her legs that could compete with the whole fifth limb that arced against her stomach. Maybe, in sufficient thrall, it was impossible to imagine that so riveting a sex could conceivably be attracted by one’s own.

Shriver writes exceptionally well here about tennis (and in particular about tennis as a way of laying bare character, she is a great novelist of discipline); she also has a really remarkable summing-up voice, I imagine it will not be to everyone's taste but check out these sentences:

While Willy could no longer cash in on the ‘something special’ that had brought her father to his knees when she was ten, Eric was barreling along on his genetic gravy train. His game seemed to mature by itself. Naturals who are still flourishing on knack alone do not understand, as Willy did not in high school, anyone who fails to grow new skills like fingernails. Too, the athlete who has finished mining the seam of his gift has a dronish aspect, marked by sedulous, painstaking progress, as if scaling a cliff with no chinks for sudden ascent; the precocious find handholds to make breathtaking leaps in a day. It was prettier to be effortless, and she worried that Eric found her monotonous two-hour net drills pathetic.

Below you see a third-person voice doing some of what the first-person narrator in Kevin pulls off so effectively, here Willy is muscling in on her husband's rope-jumping fitness sessions in a squash court at the health club & feeling herself slipping behind him & being overcome with a surge of negative emotions (the "zwieback" reference is to his high-scoring Scrabble word in a game Willy mistakenly thought she might win):

She hated his self-righteously sweaty clothes,s he hated his smarmily perfect body, she hated his fancy-schmancy exhibitionist theatrics raised to a power just because a lot of nobody pseudo-sportsmen were gooning at him. In a spreading tide of anathemas, she hated his priggish recitation of who won the Italian in 1963, his look-at-me-I’m-so-dedicated posing in front of tournament videos with a pen and pad, his chuckling superiority slipping out of those zwieback tiles when he’d merely lucked into the Z, and most of all she hated his conceited, swaggering upper-class assumption that just because he deigned to pick up a tennis racket at eighteen he could sashay into the pantheon of her profession when she’d been busting her ass since she was five.

And one more, with a very characteristic swerve of ethical-imaginative sympathies at the end (it's this that makes Willy someone we care about rather than someone we find absurd) (oh, and the reference is to a fancy meal earlier in the book in which Eric is brought the 'man's' menu with prices that Willy's lacks):

For Willy had never understood whether you could be held responsible for your own emotions. As far as she could discern, circumstance had dealt them discrepant menus as the waiter had at Lutèce. Rather than lack prices, Willy’s listed different entrées: rancid resentment, gristly consternation, and prickly spite, all with an aftertaste of self-reproach--a sort of collective squab. After swallowing her pride, Willy’s only just dessert was humble pie. Meanwhile, Eric’s menu cataloged an emotional haute cuisine: tender solicitation, sweet concern, and creamy largess. In fact, she wondered if Eric himself wearied of his princely diet, got full to his eyeballs with his own decency, and coveted her shrieking fits. He was an aggressive, complicated man. Nobility and forbearance morning to night must have bound him like a woman’s corset.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Membership libraries

Anne Eisenberg at the NYT on one alternative to the public library system. I love the free public libraries (I am really a child of the public library, I keep meaning to find some way to get involved with a local library here in a time-and-money benefactorish way but it hasn't happened quite yet), but I also feel the world has room for more alternatives to supplement them: I am still waiting for there to be something like Netflix only for brand-new hardcover novels....

Nineteenth-century ninjas

Jane Yeh has a very funny review of Boris Akunin's latest at the Voice:

Bestsellers in their homeland, the Fandorin novels have made author Grigory Chkhartishvili a celebrity. Formerly an unknown academic specializing in Japanese literature, Chkhartishvili chose his nom de plume ('B. Akunin') as a nod to the 19th-century anarchist and philosopher Mikhail Bakunin. But apart from the occasional name check of Pushkin or Tolstoy, the series has few intellectual pretensions, instead offering straightforward detective thrills in a period setting. In Fandorin, Akunin too often relies on genre cliches like catchphrases (the sleuth enumerates clues by announcing, 'That is one,' 'That is two,' etc.) and character tics (he has a stammer). Still, The Death of Achilles is Akunin's paciest work yet�if perhaps his most ludicrous. Already a master of disguise, Fandorin now wields throwing stars and nunchakus, practices jujitsu and calligraphy, and is accompanied throughout by a faithful Japanese manservant/sidekick named Masa. Who knew 1880s Russia was so ninja-tastic?

Friday, June 09, 2006

I want to read

the collection of essays titled Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think (is it just me, or is that subtitle a bit awkward?); here's Nicholas Wade's review for the New York Times.

A photographer's memoir

reviewed by Andrew Motion at the Guardian: it sounds strikingly well-written, and also includes descriptions of being sent to boarding school at age three and sex with his mother in his late teens. The book is Michael Ward's Mostly Women; looks like Amazon UK only?

William Empson's letters

selected and edited by John Haffenden and reviewed by Matthew Creasy at

Two days after she gave birth to a child by her lover, Peter Duval Smith, poet and critic William Empson wrote to his wife:

My dearest Hetta,
Very glad to hear that all went well. I shall come home next Thursday 13th, and will visit you on the Friday (if they allow that, as they presumably do; no doubt Helena will know). Helena wrote and told me how things were going, also that she was improving Jacob's Latin.

Much love, and I am glad you are happy.

Lego mash-ups

Michael Chabon on Lego then and now:

By the late nineties, when we bought that first Indian set, abstraction was dead. A full-blown realism reigned supreme in the Legosphere. Legos were sold in kits that enabled one to put together, at fine scales, in detail made possible by a wild array of odd-shaped pieces, precise replicas of Ferrari Formula 1 racers, pirate galleons, jet airplanes. Lego provided not only the standard public-domain play environments supplied to children by toy designers of the past fifty to one hundred years�the Wild West, the middle ages, jungle and farm and city street--but also a line of licensed Star Wars kits, the first of many subsequent ventures into trademarked, conglomerate-owned, pre-imagined environments derived from movies and other media. Instead of the printed booklets I remembered, featuring suggestions for the kinds of things one might want to try to make from his or her box of squares and rectangles, the new kits came encumbered with fat, abstruse, wordless manuals laying out, panel after numbered panel and page after page, the steps that must be followed if one hoped--and after all, why else would you nudge your dad into buying it for you?--to arrive, in the end, at a landspeeder just like Luke Skywalker's (only smaller). Where Lego building had once been an open-ended, exploratory kind, it now had far more in common with puzzle-solving, a process of moving incrementally toward a ideal, pre-established solution.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The spirit of competition

Lionel Shriver on romantic partnership and competition at the Daily Mail. (Link via Return of the Reluctant.) It's the backstory to her excellent novel Double Fault, to be re-released in the US & the UK later this summer. (I've got more to say about the book but won't do so until the short review I wrote a few weeks ago is in print.)


Hmmm, this may be a bit too X-rated for what is on the whole a mostly PG-13ish or R-rated blog (barring occasional excursions into Heather Lewis, Ken Bruen et al.), but Christopher Hitchens at Vanity Fair on the sex act that's as American as apple pie is worth a read. (Thanks to the New York Observer's guide to highbrow oral sex reportage.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Tinned pineapple and glace cherries

It is an absurdity, but this paragraph in Trev Broughton's piece at the TLS on the novelist Elizabeth Taylor's relentless Englishness made my mouth water in nostalgic sympathy:

Food, in Taylor's fictions, becomes a battleground as well as an index of character. When, in A View of the Harbour, the successful novelist and chaotic housewife Beth accuses her husband of belittling her work ('an irritating and rather shameful habit'), she clinches the argument, and confounds her spouse, by adding triumphantly that there is nothing else to eat: 'The junket has not set and there is no cheese'. In a Summer Season's housekeeper, Mrs Meacock, has learnt her culinary skills from an American family: 'it was rare for a dish of meat to go to the dining-room without its rings of tinned pineapples'; she embellishes her glamorous whips, souffles and mousses with ostentatious glace cherries. Her spare time is devoted to compiling an anthology of 'Five Thousand and One Witty and Humorous Sayings': 'such a contented woman', thinks her self-absorbed employer, 'dividing her enthusiasm between puddings and literary work'. Despite the consoling omnipresence of cigarettes, fish and chips, and the 'desultory' biscuits served up to unwanted guests, to read Taylor's fiction is to encounter a vivid cultural history of the post-war English pudding. Julia feeds her sickly son arrowroot mould, but likes to get her recipes from good literature. She accommodates to wartime austerities by serving up baked apples from Villette. A Masonic ladies' night in the 1960s, in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, features a dessert named for the hostess: 'Peches Denise' turns out to be 'half a tinned peach sitting on sherry-soaked sponge cake'. The 1970s see the rise of petits fours and foreign cheese, of cheesecake smuggled in from the delicatessen, of ice cream in the freezer.

I am still fond of making luridly iced cupcakes, and when I was little my very favorite job at my English grandmother's house was decorating the sherry trifle: you blobbed on spoonfuls of whipped cream, then dotted each little mound with a slice of green angelica, a quarter of a glace cherry and two slivers of blanched almond (this was the ritual, sometimes disrupted if one of the ingredients had run short but otherwise impervious to alteration--also kept in the same tin were sugared violets and various other bits and bobs, some of which later ended up at my mother's house, things like the little cardinals and toadstools and so on that you prodded down into the icing-and-marzipan layer on top of a Christmas cake). The idea of these English sweets has me in their thrall, it is not that I actually want to eat them (I really don't like sherry trifle, I don't like custard or sherry and I only like cake insofar as it is an icing delivery system) but that things like iced gems were a once-every-two-years-when-we-went-to-England treat and accordingly quite irresistible though intrinsically rather cardboard/food-coloringy....

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The human voice

Anne Karpf's new book excerpted at the Guardian:

Apart from humans, birds' vocalisations are vastly more complex and precisely modulated than those of any other animal. Most remarkably, songbirds too learn from experience. Some songbirds even have 'dialects' - defined, localised, particular acoustic features that are culturally transmitted. And songbirds come to use their voices only if they're exposed to the communicative signals of adults of their species. Just as human infants who don't hear the human voice or speech don't develop normal vocal capacities of their own, so songbirds raised in isolation produce abnormal 'isolate' songs.

On Trying to Keep Still

Just finished reading Jenny Diski's latest book, On Trying to Keep Still (UK release only, as far as I can tell); it's not perfect, but it's that something almost better than perfect that her books so often are (intelligent, grumpy, always stimulating, extremely funny, flawed/human--she reminds me very much of Rebecca West).

For some reason Diski's writing creates in me the feeling of a special affinity, though I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it's just one of her talents & all her readers feel like that. In any case this book is just up my alley, travel writing by someone who prefers to stay at home reading in bed (and she goes to visit the Sami people in Lapland, my obsession; even her freezing-coldness--and, worse, her words of scorn for Swedish-tourism-for-rich-people & the ice hotel--cannot stop me from desperately wanting to go to the ice hotel, apparently if you get too cold you can move into a regular heated cabin though I feel that I would never forgive myself for copping out; Diski admits to feeling "a faint flutter of thrill" on these moonlit journeys over ice, although she claims that her sense of adventure is a segment of herself "as thin as a slice of proscuitto" and her description of the awfulness of having to go outside to pee when you are female and spending the night in a nightmarishly frigid and sort-of-open-to-the-air reindeer tent is truly horrifying).

(NB the next book I must read now has been sitting here for a while & has now jumped to top of queue on basis of Diski reindeer scenes, Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People.)

Anyway, here are some of my favorite passages from the book, which is a collection of linked essays (of somewhat variable quality--perhaps the one that works best as a self-standing piece is "On anatomy," they're all really rather captivating though) written during Diski's year of trying to keep still and mentally idle, a year in which the search for idleness and stillness nonetheless took her to New Zealand, Lapland and (almost more extreme than the others--two months in a cottage...) the English countryside.

On bungee-jumping:

For most of the history of the world, it has been the goal of humanity to attempt to get up into the air and stay there for as long as possible. Up was always the desired direction. The Babel builders wanted the heavens not the depths. Up. The big idea of Daedalus was to fly, not to fall. Up. Icarus may seem to be the patron saint of freefall, but at the time of his maiden flight he was a tragic failure. We looked at the birds with envy, longing to find a way to emulate them, not at the nasty mess under the tree that was all that remained of an incautious monkey that had been trying to make its way amongst the branches of the canopy. Apes were so pleased to get on to solid ground that they stood up on two feet and beame hominids capable of clapping their hands and dancing a jig of happiness. Only the desperate jumped from great heights, and they expected to do it just the once.

From an essay "On taking walks" (which might more aptly have been titled "On not going for walks"):

The exhortation of others works wonders of indolence on me. Fresh air, nature in its season or the adrenalin rush of the inner city, when pressed on me, though I don't doubt their charms and excitements, make me shrink in my chair, wishing the room smaller, the windows shaded, the chair deeper, the door locked. Leave me alone, was, I think, born with me, my invisible twin, before language, when company was nothing but an incoherent threat of alteration. Leave me alone must have been my embryonic remonstration with whom-or-what-ever it may concern about the whole damn bother and dislocation of being born, and it stuck. I was not born idle, I was foetally idle. I can imagine with a clarity far more piercing than memory the dreadful initial interruption that signalled the end of my perfect, timeless, still existence. I like small rooms; I love to float and hate to swim--I am temperamentally suited to uterine life.

Here's an opening salvo from the essay appealingly titled "On spiders and respect for sheep" (this one I totally sympathize with, I always feel like this though I know it's completely irrational):

Being really alone means being free from anticipation. Even to know that something is going to happen, that I am required to do something is an intrusion on the emptiness I am after. What I love to see is an empty diary, pages and pages of nothing planned. A date, an arrangement, is a point in the future when something is required of me. I begin to worry about it days, sometimes weeks ahead. Just a haircut, a hospital visit, a dinner party. Going out. The weight of the thing-that-is-going-to-happen sits on my heart and crushes the present into non-existence. My ability to live in the here and now depends on not having any plans, on there being no expected interruption. I have no other way to do it. How can you be alone, properly alone, if you know someone is going to knock at the door in five hours, or tomorrow morning, or you have to get ready and go out in three days' time? I can't abide the fracturing of the present by the intrusion of a planned future.

That last sentence is amazingly good, isn't it? "I can't abide the fracturing of the present by the intrusion of a planned future." Hmmm....

And I am left with the picture of Diski irritably giving in and sweeping (with a broom, dustpan and brush left int he corner) the autumn leaves off the flags of a "redundant" church in the countryside near that cottage:

I really hoped no one would come in and see me. It was an act of tidiness, but to someone coming through the door I would look like a devout parishioner dusting and arranging the flowers at her local church. It would appear to be an act for God whereas it was actually an act for neatness. Which was bad enough. A human taking a hand in the battle of nature versus indoors. Sweeping away the leaves in this redundant church was an obsessively human act. I wouldn't have wanted it either misunderstood or even simply witnessed. I would not have wanted anyone to think that I was either giving thanks or tidying up. I do so hate the idea of being good.

On an unrelated note, posting will probably be lightish round here in the next couple weeks; I've got a fiendishly huge amount of work-related reading to do, I firmly and puritanically plan on reading very few novels though I expect I will give in once or twice a week and read one anyway. Puritanical discipline will be needed; in fact I've got only twelve weeks or so to write all the rest of my book about breeding & nature & nurture in the eighteenth century and revise the manuscript for a mid-September submission date, which will mean working like a maniac all summer. Fortunately there is really nothing I enjoy more than reading and writing like a maniac; but I expect the blog will suffer. In any case I can't write about the real work stuff as I come to it, it takes the edge off the writing, but I expect I will come across various funny passages that can't get squeezed into the chapter (I've got about 15 eighteenth-century books about horse-breeding, for instance) and that accordingly may make an appearance here if I find them irresistible. So I'm not planning on vanishing, just more short posts with links and fewer long ones like this.