Saturday, 28 July 2007
There's an amazingly wide range of prices available on the Presidential elections. Sure, it's far too early to tell, but some people will give you 12/1 on Fatty Gore, while others have him at 4s. John McCain, anything from 3s (Boylesports) to 33 (Victor Chandler); John Haircut Edwards, 6 (Boylesports) to 20 (Chandler). I'm calibrating the fridge-o-graph carefully to take all these factros into account. Hillary's 2/1.
Friday, 27 July 2007
Frederic von Anhalt, who turned out not to be the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby, and who says he's a prince (though his father was a police officer in Germany), has been found naked in the back of his Rolls Royce near a country club in California having been, he says, mugged by three attractive women who stole his clothes at gunpoint. It could happen to anyone. Or so it says here.
Thursday, 26 July 2007
Blogger says "attention feedburner fanz". I can't even begin to be bothered about whatever that is. Perhaps I'll have to be in due course. At the moment, I have been hauled up for inconsistent s and z usage. You are quite right, piffling complainants. I am by instinct and upbringing a speller with z; this is because I am an old-fashioned British reader and writer. Your actual ignoramous will tell you it is an American innovation, because he has never looked at any book published before 1950 in Britain. Connexion is thus spelt. As is spelt. And so on.
But these battles are lost. I spell with s most of the time, because morons tell me it's "the English way". So you get used to it, even though they're wrong. There are lots of things like that. Averse takes from, though, not to.
Wednesday, 25 July 2007
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
This post has been much delayed by the need to reread The Alexandria Quartet; itself interrupted by a commission to review which involved spending a day with The Wealth of Nations (pp 1,000+, in my edition) as well as PJ O'Rourke's digest (only 250 pp) and a week of slow deaths, then good ones.
I commend, in particular, Tammy Faye Messner (full obit) and Don Arden to your attention.
But here is part one of some thoughts.
[Though this is a blog, and not a journalistic or scholarly publication, I am obliged to reviews by George Steiner, Lionel Trilling, Victor Brombert, Carl Bode and Bonamy Dobree, and to Two Cities for interviews with Durrell, for helping with my thoughts on the Quartet (some of those are collected in Harry T Moore's World of Lawrence Durrell (Southern Illinois University Press, 1962), as well as to private correspondence with Durrell and others. My greatest debt is to M John Harrison, whose questions I am not properly answering. But I am, I hope, groping toward answers.]
The Alexandria Quartet, as Mike Harrison points out, presents the reader, and particularly the reader who has fallen under its spell, with a certain amount of difficulty. There is its form. The first two books (Justine and Balthazar) are narrated by Darley, an aspirant writer, and present the same story from two different points of view. Or rather two different primary points of view, because those books, and the others, draw continually from other accounts embedded in the main narrative: Moeurs, the book written by Justine Hosnani’s first husband, Jacob Arnauti (who does not otherwise appear in the novels); the diaries of Gustave Pombal, the French diplomat; the notebooks of Pursewarden (assumed to be a grand old man of letters); etc etc.
In the third book, Mountolive, Darley moves into the background, as the same story is told by the conventional, rather stuffy, British diplomat for whom the book is named. This book is in a much more straightforwardly naturalistic style (though of course that is a matter of degree with Durrell’s prose). Those who enjoyed the style of the other books, rather than being repulsed by it, tend to like it least.
The fourth book, Clea, marks a shift in time. The same characters are in evidence, but we are five years further down the line.
Durrell called the Quartet a “relativity poem”, but the physics is a McGuffin, really or, more generously, a nice device to enable the organisation of material to be conducted according to its emotional importance rather than its chronological or narrative order. His other description – “an investigation into modern love” – reveals the truth. It is not physics but metaphysics which lies at the centre of the web constructed in Alexandria.
Not that there is anything notably modern about the intercourse (of all sorts) in the books. As Durrell admitted, Justine is, on one level, a commonplace sort of Mediterranean adventuress*; on another, Cleopatra might very well have been a bit like her.
In any case, the human characters of the Quartet are all, for all their flamboyant proclamations and outre behaviour, paper toys illustrating one facet or another of Durrell’s view of human relationships. And secondary to the character of Alexandria itself.
Durrell began by setting the story in Athens, but quickly thought better of it; he needs all the contrasts, the colour, the mix of cultures Alexandria offered.
And here we come to what I think may be part of the appeal and the problem of the Quartet. Nothing that anyone does matters for what it achieves, except as it affects their understanding, their sensibility, their definition of their relationships. In a more prosaic city, or one the reader understood, one would always be asking why this or that happens. One would care about the political subplot involving Nessim. One would care about the Cathar machinations of Balthazar (the Da Vinci Code in an early incarnation, in that it is pointlessly exotic twaddle). One would dwell on the English involvement with Egypt (Leila Hosnani’s love for Mountolive) or Pombal and Mountolive’s diplomatic work (about which we hear practically nothing). One might expect some insight about the Second World War, which seems to be there merely as a way of tidying up a few plot details and allowing the characters to grow a bit more. All of that is secondary to the question of whether Darley is going to become a writer (like the Punch cartoon, it obviously doesn’t matter what one writes, one just writes), or the saintly tolerance of Clea and Melissa, or the pathos of Pursewarden’s love for his sister.
One might also object a bit to Durrell’s habit – brilliantly sent up in Malcolm Bradbury’s parody of the “Fifth Quartet” – of maiming his characters, until one begins to wonder whether anyone is going to be left with any of his limbs intact by the end.
But if one accepts that it is that kind of book, the colour, the exotica, the disregard for the real makes sense. As Mike Harrison says, it is purest fantasy, and not only in retrospect. It always was.
And the language makes sense too. Durrell is a poet but an infuriatingly casual writer. He admitted that he was not much interested in the dictionary meaning of words, but only the effect which they set up in the “pineal ear”. Well, that’s all well and good, except that words do happen to mean things, and it rather confuses matters if you blithely belt along ignoring that small detail.
This passage from Mountolive (the least ornate of the books):
He entered the penumbra of the storm slowly, marvelling at the light, at the horizon drawn back like a bow. Odd gleams of sunshine scattered rubies upon the battleships in the basin (squatting under their guns like horned toads). It was the ancient city again... broken pavements made of tinfoil, snail-shells, cracked horn, mica; earth-brick buildings turned to the colour of oxblood; the lovers wandering in Mohammed Ali Square, disorientated by the unfamiliar rain, disconsolate as untuned instruments, the clicking of violet trams along the sea-front among the tatting of palm-fronds. The desuetude of an ancient city whose streets were plastered with the wet blown dust of the surrounding desert..."
George Steiner, in The Yale Review in 1960, drew attention to this as a mosaic, each word in “its precise and luminous place”.
“The clicking of violet trams”, as he writes, is “as complete a sensuous rendition as might be achieved by a pointilliste painter, breaking light into minute, precise flecks and reassembling the elements of vision into memorable design. No one else writing in English today has a comparable command of the light and music of language.”
Well, yes, George. Or perhaps the trams were violet in colour and made a clicking noise. But one knows what he means. In the Quartet, it wouldn’t matter very much if the odd sentence were (as the odd sentence is) literally meaningless. It is not a literal book. It is a litoral one; you must allow it to carry you, like a bride, over the threshhold, ravish you and leave you pleasured. Until, exhausted and vaguely unsatisfied, you begin to wonder: Was that it? And what did he mean by that?
And, as in any love affair, there is no satisfactory answer other than to plunge into the whole business again, attempting constantly to wrestle some sense out of it, before submitting again to the intoxifying power of it.
There is, I think, a real shift in Clea, but it is not really to do with time or narrative sense. It is in identifying sex and relations with others with the acts of knowing and creating. Every man is a latent artist, says Durrell, worryingly (and wrongly). But again, the reader knows what he means. I don’t think that there can be anyone who has ever read and enjoyed the Quartet who does not think of himself as an artist manque. There is no harm in that; it is an assumption of a good many books, and even many good books, even if it can be objected to as a kind of absurd snobbery. I think Durrell may also have overstated his position slightly as a reaction to the sort of novel being written then which, let’s face it, could be terminally deadly.
It was not a world Durrell was unaware of, though, as his short stories about diplomats demonstrate.
The difficulty for Durrell was one that lots of writers spend their lives resolving. It took him a long time to find his voice, as a glance at The Black Book – funny, but deeply indebted to Henry Miller and Wyndham Lewis, paralysed by an insufficient experience of real life (he was pretty young), a love of the Baroque (Fr Rolfe’s fingerprints are evident, too), and with the difficulties Orwell observed as central to any books emerging from a life lived only in the rooming house, brothel and pub – shows.
He wanted to be a writer with a capital W. He was a good poet, and he knew it, but he didn’t want to write a big realistic comic novel (the natural English form), perhaps because he hated England. Besides, Anthony Powell was doing that. The unfunny big pompous English novel was being written by CP Snow.
But the English were discovering the Continent. Some of them had been there fifteen years before, killing people. It wasn’t totally unknown. Europe was exotic; the aid that was rebuilding it (along with their natural resources and the tradition of caring about food, drink and leisure) meant that life in France or Greece or Spain or Italy looked brighter, smelled more enticing, tasted better than boiled cabbage and mutton (if you were lucky) up a stairwell in Glasgow or Leeds or Islington. Elizabeth David was explaining what a lemon was, and that olive oil should not be sold in 10cl bottles as a cure for earache, but lashed on to salads.
Durrell dared to be laughed at; in order to be a big cheese, he wrote like a man who'd heard of one. To Jean Cau he announced, for L'Express, in 1959: "Ici je suis content; je suis un Camembert."
Don't write in saying Alexandria isn't in Europe. You know I know that. It makes you out to be such a wanker, and I'm sure you aren't really. You just need to get out more.
*all the same, harrison, mitts offs, she;s mine
Tuesday, 17 July 2007
Thanks to the great M John Harrison, whose boots I am not fit to lick (his blog is on the list to the right), I am engaged in thinking about Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Interested parties have 24 hours to post comments before I write screeds on it. Non addicts needn't bother checking in here for a bit.
Saturday, 14 July 2007
Principles of consumption, as explained in Al Gore's hit movie, Supersize Me. Eat as many quadruple cheeseburgers and doughnuts as you want by offsetting your calories! Simply buy celery, Special K and crispbread and air-freight it as landfill to China, and you too can carry on being 24-stone of sanctimonious bossyboots.
A notable anniversary. Not that pathetic jaunt up to the madhouse, of course. One hundred and twenty six years ago today, Billy the Kid was shot. He had been on the run ever since being let down by the governor of the Territory of New Mexico, a retired Union general who had promised him amnesty if he gave himself up to the authorities and testified on the Lincoln County Cattle War prompted by John Tunstall's murder.
When he was not released after the indictments, Billy the Kid was more or less forced back into being an outlaw, though he kept writing to the governor asking him to protect him.
But the governor was busy. In November the previous year, his novel had come out. It was Ben-Hur. It became the best-selling novel of the 19th Century. General Lew Wallace has a museum at his old study, in his hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana. If you go there, I recommend the Silver Dollar Bar.
Thursday, 12 July 2007
Wednesday, 11 July 2007
This is what I posted on the Facebook group The Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which I created and made myself Grand Panjandram of. I am, at the moment, the sole member, but if you agree with what follows, you could always join. It will be a very benign dictatorship. Until you disagree with me. Then things will get ugly.
Some general principles:
The classic detective story is a battle of wits between criminal and detective in which the criminal or at least the means of his having committed the crime remain unknown until he (or it) is unmasked by the detective by means of evidence which has been fairly presented to the reader.
No such evidence should be concealed from the reader. In a good detective story it is positively dangled before the reader (the missing item in The Five Red Herrings, by Sayers, or the corpse's clothes being on back to front in The Chinese Orange Mystery, by Ellery Queen, are good examples).
The plot should be soundly constructed, without loose ends. We care who killed the chauffeur, even if Chandler doesn't.
Al the characters should act according to their circumstances and plausible motives: if everyone at the country house party is waltzing through the library where the baronet's body lies with the Egyptian paperknife in his neck as if it were Grand Central Station, each of them shedding physical evidence on all sides, they should at least have a reason to be there.
The investigation of the crime (fingerprints, physical evidence, witness statements) is of no intrinsic interest except in presenting the puzzle. There is nothing wrong with the police procedural, but it is not a detective story.
The crime should not be solved by killing everyone else until the killer is the only one left. There is nothing wrong with the thriller or the hardboiled private eye novel, but it is not a detective story.
The killer should not be the detective, or (except exceptionally) a servant, or anyone whose thoughts we have been privy to.
The crime should ideally be the work of one person. Confederates are tolerable, but unsatisfactory. Murder on the Orient Express (Christie) is a swizz. Other characters may confound the crime, however, as in Death at the President's Lodging (Innes), so long as they act with motives which are comprehensible, and don't just shamble about messing things up for no reason.
The revelation of the murderer's identity, or his method, should ideally produce in the reader the response "Of course!" It should come as a surprise, but not a further mystification.
The best conclusion of a detective story is one which produces an effect similar to that of a cryptic crossword clue which has had you stumped for ages, and which you finally see. Wit and ingenuity are the most satisfactory results.
Plausibility and realism are important only within the terms of the novel's world. It is not plausible that people should be murdered in hermetically sealed rooms, but the solution must be workable, not necessarily very likely.
Any one of these guidelines may be broken if it is broken with sufficient elan.
I was woken up at half past four by someone being arrested outside my front door. I can't get back to sleep, so I wander downstairs and make coffee, and sit and smoke, and set up a Facebook group on golden age detective fiction (members so far: me), surf the wires and the obits groups, where the Americans are up late posting the British papers.
So I read Clute on Lanier and post on that.
Then I check my email, my Facebook messages (I only joined it a few days ago, but already there seems to be lots), Technorati for obits and sf and the science feeds and the livejournal entries and all that stuff which I didn't even know existed until six months ago.
Now I have opened the box which arrived yesterday from Orbit and which includes a book by David Farland. I have never heard of or read anything by David Farland, and I am not greatly cheered up to see that the front cover of Sons of the Oak declares beneath the title: The Runelords Book Five.
I open The Runelords Book Five at random and read this:
"When a lord took endowments, those that gave them, his Dedicates, lost their attributes and stood in need of protection, protection that never seemed quite ample.
For once Borenson took endowments, every lord and brigand would know that the easiest way to take him down would be to kill his dedicates, stripping Borenson of the attributes that they magically channeled to him.
Thus, in the past, those who had served Borenson the best had all paid with their lives."
On the back cover, it says:
"That rare book that will remind you why you started reading fantasy in the first place" Amazon.com.
Do you know what? I don't care. I'm sorry, David Farland, I know I am being unfair. But life is just too short.
John Clute has written an obituary for Sterling Lanier in The Independent (you don't expect me to link to them, do you?) Lanier's claim to fame was that he was the editor at Chilton Books who got Dune published. It had been turned down by about 20 pubishers before that.
What can one say about Dune? It is the acme of sf in some ways at least. It is proflix, pompous and utterly adolescent melodrama of Messaianic wish-fulfilment, terrorism, ludicrous philosophy, imaginary history, mind-control, telepathy, martial arts, exotic natives, clan warfare, aristocratic snobbery, cod-profundity, mind-expanding drugs, garbled syncretic religions, vicious monsters. What hasn't it got? It's fantastic. I love it. The sequels get progressively worse. The Dosadi Experiment is my favourite of the non-Dune books by Frank Herbert. I suppose I had better now seek out Sterling Lanier's books.
New Scientist reports caims that Apple may be planning to launch a version of the iPhone based on the iPod Nano. This is because they've filed a patent for a version of the wheel which can dial numbers.
Boffins, eh? What will they think of next?
Monday, 9 July 2007
Sunday, 8 July 2007
Life, eh? What's it all about, Alfie? as Cilla Black so memorably sang in that voice reminiscent of a chainsaw hitting a plate-glass window side on. There's film of Cilla recording it, with Bacharach supervising operations. The poor man looks as though he's gone 18 rounds being hit around the ears by one of those things with a spiked ball at the end of it. He has the haunted appearance of a man who has just realized that he is not going to wake up, but that this is really happening to his nice, cleverly constructed song.
But in outer space it may all be different. Only moments after Science Daily put it up, though, they give us this. Well, which is it to be, fellows? Do we check out Hyperion, or are we looking for the wrong stuff altogether?
And if life belongs only to the strong, Nasa, what will you lend on an old golden rule? As SURE as I BELIEVE, there's a heavEN a-BOVE...
"Can we just take that bit again, Cilla? Take 376."
Saturday, 7 July 2007
Born July 7 1907, and probably still the most influential sf writer. But it surprises me when I realise, looking at the couple of dozen of his books I have on the shelf, how very little most of them have stayed with me. Though I like The Door into Summer and Between Planets (neither of them, I suppose, very high up the list of most Heinlein fans) the only book I vividly retain any coherent memory of is Starship Troopers.
I can't quite understand the enthusiasm for Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The Lazarus Long sequence I remember practically nothing of. They were all very long. They also marked a return to the very early stories (gathered together in The Man Who Sold The Moon) in that there was this worked-out chronology which is now quite popular with people like Peter Hamilton and Al Reynolds. Heinlein's fell apart: the moving walkways in airports never became the interstate.
I think Starship Troopers is terrific though, as I think The Forever War is terrific. And I've never seen what seemed objectionable about the former's politics, though that's not the same as saying I share Heinlein's view. But his early enthusiasm for Social Credit, based in large part on the wonky economics of Major Douglas (popular with Ezra Pound) and the Poujadiste/feudalist communitarianism of Chesterton and Belloc, is entirely in keeping with his later Tory anarchism.
I think it's very difficult to argue for Libertarianism without develping it largely from property rights and, consequently, to examine how individuals can create communities without becoming subservient to bureaucracies. Heinlein's army - notably different from existing armies, it shouldn't be forgotten, in that its central rule was that everyone fought - seemed a reasonable way of constructing such an informal network.
And, despite the fact that it's difficult to imagine anyone writing Farnham's Freehold (in which whites were slaves) now, it seems well-intentioned enough. I don't think that the charge of racism or fascism will wash. In several of his books, Heinlein lets you know only late on that a particular character is black.
He was no doubt militaristic, but I don't see why one shouldn't be: in any case, Heinlein's army is a family unit above all. And I think you should prefer the family to the state. Much of the book's real appeal is in the creation of that unit, and the methods used to achieve it. I think the same applies to Haldeman.
In his use of language and ability to construct the mechanics of a story, I think he was certainly a better writer than either Asimov or Clarke. But he is not dating well for the most part. Starship Troopers will remain a classic. I wonder if, of the other books, the ones which stand up best aren't the teenage adventure stories of the fifties which preceded it, rather than those later doorstops.
Wednesday, 4 July 2007
Today, as you all know, is a notable date. Seventy-three years ago Leo Szilard (real name Szilard Leo) patented the chain reaction method of nuclear reaction which made possible the atomic bomb. Yet they have banned fireworks in America. Inexplicable, isn't it?
He had had the idea while watching the traffic lights change in Southampton Row in Bloomsbury. I watched them change the other day, but I didn't think of anything very much. Perhaps it's just as well.
Tuesday, 3 July 2007
Monday, 2 July 2007
Every so often, the blog takes a long look in the mirror (all right, Nancy Mitford, looking glass) and examines itself. Having learnt the html for a link, it has perhaps got carried away with this function and used it as an excuse not to write anything itself. And there were, in the early days, rash promises to write about various things. They will be honoured.
So, Monte Cristo.
Why is it the best thriller ever written? Because you can't put it down. A letter from Thackeray in 1853 says that he began reading at 6 one morning and was still at it at 11 at night (speed reading had not been invented, but even so, it seems a bit slow). But it would certainly take six or seven hours of anyone's time. It's about 1,000 pages of paperback.
Also, it has no real message. We know it is supposed to teach us that revenge gets you nowhere, but it's a bit like the final bit of The Sting, when Hooker (having conned Donegan, who murdered his mentor Luther) says to Gondorf: "You're right. It isn't enough." Gondorf, being older and wiser, had warned him that any revenge would be insufficient, you see. Hooker then says: "But it's close." All that is just a moral fig leaf for what we really wanted, which was a great con movie.
Monte Cristo is a great con story, and a superhero story. It is naked wish fulfillment from start to finish. Dumas pushes the buttons as mechanically as JK Rowling, but, like JK Rowling, they work. There is a reason for populist tropes being populist. They appeal.
Dumas's genius is that he transcends the penny dreadful cliches by embracing them. He is not frightened of cliche, because he knows that Sinbad - he even uses the name - and every other tale he is stealing will be regarded as no more than a footnote to him by the time he is finished. Monte Cristo is mythic but, like most superheroes, his alter ego is pedestrian. We could all be Dantes. All it needs is the Abbe's treasure, and we all think we could be Monte Cristo. Give us that lottery win and - hey presto - we can be highly cultured, mysterious, learned, romantic, and Nemesis to our enemies.
But the book is required to maintain the fiction that we would be wise enough to know that no good will come of our triumph. It will not make us happy. We nod sagely at that, because it is a necessity of the moral aspect of reading. In fact, we all know that we don't give a stuff about the emptiness of revenge. We just want Dantes to shaft his enemies good and proper. Dumas understood that. He wasn't himself a well-behaved man.
sf: Old Man's War, John Scalzi
crime: Hare Sitting Up, Michael Innes
dinner: Sicilian sausage casserole
listening to: Well, you needn't, Thelonious Monk
Sunday, 1 July 2007
For this will not bee Opus unius diei, but as every one of these diseases, must from the King receive the owne cure proper for it, so are there some sorts of abuses in Common-wealths, that though they be of so base and contemptible a condition, as they are too low for the Law to looke on, and too meane for a King to interpone his authoritie, or bend his eye upon: yet are they corruptions, as well as the greatest of them... And surely in my opinion, there cannot be a more base, and yet hurtfull corruption in a Countrey, then is the vile use (or other abuse) of taking Tobacco in this Kingdome, which hath moved me, shortly to discover the abuses thereof in this folowing little Pamphlet.
from the introduction to A Counter-Blaste to Tobacco
Even our most foolish, autocratic and rabidly anti-smoking monarch thought it wasn't a matter for legislation, you will note. We now have government more restrictive than that deemed possible under the Divine Right of Kings.
A man on the BBC has just described the assault on Glasgow Airport and the car bombs in London as "failed terrorist attacks". Well, we can be grateful that no one has been killed; since my parents are flying from Glasgow (where I grew up) this morning, I'm very glad that worse hasn't happened.
But I'm not sure about "failed". All terrorist attacks succeed at some level, in that they inculcate fear, or merely inconvenience, or – which I think may be the worst of all – encourage damaging restrictions on freedom. And they need only win once. Try again, fail again, fail better can be anybody's maxim.
I had lunch the other day with Farah Mendlesohn, who edited an excellent collection of short stories called Glorifying Terrorism, for which, declaring an interest, I wrote the introduction. Each of the stories attempted to break the law introduced in Britain to prevent anything which "could be interpreted" – and, mind you, by anyone – as glorifying terrorism. This is precisely the sort of damage terrorism leads to and it is, in its own way, as corrosive as the initial attacks themselves.
What will it profit us if we fight off the advocates of the Caliphate and sharia law by introducing legislation which approximates the constraints on liberty they want?
Farah says there are very few copies left. You can get them here.
Damian Thompson, on his Telegraph blog, draws attention to another consequence of terrorism, and the Muslim Council's pre-emptive attempts to (commendably) discourage reprisals, or (moronically and cravenly) avoid issuing the obvious condemnation. That consequence can only be called sheer blithering idiocy.