Saturday, 28 April 2007

The World and the Word

I said I'd write about Monte Cristo, because of Perez-Reverte's Dumas Club - which is brilliant; a clever thriller, the cleverness of which, like The Name of the Rose or The Secret History (in my view rather over-rated), relies upon the reader thinking himself clever when he spots the references. The beauty of this approach is that it doesn't matter how many references you miss, because you don't know you're missing them. Any arts graduate - on the whole, about as ignorant a cross-section of society as one could hope to assemble - finishes Foucault's Pendulum or Dr Criminale convinced, entirely wrongly, that he's been reading something considerably more edifying than Ed McBain or PG Wodehouse. Confirmed in his ignorance, he can continue to think himself very clever. That's not to say that this cheap trick doesn't work on me. It does, and how. And The Dumas Club does it very well indeed.

So I shan't. I shall write about Borges instead, but only briefly. No other writer is as blatant in his appropriation of other writers, references to other writers, invented references in real writers, misattributed references in imaginary books, purloining of other literary forms - the philosophical essay, the cod history, the analysis of the imaginary secret society - as old Jorge. Gnosticism, mirrors and encyclopaedias and, above all, the labyrinth provide metaphors for the real maze at the heart of his work: the alphabet and the things which can be done with it. He is like a man unsure which side he comes down on in the debate about the Logos, or even the Aleph. Is the written word a betrayal of epic poetry, a way of guaranteeing the loss of memorised words which, being internalised, are closer to the incantatory, the sacramental? Is history a betrayal of the greater truths of myth, by being confined to the objective truth about particular events, rather than the instructive and universal illustration of examples which fiction (in the form of myth, parable, scripture and fable) offers? All books, all writers, all readers, are wound by him into one huge tangled tale, in which everything becomes a character; Alpha and Omega, it hardly matters which character.
He's pulling the same trick as Eco, or rather Eco and these other populist middlebrow thriller writers are pulling the same trick as him; shove in the odd reference to Paracelsus or Doctor Dee or Eliphas Levi, sure. Everyone's heard of them and no one's going to bother reading them. But the corpus of who to nick from and write about is Conan Doyle, Dumas, Chesterton, Stevenson, Scott, De Quincey, Shakespeare, Fantomas, Raffles, Baroness Orczy...
Because that's what we all really love. M John Harrison has started a thing on his blog [http://uzwi.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/the-list/ ] asking you to list books you need. We're all putting down big names, because they're true, but also because they sound good. But there's a lot of comfort reading there as well. Every so often you need to reread Jane Austen. But every so often you need to reread The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. And I omitted some of what Orwell called good bad books from my list (cowardice, intellectual vanity, I admit it), but also some books which may just be bad bad books. Remind me to write about Dune soon.
But Monte Cristo is a good, good book, even if it is also a transparent piece of wish fulfillment and a textbook melodrama. So I will write about it soon.

I had a pizza for my lunch, which wasn't very good. I stir-fried some chicken and noodles and stuff for dinner. That was, though I thought the chickens were eyeing me rather suspiciously as I made it.

We're thinking of moving house. The very thought of it is shredding my nerves, and will carry on shredding them no matter what happens.

sf: Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein. It's the only language they understand.
crime: I Was Dora Suarez, Derek Raymond. You need a strong stomach, though.
unfairly neglected great book: California Time, Frederic Raphael
I'm reading: The Avignon Quincunx, Lawrence Durrell (well, I've got as far as the beginning of Constance). Then if not distracted, I'm going back to The Black Book again.
listening to: Mahalia Jackson (I believe!)

Tomorrow's Sunday (no, today's Sunday). Why not go to church? You've earned it. Because you're worth it.
εν αρχη ην ο Λογοσ και ο Λογοσ ην προσ τον Θεον και Θεοσ ην ο Λογοσ... I can't work out how to do breathings or a final s, but you get the point. (The Name of the Rose nicked that one, too)

3 comments:

mckie said...

Just found this: william gibson on borges
http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6436259.html

Alan Hope said...

Sounds like a good list. Sadly Uncle Zip has a blog that requires one to sign up, then refuses to allow one to use one's own name, so no question of taking part. Why do people make you jump through so many hoops just to comment on a blog? You'd think it was the keys to their daughters' chastity they were guarding.

Anyway, never mind. You're a lot more hospitable. I quite agree about Borges. In many ways, he changed the way writing can be done.

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