Monday, May 31, 2010

a strange and wonderful motion takes place: the memory arts

Titus Groan, I decided. I'll read it from start to finish. How often have I done that? I didn't know. My usual way, with a book I like as much as I loved this one when I was in my mid-teens (devoutly), is to read it in pieces, out of order, opening the volume in some region of the story (near-the-endish, in-the-middlish, at-the-startish, expecting in one instance to find myself reading Fuchsia in her attic or Steerpike on the rooftops; in another instance that Flay and Swelter would be in the middle of their battle or that his Lordship would be, slightly post-battle, coping with the owls, or Barquentine, post-owls, would be listening to the messengers in his room) and running my eyes over half a page or so of words, a soothing exercise, like moving your feet in bed and realising that the blankets are still there.

I must have read the book in the start-to-finish way at least once, because I remembered how the plot was ordered. I knew that Steerpike meets, first Fuchsia, then the Doctor, then Irma, then the Twins, and not, say, Irma, then Fuchsia, then Nannie Slagg; and I knew who would die in the fire, and why it would be lit, and how those events would lead to the closing chapter. So I had this evidence, quod erat demonstrandum, that I had read it, but no actual recollection. I must have, or else how did I know the plot so well? But I couldn't see myself, standing or sitting, for the first time, reading Titus. (Why don't we remember the moment we learnt we would die? asks Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in Stoppard's play. Why didn't it sear itself into our brains?) My absence of memory was so complete that it would have been easy to erase my own assurance, and convince myself that I had never read Titus before from start to finish, that this would be the first time, and that I had, forever, only known the book in pieces.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing about Godard's Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma --

Curiously, Godard accords the ultimate honor of achieving some sort of power through art to Alfred Hitchcock, “the greatest creator of forms of the 20th century,” who “became the only poète maudit to meet with success.” We may forget the plots and situations of his films, “but we remember a handbag . . . a bus in the desert . . . a glass of milk . . . the sails of a windmill . . . a hairbrush . . . a row of bottles, a pair of spectacles, a sheet of music, a bunch of keys” because “through them and with them Alfred Hitchcock succeeded where Alexander, Julius Caesar, Hitler, and Napoleon had all failed, by taking control of the universe. Perhaps there are 10,000 people who haven’t forgotten Cézanne’s apples, but there must be a billion spectators who will remember the lighter of the stranger on the train.”

This was my Titus Groan, before I began to re-read: a bitten pear ... a thin man ... a mountain ... Fuchsia ... glass grapes ... and the dark cactus ... a series of scenes, without anything between them, disconnected from a plot, or at least, the plot never seemed important, it gave the scenes some background, therefore a purpose, but everything else stood out on front of it -- it was the wax in a lost wax casting. The map of authors inside my head is like this as well -- a fog or a cloud, with bright or dark patches here and there and each patch an author -- not a picture of an author, or the name of an author, but some sign by which I know the author -- like a memory palace, come to think of it, but a palace with planless architecture, outhouses constantly tacked on the wings, fresh random cupolas, not as orderly as the ones John Crowley gives to Giordano Bruno in his Aegypt books.

And now by degrees, more quickly for some than for others, a strange and wonderful motion takes place: the memory arts of the Brunist have begun to create within the souls of the ladies and gentlemen the image of a living world, a world of innumerable and endless processes producing an infinite number of things, inside every one of which is a divine spark that orders it without error or hesitation into its place in the ranks of creation from lowest to highest.

Ruskin inside my head is a book, a specific book, open to a specific page, and one long sentence standing out from the others, somehow, by a light of its own that I can feel but not see -- that's Ruskin -- George Eliot is a mass of books superimposed on top of one another, as if the books were spirits, all coexisting. Those books are, specifically, The Mill on the Floss, Felix Holt the Radical, and Middlemarch. Christina Stead is my copy of The Man Who Loved Children, with its diagonal white crease running across the bottom right-hand corner.

All of this changes from time to time.

Strange to have Titus Groan reassemble in front of me as I read, regaining its length and distance. For the first time in how-long I was doing this journey one foot in front of the other, not darting down from the sky into the castle like a hovering god. I was wing-clipped, very slow. I had forgotten, if I had ever known (it felt like a brand new realisation), how much scenery there is in this book. How much weather. And I had forgotten entirely the bit at the end, all the cats on turrets, looking down at the procession. New! I was astonished.

A little to the left and about fifty feet beneath his window was a table-land of drab roof around the margin of which were turrets grey with moss, set about three feet apart from one another. There were many scores of them ... every turret was surmounted by a cat, and every cat had its head thrust forwards, and ... every cat, as white as a plume, was peering through slit eyes at something moving -- something moving far below on the narrow sand-coloured path which led from the castle's outhouses to the northern woods.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

being many flavoured and subtle

Reaching the end of Incidents in the Rue Laugier after A Friend From England I thought, "I have read two Brookners in a row. Every other time I've read two Brookners in a row I have felt too enervated to read a third. Now I will want to read something else." So I made myself read Chinese Poems, a collection of translations by Arthur Waley, who tells us that he chose this group of poems above others not because they were "a balanced and representative anthology of Chinese poetry through the ages," but because he liked them, and because they "happen to work out well in translation." Waley died in 1966. Transparent plastic on the book's cover is curling off with age, and the publisher's blurb starts like this,

A taste for Chinese poetry is not hard to acquire. It is as easy to enjoy as chop suey, and has in fact something of the same quality, being many flavoured and subtle, yet full of honest nourishment

but I was uneasy throughout, and afterwards rushed on to another Brookner, finally discovering that she was the author I had wanted all along. I had misread myself, I had tried to stop the flow of my attention, which had not been enervated after all; I had betrayed myself as a reader. If to dedicate time to reading is to make a blind way through a jungle (how to identify the destination, how to reach it once identified?) then I had misinterpreted the cry of some bird, the broken branch, the crushed leaf, the weather. I had substituted science for intuition.

The Brookner I chose was her 1988 Latecomers -- why? -- because I liked the first couple of words: "Hartmann, a voluptuary ..."

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.

I did not like the cover, which was black. It seemed wrong for the author, who previously I'd only read in coloured volumes, a blue streetscape, a reproduction of a girl's portrait, but inside everything was as it should be, ordered and dense, deep, close, observant, although, unusually for her, there were four principal characters. At the end of Latecomers I read the first page again and came to the conclusion that Hartmann had changed over the course of the book. He was not the person he had promised to be. I remembered that she writes her books (she's said) from beginning to end, in a single draft, longhand, and that's it, as did Iris Murdoch, who sat with a stack of clean paper on one side and the written-on pages on the other, moving one pile, page by page, onto the table in front of her so that it could be transferred to the top of the second pile. So I've heard ("a new Murdoch manuscript ... many thousands of pages of illegible handwriting carried in a blue laundrette plastic bag," wrote her publisher).

Do you ever rewrite what you have written?

Never. It is always the first draft. I may alter the last chapter; I may lengthen it. Only because I get very tired at the end of a book and tend to rush and go too quickly, so when I have finished it I go over the last chapter.

Do you know exactly how a novel would develop and end when you start, or do you let its organic growth take over?

The latter. I have an idea, but I don’t know exactly what will happen.

I wondered if Hartmann had managed to mutate by degrees, over the course of her writing him, into a less doomed man than he'd seemed in chapter one. By pages two and three I had decided that he was going to get some sort of comeuppance (like the retired actor in Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea, and from a similar direction: his self-pleasure was going to be assaulted) but no, he never did. The funny thing was this: I had been reading about him in Chinese Poems. Not him by name, but people like him, the kind of man who, in Brookner's words,

considered his life's work to lie in the perfecting of simple pleasures, mainly of a physical or domestic nature, far from the strife and pain of more ambitious purposes ... a mundane task supremely devised and carried out, however small -- the buying of cheese, for example -- filled him with a sense of completion

Men like this recur throughout Chinese Poems. They live in the countryside, admiring the flowers, or the irregular shapes of pine trees, or the sight of a river moving over stones, or a mist that "hovers / Then scatters."

My friend is lodging high in the Eastern Range,
Dearly loving the beauty of the valleys and hills

says Li Po

A pine-tree wind dusts his sleeves and coat;
A pebbly stream cleans his heart and ears.

Rapture is contained and coiled in these small things, about to be released, the larger matters realisable but not yet -- or not ever -- they are too profound, says this delicate treatment (Proust's narrator, stepping on the loose stone: these poems are the moments of step). Old Po Chu-I, remembering a day in his youth when he went with a beloved friend and a pair of horses into the mountains, sharpens the memory down to the tinkling of a jade bridle-strap. The last poem in the collection sabotages itself by adding "and their tears fell like rain" to a scenario that has already been drawn sad. "They tap at the door, but no one comes; they look in but the kitchen is empty," writes Ch'en Tzu-lung, "They stand hesitating in the lonely road and their tears fall like rain." Up to those last few words they might have been showing their sadness in a multitude of complicated ways; after "rain" their reaction has been blanded down to a single generic act: they weep.

These Chinese poets are voluptuaries too, and in Latecomers their pines trees and stream-noises become Hartmann's "grilled fish with a vegetable" and "the blue tracery of smoke above the white linen tablecloth, the spray of yellow carnations in the silver vase" which "pleased him profoundly." But the tone in Chinese Poems is congratulatory, assuring the reader that this way of regarding life, this attention to beautiful aesthetic moments, is the best, the natural, way to live, while the tone in Latecomers is detached and critical. It doesn't involve itself in this simplicity movement as Waley's poets do. Instead it shows us Hartmann comparing himself to the businessmen at a nearby table, "benevolently," condescendingly, because they do not have his poise.

My dears you do not look well, thought Hartmann: your complexions are not clear, your haircuts unbecoming. You give your time and attention to business and save too little for yourselves. There is not a lot of point in talking about a zero-growth scenario ... if you are going to dispatch a lobster cocktail followed by steak and kidney pie: mineral water will not save you.

His restraint becomes a lens through which to focus his self-admiration. Hartmann's equivalent exists in Chinese Poems but Brookner's does not. Her place is outside the book, looking in on the poets as they venerate themselves, and speculating on the biographical history being masked or adjusted with that love of streams.*

Lodging with the Old Man of the Stream [excerpt]

Men's hearts love gold and jade;
Men's mouths covet wine and flesh.
Not so the old man of the stream;
He drinks from his gourd and asks nothing more.
South of the stream he cuts firewood and grass;
North of the stream he has built wall and roof.
Yearly he sows a single acre of land;
On spring he drives two yellow calves.
In these things he finds his great repose;
Beyond this he has no wish or care.

by Po Chu-I

* The day after I made this post an analogue hit me: myself, last year, reading first ER Eddison, then Pierre Louÿs' Aphrodite, both authors scornfully in love with the idea of a strong, pure, ancient Greek aesthetic -- then Jacob's Room, in which Woolf's protagonist has the same enthusiasm, but Woolf shows it to us from the outside, where Edddison and Louÿs are men on the inside. They're so far deep within this ancient-Greek fandom that from their vantage point it becomes the whole world of the novel. But Woolf murmurs, "It is a popular trend among educated men. It is not a superior, separate existence. It is of this world." What's more: "The people who espouse it are not as seamless as they would like you to think, or as they think. There are passions concealed behind that passion ..." After Jacob, Aphrodite seemed changed.

Jacob knew no more Greek than served him to stumble through a play. Of ancient history he knew nothing. However, as he tramped into London it seemed to him that they were making the flagstones ring on the road to the Acropolis, and that if Socrates saw them coming he would bestir himself and say, "my fine fellows," for the whole sentiment of Athens was entirely after his heart; free, venturesome, high-spirited

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

to come to please us

Ever since I went on an international student exchange, several months long, years ago, I've had a dilettante's interest in Thailand. I was worried when its fragile, messy, and corrupt politics finally seemed to be bringing the country into civil war, and pleased yesterday when I saw that Apichatpong Weerasethakul had won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for a film set in Isan, the corner of the country where -- other Thais will let you know -- the bumpkins live, scrabbing in their dusty farmland. Trailers for the film show bright green jungle, but the north-east has a reputation for drought. Wondering how to express my pleasure I did as readers far away from Thailand do: I brought out the only book I own by an Isan-Thai author and read it. (Trying, like this, as if with a magical device, to attach myself to the story that is still flying around the world in the shape of these words: Thai Auteur Stuns with Cannes Win.) My book is Prejuab Thirabutana's Little Things, with its modest preface thanking the foreign English teachers from UNESCO who "kept on steadily stirring me up," until the manuscript was finished.

If you readers found it good, give your admiration to all the persons I have mentioned above.

If you found it bad, blame me.

In Weerasethakul's film, Uncle Boonmee wonders if he is being punished for murders he committed decades ago when the Thai government was trying to squash communism. Thirabutana's book alludes to this piece of history briefly when an outsider visits her narrator's isolated Isan village.

He gave us lectures, books, and showed us films against Communists. They said this Communist was dangerous. It would force us to work like buffaloes and destroy our religion, our monks. If that was true then the Communist must not come to us. We did not know what to do without monks. They knew everything; when we had something wrong we could depend on them, such as when we were sick, or someone died, or wanted to build a new house, or when we were distressed, or quarrelled with the others. The Wat was the centre of us all, it was the only place in the village that had the complete set of carpentry tools and plates and dishes. When we wanted to use those things we just went to borrow from the monks. Their lecture was too long and complicated but they gave us free books which pleased us very much and paper was rare in our village so it was useful. But what did a Communist look like anyway? the old people asked.

The question goes unanswered; in the next paragraph the narrator moves on to the subject of politics. Elections are wonderful, she says. It's the only time when politicians bother being nice to you. "The candidates would take turns to come to please us as if we were a long-lost relative, give us things, sometimes even money, show us film, promise to do this and that for us if we elected him." They held an election while I was in Thailand and the winner gave away so much cash that his nickname was Mr ATM. An anti-corruption body caught another politician with a room full of baht arranged in stacks. What was he going to do with it? they asked. Oh, he said. I was going to buy a piece of land. Where is this piece of land? I'm not sure, he replied. In the country.

Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal has been rounding up the response to Weerasethakul's win: Cannes 2010: Apichatpong and his Uncle Boonmee win the Palme d'Or, and Cannes 2010: Hero's Welcome Promised for Apichatpong. See, also, this long list of Uncle Boonmee links at Mubi.

Cristina Nord interviews him here. Of communism he says:

"Primitive Project" was set in Nabua in Northeast Thailand. It is a village that was occupied by communist insurgents and also by the government. So it was at the centre of a conflict.

... without wanting to be?

Exactly. The people were forced become communists. If they got stopped by the police and asked whether they had seen any communists and they said no, they would be beaten up. And if they said yes, I am a communist, they would be killed immediately. So they had no choice but to go into the jungle and become communists. This started in the '60s and went on until the early '80s. And no one wants to remember it today.

Your new film came out of this. Its protagonist remembers everything.

And for anyone interested in Thai fiction, the translator Marcel Barang has a blog. In the introduction to his Twenty Best Novels of Thailand, he writes:

The novel in Thailand is a recent western import; the first truly Thai novels were written only seventy years ago. The body of available work is relatively small, a few thousand volumes, the bulk of which were scribbled to offer (very) light entertainment and can be dismissed outright. Sorry to say, Thai novels of high literary octane number only in the hundreds.

Little Things is not a novel of high literary octane, but as an English-language fiction about Isan life it performs the most basic and honourable function of a book: it makes things known to those who do not know them.

Monday, May 24, 2010

life would ever be made precious to me

M. said that he wondered if he was losing his old passions, and I began to talk about J.A. Baker and The Peregrine, a book that I picked up almost by chance at a library book sale where the people in charge suspected that I was buying the books to resell them. My copy is not the recent New York Review of Books reissue but a secondhand 1970 Penguin, white, black, orange, thin, and plain. The book was first published in 1967. Baker himself was born in 1926 and is assumed to have died at some point during the 1980s. He spent years exploring a piece of Essex fenland, watching for peregrines, following them, stationing himself in trees, and imagining how the world must look, to them, from the air.

I found myself crouching over the kill like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life.

The birds were Baker's passion. He opens the book with a sketch of his intentions and goes on to describe the peregrine in a methodical way, telling the reader that the female bird is "between 17 and 20 inches long: roughly the length of a man's arm from elbow to fingertip" while males "are 3 to 4 inches shorter." "Weights also vary." The rest of the book is written in the form of journal entries. In most of the entries a peregrine appears, hunts, makes a kill, or misses, and leaves. In the next entry it appears again and hunts again. But there are these variations: the bird appears in a different place, it kills a different species, the weather is rainy one day, sunny another, it is a "frosty day, fading from brightness slowly, hour by hour," or there is "hot sun and cooling breeze, the North Sea flat and shining." December 22nd is "The shortest day: dull, cold, with a sudden flare of sunlight before dusk." In winter the ground is covered with snow, and the birds are dying. I remembered the dead birds in Gormenghast: "In the wide, white fields that surrounded the castle, the birds lay dead or leaned sideways stiffening for death. Here and there was the movement of a bird limping, or the last frantic fluttering of a small ice-gummed wing." In the Peregrine, too, birds freeze: "Near the brook a heron lay in frozen stubble. Its wings were stuck to the ground by frost, and the mandibles of its bill were frozen together." So it wasn't an exaggeration of Peake's after all.

Reading through these days of routinely appearing and vanishing peregrines I thought about the kind of repetition that can make aboriginal Australian song-poetry seem aimless or enigmatic when it's translated into English. There's this Baby Cockatoos, recorded and translated by RMW Dixon, spoken by a Jirru man named Pompey Clumppoint:

Waiting hopefully in the end of a hollow log
They swallow noisily, their voices beg

Waiting hopefully in the end of a hollow log
They swallow noisily, their voices beg
For the food their mother brings

Waiting hopefully in the end of a hollow log
They swallow noisily, their voices beg
For the food their mother brings

In life, off the page, there must have been movements and inflections to go with this, an atmosphere that disappears when you remove it into a book. Baker, the Englishman, coming from a cultural background of books, a book-nation, does the song-dance in prose, and the inflections that would give me his character and his purpose are contained in his language: he is dumb for me, he is invisible (and dead now too: dead as the partridge on page 112, dead as the beak-lanced curlew on page 80), yet he speaks, he describes --

A cock blackbird, yellow-billed, stared with bulging crocus eye, like a small, mad puritan ...

What was left [of a newly dead gull] smelt fresh and sweet, like a mash of raw beef and pineapple.

Trees by the brook were grey with a lichen of woodpigeons.

There are different ways of making sense.

The crow-catchers of Königsberg kill their prey in the same way [as the peregrine]. Having decoyed the crows into their nets, they kill them by biting them in the neck, severing the spinal cord with their teeth.

Writing for readers who are invisible to him, who might be sitting distantly in a city, at home, indoors, or overseas, he can't, like Pompey Clumppoint, assume that the audience is so familiar with his birds that they can fill in the details for themselves, so Baker has to explain, and the explaining fills the book.

When a wader would not move, they [red-legged partridges] tried to walk over it. For a bird there are only two sorts of bird: their own sort, and those that are dangerous. No others exist. The rest are just harmless objects, like stones, or trees, or men when they are dead.

His language is rapt and steady, as if all this is fate, but what if he hadn't discovered this passion for peregrines, I wonder: did he think of that, and did he fear it, the thought of ending up like Dorothea in Middlemarch, or derailed like Lydgate, a fear that George Eliot expresses more than once in her journals: the fear that she will do nothing worthwhile, that her life will be gone and the vital thing will not be done or found.

This is the last entry I mean to make in my old book in which I wrote for the first time at Geneva, in 1849. What moments of despair I passed through after that -- despair that life would ever be made precious to me by the consciousness that I lived to some good purpose! It was the sort of despair that sucked away the sap of half the hours which might have been filled by energetic youthful activity: and the same demon tries to get hold of me again whenever an old work is dismissed and a new one is being meditated.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

a jungle of butter dishes

Whispering Gums, when asked to recommend an underread book on Reading Matters, said that people should read Thea Astley's Drylands, but, not having Drylands, I read A Kindness Cup instead. I look forward to hearing what you have to say, she wrote. All righty then.

So --

-- (and for the benefit of anyone who is planning to read the book, I'll warn you that I am about to give away the ending) --

A Kindness Cup is written with a prose accent that might owe something to Patrick White. It shares his habit of picking words quite precisely so that individual sentences are left frieghted with meaning. This precision, along with constant overtones and undertones of judgment and watchfulness, gives the prose a prissiness; the authors like to use prinking words like frightful and dreadful, even though the horrors that occur in the story seem to deserve meatier language. It's this refusal to reward us with the meatier language that gives the prose its strange charge. White used his own prissiness to describe shit and dog balls, setting the substance of a sentence against the manner in which it was being described -- exactness fighting against mess. Astley has her own version of this tension. She places her precise language in the setting of a Queensland country town: sloppy, drab, drooping, shabby, hot, and inhabited by thugs and yobs.

She chooses unexpected words, and she measures things against a point of perfect balance that is never reached, the language of an idealist who sees that the world is less than it should be.

The council ripples petered out. The moment became a blemish.


Grief keeps pecking at her for the vanished past, when even her voice had seemed purer.

Sometimes she moves into mock-heroic language.

Man among men, he projected his strength into each watching face, even that of the town printer who had proclaimed his unworthiness.

Occasionally she will zero in on some very slight thing, weighing it.

The angle of his vowel, that first vowel, lecherously over-toned plus the quiet refinement of the soured mouth and face made for frightful antithesis.

When her verbs carry emotion then the emotion is often a derogatory one, making the nouns a little ridiculous -- grief pecks and voices quack, and a man "fumbles his way along a row towards a group of empty chairs." Astley regards events bitterly, pessimistically: a handshake between two men is "the most counterfeit of gestures," and when a girl becomes an accomplished professional singer her progress is not an artistic one; it is a process of crass acquisition:

She suspected it was only a voice even though it was the best in those parts; and not until she had begun to soar her way through a jungle of butter dishes and cut-glass trophies was her assurance bolstered.

The habit of gauging and judging gets into the characters too.

He pauses, having gauged the response to a nicety, as the applause breaks out.

We are never encouraged to like the characters, or enjoy them, but we are invited to think about them critically as the author tweaks them around in her Cubist apparatus, searching for the least flattering angle.* The part of our brain that might have empathised with the singing girl when she weeps, "soggy with tears," is left to search for other things to do, like think about the structure of the story, and the author's intentions, and where we might fit into her universe. This is Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt taken from the stage and put into a book. A Kindness Cup is an angry, strident story -- Brecht was angry and strident too.

Astley's country town is called Taws. A taws, or tawse, is a whip, an instrument of punishment, and the townsmen here punish the local aboriginal people with impunity, shooting them, harassing them, and chasing them away. Taws is the whip that our lead character uses on himself. Twenty years ago, when he was teaching in the local high school, a group of men from the town chased a family of aborigines towards the brink of a cliff. The townsmen were armed; they committed massacre. One of the women threw herself over the cliff and the brutality of this suicide brought the violence to a halt. The schoolteacher and two friends arrived, intending to stop the attack, but it was already over; and the woman's brains were splattered across the rocks. "Lucretia," said the schoolteacher, who had been teaching Latin to his students.

Raped and blackmailed by the king's son, the Lucretia of Roman legend begged her father to bring the rapist to justice, stabbing herself in the breast with a dagger to prove her unhappiness. Rome's citizens, outraged by the impunity of verminous royalty, toppled the monarchy. In A Kindness Cup the disruptive aftermath of the woman's suicide peters out; the police chief who was in charge of the "hunting party" is tried and acquitted and goes on with his life. The social structure of the town remains intact, nothing is toppled or changed. Twenty years later, returning to Taws, the schoolteacher tries to force people to acknowledge the murder. Now he is a "fanatic;" he is still trying to give the legend its correct ending.

This teacher's name is Tom Dorahy, and his creator refers to him as Dorahy rather than Tom. My mind kept pronouncing Dorahy as Dorothy, which made me wonder -- because Astley doesn't let things happen by mistake, and if she names a character X you know there's a reason for them being called X -- if he was supposed to represent an Everyperson, a man-woman, Tom-Dorothy; or if he was Dorothy Gale, making his way through Oz. Perhaps the incomplete sound of the word dorahy seemed to suit his character. (It asks for something hard in the middle.) The author prefers to call all of her male characters by their surnames, and this might be a deliberate part of the distancing effect. (It's also a cultural thing, as in the army, or in an old schoolroom, or some other hierarchical situation but that doesn't mean she had to extend it into her prose, unless she wanted to, for a reason, but what was the reason?) Charlie Lunt is Lunt, Fred Buckmaster is Buckmaster, and Snoggers Boyd is Boyd. The same rule does not extend to the women, who have a tiny amount of page-time compared to the men: our female lead Gracie Tilburn is always either Gracie or Gracie Tilburn, but never Tilburn. Lucy Boyd is Lucy. Gracie is a false grace, an ineffectual grace, a woman who wants men to like her, flirting with them in front of their wives at dinner parties; the character will sleep with murderous Buckmaster but she'll help Dorahy too; she enters the book in a state of physical and moral virginity, and with respect to the latter she more or less stays that way, deliberately, it seems.

She was claiming seclusion as well, an untouched-by-the-world virginity she thought might appeal.

Gracie's "doric neck" ties her back to the ancient world whose legends have failed Dorahy; the purity, the balance, of these old stories is a ruin, they don't work here, they are lies. All of the characters, no matter what they do or how they behave, or how they try to get away, are doomed to bounce back to the whip and suffer punishment. Dorahy's friend Jenner sings tirra lirra like Lancelot in Tennyson, but his knightly qualities fizzle out. The boys Dorahy is trying to teach remain fundamentally uneducated. Legend fails, justice fails, brutality wins, a pacifist character is pushed, falls, hits his head, and dies, but this sacrificial lamb is not enough, and the violence goes on. The town printer plans to insert a story about the massacre into the local paper but his assistant betrays him (and even this betrayal is useless, a result of "devious compulsions," masturbatory-sounding, that make the Judas "tremble with the excitement of disloyalty that has never bought him anything"), the workshop is burnt down by a mob -- the mob is never punished. Astley keeps setting up stories that ought to end in forgiveness or retribution or cleansing, and then she squashes them. On the last page a pack of townsmen bashes the schoolteacher and the printer bloody. The pack achieves a temporary catharsis; the reader does not.

* Which is more or less why this post sounds so clinical. A Kindness Cup, with its allusions and its suggestive names, was closer to a problem than a story: it wanted to be solved. The book is a gift to the Australian high school curriculum. You could write a ream of essay questions.

1. Most of the active characters in this book are men. What part do the women play? Why do you think Astley wrote like this? Discuss.

2. Do you think the author spends enough time with the aboriginal characters? Why or why not?

3. "Fred dangled a lost pawn. It was an insolent gesture over-interpreted by the father who saw himself thus." What does this tell us about Buckmaster? How do you think it affects his behaviour in other parts of the novel?

4. Is Charlie Lunt active or passive? Is his behaviour in the novel good or bad? Discuss.

5. What if Kowaha had survived? How would that change the story? Discuss.

And so on.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

that in the middle

Last week someone asked a few of us to read a poem she'd written, so we did. It went -- well I don't have any kind of permission to copy it out here, but the ideas went like this:

A thing has happened: it is terrible
A thing has happened: it is terrible
A thing has happened: it is terrible
Did you think this wasn't going to affect you?
It will. The terrible thing must be dealt with
The terrible thing must be dealt with
The terrible thing must be dealt with
Or else everything will get worse.

She had variety in there, you understand: she didn't write, "A thing has happened" three times: that was me. But it was the part in the middle I picked up on, the direct address. It wasn't something I'd noticed before. I've never studied poetry, or not since high school, and for all I know they might point this out in the first tertiary-level poetry lesson right after they ask you what your name is, and the name of your favourite colour, and your cat, but for the first time it occurred to me that a line like this in the middle of a poem could act like a clip to the reader's face, saying, "You thought you knew where this was going, didn't you -- you were starting to feel complacent. But now we're about to expand this idea further, so focus your attention."

The next night I was reading Czesław Miłosz's essay "Against Incomprehensible Poetry" when I came across this paragraph,

Nothing, perhaps, is simpler and more obvious than what supplied the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummon de Andrade with the theme for his poem [In the Middle of the Road]. When a thing is truly seen, seen intensely, it remains with us forever and astonishes us, even though it would appear that there is nothing astonishing about it.

followed by this translation of the poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

"It's the same thing again," I thought. "That belt around the middle of the poem, giving it a wasp-waist …" then I amended myself "… but of course you don't read a poem in a single glance, the way that you see the silhouette of wasp-waist, from a distance, no, you travel through it over time, and the fastening at the centre arrives like a surprise, catching hold of your brain and giving it a flick, or sharpening it for a moment: long enough to reach the end of the poem. I wonder if the conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the one in which he lets her know that, "My feelings will not be repressed," and she advises him to begin the repressing process immediately because she has no intention of marrying him -- I wonder if that works in the same way?" It was a long time since I'd read the book, and I wasn't sure, but in my mind I saw Pride and Prejudice rearranged like this -- in an instant, reshaped -- like an hourglass, with that scene pinching in the middle, drawing your attention to a point there, a pivot.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

the translator is riding another beast

Starting a translated book last night I found myself reading an introduction by the Eeyore of all translators. "It is not recorded that Job worked on a translation, but I wouldn't doubt it," Robert Hullot-Kentor writes glumly-whimsically, thanking the friends who prevented him throwing the manuscript away or dropping it behind a bookshelf. Visited by earthquakes, unemployment, illness, and "lesser scourges," he finished years later than he meant to.

What is hard about translation is not -- as those who have never tried it imagine -- finding the right word. The right word is always there, it just can't be used: inevitably it starts with the same letter as the three words on either side of it and, in a translation, pulling four oranges says fake, not jackpot. Line by line, the wrong word is always, unbeatably, coming to the rescue. The sureness with which translation taps fate puts the I-Ching to shame: the word needed at any one point has somehow always just been used in the previous clause to cover for some other right word that would not fit. If translation were just pinning the tail on the donkey it would be easy, but the donkey is running and the translator is riding another beast, going in some other direction: each language, and each and every word, has its own momentary vector. So, for instance, even when the original wants to dictate the right word -- e.g. Programm -- directly into English, with only a slight shift of spelling, it turns out that the English equivalent now instinctually summons up computers -- not the self-understood political sense of the original -- with barely containable contextural implications …

Friday, May 7, 2010

mauve luminescence that pervades the earth

I'd heard John Marsden speak before, once, when I was at high school. Editing, he told us. It's important. Cut. Trim. Limit your adjectives. Get rid of excess words. Look at this sentence.

The balloon rose up into the air.

He said: we don't need 'into the air.' If a balloon is going up then of course it's going into the air. It can't rise into the ground.

The balloon rose up.

If it rises then of course it's going up. We don't need up.

The balloon rose.


On Sunday he went after the same idea, but now he was describing a businessman at his desk telling someone they could come into his room.

"Come in," he shouted angrily.

If he's shouting we can assume that he's angry. Adverbs weaken a sentence, get rid of them.

"Come in," he shouted.

You don't need 'he shouted.'

"Come in!"

So he recommends, with the devout good plainness of a man whose vocation is teaching, cutting and trimming, and as I listened to him I thought of Elmore Leonard and his Ten Rules, which have become so well known that they were used, earlier this year, as the jumping-off point for a two-part Guardian article. Leonard would have us all using said said every time any character opened its mouth: nothing but said. No adverbs. Christina Stead, that Rodin of twentieth century literature, satirised Rules like this three decades ago in Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife).

The story, she was confident, conformed, as she had written it, to the set of rules she had extracted from various books on writing and from Mrs Beresford Banes's writing course. A well-typed* list of these rules hung above her table and read as follows:

Short sentences
Short paragraphs

'Ware adjectives!
Pare your prose to the bone

She had already rewritten her story "In the Morning" twenty-three times, arranging it differently for each "market" and repolishing it according to her rules. It grew simpler, clearer, more barren each time. She was unable to understand why she had no success with it, but she plodded sturdily on.

Stead was so impatient with the carefully-trimmed often-revised approach that she committed all kinds of sins -- she once lost a character. He was introduced then never mentioned again. She forgot he was there, and he wasn't. In The People With the Dogs she uses things three times in four sentences.

… a soft middle-aged dark man … was packing Vera's things into an immense brassbound steamer trunk. He brought out a few handfuls of delicate things in black, rose, white, and a few ribbons. They took up not more than six square inches of space. Vera still had a few things but, "No, no, there's no more, Simon," said she.

"Oh writing teacher," you ask, "should I use the same very ordinary vague word three times in a row? Things is just useful." "No, oh God, no, hideous, hideous," says the writing teacher, throwing a pen at you. "Never do that. Very amateurish. Think of a new word. If you write things things things the reader will notice and feel bored." But it was years before I noticed Stead's things. And she smacks aside other of Leonard's Rules too, she writes long descriptions, and she doesn't bother sticking to said. Skimming a single page of my Penguin Man Who Loved Children I see characters declaring, crying (twice), sighing (three times), and saying things "after a pause" and "impatiently." On the next page they speak "violently," "indignantly," and, twice, "suddenly." "Never use the words 'suddenly' or 'all hell broke loose'," say the Rules, and, "There are exceptions," writes Leonard, meaning that each Rule can be broken if the writer knows how to do it. Of all the sentences he's written there, this is the only true one. There are exceptions!

I want instead a writer who follows Ruskin:

No limit: it is one of the affectations of architects to speak of overcharged ornament. Ornament cannot be overcharged if it be good, and it is always overcharged when it is bad.

For "ornament", think of descriptive prose, adverbs, adjectives -- and run-on sentences! How many people have I seen online complaining about run-on sentences, happily, smugly, as if they've caught the writer kissing behind a shed -- that yowling tone of aha!** All of those posters seem to be American, judging from their references and spelling. Is there a writing textbook somewhere in the American school system that tuts at run-on sentences? Burn it. Burn the ones that tell you to throw away your adverbs. Burn everything that wants us to be small, stripped, tiny, juiceless, and confined to said. Write new books, write textbooks that show you how everything might be used well. Not no ornament but good ornament. Bring out Johnson and his majestick adjectives.

The compleat explanation of an authour not systematick and consequential, but desultory and vagrant, abounding in casual allusions and light hints, is not to be expected from any single scholiast. All personal reflections, when names are suppressed, must be in a few years irrecoverably obliterated; and customs, too minute to attract the notice of law, such as mode of dress, formalities of conversation, rules of visits, disposition of furniture, and practices of ceremony, which naturally find places in familiar dialogue, are so fugitive and unsubstantial that they are not easily retained or recovered.

Bring out Robert Hughes.

One cannot see the purple underlights in plowed furrows against the sunset without thinking of the strange, dull, mauve luminescence that pervades the earth in The Sower and helps suggest that this dark creature fecundating the soil under the citron disc of the declining sun is some kind of local deity, an agrestic harvest god.

Beautiful extravagance! Let things be said suddenly, if they need it. Say to students, "Now that we have practiced our trimming and cutting, I want you to write a long sentence and make it interesting. Use the trimming and cutting there." Show them how a long sentence can roam, roam, shuttling back and forth across the page, this physical thing, like the moment in a ballet when the ballerina launches into a series of pirouettes, going on and on until the audience, thrilled at the sight of another human being facing an obstacle and overturning it, starts clapping.*** Show them those Proust sentences that hook back on themselves at the close, finishing with a kind of sigh or shrug. I wish someone had done this for me. Annie Dillard told us that humans were alarmed by the fecundity of nature:

I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.

But how impressed we are when some an author brings that fecundity into existence then exerts control over it! The tension there, between the life-force and the person moulding. Each long sentence is a bit of life born, controlled, and killed. There is the appearance of danger. The ballerina appears to be on the verge of falling over, the extravagant writer appears to be about to lose control of the sentence, their own words either running them over or eating them up. Each artwork claims some portion of the world for its creator, how good it is, how filling, when the creator lets it sprout prolifically, daring it to slip the leash and charge off . (Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling has the fecundity but not so much the control, and the book, in spite of its length, feels incomplete.)

* Stead was a terrible typist.

** There's an example of that aha! in the comments after this Metafilter post: "On the other hand, writers who are any good are students of language, and professional writers usually work run-on sentences out of their system by middle school."

*** I've used this comparison before. Thanks to wood s lot for drawing my attention to the Dillard excerpt. (Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek is a great piece of naturalist mysticism.) The Hughes quote comes from Vincent Van Gogh, Part 1, in Nothing if not Critical. The Ruskin is borrowed from Seven Lamps of Architecture. Johnson is writing about Shakespeare. The missing Christina Stead character is a boy in The Rightangled Creek.

My copy of Man is the one with the Alton Pickens painting of two distorted people torturing a doll on the cover. Turn to page 203 to see the characters crying and sighing.

(M. has just handed me a US high school textbook that describes a run-on sentence as a sentence needing punctuation between two ideas, eg, "It is easy to run the machine just turn the dial and press the button." He understood -- and I, from the online comments I've seen, was also understanding -- that the description, "run-on sentence," included sentences that were merely long. Not according to James F. Howell and Dean Memering of Central Michigan University, it doesn't.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

the situation

I've been told that some comments to this blog are being blocked by Google for ... well, whatever reasons Google has for doing things: but the salient point is, they are. Sorry about that. In place of the ability to comment I will give you the secret of life, as I heard it from John Marsden yesterday. Marsden is the man who wrote So Much to Tell You, the Ellie chronicles, and other teenage books.

The secret of life is to change your status according to the situation.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

insistent yet curiously uneasy

So City Basement Books has closed. They had a row of Anita Brookners and I bought one of each title. There is a particular atmosphere that comes out of her books, smothering, bleak, enervating and honest -- relentlessly, calmly honest; each book is a single large unforgiving muscle of honesty that closes around you like an anaconda -- as if you're being drained by a vampire, a quiet and unobtrusive vampire that latches softly onto the back of your neck and gives you no trouble while it sucks; in fact it does not like you but its manners are very nice, and when it draws its head away and addresses you by name you notice that it has the French literary habit of speaking in aphorisms, near-aphorisms, and bits of jaded, graceful neatness.

Ruth avoided sentiment, for she had seen how easy it was to come by.


She did not realize that most men accept invitations to dinner simply in order to know where the next meal is coming from.

One of the books I bought was her first, A Start in Life. It seems typical of her contrariness that she would begin a fiction-writing career by telling you that you can be cursed by reading.

Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

And the character's life goes on to be so bleak and modest that although the first line might not be strictly true -- it wasn't only literature, but literature didn't help; there was also a terrible, passive trust -- you can't shake it off as a joke. She writes numerous funny lines but they are grim, not jokes. None of her funny lines are jokes.

She does not hobnob with the reader, does not condescend, does not write in an easy startling way, and if she writes about a woman, as she often does, and as she does in Life, then the woman will be quiet, humble, good, and plain. She will not be a role model, not a bold person, not a success. She will be unloved, wretched, miserable, self-contained. She will be brave, but her bravery will be neither recognised nor rewarded. She will not remove her glasses, untie her plait, and come to a happy ending. Quietness and modesty will be her undoing, they will leave her stranded. Confident, happy, brash people will take advantage of her. She will acknowledge that this is her own fault.

For moral fortitude, as Dr Weiss knew, but never told her students, was quite irrelevant in the conduct of one's life; it was better, or in any event, easier, to be engaging.

Nearly thirty years after Life was published in 1981 an interviewer would ask Brookner about Plato, and her answer would be the opinion of Dr Weiss.

Didn't Plato say the unexamined life is not worth living?

She gives the faintest smile. 'Plato could be wrong too. I think the unexamined life is much better. Much more comfortable.'

So you wish you had been…

'Blithe…' It rolls off her tongue, wrapped in longing. A lovely word, I say.

'It's an old-fashioned word. You don't hear it much.'

So you envy the blithe?

'Oh yes.'

The journalist might have felt prompted by this, from 1986's A Misalliance

Bathed and dressed, Blanche took down from her shelves the Philebus of Plato and read that the life of pleasure must be mixed with reason and that the life of reason must be mixed with pleasure but that a third quality, to which both reason and pleasure look forward, must be the final ingredient of a good life. Realizing, with a slightly sinking heart, that given the choice she might have settled for a life of pleasure, she laid the book aside.

With Life the note is struck, the string is plucked, the reverberations will go on for decades, in book after book. A Start in Life is all plucked strings. Ah! you say when Anthea shows up. I recognise her! That's the Attractive and Confident Friend! The Ruthless Modern who buys the shop in Undue Influence appears for the first time, in embryo, under the name of Roddy. And oh, it's the Cruelly Truncated Escape to Paris that damages the young lead character of Leaving Home! The shrouded, stifling home life! The woman looking after her parents! And the timid female habit of giving the floor over to a forceful young man!

Richard draped the cat round his shoulders. Ruth and Miss Howe watched in fascination as he unleashed the full glory of his smile.

"He'll be all right, won't you old chap?" he said, bringing Tiger down like a scarf until he could rub his cheek on the cat's neck. Tiger was his slave. Miss Howe waited patiently until he rewarded her with a friendly pat on the shoulder.

This is humiliating to read -- this old woman waiting for a caress from a young man simply because he is handsome -- and it will be even more painful in later books when the young man is a careless nephew whose elderly relative is greedy for him and accepts his condescension as the price of his visits. Here in Life is the Brookner tone, fully formed already, immaculate, here is the Brookner language, her quality of being unowned, remote as a cat; here is her cool Proustian way of evaluating friendships.

Her insistent yet curiously uneasy physical presence inspired conflicting feelings in Ruth, who was not used to the idea that friends do not always please.

French writers play a role in this book but Proust is not mentioned. Ruth Weiss studies Balzac. Her life is stymied, worn down, sacrificed. Later the author will suggest that persisting with this kind of modest half-erased existence is a kind of unrecognized nobility. Your personality has betrayed you yet you are true to it, your interior knight bending the knee to your interior belle dame sans mercie.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

All of the Brookner novels I've read could be prefaced with this Keats, and it would seem apt. Not always perfect, but apt.