Saturday, December 29, 2007

Philip Pullman on narrative voice

Good short feature by Philip Pullman in the Guardian today on His Dark Materials, specifically about the narrative voice. He asks: 'How much of a book is "story" and how much is "literature"? Or can't they be separated?' This question was prompted by the recent film version of the books, The Golden Compass which, by necessity, focuses on "story" rather than "literature".

He concludes:

And despite the profound and unsettling discoveries of modernism and post-modernism, and everything they show us about the unreliability of the narrator and the fallacy of omniscience, some of us still, when we read, are happy to accept that the narrative voice has the right to comment on a character, whether tartly or sympathetically, and the ability to go into that character's mind and tell us what's going on there. Do we ever stop to wonder how extraordinary it is that a disembodied voice can seem to tell us what is happening in someone's mind?

That narrative voice, with those mysterious powers, is the reason I write novels. I'm intoxicated by it.

We've had a number of discussions in Boot Camp recently about narrative voice, and about how to create something which is fresh and original, and which may be removed from your own personal experience. I think we're missing the point. Narrative voice isn't just about getting the accent right, using the appropriate words, creating and suiting the mood: it's about creating the heartbeat of the story.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sorley Maclean

I've just posted a Sorley Maclean poem below. He wrote in Gaelic, though translated his own work into English. He is a superb poet, of nature and of human nature, and much under-rated, I believe, because his principal language was the Gaelic.

I believe I may have met Sorley Maclean, many many years ago. His brother John was my headmaster at school, and my mother was also their cleaner at home. During school holidays, when there were no playgroups or the like and in any case my mother would have been too poor to send me, I used to have to go along with her while she cleaned.

One time, there was a strange old man, who my mother said was Mr Maclean's brother. Now, there was more than one brother, I know, but I believe the other died quite young, so I feel sure it was Sorley I met. It is strange to think that I was in the company of a famous man, one who I now think may be the greatest British poet of the last century, and yet I really know nothing at all about it. It's just a vague memory, and I would dearly love to be able to make it clearer.

Death Valley

by Sorley Maclean. Not very festive, but what a poem. This is Dulce et decorum est without the pretentiousness.

Some Nazi or other has said that the Fuehrer
had restored to German manhood the
‘right and joy of dying in battle’.

Sitting dead in ‘Death Valley’
below the Ruweisat Ridge,
a boy with his forelock down about his cheek
and his face slate-grey;

I thought of the right and the joy
that he got from his Fuehrer,
of falling in the field of slaughter
to rise no more;

of the pomp and the fame
that he had, not alone,
though he was the most piteous to see
in a valley gone to seed

with flies about grey corpses
on a dun sand
dirty yellow and full of the rubbish
and fragments of battle.

Was the boy of the band
who abused the Jews
and Communists, or of the greater
band of those

led, from the beginning of generations,
unwillingly to the trial
and mad delirium of every war
for the sake of rulers?

Whatever his desire or mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Nietzsche on liberalism

It is this sort of thing that has got Nietzsche a bad press:

Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions. Their effects are known well enough: they undermine the will to power; they level mountain and valley, and call that morality; they make men small, cowardly, and hedonistic — every time it is the herd animal that triumphs with them. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization.

Twilight of the idols.

He goes on:
The highest type of free men should be sought where the highest resistance is constantly overcome: five steps from tyranny, close to the threshold of the danger of servitude. This is true psychologically if by "tyrants" are meant inexorable and fearful instincts that provoke the maximum of authority and discipline against themselves; most beautiful type: Julius Caesar.

This is the sort of quote that has made people associate Nietzsche with Nazism. They can see Hitler in the tyrant that Nietzsche describes. Indeed, the Nazis saw it themselves.

But this is not the whole truth. There is nothing here about brute cruelty, insane ideology, about the destruction and desecration of society, which is what the Nazis were about. It is dangerous to take thoughts out of context, particularly from someone as strident and problematic as Nietzsche. He may not have considered democracy to be an ideal state, but nor would he have approved of the murderous morons who inherited his country a mere forty years after he wrote these words.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Eemis stane

This is Hugh Macdiarmid:

I' the how-dumb-deid o' the cauld hairst nicht
The warl' like an eemis stane
Wags i' the lift;
An' my eerie memories fa'
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so's I couldna read
The words cut oot i' the stane
Had the fug o' fame
An' history's hazelraw
No' yirdit thaim.

It's a lovely poem, in both sound and meaning, but the meaning is very hard to grasp. It slithers about and almost lets you take it, but then it slides away again and you have to come at it from a different angle and, again, you think you're there, you have it in your hand but, if you look up, you can see it keeking at you from someplace else.

I'm fascinated by the idea that MacDiarmid thinks of history as a lichen (hazelraw), covering the story, obscuring the words. We know that history is never settled, that it is always, and can only ever be, the interpretation of then from the point of view of now; and tomorrow's now will inevitably be different, so tomorrow's version of history will also be different from today's.

But MacDiarmid, here, is talking about history obscuring the now, isn't he? This is suggestive of a two-way process. I suppose it's true. Our knowledge of the past affects our present: the Second World War is the obvious one, the guilt that generations of Germans feel for what happened; or slavery, perhaps, which has extra resonance this year because of the false sense of history arising from arbitrary anniversaries; or, for Scots, the even more false collective "memory" of the Highland Clearances which, even to this day, colours the attitudes of many Scots towards English people. That it didn't happen in the way we think it happened is irrelevant: the history is as it is remembered.

It feels a strong message to me: be what you are, not what you think you should be.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Rousseau on learning

I'm hugely enjoying Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Reveries of the solitary walker at the moment, in between my dabblings with Nietzsche. Quite a pairing, those two. The Rousseau is marvellous: if you ever want to understand voice in writing, read this. The man is so overwhelmingly self-absorbed it is at times comical, but nonetheless you still feel a strong sense of empathy, even pity for him.

Anyway, I like this quote:

No doubt adversity is a great teacher, but its lessons are dearly bought, and often the profit we gain from them is not worth the price they cost us. What is more, these lessons come so late in the day that by the time we master them they are of no use to us. Youth is the time to study wisdom, age the time to practise it. Experience is always instructive, I admit, but it is only useful in the time we have left to live. When death is already at the door, is it worth learning how we should have lived?

This is quite a radical thing for Rousseau to be saying, and gives an indication of the depths of despair into which he must have fallen at this stage (Reveries is his last, unfinished work, written in the last couple of years of his life.) Throughout his life, he was of the opinion that learning was what mattered. Of course, he was also of the opinion that much learning was done through vanity, and that those who affected to learn were in fact merely shallow. Learning could be dangerous - people followed trends and learned only in order to become famous (how different is this from our own vacuous society?) But he excepted from this dismissiveness a certain few - himself included, naturally - whom he considered geniuses, or those who could make a difference to society.

But, by the end, adversity has taught him more than he wanted to know, at too great a cost, and has left him in such a state that he cannot take advantage of its lessons. We often hear glib cliches about life/sex etc being wasted on the young. Rousseau, as he so often does, starts to get to the melancholy behind the jokes.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

How old is fascism?

We think of fascism as a twentieth century aberration. Not so, really. It was the long culmination of foment, agitation, growing nationalism, a generalised anger which manifested itself in a brutish creed which gloried in and relied on confrontation and violence. Robert Pearce notes:

[Experts]have traced its origins back to the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and to an intellectual revolt not only against rationalism but against the liberalism, industrialisation and urbanisation of the nineteenth century. Its formative ideas included the notion that life was a perpetual struggle, between nations as well as individuals, that race was a key concept and that each nation had a special identity.

Robert Pearce. Fascism and Nazism. Hodder and Stoughton, p 8

Appeasers beware, belittlers beware. Never underestimate the power of a movement which appeals to sentiment and emotion.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Martha Nussbaum and cosmopolitanism

I've been reading a bit of Martha Nussbaum recently. She is a cosmopolitanist, who believes that one's primary allegiance is not to a nation state but to the community of humanity across the world - in other words, we are all global citizens. She quotes - in virtually everything she writes, it seems to me - Diogenes the Cynic: "I am a citizen of the world."

She also quotes Hierocles, who described people as existing within concentric circles - for themselves, for family, extended family, community, countrymen, humanity. The ideal of cosmopolitanism is to draw these circles, in turn, towards the centre, so that the individual ends up judging everyone by the same criteria.

Lovely stuff. As a soft, old humanist I should be cheering it to the rafters.

Pity it's a load of tosh.

She says:

The accident of where one is born is just that, an accident: any human being might have been born in any nation.

Indeed so, but the accident happened. The person was born in that nation state, and that nation state exists. It's a specious argument to say that "well, something else might just as easily have happened", because IT DIDN'T.

Okay, Nussbaum will say, I'm missing the point. The point is that nationality isn't important. I guess that is her message.

But it IS important. She may not like the fact. Nor do I. But it is there, and it is so entrenched in our psyches it will not go away. I'm all for chasing a better way, but it has to be reachable, surely? Imagining an impossible ideal can only lead to disappointment.

That's not to dismiss her ideas totally. I think she talks some very sound sense. Even though I do believe that nationality is more important than she credits, I think she is exactly right when she says:

My belief is that human beings are not that different from one country to the other. Issues about grief and mourning, issues about social justice - these are issues that people really care about.

There is something very powerful about that statement. We do tend to see differences and overlook similarities. And the more we fail to listen to one another the worse it becomes. There is something dehumanising about the way mass media portrays us.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Human vulnerability

People sometimes ask me why I make such a big deal out of religion. I admit, it would be easier to ignore it but I can't. It's not religion that offends me as much as the downgrading of human sentiment that must naturally ensue from religious belief. Religious people have to acknowledge a mystical being as the ultimate. I disagree. Humanity is the ultimate. Each and every one of us, our individuals selves, our combination as families and communities, that is the ultimate.

Even that doesn't fully answer the question though. There's more to it, and I don't know what it is. But this quote, from Martha Nussbaum (ironically, not an agnostic or atheist philosopher) really resonated with me:

... we are such that we can be robbed of the things we love most in an instant, and that if we're going to plan for life we just don't know whether that plan can be carried out...

It's a very simple point, one might almost say trite, and yet it starts to stab at the crux of what it is to be human, and why I want all philosophy, all politics, all society, all interaction to be based on that common, vulnerable, beautiful humanity. That is why I have no time for sky-ghosts.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

More on Lish/Carver

Marcel Berlins in today's Guardian picked up on the Carver/Lish story (see post a few below this.)

Berlins' view is that he feels disconcerted to discover that the ending of One More Thing was re-written by Lish. He says:

Can I ever again read and trust the author I so worshipped without thinking of the One More Thing debacle? Possibly not.

He goes on to concede this is unfair, but still ends by lamenting the fact that those lines were not Carver's.

I really don't see that it matters. Berlins compares it to finding out that the intro to Beethoven's Fifth had been written by someone else. He accepts that it would not change his view of the majesty of the music. But. There is a big But for Berlins.

Perhaps a better analogy would be painting. We all know that much of the painting of the Old Masters was done by the studio artists, those training under the Master. This doesn't make the finished result any less a Brueghel or whomever. The overall vision is the same.

In the case of the ending of One More Thing, you might argue that Lish's ending completely changes it. A happy ending is thrown out in favour of a bleak one. But I would argue not, having thought about it over the past few days. The story is the same. It is a bleak story. They are a couple whose relationship has evaporated. All Lish has done is give the story the ending it needs. The ending encapsulates in one tragic moment all that Carver had created in the preceding story. And therefore it is still Carver's, completely and totally.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Richard Reeve biography of Mill

The John Stuart Mill bandwagon goes on. A review here of the latest biography of John Stuart Mill by Richard Reeve, who I've quoted on this blog before. It looks like a fair and entertaining read. I'll have to order it from my library.

It seems to pick up, yet again on the old Harriet Taylor chestnut. I don't know what it is about this poor woman, but so many people have it in for her. I think it's Gertrude Himmelfarb's fault. She wrote a whole book on On Liberty, which featured very (very) heavily her views on Harriet Taylor, which are none too flattering. There are two JS Mills, she says. One before and one after Harriet Taylor got her claws into him.

It all seems remarkably unfair on the woman (and on Mill). They were both exceptional people and seemed, indubitably, to find in each other the sort of soul partner all of us yearn for in our lives. It is certainly true that Mill was inconsolable after her death. And yet she is treated almost as some sort of Jezebel.

I find it curious that Mill and Taylor managed to live a quite unconventional life in the middle of the Victorian era and yet, today, in our so-called permissive society, we expend so much energy and so many words on it, and call into question the motives of a woman who appears to me to have done nothing worse than fall in love with John Stuart Mill.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Carver and Lish

Interesting article in yesterday's Guardian by James Campbell about editors changing the works of their authors, sometimes dramatically. It gives a good account of the Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish case. There's nothing new in it, but it covers the ground well.

His conclusion is pretty sound - that we tinker with stories at our peril. They exist in our collective consciousness and to change them - as would be the way in a restored version of Carver's "One more thing", where the ending is totally different and much less effective - is to meddle with, in Campbell's phrase, "the imagination of the readers".

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Vonnegut on science

From the intro to Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, edited by William Rodney Allen:

As a whole generation would soon learn, the best way to challenge authority was first to undermine it with ridicule. In Cat's Cradle Vonnegut satirized both the religious fundamentalists rendered obsolete in the age of science and the scientists who could offer man everything except the promise not to blow up the planet and a ground for his values. The book ends with the narrator's thumbing his nose at God.

This idea of science. It's intriguing for me, as a writer and as a person who appears to have no innate understanding of sciences. I wasn't allowed to do physics or chemistry when I was at school. No, I was told. Just no. Not that I wanted to, anyway. Latin was much more my thing.

But anyway, I remember Laurie Anderson saying, years ago, when O Superman was in the charts, that we are such scientific and technical imbeciles. We couldn't even understand, she said, what actually happens when we turn on a light switch. Well, she's right, and I still don't, to be honest.

So back to Vonnegut. As ever, things aren't as clear-cut as they seem with Vonnegut. Yes, Cat's Cradle was as anti-scientist as it was anti-religious, but that doesn't mean he was anti-science. A couple of quotes from him:

All writers are going to have to learn more about science, simply because the scientific method is such an important part of their environment.


I want scientists to be more moral. It's simpler to save the planet than it is to save a marriage. Show enthusiasm for birth control. Stop polluting the atmosphere and the water. Don't go to work for people who pollute. Don't make weapons.

In so many ways, science is becoming the new battleground. Yes, you've got your clash of civilizations (see post a couple down from this) but that's just morons fighting with morons. Science is where it gets serious. Genetics is making us ask fundamental questions about our understanding of morality. So too, our ability to keep people alive longer than is conscionable. And then, of course, there is the climate change question. Much of this debate is tendentious, tedious, simplistic, solipsistic but, again, there are serious questions to consider. The times, as someone once said, they are a-changing.

Philip Roth famously wrote in the 60s, era of madness and war and assassination:

the American writer in the middle of the 20th Century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.

But they kept trying. Pynchon, Barthelme, Heller, Vonnegut, et al, they tried to understand the insanity of their age. This generation of writers has to do the same, but the territory is different. Any writing of genuine worth must turn its gaze outward. To finish, as I started, with Vonnegut:

I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down in to the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over. But it made no difference whatsoever. Nobody important cared. But I continue to think that artists – all artists – should be treasured as an alarm system.

So, raise the alarm.