Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Scratch and crow

Phil Nugent on the inclusion of one of Helen Hill's short films in the National Film Registry.

(Here's where you can get a DVD that includes many of Helen's films, including two of my personal favorites: "Madam Winger Makes a Film" [2001] and "Mouseholes" [1999].)

Kudos to Dan Streible and many others for making this happen.

Modern Calvaries

An unforgettable piece by Tony Judt at the NYRB on life with ALS:
I leave bedtime until the last possible moment compatible with my nurse's need for sleep. Once I have been "prepared" for bed I am rolled into the bedroom in the wheelchair where I have spent the past eighteen hours. With some difficulty (despite my reduced height, mass, and bulk I am still a substantial dead weight for even a strong man to shift) I am maneuvered onto my cot. I am sat upright at an angle of some 110° and wedged into place with folded towels and pillows, my left leg in particular turned out ballet-like to compensate for its propensity to collapse inward. This process requires considerable concentration. If I allow a stray limb to be mis-placed, or fail to insist on having my midriff carefully aligned with legs and head, I shall suffer the agonies of the damned later in the night.

I am then covered, my hands placed outside the blanket to afford me the illusion of mobility but wrapped nonetheless since—like the rest of me—they now suffer from a permanent sensation of cold. I am offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe; the Bi-Pap breathing device in my nose is adjusted to a necessarily uncomfortable level of tightness to ensure that it does not slip in the night; my glasses are removed...and there I lie: trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Always Hot Always Ready"

At the Sunday Times, John Carey reviews Philip Davies' Lost London 1870-1945:
The late-19th century was the heyday of ornamental sign-writing, before the advent of neon, and the hand-painted signs covering every shopfront appeal to all possible shades of public interest — those who wish to keep up appearances (“Gentlemen’s Hats Polished for Sixpence”), the desperate (“Hammer Guns and Automatic Pistols Bought, Sold and Exchanged”), the hopeful (“Our Noted Lucky Wedding Rings”) and the moribund (“Funerals To Suit All Classes”). Sunlight soap and Colman’s blue and starch are advertised even in blackest Bermondsey, which suggests that poverty did not necessarily mean dirt. The constant advertisements for patent medicines are a reminder that the average age of death in the East End in 1900 was 30, and 55% of children died before they were five. Signs outside eating-houses indicate keen competition. For fourpence you can get a rasher of bacon and two eggs in a coffee shop near the Tower, or a pint of tea, two slices of bread and a plate of cold meat in Borough High Street. Harris’s restaurant in Aldgate offers pork sausages with bread (“Always Hot Always Ready”) for twopence.


Is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"The small drama of opening and eating sweets"

At the LRB, John Lanchester ponders Britain's history as the preeminent creator of cheap chocolate:
[A]ll the great chocolate bars are British, and the first of them, and still my favourite, was Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, invented in 1905. Other great British bars appeared in a burst of heroic creativity in the 1920s and 1930s: the Flake in 1920, Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut in 1928, Fry’s Crunchie in 1929, the Aero in 1935, then in 1937 no fewer than three masterpieces, the Rolo, the Kit Kat and Smarties. All British inventions. According to Roald Dahl: ‘In music, the equivalent would be the golden age of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. In painting, it was the equivalent of the Italian Renaissance and the advent of Impressionism at the end of the 19th century; in literature, Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens.’

The ash-heap of history

At the Atlantic, James Parker on the decade's top ten pop culture moments.

Miscellaneous light reading round-up (I may be leaving out a few): Carol O'Connell, Bone by Bone (why do I like this woman's books so much? They are full of the most obvious writing flaws, page by page they are incredibly irritating to me - and yet they are still better than almost anything that's out there); Aifric Campbell, The Semantics of Murder (very good); John Connolly, Every Dead Thing (maddening in its jumping back and forth between stories, but ultimately really quite good despite implausibly huge number of serial-killered dead bodies - I will read the subsequent installments in the series for sure); random thriller-built-on-romance-chassis whose name I cannot remember; Morag Joss, Fruitful Bodies. Am now rereading Lee Child's The Killing Floor.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Obsessive Ciceronians

At the Sunday Times, a delightful review by Robert Harris of the paperback reissue of R. Shackleton Bailey's translation of Cicero's Philippics (I have been talking regularly about Ciceronian 'periods' in my style class this semester, and have had a bit of an urge to delve back into some orations - might be I should get a copy of this...):
Shackleton Bailey, known as “Shack”, who died in 2005 at the age of 87, was a Bletchley Park codebreaker who became the doyen of modern Cicero translators. He was also one of the great eccentrics of academia, famous for dedicating his edition of Cicero’s Letters to his cat (“Dono Donorum Aeluro Candidissimo”: “gift of gifts, whitest of cats”) and who allegedly resigned as a tutor from Jesus College, Cambridge when he was refused permission to cut a cat flap in his 16th-century oak door. (“His capacity for alcohol was vast,” noted his Times obituarist. “He used to stand on his head at social events.”)
Here is the direct link to the Times obituary.

Toy story

I have a slight yen for a fake hamster myself, but a fake hamster as a substitute for a real one is not a good deal.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wasn't Plannin' on Leavin'

Pistol Pete's song about evacuating for Hurricane Katrina. I first heard Pete sing this song at a memorial for our dear mutual friend Helen Hill, so it means something special to me - but it is a very good song in any case!

No bearing on reality

Virtually unprecedented week-long radio silence at Light Reading - I had no internet access at all over the weekend, and have barely been at a computer for the last couple days either. Lethally busy time of year! But a brief interruption in some frenetic last-minute commenting on student paper proposals to clear tabs, with a promise of some more posts over the next couple days:

Sam Amidon performs his lovely cover of R. Kelly's "Relief" (worth watching the whole 7+ minutes - that song is the second one he sings).

Stephen Covey moves e-book rights directly to Amazon for one year. (I could use a re-read of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People!)

Album of obscene Gillray drawings surfaces in archives of the former Home Office.

Unfortunately a subscription is required to read this wonderful and worrying article about the precarious future of the Adélie penguin by Fen Montaigne at the New Yorker. I saw only one Adélie the whole time I was in Antarctica, out of many thousands (tens of thousands?) of penguins - in that part of the continent, the chinstrap and gentoo penguins really have almost completely displaced the Adélies, which cannot breed in warming climes. The audio slide-show does not require a subscription - take a look at these pictures!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The rightness is all

Anna Clark has a great interview with translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky at The Millions:
TM: Together, you’ve worked your way through some of the greatest fiction ever written. What are the unique pressures you have as translators of fiction that is both beloved and so highly regarded?

RP and LV: The pressure comes more from the quality of the writing itself. There are two questions that it might seem quite proper for a translator to keep in mind, but that in fact will spoil the translation. The first is, “What will the reader think?” And the second is, “How do we say that in English?” A good writer does what he or she has to do in the writing so that it “goes right,” as Robert Frost put it. There is at least as much intuition as intention in the process. A good translator has to follow that process far more consciously than the writer and yet come as close as possible in the new language to the instinctive “rightness” of the original. The greater the writer, the closer you want to come. That is both the challenge and the joy of it. But exactly what that “rightness” is remains undefinable, which is why there is no such thing as a definitive translation.
I would love to dabble in some translation myself. French is the language I read reasonably well, but I (for reasons mysterious even to myself - desire to write spy novels, or perhaps to read Dostoevsky in the original?) took several years of Russian in college, and have periodically said that with a dictionary and an infinite amount of time I could read anything - it is more accessible to me as a literary language than as a conversational one...

Error correction

It was not, honestly, the most inspiring event in the world, although there were several priceless moments (audience question: "What is your most sentimental memory of Mr. Warhol?" - long silence - Mo Tucker [who is absolutely delightful], dryly: "I remember chasing him around the Factory trying to get him to give me $5 gas money to get home" - random audience member: "Did you get it?" MT: "Yes"!) - but I am still slightly in amazement that I just saw significant members of the Velvet Underground interviewed by an incredibly fatuous music journalist who reminded me why I do not read much music journalism!

Supposedly the event sold out online in 3 minutes and 20 seconds. It turned out to be a tie-in with The Velvet Underground: New York Art, which I think it will be worth my while to purchase, with the caveat that Lou Reed, as David Fricke quoted at him some inane casual remark of his own (on the topic of CCR) from an old interview, as part of a rant about inaccuracies in journalism said of the book's editor, "I love Johan but there are three mistakes on the second page!" (Or was it "two mistakes on the first page"?)

(The documenters and interviewers seem to have curiously little idea how the people who make the stuff actually think and behave!)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Penguin love

Tango creators propagate!

"Aesthetic promptings and hesitations"

From Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty:
He was wearing the same old jeans of their first date, which for Nick now had a touching anecdotal quality, he knew them and loved them; and a zipped-up tracksuit top which made him look ready for action, or for inaction, the rigours and hanging about of training.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


Just finished going through the copyedit on Invisible Things, slated for publication in fall 2010. I've got to write some kind of an author's note, but perhaps will see if we can stick in a dummy placeholder for now and add the real thing later on...

Here's a bit of a teaser (now that I have a bit more distance from this project, I can see via the list of place names that I really have written a book that I would very much like to read) - click to enlarge:

The Viennese literary coffeehouse

I was stymied after reading Jo Walton's new book the other night (it arrived in my office mailbox at a point of singularly low morale, as if in response to some unarticulated but profound wish for the book I most wanted to read in the world - thanks, Torie!) as to what I could read next.

I thought I might just read Walton all over again, but delving through the stacks piled up on the living-room floor dealt me Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew, which I read with considerable satisfaction.

(For some reason I have been obsessed recently with the possibilities of the sentence - I really need this sabbatical to start so that I can get some real work done! I went to the preliminary meeting last night at the Guggenheim for Tino Sehgal's new show "This is Progress", and had various conversations with other folks participating which made me realize that I am sort of uncomfortably bursting with ideas right now that I can only shed by writing books - I think the style course I've been teaching will find its way in the near future into a couple of essays, but that perhaps what I had thought of as two complementary book projects [notation of human behavior in bread-and-butter of the novel/transmission of forms of culture that are not best represented by conventional verbal forms of notation] are really a triptych [bread-and-butter of the novel/forms of culture resistant to notation/sequel to bread-and-butter that is not about epistolarity, the first and third person voices, etc. but is instead just about SENTENCES, unconventional and non-chronological ordering systems, the tension between aphoristic and narrative modes, etc.] that can only be achieved by multi-year sustained application of maniacal effort! ARGHHHHHH! I need to put myself into some kind of a trance state whereby the intellectually perceiving brain just communicates directly to the eyes and hands without the intervention of troublesome human-conscious mind - in fact I am going to go and move around the furniture in the living room now to create a better work area to facilitate this...)

Anyway, this site has a very good description of Bernhard's book, with a full excerpt of what is undoubtedly the funniest section, so I will instead quote the thought-provoking discussion of how the actors at the Burgtheater ruined Bernhard's play The Hunting Party:
The absolutely third-rate actors who performed in the play did not give it a chance, as I was soon forced to recognize, in the first place because they did not understand it and in the second because they had a low opinion of it, but being a makeshift cast assembled at short notice, they had no option but to act in it. They could not be blamed even indirectly, after the failure of the original plan to assign the principal roles to Paula Wessely and Bruno Ganz, for whom I had written the play. In the event, neither appeared in it because the whole ensemble of the Burg (as the Viennese call it, with a kind of perverse affection) joined forces to prevent Bruno Ganz from appearing at the Burgtheater. Their opposition was prompted not only by existential dread, as it were, but by existential envy, for Bruno Ganz, a towering theatrical genius and the greatest actor Switzerland has ever produced, inspired the ensemble with what I would describe as the fear of artistic death. It still strikes me as a sad and sickening piece of perversity, and an episode in Viennese theater history too disgraceful to be lived down, that the actors of the Burgtheater should have attempted to prevent the appearance of Bruno Ganz, going so far as to draw up a written resolution and threaten the management, and that the attempt should have actually succeeded. For as long as the Viennese theater has existed decisions have been made not by the theater director but by the actors. The theater director has no say, least of all at the Burgtheater, where all decisions are made by the matinee idols, who can be unhesitatingly described as feebleminded--on the one hand because they have no understanding of the theatrical art and on the other hand because they quite brazenly prostitute the theater, both to its own detriment and to that of the public--though it has to be added that for decades, if not for centuries, the public has been prepared to put up with these Burgtheater prostitutes and allowed them to dish up the worst theater in the world. When once these matinee idols, with their celebrated names and feeble theatrical intelligence, are raised to their pedestals by the mindless theatergoing public, they maintain themselves at the pinnacle of their artistic inanity by totally neglecting whatever theatrical potential they possess and shamelessly exploiting their popularity, and stay on at the Burgtheater for decades, usually until they die. After the appearance of Bruno Ganz had been prevented by the machinations of his colleagues, Paula Wessely, my first and only choice for the role of the general's wife in the play, also withdrew. Thus, having foolishly entered into a binding contract with the Burgtheater, I had to put up with a first performance that I can only describe as unappetizing and that, as I have indicated, was not even well intentioned. For, faced with the least displeasure on the part of the audience, the totally untalented actors who were cast in the main parts at once took sides with the audience, following the age-old tradition by which Viennese actors conspire with the audience against a play and have no compunction about stabbing the author in the back as soon as they sense that the audience does not take to his play in the first few minutes, because it does not understand it and finds both the author and the play too difficult. It goes without saying, of course, that actors ought to go through fire, as they say, for an author and his play, especially if it is new and has not been tried out before, but unlike their colleagues in the rest of Europe, Viennese actors--and especially those at the Burgtheater--are not prepared to do this. If they sense that the audience is not instantly enthusiastic about what it sees and hears after the curtain goes up, they at once desert the author and his play and make common cause with the audience, prostituting themselves and turning what it pleases them, in their infantile presumption, to call the premier stage of German-speaking Europe into the world's first theatrical whorehouse.
The rest of the passage is also well worth reading, but I must stop typing up rants and get on with my day...

The Order of the Elephant

Elephant-spotting in Copenhagen (FT site registration required).

Vile jelly

At the Sunday Times, Erica Wagner on the means of production:
Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote for more than four decades on an Underwood portable. For him, his machine was a kind of first editor. “If this typewriter doesn’t like a story, it refuses to work,” he said. “I don’t get a man to correct it since I know if I get a good idea the machine will make peace with me again. I don’t believe my own words saying this, but I’ve had the experience so many times that I’m really astonished. But the typewriter is 42 years old. It should have some literary experience, it should have a mind of its own.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


At More Intelligent Life, Anthony Gottlieb on the problem of error correction:
For a salutary reminder of how easy it is for well-known “facts” to be no such thing, even when they are often repeated in print, consider some of the entries in “They Never Said It”, a compendium of misquotations published in 1989. Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” (or anything like it). “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver” is a line from a play, not a quote from Hermann Goering. “Let them eat cake” began life in Rousseau’s “Confessions”, not the mouth of Marie-Antoinette. Voltaire never said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And there is no reason to think Abraham Lincoln ever said “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”—though it is evidently true that you can fool a lot of people for a long time with the aid of books. The quip “Too much checking on the facts has ruined many a good news story” has long been attributed to an American newspaper magnate, Roy Howard; needless to say, it appears to be an invention.

Stony places

At the LRB, Michael Wood on T. S. Eliot (with whose poems I was utterly obsessed from ages 11-13 or so - I have just been thinking about it as I spend the evening in a mesmerized trance of reading Jo Walton's excellent forthcoming novel Among Others, which is appearing too long a time from now even to have an Amazon link but is basically what you would get if you tailored Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy to be exactly the book that would most speak to me in the world, or at least to the grown-up version of my childhood self, complete with allusions among many others to Mary Renault, Josephine Tey, Anne McCaffrey, Plato and Tiberius/Sejanus courtesy of what I assume is Robert Graves):
[Eliot] tells his brother about ‘the kink in my brain which makes life at all an unremitting strain for me, and which is at the bottom of a good many of the things about me that you object to’. ‘Life at all’ is pretty amazing, and makes me think Eliot would have liked Hardy’s work better if he had paid attention to a poem like the one that begins: ‘For Life I had never cared greatly,/ As worth a man’s while.’ Of course kink and caring are different, but the sheer dissident simplicity of thinking that life is either all a strain or an acquired taste is certainly striking. Eliot’s description of himself as ‘within measurable distance of the end of my tether’ combines distress with elegance.


I am almost painfully in love with Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. Its bits are woven together in a silkwormish net-like quincunx, but this is a passage I find particularly evocative, not least because I spent part of Sunday morning wandering around the fields on which the first battle of Manassas was fought (coincidentally, it took place on the day of my birthday, July 21):
Why I went to Waterloo I no longer know. But I do remember walking from the bus stop past a bleak field and a number of ramshackle buildings to a sort of village, which consisted solely of souvenir shops and cheap restaurants. There were no visitors about on that leaden-grey day shortly before Christmas, not even the obligatory group of schoolchildren one inevitably encounters in such places. But as if they had come to people this deserted stage, a squad of characters in Napoleonic costume suddenly appeared tramping up and down the few streets, beating drums and blowing fifes; and bringing up the rear was a slatternly, garishly made-up sutler woman pulling a curious hand-cart with a goose shut in a cage. For a while I watched these mummers, who seemed to be in perpetual motion, as they disappeared amongst the buildings only to re-emerge elsewhere. At length I bought a ticket for the Waterloo Panorama, housed in an immense domed rotunda, where from a raised platform in the middle one can view the battle - a favourite subject with panorama artists - in every direction. It is like being at the centre of events. On a sort of landscaped proscenium, immediately below the wooden rail amidst tree-stumps and undergrowth in the blood-stained sand, lie lifesize horses, and cut-down infantrymen, hussars and chevaux-legers, eyes rolling in pain or already extinguished. Their faces are moulded from wax but the boots, the leather belts, the weapons, the cuirasses, and the splendidly coloured uniforms, probably stuffed with eelgrass, are to all appearances authentic. Across this horrific three-dimensional scene, on which the cold dust of time has settled, one's gaze is drawn to the horizon, to the enormous mural, one hundred and ten yards by twelve, painted in 1912 by the French marine artist Louis Dumontin on the inner wall of the circus-like structure. This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position? Near Brighton, I was once told, not far from the coast, there are two copses that were planted after the Battle of Waterloo in remembrance of that memorable victory. One is in the shape of a Napoleonic three-cornered hat, the other in that of a Wellington boot. Naturally the outlines cannot be made out from the ground; they were intended as landmarks for latter-day balloonists.

The discovery of Uqbar

Now I want to teach a class that will start perhaps with Kafka and then move through Beckett, Borges, Nabokov, Primo Levi, Georges Perec, David Markson...

So - Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius":
The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) "primitive language" of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty - not even that it is false. Numismatology, pharmacology and archeology have been reformed. I understand that biology and mathematics also await their avatars...