Sunday, November 15, 2009

the severest penalty

I saw, two days ago, for the first time, a copy of Jane Gardam's latest book, The Man With the Wooden Hat, just as we were walking out of the library into the spring evening with its sunshine, shouts, leaves lime-green, pigeons twitching at the tanbark by the play equipment, etc, etc - I borrowed the Wooden Hat and lay on the couch reading while outside spring went on. At the back of this house every evening the sun shines on the top of another house, making it glow like that spot of colour in Proust's Vermeer, the "little patch of yellow wall."

In the Guardian blogs a few days ago, Germaine Greer told people not to read Proust because he uses too many semi-colons and not enough full stops. If I wanted to tell people not to read him, I'd point out that if you have the bad luck to love the book, then every time you finish it you might feel at least partly desolate, as if you've been exiled from a kind of homeland, as if you've stepped out of your kingdom, like the elf prince in Hellboy II, and a confusing situation he was in, I thought, because there were supernatural trolls, fairies, and monsters all over the city where the movie was set, and so I deduced there must be fairies, elves, and trolls all over the Earth, and what, therefore, was he being exiled from? It was a kingdom without any borders. How do you leave your kingdom if it doesn't have a boundary you can step over? "All right, there, now you're in exile. Take one step backwards in our direction and you'll be in the kingdom again, you will have violated the terms of your exile …" there was nothing like that. How did he consider himself outside? All he seemed to have was the word, exile. There you are, I'm exiled. Because I say so. Now I shall be terribly noble and kill people with little insect things. And lo, he does.

Whole parts of that film were strange. In one scene a character looked at a bean near her feet, wailing, It is dangerous! and Someone needs to pick that up immediately or else we will die! without ever bending down herself. Why didn't she bend? If the elf prince loved supernatural creatures, then why did he sacrifice a plant god, "the last of its kind," to the demon he could be fairly sure was going to kill it? How could he bear to put it in danger? Why wasn't he aghast at himself? Either you accept that everyone, even a movie elf, is made up of contradictions or else you ignore these things for the sake of the film, or else you conclude that the scriptwriter, who was also the film's director, wasn't willing to think it through, or else that he was rushed, edited - Guillermo del Toro, I read somewhere, wrote a three-hour script for Hellboy II and had to cut it down to half that length before he was allowed to start shooting. If that's true then it goes some way toward explaining why the movie is all compression, spectacle, isolated gesture, and unsupported assertion, although it doesn't explain why we were being asked to care about the fetishistic loading of a big gun while outside people were being crushed by "the last of its kind."

Last year del Toro turned down an opportunity to direct a version of Wind in the Willows. The studio wanted Toad to carry a skateboard (he reported), and "make him say, 'radical dude' things,'" and he, del Toro, told them no. Over at LibraryThing, one reader-reviewer complains that Wind in the Willows is setting a bad example for her child because Toad doesn't finish his gaol sentence. He should pay his debt to society, she writes. But Toad is a young child in a grown toad's body, he behaves like a toddler who has somehow made it to adulthood without altering his personality, and why would you send a toddler to gaol for twenty years, especially when the court case is a farce?

The Clerk scratched his nose with his pen. 'Some people would consider,' he observed, 'that stealing the motor-car was the worst offence; and so it is. But cheeking the police undoubtedly carries the severest penalty; and so it ought. Supposing you were to say twelve months for the theft, which is mild; and three years for the furious driving, which is lenient; and fifteen years for the cheek, which was pretty bad sort of cheek, judging by what we've heard from the witness-box, even if you only believe one-tenth part of what you heard, and I never believe more myself — those figures, if added together correctly, tot up to nineteen years ——'

'First-rate!' said the Chairman.

'— So you had better make it a round twenty years and be on the safe side,' concluded the Clerk.

Toad was never my favourite part of the book when I was little, even though his personality was the one Kenneth Grahame created for the entertainment of his own young son, Alastair, whose nickname was Mouse. I preferred Badger's underground house, where "the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction," and also Ratty being lured away to sea by the Sea Rat. That staying and that going were two poles of action that the author, in his real life, could never reconcile. Nor can I. If I leave the house and walk south for five minutes, I can see ships. A torment.

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