Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why do we write what we write?

I mentioned that famous Philip Roth quote the other day about writers not being able to contend with the crazy reality of the times. John W. Aldridge, writing about Catch 22 in 1986, has an interesting take on this:
Mr. Roth was, of course, writing out of an era that was particularly notable for unbelievable and often quite repellent happenings. There had been the fiascoes of the Eisenhower Presidency, the costly Korean War, the sordid inquisitions of the McCarthy era, the Rosenberg executions, the Nixon-Kennedy debates. But then, Mr. Heller was writing out of the same era, and what makes Mr. Roth's essay historically interesting is that nowhere in it does he show an awareness or even imagine the possibility that the effort to come to terms with the unreality of the American reality might already have begun to be made by such writers as William Gaddis and John Barth, whose first works had been published by 1961, and would continue to be made by Thomas Pynchon, whose V came out two years later, as well as by Joseph Heller in Catch-22.
These writers were all, in their different ways, seeking to create a fiction that would assimilate the difficulties Mr. Roth described. And they achieved this by creating an essentially new kind of fiction that represented an abdication of traditional realism - a form rendered mostly ineffectual because of those very difficulties - and that made use of the techniques of black humor, surrealism and grotesque metaphor to dramatize unreality, most often by making it seem even more unreal than it actually was.

This is an area which fascinates me. Is there a similar movement today? The writers Aldridge is referring to reacted against the culture of the time and the literature of the time. They were, essentially, post-modernists reacting against the stuffy, academic modernism which had prevailed. And they were reacting against a world which appeared to be going quickly insane.

In this way, they became an integral part of the counter-culture which prevailed in the 1960s. Where is today's counter-culture? Is there a literary movement at the forefront of changing people's perceptions? McSweeneys? Really? Fatuous smugness? Or the Cormac McCarthy inspired legion of post-apocalyptarians? But hiding in the future is no way to contend with the present. What else? What typifies today's literature? What coherent stand is it taking? What is it telling us about our own culture?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Jeff Torrington

Jeff Torrington has died, aged 72. Swing hammer swing! is a very fine novel with an extraordinary voice and a truly dynamic drive. Torrington was a typical Scots autodidact and, as such, is generally ignored by the fashionable cognoscenti. That Swing Hammer Swing! won the Whitbread is one of the miracles of the modern literary age. You only hope that it wasn't a token gesture, though the fact it seems to be out of print probably points you in the right direction. I've written on here before about use of Scots language and how blinkered people cannot see beyond it to the quality of writing beneath. Jeff spoke it, so he wrote in it. It doesn't alter the skill with which he approached his craft.

Go and read the book.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The power of fiction

I'm reading a lot of novels based on 9/11 at the moment for my research. I've just finished a very good one, Windows on the world by Frédéric Beigbeder, translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

The novel interweaves two narratives. Firstly, an imagined scene with a father and his two young children, trapped in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center when it is hit by the aeroplane. (They die, of course, and the narrator of this section declares this from the outset - a postmodern trick that would cause apoplexy in some writers I know...) Secondly, a Frenchman (presumably the author, musing on modern culture and researching what happened that day. Reviewers tend to dislike the latter section, but to my mind it is the important one. It is a sensible attempt to understand contemporary culture and how it has led, directly and indirectly to the current world situation. The author makes some interesting observations about 1968 and the 1968 generation. I'm not sure I agree entirely, but they are thought-provoking at the very least.

Early in the novel, Beigbeder declares:

Since September 11, 2001, reality has not only outstripped fiction, it's destroying it. It's impossible to write about this subject, and yet impossible to write about anything else. Nothing else touches us.

This brings to mind the famous quote from Philip Roth in the 60s that I've mentioned on this blog before: 'the actuality is continually outdoing our talents [as writers]'

Roth wasn't correct, as a new generation of writers showed. The 1960s saw an extraordinary flowering of American literature. Is he right now? Certainly, the Twin Towers strikes have not silenced writers: there is a plethora of fiction based on it. But it is notable how poor most of it is. Writers seem unable to wrestle with the cultural, social, political and religious context. Instead, we get trivial domestic dramas using that day as a crutch. To his credit, Beigbeder has sought to do something else.

He discusses contemporary culture, and he is admirably even-handed when discussing the sort of American hegemony that reduces most writers to facile stereotypes. He likes American culture, rails against 'bigoted anti-Americanism'. But he recognises its weaknesses, too: 'Americans should stop trying to export their lifestyle to the entire planet,' he says at one point. And he makes some fascinating observations about the children of 1968 and the children they have brought up, a 'generation of frantic channel-hopping, schizophrenic existentialism.'

He comes close to pinpointing our cultural response to 9/11. Instead of the anarchic reaction against authority of the 60s, we have slipped into introspective pessimism. At one stage in the novel, his character notes:

I love the vast column of smoke pouring from the towers on the giant screen, projected in real time, the white plume against the blue of the sky, like a silk scarf hanging suspended between land and sea. I love it, not only because of its ethereal splendor, but because I know the apocalypse it portends, the violence and the horror it contains. Virilio forces me to face that part of my humanity which is not humanist.

It is this pessimism that has driven us along Cormac McCarthy's Road. The humanist part of our humanity must prevail.

Beigbeder is correct, though: it is difficult to write about 9/11. The scale of it makes it difficult for us to relate to it in any meaningful way. But Beigbeder does it, wonderfully. As I have said, the narrative is split between the father and the Frenchman. But at one stage it shifts, unbidden, to the voice of one of the man's children. This is beautiful. They are doomed to death. The man knows it, we know it, the older brother probably knows it. The younger brother, though, tells us:

September 11, 2001. I have discovered my father possesses superpowers. I was in Windows on the World with my older brother when it happened.

There follows a couple of pages of the boy's fantasies about his dad saving them all, and ending with: 'Agent X275 signing off'.

As a way of personalising the drama, making something which is too big small enough to comprehend, this is superb.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The White Family by Maggie Gee

This came up in one of the discussion threads on here, so I decided to give it a read. It's an unusual book in that it is both subtle and too obvious at once. It is the story of a family, the Whites, who possess and display, to varying degrees, racist views. It is wholly unsubtle because the characters are, frankly, almost cartoonish in the simplicity of their depictions. It is subtle because, in the character of the father, there is someone who is fascinating and real.

The father is, or so he appears, an old-fashioned John Bull 'Britain for the Whites' bigot. He is also violent, having thumped most of his family, including his daughter at some stage. He is, of course, revered in the community, where he is a park keeper. Recognise the stereotype? Pub (or in this case, Park) darling, home bastard. But there is more here, as we'll see later.

His elder son has reacted against his father’s bigoted violence and boorishness by becoming a newspaper vox-pop columnist. He fulminates on social issues but, later, confesses he doesn’t much care about what he writes. It's just fodder. Recognise him? The shallow journalist, of course, a stock of stage, screen and print.

Then the younger son. He is straight out of a Richard Allen novel, a skinheaded paki- and darkie-hating racist who also hates women for good measure and pretty much everyone else, including himself. That he turns out to have latent homosexual leanings is almost to be expected. We’ve all seen My Beautiful Launderette, after all.

The mother is a pacific, Tennyson-loving stereotype-bender, the stupid little woman who isn't at all stupid. But she is docile. She lives in terror of her rule-making and fear-inducing husband. She doesn't stick up for her children when they are being terrorised. Instead, she finds refuge with Alfred, Lord T. But she loves her man.

The daughter/sister, of course, coming from a family of bigots, marries a man who is as black as black can be. He dies, unfortunately, but she then takes up with a West Indian for unsuitable partner number two, an act which adds racist fuel to the incendiary brother number two: he'd almost forgiven her once, but not twice.

Sister's unsuitable partner number two has a younger brother who is studying James Baldwin for his doctorate. He is also gay, but of course the West Indian community refuse to acknowledge gayness as a black 'problem', so he can't discuss it with anyone. He ends up being murdered by racist brother number two. (In terms of theme, why did he deserve to die? Because he was afraid of coming out? That's either an uncomfortable thematic message or a messed up thematic plot turn.)

There's an introverted writer-librarian who has problems with women but ends up shagging two of them (including the black-loving daughter) on consecutive nights. So he's maybe not that nice. Or maybe he is because he's quite thoughtful about it, and even makes one of them come. But he also thought that the gay black brother was violent, possibly criminal, because of the material he was borrowing from the library, when of course we know he was only studying Baldwin. So another racist, then.

All this is straight out of Crash, wouldn’t you say? (And that's another story, a movie in this case, that tries far, far too hard and ends up being way too pat. For god's sake, loose ends are never tied up so completely in real life.) Everyone is shown to have their own hang-ups. We do in real life, of course, but it feels forced here. Nobody is proved to be completely blameless, the good guys are shown to have their weaknesses. And the bastards are gradually given some humanity. Or at least, in this case, the father is.

However, he is the one character in the novel who actually works. We see increasing complexity in his character where, with some of the other characters, we see plot devices happening to them. As he lies in his hospital bed, dying, he does grow more real. He rejects the John Bull his daughter bought him – 'he never truly existed,' he says. He speaks to the black nurse as a person,not an object. He comes to understand that he has ruled his family by tyranny, comes to see the way his children regarded him. He doesn't change, though. People don't. He just comes to understand. This is real life. It is painful. As a reader, you feel something, because he is feeling something. But ultimately, unfortunately, he does change, and this doesn't work for me at all. He makes a final gesture and reports his killer son to the police. We are then left with a mawkish scene at the end where he perishes in his beloved park with his beloved wife at his side. So happyish families at the end. A life's journey comes to its conclusion.

For me, there's just too much going on in this novel. The daughter is desperate for children, we learn. (Why? Why in this novel? Sure, the novel's about connectedness and belonging, but first and foremost it appears to be about racism (or maybe domestic violence), so the child subplot feels an isshoo too far.) Then we learn she had a child when she was much younger, and it was adopted. (Sounds like it should be in another novel to me.) Then at the end she has unplanned twins (father uncertain, either the black partner or the white librarian, and the unidentical twins, one dusky, one white, don't resolve it). Again, why? Thematically, what does that actually say? It's confused and confusing for no good reason that I can see, other than to provide a feelgood ending of sorts. And right at the end the first, adopted, daughter contacts her so, at the last, she is fulfilled. Good for her. But what a trite way to deal with a serious issue, thrown in at the last like this as an 'aah' ending.

And the other characters? The older brother? He tries to come to terms with his anger. That's about it. The mother? Loves her husband, keeps quoting Tennyson. Doesn't actually change at all. She's a wasted opportunity, really. She could have been very good. The younger son? Sadly, he is a mess of cliches who never feels remotely real. But he's racist, he's sexist, he's homophobic, he's gay. He also appears to be undiagnosed autistic (a super-facility with numbers). He feels out of place and out of time and wholly unwanted and unloved. And obviously he's inherited his father's inability to control his anger. I mean, how many bloody issues do you need to try to engage in one pathetic character?

And this is why I found this such an infuriating book. At times it was so in your face 'this book is about isshoos, it’s about racism innit?' that it became laughable. Trite isn't the word for it. You simply groan when you read drivel like: ‘muttering mumbo-jumbo at him' and 'Indian people smelled of funny food.' That is straight out of a fifth form composition. Granted, the novel goes on to explore racism in more depth, but a cliche is still a cliche no matter how much you may subvert it later on.

But overall there is a depth to this novel. It does explore useful territory, and it does come to some useful conclusions. It doesn't (always) go for the easy options. In the father, Maggie Gee does create a character who is infested with real concerns and prejudices and beliefs. He isn't a saint or a sinner, he is a man who has done terrible things, sometimes for honest reasons, and has sometimes done good things for bad reasons. There is, based around him, within the 416 pages on offer here, a very, very good novel.

Unfortunately, within those 416 pages there is also a great deal of a very bad novel. In structural terms it feels like a bad first draft. Too much of it is too obvious. Too much is trite, simplistic, convenient. This is a great pity because it has the effect of obscuring the genuinely revelatory.

The rewrite could be superb.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro is an extraordinary novel which had me bewildered at the start, then curious, then sceptical, but ultimately deeply moved. It is humanism on a beautiful scale. Where When we were orphans seemed like an exercise in literary mystery, Never Let Me Go seems, by its tragic conclusion, to be saying something important.

From the outset that characteristic Ishiguro uncertainty – full of phrases like 'thinking about it now' and 'so it seemed to me' – makes the reader aware that the idyllic boarding school in which the children reside is anything but. But what it actually is remains as mysterious to us as it does to the children. Ishiguro is simply a genius at the slow unfurling of meaning. He depicts confusion better than anyone I’ve ever read. You share the children’s curiosity. You worry at their naivete. You feel sure things will not turn out well.

Nor do they. They are in an unalterable existence of death where they live, where they have been explicitly bred, for the harvest of their bodies. This is not science-fiction, nor is it dystopia, nor is it Kafkaesque fable, although it has echoes of all of those. Ultimately, it is a novel about humanity, what it means to be human, what it means to belong, to be a part of something, to love, ultimately to die, and to see those you love die. It is remarkably sad, a beautiful book. It is impossible to read it, with your partner by your side, and not find yourself fearing the moment of her (or his) loss, not feel a surge of emotion, a moment of helpless love for them in the face of mortality. This is a book that transposes its message to the reader in a very real and very emotional way. Like all great novels, it makes you think far wider than the story itself or the characters themselves.

You could argue that it must be a fault that, by half way through and more, we still do not know that much about the characters and their predicament. – what they actually are. It makes it hard to empathise. That is a fair criticism, but it only makes the ending all the more remarkable, the fact that you care so deeply for these three young people. I had no idea how much this novel was going to move me, even as I was reading it, indeed even as I was approaching its end. It is the sad depiction of the final, inevitable rush of time that makes it so extraordinary.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Culture and civilisation

Terry Eagleton, writing in today's Guardian, warns that civilisation and culture are coming into conflict. He quotes Raymond Williams saying 'culture is ordinary', to which I would argue that the futile attempts to, as George Orwell had it, 'Marxise' it have for the past eighty years failed, largely because culture is not 'ordinary', nor does it fall into patronising little niches. The Marxists have tried and tried to claim culture as their own, but always failed. Eagleton later quotes Walter Benjamin, so I will do likewise, from 1936, on the subject of art – which may, of course, be both reflection and progenitor of culture:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.

This is a curious anomoly which has existed since 1455 and the invention of printing – indeed, even before that, with (relatively) mass produced block books. What is the original work of art? Taken out of its time, its moment, its context, shorn of its experience, how can one truly know that work of art? It loses an essential dimension. No reproduction, however good, can revivify that; indeed, no exhibition – which takes paintings out of their respective contexts and creates a whole, new, artificial universe in which they temporarily subsist – can ever truly get to the heart and soul of art. That is the way of it. There is no remedy.

It seems to me, reading Eagleton's article, that in his simplistic approach to culture he is similarly seeking to take it out of its time. He is not doing this in the same way – by creating a reproduced image – but the effect is the same: a diminution in the power that culture – or art – can hold over the observer, because of the loss of this essential dimension of timeliness. But, in Eagleton's case, this loss is deliberate, part of his tired dogmatism, his inability to move with the moment.

He does this by quoting Benjamin and extrapolating from that quote in a tendentious way. Benjamin, he says:

declared that 'every document of civilisation is at the same time a record of barbarism'. For every cathedral, a pit of bones; for every work of art, the mass labour that granted the artist the resources to create it. Civilisation needs to be wrested from nature by violence, but the violence lives on in the coercion used to protect civilisation - a coercion known among other things as the political state.

This initial point could be powerful, but the examples he gives are weak. They are, essentially, trivial. And in so doing, Eagleton tries to impute to culture something which isn't there; humans, those creators, recipients and benefiters of culture, do not think of culture in such terms. Culture should not be defined by negatives, by the cost it took to make. This reading of culture is a reading that doesn't exist, other than in the mind of one who creates it with the specific intention of knocking it down. A straw culture, perhaps. Eagleton is not, as with a reproduction of a work of art, giving us an image of culture in its entirety: he is seeking to subvert our understanding of it; he is trying to force on it a reading that doesn't exist. This is how, for example, Heart of Darkness becomes a 'racist' text: anachronistic interpretations are forced upon things, we are invited to regard them in a light which was not present when that work of art was conceived.

And yet Benjamin concluded in his study of art and reproduction that, despite their inability to reflect the heart of a work of art, such reproductions were a good thing. The 'technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.' It leads to a 'tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind'. It has a 'destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage'.

It is, therefore, revolutionary.

On the other hand, however, Eagleton's view of culture is entirely reactionary. It is the sad fate of all revolutionaries that they fall out of time and that their views, once fresh and radical, become tired and rehashed. They seek to resolve new questions with their trusty old answers. No matter that they failed in the 30s and the 60s and the 70s and the 80s. They try to dress the new limbs of new culture in the old garb of Marxism and wonder why soft, pink, vulnerable skin remains exposed.

What is Eagleton's prognosis? A battle between civilisation and culture:

We face a conflict between civilisation and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and arational. It is no surprise, then, to find that we have civilisation whereas they have culture. Culture is the new barbarism. The contrast between west and east is being mapped on a new axis.

So there we have it. Let's overlook the fact that his descriptions of 'civilisation' and 'culture' are completely nonsensical. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and take him at face value. What is he telling us? We are facing a battle of east and west. This isn't new. This is straying into Samuel Huntington territory, the clash of civilisations, the free world against the forces of darkness. And what was Clash of Civilisations if it wasn't the Cold War reformulated? Or the Wild West reformulated? The Good Guys against the Bad Guys. Make your choices now – white hats or black hats. Eagleton, the old marxist, has no new answers. His prognosis leads nowhere, because it is constructed from arguments as withered as November leaves.

George Orwell, describing the same 1930s that Benjamin was writing in, made the 'mental connexion between pessimism and a reactionary outlook'. Prior to this was a period in which great art was produced, but:

[s]uddenly we have got out of the twilight of the gods into a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing. The typical literary man ceases to be a cultured expatriate with a leaning towards the Church, and becomes an eager-minded schoolboy with a leaning towards communism. If the keynote of the writers of the twenties is 'tragic sense of life' the keynote of the new writers in 'serious purpose'.

How might we define the approach of Eagleton and his like today? Their world-view is dreary, reactionary, doom-mongering. And always wallowing, of course, in the unsaid, in the 'more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger' pompous tones of the truly righteous. If only, they suggest, if only you’d followed us all those years ago into the new world that we promised, then we wouldn't be in this fix. Civilisation would be cured, culture would be properly married to the masses, there would be harmony throughout the world.

But what, really, do they offer? They talk of liberty, of allowing culture the freedom to nurture new seeds, new strains. Noble words. But, as Orwell explains, the reality in the 30s was:

It was a time of labels, slogans, and evasions. At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship ('Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?') was at work in nearly everyone's mind. It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.

This is the crux of it. This is why I hate Eagleton's rage at the dying of the marxist light, at his shallow, anachronistic, manipulative, deliberately reductive approach to the question of culture. Because it will lead to where? To stagnation – stagnation of culture, of art, ultimately of civilisation itself. And meanwhile the dogmatists will wring their hands and say 'I told you so' and 'whatever can be done?' and 'woe is us, oh woe is us'. And meanwhile those who mean civilisation harm will do civilisation harm.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The meaning of art

My post below on the literary scene prompted an interesting response from Vanessa. It made me think of this, the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey. I read this a few weeks ago and found it a bit hard going, to be honest. Very old-fashioned in its style, making the characterisation horribly telly (and the character of Lord Henry quite insufferable). But the preface, while containing typically glib Wildeisms, also contains some statements that are very challenging.

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.

Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Julia Leigh - Disquiet

A very short novella, this. Some of Saul Bellow's short stories are longer.

It appears to have decidedly mixed reviews, this book. It is certainly a love-it-or-loathe-it sort; the style is extreme, so it's either one that appeals to you or it will aggravate. Me, I like it.

It should be read by anyone who fancies themselves as a writer. They will learn some very useful lessons.

1. Less is more. The most obvious failing in beginners' writing is adjectivitis. I touched on this in the post below about Huck Finn. This story amplifies the point perfectly. Leigh uses hardly any adjectives or adverbs. It is simple, almost stark language, and yet it conveys far, far more than the description-soaked amateur offering ever could.

2. Simple language isn't dull. Once the amateur writer realises the truth of 1. he/she will usually go to the other extreme. Raymond Carver has much to answer for here. We get the most godawful Janet and John language. A did this. B said that. C happened. It was D. It was E. No music, no variation, no lift. Just word after sodding word. Julia Leigh's style is very simple, unadorned. She gives you the detail and no more - even when it is truly horrific detail. But it still maintains the interest because there is rich vocabulary and there is variety and movement to the sentences.

3. Horror can be drawn without the need for portentousness. Julia Leigh does dead babies much, much better than that old ham, Cormac McCarthy. The reason? She just explains and leaves us to fill in the emotions. McCarthy can't have a dead baby (and they're in most of his novels) without ratcheting up the emotional tempo.

So, lots of good things. Does it work? Yes and no. Some of the characterisation is excellent. The children, in particular, come across as real, and the starkness of the poor woman's plight, her agonising mental torment, is all the better for not being overplayed. But some of the remaining characters, the mother in particular, feel half finished.

And, while there is much for the aspiring writer to learn from in a positive sense in this work, there's also a strong lesson in negative. Leigh's attempt to thread some sort of theme about the elements - rock and water - feels laboured and spliced in. It doesn't feel natural, as though she has added these bits in later to give it a bit of profundity. A pity, because it really doesn't need it.

And the ending? Didn't really understand it, I have to be honest.

But a worthwhile read. It's only 120 short pages, won't take much more than an hour. And lots to admire.

Friday, May 16, 2008

What we do to each other

R.D Laing:
From the moment of birth, when the Stone Age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is subjected to those forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father, and their parents and their parents before them, have been. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality in our present age.

Education, good thing or bad? Discuss? Is it merely the reinforcement of a previous generation's prejudices; or the arming of a young mind to stretch and develop? How do you teach without shackling? How do you stretch the mind without limiting it?

The matter of voice

This is from Huckleberry Finn:

Not a sound anywheres -- perfectly still -- just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line -- that was the woods on t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away -- trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks -- rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t'other side of the river...

Fitting the voice to the story is, you would think, one of the easiest things to do, and yet it is one of the faults most commonly found in beginners' writings. We've all read stories where the voice screams out at us as being clearly wrong: child characters projecting abstract, adult thoughts; or characters who are largely painted as being less intelligent suddenly using complex words or imagery or thinking; or characters in a particular situation responding wholly unrealistically. I remember, for example, one story in which a man is propositioned by a young girl – very young, as I recall – and instead of the gamut of emotions which would go through one’s head in such cases – from 'this is my lucky day' through to 'life without parole for kiddy-fiddling', the character stops to tell us how twinkly the stars were that night.

This example, from Mark Twain, is wonderful. Huck Finn, remember, is a lightly educated young man of thirteen or fourteen. But he is an outdoors boy. He knows and understands natural phenomena. Therefore, he can describe them with a skill that I – as a townie – would be unable to. But he doesn't, of course, use fancy language, so everything here is told using very simple words. But think how descriptive it is. Isn't it wonderful? Doesn't it absolutely paint a picture that you can close your eyes and see quite clearly. All from the voice of Huck Finn. Without a single fancy word or any authorial showboating or beginners' trying-too-hard-itis. Brilliant writing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Erik Satie says

In order to combat 'advanced' ideas in Politics or in Art, all means are justified - especially underhand means. 'New'artists - those who 'change something' - have always suffered attacks from their enemies who wage war on the newness of trends - and visions- which they cannot undertand... [I]t is always the same people who resist Progress in all its shapes and forms: the upholders of the 'status quo', the good folk who 'know what they like'.

Erik Satie, 1919

There are closed minds out there who retrospectively invent reasons for disliking something, merely to mask an unjustifiable prejudice. They LOUDER they remark, the more they know they are defeated. Leave them to shout themselves hoarse.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Jacques the Fatalist

I've just finished Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist, which I think I quoted on here a while back. It's taken a while to read because it was my bedtime book - three or four pages before going to sleep. A very peculiar book, I have to say, written between 1755 and 1784. He wrote it to challenge the artificial conventions of French fiction at the time - doesn't that ring some bells today? It's probably a very early example of metafiction. The narrator steps out of the story frequently to address the reader. He debates with the reader what might happen next, what would be improbable and what predictable and what unacceptable. There is no particular narrative. It's just a collection of stories, where characters appear and just disappear. All of it is designed to prove Jacques' central thesis that everything is pre-ordained anyway, and whatever he decides to do, however ridiculous, will prove to have been inevitable. It's great stuff, a fun romp, with some really entertaining scenes. It also occasionally gives some witty and wise epigrams for the writer. Here's an example:

Be neither the reluctant panegyrist nor the embittered censor. Just tell the thing as it is.

Excellent advice, 200 years plus down the line.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The horseshit approach to living your life

Kurt Vonnegut, in an interview with Playboy:

Vonnegut: You understand, of course, that everything I say is horseshit.
Playboy: Of course.
Vonnegut Well, we do live our lives simultaneously. That a fact. You are here as a child and as an old man. I recently visited a woman who hs Hodgkin’s disease. She has somewhere between a few months and a couple of years to live, and she told me that she was living her life simultaneously now, living all the moments of it.
Playboy: It all seems paradoxical.
Vonnegut: That’s because what I've just said to you is horseshit. But it's a useful, comforting sort of horseshit, you see? That's what I object to about preachers. They don't say anything to make anybody any happier, when there are all these neat lies you can tell. And everything is a lie, because our brains are two-bit computers, and we can't get very high-grade truths out of them. But as far as improving the human condition goes, our minds are certainly up to that.

That Kilgore Trout, what a tease, eh? But he's right, of course. We do - or can - live our lives simultaneously. That's what memory is for. That's what hope is for. The two curses or joys of the human condition. My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's. Those people fall out of time. They live in their own space, peopled by the future and the past and the present all at once. Who's to say it's any worse a place than this here now? Certainly, my gran was perfectly happy talking about a man on the roof opposite, who wasn't there in my world but undoubtedly was in hers. The old Calvinists would have tried to force her out of her delusion: only the straight and narrow, the strictly true will do. They can't leave a moment to assert itself and decide what's best. They can't allow the luxury of comfort, of illusion, of retreat into safety. Sometimes the only human thing to do is to leave people alone. They find their own way through the maze of it all.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Notice to the reader

I started listening to the LibriVox readings of Huckleberry Finn on the way to work this morning. Great stuff. I remember loving this as a kid - quite a solitary kid - and desperately wanting to be a member of Tom Sawyer's gang. Reading it again now I think I still do.

But anyway, I was very struck by Mark Twain's opening:


PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

A typically Twainian (is that a word?) summation of the points I've been making recently about plot, bloody plot. Twain just builds character and moment and it's beautiful stuff.

Invisible changes

The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisation, such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples. The true historical upheavals are not those which astonish us by their grandeur and violence. The only important changes whence the renewal of civilisations results, affect ideas, conceptions, and beliefs. The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited groundwork of its thoughts.

Written by Gustave Le Bon in 1895. It is an interesting notion and one which has more than a grain of truth. I guess the problem is that such changes are truly epochal, and as such can only be seen from a great distance.

For example, the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa seemed truly wonderful at the time. It still seems quite amazing. For those of us brought up on the totem of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela refusing to back down to tyranny, the joyous eruption of a new South Africa under his leadership, and the honest, mature, decent way with which they dealt with the historical baggage through their Truth and Reconciliation process, was completely inspirational. This truly, we, thought, was a mammoth upheaval in civilisation, one which would surely resonate throughout the world.

Today, South Africa is still a free country; it is still a good country. But divisions are emerging, corruption is suggested, traces of spite and malice and recidivism can be seen in the political debate. Is this a necessary and inevitable part of the political growing process; or will we see, from the distance of twenty, thirty or forty years, that Truth and Reconciliation was a moment, merely a moment, and that less changed than we believed (and hoped) at the time?