Sunday, June 27, 2010

Spender on Eliot

Stephen Spender wrote of Four Quartets:

The language . . . moves on two levels: one is the creative level of poetry in which images and delightful objects are created which give us pleasure, the other is the level of philosophic thought. These two levels are sustained throughout, and thus the language has a kind of transparency

I would suggest something of this transparency is in the mind of Cormac McCarthy when he is writing his fiction. At its best - in Suttree - there is a mysterious flow between registers, with storytelling giving way to philosophising and back again, in the course of a few sentences. In this way McCarthy tells us, simultaneously, the single story of Buddy Suttree and the universal story of all of us. Take this passage, in the cemetery where Suttree has just seen his son buried:

They went on among the tilted stones and rough grass, the wind coming from the woods cold in the sunlight. A stone angel in her weathered marble robes, the downcast eyes. The old people’s voices drift across the lonely space, murmurous above these places of the dead. The lichens on the crumbling stones like a strange green light. The voices fade. Beyond the gentle clash of weeds. He sees them stoop to read some quaint inscription and he pauses by an old vault that a tree has half dismantled with its growing. Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.

This is brilliant writing. It moves from the personal, in the past tense, through to the universal, in the present tense, accompanied by a narratorial shift so that the identity of the maker of the last point is ambiguous. This happens throughout the novel, with frequent shifts into the first person so that Suttree becomes the narrator and the narrator becomes Suttree. There is a beautiful and seamless melding of stories at work.

At its worst, of course, it is a very different matter. There are times when McCarthy's obsessions become too great for him to handle and they simply splurge onto the page. Most often, this takes the form of the endless and interchangeable conversations with various (usually blind) prophets who accost all of McCarthy's main characters at some stage.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Alan Plater

Alan Plater, novelist and screenwriter has died, aged 75. I saw him a couple of years ago when he did a talk at our local literature festival, and he was every bit as charming in the flesh as you would imagine someone would be who could create characters like Trevor Chaplin and Jill Swinburne, not to mention Big Al and Little Norm.

He was a very skillful writer, and a great example of that very British, understated, whimsical humour that is all about character and voice and dialogue. The Beiderbecke trilogy were great examples of gentle British humour, but not without some bite. Produced in the eighties, they are excoriating about Thatcher and the selfish society that is her legacy.

So long then, petal.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dostoevsky-induced suicide

Here's a cracking article. Apparently there are fears that murals in a new subway station on the Moscow Undergound depicting scenes from Dostoevsky, are so gloomy they could induce depressed people to end it all by jumping in front of the trains. Officials are so worried, it seems, the opening of the station has been delayed.

One wonders what they're delaying it for? While someone reads through Dostoevsky to find a cheery bit? It could be a long wait...

Writers' archives

There's a fascinating article in the NY Times about the archive of John Updike which occupies 60 boxes in an aisle and a half of shelving at Harvard University. The article makes the point that, in future, such archives may become a rarity, as we move fully into a digital age, and therefore the chance to study a writer's technique and the way both he and his works develop will be lost to us. It's an interesting point. Later in the year, I'll be going to the McCarthy archive, where I want to look at the material that surrounds what McCarthy was writing, the marginal notes, the comments on sources etc, with a view to understanding better the final novels. It will be a great loss if such opportunities are lost to future generations.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Come Down Jehovah

Saw Martin Simpson again yesterday, for about the fourth or fifth time this year (and who knows how many times overall). While I didn't think his voice was at its best this time, he sang a cracking version of Come Down Jehovah.

This song was written by Chris Wood, who describes it as an 'atheist spiritual'. It's a fine piece of work. Heaven and hell, it tells us, are immanent realities in this rather wonderful place called life.

Jose Saramago

Jose Saramago has died. He was a Nobel Prize winner and the finest Portuguese writer of his generation. I have read only one of his novels, Blindness, which I thought was a remarkable book, a rallying cry for humanity, as I described it in my review. I aim to read his other works.

Saramago did not accept that his novels were magic realist, but there are certainly traces of it in Blindness and, I believe, his other work. However, his brand of fantastic literature is the kind of writing that saves magic realism from disappearing into the meaningless parodic whimsy that overtook the genre in the post-Marquez generation. It is fantastic for a reason: to show us about ourselves.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

McCarthy, culture and capitalism

Max Weber, writing in 1946, identified what he saw as the ‘disenchantment of the world’, characterised by the increase in rationalism and scientific enquiry arising from the Protestant reformation and the Enlightenment. As a result of these, the role of myth in our lives, and of magic and of religion, becomes diminished. This has a clear impact on art – once the means of disseminating ritual and of creating awe, a visual (or aural) representation of something unfathomable in our psyches, be that religious or humanist, it now serves a different, diminished purpose.

Walter Benjamin examined the same issue in his discussion on art in the age of mechanical reproduction. The aura that once surrounded a work of art withers once mass reproductive techniques bring it into the reach of all. Both Weber and Benjamin next identify capitalism as further cementing the intellectualisation of modern life. Decisions are made, directions are chosen, in relation to worth, not wonder. The results, for art, are significant: for Benjamin, art becomes a commodity; for Weber, art becomes inextricably linked with economic concerns. Theodor Adorno, too, suggests art becomes a product of mass production and mass consumption. Adorno goes on to further argue that ‘the culture industry has become so successful that “art” and “life” are no longer wholly separable’, the result of which is that much artistic output is predictable and formulaic. [1]

It is instructive to look at the work of Cormac McCarthy in the light of some of these observations. McCarthy’s universe, especially in the non-Border Trilogy novels, is entirely and unmistakably his own. He has made a career of subverting the cliches of various artistic genres – southern gothic, Western, thriller, sci-fi – and has resolutely portrayed his own vision of a world in crisis. There is no mistaking his work for anyone else’s and there is equally no mistaking his art with real life – other than in the portentous terms that he intends. This is a key reason why he locates his novels at moments of rupture in society – the better to allow his work to stand in relief, separate from everyday reality. Thus, the world he creates in Blood Meridian is a hell far removed from any notion of existence that the vast majority of us could ever contemplate.

It is entirely feasible, too, to establish a critique of capitalism in McCarthy’s work. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, focused on outsiders, Owmby the backwoodsman, Ratner the criminal and Sylder the bootlegger. They are each, but especially Owmby, placed in the context of economic progress, symbolised by the developments of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Border Trilogy consistently harks back to older ways of living and working, identifying the threat of the new on the American side of the border, (while, nonetheless, refusing to play the patronising game of aggrandising life on the Mexican side). In No Country For Old Men we see a critique of capitalist society in starkest relief. The modern world has become obsessed with commodity, with money, to the extent that commerce and crime become virtually indistinguishible. Greed has compromised morality. The world has descended into violent chaos where the only rule is: “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use is the rule?”

But then this capitalist hell of consumption and greed is counterpointed, right at the end of the novel, with a symbol of something entirely different, from another age, a piece of artisanry so beautiful it evokes wonder: the trough, ‘hewed out of solid rock… about six foot long and maybe a foot and a half wide and about that deep. Just chiseled out of the rock.’ This, clearly, is an example of pre-mass-production art, infused with the sense of magic and awe that Benjamin and Weber attributed to pre-enlightenment art. To make such a thing, something that will last a thousand years, requires a ‘promise in the heart’. Is such a promise possible in today’s world?

And so McCarthy is deliberately standing aside from contemporary life – his novels do not have present day settings – and deliberately refusing to accept current artistic conventions. He does so in order to allow his work to stand as a critique of modernity. That critique is economic – in terms of an attack on capitalism – but also cultural and spiritual. Something has been lost in the modern world, something which was once captured by art but which is now displaced by avaricious concerns.

[1] A fuller discussion of the views of Weber, Benjamin and Adorno can be cound in Kristina Karin Shull', Is the Magic Gone? Weber’s “Disenchantment of the World” and its Implications for Art in Today’s World. Anamesa. pp. 61-73,

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Alice's Restaurant

I've just watched Alice's Restaurant again. I first saw this some time in the early eighties, when I was just the right, impressionable age for it, pretty much the same age as Arlo and Roger et al in the film. I have to say, watching it tonight, I am surprised by how dark it is, and how early that darkness emerges. I remember it being much sunnier, throughout. I suspect this is because I've listened to the Alice's Restaurant Massacree hundreds of times since, and have remembered only that - very funny - strand of the film.

I think it is still a pretty good film. It is dated, for sure, but nonetheless I think it holds up well. It was released in late summer 1969. In March of that year Jim Morrison was arrested for the penis incident in Miami. In December came Altamont: the sixties ended, literally and metaphorically. And that sense of fin de siecle comes over in Alice's Restaurant. It may simply be hindsight that is providing that interpretation for me, of course, but I don't think so.

And I don't think so because of Alice. I do have some difficulty with the character of her husband, Ray, in the film, because he turns too quickly, and too completely, into a complete bastard. Anyone who is such a bastard will have shown signs of it earlier in their relationship. But Alice is a wonderful character, and the ending of the film could break your heart. It is beautiful, tragic, superbly handled. Alice and Ray's second wedding day has gone badly. The idyll has ended, their marital break-up is certain. The young people have gone their separate ways and Alice is left all alone. The camera lingers. It tracks very slowly, focused on Alice in her wedding dress as she stands on the porch looking into the distance. Two or three trees come into shot, obscuring our view of Alice, but each time she reappears, coming closer into view, and by the end it almost feels voyeuristic, like we are intruding on this woman's personal grief. All the time Arlo Guthrie is singing a slow, almost plaintive version of the chorus of Alice's Restaurant. Like the best ragtime music, it can sound both joyful and sad, depending on the tempo. It is at this point that he sings what you hear on the album - "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant - [sotte voce] excepting Alice". On the record it sounds funny, a nice throwaway line. Here it is heartbreaking. Then the music stops and it seems as though the camera has stopped as well, but it hasn't; it is still running, and Alice is still there, staring out at us in silence. This lasts for fifteen seconds or so, an extremely long time, unsettling, painful. Then the director, Arthur Penn, relents, and the scene ends, and with it the film. It's an absolutely wonderful scene, simply perfect. Your thoughts are left with Alice, a truly good woman. A quite superb scene.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I'd be interested in observations from American readers about Borders Books.

I went into the San Francisco branch the other week and I was astonished by how good it was. In terms of backstock of classics, at least, it was extremely comprehensive - about four shelves of Dickens, two or three of Dostoevsky, pretty much complete runs of the modern greats - Roth, Updike, McCarthy etc, and an impressive array of notable authors. Even RF Delderfield was there in force, and I can't remember the last time I saw him in an England shop. I can't say about its coverage of contemporary fiction because I don't know it well enough. I did pick up Ron Rash's Serena, but not his others. But otherwise, as I say, impressive.

Borders UK went bust just before last Christmas, and no wonder. Their shop in Cambridge, probably not that much smaller than the San Francisco branch, nonetheless had nothing like the range of stock. A huge chunk of the store was given over to non-book materials, and it had the same lame array of fiction you find in Waterstone's: the current and maybe the last novel by most decent authors, only the odd exception, like Ian McEwan, afforded a complete backstock. Classics: separated out into a couple of bays. I expected to find much the same in America, so you can imagine my surprise.

How are Borders viewed over there?


Regular readers will know that I am curious about time and that imperceptible, untouchable connection of the past to the future through an ever-changing present. This is a fine summation of it:

Time contains within it a rhythm of death beneath an appearance of life.
Henri-Charles Puech.

That may strike some as morbid. But it is a profound truth all the same.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I probably read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time back in the early 80s, in the time of Thatcher and Reagan and Star Wars and Reagan’s millenialist madness. Its bleak study of intolerance and societal disinterest felt, at the time, depressingly prescient. Reading it again in 2010 it still does. In an age of Big Brother and Pop Idol and Britain/America’s Got Talent, where the lowest common denominator is grasped rapaciously and anything that hints at any aspiration other than mere celebrity is considered freakish, Bradbury’s tale of a society brainwashed into passive consumption of round-the-clock television programmes, while all semblance of intellectual discourse is forbidden, seems like a warning that is all too fresh and pressing. The witless anti-intellectualism of Sarah Palin and her type has clear antecedents in this novel. And the result of allowing such anti-intellectualism to flourish is presented to us in stark detail. Fahrenheit 451 is a novel of our times. Read it and worry.

The society that Bradbury creates is terrifyingly bleak. Books are banned and burned (along with their readers, on occasion); children die regularly in car accidents and appear to be almost feral; the grand chase of Guy Montag, the main protagonist, by the “mechanical hound” is featured live on television as popular entertainment (shades of OJ Simpson, perhaps); the populace live under the virtual sedation of a television system that can encompass all four walls of a room and is customisable to the viewer’s personal experience; overdoses are considered so routine victims are merely given blood transfusions and left to recover; any semblance of community is shattered; firemen, far from being emergency life-savers, are malign forces ensuring that any outbreak of culture is ruthlessly destroyed in purifying flames. Into this society is thrust Guy Montag, a fireman undergoing a crisis of conscience. He meets Clarisse McLellan, a forceful and vibrant young girl, clearly not in the thrall of the philistinism that has overtaken society (and clearly, also, an early blueprint for Haruki Murakami’s various female characters, from the girl with the most beautiful ears in the world (Wild Sheep Chase) to May Kasahara in Wind-up Bird Chronicle.) A particularly horrifying work encounter forces Montag into making a decision: he rebels, he embraces learning, culture, the concept of society. So begins his terrifying ordeal.

For me, the most important message of Fahrenheit 451 is that nothing is possible without the cooperation of the people. It is easy, indeed fashionable, to blame political leaders and political systems for all of our ills, but we know that, where there is a will, these can always be overthrown. The cowardice and indolence of characters like Mildred Montag and Mrs Bowles and Mrs Phelps make them, if anything, greater villains than Beatty, the fire chief, who knows perfectly well what he has done and for whom, perhaps, death comes as a release. As the famous quote (perhaps by Edmund Burke, perhaps not) has it, all that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. Indifference and hostility can be two sides of the same coin. Each can flow effortlessly from the other. That is what Fahrenheit 451 teaches us.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Louise Bourgeois

One of the outcomes of our delayed flight to San Francisco, which lost us half a day, was that we didn't have time to get to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which was somewhere I particularly wanted to see. In particular, I was keen to see Louise Bourgeois's Nest (right), having seen her similar installation at Tate Modern a few years ago. It wasn't to be.

And this now seems all the more poignant, since Louise Bourgeois died while we were in San Francisco. She was 92, and a remarkably feisty woman.

As it turns out, I wouldn't have seen it in any case, since according to the SFMOMA website, Nest isn't currently on display anyway.

I'd like to think they will now rectify this, as a tribute to a remarkable artist.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut

After the stifling artificial control of my last piece of reading, Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, what better antidote than the master of the random observation, Kurt Vonnegut? No deliberate concealment from KV (“Within a month she would be dead”). No mannered metaphors for human destructiveness. No didactic conversations to force home points. What you get with Kurt Vonnegut is a random story, randomly told, some cookery recipes (which may or may not result in edible food), some interjected screenplay instead of dialogue, and lots of exclamation marks. Well – why not! That’s how it happens!

Deadeye Dick is a story about life. It is obsessed with the start of life and the end of life (or when, in Vonnegutese, one’s “peephole” unceremoniously opens and finally closes) but it observes a curious (not to say rare) ambivalence about all the stuff in between times. We live our lives, so Rudolph Waltz, the protagonist, believes, and then we get to The End, which may or may not (though probably not) coincide with death. When it doesn’t, we just live out the Epilogue, those pointless bits of life after we’ve done all we’re ever going to do and before the peephole is finally, irrevocably closed. For some, that epilogue lasts longer than others. For Rudy, who has declared himself a neuter, a man without feeling or belief or commitment or love, it encompasses pretty much all of his life, from the moment when, as a twelve year old, he shot and killed Eloise Metzger, a pregnant woman, while she was vacuuming her living room on Mothers’ Day. And there we have it!

Vonnegut wouldn’t be Vonnegut without the establishment managing to make a complete hash of daily life, and so it is here, when a neutron bomb is accidentally dropped on Rudy’s home town in mid-west America, obliterating 100,000 innocent souls but conveniently leaving the town’s infrastructure largely intact. The police, those footsoldiers of authority, are painted in hypocritical glory, responding to the accidental violence that killed Mrs Metzger with some shocking, pre-meditated violence against the unwitting perpetrator. Parents too, those first symbols of authority that any recalcitrant child has to deal with, are presented in all their Vonnegutian dysfunction. Rudy’s father, a failed artist, struck up a close friendship with Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s, before the latter’s rise to power, and maintained links even afterwards, flying a Nazi flag from the house and displaying a painting by the Fuhrer above the fireplace. And it is his father’s carelessness, hubris even, that leads to the accident in which Rudoph shoots the unfortunate Mrs Metzger. Both of Rudy’s parents subsequently fall into indolence and treat their son as little more than a domestic servant, cooking and cleaning up after them while they sit and do nothing all day. Here we are then: they fuck you up, your mum and dad. And all old people. And all people with vested interests. And those with all the answers. And those with all the plans.

I do have a feeling that Vonnegut is going to stand the test of time. That’s not to say that in the next twenty years or so his standing won’t fall, because experience tells us that this is almost a given. Whither our Faulkners and our Greenes today? No, I suspect he’ll soon come to be dismissed as a 1960s Age of Aquarius hippy, all anti-establishment posturing and ‘reject authority’ proselytising and high principled idealism: ironically, the master of the caricature will come to be caricatured. But then will come a reassessment and we will see that the characteristic cartoon two-dimensionality that he created actually conceals a beautiful subtlety of thought; and, precisely because he does not strain to emote or labour a point or convert his reader, he manages to create a more lasting impression than the earnest drear-merchants who currently lap up the plaudits. Deadeye Dick is not a work of genius, but it is written by a man who was clearly capable of it. In life, what appears glib may often have greater weight. So it is here. So it goes.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is a dystopian film set some time in the near future, after an apocalypse. It came out at pretty much the same time as the film version of The Road and, in Eli, even has a character with (almost) the same name as a major character in The Road, Ely played by Robert Duvall. So I reckoned I ought to watch it at some stage.

I am very grateful that I managed to watch it on the plane over to America, when I was a captive audience with nothing else to do anyway. That way, I have managed to see it without otherwise wasting two hours of my life. What a load of utter nonsense. It's just one preposterous fight scene after another - Denzil Washington takes on ten guys at once, then twenty guys at once, yawn, yawn, yawn. Disgracefully, it wastes two brilliant actors in Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon, whose over the top, gurning performances are little short of embarrassing. And the nonsensical, creaky religious theme that underlies it all works totally at odds with the action that surrounds it. I don't see many films, and if this is an example of what passes for moviemaking in Hollywood today, I'm pretty glad I don't.

Redwood Cathedral

One of the highlights of my stay in San Francisco was a trip north to the Muir Woods. John Muir, of course, is a fellow Scot, though to our national disgrace he is barely known at home. The redwoods are an astonishing sight. Some of them are 2000 years old, and it is simply impossible to comprehend any living thing being that old.

When a redwood dies or is felled, it is common for a ring of trees to grow around the spot, rising from the roots, root crown or stump of the original tree. A number of mature rings, or groves, can be seen in California, surrounding trees that were felled in the 1850s by the Gold Rushers. They are a beautiful sight. Apparently someone has postulated that those original trees might also have formed rings around trees of which there is now no trace, and on and on, so that every single redwood is descended from a single source. Now that may be a touch too romantically anthropormorphic, but it is a lovely notion all the same.

Brian McNeill, one of Scotland's finest musicians and singers, wrote a wonderful song about John Muir, Muir and the Master Builder. Given my background, it resonates strongly with me. It was a pleasure to walk around the woods bearing his name.

Deus ex machina

While we were on holiday, the lifts in the hotel developed a fault and required everyone to swipe their room card before selecting their floor. This usually kicks in at 11pm to deter drunks etc, but for some reason it came on during the day. Cue queues.

We went in after tea and, being male, I didn't read the instructions properly, so swiped my card after I'd selected the floor. The result was that it didn't accept my choice and the lift swept majestically past the second floor, our destination. On it went, this very full lift, disgorging guests at regular intervals all the way up to the seventeenth floor. This took some minutes. It then descended again, gathering up new guests, and finally arrived back where we started, in the lobby, by which time I was naturally in a considerable mood and was prepared to storm out of the lift into town to take my displeasure out on a pint of beer. My partner, however, being from Cumbria, is more phlegmatic and suggested the more practical option of asking for help. This was duly given by the member of staff prowling the lobby, and this time I swiped and pressed in the right order and waited for the lift to ascend once more. It did. And again it swept past the second floor, onwards and upwards, disgorging as it went, towards the seventeenth floor.

By this time we'd been in that bloody lift for a good ten minutes and it appeared there was simply no way out of it. Being America, the hotel had no stairs, and the lift did not seem to acknowledge that the second floor existed, so there seemed to be no way of reaching our room. By now my temper had well and truly blown and as we descended yet again I was adamant that I was headed into town and onwards from there towards oblivion.

And then, joy of joys, as we descended the lift stopped at the second floor without my asking it to. What happened, of course, was that someone waiting at the second floor had hailed it and it was stopping for them, not me. But no matter, we got out and retreated to our room.

And the moral of this story is that although nowadays the deus ex machina is considered bad form in literary stories, actually it can be very useful. Sometimes your characters are just bobbing about, going nowhere, when what they really crave is simply the chance to escape. All those writers who insist on straitjacketing their stories into rigid, regimented structures where no loose ends or coincidences or dei ex machinae are allowed, might well ponder the fact that, but for the unknown guest wanting to go downstairs, I could still be in that lift yet, trying to get out...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The art of the put-down

On my first day in San Francisco, I was amazed by how quickly the weather changes from beautiful sunshine to torrential rain and back again. We have changeable weather in the UK, but not this fast.

Anyway, so taken was I with one particular downpour, which was pounding the pavement with relish, I took a photo. As I did, a local couple, cocooned in anoraks and hunched against the rain, walked past. The woman, without turning to the man, said: "They all's photographing it... They all's tourists."