Friday 31 July 2009

'Ah the world, oh the whale.'

Leviathan, Or The Whale
by Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare is one of those authors who, like Geoff Dyer, would provide a great subject for a sweepstake: What will their next book be about? Dyer may be more diverse and genre defying with his writing making him much harder to second guess, whilst Hoare is essentially a biographer, but even so his subjects have ranged from the brightest of the Bright Young Things, Stephen Tennant, to the military hospital on Spike Island, and the little known religious leader Mary Ann Girling in the New Forest of Victorian England. Now we have his all encompassing work on his life's obsession, the whale, a book already described as a future 'classic' by Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the judges for this years Samuel Johnson Prize which Hoare won in June. It's a sad indictment of something or other when you find it close to impossible to locate a copy of a book which just the day before has won one of the most prestigious literary awards. Retailers got their act together eventually and it was well worth the wait. Combining history, natural history, biography and literary criticism, Hoare has written a book worthy of the planet's largest inhabitant and one which has the stature to stand alongside its equally gargantuan counterpart in literature: Moby-Dick.

Hoare begins with a personal view, surprising one with the view that whilst whales have been a fascination of his for much of his life he himself has always been afraid of deep water. Unable to swim as a child it wasn't until his mid twenties that he finally taught himself in a chilly East End pool.

...I discovered that the water could bear up my body. I discovered what I had been missing: the buoyancy of myself. It was not a question of exercise: rather, it was the idea of going out of my depth, allowing someone else to take account for my physical presence in the world, being a part of it and apart from it at the same time. In a way, it was a conscious reinvention, a means of confronting my fears.

I too have a fear of deep water (well not even that deep really) after one of those moments when I saw something I wasn't expecting when I put my mask under the water (some kind of ray which in my ignorance I have always assumed was deadly) so I sympathise. Fear is an important theme I think when confronting the whale, one which permeates our thoughts about it and our reaction to it. Melville's novel itself is one which many, including myself, have found daunting or difficult to read, and Hoare thankfully is one of us too.

Like many people, I found the densely written chapters of Herman Melville's book difficult to read. I was defeated by its size and scale, by its ambition. It was as incomprehensible as the whale itself...After my first visit to New England, I looked at it again; just as I was ready to see whales, I was ready to read Moby-Dick.

You do have to be ready but once you are it is an extraordinary book, its characteristically compendious and erratic nature described by Hoare as 'like a nineteenth century search engine'. By examining the themes of that book along with the personal history of its author Hoare's own book acts as a kind of reader to run alongside the classic text, finding informed ways to illuminate its inception, development and impact. Throughout the book the scale is massive, the import huge, quotations from the bible resonate, the focus on Melville's friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne shines a light on even the dedication on the book's opening page.

That scale is due to the animal itself of course and firmly part of its fascination. Hoare takes the time to look at several species and in this generously illustrated book manages to cram in impressive amounts of natural history. It's filled with the kind of tidbits that you can't help but share with others: That impressive head filled with precious oil could for instance be the source of the whale's sonar ability allowing it not only to 'see' it's prey but almost to scan it, even detecting pregnancy for example, or there's the Christmas gift that JFK never received: a whale's tooth that Jackie had had engraved with the presidential seal, laid with his body in the coffin on the day before his funeral - 'the king of Camelot interred with a talisman of a heroic age'.

Here was an animal close to me as a living creature - one that shared my heart and lungs, my mammalian qualities - but which at the same time was possessed of a supernatural physicality. Whales are visible markers of the ocean life we cannot see...yet they are entirely mutable, dreamlike because they exist in another world, because they look like we feel as we float in our dreams.

That description of a whale could only have come from a man living in the modern age for through his examination of whaling and its history Hoare shows how perceptions of these giants have changed, the Sperm whale in particular has gone from being a fearful foe to a placid, gentle giant of the seas. 'The distance between these two notions is the distance between myth and reality, between legend and science, between human history and natural history.' There is still so much unknown about these creatures but our knowledge at its most advanced stage tells us that the potential lifespans for these giants could well be into double centuries and beyond, the important word there being potential given the reality of continued whaling under the guise of research, in spite of the threat of extinction. But there is no soapboxing or activism, just the relaying of facts imbued with a clear love and admiration for animals which we have only just begun to understand.

That word fascination keeps popping up again and again in my mind. Whether it's the evocative description of the approach to that 'cathedral of science', the Natural History Museum, a building which manages to thrill just as much as an adult as it ever did when a child, or the magical closing chapter when Hoare returns to a more personal perspective, conquering that childhood fear to share the water with those giants we have come to know so much more about, an emotional climax to a thrilling journey. I couldn't begin to do justice to such a definitive book in a short review but only hope that for anyone tempted to make that journey I may have pushed you a little closer to the water. The writing is skilfull, the knowledge impressive, but underneath all of that what makes it live is the heart beating within.


Wednesday 29 July 2009

'the Price of Success'

Mr Toppit
by Charles Elton

And out of the Darkwood Mr Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us.

There won't be many more books this year so covered in hype as Mr Toppit. After a long gestation period (14 years) the novel was part of a fierce bidding war (eventually won by Penguin and a reported six-figure sum) and its publication preceded by a spoof ad in The Times and a website. All the subterfuge helped to build up the myth behind the novel itself. Even the design for the book itself played on the fact that this novel is built on the legacy of a series of imagined children's books. Peel off the dust jacket and the cover underneath belongs to The Hayseed Chronicles, the picture showing their hero, Luke Hayseed. Written by Arthur Hayman, only ever mildly successful in his career in the British film industry, the books enjoy a similarly unimpressive trajectory until Arthur is run over by a cement truck, his final moments attended by Laurie, a vacationing hospital-radio host who will go on to become the woman to bring the books to a wider audience and begin the chain events which brings the Hayman family first fame and finally destruction.

At the centre of all this is Luke, the real Luke, Hayman, who like his literary forbear, Christopher Robin, has found the appropriation of his name alters the way he is viewed by others, especially once the books become a worldwide sensation.

...it was too much to cope with dashed expectations on the faces of strangers. It wasn't my fault that I'd grown up. I couldn't stay a seven-year-old forever, trapped in the pages of the books. I was still just about recognizable as the boy in Lila's drawings and the comparison was not a favourable one. I came to learn the national characteristics of disappointment: the resentfulness of the English, the downright hostility of the French, who looked as if they might ask for their money back, the touching sadness on the face of the Japanese - such pain that I both was and wasn't the boy in the books. I was Dorian Gray in reverse: my attic was in every bookshop in the world.

By combining elements of Christopher Robin, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code Elton is able to poke plenty of fun at the publishing world, one he is well versed in with his career as a literary agent, and one which has been well exploited by his own publishers with the website and fake Hayseed malarkey. Underneath all of this though he is attempting to write a book about family in all its dysfunction. As well as Luke's obvious trials his troubled sister Rachel, perhaps because her own name doesn't appear alongside his in the books, identifies far too strongly with them and the sinister figure of Mr Toppit becomes emblematic of her struggles with dependency, whilst the assonant parents, Arthur and Martha, have their own marital strife to contend with. Laurie's own past, constructed from fragments she can recall from the secretive desert of Los Alamos, is as troubled as that of the family she aims to help and as they all become caught up in the maelstrom of attention and notoriety following the trauma of Arthur's death and the success of Hayseed, the threat of further damage is as omnipresent as the enigmatic figure of Mr Toppit.

There are plenty of other sub-plots in a novel which covers two generations of at least two families on both sides of the Atlantic. There are plenty of 'characters' with which Elton has lots of fun taking his pot-shots and if he occasionally wields his plotting with all the subtlety of a . . . well, cement truck, he keeps things tinged with a darkness that keeps your attention. After all that publicity the book has not only been picked as a Richard and Judy Summer Read™ but like another of their picks will be voiced by yours truly in an upcoming audiobook (sorry about the flagrant self publicity but it's my blog and I'll flog if I want to - on that note, a clip of The Great Lover should be posted soon).


Sunday 26 July 2009

My School Book Club

A slightly different post this, which may be of interest to any readers of this blog who have young children. Getting children into books, and reading in general is one of those constant news stories. At one end of the scale there are the worries about child literacy and at the other we have the debates about what constitutes appropriate reading matter for children of various ages (including the plan to give children's books 'age ratings', something which had leading authors up in arms). It seems to me that there has never been such a fantastic range of reading material for children of all ages and in what seems to be a boom-time for reading in general I was intrigued to be contacted about a new service for parents and schools called My School Book Club.

The idea is simple enough but rather than me re-write a perfectly good summary I hope you won't mind if I quote:

The way it works is that teachers, department heads or school librarians sign up to the scheme and a personalised My School Book Club website is developed for their school free of charge. Pupils and parents are encouraged to start using the site and an impressive 20% of the value of all purchases made through the site is returned to the school to be spent on books for their school library.

For parents, the My School Book Club service offers a quality guarantee in that each and every book has been carefully selected by a panel of children’s authors, publishing professionals and children’s literacy experts. The books are competitively priced, with discounts of up to 50% on the most popular titles, and the ordering and delivery service is simple to use and hassle free. With each purchase made for their child, parents know that they are allowing their school library to make more books available to other pupils. And, unlike some commercial book clubs, there are no minimum purchase requirements.

For children, each school’s My School Book Club website presents an engaging and interactive literary community, with everything from book-related audio and video downloads and related literary links to competitions and access to signed copies from their favourite authors.

In essence, as well as providing a significant stimulus to children’s book sales and a welcome opportunity to supplement each school’s increasingly stretched book procurement budgets, the My School Book Club initiative encourages children to engage with books and reading whilst also helping teachers and parents develop this initial interest as the children grow and their reading-habits change.

My own school libraries were hardly well stocked places of reading inspiration and in fact it wasn't until I left school that I really began reading in earnest so anything that helps promote reading amongst children is worthy of some attention, especially with names like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo behind it. How the selection process works, and who it omits might be something to keep an eye on but children don't necessarily need a website to interact with each other about books, if the whole Harry Potter phenomenon has taught us anything, it is that word of mouth can be a very powerful thing (I'm sure it's taught us all sorts of other things too!).


Thursday 23 July 2009

Round the corner from 'The Lady'

Burma Chronicles
by Guy Delisle

A few years ago I went through a little graphic phase. After being enchanted by Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, a graphic novel which showed the literary possibilities of the form, I quickly happened upon a very different kind of graphic experience in the political travelogues of Joe Sacco. First published by Fantagraphics his series of strips on Palestine were collected together by Jonathan Cape and led me onto his travels into Bosnia and Sarajevo. I guess part of the appeal was to have an easily accessible format to get some basic education about the politics behind those particular areas of conflict (pictures, and everything), but there was also something I loved about the self-deprecating humour and those moments where the shock of reality cut through the page, literally in black and white.

Following in a similar vein Guy Delisle produced a book called Pyongyang, a unique depiction of life in that most secretive of states, which I picked up in a bookshop, began reading and finished there and then in a single sitting (well, if they will place big comfy armchairs about the place). Again using simple black and white illustrations Delisle employs a similar humorous approach. Sent to North Korea as part of his work with a French animation company he spends lonely nights in a hotel, wishing for better coffee and food, leading a curious existence as he is marshaled around areas that the government deems fit to see. Slowly he is able to see more of the hidden parts of the country, getting a better idea of the life of ordinary Koreans and the realities of being part of the 'Axis-of-Evil'. That work continued with a trip to Shenzhen in China and his latest travelogue comes from Burma (or Myanmar).

The slight difference with his latest book is that it is his partner's work with MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) that has brought them there along with their baby son Louis. For a young father like me there was so much that I found familiar from my own travels with tot that the opening few pages had me grinning in recognition. A simple hotel room becomes a gauntlet of power sockets, taps and sharp corners all of which seem to have been designed to tempt young children and torment their parents. Having finally baby-proofed the room he is able to wander the streets of another dictatorship, slowly adapting to custom and tradition. That wry humour is given ample room to entertain, the baffling nature of life in a foreign country somehow amplified by his duty of care to young Louis. The locals of course are charmed by the baby, totally ignoring his father (something I'm all too familiar with) as they pass the baby around.

Burma is of interest of course because it has been ruled by a military junta since 1962 and the leader of the opposition Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years. In the sequence below Delisle finds out that the house in which he is staying is literally around the corner from her own, allowing us to see how well he can combine the political and the domestic (click on the panels for a larger view).

The domestic side was of great appeal to me but for a general readership there are clear examples of the oppression which seems to arouse little protest only because that opposition is so effectively silenced. There is also something about the length of time that Delisle spends in each destination and the graphic form itself which makes it perfect for illustrating those simple details which may evade the casual traveller and yet prove to be emblematic of the country and its culture. His frustrating search for ink with which to make his drawings takes us on a wild goose chase through the local bazaars ending in a great panel, smudged and running, where he is forced to use the fountain pen ink he knew wouldn't work. The three days he spends inside a non-touristy Buddhist retreat give him an entirely new perspective (literally) on the buildings he has been looking in on for the preceding months. Through his regular walks through a park he sees a few prayer notes attached to a tree grow into many, and then a fully fledged shrine begins to develop. That public display of faith depicted in three simple panels.

Sometimes a light touch is all that is needed to expose the banality of life under oppression. The combination of the form, the content and the humour makes Delisle's work accessible and enjoyable but that lightness shouldn't mask the potential importance of them as documents. Through his short exchanges with locals and aid workers he often sums up in a few sentences the essence of the problem or hypocrisy. There's no substitute for the testimony of those living and working in any situation and it could be said that through his books Delisle is proving that old adage about the pen and the sword.


Tuesday 21 July 2009


Well, the poster raises a good question: How did they make a movie of Lolita? A screenplay by Nabokov and direction from Kubrick begin the action as Humbert confronts Clare Quilty (a truly standout performance from Peter Sellers). What an extraordinary beginning to a film. James Mason, struggling to hold his gun and purpose straight, Sellers draped in a bed sheet, hilarious as he attempts to play Roman ping-pong with his intruder. After the shots ring out we go back four years to Humbert's hopeful arrival in Ramsdale and his fateful meeting with Mrs Haze and her daughter Dolores.

Compressing the action of the novel into a film means that there's an awful lot of plot and precious little of the character that makes the novel such an enjoyable read. What to do with James Mason now that Eddie Izzard has pretty much built a career on mocking that extraordinary voice? It's almost perfect for suggesting the European difference of Humbert amongst the all-American community he moves in to, but there are also several moments where it's hard to stifle the giggles. The script doesn't give any real opportunity for him to display the wit, erudition and humour of the novel's narration, which is a shame given that that is its definitive aspect, outside of the subject matter itself. Making the film in 1962 Kubrick was severely limited by the censor in what aspects of the novel he could realise on screen and has since said that he wished he could have focused more attention on the erotic component of Humbert and Lolita's relationship. Without it there is no hint of the underlying danger which makes their every appearance in public together such a threat to the sanity of Humbert.

Shelley Winters is enjoyable as Mrs Haze and Sue Lyon nicely in control as Lolita (although despite being 14 at the time of filming she looks a bit too old to my mind to really embody the nymphet qualities described with such specificity by Nabokov). But Sellers really steals the show of course. My wife, not having read the book, raised an eyebrow during the scene where Humbert is visited by 'Doctor Zempf', asking if that was the same character or whether Sellers was being indulged. It clearly anticipates his turn as Dr Strangelove which was to come a couple of years later but also demonstrates Sellers unique ability to change his voice entirely. Watch the opening scene with your eyes closed and you'd be hard pressed to identify him as the actor playing Quilty. There's something a tad ironic about him being coupled with Mason whose voice is so distinctive and unchangeable.

It's a shame that a film missing so much of its source material still feels very long, perhaps I was just tired, but it certainly helped me to appreciate even more the unique qualities of the book, particularly the humour that challenges the reader, making you complicit with its anti-hero.


Saturday 18 July 2009

the food of love

by Nigel Slater

Having recently moved to Hertfordshire it seemed like the right thing to attend some kind of fete on Mayday of this year and Aldbury holds one each year which comes close to the chocolate box image one might have of village life. We arrived too late to enjoy the Morris dancers and indeed to find any cake (hungry lot those village folk), but after enjoying the petting zoo and other delights we were there for the frantic closing moments where stall holders, looking to reduce the amount they had to carry home again, went to increasingly desperate measures to clear the trestle tables. One book stall owner simply cried out 'free books' inviting me to take anything that took my fancy. Unfortunately I don't think Len Deighton or Wilbur Smith are for me, and the uses I might conjure up for Jeffrey Archer don't bear mention on the clean white screen before you. Just as I was giving up hope of indulging myself I spotted a small hardback of Nigel Slater's memoir. I have always enjoyed Slater's food writing in the Observer as there is something honest and somehow wholesome about his appreciation of simple foods, even whilst licking his lips with lascivious glee, which puts the suggestive pouting of his female namesake Ms Lawson to shame.

The format of the book is perfect for Slater, a series of short pieces, each headed for the most part by the name of a particular foodstuff, revelling in its particularity and slowly revealing various elements of his upbringing and maturation. It's the perfect format for us too, bite size chunks which are steeped in a nostalgia of food from the past, recognisable brand names that will have you sighing (and sometimes groaning) in recognition and quite possibly salivating too. It will be different for every person, which is the beauty of course, but I certainly will never forget butterscotch flavour Angel Delight (for all the right reasons) or Fray Bentos pies (for all the wrong).

The passing time highlights the seasonal importance of food and the part it plays in the ritual of our lives.

The entire Christmas stood or fell according to the noise the trifle made when the first massive, embossed spoon was lifted out. The resulting noise, a sort of squelch-fart, was like a message from God. A silent trifle was a bad omen. The louder the trifle parped, the better Christmas would be.

That trifle was always made by Slater senior, a contradictory figure who had a passion for growing pretty flowers and yet seemed to terrify his family with his tempers (his fierce aspect at one point reducing his son to a pee-sodden mute when catching him going to bed without having brushed his teeth). Running underneath his relationship with his father is the man's fear that this son isn't as manly as the others. His attempts to redress the balance include hiding the eggs that he won't eat (and his other son devours, thus eggs=macho) in and amongst his food and the clear disapproval of sucking the chocolate from a Mars bar (whilst the tongue-led excavation of a Walnut Whip becomes close to a family pastime!). The young Nigel is all too attuned to his father's discouragement.

My father sighs one of those almost imperceptible sighs that only fragile boys who regularly disappoint their father can hear.

Food becomes a great way for Slater to relay a childhood which is far from unhappy, but marked by moments of sadness. It provides a distance from the raw emotion of some events but also the opportunity to show the humour contained within those milestones we reach when growing up and his burgeoning sexuality in particular. There is a great moment of realisation at school where he didn't want to drink the milk he was issued: food can be used as a bargaining tool. His plan to offload it on any girls who would flash their knickers at him stalls when they won't keep up their end of the bargain. It's the boys which come to the rescue, quite happy to flash their own bits for an extra carton of the white stuff.

There are moments of tender emotion too. Marshmallows left by his father at bedtime are loaded with significance, and nothing it seems has the power to bring people together quite like food, even when it is at the expense of the food itself. The parade of shameful recollection in the dawn of convenience food is one of the guilty pleasures of this book. But beyond the kitschy appeal of those recognisable and easy targets Slater excels when describing the pleasure of great food. You know when he's really worked his magic when you find yourself heading straight out to the shops for ingredients.

Then something came along that was to change everything. It was the simplest food imaginable, yet so perfect, so comforting, soothing and fragrant. The dish contained only two ingredients. Potatoes, which were thinly sliced and baked in cream. There was the subtlest hint of garlic, barely present, as if it had floated in on a breeze. That pommes dauphinoise, or to give its correct title, pommes a la dauphinoise, was quite simply the most wonderful thing I had ever tasted in my life, more wonderful than Mum's flapjacks, Joan's lemon meringue, and a thousand miles away from anything I had made at college. Warm, soft and creamy, this wasn't food that could be a kiss or hug, like marshmallows or Irish stew, this was food that was pure sex.


Wednesday 15 July 2009

'it's all about a piece of steak'

The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker

My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I'm a study in failure.

Not perhaps the most promising premise for comedy but that's just the first of a few surprises in Nicholson Baker's new novel narrated by poet Paul Chowder. Baker is well known for causing a little controversy with his naughty novels The Fermata (man can pause time and undresses ladies) and Vox (phone-sex as novel) and the downright treasonous Checkpoint (plot to assasinate George W Bush - whilst he was still in office). Even his non-fiction managed to cause some controversy online in the comments on Asylum. When I received a proof of his new novel I was primed and ready but the only shock this time might be that Baker has written a book with a sympathetic narrator who simply wants to communicate his love of poetry.

Things have not be going well for Paul Chowder. His girlfriend Roz has left, he still hasn't written the introduction for his anthology of poetry and he has a bee in his bonnet about iambic pentameter (don't get him started). For a man leading a relatively shambolic existence he is at least clear on why Roz walked out the door.

I know why. It's because I didn't write the introduction to my anthology. And I was morose at times with her, and I was shockingly messy. And I had irregular sleeping habits. And she was supporting us, and I was nine years older than she was. And I didn't want to walk the dog as much as I should have. And I got farty when we had Caesar salads. And I do miss her. Because she was so warm and so kind to me, and she taught me so many things. I squandered her good nature. I didn't take it seriously. I didn't see that it was finite.

I think it would be fair to say that Chowder's strengths aren't in the arena of social skills or human contact. This is a man whose idea of a chat-up line is "That was a nice stanza you said back there...Some would say that it was trochaic trimeter, but they would be wrong in my opinion because it's a four-beat line". What he does know is poetry which is what made the book so enjoyable for me. I don't know poetry. Generally speaking I just don't get it. Chowder describes the exact sensation I have when I come across the poems printed in each edition of the LRB.

Let's have a look at this poem. Here it is going down. You can tell it's a poem because it's swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows it's a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they're saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here the magician will do his thing. Here's the guy who's going to eat razor blades. Or pour gasoline in his mouth and spit it out. Or lie on a bed of broken glass. So, stand back, you crowded onlookers of prose. This is not prose. This is the blank white playing field of Eton.

I was given a copy of Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled in which he attempts to demystify the world of verse and sets writing exercises as you go through the book to make bards of us all. Unfortunately I got a bit bored of being set homework every few pages so I gave up. Poetry can be scary stuff (especially when you were taught it as badly as I was) but luckily Chowder has a no frills approach to explaining it for the layman.

...very briefly, enjambment is a word that means that you're wending your way along a line of poetry, and you're walking right out to the very end of the line, way out, and it's all going fine, and you're expecting the syntax to give you a polite tap on the shoulder to wait for a moment. Just a second, sir, or madam, while we rhyme, or come to the end of our phrasal unit, or whatever. While we rest. But instead the syntax pokes at you and says hustle it, pumpkin, keep walking, don't rest. So naturally, because you're stepping out onto nothingness, you fall. You tumble forward, gaaaah, and you end up all discombobulated at the beginning of the next line, with a banana peel on your head and some coffee grounds in your shirt pocket. In other words, you're "jammed" into the next line - that's what enjambment is. So in the case of "Ozymandias," second line, you've got "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone-" end of line, we need to pause, but no, keep moving, woopsie doodle, next line - "Stand in the desert." Ouch.

But apart from the passion for poetry Baker has created a character who slowly reveals that under the shabby exterior there is genuine passion. The sympathy comes from watching his poor attempts to realise and then act on it, a man who kind of believes (and kind of doesn't) that his life might have gone differently. The gentle self-deprecating humour that runs through his monologue is hugely endearing and had me rooting for him as I watched from the sidelines.

There's that Jack London story, about the old tired boxer who almost wins a comeback, but he doesn't because he didn't have enough money to buy that one piece of steak he hungered for the day before - the steak that would have given him the strength to land the big punch. So he's beaten. He's smacked around. He bleeds. He fails. That's me. If I could only have written a good flying spoon poem back three years ago when I first wanted to, I might be poet laureate right now. Maybe. Probably not. But maybe.


Monday 13 July 2009

'the dizzying world'

by Jorge Luis Borges

Well this book has been living on the shelf for years. My wife bought it originally after the playwright August Wilson had mentioned him as an influence, but finding it all a little difficult to get into it went back on the shelf where it has been gathering dust and the occasional glance ever since. I don't know what made me pick it up the other day and I certainly don't know why I'm attempting to write anything about one of the most influential and studied texts of the twentieth century but maybe I just want to mark the fact that I did eventually tackle Borges. I realise that the stories may only take a matter of hours to read and perhaps a whole lifetime to appreciate but perhaps like the child who points out the simple beauty of the sky I might light on something that finds a resonance for those that know far more about him than I do.

I dimly remembered that there has been some controversy surrounding the translation of Borges' work and no shortage of criticism for the particular translation in this Penguin edition from Andrew Hurley. I don't speak Spanish, I have no comparison, so I can't comment. My main problem reading these stories was grappling for a hold on 'the dizzying world' which Borges creates. Some stories are puzzling, others labyrinthine, still more metafictional, coming together to form a collection which has the layering effect and faded imprint of a palimpsest. Whilst many of the stories are little more than a few pages long they are like the TARDIS, bigger on the inside than they seem from the outside.

Just the first handful of stories contain more than most writers could hope to achieve in a lifetime. The endeavour of the intellectuals in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is matched by Borges himself, not only creating an entirely new world but imagining its reference books, language, and philosophy. How do you classify a story which reads as part science fiction, part philosophical hypothesis, other than calling it Borgesian. That SF feel is continued in stories like The Library Of Babel which creates a similar disorientation in the mind of the reader as the inhabitants of the labyrinthine library. The Lottery In Babylon - 'not wholly innocent of symbolism' according to Borges' foreword develops brilliantly from describing the first rudimentary lotteries played amongst the commoners, to the vastly intricate system run by the shadowy 'Company' which is so nuanced that some have the temerity to suggest that Babylon is 'nothing but an infinite game of chance'.

Borges' startling imagination even created literary criticism for texts that don't exist. We meet Pierre Menard, the French writer who recreated Quixote word for word, the two identical texts providing entirely different meanings for the scholar due to their place in time, or should that be history?

...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counsellor.

By Cervantes these words are merely 'rhetorical praise of history' but by Menard they become 'staggering', historical truth not so much what happened as what we believe happened. A Survey Of The Works Of Herbert Quain uses algebra to illustrate experimental structures in writing before really turning up the heat with a conclusion that turns everythign you're readiong on its head.

One of the stories (not the best) hints at two plots; the reader, blinded by vanity, believes that he himself has come up with them. From the third story, titled 'The Rose Of yesterday', I was ingeneous enough to extract 'The Circular Ruins,' which is one of the stories from my book The Garden Of Forking Paths.

I know! That's the book I'm reading. That very story brilliantly describing imagination or creation, if such a thing is possible. See what I mean about a palimpsest? I often found my brain being tickled and challenged by the faint trace of his other writings whenever I thought i had managed to focus in one any particular story. The wealth of imagination is extraordinary and I have no problem now in seeing why so many writers cite him as an influence. For the first time reader it's all a bit daunting but that's the beauty with books. I can place it back on the shelf now, no longer such a foreboding presence, and come back to it again when I feel like having my brain tickled.

For more information on the man that some see as the definitive translator of Borges click here and here.


Friday 10 July 2009

War Horse

I actually saw this show a few weeks ago but had to hold off on reviewing it for reasons which I'll make clear later. War Horse was adapted from a children's novel by former laureate Michael Morpurgo. It began life at The National Theatre in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company who produced the extraordinary quadrupeds and is now enjoying a successful run in the West End at the New London Theatre. It gained a little news coverage on its transfer with advance sales of over £1.5m and is currently booking through to February of next year. So how does a show about horses on the front line manage to buck the trend in a recession-hit West End?

Well, the night I watched I was sat next to a family with three kids aged between10 and 15. To my right were a couple in their 60's. There was a moment during the show when we all wore exactly the same expression on our faces. You know the one: that moment when Superman flew, when Keanu Reeves dodged a bullet or two, when you realise that your mouth is hanging open and a smile is tickling the corners of your mouth. The puppetry in this show is extraordinary. From the moment when we first meet Joey as a young foal, you cannot help but be captivated by his every movement. Created from bamboo frames with the most basic covering the horse puppets are quite simply breathtaking. The skill with which the actors make them not only move, but breathe, snort, eat and react is wonder to watch. It is so well done that it's worth reminding yourself that presumably there was a point for all involved when they thought 'right, how on earth are we going to represent horses on stage?!'

It isn't just the horses though. Other animals and human figures are manipulated by the ensemble to create a vastly populated environment and there is a goose which almost steals the show with its constant attempts to gain entry to the farmhouse. This is a production where the word ensemble really means something; their collective efforts perfectly suited to the pastoral scenes in the first third and the front line heroics of the rest of the play. Choral singing is used to great effect, the folk songs creating a real sense of Britishness, a welcome change to the diet of imported American musical theatre. As with many of the National's productions one wonders whether there is enough in the play itself for anyone attempting it on a smaller budget. Quite often it can be the production which is worth five stars rather than the play. I haven't read the novel itself but I understand that it continues beyond where the play finishes, but I don't think that means that there's anything lacking from the adaptation. With the running time close to three hours including interval, and with the energy and effort exhibited in its creation, I'm not sure I could have taken much more. Which I mean in a good way. With their previous hit Coram Boy, the National showed they could create children's theatre that was entertaining, mature and at times absolutely terrifying. The horrors of the Great War provide ample opportunity for that terror to continue and the pure theatrical magic of those animals ensures that the highs more than compensate for the lows.

All of which means that I couldn't be happier to be joining the company at the very end of September (oh yes, that hefty plugging in the first paragraph makes a bit more sense now, doesn't it). I only found out a couple of days ago which is why I had to hold off posting my thoughts. I'm off now to practice my trotting. I've been told that if I'm a good boy I'll get a sugar lump.


Wednesday 8 July 2009

Role Models

Now I realise that my previous film posting was about the 'why on earth did you think that was going to be funny?' comedy A Bunch Of Amateurs. You may well be looking at the poster above and thinking that I've lost the plot entirely and will next be reviewing Scary Movie 2 but hold on a moment and hear me out. I'm not laying any claims to this being the funniest film in the world but you could do far worse (see the link above for details). Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott play Danny and Wheeler, not so much friends as colleagues, selling an energy drink called Minatour around schools on a say-no-to-drugs message. After Danny drinks a few too many of his product and attempts to drive his truck away from being towed, succeeding only in mounting a statue outside a school, the pair end up in front of the judge. Having a lawyer girlfriend has advantages and so Danny and Wheeler escape with community service but quickly find that it isn't the soft option they might have hoped.

Sturdy Wings is a mentoring programme in which Danny and Wheeler are assigned a charge each; one a role-playing nerd and the other a foul-mouthed breast obsessive. The trials and tribulations of this mis-matched foursome make up the 'hilarious consequences' of the film but the real fun comes from the celebration of geekdom, whether that be the role-playing kingdom of LAIRE or the veneration of the band KISS. Paul Rudd is excellent as ever and the two young co-stars are both suitably oddball. Not much more to say about it really. Funny and quite sweet too. Actually, quite similar to that energy drink I guess.


Tuesday 7 July 2009

'one can't be wise all the time'

The Heart Of The Matter
by Graham Greene

A few years back I picked up an old copy of Brighton Rock when I was staying with my Grandma, my first experience of Greene and I was surprised by how enjoyable and dark it all was. It was so easy to read I then gobbled up a few others in quick succession including The Quiet American, The Comedians, The End Of The Affair and Our Man In Havana. My recent house move has brought me within spitting distance (literally) of Berkhamsted School, founded in 1541, presided over by Greene's father between 1910 and 1927 and counting Graham himself amongst its illustrious alumni. So it seemed entirely fitting to read some more and my discerning 18 month old son picked The Heart Of The Matter as a gift for Father's Day (perhaps unaware of the themes of adultery and infant mortality contained within)

Sometimes by chance there can be loose connections between the books one reads and the steamy colonial location had me thinking of Hugo Wilcken's Colony, whilst one of the books overriding themes, pity, had me thinking of Stefan Zweig's warning of its dangers. From the opening sentence describing the 'bald pink knees' of Scobie as he awaits his gin and bitters (deliciously pictured above) there is a lovely sense of the colonial policeman, a man completely out of his element trying desperately to impose order, with power over others and yet never quite on top of things. In foreign climes corruption comes in many forms: power, body, faith. And yet Scobie is a man clearly enjoying his posting

Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn't had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished all the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst.

Whilst his colleagues and forebears have been corrupted by money he is clearly aware of his own shortcoming.

'They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn't name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered.

Trapped in a loveless marriage, passed over for promotion, Scobie cuts a fairly sad figure. Pity will encroach on his ability to do his job, his relationship with his wife and keeps him always focused on the needs of others first.

Pity smouldered like decay in his heart. He would never rid himself of it. He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed. Nothing ever diminished pity. The conditions of life nurtured it. There was only a single person in the world who was unpitiable, oneself.

As you might expect from any novel by Greene there is plenty of wrestling with faith. The state of Scobie's own is neatly symbolised by the broken rosary he keeps in his desk. His difficult relationship with religion isn't hard to understand once you learn that he and his wife lost their daughter when she was just a young girl, Scobie spared the ordeal itself by distance(noted in his diary with the simple 'C. died') but cruelly taunted by two telegrams arriving in the wrong order: the first telling of her death, the second almost miraculously talking of the doctor's hope that she might survive. His memories of that painful loss resurface after a group of shipwreck survivors are found after enduring over a month on the open sea. Having escaped the immediacy of his own daughter's death he is forced to witness the last moments of a young girl from that group, challenging his own ability to keep faith.

It would need all Father Brule's ingenuity to explain that. Not that the child would die...but that the child should have been allowed to survive the forty days and nights in the open boat - that was the mystery, to reconcile that with the love of God.

But Greene makes clear how ingrained religious teaching can be. As Scobie embroils himself in adultery and corruption his real terror is of damnation, of receiving communion without having been absolved of his many sins. In his introduction James Wood mentions (along with almost all of the major plot points - making it less and introduction than a massive spoiler for fools like me who don't know the plot and read the introduction first) the massive inconsistencies in Scobie's character as first mentioned by George Orwell in The New Yorker. Wood's counter argument makes for very interesting reading, after the novel itself that is.

Greene may have written several novels playing with the same themes and ideas but the fact remains that he writes with an ease that makes each of them a pleasure to read, even for a faithless old atheist like me.


Friday 3 July 2009

'perhaps no story ever really stands alone'

Island: Collected Stories
by Alistair MacLeod

It would have been churlish of me not to have used some of my ill-gotten gains from KevinfromCanada's first contest to sample some Canadian fiction and when he mentioned Alistair MacLeod to me as someone who was under-appreciated outside his own country that was all the prompting I needed. In Kevin's own reviews of two of William Maxwell's early novels I commented that there was a similar quality to the writing of the two men, or perhaps a similarity in my response to them. Like slipping on a familiar and comfortable piece of clothing both men write with an assurance that helps you to relax immediately. There is very little time needed to tune in to their style as neither of them on the whole are stylists but write more as chroniclers of very specific parts of North America. For Maxwell it was the American Midwest and for MacLeod it is the Nova Scotian island of Cape Breton.

Cape Breton for those of you who (like me) aren't quite sure is here, where the red 'A' flag is:

The houses and their people...were the result of Ireland's discontent and Scotland's Highland Clearances and America's War of Independence. Impulsive, emotional Catholic Celts who could not bear to live in England and shrewd, determined Protestant Puritans who, in the years after 1776, could not bear to live without.

These are communities populated by men who labour, who make their livelihoods from logging, fishing or mining. The frequently cold environment is one which sometimes provides moments of genuine peril as in Winter Dog, a story begun by the simple sight of a dog at play which then proceeds with the pace of a thriller. But more often than not the climate is one which accentuates the isolation of the island, the frozen sea barring access to the mainland and thus serving to cut the population off from contact, influence and corruption by modernity. There is something almost Darwinian about the act of observation, stumbling upon an island where attitudes and outlook have been allowed to evolve into something unique. That isolation combined with the simple elegance of MacLeod's writing means that his characters are imbued with pride and honesty; not so much simple people as people who lead straightforward lives and know what is right (although there is some fun poked at one point at people who put any store in 'book learnin').

The quality that he shares with Maxwell is wisdom. Quite often the stories are told in retrospect, the benefit of hindsight providing the narrator with ability to show clearly what they learnt. In The Vastness Of The Dark a boy learns that he was conceived out of wedlock and his unique take on that revelation is only slightly dimmed by the last sentence here.

And I have imagined the back seats of the old cars I've seen in pictures, or the grassy hills behind now torn-down dance halls or the beaches of sad beside the sea. I like to think that somehow that it had been different for them at my conception and that there was joy instead of grim release. But I suppose we, all of us, like to think of ourselves as children of love rather than necessity.

Given the clear heritage and culture of the islanders it is no wonder that the stories seem to come very much from a storytelling tradition. This is a wisdom passed down through generations, sometimes taking on a mystical bent as in Vision in which one family believes itself to be blessed with the gift of foresight, a blessing which anyone familiar with the classics will know is far closer to a curse. At other times, especially when folk tradition comes face to face with the modern media in The Tuning Of Perfection, there are moments of genuine comedy.

A connection to the natural world is obvious and important. The mining specialists in The Closing Down Of Summer are almost like animals who migrate around the globe with the seasons, following the work that is a constant source of danger and mortality. In the first story, The Boat, a boy's first recollection is of his father, 'of being suddenly elevated and having my face pressed against the stubble of his cheek, and how it tasted of salt and of how he smelled of salt from his red-soled rubber boots to the shaggy whiteness of his hair.' Any island based writer worth their (ahem) salt had better be good at describing the sea and MacLeod doesn't disappoint finding fresh ways of describing the element that defines the island's satus.

It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, boys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contain no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that is ripped and torn from its lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation - the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.

It is when his stories remain enigmatic and subtle that they become something slightly more special. His first collection The Lost Salt Gift Of Blood was published in 1976 and its title story is a little gem. It seems to contain many of the elements which come to define MacLeod's writing in the rest of the stories in the collection: journey and return, myth, fate, life cycles, and the meeting of island life and the outside world. My hope is that by saying no more about it you will be forced to get out there and read it yourself. MacLeod is certainly a writer worth reading. His cleverest trick is to focus on such a particular place and group of people, such a small locale, and somehow manage to write short fiction of the epic variety. Generations of family history can be covered in just a few pages, centuries of cultural history evoked in just a few verses of a song, and the importance of human relationships in the face of hardship and mortality summed up in a single glance. In The Vision a man remembers pulling lobster traps from the sea as a boy and attempting to identify a single strand in the rope a few feet further on; as impossible a task as telling a single story which doesn't rely and depend upon others, and if 'no story ever really stands alone' then nor does an island.


Thursday 2 July 2009

Top of the Roths

When James Marcus interviewed Philip Roth for a profile in the Los Angeles Times last year he asked him what he thought of the film adaptation of Portnoy's Complaint. “Unspeakable” came the reply. Whilst he liked the film version of Goodbye Columbus he went on to summarise it as a “a movie about shouting. Jewish shouting.” - going on to “give a brief, comical example, which strikes me as a specimen of literary history, like Thoreau demonstrating how to peel the bark off a birch tree.” Marcus has since set the aforementioned holler to a dance beat providing all discerning literary types with a chance to grab a ringtone with pedigree. What do you think? Did Roth miss his calling?

Jewish Shouting


Wednesday 1 July 2009


by Knut Hamsun

This was one of those books I remember seeing on other student bookshelves along with titles from similarly Scrabble winning names like Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon and Luke Reinhart. Perhaps because of that I always assumed that it was a novel written in that period of cult fiction, the late 1960's and 70's, so was more than surprised to discover that it was in fact written at the end of the nineteenth century (1890), placing it very much at the birth of modern fiction. The edition above from Canongate, published from 2006, doesn't help, making it look like a very modern and probably Scandanavian murder-thriller. Which it isn't. Paul Auster's introduction entitled The Art of Hunger draws attention to several things: the lack of plot, action and character (bar our narrator) which mark it out amongst other novels of the time, the absence of pity for the starving artist who need not starve but chooses to, and the bravery involved in abandoning God and other systems of belief and looking death ('an abrupt and absurd end of life') in the face - to walk unburdened into the 20th century.

It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him. . . .

In the city that we now call Oslo our narrator struggles. He struggles for food, for lodging, for recognition of his talents. He is caught in a contradiction: he needs to write to eat but must eat to be able to write. Filled with disgust for himself and those around him and also with his predicament, he combines monstrous arrogance with moments of charity he can ill afford. Just when he is at his most desperate something will come along to save him once more and yet just when he looks set to capitalise on some scheme he throws it all away. What we know from that tense used in that opening sentence is that he will survive, but it doesn't make the journey any less harrowing.

As a former resident of the London Borough of Haringey I would have to admit to a certain degree of recognition in those moments when the shabby figure of our narrator shuffles down the street jabbering away to himself or laughing maniacally. The general health of a city can usually be gauged by a quick head count of those talking to themselves and Hamsun clearly aims to show the modern, urban Kristiana as little more than an outer circle of hell. The surprise is that he also manages to include so much humour in a novel of such a dark nature. Sometimes this humour comes from the ridiculousness of the narrator. In one memorable episode, as he spends the night in a police cell (after having pretended to be a well-to-do journalist simply out too late, rather than the homeless vagrant that he is) suffering from the effects of his starvation he has a moment of revelation.

Suddenly I snap my fingers severe times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn't exist in the language, I have invented it - Kuboaa. It does have letters like a word - Christ man, you have invented a word....Kuboaa...of great grammatical importance.

He then attempts to define the word but struggles to do little more than define what it doesn't mean(God, cattle show, padlock, sunrise. . .), these fitful thoughts extending for a few blackly humorous pages. Sometimes the humour comes from the unveiling of his hypocrisy when, after several ostentatious acts of charity and beneficence, he begins to come closer to desperation, losing the carefree and moral outlook he fights so hard to maintain.

Were I to find on the street, this minute, a schoolgirl's modest savings, a poor widow's last penny, I would snatch it up and stick it in my pocket, steal it in cold blood and sleep like a log all night afterwards.

Sometimes the humour comes from the absurd, the irrational, the kind of humour that makes you wince at the same time.

Nothing helped; I was fading helplessly away with open eyes, staring straight at the ceiling. Finally I stuck my forefinger in my mouth and took to sucking on it. Something began stirring in my brain, some thought in there scrabbling to get out, a stark-raving mad idea: what if I gave a bite? And without a moment's hesitation I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth together.

It is amazing to think how many authors have been influenced by this book, and gratifying that many of them are exactly the ones I had originally thought were his contemporaries. It is a book way ahead of its time, and in Sverre Lyngstad's 'definitive' translation (actually in this case the word may well be apposite given the glaring inaccuracies in the previous two translations which he takes great pleasure in pointing out - and even categorising - in his translator's note) reads not only as a very modern novel, but as a book which still has plenty to say about the modern world.


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