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Archive for December, 2007

December 31st, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

NPR Audio Interviews with Per Petterson, Alex Ross, Tim Weiner

Norwegian novelist Per Petterson talks to NPR’s always erudite Leonard Lopate here about his IMPAC Dublin Literary award winning novel Out Sealing Horses wherein two older men confronting their shared past as they prepare for winter in a remote part of Norway; his previous novel In the Wake; the necessity of replicating rhythm and tone in translation; and the importance of first person voice in his work.

Here’s Leonard talking with Alex Ross about his widely acclaimed book on music in the 20th century The Rest is Music, Stalin and Hitler manipulating artists for their own purposes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Picasso problem: modernists in art and literature have been accepted and are now revered. Atonality, avoidance of major chords, (equate with representational to abstract art, realist to stream of consciousness in literature) and Schoenberg et al are still problematic.

Finally, Tim Weiner on the CIA’s worst mistakes in his new National Book Award winner Legacy of Ashes.

December 30th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Desiderata on Farting

And now for something a little puerile:  

Desiderata on Farting

Bake a nut cake. Juggle eggs, purple cabbages and chili sauce. Crank to engender expansive steamed muscles. Brown some Jalapenos. Add lima beans cautiously. Measure tone and temperature. Calibrate the embouchure. Become one with your sphincter. Get a grip, and stand clear of the hot house doors. Exercise extreme care.

Let it rip as hard as local bylaws permit. Scorch the earth, take no prisoners, unleash the hounds of hell. Wallow. Remember what peace there be in silence. Breathe into your stomach. Embrace the thunderous aroma. Remember, yours smell sweet, always, unlike the fetid stench of others’. Smile like brazed broccoli in relaxed sunshine. Check for barnyard cow licks and carrot topped Rorschach tests. Acknowledge applause from the deaf. Strive to be happy.

Copyright © Nigel Beale 2007 

December 30th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Gladiator, Oliver Reed and Lisa Gerard

Reed and Gerard connect via Gladiator, one of the great movies of the past half century. Reed died, apparently bloated by spirits, during filming, Gerard lent her incomparable voice to the soundtrack.

Lead star Russell Crowe doesn’t even have to open his mouth in the movie’s opening scenes for the audience to know that he is a masterful leader. The way he strides through the ranks as they prepare for war radiates confidence and easy trust. Crowe has majesty in his  movement, just as Olivier did in Henry lV and Othello. Using music, snowflakes, mud and slow motion, director Ridley Scott, (Blade Runner, which also contains great music) deftly choreographs the initial battle sequence which prompts a startling range of emotion; rapid frenzied anger, rabid dogs, bloody carnage, then slow, detached melancholia. It’s the music, on top of all, that makes Gladiator a classic. Hans Zimmer’s powerful melodies embody themes of loss, duty and honour with memorable authority. In fact, this soundtrack stands out in its own right, as inspiring as any ever written. Combined with Lisa Gerard’s yearning, mournful, emotive cry, heard in the clip embedded above, the effect is unforgettable. 

Reed was a favourite actor of mine during teenage years. Two movies stand out in my memory. First, I’ll never forget What’s his Name, which has Ollie in the opening frames striding through the streets of London, axe over shoulder, on his way to burying it in Orson Welles’ desk. I’ll never forget the music that accompanies this march. A brash, aggressive anthem, Take this Job and Shove it. See the trailer here.

Second is Women in Love which features Reed and Alan Bates slapping each other around, naked by a roaring fireplace in one of the most memorable wrestling sequences in film history, parts (private ones) of which can be seen here, along with some amusing comments on how sheepish the boys felt about the whole affair.

December 30th, 2007 • Posted in Uncategorized

Tom Jones Lusty Eating Scene

Guess who finally figured out how to embed video in his blog. So much for the written word. Savour this tasty scene from the movie Tom Jones, screenplay by John (Look Back in Anger) Osborne, a first edition copy of which, incidentally, I am the proud owner.

December 30th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Literary Critic James Wood and the High Ground

In a beautifully written post entitled Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 1, Stephen Crowe at Un Arbre dans la Ville questions why the literary blogosphere harbours such hostility toward literary critic James Wood. Accusing eNotes Bookblog, Eric Rosenfeld at Wet Asphalt, Black Garterbelt , Ed Champion at Return of the Reluctant and prime offender Scott Esposito at Comparative Reading of resorting to petty tactics, Stephen posits that "the cogency of Wood’s arguments, together with the depth of his reading and the poetry of his phrasing, give his reviews the appearance of some indomitable truth. As a result, Wood’s words lodge in the minds of these poor postmodernists, demanding a response they have not the vocabulary to give. These cheap jibes-’idiot,’ ‘nitpicking titmouse’ (a curious image), and so on-are directed not at the real James Wood, but at the ghoulish manifestation that has taken up residence in their own minds, demanding that they justify their tastes." 

Why the titmice? Envy, shock, incapacity I’d say. Wood writes better than almost all comers: authors, reviewers alike. I’d sacrifice a child or two for his dexterity. Could be xenophobia: how dare this upstart limey besmirch our holy texts. Could be Wood as punk from across town who strides into your sandbox and proceeds to pound the piss out its three toughest residents. What are you supposed to do? Sit there and take it? Can’t beat him, so you yell after him, throw a few sticks. Insult his mother. Cat calls are easier than considered responses, especially if you aren’t getting paid. Why resort to them? Perhaps there’s a desire to goad Wood into responding; a cracker fired in hopes of some shared spotlight. Latent trollish behavior.

All I know is that Wood is great for literary journalism. The more dander he can shake out the better. But please, much as I admire what the aforementioned literary bloggers are doing, let them meet Wood, to the best of their abilities, on high ground, instead of in the back alley.

December 30th, 2007 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Hitchens, Woolf, Bhutto and Sexism ll

An avid reader of this blog has sweetly proffered that the whole point in the Woolf passage cited below is that beauty suggests secrecy, not any kind of good or other ethical category.

A friend of mine mentioned this passage to me recently. Often, he said, when talking to attractive women, his mind would drift off topic, caught up in the golden mesh of their beauty. This, stirred by lines in the Christopher Hitchens article, is the context within which the quote surfaced in my mind when writing the last post.

The context within which it originally appears in the book sees the young artist Lily Briscoe questioning what makes Mrs. Ramsey ‘the loveliest of people’.

Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty so that all one’s perceptions, halfway to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh?

If one accepts a mythic reading of To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsey serves as a Goddess, a guide, guru to Lily who wants to learn and absorb the lessons offered, in order to live a more complete, balanced, contented life. In describing Lily’s quest, Woolf says in Moments of Being “I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients.” Both seek to define themselves as women and artists in a man’s world. Lily adores Mrs. Ramsey and in order to be like her seeks to become one with her. She sees unity and intimacy as the path to knowledge.

The meaning of the passage in question is not clearly spelled out. It’s followed by “Or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?”

Lily is searching for an answer to why Mrs. Ramsey so fascinates her. Wisdom and Knowledge are pretty straight forward, but now we need to read carefully: the deceptiveness of beauty…so all ‘ones,’ – presumably the person trying to understand what it is that Mrs. Ramsey has that makes her so special – perceptions of what might constitute this specialness are tangled in a gold mesh (beauty), resulting in an incomplete understanding (halfway to truth)…In other words, is beauty getting in the way of Lily’s capacity to understand and duplicate Mrs. Ramsey’s secret to a successful life, the life of an earth mother who “…seemed at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating… this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life.”

My question in the last post was: Is beauty getting in the way of an objective assessment of the tragedy of Benazir Bhutto’s death. And if it is, is this an example of sexism.

December 28th, 2007 • Posted in Wicked Quotes

Hitchens, Woolf, Bhutto, Beauty and Sexism


I felt sick when I first read of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. So many troubling factors at play. Such alarming potential for carnage.

Reading Christopher Hitchens on Bhutto’s courage, "How prettily she lied to me, I remember, and with such a level gaze from those topaz eyes, about how exclusively peaceful and civilian Pakistan’s nuclear program was," I recall a line from To the Lighthouse…I think this is it:

"Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty so that all one’s perceptions, half
way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh?

You can browse the entire text here

How beauty affects judgment. Because she was beautiful there’s an automatic wish to associate her with the good and the just, even though her record is spotted with blood and corruption on the one hand, improvements in human rights and education on the other. I wonder how different my reaction would have been if she were an ugly old shrew? I’d still be scared for the safety of the planet. But perhaps I wouldn’t have felt quite so sick. In other words, because I found her attractive, I felt closer to her than I might otherwise, my perceptions were tangled in a golden mesh, I was more deeply affected by her death. Is this being sexist, or is it just selfish genetics kicking in?


December 27th, 2007 • Posted in Authors and Books

Kenneth Clark on Stevenson, Gibbon and the Majesty of Mandarin English

A choice chapter in Kenneth Clark’s Moments of Vision on Mandarin English and its decline. Here’s how to write it, courtesy of Robert Louis Stevenson:


In every properly constructed sentence there should be observed this knot or hitch; so that (however delicately) we are led to foresee, to expect, and then to welcome the successive phrases. The pleasure may be heightened by an element of surprise, as, very grossly, in the common figure of the antithesis, or, with much greater subtlety, where an antithesis is first suggested and then deftly evaded. Each phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and between the implication and the evolution of the sentence there should be a satisfying equipoise of sound. Nor should the balance be too striking and exact, for the one rule is to be infinitely various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to gratify.


Here’s an example of Mandarin English at its zenith, courtesy of Edward Gibbon, pictured above:


it was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovering my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future fate of my History, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.’


According to Clark, the primary reason cited for Mandarin’s decline is that it belongs to a privileged class, and is thus unsuitable for a democratic society. In all but the hands of  ‘masters,’ it sounds pompous, didactic, contrived and empty. How to escape this? By coming closer to the rhythms of ordinary speech. The problem here is prolixity – lengthiness – a disease common to those who use the spoken word as the basis of their style. Solution: Carlylese: it took Thomas Carlyle five years of struggle, but he stylised the sound of the living voice, which enabled him to speak with ‘accents of sympathy.’ Here he is on Coleridge:

"The good man–he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps, and gave you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life heavy-laden, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were round and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration, confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute, expressive of weakness under possibility of strength . . . a heavy-laden, high-aspiring, and surely much suffering man. His voice, naturally soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and singsong; he spoke as if preaching,–you would have said, preaching earnestly and also hopelessly the weightiest things."

Carlyle recognized a major fault in the Mandarin style: It sometimes compels a writer to avoid or gloss over the truth. "Evenness of texture, symmetry, and sonority can be disturbed by an inconvenient fact. In criticism Mathew Arnold is the chief offender," says Clark.

Despite its rejection, Mandarin does have merit. In arguing this, Clark quotes Sir Henry Wotton’s Elements of Architecture: "Well building hath three conditions: commodity, firmness, delight." Applying these to well writing, Clark translates commodity for ease – ease of access, ease of movement, ease of communication. Firmness is achieved by the structure of the whole, by logic, and by the precision of detail. "Delight of course," he says "will always remain a more arguable proposition. But let us say that in architecture it is achieved by proportion, ornament, and texture."

Good Mandarin, according to Clark, achieves commodity and firmness – clarity, ease of transition, an orderly structure, and, – despite its decline into meaningless abstraction – at its best, precision. Gibbon and other Mandarin masters show balance, proportion, perfect control of rhythm, and with ‘the use of an unexpected but inevitable word’ that frisson of pleasure which we call the aesthetic sensation.’

Clark blames critic F.R. Leavis’ ‘austere mistrust of delight’ throwing dirt on the coffin, and doesn’t foresee the return of Gibbonian cadence. ‘It has been the parent of too much bad writing, and however well concealed, it will strike on our ears as pompous and contrived,’ he says.

Stevenson, one of the great masters of Mandarin, described his aim as follows: "That style is therefore perfect…which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication unobtrusively."

Pretty good target if you ask me.


December 24th, 2007 • Posted in Uncategorized

Minstrels a Christmas Poem by William Wordsworth


The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.

Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze,
Nor check, the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.

And who but listened?–till was paid
Respect to every inmate’s claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And "Merry Christmas" wished to all. 

December 24th, 2007 • Posted in Literary Criticism

What a good literary critic does for W.H. Auden


The following quotes were plucked from the prologue of The Dyer’s Hand by W. H. Auden:

"Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible. 

A critic can do me one or more of the following services:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware

2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough

3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall

4) Give a "reading" of a work which increases my understanding of it

5) Throw light upon the process of artistic "Making."

6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

A critic shows superior insight if the questions he raises are fresh and important, however much one may disagree with his answers to them.

The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.

Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.

Some critics argue that it is their moral duty to expose the badness of an author because, unless this is done he may corrupt other writers.  

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off." 

I might add that in providing these services, I think the critic must also entertain and interest me. Fine if I learn about a new book, or get a new take on something I’ve read, but it means squat if I’m distracted or asleep; if I’m bored, none of the points count. Points one to three cover off I think the need for close and extensive reading, four to six the importance of biography and environmental influences. Then there’s the question of authorial intent. I think a good critic must make convincing arguments about text and influences in ways that respect, as closely as possible, the author’s original intent.

Using our example from a few posts ago, the critic speculates that Keats intended to make a political statement with To Autumn. He marshals text and context, neither of them persuasively in my opinion, to arrive at this conclusion. His criticism is interesting, but unconvincing. I learned something about context, but this didn’t increase my understanding of the poem. Correction, because I disagreed with Paulin’s interpretation I was prompted to study the poem more closely to clarify and test my opposition. In this sense the review increased understanding and was therefore useful.

Compare Auden to John Updike:

 1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords
reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the
blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

These are what you might call kind rules for reviewing. Updike veers close to boosterism when he talks of communion. Boosterism for reading. As if he doesn’t want to scare away readers. They might not come back. Emphasize the positive, just look on the bright side of life, as Brian said. I’m not sure this does a service to the reader.

Updike’s six is more pragmatic than Auden’s advice: simply avoid reviewing bad books. Often there’s no choice. But a bad book’s bluff must be called. Otherwise literature lounges, moulds. That’s why James Wood is so good for the American novel. 

As for number one, while it’s unfair to criticize a writer for failing to achieve what  he didn’t set out to achieve, I think it’s more than fair to criticize him for lack of ambition. Ian McEwan Amsterdam and Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot can be pillored for this, I think.