Friday, September 29, 2006

New pieces up at the London Review of Books

include Paul Myerscough's reflections on Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's film Zidane, which sounds a fascinating exercise in point-of-view):

The film is 90 minutes long, a real-time record of a single football match made with 17 cameras placed at different vantage points in the Bernabéu, all of them trained exclusively on Zidane. We see the kick-off on a television monitor; but the film camera immediately draws nearer to pick out Zidane, who blurs and dissolves as the frame narrows still further; his gait and monk-pattern baldness are easy to recognise even as he fragments into countless green, red and blue pixels. The point is made: the galáctico, like any modern celebrity, is available to us only through his mediation, and the more pervasive his image, the more frustratedly we recognise that he remains finally opaque, unreachable. The film begins and ends with a neat ideogram, a superimposition of the letters of Zidane’s name: the effect of his total presence is to obscure him completely.

This may be the idea the film starts out with; it is not what makes it compelling. Watching Zidane at work in this way is an extraordinary experience. He is in possession of the ball for only a tiny fraction of the game, a total of perhaps two minutes or less. Much of what he does in those two minutes is exhilarating. In one moment, he leaps and curves his body in the air to catch a long, high ball at his midriff, killing its speed so that it drops to the turf at his feet; in another, he feints to cross the ball with his left foot and in the same motion releases it in the opposite direction with his right; again and again, he carries the ball at speed into the heart of Villarreal’s defence, guarding and propelling it with delicate touches as the defenders back-pedal before him. These sudden bursts of movement – in which Zidane, however frantic the activity around him, retains an absolute poise – are the only moments when the action of the game coincides with what we see. Between times, we watch him as he stalks the field, tracking the ball and waiting.

A life given up to fiction

Ian Brunskill has a thoughtful piece on Gunter Grass's memoir at the TLS.

I am rather in love

with Hardy in any case but this bit of Claire Tomalin's new biography excerpted at the Guardian pretty much clinches it. Here's a taste:

He liked to work in old clothes, and particularly a pair of trousers that went back to the turn of the century and which he mended himself with string. He also kept an ancient shawl, crocheted from fawn or beige wool, to put over his shoulders, and sometimes his head too, against the cold. There was an open fire, laid but not lit by the maid because he liked to get it going himself. No other heat, since neither gas nor electricity had reached Max Gate, and light was provided by oil lamps. No telephone, although one was installed downstairs in 1920, which he refused to answer. In the same year the house acquired a wireless set, of which Wessex, his dog, became so passionately fond that Hardy sometimes got up early and went down in his long night-shirt and short dressing-gown to turn it on for him. He slept in an unheated bedroom and had his hot water brought up in jugs. His second wife Florence would join him for early morning tea at 7.45, coming through the dressing room between their rooms.

My English grandfather (1910-2004) had an amazing anecdote about Thomas Hardy: when Hardy died in 1928, there was an immense funeral in Westminster Abbey, and my grandfather illicitly took the day off school to go to it and pay his respects (the story has more details that I don't remember: him helping an old Dorset relative of Hardy's into a seat in the pew?). The thing I find extraordinary, of course, is to think of Hardy as living so long into the twentieth century. But then you can feel very close to the past this way: my grandmother's grandfather was a Unitarian minister at the church in Cross Street, Manchester at the same time as Elizabeth Gaskell's husband. Strange thoughts about English literature!

(Oh, and as someone who hates shopping, I like the idea of someone saying about my fifty-years-from-now future self--supposing I live so long, and that anybody in any case cares what clothes I would wear which is singularly unlikely--that I wore a pair of trousers dating back to the last century which I mended with string! Though I think string is not so useful with current fashions for mending purposes; duct tape, more likely....)

Margaret Atwood

has a funny mini-essay at the Guardian Review about her ill-fated book-signing invention. I still feel that the practical-joke element of the invention outweighs its more obvious forms of practicality; I think it must be chalked up in the column of things where hoax can't be disentangled from serious intent.

Airplane reading

is not for me at all a disparaging term; I find myself mentally "saving" certain books up for long trips, there is no good bringing/buying a pile of short books on one's travels and what you need is books that are long and also very entertaining (more or less Dickensian if possible). Plane trips are the circumstance in other words where a Robert Ludlum novel would suddenly become more appealing light reading than a Dick Francis.

Sometimes you buy the book in advance and keep it in reserve (Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon once got me through a long weekend of travel, it was excellent--good book in its own right of course, but conveniently immensely long....); then alternately aside from the length question there's the keeping-in-reserve of books that are interesting enough to be desirable but popular enough to be potentially purchasable even in an inadequate airport newstand-type bookstore (the one I've got in mind for this is Bill Buford's Heat, I would like to read it not too long from now but I think it's a sensible kind of thing to expect to find at some moment when I'm really, really strongly in need of a good book with not a lot of options for procuring one--non-fiction often works this way for me, I remember jumping on Augusten Burroughs' two memoirs in the actually quite good little bookstore in South Station in Boston and reading them both on the train to New York--not good value for money, exactly, but very enjoyable reading and the expense is allowable under the circumstances).

Anyway I've been reading reviews of this one with great interest, and
Donald Morrison's FT review of Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games is the clincher:

This is a blockbuster in every sense: 5lbs in weight, 900 pages, more subplots than Shakespeare, more themes than Tchaikovsky, more dead bodies than Highgate, more history than Gibbon, more characters than - well, Chandra’s other novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain.


Cancer vixen tells all

Toni Schlesinger on Marisa Acocella's graphic memoir Cancer Vixen at the New York Observer.

On blogging and book reviewing

A great post at Critical Mass describing the other day's event on blogging and book reviewing at Housing Works. I wish I could have been there, but I've been much too busy--too busy even to blog, which is very busy indeed, I always usually have time for a quick post--more posting later this evening, I think, I must indulge in a little frivolous book stuff before plunging back into work.

I'm interested in the relationship between the two activities, obviously. Blogging for me is pure pleasure; book reviewing is also a pleasure but the kind of pleasure that's more like work, you have to steel yourself to sit down and write the thing but the rewards are different (complementary, to some extent) and in some ways greater. Blogging is more process-driven, reviewing more product-: by which I mean to say that the intellectual & other benefits of the former come to me by way of its more-or-less dailiness (like running or yoga!), whereas writing a book review is like going to a one-off workshop that comes with its own particular payoff independent of other reading and writing activities.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lydia Millet on Alice Munro

at the Globe and Mail. She puts her finger on exactly the thing that was on my mind the other day--here's the meat of the piece:

As the Grande Dame of Canadian realism, Munro is widely and rightly admired, both nationally and internationally, for the care of her craft, the economy of her sentences and the dignified reserve of her characterizations. She's been virtually canonized by literary institutions in Canada and the United States and has been boldly called, by the more recently canonized American realist Jonathan Franzen, among others, the best living writer in North America.

And of course, it is realism that reigns supreme, in Canada and the United States, though probably not in Europe, as the most popular and legitimate literary style. And yet -- and yet -- given that what Munro does, she does with immaculate precision -- why always, with such a richness of skill, this insistent choice on the purely personal, the proximate world of the self and its near relations? In the cosmology of this world, the personal, social world, the individual is seen delicately negotiating a balance with friends and family: Her journey is the steady sun around which all planets revolve.

Surely the vast universe beyond the minutely personal is also of some little interest. There is, of course, often a backdrop. Munro, for instance, loves the land, loves her region within it, and comes to the land in her prose with knowledge, deliberation and devotion. Still, the land is a setting primarily for a specific subset of us, for the foibles and discoveries and preoccupations of the social self. And in the broader, dominant literary culture of realistic and personal fictions, a culture where Munro tends to lead and others to follow, the land often drops away entirely in favour of a massive foreground of people with problems.

These problems are rarely starvation or war; they tend to be adultery or career disappointment, say, which leaves us with a literary culture whose preoccupation is not meaning or beauty, not right or wrong, not our philosophies or propensity for atrocities or corrupt churches and governments, but rather our sex lives, our social mistakes, our neighbourhood failures and sibling rivalries. Enlightenment humanism finds a kind of perfect expression here: If our deliberations about our personal lives, consisting of a near-infinite scrutiny of the tiny passages through which we move in relation to friends and lovers, constitutes the best calling of art, must such self-scrutiny not also be our own highest calling and rightful task?

And if this self-scrutiny is the chief work of our lives, does the rest of existence not drop neatly away? It may be worth asking simply whether, in a culture where mainstream society is already wholly consecrated to the worship of self, literary culture should be consecrated to the same faith.

(Seriously, although the style is very different from mine, and I also somewhat disagree about the appropriateness of the term Enlightenment humanism in this context, this is so much exactly that I think that I really feel almost as though I wrote it myself! Thanks to Ed for the link.)

Because I am an absolute fanatic

for the novels of Dick Francis, I am pasting in this little essay in its entirety. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.) It's up at the Penguin site, and it's really rather touching. I don't know what it is with these books, but I have an almost unmatched fixation on their charms--I am very, very glad he decided to write another novel:

In August 2000, as I approached my eightieth birthday, Mary, my wife, and I decided that after 38 novels, a collection of short stories and two biographies, it was time to call it a day and retire from writing.

Mary and I had always worked on the books together. She was brilliant at the research and had the uncanny knack of asking the right questions to get the information we needed. She learnt all sorts of new skills in the pursuit of knowledge for the stories; she became a pilot for Flying Finish and Rat Race; she took up photography for Reflex and painting for In The Frame. We would discuss the plot every night and she would read through the pages and polish the prose. And so it had been for nearly forty years with a new book every autumn. Now it was time for a rest. But sadly, just a month after we took the decision, Mary suddenly died. Our rest in retirement together was non existent and I was left alone.

It was not a happy time for me and, despite the best intentions of my family and friends, I was suddenly very lonely. They say that time cures, and it does in so far that the raw pain of grief slowly diminishes, but time alone does not heal the hole that exists in the heart, the void that can only be filled by the presence of someone you love. Then, in April last year I was invited to speak at an event in Maryland and to attend the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase. I was a house guest of Charlie Fenwick, the American jockey who won the Grand National on Ben Nevis in 1980. Another of his guests was a lady from Virginia called Dagmar Cosby. We had a wonderful weekend in spite of the incessant rain and, for the first time in sixty years, I fell in love. At last, the void was closed.

Felix, my younger son, had tried often to get me to agree to write another book. He said that he would do the research and act for me in the way that his mother had done. Finally, with my life now more complete again, I agreed, and the result is Under Orders, the first Dick Francis novel for six years and one that many people, including me, thought would never be.

Felix and I have greatly enjoyed producing Under Orders. In this story I return to the racecourse and the current steeplechasing scene. My character Sid Halley returns after an eleven year absence (but he’s not much older than he was when he first appeared in Odds Against in 1965). This is the fourth Dick Francis novel in which Sid Halley, the one handed ex-jockey turned private detective, is the main character.

In Under Orders, Sid is asked to investigate the murder of a top steeplechase jockey, gunned down in broad daylight during the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Was the killing something to do with race fixing or is there some other explanation?

Someone once asked me why I always write books about horses. I replied that I don’t; I write books about people. Horses may always be in there somewhere but it is the people who act out the story on the page; it is the people who provide the characterisation; and it is the people who are the goodies and the baddies. The horses and the racing world merely act as the canvas upon which the story is drawn. To say that Dick Francis novels are all about horses is like saying that Gone With The Wind is all about the American Civil War, or Billy Elliot is all about the miners’ strike.

(If you're curious, here's the digest of previous Dick Francis posts at Light Reading.)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The hero his own historian

From William Godwin's account of the composition of Caleb Williams (1794), given in the preface to the 1832 Standard Novels edition of another of his fictions:

I began my narrative, as is the more usual way, in the third person. But I speedily became dissatisfied. I then assumed the first person, making the hero of my tale his own historian; and in this mode I have persisted in all my subsequent attempts at works of fiction. It was infinitely the best adapted, at least, to my vein of delineation, where the thing in which my imagination revelled the most freely, was the analysis of the private and internal operations of the mind, employing my metaphysical dissecting knife in tracing and laying bare the involutions of motive, and recording the gradually accumulating impulses, which led the personages I had to describe primarily to adopt the particular way of proceeding in which they afterwards embarked.

When I had determined on the main purpose of my story, it was ever my method to get about me any productions of former authors that seemed to bear on my subject. I never entertained the fear, that in this way of proceeding I should be in danger of servilely copying my predecessors. I imagined that I had a vein of thinking that was properly my own, which would always preserve me from plagiarism. I read other authors that I might see what they had done, or more properly, that I might forcibly hold my mind and occupy my thoughts in a particular train, I and my predecessors travelling in some sense to the same goal, at the same time that I struck out a path of my own, without ultimately heeding the direction they pursued, and disdaining to enquire whether by any chance it for a few steps coincided or did not coincide with mine.

David Greybeard and the grass tool

would be a good name for a children's book, only perhaps a little too enigmatic: Jane Goodall has coffee with the FT.

Amazing to me

that they still make guys like this (amazing in a good way), you would think Sir Ranulph Fiennes (the interview is by Nicole Jackson) was from a novel by Nicholas Blake (a.k.a. Cecil Day-Lewis) or Margery Allingham:

Supper is our biggest meal. Three times a week I have tinned tuna or sardines with granary bread, soaked in my personal salad dressing - 50 per cent olive oil, 50 per cent apple cider vinegar and some mixed herbs. And, much to Louise's disapproval, I like to have a dollop of mayonnaise as a finishing touch. Louise will make a big plate for me and a medium-sized plate for her. I can run it off, you see. I go for a big run every other day, usually about 16 miles. A couple of years ago I did my seven marathons in seven days. It was only four months after my heart attack and I nearly gave up in Singapore. I was in the ambulance and somebody brought in a mug of sweet tea and I suddenly felt better.

I used to have lots of tipples until Louise got hold of me. My favourite has always been Talisker malt whisky, which is funny as I ended up taking part in a trek arranged by them. That was wonderful as I was able to quaff Talisker and eat blue cheese and chocolate right under Louise's nose. I have to be careful with what I drink nowadays. Louise thinks even a moderate amount of red wine is too much. I disagree!

Male voices and orangeade

Tim Adams has a fascinating piece at the Observer on David Profumo's memoir of his parents, Bringing the House Down:

Profumo's book, published after his father's death, succeeds on many levels. It restores context to a story that has so long had a life of its own. And it offers a measured and affecting insight into what it was like to be a seven-year-old boy in the eye of the original tabloid storm. (The first he really heard of it was the 'disconcerting, deep sway of male voices' beneath his bedroom window: a scrum of photographers waiting for dawn. Later that month, he came downstairs in his pyjamas only 'to see a man from the crowd attempting to force his way through our front door', while the butler, Bustie, tried to lock it. He recalls his mother shouting in her most dramatic tones: 'Leave us alone or my man will give you blows!')

He did not know what any of this was about until he was removed one morning from his prep school to discover his parents in the office of the headmistress eating sandwiches with their crusts cut off. He drank an orangeade while his mother explained: 'Daddy's decided to stop being a politician. He told a lie in the House of Commons, so now we're going to have a little holiday in the country. All together. Now, doesn't that sound fun?' That was pretty much that until he was 13 and a school bully at Eton informed him of the more salacious details of the story.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Spies redux

William Boyd at the Guardian on the psychology of the double agent. It's a nice piece, ruminative rather than essayistic and more thoughtful and perceptive than this sort of short journalistic bit usually ends up being (there is a tendency for these things to become too pat; Boyd resists). I really am looking forward to Boyd's new novel Restless (oh, good, I see it is already available at Amazon though not officially pub'd till October--but I must wait to buy it until I've read some of the things I've already got lying around, including today's exciting arrival).

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A nice surprise today

A colleague tipped me off to a short but very positive review of my book Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness in the journal Common Knowledge:

Davidson romps through the eighteenth century as if it were her own private preserve. Her vast command of its literature and history, itself a source of pleasure to this reader, is put to use in demonstrating that politeness and manners served hypocritical aims, principally the subjugation of servants and women. Davidson places greater emphasis on dissimulation than on breach of trust in her definition of hypocrisy, and she seems to follow Machiavelli's view that in power (dependency) relationships honesty is not to be found on either side. This premise leads her to interesting perspectives on manners and to complex illustrations of the way society develops language to deal with the problem that telling the truth can be uncivil. Point counter point, Davidson pits one text against another to display the eighteenth-century arguments, with Mary Wollstonecraft's shining so brightly that it illuminates gender discrimination even today. This book does not shed any light on hypocrisy itself, however, or why, despite its long-standing bad reputation, it has proven to be so durable and so necessary.

Good, eh? I see that Kris has recently published on hypocrisy in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, I must take a look. I feel I have not said everything I want to about hypocrisy, but also (as I often think--switching back and forth between modes gives you better leverage on a topic) that next time round I might approach it by way of a novel rather than a monograph....


Michael Saler has a very good piece on John le Carre at the TLS.

Took the night off work

to see a play--Bruce Norris's "The Pain and the Itch" at Playwrights Horizons--theatergoing is good for the soul, for my soul at least (assuming a reasonably decent play). This one's interesting--the writing is excellent, and it's a very good production too (beautiful set!)--and yet I found myself thinking about why plays and novels whose dominant mode is satire are not in the end suited to my tastes. At the intermission you could hear everyone saying with horror and admiration "I know people exactly like that"--and it's true, one of the characters in particular reminded me of someone I know. And yet it is not the whole person you know, it is that person at her most irritable and unsympathetic and awful and blindly self-absorbed--so that though the play itself is really very gripping to watch, very enjoyable, you miss in the end the sense of empathy elicited by a play perhaps less forcefully intelligent yet more human in its affiliations. Interesting--and yes, there is no doubt that people do pass off a lot of bad behavior in the name of protecting the children, but still--the most touching moment in the play involves the rather nightmarish plastic-surgeon brother of the awful male protagonist helping his just-thrown-up-after-drinking-too-much-malt-liquor-from-the-mini-mart inapproprately young Eastern European girlfriend back into her blister-inducing boots (in a nice touch, she makes sure to put the remaining cans of malt liquor into her handbag) with genuine gentleness--I could have used a bit more of even that twisted kindness.

A very good dinner afterwards, with conversation about Locke and Hume and long-distance running, only I have one passionate sentiment: why, oh why do these very nice New York restaurants with good sensibilities and fairly delicious food think it a good idea to make fruit crumbles in those wretched creme brulee dishes? The two are completely different things, I see why you might want to maximize the surface area of creme brulee (crunchiness) in a large flat dish--though really they are twice the size they should be, proportions very saucerish--but really crumble is a deep-dish phenomenon, the idea of crumble is 90% fruit with, you know, a thin sprinkling of crumble on top, not this whole flattened-out half-and-half-layered thing that mars even good ingredients (i.e. not inappropriately bland and sweet--this strawberry-rhubarb one was otherwise quite reasonable, and having pistachios in the crumble seems to me more or less reasonable though possibly unnecessary).

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Quirk Grammar

could be a Robert Ludlum title, only perhaps not quite--in any case, David Crystal has a great list of his top ten favorite books on the English language at the Guardian. Hmmm, it would cost a fortune to buy all those--their textbook/referenceness makes books on language almost prohibitively expensive--but I do want to read the ones I haven't.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

It is probably a foolish desire

but I do want to read Hannibal Rising! Mmmmm.... I am having novel-reading deprivation this last few weeks, if I can possibly spare a day sometime later this month I am going to sit down and very determinedly read five books for pleasure and then breathe a sigh of relief and return to work. Not sure if this is actually feasible--probably not.

In this week's NYRB

Charles Simic praises Daniel Mendelsohn's new book; Joyce Carol Oates admires Claire Messud's fiction (not online, but it's a good essay about her earlier work as well as the new one); and an interesting long essay about Dick Cheney by Joan Didion.

I've always been neutral to negative on the early Didion, I find that persona of the essays so neurasthenic and self-absorbed as to be almost unreadable, but it's a long time since I've read her seriously and I've been meaning to take her stuff up again and see what I think now (the attractive Everyman edition of her collected nonfiction recently came my way and I'm definitely going to try and get to it soon).

She totally got me with this essay and then lost me again: there was a sentence so good I sat up and really started paying attention (she's close-reading something Cheney said about the separation of powers--"There are some recognizable Cheney touches here," she writes, "resorts to the kind of self-deprecation (as in 'I didn't like the East' and 'I flunked the interview') that derives from a temperamental grandiosity"--and it struck me as genuinely brilliant); then there was another one, about the retroactive claim that the administration had not asserted there to be any connection between Iraq and 9/11 ("This was not a slip of memory in the heat of debate. This was dishonest, a repeated misrepresentation, in the interests of claiming power, so bald and so systematic that the only instinctive response (Did too!) was that of the schoolyard"); and then she had a third one that actually came closer to infuriating me, I thought "No, if you had left it where you were, I would have gone away from this piece thinking that I had read an extraordinarily perceptive and super-smart character dissection but with this you've tipped over the edge into something too (a) polemical and (b) satisfied with its own intellectual style and insightfulness in a way that totally puts me off."

Here's the sentence in question: "The personality that springs to mind is that of the ninth-grade bully in the junior high lunchroom, the one sprawled in the letter jacket so the seventh-graders must step over his feet." The reference is alienating to me partly because it seems out of date (or just irrelevant to me, I did not go to ahigh school like that--"letter jacket"?!?), partly because there is an unattractive relentlessness and also self-satisfaction when you get this observation in sequence following the others I've quoted. It's not that I disagree, just that I don't find it rhetorically effective.

But if you've got this issue lying around and don't plan on reading the article, make sure you look at the two pictures: there is a photo of Cheney and Rumsfeld from 1975 in which Cheney has the most extraordinary expression on his face, it's quite something....

Off to reread Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year for a guest lecture; I've been teaching Moll Flanders too, what a good novel. This is the first time ever that I've been teaching two novel classes in one semester, by the way, and I think it will spur a lot of thinking about the techniques of both contemporary and eighteenth-century fiction. Last night's seminar: Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, an extraordinarily interesting and enjoyable novel whose use of the particular detail (the "novelistic" detail, as it is often but misleadingly called) is especially striking and innovative.

There are many reasons

why I love Adam Smith, but one of them is the following passage from the Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book I passionately and whole-heartedly recommend:

The degree of the self-approbation with which every man, upon such occasions, surveys his own conduct, is higher or lower, exactly in proportion to the degree of self-command which is necessary in order to obtain that self-approbation. Where little self-command is necessary, little self-approbation is due. The man who has only scratched his finger, cannot much applaud himself, though he should immediately appear to have forgot this paltry misfortune. The man who has lost his leg by a cannon shot, and who, the moment after, speaks and acts with his usual coolness and tranquillity, as he exerts a much higher degree of self-command, so he naturally feels a much higher degree of self-approbation. With most men, upon such an accident, their own natural view of their own misfortune would force itself upon them with such a vivacity and strength of colouring, as would entirely efface all thought of every other view.

Indeed! Don't you love it, though?

Realism of sensation, prose of thought

Just to register something I was thinking about the other week--personal reflections rather than aesthetic judgments in the grand style--prompted by Joan Acocella's New Yorker piece on Alice McDermott (not available online). I've never read McDermott, know virtually nothing about her, but the paragraph Acocella quoted near the beginning of the review seemed to me both very skilled and also quite unappealing to me--on grounds that have everything to do with my own personal preferences as a reader and nothing to do with the author's abilities.

So with no disrespect to McDermott--there's clearly something good about this paragraph or it wouldn't have showed me these things so clearly, the things I want to reflect on below--here's the bit of prose that provoked my shrinking-back and self-examination (it describes a character coming out of lunchtime Mass in New York just after World War Two):

Leaving the church, she felt the wind rise, felt the pinprick of pebble and grit against her stockings and her cheeks. . . . And all before her, the lunch-hour crowd bent under the April sun and into the bitter April wind, jackets flapping and eyes squinting, or else skirts pressed to the backs of legs and jacket hems pressed to bottoms. And trailing them, outrunning them, skittering along the gutter and the sidewalk and the low gray steps of the church, banging into ankles and knees and one another, scraps of paper, newspapers, candy wrappers, what else?--office memos? shopping lists? The paper detritus that she had somewhere read, or had heard it said, trails armies, or was it (she had seen a photograph) the scraps of letters and wrawppers and snapshots that blow across battlefields after all but the dead had fled?

I'm not crazy about the rather grandiose rhetorical gesture in the last part of the passage, but that's neither here nor there. What struck me was that this is a kind of language I primarily associate with the literary short story (though obviously novels are written in this mode as well, this is a novel rather than a story), and that the problem I have with it--the thing that makes it leave me cold--is that it is so much concerned with sensation at the expense of thought or even emotion.

All the things I find interesting in life have to do with thoughts and emotions! Sensation just does not seem interesting to me, I'm not crazy about that aspect of Virginia Woolf for instance--I just think that the whole self-imposed challenge those modernists liked of pushing the things that sentences could do vis-a-vis the more physiological moment-to-moment aspects of experience was not a really fruitful line to pursue in the end--but really, I am not very interested even in my own sensations, and not really at all interested in the sensations and physical observations supposedly filtered through the consciousness of this random character.

I would rather know what she thinks about something interesting or funny or important or minor but pressing, my thoughts just do not take me in the direction of being struck by some abstract quality of this perceptiveness about scraps of paper and skirts pressed to the backs of legs (and I think the word "skittering" is also excessively and self-consciously literary). It's not sensible. (It's not funny, either, and I expect it's really the sensation-freighted-with-weighty-significance thing that alienates me rather than just the sensation in itself--Beckett after all who I love is all about the language of sensation, though of course it's full of ideas as well.) This is always the problem I have reading someone like, oh, what's a good example, Alice Munro or William Trevor. I think those two are both wonderfully good writers, if I am going to read that kind of thing I would take either one of those two over almost anyone else I can think of (oh, and I do love Trevor's branching-out into serial-killer fiction...), and yet I find in myself really no need for that kind of thing.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Anti-idolatry and associationism

From Benjamin Rush, "The Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty" (1786), in The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush (1947), ed. Dagobert D. Runes:

EXTREME HUNGER produces the most unfriendly effects upon moral sensibility. It is immaterial, whether it act by inducing a relaxation of the solids, or an acrimony of the fluids, or by the combined operations of both those physical causes. The Indians in this country whet their appetites for that savage species of war, which is peculiar to them, by the stimulus of hunger; hence, we are told, they always return meagre and emaciated from their military excursions. In civilized life we often behold this sensation to overbalance the restraints of moral feeling; and perhaps this may be the reason why poverty, which is the most frequent parent of hunger, disposes so generally to theft; for the character of hunger is taken from that vice; it belongs to it "to break through stone walls." So much does this sensation predominate over reason and moral feeling, that Cardinal de Retz suggests to politicians, never to risk a motion in a popular assembly, however wise or just it may be, immediately before dinner. That temper must be uncommonly guarded, which is not disturbed by long abstinence from food. One of the worthiest men I ever knew, who made his breakfast his principal meal, was peevish and disagreeable to his friends and family, from the time he left his bed till he sat down to his morning repast; after which, cheerfulness sparkled in his countenance, and he became the delight of all around him.

Other good stuff (wish I'd read this before I published my hypocrisy book! it's the weird proto-behaviorist strand of eighteenth-century thought on habit):

From the general detestation in which hypocrisy is held, both by good and bad men, the mechanical effects of habit upon virtue have not been sufficiently explored. There are, I am persuaded, many instances, where virtues have been assumed by accident or necessity, which have become real from habit, and afterwards derived their nourishment from the heart. . . . The influence of ASSOCIATION upon morals opens an ample field for inquiry. It is from this principle, that we explain the reformation from theft and drunkenness in servants, which we sometimes see produced by a draught of spirits, in which tartar emetic had been secretly dissolved. The recollection of the pain and sickness excited by the emetic, naturally associates itself with the spirits, so as to render them both equally the objects of aversion. It is by calling in this principle only, that we can account for the conduct of Moses, in grinding the golden calf into a powder, and afterwards dissolving it (probably by means of hepar sulphuris,) in water, and compelling the children of Israel to dirnk of it, as a punishment for their idolatry. This mixture is bitter and nauseating in the highest degree. An inclination to idolatry, therefore, could not be felt, without being associated with the remembrance of this disagreeable mixture, and of course being rejected, with equal abhorrence.

Miscellaneous cultural stimulation

One of many things I like about the fact that my new novel's going to be published as a young-adult book is that I can now read young adult fiction (one of the great pleasures of life, in my opinion) and think of it obliquely as something like work. Case in point: Barry Lyga's The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl.

(I enjoyed it, it's very smart and well-written and clever in the good way [in English English clever seems to be a clearer term of praise, for something like what Americans would just call "smart," but often when I use "clever" it is not a compliment--in this case, though, it is meant positively], and I believe that this guy will have a long and prosperous writing career, but there was one huge stumbling block--I simply cannot really enjoy reading about a teenager who behaves so rudely to his mother! However this will possibly be less of an issue for the actual target audience....)

One great quotation from that new Meg Rosoff novel I blogged about last week--my friend L., who loaned me her copy, quoted it for me in advance, and it lived up to that billing. The main character gets tapped by the school coach for the long-distance running team; his best friend, already a long-distance runner, tells him, "You'll like it. Not at first, of course, it's horrible at first. But you get used to it eventually." Best description of running I've ever seen.

Most earwormish recent gym listening: "Muzzle of Bees" from Wilco's A Ghost Is Born. I love that whole album (thanks, Will), must get the others too.

Why girls look like their mothers

For Columbia-affiliated readers (it's a public talk, anyone else who happens to be interested & in the area is of course welcome too): I'm giving a talk on Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 7pm (here are the details) about the science of familial resemblance in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale and some demented eighteenth-century reimaginings of that play. Reception to follow. It will be fun, I love all this Shakespeare-in-the-eighteenth-century stuff....

Do not read this

unless you are unsqueamish about dying animals: a positively Dostoevskian tale about the death of a carriage horse in Central Park. (Thanks to Nico for the link.)

Friday, September 15, 2006

Gaming addiction

Grady Hendrix has an interesting piece up at n+1 on World of Warcraft (the link's likely to be temporary, but the piece should be findable in the archive once the essay's no longer on the main page). I am almost completely oblivious to the interesting and complex world of gamers, but I often like to hear about it, especially when the writing's good:

Non-gamers want to know what on earth these people are doing on their computers when they could be out at a party or meeting people. The short answer is that they are out at a party, meeting people. Any way you measure it, the social life of the average American has collapsed since the 1950s. We’re not going out, we’re not participating in our communities, we’re not socializing in nearly the numbers we used to. Mostly what we’re doing is watching TV. Dmitri Williams, a social sciences professor at the University of Illinois, sees WoW as a game that provides social interaction to an audience hungry for company. To him, games like WoW are a bridging experience, providing a way for people to meet. And while the depth of their interaction – their bonding, so to speak – isn’t as deep as it might be in a real-life meeting, he’s found that over time friendships do deepen and bonding does take place. As an added bonus, according to Nick Yee’s surveys, the average WoW player spends 22 hours a week in Azeroth, but only around 7 hours watching TV, compared to the national average of 29.

I have almost certainly said it here before

but it is my deep belief that in the U.S. (I am not sure about overseas shipping prices, just trying to be accurate here) in terms of both quality and quantity there is no better value-for-money reading deal than the New Yorker. I am afraid to say that I often skip the fiction, my blind spot vis-a-vis the literary short story means that only a handful of stories each year really catch my attention, and of course (this is awful) I also pretty much skip the poems, but otherwise I read it from cover to cover.

This week's issue has two pieces I would especially commend to your attention, dig out your copy or maybe even pick one up at the newsstand if you don't have a subscription. The first is David Remnick's long and really quite amazing profile of Bill Clinton (not available online, but here's a Q&A with Blake Eskin at the magazine's website); indescribable, unsummarizable, just read it though!

And even more perfectly to my taste--it's an interesting companion piece to the Clinton profile, actually, I felt I read them especially profitably in juxtaposition--Ian Buruma considers the new memoir by Gunter Grass and the fallout from his revelations about wartime SS-dom. Here is Buruma (whose piece certainly persuaded me that I should read Grass's memoir as soon as it's translated into English):

Why was this man, who dissembled for so long about his own past, so eager to expose the shameful secrets of others? Why was he so intent on imposing a collective guilt on his people, as if all Germans had followed Hitler as blindly as he had? And why is there such a discrepancy between the subtlety of his best narrative writing and the fierceness of his public scoldings? This chasm is not unique to Grass. The same could be said about other great writers: Céline, Harold Pinter, and José Saramago, to mention a few. But Grass is so proud of his post-Nazi identity as a doubter, as “a tireless supporter of the eternal on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand,” that something begs to be explained.

“The German does not think politically, but tragically, mythically, heroically,” Thomas Mann wrote. He was describing the Germans of Günter Grass’s childhood and before. Years of authoritarian politics, overblown romanticism, and pompous militarism had encouraged among educated Germans a distaste for the messy compromises of liberal politics and the materialism of commercial enterprise. They celebrated, instead, a passion for spirituality and deep culture. German nationalism, even before the Third Reich, was often marked by a kind of religious exultation; liberal democracy and capitalism, especially of the American kind (Amerikanismus), were scorned both on the left and on the right.

Grass has sometimes described his childhood self as though he were indeed like Oskar Matzerath, a boy who refused to grow up and was without political convictions of his own. But Grass’s memoir shows him in a slightly different light. He did have a world view, however inchoate. A young worshipper of great art—Dürer, Caravaggio, Velázquez—Grass had his idols, artistic as well as historic, and he longed to be in a smart uniform, adored by the girls. His father, a provincial shopkeeper, a good Roman Catholic, a “peace-loving family man . . . forever bent on harmony,” filled him with loathing. There was nothing grand or exciting about him. He was, as Grass would say, a Spiessbürger, a stuffy petit bourgeois, without any tragic, mythical, or heroic qualities. This loathing, in Grass’s recollection, was one of the reasons that he yearned to join the Army at the end of the Second World War. Grass wanted action, and a break from his family’s Spiessbürgertum.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

I too love Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments...

At the NYT, William Grimes praises James Buchan's The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas. Mmmm, I am going to get that right away: it puts me in a good mood when my work-related reading is so closely aligned with what I most want to read. (A series of rave reviews in the last few days have made me prioritize Daniel Mendelsohn's book too, I must get and read that at once, but it has nothing to do with work.)

Three further observations:

1. Like Gordon Brown, my father attended the Adam Smith High School in Kirkcaldy.

2. The alternate-universe 1930s Scotland of my forthcoming novel Dynamite No. 1 is governed on the basis of Adam Smith's social psychology, with the consequence that various forms of repression or sublimation are deemed so socially productive that they may be inflicted even at considerable cost on certain of the country's citizens. (Don't worry, it's framed more entertainingly than that, I suddenly realize this must sound completely off-putting!)

3. On Sept. 22-23 at Columbia, there will be a very interesting conference on Adam Smith: do think about dropping by if you're in the neighborhood. Here are the full program details.

At Bookforum

James Shapiro on Ron Rosenbaum and the operatic industry that is Shakespearean editing; really I must subscribe to Bookforum, I see lots of other things I want to read on the table of contents but they are not online....

Viral stowaways

in sheep. Very cool--nature via nurture, to borrow Matt Ridley's phrase. (Thanks, A.)

Copy-shop culture

David Rees has an extremely funny and also very apt essay up at Powell's about the trials and tribulations of producing his comic My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable. I could see I was reading the confessions of someone whose love for the photocopy machine surpasses even mine (I well remember the heady feeling of lavish personal xeroxing c. 1993 at various temp jobs in the Boston area). Particularly go and read it if you have ever considered self-publishing your novel or comic. (Link via the Critical Mass blog.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Quark is a cheese?

On a happier note than the previous post, also at the TLS is Eric Korn's extremely charming essay about the new edition of Chambers' Dictionary. It's all great, but here's a taste:

Chambers never forgets its origins, and Scotticisms are pleasingly many: here’s “haar” and “haaf”, and “douce”; and “mutchkin”, defined, perhaps without a trace of chauvinism, as three-quarters of an imperial pint, or one quarter of an old Scottish pint, and “snigger”, which last is to do with catching salmon with a weighted hook, apparently an illegality, which caused me once the wildest of surmises, when a newspaper (the Kirkintilloch Bugle, if I’m not mistaken) ran the headline MAN FINED FOR SNIGGERING AT LOCH NESS: I thought it was my first real case of political correctness run mad.

The word haar reminds me so strongly of my Scottish grandparents (who lived in North Berwick by the time I came to know them) that I almost feel as if they must have made it up, it is always a shock to see it actually in print and really know it to have been used by other people as well. (The other word I so strongly associate with them is shoogly--you know, like when you go to a coffee-shop and you have to wedge a matchbook under one of the legs of the table because it's all shoogly....)

I always feel ethically low

when I dip my toes into the negative reviewing business, especially when I'm just passing on someone else's, and yet these paragraphs are so scathing that I can't resist a cut-and-paste (the piece is by Druin Burch at the TLS). First of all Burch praises a quite wonderful-sounding book, David Wootton's Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates--I am totally getting this one, it sounds just the kind of book I like in any case but I've also been reading books by and about 'Hippocrates' recently because he is the big exponent in the ancient world of culture-coming-nature-by-way-of-inheritance-of-acquired-characters, which is the topic of a brief coda to my academic book.

Then Burch segues into two absolutely devastating paragraphs about another book; I realize this will seem cowardly, more stoical or more sensitive folks than I will say that either I shouldn't paste this in at all or else I should have the courage of my convictions and name names, but the main thing that I think should not be inflicted on the modern author (who no matter how impeccable her character may be is unlikely to resist the temptation to Google her brand-new book) is the thing of having her day ruined when the top search results lead her to an evil negative review. I have taken out the identifying information, in other words, so that it will not be looming needlessly large in future searches (such is etiquette in the age of Google).

Anyway, here goes, it's the memoir of a newly trained neurologist, and this is Burch's transition from Wootton to the second book under review:

------ -------'s -------- makes a stimulating change from all this compelling originality and provocative thoughtfulness. If you have ever suspected that pushing a finger into the soft goo of another person’s brain leads to fresh and startling conclusions about human life, this is the book to disillusion you. ------ is full of breathless enthusiasm; so full of it, unfortunately, that other qualities are kept at bay. She wants to tell you about her life as a neurosurgeon, and her best point is her infectious eagerness. The style is reminiscent of a teenage essay on “what I did during my neurosurgical training”, and the insights are at roughly the same level. She reveals that sick patients are people too, “not just a collection of clinical data”; she lets us into the fact that “life is not a dress rehearsal”, and that “you can’t judge a person’s intelligence by his outward appearance”.

Initially it’s hard to pin down exactly why her thoughtless and clichéd anecdotes are so insufferable. Blind adoration is appealing in its way, but ------ seems to worship even the most stupid and destructive aspects of the American hospital system. Teaching by humiliation, pointlessly long hours and the infliction of needless operations on damaged patients are all held up for praise. But the source of the real chill gradually becomes apparent. It is ------’s conviction of her own superiority, and her misguided overestimation of her dull, workplace thoughts. At the end of ----------, she invites us to marvel with her at the superlative intelligence of a group of her colleagues. “What might be accomplished”, she asks, awed at the qualities of people like herself, “if the same group lent some of their collective brain power to, say, improving public education or homeland security?” Both books demonstrate the dangers of doctors who think too much of themselves.

Oh dear.

I have "neurologist" near the top of my fantasy list of alternate careers (when I was a young person, these included pastry chef and hairdresser, but really a more plausible account is more like epidemiologist-neurologist-primate researcher--hmmm, can't think of any more...), but at some point I realized that it is more that I want to write a book about the brain than that I'd actually be especially well suited to, you know, poking around in people's actual brains. I do really and seriously want to write a book about the brain, but as with many other conjectural writing projects, the relevant qualifier is "not quite yet."

Making risks part of the story

John Lanchester at the LRB discusses NASA's new generation of manned space rockets:

The plane-like look of the shuttle is misleading. It can be manoeuvred about in space with its thrusters, but on the way there and the way back it isn’t much more flyable than the old capsule design – whose inhabitants were, for large parts of their flight, so passive that Chuck Yeager described them as ‘spam in a can’. For one thing, the solid-fuel launch rocket can’t be switched off or throttled back once it has been ignited. So basically, the shuttle astronauts are sitting attached to a fucking great bomb. On the way back, the shuttle was always said to be ‘flying’ or sometimes, more accurately, ‘gliding’ – but that is a relative term. A commercial airliner at cruising altitude and speed, for instance, has a glide ratio of roughly 15 to 1. If its engines cut out it will travel forward 15 metres for every metre it falls. So if all the engines conk out at 35,000 feet the pilot has getting on for a hundred miles to land; a reassuring thought, I find. The shuttle on its unpowered descent – bear in mind that it isn’t flying – has a glide ratio of 4 to 1. That means it is dropping out of the sky, and those soothing images of it coasting in to land are highly deceptive: that thing is falling out of the sky with the aerodynamic panache of a giant can of baked beans.

Travelling into space tied to a huge stick of dynamite, and falling back out of space like a huge breeze block, are inherently dangerous things to do. It may be that in time the shuttle’s failure rate – one crash for every 50 flights – will come not to seem, by the harsh standards of manned space exploration, outlandishly high. Nasa might do well to stress this riskiness, instead of acting all drawlingly, tranquillisingly confident. On past evidence, the interest of the relevant public, who tend not to forget that they are a paying public, fades very fast. After Apollo 11, interest in the moon landings fell off sharply. The near disaster of Apollo 13 caused a brief spike of interest, but by Apollo 16 people were calling the television networks to complain that the astronauts were getting in the way of I Love Lucy – indeed, repeats of I Love Lucy.

Nasa failed to convey the drama and difficulty of what they were doing. One of the things that has become increasingly clear in retrospect about the Apollo missions is just how fantastically dangerous they were. Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins – the latter being the man who orbited the moon in the command module while the other two members of Apollo 11 walked on the surface – both estimated the probability that the moon-walkers would return alive at about 50 per cent; a fact each of them kept to himself until afterwards. It’s hard to imagine what the impact of Apollo 11 would have been had Armstrong and Aldrin died. Even on the leisurely time-scale envisioned by the current programme – which doesn’t have people returning to the moon until 2020 at the earliest – the risks are going to be high, perhaps higher than a contemporary public is willing to accept, unless the risks are made part of the story. The fact that the gap between the last moon landings and the projected next ones will be half a century – 1972 to 2020 – makes it clear what an extraordinary thing Apollo was. You could argue, as many do, that it was extraordinarily pointless; but you can’t deny that it was extraordinary. If two or three people near you have a mobile phone, you’re currently in possession of more computing power than those famous, much-photographed banks of Nasa hardware.

(On an unrelated note, I switched my blog last week to Blogger Beta, for reasons I can't now reproduce--regular Blogger was freezing, and I though it would be a good idea?--and I believe some readers are now having difficulty posting comments. Many apologies--it's possible that the Blogger people will soon iron out current problems, it is improbable that there's anything I can do in the meantime to fix it, but you are welcome either to [a] e-mail me at my Columbia address if you'd like a bit of literary correspondence in the meantime or [b] tell me in very precise detail what I might do to remedy the situation.)

Five books

Paul Collins on five books that every home should have.

The lost

Rebecca Goldstein reviews Daniel Mendelsohn's new book at the Observer. It's a good example of a book review written so as to cultivate intense desire on the part of the reader--I've been wanting to read this book already, but now I must get a copy of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million as soon as possible....

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Peter Jackson has optioned Naomi Novik's delightful Patrick O'Brian-meets-Anne McCaffrey Napoleonic Wars-with-dragons Temeraire.

That book gets my vote for purest light reading pleasure in 2006 (and it probably would knock out some candidates from previous years, too), it is pretty much exactly the perfect fantasy novel. Here's my rave from when I read it in January--I went to extreme measures to get hold of it pre-publication, it arrived and I managed to resist its allure while I frenziedly wrote a talk on Boswell and Johnson and the particular detail, then I read it on Amtrak from Boston to New Haven on my way to the Boswell conference. I had almost finished it by the time I had to get off the train, and I remember thinking what a good thing it was that I still had another hour before dinner because if I'd had to put the book aside before finishing it I would not have been very good company at the restaurant....

Monday, September 11, 2006

Delivery, delivery, delivery

At the Guardian, John Crace digests Robert Harris's new novel Imperium. Oh dear, perhaps I am not going to want to read this one after all (the TLS review was also very devastating). But really I should look and see for myself, these novels of the ancient world are often polarizing for reasons that have nothing to do with the style or skilfulness of the particular instantiation.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sara Gran on the perils of being a writer in Park Slope

at the New York Times. (NB the F train is my unfavorite train in NY because of [a] the evil transfer from the 1/2/3 at 14th St. which requires going down a long tunnel and then downstairs and then upstairs again and [b] the fact that due to my having the worst sense of direction in the world I always emerge befuddled from F-train destinations Essex and Delancey and East Broadway. I got massively lost last week on my way to dim sum in Chinatown, I planned on walking from the west side but then the trains weren't running past 14th St. and I took the F and it was not good, I usually have a map as an artificial buffer but in this case had not thought I'd need one. I am really a directional idiot--I also got nerve-rackingly lost the other day in Central Park--my downtown walking-in-the-wrong-direction experiences almost always conclude with me suddenly realizing that after half an hour of brisk walking I am at Houston St. and then getting a cab in disgust at my own disorientation and confusion. I am waiting for an affordable hand-held GPS device kind of like what you can get for your car only in the form of a stylish wristwatch. Seriously.)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Tombatism

I had a funny self-imposed reading assignment yesterday which was to reread Dickens' unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood for inspiration so as to write a new ending for a short story that has been accepted by Nick Mamatas for publication in Clarkesworld Magazine.

(I had not written a short story for many many years, and then I wrote one that had been on my mind for a while and that's like a kind of demented alternate-universe Light Reading post; I didn't know quite what to do with it, and then as if by magic Nick asked me if I had anything to submit to this very cool new magazine thingie and it was a miraculous reprieve from anxiety. By the way, do click on the Clarkesworld site and read the hilarious list of story ideas that are unlikely to lead to acceptances--however I feel the need to observe here that the sequel to Dynamite No. 1 does in fact feature a talking cat, the mechanics of its speech though have yet to be determined--it may be better to make it psychic conversation, otherwise there is the voicebox problem of mechanical implausibility.)

I had a kind of obsession with Drood when I was in college, I wrote a long essay on it & if I still had the right software on my computer I would right now be pasting in huge long crazy quotations from the critics who became obsessed with the futile struggle to "decode" the clues in Dickens' novel and decipher his intended ending. But I do not have the right software, and in any case it will be more of a treat to indulge in one or twoof the book's finer passages. (I've been tearing my hair out on the new story ending, but just now finished something I'm reasonably happy with; I will sleep on it and see how it looks in the morning, and then with any luck send it off.)

Even aside from its being unfinished, this novel's made on a more modest scale than the really great ones (my personal favorites, I think, are David Copperfield--that's the number-one favorite--and Our Mutual Friend after that and then Bleak House and Little Dorrit tied for third place, but I love almost all of his novels so much that it is impossible to sort them out, except that Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby are the two that don't really stir me and there are a few other less good ones too like--dare I say it?--Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge; interesting, but not as compelling. And I adore The Old Curiosity Shop BTW). But it has some amazing stuff in it, especially the voices of these minor characters (Mr. Sapsea, Durdles and the Deputy, the Billickin). Here is Mrs. Billickin the landlady:

"Five-and-forty shillings per week by the month certain at the time of year, . . . is only reasonable to both parties. It is not Bond Street nor yet St. James's Palace; but it is not pretended that it is. Neither is it attempted to be denied--for why should it?--that the Arching leads to a mews. Mewses must exist. Respecting attendance; two is kep', at liberal wages. Words has arisen as to tradesmen, but dirty shoes on fresh hearth-stoning was attributable, and no wish for a commission on your orders. Coals is either by the fire, or per the scuttle." She emphasised the prepositions as marking a subtle but immense difference. "Dogs is not viewed with faviour. Besides litter, they gets stole, and sharing suspicions is apt to creep in, and unpleasantness takes place."

I especially love Durdles and the Deputy, and here is a link to chapter five which has a particularly appealing interaction of theirs (format slightly eccentric, sorry).

There is this surreal hallucinatory more-than-usually-three-dimensional quality to Dickens' prose that I am completely addicted to, I had forgotten how much I love it; it's almost as if certain phrases are printed in a different color, they so clearly jump off the page at you.

The NYT's September 11 five-year anniversary coverage

includes this rather lovely short piece on the lower Manhattan cityscape by John Edgar Wideman, whose writing I greatly admire--if I ever teach a course on the eighteenth century in twentieth- and twentieth-century fiction, I'm definitely including The Cattle Killing.

Gaby Wood profiles writer and editor David Remnick

at the Observer. (Interesting Dombey and Son reference, I've got Dickens on the brain these last few days.)

A very cool accent website

The English accent bank at the British Library website. I don't have time to delve into it properly now, but it seems very promising.... (Thanks to Books, Words and Writing via MetaxuCafe for the link.)

Friday, September 08, 2006

At the Guardian

Jeremy Treglown praises the collected stories of Roald Dahl. I've got the volume sitting here in front of me (here's the Amazon US link) looking particularly alluring; I find myself only very infrequently really loving regular contemporary grown-up literary short stories (I love Joyce Carol Oates and Edward P. Jones; I have enjoyed recent-ish collections by, oh, who comes to mind, Nathan Englander? That's a while ago now. There must be some others... I like those Z. Z. Packer stories in the New Yorker), but both as a child and in my adult life I have had a complete passion for what might be called tales of the uncanny.

You know: not exactly science fiction or fantasy or crime but strange and exciting stories that turn up in children's anthologies and which give you as a child, then, a little taste of something richer and more rewarding than you have imagined you will find. Whose stories did I love reading as a child? Robert Louis Stevenson, the more thrilling efforts of Henry James, Saki's stories (which are funny rather than primarily uncanny, but it's the exception that proves the rule), Joan Aiken's absolutely wonderful tales and also, and most particularly, the stories of Roald Dahl. I must reread a few of these this weekend, I have a particular fondness for "Royal Jelly" (oh, and where is "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar"? It must be that this only collects his adult fiction, that is rather a pity, I will see if I can get the children's ones separately).

Updated: oh, and Poe! Poe, of course; that's the prototype for this kind of stuff. And Sherlock Holmes. I think that kind of story is how you get from reading children's books to grown-up ones; crime fiction also provides a useful bridge.

For a good cause

Various authors are auctioning off the right to have your name or the name of your nearest & dearest (or your enemy? but perhaps that is legally iffy) used for a character in forthcoming books (the proceeds will go to the First Amendment Project); go and take a look, it's not just that it's a good cause, it's also sort of fascinating to see the full range of what's on offer. (Link via Neil Gaiman.)

Film and the sense of smell

Jess Smee at the Guardian on the big-budget film adaptation of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume:

However it remains to be seen whether the film can replicate the key to the book's success: its ability to conjure up smell.

Born without a personal odour, Grenouille is obsessed with creating a perfect smell for himself, an olfactory mission which impels him to murder virgins for their scent. Süskind's descriptions dwell on the stench of the fish market and pungent Parisian alleys.

The film's producer, Bernd Eichinger, the man behind the controversial Hitler film Downfall, said the film aims to bring smell to celluloid by imitating the author's attention to detail. "While Süskind used the clear and exact power of words, we use the power of image, noise and music," he said. "When filming a lawn in sunlight, or even a single tree, all that is needed is absolute optical precision and then smells are created."

But although German film critics praised the costumes and acting, many argued that the film fell short of conveying the sense of smell. The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said it did not match up to the book and "in the end failed to emerge as the orgasm of a film it wanted to be". Meanwhile, Die Zeit weekly ridiculed the film as "big nose theatre", saying it rather obviously tried to convey smell through close-up shots of the protagonist's nose - of which there were no less than 27.

I have not revisited Perfume since I was a teenager, but it was certainly one of those books that transformed my sense of what could be done in the form of the novel--in fact it was almost certainly one of the most important models for my own first novel, though I can't say the end product has much in common with it. (The comparison, in fact, is greatly to my disadvantage.)

Interesting, though, to think about smell and film--in the 1930s (think Huxley's Brave New World) it seemed to lots of observers that having added sound to its basic visual repertoire film's next new thing would be lots of multi-sensory stimulation ("the feelies"); now it seems much less likely/imminent, but in any case I do not think that I would like to go to an artistic spectacle that manipulated me by way of smell, I have an overly sensitive sense of smell....

Thursday, September 07, 2006

In the age of the internet

I do not think the Guardian should be republishing an essay that has already appeared in the New York Times, surely some significant portion of Guardian readers (especially Guardian online readers) are also registered to read the NYT online & would have already checked this piece out? Very strange....

Sex and science fiction

I am assured on good authority that Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction provides the necessary context for understanding a recent scandal involving Harlan Ellison. I've been meaning to get hold of this book for a while, it sounds fascinating (especially the work with archival material), but this is a good prompt....

At the TLS

M. John Harrison on J. G. Ballard's new novel:

J. G. Ballard’s early landscapes flickered up off the page, their drowned or desert conditions hinting at the landscapes of global warming to come. His early narcissistic psychiatrists and deranged movie stars glowed against this background – less human beings than messages etched into the brutalist semiotics of arts centre, Hilton hotel and motorway flyover. Whatever else he has been, Ballard began as an imagist. His ideas were welcome because they seemed to be inseparable from his inventiveness, the tone of his voice, the archi-tectonics of Ballardian space. The symptoms of his literary pathology were presented with all the enchantment of a page of Vogue or Architectural Review, while deconstructing both. His eye was cinematic, fractured, relentlessly selective, intermittent as a broken video camera operated by one of Rebecca Horne’s disordered mechanical structures, prefiguring a kind of art accident not yet technologically possible. Now, years later, in Kingdom Come, we encounter the same frozen restlessness, the same obsessive but broken regard, no longer inventing the future, only misappropriating the present. It is difficult to overstate how far ahead of his time Ballard seemed to readers in 1956. But now that history has caught up and passed the old motorist, his late vision – of consumption as Fascism out of uniform, or at least as a precondition for the full-blown, full-dress kind – seems simultaneously unassuming and cranky.

(Ballard is one of many novelists I was initially turned on to by means of Anthony Burgess and the demented99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939.)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Of course I feel a bit guilty about it, but I must confess that certain issues of the New York Review of Books go almost completely unread round here--sometimes I just look at the table of contents and my frivolous heart sinks. (The TLS never gives me this feeling of overseriousness but I must also admit that it's a psychic obstacle the way it comes wrapped in plastic, if I'm very busy they just pile up without even being opened and then I have to skim through a whole bunch at once and be highly selective about which pieces I'm actually going to read.) But the fall books issue of the NYRB is full of delightfully good articles, just the kind of thing I like, and I thought I would give a heads-up to other frivolous readers that they should make sure to take a look.

Most of it isn't available for free online, but there's a great piece by Hilary Mantel on Pankaj Mishra, Larry McMurtry on the Texas Rangers, Ian Buruma on the Nanjing Massacre (including some fascinating stuff about manga denials of Japanese atrocities during the war in China), Jonathan Spence on Mao's Great Terror, Alma Guillermoprieto on Bolivian politics and Brian Urquhart on two books about the Middle East (I am actually capable of reading about politics in the Middle East, just not when it's very policyish, Urquhart's piece is superb & includes a very compelling account of Emma Williams' Jerusalem memoir), Lorrie Moore on Eudora Welty and literary biography (that one you can read for free) and Fred Anderson on Gordon Wood's character sketches of the founding fathers. If every issue of the NYRB was like this, I would read it from cover to cover the moment in arrived in my mailbox....

Other than Daniel Mendelsohn's 9/11 essay, which I blogged about late last week, two pieces particularly interested me; a few thoughts follow below. The first is an excellent essay by Allen Orr that to my mind provides a model for how a review may be at once fair and highly critical ("Reject the book wholesale and you reject important truths; embrace it wholeheartedly and you embrace a good deal of nonsense"). On balance, it falls down on the critical side, and yet I suspect that many people who read Orr's piece will be driven to go and buy and read Wade's book and see for themselves, and that quite a few of those readers will be more sympathetic than Orr towards Wade's "adaptive tales."

The other piece that sparked thoughts was Jasper Griffin on Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which I am rather curious to read. It too is very beautifully written, but I was especially interested by Griffin's opening thoughts on the Iliad versus the Odyssey. "The Greeks themselves always ranked [the Odyssey] below the Iliad; that was the Great Poem, but later generations have often disagreed with their verdict," he says; and I started to think about how strongly I prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey, and always have.

Of course the Odyssey is the great narrative of storytelling and embedded narratives and so forth, and I love the role the scar episode plays in Auerbach's book on mimesis, but I think the only part of it that really falls on my own short list of most essential literary things is the voyage to the underworld in book 6, and the reappearance of Agamemnon and Achilles.

It's the Iliad that really gets me; somehow everything about the mood and the issues and that amazing character stuff going on with Agamemnon and Achilles is just exactly what I love, and the ending is unbelievably moving. If I am a retired old lady with time on my hands I am going to learn Greek and read a lot of this stuff in the original, it is really inexplicable how that couple hundred years of Greek culture produced the most amazing stuff.

(The Greek play I most want to adapt for a modern audience is Euripides, The Bacchae. I am determined to do it, just not quite yet.)

Anyway, my question is this: do you think that everyone is either an Iliad or an Odyssey person, and if so, which are you?

More Jonesing

Our Girl in Chicago has a great post about Edward P. Jones (and she manages to squeeze into her review a funny and mouth-watering detail that I wanted to squeeze into my review but couldn't: in one story, the devil appears to a woman in a supermarket, and we learn that "his tie was held in place against his white shirt with a ruby tie clip, about the size of a candy fireball"). Go and read it; and then buy the book, I really think it is his best one yet, I have been completely unable to get some of those characters out of my head, especially (of course) the one in "The Root Worker"....

Fate and imaginary animals and running and being a teenager

are the subjects of Meg Rosoff's new novel Just In Case, it's somewhat indescribable (I guess I would call it a fable) but I liked it very much indeed. I was a tiny bit reminded of Francesca Lia Block (about whom Alice posted the other day), and I also had in my head John Cusack in Better Off Dead; it's got a very nice mix, though, of the real and the fantastic. Definitely recommended (and here was what I thought about her first novel).

Monday, September 04, 2006

Snuff makes your navel perk like a whelk

I try and wait to read the New Yorker in the actual paper edition, much more enjoyable than reading online, but I could not resist a great piece about Britain's Mass Observation movement by Caleb Crain. I've always been interested in the mass-observation thing (it fits with that very literary atmosphere of just-pre-WWII British crime fiction, Sayers and Allingham and such), but I became more acutely interested when I read (it was obliquely part of the research for Dynamite No. 1) Naomi Mitchison's wartime mass observation diary (Mitchison was the sister of the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, and also an interesting figure in her own right).

The World After 9/11

At the New Yorker website, Amy Davidson (no relation, but Amy and I have pretty much been best friends since we met during the first week of college in--oh, it's a long time ago now!--September 1988, and during those years we were often known as the Davidson twins) talks to Seymour M. Hersh, Jon Lee Anderson, and George Packer about Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, and whether America is stronger now. It's a fascinating conversation, go and take a look....

It is a red-letter day

here at Light Reading because this week's Digested Read at the Guardian is--Dick Francis's new novel! ("It was good that people no longer stared at my prosthetic arm, even though I still felt the need to mention it every 10 pages.") (Here were my thoughts in July.)

I am always interested in the style aspect of these things (that John Crace is pretty much a genius), but I note here as in the case of his Jilly Cooper one in the spring that the novels in question are written in something almost like self-parody already, and that there's not much he can do to make the style either more ludicrous or less appealing than it actually is. If you like this kind of book, which I do (I love Jilly Cooper and Dick Francis), reading one of these will not at all stop you from wanting to devour the exemplar. The books that respond really well to this treatment are the ones with pretension or where the author has some character flaw (usually self-absorption or narcissism) that mars an otherwise more or less intelligent narrative.

(Thank goodness for overseas book news, August is always a wretchedly slow month for interesting literary news and I hate the way the Labor Day holiday basically makes there be nothing interesting to read in the papers. When I looked at the New York Times this morning the main story with the picture on the front page was Australia's 'Crocodile Hunter' Killed by Stingray. Which is a sad tale, but still....)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Another very charming essay by Andrew O'Hagan

at the Observer Sport Monthly:

My mother must have known I was trouble when I asked for a poster of Margot Fonteyn for my side of the bedroom. (I fancy she was secretly delighted: all is fair in love and perversity.) I don't remember the exact moment I realised I wouldn't be Kenny Dalglish, but I know it coincided with the realisation that I might be Mikhail Baryshnikov instead. Put it down to daddy-baiting or one of the other domestic arts, but I got a lot of pre-teen pleasure out of watching my parents suffer at the idea that I might be the only male pupil at the Jacqueline Thompson School of Dance. I joined the class and attended them with ceaseless application. Perhaps I wanted the very opposite of football - well, I got that, and a place for a year or two at the Scottish Ballet school, but I also got the reverse of the typical football hero's admiring glances. I can't have been very normal, for I liked those as well.

But my father wasn't giving up without a fight and everything came to a head at Christmas 1978. The Smurfs appeared for the first time, songs from Grease were in the charts, Jim Callaghan's government was on its last legs and Elizabeth Watt, the girl at number 27, had just announced she was joining the majorettes. My father seemed to spend a lot of time in the car park at the head of our square and there, from the seat of his green Corsair, he must have seen me eyeing up Elizabeth's twirling silver baton. When my mother told him of my wish-list for Santa, he was having none of it.

And so it was that on Christmas morning my brothers and I woke up in the usual state of consumer delirium, groping above our heads for the fat orange at the bottom of the football sock/stocking, knowing it was time for The Presents. We tumbled out of our beds, ran along the hall and landed in a jumbled heap at the bottom of the stairs, only to jump up immediately and head for the living room, where it was traditional for each of us to have a separate chair on which our Christmas presents were laid out.

I can see it now - the four chairs, each bedecked with a new Celtic strip and a pair of brand new boots sitting on top. We also had socks, a football each, and a Christmas annual about the recent exploits of the Bhoys. My brothers, crazed with joy, wasted no time in stripping off their pyjamas and pulling on their shorts. But I stood there like Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, weeping into the middle distance as if confronted with a strange vision in the grotto. My vision was anything but ecstatic: failing the longed-for silver baton, I had wanted a soap-making set, a desk and chair and a jumbo writing pad from Woolworths. With my father seething in his armchair, my softer-hearted mother promised to get the other things for me as soon as the shops opened. And then she reached down behind the sofa and lifted out a secretly purchased Post Office set. My tears dried instantly. My father poured himself a drink. He took a deep breath - and didn't breathe out again until I had my first girlfriend.

The soap-making set is a rather adorable detail....

September 11 at the Movies

An absolutely wonderful essay by Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Review of Books, in contemplation of the recent September 11 movies in relation to ancient Greek history and the literary genre of tragedy. Here's a bit, but it's really worth going and reading the whole thing--highly intelligent criticism, beautifully well-written:

Using the real-life people in the movie [United 93] is a showy but ultimately hollow gesture; it advertises a certain kind of solemnity, even piety, about 'authenticity' that has great currency in an era in which, in so many popular entertainments, a great premium is placed on getting as close as possible to 'reality'-although in such entertainments the reality, of course, is an artfully constructed one. (An apparently growing confusion in mass culture about the differences among reality, truth, 'truthiness,' and fiction has, as we know, had effects beyond the world of entertainment. An artful admixing of reality and invention, never acknowledged as such, has characterized the government's attempt to 'sell' its response to the events of September 11.)

There can, therefore, be no useful aesthetic value in the decision to use real people, only a symbolic and perhaps sentimental one: by emphasizing such authenticity and realism, the film reassures its audience-which may well be anxious about its motives for paying to see a film about real-life violence and horror-that what they're seeing is not, in fact, 'drama' (and therefore presumably mere 'entertainment'), but 'real life,' and hence in some way edifying.

The problem with all this realness is that the film itself-like reality-has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning. When United 93 first came out, I was struck by one enthusiastic critic's glowing comment, in a review entitled 'Brilliant, Brutal and Utterly Real,' that Greengrass's movie was 'gripping from first to last, partly because, like a Greek tragedy, we are only too aware of where everything is heading....'[2] But what makes Greek tragedy significant as art is precisely the way in which the foreordained trajectory of the events that take place on stage is made to seem part of a larger moral scheme; when (for instance) we see the horrible spectacle of the humbled king at the end of Persians, we know why he has been humbled (his greedy overreaching) and who has humbled him (the gods, the moral order that obtains in the cosmos).

All that United 93 can tell us, by contrast, is that many people are brave and some people are dastardly. (Well, many American people are brave: we're treated to a scene in which one of the passengers, who has a Central European accent of some kind, urges the others to cooperate with the hijackers.) If United 93 brings to mind any genre, it's not Greek tragedy, with its artfully wrought moral conundrums, but something much tinier: the innumerable made-for-television programs available on cable TV that are dedicated to reenactments of real-life crimes, complete with phony "realism." The stylistic hallmark of these shows is the same jittery hand-held camerawork that Greengrass uses to represent the violence in the cabin of Flight 93.

This isn't to say that the emotions evoked by United 93 aren't strong. But your feelings of horror while watching the hand-to-hand violence in United 93 don't derive from the way in which the action has been treated by the writer and the director, but rather from the prior historical knowledge you already bring to the occasion—it's only awful to watch because you know something like it happened to real people. If United 93 were a fictional TV movie of the week, you might watch it with friends, and then go out for pizza without thinking about it ever again, except perhaps to wonder why there was no real ending, or why you never really knew anything about the characters (and hence wondered why they act the way they do). As I left the theater after seeing it, it occurred to me that what I was feeling—the sorrow for the real people of whom the show's characters reminded me—was probably very much like what the audience felt as they left the first, and only, performance of The Capture of Miletus.

It's a funny thing about that Greek stuff: I was teaching the Iliad those weeks of September 2001, and indeed the description of Priam entreating Achilles for the return of Hector's body seemed to speak more deeply to the questions on my mind than almost anything else I read or saw in the months that followed.

Mendelsohn's book The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million will be published later this month, I must make sure to get hold of it; I liked The Elusive Embrace a great deal.