Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A relishing soop preparatory to a fresh debauch

Bee Wilson at the TLS on the plight of coffee-growers and the eighteenth-century origins of coffee-house culture as revealed in Markman Ellis's anthology of primary sources. The fun part:
The main arguments in favour of coffee houses, in the words of an anonymous satire of 1661, were that they were “free to all comers”, promoted intermingling of different professions, “equality”, education and free discourse, and that coffee “makes no man drunk”, unlike the drinks served in ale-houses. However, in the view of this same satire, every one of these virtues had its corresponding vice. The freedom of speech led to time-wasting and “gabbling” (“Here men carried by instinct sipp muddy water, and like Frogs confusedly murmur Insignificant Notes, which tickle their own ears, and, to their inharmonious sense, make Music of jarring strings”). The education on offer was “a school . . . without a master”. As for the proposition that “coffee makes no man drunk”, the author suggests coffee houses encouraged drunkenness, because the effects of coffee “being mixt with the more drying smoak of Tobacco makes too many run to the Tavern or Alehouse to quench their thirst, which they cannot satisfy”.

The same point was made in a mock-petition of 1674, The Women’s Petition Against Coffee. The coffee house, in truth, was:

"Only a Pimp to the Tavern, a relishing soop preparative to a fresh debauch: For when people have swill’d themelves with a morning draught of more Ale than brewers horse can carry, hither they come for a pennyworth of Settle-brain . . . and after an hours impertinent Chat, begin to consider a bottle of Claret would do excellent well before Dinner; whereupon to the Bush they all march together, till every one of them is Drunk as a Drum, and then back again to the Coffee-House to drink themselves sober."

An outlandish animal

Ludwig Wittgenstein c. 1948 (from Culture and Value (ed. G. H. Von Wright with Heikki Nyman, trans. Peter Winch):
Two people are laughing together, say at a joke. One of them has used certain somewhat unusual words and now they both break out into a sort of bleating. That might appear very extraordinary to a visitor coming from quite a different environment. Whereas we find it completely reasonable.

(I recently witnessed this scene on a bus and was able to think myself into the position of someone to whom this would be unfamiliar. From that point of view it struck me as quite irrational, like the responses of an outlandish animal.)

That white look

Dina Rabinovitch has died of breast cancer. Here is a very moving series of extracts from her columns charting her illness:
Sunday morning I look at the dressing on my breast - ex-breast? - in the mirror for the first time. Lying propped on hospital pillows, peering down at myself, my body didn't seem that different. But in the mirror, stark as a minus sign, there it is, the new flatness.

Grief is waiting to swamp. To ward it off, I take snapshots of myself on my phone. Fluent breast-feeder, I could always summon milk at will. And what do you know? I can still do it. I am absolutely sure of the sensation, that old internal rush, and I can feel it to my right breast, site of Friday's mastectomy. I'm standing in front of a full-length mirror, watching myself tentatively, so tentatively, touch my way all around the soft, new, white bandages, and the tears are pouring down my face because I've made a mistake and let the grief in after all.

A paper-based cult

Avi Klein at the Washington Monthly on strange doings in the Lyndon LaRouche circle. (Thanks to Eric for the link.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jews with swords

At the Telegraph, Michael Chabon on his new swashbuckling epic and his movement away from naturalism:
I know it still seems incongruous, first of all, for me or a writer of my literary training, generation and pretensions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords. As recently as 10 years ago, I had published two novels, and perhaps as many as 20 short stories, and not one of them featured weaponry more antique than a (lone) Glock 9mm. None was set any earlier than about 1972 or in any locale more far-flung or exotic than a radio studio in Paris, France.

Most of those stories appeared in sedate, respectable and generally sword-free places like The New Yorker and Harper's, and featured unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short story characters — disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate among fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce — I guess that about covers it. Story, more or less, of my life.

As for the two novels, they didn't stray in time or space any farther than the stories — or for that matter, any deeper into the realm of Jewishness: both set in Pittsburgh, liberally furnished with Pontiacs and Fords, scented with marijuana, Shalimar and kielbasa, featuring Smokey Robinson hits and Star Trek references, and starring gentiles or assimilated Jews, many of whom were self-consciously inspired, instructed and laid low by the teachings of rock and roll and Hollywood but not, for example, by the lost writings of the tzaddik of Regensburg whose commentaries are so important to one of the heroes of Gentlemen of the Road.
Goodness, I love that fellow's writing, I must get Gentlemen of the Road immediately--in fact, there, I've shopping-carted it...

Deid-bell, deid-drap, deid-nip, deid-rap, deid-spail

Kate Bolick's blogging this week at Slate on various imaginary Scotlands. There is a new course in supernatural studies at Glasgow University--shades of Laurell K. Hamilton, I love it!


I read this story and learned a good new expert-knowledgeish term.

The Manhattan Project

William J. Broad has a quite interesting story at the Times about the Manhattan origins of America's nuclear project. This is rather my neck of the woods--and the best novel I know about this stuff, by the way, is Richard Powers' absolutely lovely book The Time of Our Singing.

Monday, October 29, 2007

This cant about cultural authenticity

Hari Kunzru has a great letter in the Guardian about this controversy concerning Monica Ali's representation of Brick Lane. I quite agree with everything he's saying, and I also admire his tone of righteous irritation, this is quite right!
As a mixed-race novelist (hell, just as a novelist), I would like to say to your leader writer (The trouble with Brick Lane, October 27) that I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being "authentically" none of these things. I also give notice that if I choose, I intend to imagine what your muddled writer quaintly terms "real people" living in "real communities". My work may convince or it may not. However, I will not accept that I have any a priori responsibility to anyone - white, black or brown, let alone any "community" - to represent them in any particular way.

If Monica Ali isn't brown enough or working-class enough or Sylheti enough for you, then, well, that's your weird little identity-political screw-up. Presumably she's not white enough for someone else. I'm sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on "minority" writers) to represent in some quasi-political fashion. Art isn't about promoting social cohesion, or cementing community relations. It's about telling the truth as you see it, even if it annoys or offends some people. That's called freedom of expression, and last time I checked we all thought it was quite a good idea.

The rest is noise

Columbia-related but not exclusively so: the excellent Linden Park of selfdivider has organized an event this evening at 8pm in 501 Schermerhorn, an interview with music critic Alex Ross (I will confess that I always read Ross's New Yorker music criticism and wish that he was--were, subjunctive contrary-to-fact!--writing the book and film criticism also...). Get there early if you want a seat, this one's definitely going to be oversubscribed...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Marine sex

At the Australian Age, Judy Skaatsoon interviews marine biologist Sheree Marris on her new book KamaSEAtra: Secrets of Sex in the Sea. The book sounds on the whole appealing but perhaps excessively jokey (I prefer a straighter version of this kind of stuff):
Marris says her interest in marine sex began when she first discovered the meaning of the term "dork".

"I studied aquatic science at Deakin University but I was by no means an academic, the chemical equations and formulas and all that just kind of went in one ear and out the other," she admits.

"One of the things that I did learn was the real meaning for the word dork.

"A dork is a whale's penis and I thought, `how cool is that?'

"When we're calling someone a dork we're basically calling them a big dick because these things are absolutely huge."

Marris soon realised that she had discovered a way of getting people to share her passion for the fragile marine environment.

The price of a cartridge

At the Independent, Danuta Kean interviews a somewhat unforthcoming but extremely interesting Tamasin Day-Lewis on her food memoir Where Shall We Go For Dinner?.

Lovely things

Last night I saw Nico's ballet (well, really it's Benjamin Millepied's ballet, Nico's score--appropriate choreographer's name, eh?) last night and it is absolutely lovely, like the sea in the best possible way... Nico's music has an unusual quality of being at once remarkably stimulating in a more or less intellectual fashion and also quite aesthetically lovely and accessible, it is among my small number of absolutely favorite things (like Faberge eggs--only on a much bigger scale!).

(He had an interesting post here on a late-stage chord change and why one might want "a big pile of notes.")

(The other two ballets on the program were both interesting and enjoyable in various respects, only my vote is that ballet seems to have way too high a proportion of intermission and clapping and bowing to actual performance! I felt understimulated, I do not really think it appropriate to take out a book and read during intermission or applause, not if one is with a theatre-going companion, but I was very tempted!)

And afterwards, the most sublime fish stew I think I have ever tasted, at Osteria del Circo. Really the only words that came to mind for it were things like "divine" and "heavenly," it was pretty much the pinnacle of all possible food. It made you feel like you were reading a King James Bible incarnation of some passage from the Creation in Genesis, it so strongly filled you with a sense of the riches of the sea--mussels and clams and squid and the most tender octopus imaginable, monkfish and tomatoey broth--quite divine, like listening to Handel's Messiah...

Small change

At the LA Times, Sarah Weinman considers Jo Walton's Farthing series. Seriously, folks, Walton is one of the great geniuses of literature at work in the present time, everybody should be reading these books!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Alternate histories

At the FT, Tim Newark reviews Tapping Hitler's Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942-1945:
Between 1942 and 1945, British military intelligence listened in on conversations between senior German prisoners of war. This secret surveillance was recorded on gramophone discs and some of the material has been transcribed to form this book. Tapping Hitler’s Generals is the most intimate record of what German staff officers thought of their role in the second world war.

The recordings took place in Combined Services interrogations centres around London. Sometimes, to get the prisoners to open up, British intelligence would mix Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe prisoners so they would have to explain more fully their part in the war. Or a German agent provocateur might be set among them to start a debate about a particular commander or conflict. The results make for a fascinating – and chilling – insight into the German view of the war.

Skimming, skipping

Pierre Bayard (whose How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read is definitely on my list of desiderata) is one of only a handful of interviewees who manages to outmaneuver Deborah Solomon. Here's my favorite bit of the interview:
You write in your book about Montaigne, who confessed to having a poor memory and to forgetting about books he himself had written. Which leads you to ask: If we read a book and forget that we read it, is that the same as never having read it?

I think between reading and nonreading there is an indeterminate space that is quite important, a space where you have books you have skimmed, books you have heard about and books you have forgotten. You don’t have to feel guilty about it.

But what about those of us who read to feel things — to experience pleasure, an end to loneliness?

Of course I read in order to feel something. And to feel an end to my loneliness, of course, just as you.

Then why are you so willing to devalue the experience of close reading in favor of skimming? You seem to believe that knowing a little bit about 100 literary classics is preferable to knowing one book intimately.

I think a great reader is able to read from the first line to the last line; if you want to do that with some books, it’s necessary to skim other books. If you want to fall in love with someone, it’s necessary to meet many people. You see what I mean?

Olga Nethersole

At the NYTBR, Alida Becker reviews a book I think I must read, Liza Campbell's A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth's Castle:
While Campbell’s grandfather was alive, her father presided over the family’s other vast estate, in Wales. It was the swinging ’60s, and while his children played in a Gypsy caravan in a rural setting straight out of Beatrix Potter, Hugh “treated his sex life as if he were James Bond,” pursuing love affairs as far afield as Africa when not busy crashing sports cars (he went through six Jaguars before switching to Ferraris). He and his wife sat down to a formal dinner every evening, whether they were alone or entertaining strangers Hugh had raced with on the road from London. Even the more conventional guests could be strange: Uncle Bill, with “a child’s mind in a burly adult body,” fond of marching up and down in his bedroom to brass-band music; Tia Honsai, a martial arts expert with a “greasy quiff,” in reality a Welshman named Ronald Thatcher. The household servants also had their quirks, but most of the nannies weren’t around long enough to make an impression: the Campbells went through almost 30 of them, and not, Liza observes, “because we children were waking them up in the dead of night.”

Despite his nanny-stalking, much could be forgiven a glamorous father who paid surprise visits to his daughters’ boarding school via helicopter (even if they happened to be away at the time). And his domestic dictates, while puzzling, weren’t deeply problematic: corgis, cats, chewing gum and custard were frowned upon, as well as “most ornamental conifers, any talk of money and the color mauve.”

The author's father and brother practicing aikido in front of Cawdor Castle

(For the sake of accuracy, it must be added that the castle was built 300 years after the time in which Shakespeare's play is set.)


Friend and blog correspondent Nomad (formerly Doctor Dysphoric) seeks donations of used digital photography equipment for a photography collective called Iliso Labantu in South Africa. Here's her friend Sue Johnson's message:
Sue says the group is growing and they need more equipment. They are looking for

* used point and shoot or SLR digital cameras (3.2 Megapixels and up)
* Battery chargers
* Flash Cards or Memory Cards
* laptops
* hard drives
* firewire cables and power chargers
* photography books for the library

If you have any of the above equipment lying around since you bought a newer model, consider donating it to Iliso Labantu. You can mail it to Sue Johnson at 169 Avenue A #13. NY, NY 10009. She will bring it to South Africa.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Two ravishing things

1. My friend Helen Hill's animated films at the Anthology Film Archive on Wednesday night, in the most gorgeous and lovingly restored prints (many of the films were damaged in Katrina).

2. The Wooster Group Hamlet at the Public Theatre. Good but not great, I'd say, and in a way surprisingly conventional. The acting is consistently superb, and the production as a whole hangs together well, but it didn't somehow magically gel into transcendence (and there were some distracting features--Fischerspooner?!?).

The live theatre piece is staged against the backdrop of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway Hamlet, "recorded in live performance from 17 camera angles and edited into a film that was shown for only two days in 2000 movie houses across the United States" (I am quoting the program). "The idea of bringing a live theatre experience to thousands of simultaneous viewers in different cities was trumpeted as a new form called 'Theatrofilm,' made possible through 'the miracle of Electronovision.'"

But insofar as it works (and the technology is really beautiful--the digital reediting on the main film, figures erased or obscured in very suggestive ways, is magical, and the use of screens and images more generally very effective), it works for simpler reasons than this. I enjoy the Wooster Group idiom--this is a group of actors who have worked together over many years, in tandem with Liz LeCompte, to come up with a whole vocabulary that is extraordinarily effective and quite non-naturalistic in rather mesmerizing ways. The production's quite accessible, too, I think. But I am not sure it really says anything about ghosts and presence and acting and the languages of the body that an altogether more conventional production might have been able to--not that a production needs to be in this sense authoritative, there is no harm in feeling that one is watching one of many possible interesting Hamlet interpretations, only I would like just a little bit more oomph...

Rackety Empson

John Gross had a good piece in the last NYRB on the latest lot of Empson-related stuff (subscriber-only link, I'm afraid). Here's an entertaining bit--it's the mix of seriousness and insanity that appeals to me, I really must read at least the volume of selected letters, it sounds wonderfully good:
Empson once began a seminar on Henry James by taking off his shoes and socks, throwing the socks on the fire, producing a new pair, putting them on, and reassuring the class, "James would have approved." Other stories feature the quixotic Empson. In the middle of the war he commissioned a critic called Desmond Hawkins to deliver a talk for transmission to China on the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett—a gesture that Hawkins himself described as "almost sublime in its impracticality!" There are also many stories of the boozy-bohemian variety. In December 1941, Empson got married. He and his bride, Hetta, gave a party in the basement flat which was to be their home for the rest of the war; at the end of the evening he turned to Hetta and said, "Well, I'll be going along, my dear." Haffenden considers the possibility that he was trying to get out of cleaning up the party debris, but thinks it far more likely that he had drunk so much that he had forgotten he was no longer single.
I would like to be in a position where I could make literary decisions that were almost sublime in their impracticality--right now the thing I would most like to do is publish a very beautiful English-language version of Aka Morchiladze's Santa Esperanza and also the complete works of Helen DeWitt in about twenty-five handsome volumes and perhaps, too, Toni Schlesinger's Pearl Street book. The authors would all receive lavish stipends and the books would be beautiful and magical and would find their way into the hands of exactly the right readers. The worst of it is that none of these projects should be at all impractical in a world whose literary values were more or less aligned with my own, it is only the actual world we live in which makes these things so difficult!

On historical fantasists

At the Guardian, Ursula K. LeGuin offers some interesting thoughts concerning the latest installment (a prequel) of Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori (I have liked these books very much indeed, only would wish for a little less history and a little more magic--I found the first of the sequence the most compelling):
In what was to me the most vivid moment of the book, a man sees his breath make a little cloud of white in an unheated room in winter. Then, noticing another such faint cloud nearby, he realises that an invisible person is in the room with him. This is fine. It makes the leap from the ordinary to the uncanny with the simple accuracy of observation that is, paradoxically, essential to fantasy.

Much of the story, however, glides past without such acute immediacy. The writing is clear but the effect is a little obsessive, a little dreamlike - as when one is not quite fully awake, watching things happen through the residue of heavy sleep. Everything is somehow remote, even dreadful scenes of torture and battle, even beautifully described landscapes with all the scents and colours of the season.

This distance is not caused by the 13th-century Japanese setting, for films and stories have transported me to that far realm with no sense at all of unreality - rather with a terrific sense of living presence. They were, however, Japanese films and stories, or else translations and retellings by Lafcadio Hearn. I am reluctantly forced to consider that Lian Hearn's unmistakably great knowledge of the period, her passion for all things Japanese, her conscious repudiation of literary "colonialism," her avoidance of cultural co-optation by setting her tales in a nonexistent corner of Japan, do not entirely prevent her inventions from being essentially bookish - existing at one remove. Though thoroughly enjoyable, they never quite convinced me. I was always conscious that it was "just a story".

This may be a real element of their popularity. Why not? A great many of us are happy to be told a story with a vast cast of characters, boiling over with wickedness, nobility, violence, vengeance, courage, failure, sexual passion, romantic love, births, deaths, tragedies and victories, held together through hundreds of pages by a well-built plot, with a definite bias towards the good guys: the kind of novel Dumas set the pattern for, the kind of novel you aren't asked to believe. Dumas wasn't trying to do what Stendhal or Tolstoy did with the historical novel. He was a historical fantasist; and perhaps that is the best description of Hearn.

The filing cabinets of the Library of Congress

At the LRB, Mark Greif offers a thoughtful account of Arnold Rampersad's Ralph Ellison biography.


Indexed contemplates the latest Harry Potter revelation. (Thanks to Brent for the original tip-off about this extremely funny site.)

Mandeville and Adam Smith

Why studying economics makes you happier. (Via Marginal Revolution.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A dramatic reading of the periodic table of the elements

Steve Martin has a rather good autobiographical piece in the New Yorker this week (not available online). A paragraph I especially liked (we're in the late 60s; Mitzi is Steve's girlfriend and Dalton Trumbo's daughter):
My first glimpse of Dalton Trumbo revealed an engrossed intellect--not finessing his latest screenplay but sorting the seeds and stems from a brick of pot. "Pop smokes marijuana," Mitzi explained, "with the wishful thought of cutting down on his drinking." Sometimes, from their balcony, I would see Trumbo walking laps around the perimeter of the pool. He held a small counter in one hand and clicked it every time he passed the diving board. These health walks were compromised by the cigarette he constantly held in his other hand.

The Onassis of the airport novel

At the TLS, Frances Wilson considers Andrew Wilson's Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex and several other recent sex-related literary things:
The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins’s most successful novel, should have been scribbled on a lavatory wall rather than placed between hard covers, according to the New York Times in 1961. Robbins, the first person to write about sex in mass-market novels, did not let this, or indeed any criticism, curb his enthusiasm. The Carpetbaggers, after all, contained one of the most notorious sex scenes in American writing, the one where a Hollywood producer has sex with a woman three times, after which she shaves him all over, massages him with a vibrator, gives him a bath in champagne, a few puffs of marijuana, and a blow job. Tame stuff by Cleland’s standards, but Robbins saw himself as a star in the literary firmament; he claimed at one point that his books were being studied in nine out of ten university literature courses, and that he was America’s answer to Dickens. The cash rolled in like waves over a bikini bottom, and his book sales exceeded $750 million.

Wilson makes no attempt to defend Robbins, whose writing he calls “vulgar and tacky” and whose life was a pornotopia composed of cocaine, celebrity orgies, and millions of dollars. But by way of homage to his subject, Wilson begins every chapter by telling the story as the novelist might have done. When Robbins informs his mistress, Yvonne, that A Stone for Danny Fisher is going to be made into a film, she “leaned over and placed a hand on the top of his leg. Harold felt himself stirring. ‘Hey, cut it out, will ya? I’m trying to have a drink, not cream my pants’”. Robbins liked turning his life into a story, and regaled many with an account of how he spent his childhood in a Roman Catholic orphanage, ran away to sea and was sole survivor of a torpedoed submarine, made and lost a fortune in sugar, and so forth. As his friend, Steve Shagan, said in an interview with Wilson,

"That story that he survived a submarine hit and swam to the surface – I said, “Harold, come on – there was no way you could have survived the pressure of being 300 feet under water and coming to the surface, never mind the sharks”. He turned round, gave me a smile, and said, “I was the only survivor”. I said, “It’s total bull-shit, but if you want to tell it, then you tell it”."
I must say that I rather want to read this book, it sounds pretty delightful and I am a closet Harold Robbins fan in any case--I do not have a copy here to check, and really this seems implausible even to me, but is it not perhaps the case that one of Robbins' novels (almost certainly The Carpetbaggers, in fact...) indeed finds a place as one of Anthony Burgess's 99 Best in English Since 1945?!?

(A copy of which, I am proud to add, was recently purchased by a student of mine at the Strand--I am hoping to start a sort of cult following of this book, in fact really it would be very tempting to teach an undergraduate seminar in which we would read 11 or 12 of the novels--only that would not give the true demented flavor of the thing, because we'd be skipping the Harold Robbinses etc.!)

Napoleon's bayonets

Antonio Gramsci, "Socialism and Culture" (1916): "The bayonets of Napoleon's armies found their road already smoothed by an invisible army of books and pamphlets that had swarmed out of Paris from the first half of the eighteenth century and had prepared both men and institutions for the necessary renewal."

Feasts of literature

A favorite passage of mine, from Johnson's Preface to the Dictionary, one that has retained its charge for me even through its perhaps overly frequent quotation in random contexts:
To have attempted much is always laudable, even when the enterprize is above the strength that undertakes it: To rest below his own aim is incident to every one whose fancy is active, and whose views are comprehensive; nor is any man satisfied with himself because he has done much, but because he can conceive little. When first I engaged in this work, I resolved to leave neither words nor things unexamined, and pleased myself with a prospect of the hours which I should revel away in feasts of literature, the obscure recesses of northern learning, which I should enter and ransack, the treasures with which I expected every search into those neglected mines to reward my labour, and the triumph with which I should display my acquisitions to mankind. When I had thus enquired into the original of words, I resolved to show likewise my attention to things; to pierce deep into every science, to enquire the nature of every substance of which I inserted the name, to limit every idea by a definition strictly logical, and exhibit every production of art or nature in an accurate description, that my book might be in place of all other dictionaries whether appellative or technical. But these were the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer. I soon found that it is too late to look for instruments, when the work calls for execution, and that whatever abilities I had brought to my task, with those I must finally perform it. To deliberate whenever I doubted, to enquire whenever I was ignorant, would have protracted the undertaking without end, and, perhaps, without much improvement; for I did not find by my first experiments, that what I had not of my own was easily to be obtained: I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to persue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chace the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.

Fred, Oswald, George, Marmaduke, Lionel

The last installment of Errol Morris on Fenton's Crimean War ON - OFF photos.

This is extraordinarily good stuff--if I was (were!) teaching a graduate seminar on historiography and research methods, I would think these pieces well worth including...

The shadow of Errol Morris in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Photo by Errol Morris.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Babylon candles

I will not say Dublin was idyllic, it seems the wrong word for a city which the writers we most associate with it were desperate to flee on the grounds of its being impossibly provincial! But I had a most excellent trip, really very enjoyable in pretty much every particular.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

1. I do not actually recommend the Royal Dublin Hotel, sordid might be an overstatement but dingy would not (definitely more on the hostel side of the hostel-hotel continuum), but it is undoubtedly very conveniently located and also exempted itself from all further criticism by allowing me to check in at 10am on Friday when I arrived and actually get a couple hours of sleep before going to the first conference event.

2. The Swift Symposium was excellent! No academic conference is magical, it is just not in the nature of the beast, but this stood out from the usual run of things, not least because it was being held in the Deanery at the Cathedral. (Not, it turned out, Swift's Deanery, which burned to the ground in 1782--but it's on the same spot, and it's a beautiful Georgian house, and the institutional function creates some kind of continuity...) Many highlights, including the chance to hang out with one of my two beloved dissertation directors, who had an excellent lecture on some questions that come up around Swift's desire to have his epitaph inscribed "in large Letters, deeply cut, and strongly gilded", the style of Swift's poetry and some twentieth-century sequels in Yeats and Eliot. (Some related discussions can be found here.)

(3. A digression, non-Dublin-related: I often have cause to reflect on my good fortune in dissertation advisors. It is a lucky thing even to have one great one, but I had two, and spending a bit of time with each of them recently has reminded me of their excellence and my gratitude. Here's something my other one's been doing recently.)

4. Denis Johnston's play about Swift, The Dreaming Dust, was staged in the cathedral by a group of young people whose enthusiasm perhaps counterbalanced the shortcomings of the material.

5. But then again I did not know that Swift and 'Stella' were disinterred not once but twice in the nineteenth century, and the second time the then Dean quite sensibly had them reinterred in concrete or some such so that nobody could mess around again with the bones. (Thus thwarting the notion that DNA testing might now be used to resolve for once and for all the 'hypothesis' that Johnston levels in his play--that Swift could not marry Stella because really he was the illegitimate son of Sir William Temple's father, and she was the illegitimate child of Sir William, and so it was INCEST--I may not have gotten this quite right--as an explanation, it does not suit the obligations of Occam's razor, there are a lot of other more obvious reasons why Swift might not have wanted to marry Stella, mostly just having to do with his own personality...)

6. It was exciting to meet the Dean of a Cathedral, I have met a lot of academic deans by now but it is not the same thing! And the most thrilling moment of the whole conference, I would have to say, in a non-intellectual way, was when the Dean welcomed us all and unwrapped Swift's very own pinchbeck snuffbox and passed it round so that we could each hold it in our hand as he must have--the Real Presence!

7. And I had an interesting conversation with a very pleasant woman who is the Rector of the Protestant church in Edgeworthstown, where there are all sorts of relics of the novelist Maria Edgeworth, a favorite of mine--I must get out there on another trip... And all sorts of other excellent literary conversations which it is not really appropriate to muse upon here.

8. Good food (though it also must be observed that Ireland is horrifyingly a nation of junk food, and I could only reflect that it is a pity I did not visit Dublin while I was still a smoker, because really cigarettes and beer and sweets and crisps are the things being consumed in huge quantities by everyone you seem to pass by on the street!): chicken stew at Chez Max, delicious Brazilian churrascaria at a restaurant whose name I cannot remember but which rather wonderfully caused my dissertation advisor to reflect on the charms of the caipirinha.

9. And an absolutely delicious Sunday lunch at Fallon & Byrne with my long-lost first cousin and her husband, who I last saw in 1999 and who have been living in Dublin for some years now.

10. As I have said, the food was delicious (I had a salad with rare tuna, delicious greens and a pomegranate vinaigrette), but it was especially delicious because on Sunday morning I did indeed get in my much desired longish run. Now I am going to rhapsodize! (Oh, the mundane details: 9.2 miles, average HR 142, average pace 10:00--I was really just toddling along, it was very enjoyable.) My most lovely discovery was that the parts of Dublin I was in are virtually idiot-proof for sense-of-directionless people! Because a river runs right through it. This is extremely good.

11. The run really was a high point, partly because I had to wait to have it till I was mostly done with work. I am too lazy to make a real online version at one of the run-mapping sites, but here is the map which shows how convenient this was: I was staying on O'Connell St, so I just ran west along the north side of the river to the Guinness brewery, then crossed a bridge and ran back east along the south side of the river out further than is shown in this map, and then back up and over. I had to do a second round out to the brewery again, and really wouldn't have minded going a bit further if it hadn't been (a) repetitive and (b) hunger-inducing (for about the only time this whole fall I was glad that I am not currently doing marathon training, mostly I have been having terrible pangs and longings for it, but really it was a good thing I was not trying to do twenty). Highlights: four very evil-looking swans hard by the Guinness set-up; a sign for the Smock Alley Theatre Studio that made me think longingly on evocative names of eighteenth-century places.

12. And then because really on Sunday evening there is nothing sensibly Dublinish to try and do (I did walk around the quad at Trinity College, but the museum with the Book of Kells was closed by the time I made it there from the cathedral), I spent the evening more or less guiltlessly consuming two magically enjoyable things: the latest installment of Naomi Novik's Temeraire books--it's called Empire of Ivory, which I think is almost the best yet, she is an outrageously gifted writer--I love these books!; and the Stardust movie, which I have been strongly wanting to see for months now but since I never see any movies it just was not happening--but it was playing at the theatre across the street from the hotel, which was perfect--how delightful... Naomi Novik's training was in English literature and computer science, and before she wrote novels she was developing and writing video games--I think more and more it will be that people are producing great stuff in multiple media, Neil Gaiman also has that talent for just making good things in lots of different modes, this is something I very much enjoy and admire.

13. And then, to top it all off (I know that in a busier-and-more-traveling possible next stage of my work life, I will finally have to give this up, but it has served me well all these years as a principle), my hard-and-fast "don't even try and do work on a plane because you will just stare into space and be bored, and will afterwards kick yourself for having carried around a heavy load of books and papers you didn't touch" rule came through wonderfully well for me today. (It is nicely complemented by the allure of those large-format paperback editions of new books that they sell in airport bookstores in the UK and Ireland.) I ignored the dire currency conversion rates and extravagantly bought Ian Rankin's Exit Music and Robert Harris's The Ghost and the flight passed in a flash, it was just the right amount of light reading...

Exit, pursued by a bear

For serious students of literary criticism. (Thanks to Nico for the link.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

No posts till Tuesday

Off to Dublin--very exciting--only I got derailed just now by the arrival of a mystery gift, a box with no identifying labels re: sender that contains ten packets of ten bulbs each of those Queen of the Night tulips! You know, those black ones--apropos in the sense that I have a black thumb rather than a green thumb, and I am also a fan of a curiously hilarious novel called The Black Tulip, and I believe Harrison Ainsworth may have written a tulip craze novel also that I read some years ago with considerable enthusiasm--but not at all apropos in the sense that I do not have a garden, and also I kill plants very reliably! So if you happen to be reading this and are the sender, please identify yourself so that I can thank you but also let us consider their repurposing in some more immediately useful context...

Throw Your Voice Like a Professional!

Wesley Stace has a funny and appealing list, at the Guardian, of the top ten books about ventriloquism (a sinister art, needless to say--and I rather have a feeling I've read a few novels featuring ventriloquism that don't make an appearance here, must mull that one over--but I am definitely tempted to go and read all these!).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The end of the affair

At the New York Observer, Nicholson Baker on David Michaelis's Charles Schulz biography
After an affair in his 50’s with a woman of 25, Schulz had Snoopy say, “Can a person really be in love with two different snowflakes at the same time?” Schulz’s wife, Joyce, was, by many accounts, a difficult woman—belittling and bossy in ways that resembled Lucy in the comic strip. She built an ice arena, and managed the Peanuts Visitor’s Center. She and Schulz squabbled a lot.

The affair happened this way: One day a young businesswoman named Tracey came to visit. Tracey was flirtatiously admiring of the crew-cutted, professorial Schulz, and Schulz was very taken with her gold-green eyes and her perfect little nose. They skated together and had a snack at the Warm Puppy, the restaurant at the Peanuts ice rink, and eventually they had an affair. Schulz was a “red-blooded American man,” she said later. He wrote her letters extolling the greenness of her eyes and the perfect shape of her nose. But he didn’t leave Joyce.

Eventually Tracey got tired of waiting. She had other suitors. Schulz wrote her more letters about her eyes and her nose, but Tracey, by then, knew that Schulz wasn’t the people-loving Will Rogers she had thought he was—that he was in fact massively egocentric and impossible to make happy and that she really couldn’t spend her life with him. He proposed to her as they sat in a restaurant by the water. She didn’t answer. His eye flitted to a large sailboat sliding by, and he said, “If you married me, you could have anything you want. I make four thousand dollars a day.” Her heart fell, and that was the end of the affair.

His love of meat

Kate Connolly has a funny and slightly horrifying piece at the Guardian about the domestic revelations of Gunter Grass's housekeeper:
Ms Amelung, the daughter of a protestant minister from Osnabrück, was taken on at the age of 16 shortly before the birth of Günter and his first wife Anna's fourth child. She had answered an advert in the magazine Christ and the World asking for someone to "peel the onions" for 220 deutschmarks a month.

The irony of the request is not lost on Grass aficionados. His last book was called Peeling the Onion, in which he revealed his membership of the Waffen SS in Nazi Germany. Ms Amelung's seemingly mundane domestic reflections, based on her diaries and letters home, are being seen by the publishing world as a welcome antidote to the admissions that shocked his fans around the world.

And they are being lapped up by Grass's public, who thought they knew everything about him but are only now learning of his love of apple juice and his aversion to kitchen appliances, which meant cream had to be beaten with a hand whisk.

Ms Amelung reveals details such as how she cooked his favourite meat dishes such as leg of mutton with rosemary and garlic, brawn, entrails soup, calf's brains and artichokes in vinaigrette. She produced the dishes for him on demand to keep him sustained while he wrote.

Je ne regrette rien

At the New York Sun, Kate Taylor on the canon according to n+1. I'll be interested to see this one, must make sure to get a copy myself...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Doing lengths in the moat

I've just almost finished reading a book that is perhaps my favorite of everything I've read this year, a magically good book about swimming but also about a host of other things. Imagine if Sebald had a light-hearted English cousin with a passion for natural history, and this is the book that cousin would have written!

The book's only possible flaw is related to the ways in which is a kind of moral corrective to me: I always have a strong urge to read every book very quickly, straight through, from start to finish, and this book asks you to stop and savor it, to pace yourself in a leisurely rather than a voracious way, not to consume it all at once. Reading too much at once, the taste began to cloy--anecdote piled upon anecdote--but in small bits and medium-sized stretches it is simply miraculous.

I've been very conscious recently of the ways in which I seem incapable of just becoming mildly and enjoyably and frivolously interested in endurance-sport-related activities. Really I took to 'em because of the ways they are like the other hard-driving and results-obsessed kinds of thing I am fond of! They are soul-expanding in various ways, in other words, but there's a harder-faster-stronger element to the business that is somewhat at odds with the appreciate-the-loveliness-of-things mode that we ideally want to solicit in ourselves.

So: Roger Deakin's Waterlog. (Good title, eh, for a book about wild swimming?!? That's the US Amazon link, and I'm pasting in the UK one too because I'm very serious about this recommendation--I think this book must be significantly better-known in the UK than the US--here it is, anyway.)

Here is Robert Macfarlane's obituary for Deakin (a self-described "philanderer of rivers"), who died in 2006. Go forth and read! This will save me the trouble of writing a sensible description. Instead I am just going to give a few tastes...

As I read chapter four I was virtually chanting aloud to myself "This is my favorite chapter! This is my favorite chapter!" It's about Cambridge, and though it opens with Deakin swimming upstream in the Granta (charmingly his preferred mode is the breaststroke), he moves into a wonderfully literary mode as he begins to discuss the accomplishments of Jack Overhill, Cambridge's most celebrated river-swimmer in the early twentieth century:
Jack was one of the first people in Cambridge to swim the six-beat crawl. One evening in 1920 he was standing on the iron footbridge by the bathing sheds when a man in a red bathing costume came downstream and passed under the bridge, swimming a stroke he had never seen. He drew parallel with a racing punt, kept level with it for a while, then pulled away to one of the ladders and walked off to change. Jack was amazed. Most people at that time either swam the trudgeon, a kind of crawl with a scissor-leg kick, the breaststroke, or the original backstroke, with a frog-leg kick and both arms windmilled in unison. But this swimmer was kicking his legs up and down, like someone walking backwards. The bathing sheds were on fire with inspiration. This was the crawl, and the disciple swimming it was Jack Lavender, a Cambridge man who had learnt the new style in London, where he swam for the Civil Service.

The crawl! Stories about it were beginning to appear in Chums and The Boys' Friend Library. In one, a boy called 'The Dud' pretends he can't swim, then amazes his friends by winning a race swimming the crawl. In another, a boy-swimmer called 'Fish' Fanshaw raises 'a water-spout' with his feet as he does the hundred yards in seventy seconds. Overhill taught himself the crawl from an illustrated article in an encyclopaedia, although Jack Lavender did come down one Sunday to hold a master-class, demonstrating the crawl as he lay across a chair. After that, the river went quiet for weeks as swimmers practised the six-beat crawl, muttering to themselves the varied rhythm of its leg-kicks: 'Major, minor, minor, Major, minor, minor'.
There are various investigations in the Map Room at the library, and then a real-world search for something called the Moor Barns Bath, and it is all wonderfully appealing.

But the next chapter is my even-more-favorite chapter! Deakin sets out to join the "the last eel trapper in a city where the monks once paid their tithes to the cathedral with 30,000 eels a year." Deakin claims the eel and the otter as his two totem animals, and check out this description:
I spent that night in Freckenham, dreaming of my mother teaching me to swim, cradling my head as I kicked my legs in the water. I returned through the Fens in mist at a quarter to six next morning to meet Sid and collect the night's catch. His friend John was on board too, also dressed in yellow oilskin trousers but lacking the old tweed fishing hat Sid seemed to live in. John's job was to help haul in the tackle and untie the netting at the bottom end of each trap to release the eels.

As we approached last night's reed-bed, Sid's eye was on whatever subtle landmarks he had chosen to help him located the row of sunken traps. He throttled down the engine and John swung a grappling iron over the side, waited for it to sink, then heaved. 'I think it's the nets,' he said. 'I hope it's not a body.' In came the chain, then the first of the traps with the dark brown glistening shapes and flashes of white belly. Nothing could be more streamlined or agile than this. An eel's head, with its eyes set close together and high in the skull, and the sharp snout, bears a remarkable similarity to Concrode. Nothing could be so outlandish. An eel is so mottled and green and varnished in mucus it could be an uprooted plant, a mandrake root come to life.

John untied each trap at the bottom and tipped the creatures deftly into the plastic tub, where they subsided into a glutinous tangle, making little kissing sounds. Their electric energy was astonishing. They reared straight up in the tub on the tips of their tails like snakes, waving their little heads about looking for a way out, swaying like puppets, naked as bedsprings. Every now and again an eel spilled on to the bottom of the boat and slithered in reverse, then forward, curling itself into a question mark as if to say: 'What the hell is going on here?' I noticed they picked it up with a towel, or a pair of kinked tongs, and Sid explained: 'You keep your fingers away from them. If they did happen to get hold of you, you'd know about it. The trouble is they suck everything in, and the teeth go inwards and . . .' He pursed his lips and made a sucking sound. 'I did get nabbed once; they got this finger. But I got it out. Same as pike, you've got to be careful.' Sid sorted the eels as they came in, flicking the smaller ones back. Some nets had as many as half a dozen eels in them. John had to keep disentangling young 3- or 4-inch bream out of the leader nets. 'No ruff,' he says, 'thank God.' Ruff are horrible little spiky fish that get tangled in the net like bits of thistle.
Two other favorite bits, though almost everything here is my favorite:
After the show, and a pub fish dinner, I spent a blissful night in the back of the sometimes-reliable Citroen CV Safari down a farm track in a Dutch barn alongside a combine harvester. This is the beauty of the Citroen shooting brake. You can stretch right out and sleep in it, curl up and read in it, spread out your dinner in it, and carry a small library. Some people have prim little curtains in the back windows, but I carry a big air-force-surplus silk parachute with me and spread it over the car when I'm in residence. It works like net curtains in the suburbs; I can see out but people, or just as likely cows, can't see in. It also diffuses the light beautifully, prolonging sleep by softening the intensity of sunrises. It's the kind of parachute they use for dropping food parcels in emergencies. It is big enough to stretch out by the guy-ropes into an airy Bedouin tent, its brown, orange, green and white silk disguising the presence of a motor car, if not exactly unobtrusive. It keeps mosquitoes and midges out and means you can leave all the windows and the back door open on sultry nights. Even if it gets drenched, it dries out quickly in the sun. Once, when I was encamped inside it in the chestnut woods near Souseyrac in France, I heard some early walkers marvelling, 'Mais alors, il eest venu en parachute.'
And finally, irresistibly (a passage most characteristic of Deakin's irrepressible stream of anecdotage):
At Newmarket, there are several elaborate open-air equine swimming pools, and all the trainers now regard swimming horses as an essential part of their routine. It tones up the animals and improves their fitness and breathing. It might, in fact, be much better for horses to swim their races than to run them. This is exactly what the Thais do with elephants. Elephant swimming races are major national events in Thailand, and the champion animals are heroes every bit as famous as Red Rum. One of the current champions is Hai Pok, a twenty-five-year-old elephant, who was recently cheered on to victory by crowds lining the banks of the Moon River, to the north-east of Bangkok. He beat the other elephants by swimming 260 yards over the river and back again in just over 2 minutes. He then narrowly outpaced two students in a one-way swim across the river.
Resolutions for 2008: more wild swimming; more close observation of animals in the wild; write a magical book myself, or at least as magical as I can manage!

Monday, October 15, 2007

The heirs of Bohr

At the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews Gino Segre's Faust in Copenhagen. (Not available online to non-subscribers.) I am regrettably ill-equipped to evaluate some of his arguments, but at the very least I find his conclusions stirring (I fairly often wish I were a biologist, or doing something at least broadly speaking in the life sciences--neurology, epidemiology):
In my opinion, the double helix is much too simple to be the secret of life. If DNA had been the secret of life, we should have been able to cure cancer long ago. The double helix explains replication but it does not explain metabolism. Delbrück chose to study the phage because it embodies replication without metabolism, and Crick and Watson chose to study DNA for the same reason. Replication is clean while metabolism is messy. By excluding messiness, they excluded the essence of life. The genomes of human and other creatures have now been completely mapped and the processes of replication have been thoroughly explored, but the mysteries of metabolism still remain mysteries.

The phage is still the only living creature whose behavior is simple enough to be completely understood and predicted. To understand other kinds of creatures, from fruit flies to humans, we need also a deep understanding of metabolism. The understanding of metabolism will perhaps be the theme of the next revolution in biology. I have already discussed in these pages a seminal paper by the biologist Carl Woese with the title "A New Biology for a New Century," pointing the way toward the next revolution. Woese's new biology is based on the idea that a living creature is a dynamic pattern of organization in the stream of chemical materials and energy that passes through it. Patterns of organization are constantly forming and reforming themselves. If we try to observe and localize every molecule as it passes through an organism, we are likely to destroy the patterns that constitute metabolic life. In Woese's picture of life, complementarity plays a central role, just as Bohr said it should.

At the same time, while Carl Woese and others are debating the future of biology, the great debate over the future of physics continues. It is still a debate over the same questions that caused the disagreement between Bohr and Einstein. Does the quantum theory of the 1920s, together with the standard model of particles and interactions that grew out of it, give us a solid foundation for understanding nature? Or do we need another revolution to reach a deeper understanding?

Theoretical physicists are now divided into two main factions. Those who look forward to another revolution mostly believe that it will grow out of a grand mathematical scheme known as string theory. Those who are content with the outcome of the old revolution are mostly studying more mundane subjects such as high-temperature superconductors and quantum computers. String theory may be considered to be the counterattack of those who lost the debate over complementarity in physics in Copenhagen in 1932. It is the revenge of the heirs of Einstein against the heirs of Bohr. The new discipline of systems biology, describing living creatures as emergent dynamic organizations rather than as collections of molecules, is the counterattack of those who lost the debate over complementarity in biology in 1953. It is the revenge of the heirs of Bohr against the heirs of Einstein.

Fantasy island

Carole Cadwalladr on the genteel carnage of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Lots of funny and true stuff there, but the part that really caught my eye was this rather lovely bit at the end:
What saves Frankfurt for me in the end is the rest of the world. The British and the Americans occupy Hall 8, but Hall 6 and Hall 5, I discover, are distinctly more interesting. Nobody in Georgia or the Faroes Islands or Ukraine or Iraqi Kurdistan is attempting to publish yet another rip-off of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Nor is Jordan riding high in the fiction charts.

And while foreign buyers snap up British and American novels and translate them, we don't return the favour. Doesn't it frustrate you? I ask a woman in the Netherlands stand. 'Frustrate me? No. I just think it is a problem for you, that you see so little of the world.'

Tina Mamulashvili, a publisher in Tbilisi, shows me the works of Georgia's bestselling author, Aka Morchiladze.

'How many do you have to sell to be a bestseller in Georgia?' I ask

'If you sell 2,000 or more you are really successful. The average print run for fiction is 500 copies.'

'Five hundred copies!' I say.

And then she shows me a copy of Morchiladze's Santa Esperanza and it's a wonderfully inventive thing - a tiny explorer's sack containing 36 booklets and a map of a fantasy island in the Black Sea 'which is populated by Georgians, Turks, Italians and British'.
I want that explorer's sack with those little books in it! Or perhaps more to the point, I want to write something like that myself! Hmmm, must ponder this one--I am just bursting with energy this morning, rather mysterious...

(Here by the way were my thoughts on Cadwalladr's wonderfully appealing novel The Family Tree...)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

De oorlog der werelden

War of the Worlds covers . (Book covers, not song covers.)

(Courtesy of Weekend Stubble.)

Four legs only?

John F. Burns has a quite lovely story in the Times about the cats of Baghdad. (Thanks to A. for the link.)

The deanery

If you happen to be Dublin-based and with an interest in Jonathan Swift, come and say hello to me at the Sixth Dublin Symposium on Jonathan Swift this coming weekend. I will be speaking on Swift and eugenics, at some point on Saturday morning; contact the cathedral for more details.

(I'm pretty excited about this trip--I've never been to Dublin--Swift is one of my handful of particularly favorite writers--and the symposium will be held in Swift's own Deanery at the cathedral!)

(What I need now: a ten-mile running route that is idiot-proofed against people with no sense of direction, so that I can do a good run on Sunday morning before having lunch with a Dublin-based cousin I haven't seen for at least ten years...)

Fast-forwarding through the sludge

Phil Nugent watches TV so you don't have to...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sauce tortue

An interesting piece at the Times: Richard Pevear contemplates the collaborative work, with Larissa Volokhonsky, of translating War and Peace (hmm, I do want to reread that novel in this translation, I should take it with me on some trip where I can only carry one book...).

Here he discusses the challenge of rendering Tolstoy's prose both vividly and accurately:
Count Ilya Andreich Rostov, Natasha’s father, is giving a banquet in honor of General Bagration. Ordering the menu, he insists that “grebeshki” be put in the “tortue.” I assumed that tortue was French turtle soup, but what about grebeshki? The Russian word can mean either “cockscombs” or “scallops.” Which would you put in a turtle soup? I did some research into the uses of cockscombs, but with rather unappealing results. I looked at previous translations: one has “scallops” and thinks the soup is a “pie crust”; another has “cockscombs” in a “pasty”; in a third the “cockscombs” are in a “soup”; the fourth agrees about the soup but puts “croutons” in it.

Going by my own taste, I decided to put scallops in the turtle soup. This reading got as far as the first set of page proofs. Just then we met by chance, at a dinner in Paris, a woman who used to run a cooking school. We asked her which it should be. She, too, was puzzled. A few days later we received a long e-mail message from her. She had become so intrigued by our question that she went to the National Library the next day and looked up the history of the culinary use of cockscombs and scallops. She voted firmly for cockscombs and was happy to inform us that they came into fashion in higher circles precisely around the time of the Napoleonic wars. By another coincidence, I had given Larissa a copy of Alexandre Dumas’s Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine for her birthday. Leafing through it, she came upon a recipe for sauce tortue, meant to accompany turtle and prepared with cockscombs. Suddenly the whole passage made sense, because the chef replies to the old count’s order: “Three cold sauces, then?” The other translations have “three cold dishes” or “entrees,” with no relation to sauces at all. Thanks to Mme. Meunier and Dumas, we were able to make the correction in the second set of proofs.

Pickling artistic tradition in human flesh

For the FT, David Pilling lunches with kabuki royalty Danjuro Ishikawa XII:
I want to know about his acting style. I once saw him play an illustrious priest who slowly realises that a beggar woman visiting his temple is, in fact, the mother who abandoned him as a baby. The scene was filled with tension and poignancy but was in no way an attempt at naturalism.

“There are two ways in performing kabuki. When you express sadness,” he says, hissing the Japanese word, kanashii, like a cat, “you can show sadness by crying out loud. But sometimes the performer only briefly shows a sad face. In this case, within the elision lies the truth. Another important characteristic of kabuki is the ma, the pauses. When the performer is surprised by something, he doesn’t react immediately, but pauses and then makes a surprised reaction,” he says, turning his face into a mask and then flashing astonishment. “It is during this pause that the performer pours the feeling into the play.”
Goodness, I would like to see that...

The Great Swallower

The tale of a fish: courtesy of Wendy.

Friday, October 12, 2007

It's queer to say plectra

At the Guardian, Neil Gaiman explains how he came to write Stardust:
I started writing Stardust in 1994, but mentally timeslipped about 70 years to do it. The mid-1920s seemed like a time when people enjoyed writing those sorts of things, before there were fantasy shelves in the bookshops, before trilogies and books "in the great tradition of The Lord of the Rings". This, on the other hand, would be in the tradition of Lud-in-the-Mist and The King of Elfland's Daughter. All I was certain of was that nobody had written books on computers back in the 1920s, so I bought a large book of unlined pages, the first fountain pen I had owned since my schooldays and a copy of Katharine Briggs' Dictionary of Fairies. I filled the pen and began.
Also, James Fenton on a harpsichord from outer space.

Which reminds me: I can't quite find a good link online, and I'm not going to be able to go to it myself, but on Thursday, Nov. 1 Elizabeth Morgan will play a solo recital at Galerie Icosahedron in New York, presented by the VIMTriBeCa music series. The program is comprised of keyboard works that Jane Austen played as an amateur pianist, and in between pieces Morgan will talk about Austen and music. Details as follows:

Thursday, Nov 1, 7 pm
Gallerie Icosahedron
27 North Moore Street
New York, NY 10013

See VIMTricBeCa for more information

An accidental romance

Helen Hill's murder, as well as the death of musician Dinerral Shavers, will be investigated tomorrow night at 10pm on 48 Hours Mystery. It's a story about the collapse of New Orleans' infrastructure and the breakdown of the city's criminal justice system--last year in New Orleans 162 people were killed, arrests were made in a third of the cases but to date there's only been one conviction...

Oh, but the most magical thing--they've got Helen's film "Tunnel of Love" as a video link on the website! Do please go and watch it, it is the funniest and most romantic little movie you will ever see, I have just accidentally made myself weep I'm afraid...

(Helen's husband Paul is the one singing on the soundtrack--that is a good song. Also, unless I am dramatically misremembering, I believe the fairground cotton-candy spinner was in reality a miniature Bundt cake pan...)

A love letter to one of the libraries of my childhood

Reading this week about Doris Lessing winning the Nobel Prize for Literature prompted me to go to the library and check out a book of hers that has a scene in it that has stayed with me for a long time, and that struck me with more force when I first read it as a teenager than almost anything else I can think of.

It's from The Summer Before the Dark, which I think is perhaps her best novel (I say this not having read more than four or five of them, and none since I was a teenager--but it really is an exceptional book--Lessing never had the status of favorite with me--but she is such a suitable choice for the Nobel, I was very glad to hear of it). It falls late in the book, after a series of reflections on the ways men look at women, in public and in private, and the strange looming importance of physical appearance and the differences it makes.

No more explanation than that is needed, really, and I should just jump straight into the passage:
Down the street a corner block was being lifted to the sky in tall flats. The bottom part of this building was complete: it fitted exactly into its allotted area, with no space left over. For five or so floors it was as it would go on, save that the windows had scrawls of chalk on them. Then began disorder: it was as if the building at that point had been broken off. High in the air men walked on planks, dangled buckets, wielded trowels, manipulated cranes. Men were working, too, at ground level, preparing what was to be hoisted aloft. Kate realised that she was standing still, staring; had been for some minutes. The men took no notice of her.

The fact that they didn't suddenly made her angry. She walked away out of sight, and there, took off her jacket--Maureen's--showing her fitting dark dress. She tied her hair dramatically with a scarf. Then she strolled back in front of the workmen, hips conscious of themselves. A storm of whistles, calls, invitations. Out of sight the other way, she made her small transformation and walked back again: the men glanced at her, did not see her. She was trembling with rage: it was a rage, it seemed to her, that she had been suppressing for a lifetime. And it was a front for worse, a misery that she did not want to answer, for it was saying again and again: This is what you have been doing for years and years and years.

She made the transit again, as a sex object, and saw that a girl dressed like a Dutch doll stood on a corner opposite, watching. Full yellow skirts, a tight red jacket, hair in yellow curls, a bright pink patch on either cheek, wide blue eyes.

Kate arrived beside Maureen and said, "And that's what it is all worth."
(There are versions of this scene elsewhere in her novels--I think that some similar reflections can be found in If the Old Could, though I don't have a copy here to check.)

There are obvious reasons why Lessing's novels would resonate with an eager and serious teenage reader, not least because it is at age twelve or thirteen (if you are female) that the true horror bursts in on you of the fact that for some years to come you are not going to be able to walk down the street without attracting the most unwanted and humiliating forms of attention. (Joyce Carol Oates is good on this also, and is more interested than Lessing in the psychology of the teenage girl as opposed to the aging woman--I was reading a lot of Oates in those days also...)

I was a more serious reader as a teenager, in many ways, than I will ever be again. That's not to say I don't still have phases of extreme and intensive reading of various kinds: I certainly do, it's one of my favorite things both about work and about life. But starting at about age twelve or thirteen I had what I can only describe as a vocation for novel-reading.

(I had always of course been an obsessive novel reader, from earliest childhood, really I cannot remember not knowing how to read, and at ten or eleven I was certainly already spending almost all of my babysitting money on not particularly edifying volumes published by Del Rey and other similar mass-market publishers--Anne McCaffrey! Piers Anthony!--and languishing over the complete works of Dick Francis. The name Waldenbooks still makes me nostalgic, and B. Dalton--do you remember when you had to go to the mall and to those stores in order to buy books?!?)

(And here is a sort of mini-essay about one teacher who opened up a whole world of reading for me in third grade.)

But around when I was twelve the world of serious fiction kind of opened up to me in a way that was less magical than my childhood reading experiences but more ethically compelling. How else do you learn about the world and about language?!? Experience is so frustratingly limited when one is a Young Person, it is one of the very annoying things about being a child, so novel-reading is particularly indispensable at this stage of life, and if you are very certain that you want to write a lot of novels yourself when you grow up then there is an added fillip of interest.

I went to a good school, but of course school is quite hopeless when it comes to these things, they just do not imagine that you are really serious about what you want to do reading-wise! And this is where the library comes in.

Maybe the single strongest influence on my teenage-fiction reading was the Anthony Burgess volume titled 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1945, which I often have cause to mention and which I clung to as my bible, I diligently read everything he recommended although in retrospect there are some distinctly peculiar aspects to his choices!

But another influence was the Friends Free Library, attached to the school I attended but in many respects independent of it, and a sort of home to me and a strong educational influence also in its own right. That's where I found the Lessing novel I quoted above.

(Strict accuracy compels me to note here that I was also an avid user of the public library--in fact I remember also being very struck by Lessing's novel The Good Terrorist, which I see was first published in 1985--I had it from the new books shelf of the public library, I would have been fourteen or so and this was the sort of thing I read voraciously...)

But yes, the Friends Free Library--there was a small but high-quality adult fiction section on the balcony upstairs, and when I had pretty much read everything in the children's room about a million times I moved on up there and started to systematically work through it, and it was extremely beneficial for my education.

I worked at the library for several summers, it was a godsend as I was not a babysitting enthusiast and it's hard to find a job otherwise when you're that age and with not-good public transportation! Parts of the job I wasn't crazy about--often there wasn't quite enough work to do, so that the hours passed rather slowly, and a not-favorite task was showing the films to the little kids who came for the weekly session of movie-watching. Not bad in itself, but very hot and crowded (it was a ceiling-fan rather than air-conditioning-type situation) and also what you will remember if you ever used one yourself, those old projectors were absolutely awful--constantly grinding to a halt, producing shouts of outrage from the masses of children & leading on my part to frantic sprocket-realigning and attempts to get the wretched animated film back on track...

One task, though, that I was given in some especially quiet month, was like a ridiculous dream come true. I was supposed to put a bookplate in each of the books in the adult fiction collection--but really there was no time pressure, there was not enough work to do, nobody was really paying attention and it would not do to finish too quickly--and I am a fast reader, so I kind of just read the beginning of every single book so that I would know what to come back and read properly later on!

(The other thing I did regularly at that library was serve as a member of the committee that read all the new books for the children's collection before they went onto the shelves. Everyone else on the committee, pretty much, was a grandmother who liked little children's picture books, so I got all the young-adult fiction, and this is actually why I've read a lot of stuff published in the 80s that otherwise I would have been too old to have found once I was no longer so regularly haunting the children's room--Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy, Cynthia Voigt...)My childhood did not happen perhaps as long ago as this photograph implies--I could not find a suitable one from the 1970s or 1980s, and frankly this is more like what I remember than the bright modern shot you see here! There was a visual dreariness or drabness that actually highlighted the magical aspect of what was on the inside of all of those dull-looking books--I remember often thinking at the time of what a delightful and well-kept secret it was that unprepossessing musty volumes should be so very interesting on the inside. To this day I find conversations about book-jackets mildly perplexing, I am so much a library-user that though I do now and again buy a book on impulse because of its cover, my relationship with books is almost wholly unmediated by anything actually appealing about the artifact of the book itself! For instance what you may not know if you are not a university library user is that none of those books have their jackets, it's all library bindings--most democratic!

It having dawned on me just now that this is one of those topics on which I could dwell for an impossibly long time, I will break off now without offering any thoughts in conclusion, except to say that I am now a more frivolous reader in many respects. Once I got to college, I finally had the means to figure out the serious intellectually stimulating stuff that I wanted to read, and now my serious reading centers fairly heavily on the eighteenth century, and that's fine. I do not feel an internal pressure to keep up with major works of fiction that often to me now have too much the flavor of worthiness. But I am grateful to my teenage self for putting in those hours with books like Gravity's Rainbow and Giles Goat-Boy so that my present-day self can be lazy and read chiefly for pleasure! (NB that was pleasure when I was fifteen, but would not be so much now!)

Mourning becomes her

Last night I saw the National Theatre of Greece production of Sophocles' Electra. It fell somewhat short of what one imagines such experiences might be--and yet it was still very much worth seeing. The really lovely aspect of the production is the chorus. Everything about the conception and execution of the chorus works incredibly well--fifteen or so women in white, moving and singing and speaking in shiver-inducing ways that really make you feel yourself to be in the presence of the uncanny. Quite lovely (the music was very good also).

The actress playing Electra wasn't terrible, but unfortunately adhered to the moaning-madwoman school of acting (I wish people wouldn't play Ophelia like this either, it is so ludicrous!). And the production itself had some obvious problems--not least that the front rim of the circular stage was not visible from much of the theatre, in ways that the blocking rendered annoyingly present. However, all round, very interesting and stimulating. I am reminded that one of my most obsessive childhood impulses (because I had a passion for everything to do with ancient Greece, fostered by the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, studying it in fourth grade and a devotion for the novels of Mary Renault) was to learn Greek and go to Greece--I have never learned ancient Greek, this is a pity (but if I am very bored in some conjectural period of long-future retirement that is what I am going to learn), but I do think it would be a good idea to go and see some of those places in Greece--Mycenae, and the spots for the battles Thucydides writes about, and the places Odysseus visits in the Odyssey. Like really I would/should go on one of those cruises that follows the path of the Odyssey, even though I am not the cruise-going type... (I am not really qualified to be the lecturer on a cruise like that--the other trip of that sort I'd love to do would be in the Baltic...)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Meerkat manor

On animal obituaries.

Floppy ears and tameness

Jerry Fodor at the LRB on an exciting development in scientific thinking about evolution (exciting to me, at any rate, as on the basis of nothing much more sensible than gut feeling I have been convinced for years that adaptation is at the very least playing a disproportionate role in most current accounts of matters biological, and that forty years from now people are going to look back and be perplexed at how large it loomed in both scientific and popular texts):
[T]he classical Darwinist account of evolution as primarily driven by natural selection is in trouble on both conceptual and empirical grounds. Darwin was too much an environmentalist. He seems to have been seduced by an analogy to selective breeding, with natural selection operating in place of the breeder. But this analogy is patently flawed; selective breeding is performed only by creatures with minds, and natural selection doesn’t have one of those. The alternative possibility to Darwin’s is that the direction of phenotypic change is very largely determined by endogenous variables. The current literature suggests that alterations in the timing of genetically controlled developmental processes is often the endogenous variable of choice; hence the ‘devo’ in ‘evo-devo’.

But I think there’s also a moral about what attitude we should take towards our science. The years after Darwin witnessed a remarkable proliferation of other theories, each seeking to co-opt natural selection for purposes of its own. Evolutionary psychology is currently the salient instance, but examples have been legion. They’re to be found in more or less all of the behavioural sciences, to say nothing of epistemology, semantics, theology, the philosophy of history, ethics, sociology, political theory, eugenics and even aesthetics. What they have in common is that they attempt to explain why we are so-and-so by reference to what being so-and-so buys for us, or what it would have bought for our ancestors. ‘We like telling stories because telling stories exercises the imagination and an imagination would have been a good thing for a hunter-gatherer to have.’ ‘We don’t approve of eating grandmother because having her around to baby-sit was useful in the hunter-gatherer ecology.’ ‘We like music because singing together strengthened the bond between the hunters and the gatherers (and/or between the hunter-gatherer grownups and their hunter-gatherer offspring)’. ‘We talk by making noises and not by waving our hands; that’s because hunter-gatherers lived in the savannah and would have had trouble seeing one another in the tall grass.’ ‘We like to gossip because knowing who has been up to what is important when fitness depends on co-operation in small communities.’ ‘We don’t all talk the same language because that would make us more likely to interbreed with foreigners (which would be bad because it would weaken the ties of hunter-gatherer communities).’ ‘We don’t copulate with our siblings because that would decrease the likelihood of interbreeding with foreigners (which would be bad because, all else being equal, heterogeneity is good for the gene pool).’ I’m not making this up, by the way. Versions of each of these theories can actually be found in the adaptationist literature. But, in point of logic, this sort of explanation has to stop somewhere. Not all of our traits can be explained instrumentally; there must be some that we have simply because that’s the sort of creature we are. And perhaps it’s unnecessary to remark that such explanations are inherently post hoc (Gould called them ‘just so stories’); or that, except for the prestige they borrow from the theory of natural selection, there isn’t much reason to believe that any of them is true.

The high tide of adaptationism floated a motley navy, but it may now be on the ebb. If it does turn out that natural selection isn’t what drives evolution, a lot of loose speculations will be stranded high, dry and looking a little foolish. Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon. In science, as elsewhere, ‘hedge your bets’ is generally good advice.

On perfectibility

From Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality (the translation is by Victor Gourevitch):
Why is man alone liable to become imbecile? Is it not that he thus returns to his primitive state and that, whereas the Beast, which has acquired nothing and also has nothing to lose, always keeps its instinct, man again losing through old age or other accidents all that his perfectibility had made him acquire, thus relapses lower than the Beast itself? It would be sad for us to be forced to agree that this distinctive and almost unlimited faculty, is the source of all of man's miseries; that it is the faculty which, by dint of time, draws him out of that original condition in which he would spend tranquil and innocent days; that it is the faculty which, over the centuries, causing his enlightenment and his errors, his vices and his virtues to bloom, eventually makes him his own and Nature's tyrant.

Gripping his head by a handful of hair

Eric Ormsby reviews Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the New York Sun ("the skullbusting blade was so stropped and buffed/it could shear a man's scalp and shave him to boot")

This reminds me that for some reason I forgot to mention how much I liked Catherine Fisher's Corbenic when I read it recently. It came with great recommendations, and totally lived up to them--a fresh Arthurian modern-day updating, amazing how those stories are amenable to such things... (Rather like Susan Cooper in the writing, but with a strong flavor of one of my favorite books by Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock.)