Saturday, July 30, 2011

The United States of Writers

This is an interesting idea, guaranteed to raise arguments. Publishers Weekly has attempted to determine which U.S. states have the strongest literary tradition. To do this they've selected one singular writer to carry the flag for each of the fifty states. Check their selections here.

Cormac McCarthy for Rhode Island? I know he was born there, but he left at a pretty early age, and his writing is so bound up with place, notably Tennessee and New Mexico and Texas, that it seems unfeasible not to include him there. No surprises with Flannery and William Faulkner. I think Walker Percy could have been in with a shout in Alabama - Harper Lee only wrote the one book, after all. No Don Delillo in New York? I think there are so many New Yorkers they ought to have broken the state down further.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

I came across Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South in a second-hand book shop and was immediately drawn to it. The author of True Grit? A comedy? I hadn’t even realised that Charles Portis had written anything other than True Grit and, if he had, I would have expected more of the same. So I was curious.

You could argue there are strong similarities: protagonist has something taken from him and sets off on a chase to retrieve it, undergoing picaresque adventures along the way in the company of fellow oddballs. Yes, that sounds like Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn. And yet The Dog of the South is about as different from True Grit as it’s possible to be. Where True Grit is all buttoned-up Calvinist stoicism (albeit with a blackly humorous edge), The Dog of the South is a spaced-out study of sheer eccentricity, its protagonist a weird, almost autistic obsessive and his companions a collection of losers, dead-beats, fantasists and deficients. But – the key question for a humorous novel – is it funny? Hell, yes.

One day, Ray Midge’s credit card, Ford Torino and wife Norma are stolen by his friend – Norma’s ex-husband, Guy Dupree, whom Ray has just bailed out of jail where he was being held on a charge of threatening to kill the president. Of the three thefts, it is the loss of the Ford Torino that hurts Ray most. Subsequent credit card statements afford him a digital replay of the fleeing couple’s journey southwards to Mexico and into Latin America, giving him a vicarious overview of each stopover, meal, item of expenditure. Unable to bear the loss of his beloved Torino, he determines to follow them and retrieve it. His wife as well, perhaps, if circumstances allow, but the car remains his primary objective.

The story is told in the first-person by Ray. He is a journalist, or at least he was: he has quit in order to return to college. He is also a fan of military history, one of those people whose hobbies assume overwhelming importance. He is a man given to obsessive behaviour, with a peculiar outlook on life. A man given to exclamation marks! Because life is either black and white or it makes no sense! Indeed, Ray’s grasp of reality at times seems shaky. Watching a Johnny Weismuller film under the misconception that it is one of the Tarzan series, he is baffled by the fact that Tarzan seems to be working as a coast guard in Louisiana and everyone is calling him Dave. ‘A clever wrinkle,’ he thinks, Tarzan must be working on ‘undercover business,’ but nonetheless he waits impatiently for the jungle scenes to arrive. Which, of course, they don’t.

Ray is a remarkable creation, a genuine eccentric, a one-off. There is something of Ignatius J. O’Reilly in him, a complete inability to perceive himself as other might, but without O’Reilly’s overweening self-confidence. There is certainly something of Candide about him, an innocent abroad in a world that moves too quickly for him to comprehend. His tendendency to worry about anything and everything is like something out of Woody Allen, while his compulsive behaviour, his inability to put things into perspective recall Don Quixote tilting at his windmills. His failure to see the world from anyone’s point of view but his own is pure Bartleby and his innocence and lack of worldliness give him the same vital appeal as Huck Finn.

Ray sets off from home in Little Rock in Dupree’s battered Buick, following the credit card trail into Texas and onto Mexico. There, broke, he meets Dr Reo Symes, the owner-occupier of the Dog of the South, a nicely painted but not very mobile bus. Symes needs to travel but, with the bus irreparably damaged, he has no vehicle; Ray has a vehicle but no money with which to buy fuel: an agreement is reached, and Symes bankrolls their journey into British Honduras, where Ray believes Dupree and his car (and wife) have gone.

If Ray is a wildly inventive comic creation, Dr Symes makes him appear bland. He is a modern-day snake-oil salesman, debarred from practicing medicine because of his overwhelming (and, despite the evidence, continuing) faith in a miracle cure for arthritis. He is also fleeing creditors in relation to a gloriously failed vanity publishing venture. He conducts his life according to the teachings of John Selmer Dix, a thrusting salesman whose manuals on selling technique Symes somehow manages to read as primers for life. And Symes’ own primer for life dictates that he should move into real estate, to which end he is now hurrying to Belize to find his mother and persuade her to turn over the family property and wealth to him. Disaster ensues.

It takes courage and skill to write a novel in which insanity infests both main characters. Even in Catch-22, Yossarian is an approximation of normality, while the afore-cited Confederacy of Dunces has the almost rational Myrna Minkoff to act as a counterfoil to O’Reilly. But, in The Dog of the South, Portis takes matters even further: no-one in this novel appears to be remotely in possession of their faculties. That Portis gets away with it is testament to his writing abilities.

Underneath the humour, of course, there is a point. This is a serious book masquerading as whimsy. The main characters, wildly different, nonetheless share certain characteristics which, through their exaggerated forms, combine to throw a light on the rest of us and our own little preoccupations and hopes and fears. In Ray, we have a man who is obsessive, who worries over pointless detail, who relates events with painful, sometimes pointless, exactitude. He is restless, always seeking to get it right, to make things right, to live in a world where things are habitually right. Thus, he is always in search of something, some measure of control through which he can slow down the world and adapt it to his tastes and preferences. And, similarly, Dr Symes’s obsession is with the salesman Dix, the man who has, Symes believes, decoded life and living, has found the elusive key to everything. And so both of them are in pursuit of the impossible. They are searching for an ideal, like John Grady Cole in All The Pretty Horses, like Ahab in Moby Dick, like Bartleby.

Like all of us, really.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bigger Trees Near Warter (2)

A while back I posted on the monumental David Hockney painting Bigger Trees Near Warter which was on display at York Art Gallery. Well, it's on tour, and it's now at my local gallery, the Ferens in Hull.

It's remarkable how different it looks in this location. The painting is made up 50 different canvases, all painted en plein and placed together into one giant landscape, depicting a stand of trees near Warter, a small place not too far from here. In York, the fifty were displayed along one massive wall in a straight line. That gave an impression of massive size. It was quite an overwhelming experience.

At Hull, they didn't have a wall long enough to accommodate all paintings in a straight line of ten by eight panels. So what they've done is to turn the last two columns on either side at 45 degrees. The difference is amazing. It loses some of its massive size, some of that overwhelming sense of awe you feel in front of the York hanging. But, instead, you get an extraordinary feeling of involvement. It's like the painting is wrapping itself around you. It's as though you are actually standing in a clearing, with all these trees around you.

I don't know which I prefer. There are pros and cons for each. But I do find it amazing how different the experience is depending on the way the painting is hung.

Go and visit. It's well worth it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Famous for the wrong book

An interesting blog piece over on the Guardian looks at authors famous for the wrong book.

I'm not sure I agree with many of his conclusions. I think, when he's talking about Captain Corelli's Mandolin, John Self may be thinking of the film adaptation, which is lousy. The novel is pretty good. I have a tremendous fondness for the early de Bernieres novels, especially Don Emmanuel, while Senor Vivo has the most outstanding (and upsetting) piece of writing I've ever read, but the Latin American trilogy are magic realist novels and at the moment magic realism is out of fashion because - well, anything is possible in it. It's an easy cop out for an author. Captain Corelli was de Bernieres' first straight novel and it stands up well. It's just a simple truth that Penelope Cruz will fuck up any film adaptation of a novel (All The Pretty Horses, anyone?). Mind you, de Bernieres' next novel, Birds Without Wings, is simply unreadable.

Vonnegut - yes Cat's Cradle is better than Slaughterhouse-5, but much better? I don't think so. Kurt's just Kurt, and let's be grateful for that.

Catch-22 is the only Joseph Heller I've read, so I can't comment on him. I suspect I may not be alone in that, either, which tells its own story.

Ishiguro - The Unconsoled genuinely is unreadable. It is simply awful. The idea is strong - narration so unreliable it embraces the impossible. Surrealism on the page. But the delivery is so laboured, the characters so tedious, the set-up so dull that I found it impossible to get further than half way. The best Ishiguro, by a country mile, is When We Were Orphans. That's the one where he learned from his mistakes in The Unconsoled and got the style right. The last fifty or so pages are just wonderful.

William Golding - I'd agree with virtually any of his novels over Lord of the Flies, though I may just be jaundiced by having studied it to death at school. But Pincher Martin and The Inheritors are both outstanding novels, in a different class from LOTF.

Who else? I have to mention Cormac McCarthy, I guess. Blood Meridian is not his greatest work, it's Suttree. John Updike - the Rabbit books are generally considered his best, but for sheer emotional pull I can't get The Poorhouse Fair, his first novel, out of my head. Toni Morrison? She hasn't written a good novel yet so it's impossible to say. Jean-Jacques Rousseau for The Social Contract or Confessions? Reveries of a Solitary Walker is one of the greatest pieces of autobiography ever written.

I expect there are others.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

William Etty: art and controversy

This fascinating exhibition is currently running at York Art Gallery. William Etty RA was a York-born artist (1787-1849), and his statue (in need of a bit of love and attention) stands outside the gallery which is currently holding this major exhibition of his work.

The paintings themselves are fine, but the exhibition is primarily of interest as a document of social history. Etty's work was, at times, highly controversial. His devotion to the female nude gathered him plaudits and criticism in equal measure. This was a period when the female nude was not at all uncommon in art, but a strict iconography was in place to ensure that nothing too lascivious was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Etty's work often crossed the line of respectability.

The paintings in this exhibition represent, in equal measure, Etty's triumphs and critical failures, paintings of female nudes which were highly praised for their 'voluptuous beauty' or damned for their 'voluptuous excesses'. Voluptuous appears to be a highly charged word in this era, either wonderfully good or horribly bad, depending on, it seems the girth of the women or the extent to which they appear to be enjoying themselves. Too much of that and the paintings are dismissed as being bad for morality. It is a curious society, indeed, which considers a painting of two naked men fighting each other to the death to be morally uplifting while one of a young girl dancing happily on her own is condemned as a work of depravity.

But the most extraordinary thing about these painting is that, to modern eyes, it is almost impossible to discern which ones are examples of high morals and which of low morals, or why. My partner and I ended up playing a game, trying to guess for each painting whether the critics' reaction, as described in the painting's commentary, would be positive or negative. Mostly, we got it wrong.

The first painting in this post, Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret, is apparently wholesome and suitable for letting the servants see. The second, Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm, is apparently lascivious.

They both seem to be rather fine, if very stylised, female nudes to me.

But it's a very good exhibition, worth a visit. Just one criticism: the lighting is pretty poor. There are a couple of paintings behind glass which it's all but impossible to actually see because of the glare.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Ottilie Patterson

Ottilie Patterson has died in a care home in Scotland. What a voice, what a singer.

The person who posted this on You Tube seems to think it's Bessie Smith, but this is Ottilie.

I've seen Chris Barber's Jazz Band a couple of times, but I never got to hear Ottilie sing live. I would have loved the chance to hear that spine-tingling voice close up.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Oxford comma

It's unusual for grammar to be in the news, but there's a bit of a fuss at the moment about the Oxford comma which, it has been reported, is about to be abandoned by Oxford. As it turns out, the story isn't quite so clear cut, but that hasn't stopped a Twitter backlash. I'm rather fond of the Oxford comma, but grammar seems to bring out the pedantic worst in a great many people.

Anyway, the fuss reminded me of a story I had published a few years back in Defenestration, a rather good ezine. This is it:

Four horsemen of the apostrophe

It has been reported that the Oxford comma may be about to become extinct. The last known sighting was in a reprint of the works of Alfred, Lord, and Tennyson, and doubt reigns as to whether this was, in any case, merely a typographical, historical, and literary error.

A spokesman for Pedants Anonymous said: "I think the last time one was seen was back in the days of bakelite radios, ration books, and black, and white televisions."

Aldus Manutius Jnr., editor of "Inferred and Implied Fusspottery", concurred. "I think what is happening is that the Oxford commas are being kidnapped to be re-used in completely spurious plural form's. It's diabolical. The perpetrators should be hanged by their possessive pronouns and have rotten tomato's, fish, and chip's pelted at them."

Concern has also been raised over the long-term viability of the semi-colon. Mister Manutius continued: "Once, it had a rich and varied life, it was used in long, compound sentences, it was used to link two independent clauses with no connecting words, this helped to make the meaning clearer. They were seen the length and breadth of the country, in Lands' End, Cornwall, John o Groat's, Highland, and every town, hamlet, and village, in,between."

His hand's shaking and sobbing, he continued, "It is inevitable that the colon will follow suit. What will happen is this, it will be replaced by a sloppy, comma. We will completely forget that colon's have four uses, to introduce list's, separate related sentence's, commence quotations' or introduce appositives. And lets face it, even I don‟t know what those last one's are any more. It make's you weep."

At this point, Mr Manutiu's began to break down, much like his grammer. And speling. And, like, everything man. He raised a hypothetical glass to the influence's in his life, his parents, Big Bird and Joseph Conrad. Much good they did him, he thought. Issuing a clarion call for clarity he continued "woman without her man is helpless. And you cant say clearer than that."

"I would question that," replied his wife. "Except I gather there are question mark's about the future of question mark's because of the idiotic use of the Australian raised inflection at the end of sentence's? Suggests question mark's where there shouldn't be? Render's them meaningle'ss?"

"Whatever" said sadly Aldus Manutius.

In a final blow for grammarians, pedant's, and bureaucrats' everywhere, it has been reported that; because of the spread of chatrooms: speech mark's are also on the verge of extinction.

Mr Manutius was unable to comment directly, but is reported to be mad, furiou's, and livid.