Archive for August, 2006

non-geeks look away

August 25, 2006

I’m not given to revealing the technical wizardry that goes into making this blog (mainly because everyone knows all about it) but I feel I must say something about WordPress.

This is because I have been reviewing the material on NTC, checking for little errors that can be cleaned up and ensuring that there’s a good mix of stuff on here (although I notice that I’m getting more book focused as time goes on). I’ve found one or two errors that are not of my own doing but are rather the fault of WordPress. The primary and most distressing problem being that pictures and photos in some posts are not appearing in the published blog, even though in the posting form everything seems to be as it should.

I already know WordPress to be a bit of bitch, quite frankly. I moved here from Blogger for the simple reason that I wanted to be able to categorise my posts, so that the archive of material was presented (essentially) thematically. Blogger only offered a monthly archive. Initially, I was impressed, especially with the way WordPress handled presentation by giving me some flexiblity about what was in the nav column but not letting me fiddle with the stylesheet. Blogger requires you to edit the stylesheet, if you want to get rid of those ‘Edit me’ links when you start, and that leads to all sorts of time wasted on moving things about and changing colours.

More recently, however, I’ve begun to be quite pissed off with WordPress. My main gripe against them is that they obviously deploy updates to their software code without really warning their users that the platform might be a bit flaky while they do so (or more flaky than usual, anyway). I know I am in a precarious situation here, seeing as how I am using their software and hosting facility free of charge, but my answer to that is ‘Thank God I didn’t pay for this!’

A list of common WordPress difficulties includes:

  • Spaces not appearing between words when you press the spacebar.
  • Line breaks being removed when you publish a post, so your paragraphs disappear.
  • The cursor randomly jumping around the input box while you’re typing, for no perceivable reason.
  • Not being able to delete text using either the delete or backspace keys on the keyboard. The only solution I’ve found is to highlight the text, do something else to it (e.g. italics), and then press delete. For some reason, that works.
  • Links not being saved even though you’ve tried three times.
  • Images being uploaded and not appearing in the published post. Also, images being uploaded at full size, but only being available as thumbnails for your post. [Update: OK so I found out on the help forum how to operate the image features, and now that I know how they work I think they are quite cool. But it wasn’t very obvious (perhaps because it’s a new sort of menu/control) and a little bit of contextual help would have gone a long way.]
  • A new draft post (of the same name) being saved when you click Save, in addition (we hope) to the post you’re working on.

And so on and so forth. Bad, bad software, which is sad as it’s so promising in many other ways.

I read somewhere that Blogger is planning an upgrade to their platform that will include better handling of layout and offer categorisation of material. I would then think about moving back to Blogger except that in the meantime someone from Japan has claimed the tammanycollege.blogspot address (with no evident connection to the word ‘tammany’ at least). C’est la pooh la vie. I’m starting to think about trying Typepad next… but I hope I won’t lose my loyal readership by moving around too much.

beautiful brechts

August 22, 2006

On Friday night last, MLW and I went to see a play at the National Theatre called The Life of Galileo. Written by Bertolt Brecht, about Galileo Galilei, directed by David Hare, and starring Simon Russell Beale (last seen by us in the revival of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers).

The play has three acts, beginning with Galileo‘s ‘invention’ of the telescope and his discovery that Jupiter’s moons orbit it and are not merely suspended in the heavens. This leads him into conflict with the Catholic church authorities and eventually he is subjected to inquisition. In act three, Galileo recants his findings.

The play was excellent in a number of ways. The acting was clear and engaging, and Beale was a very meaty Galileo. Brecht’s Galileo is a man of the flesh, who thinks best on a full stomach, and Beale has the right profile for this part. But Galileo is also a genius and a revolutionary: passionate, intelligent, and quick to anger.

In my ignorance, I’d expected Brecht to be a sort of German Ibsen, producing similarly grey theatrical goo. But, Brecht is beautiful! Humourous, accessible and entertaining. There was even a song at the beginning of act two.

<Wordpress will not insert a line break here, so I must resort to putting in some text expressing my frustration.>

Full marks go to the director and designer and stage crew (and whoever else was involved), as the stage craft was of the highest order. There was a circular, revolving stage that enabled them to easily switch between indoor and outdoor scenes. Likewise, rooms could be configured differently by arranging four pieces of wall on wheels. What I liked most is that the stage craft was used to enhance what the actors were saying and doing. For example, when Galileo looks through his telescope and watches Jupiter, and enormous image of the stormy planet was projected on the back wall of the theatre, helping us to imagine the impact for Galileo of seeing the planet closer up than ever before. Likewise, when Galileo is first under attack from the church, he sits against a wall (arranged across the diameter of the stage), and a young monk arrives to confront him. The monk begins to argue that it is evil, in affirming Copernicus’s heliocentric cosmology, to disrupt the assumptions of the common man who only understands what the church tells him. Galileo counters that the common man is comforted when what he is told is the truth corresponds to what he can prove for himself, in this case by looking through a telescope. They argue, and as they do, Galileo doesn’t move but the young monk advances along the wall with each shift in his argument, physically moving closer to G. as he comes to understand his thinking. As if G. is the sun, and the monk a body in his orbit. There are more examples of this sort of intelligent direction, and I would recommend you see the play just for this aspect of its success. But the acting and story are great too.

Coincidentally, G. is pitching up in my train book, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet, by Nicholas Crane. This book is a bit of a hybrid: part history of the development of cartography and part biography of the man, Gerard Mercator. There’s been more history than biography by page 84, which is not what I expected, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless. Things are hotting up in Holland, cartographically speaking, because a bloke called Gemma has solved the longitude problem (i.e. take a clock with you) but people have not really noticed that yet, and he’s invented triangulation. Turns out that Holland was the ideal place to invent traingulation because the flat land enabled the genius cartographer to more easily relate what he was seeing to how he was representing it on paper. Also, triangulation requires a reliable baseline, and the roads in Holland were dead straight because when you set out from your home town you could already see your destination.

Seeing maps as a tracing of reality was one of the perceptive warps that would help Gemma’s generation of earth-modellers to break free from the imaginary worlds of the Middle Ages. (p64)

Crane explains how university students were made to learn the imaginings of the ancients by rote, and to question them was to break the law of the university and the church. In The Life of Galileo there is a brilliant scene where G. challenges his fellow scientists to look through his telescope but they won’t, and instead they ramble about Ptolemy’s mathematics and Aristotle’s imaginings of celestial spheres and crystal orbs. The markings on the stage – circles within circles and multi-coloured dots – I took to be clever decoration, echoing the themes of the play, like the projection of planets on wall. They have drawn a celestial map on the floor of Galileo’s world, I thought. During the first interval, MLW explained that these are stage markings so that the scene changers know where to put things for the next scene!

One book that…

August 17, 2006

…changed your life.

James Joyce’s Ulysses. Reading this book, using Harry Blamires’s The Bloomsday Book to help me, opened my eyes to a new depth to writing and reading. Ulysses helped me to put my head into the pool of modernism, and to get my ears all clogged up with ideas about books and writing. It makes my heart beat faster to think about the experience again (really).

My wonderful postgrad tutor, Dr Smith, was an excellent guide for this particular odyssey.

…you have read more than once?

The Tidewater Tales: A Novel, by John Barth.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin

(I know that’s two – so what?)

…you would want on a desert island?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (1976 edition).

…made you cry?

None. I’m a boy.

…made you laugh?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

…you wish had been written?

Another Book, by Douglas Adams.

…you wish had never had been written?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by JK Rowling. This was the beginning of the end of Harry Potter for me. I loved the first three books, with their twisty-turny plots, exciting adventures and fun characters. GOF was the first of the angsty, angry, Harry books, and I don’t enjoy them much.

…you are currently reading?

Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, a biography by Anthony Cronin.

…you have been meaning to read?

Letters, by John Barth. It took him seven years to write and did not sell well (although it’s still in print). I’ve started it but not got very far. Part of the task of reading it is to read all his core intertexts, and all his previous novels as well, as this is an epistolary novel conducted between the characters from his previous novels, and the author as well.

Saul Bellow, Augie March and me

August 16, 2006

Have finished reading Saul Bellow‘s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March (TAOAM).

I have previously read the following novels by Saul Bellow, in this order:

  1. Seize the Day (1956)
  2. Humboldt’s Gift (1975)
  3. Herzog (1964)
  4. Henderson the Rain King (1959)
  5. More Die of Heartbreak (1987)
  6. Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
  7. Ravelstein (2000)

This list represents books read whilst they could be characterised as having been written by a living author. Saul Bellow is now dead (RIP), so TAOAM is the first Bellow novel I’ve read that represents a corpus of work that will not be added to. Ravelstein was written in 2000 and I think I read Seize the Day in about 2003, and I don’t know of any Bellow fiction being published after Ravelstein, so technically nothing changed between my reading that list of novels and reading TAOAM. But it is different.

I think it’s different because when you’re reading work by a living writer, you’re engaged with the writer’s project in progress. It’s the difference between partaking of the feast, and clearing up after it. Reading Philip Roth now is a good example of partaking of the feast – there’s a certain thrill in reading another energetic and angry book from the big PR, because you know, in his bare, spare NY apartment, he’s still scribbling with a pencil, studiously not admiring the view the better to concentrate. When he passes on, you’ll be reading a book that was written by a great writer around which and whom the dust has settled – there’s no more kicking the dirt up around your boots, in the writerly sense that Roth does this with each new book.

If you get me, great. If you don’t… well, you’re not the first. Moving on to Bellow’s big book:

TAOAM is a massive, varied and sprawling novel about all sorts of things. It’s a stab at the great American novel, for sure. It’s about nobility and squalor, wealth and poverty, women and men, sex and shopping, and everything in between. Augie, by his character and his situation, is drawn into one after another of the American myths of the hero* (and the self). He’s a thief, a rich kid, a lord, a hunter, a drunk etc.

Augie, when challenged with, “Well, come on, what are you trying to prove?”, replies:

I don’t want to prove a single thing, not a thing. Do you think I have this kind of ambition to stand out and prove something? Almost everybody I ever knew wanted to show in some way how he held the world together. This only comes from feeling the strain of holding yourself together, and it gets exaggerated into the whole world from the hard labour you put into it. But it doesn’t take hard labour. Or at least shouldn’t. You don’t do that. The world is held for you. So I don’t want to be representative or exemplary or head of my generation or any model of manhood. All I want is something of my own, and bethink myself. This is why I’m sounding off now and am excited.

And by his tender, failing heart and his light-headed love of fate, Augie’s a portrait of myths of man as well. He falls at women’s feet, and he is captured by their beauty, their vulnerability, and their craziness.

Meeting again, years after a night spent together on a cliff in Mexico, Augie falls for Stella:

My body, which is maybe all I am, this effortful creature, felt subject to currents and helpless. I wanted to go and hug her by the legs, but I thought I’d better wait. For why should I assume it would be right?

What I want to say most clearly about this novel is this: it’s big and difficult in places, but you will come to love Augie March.

I’m not sure if this is the Everyman effect that the blurb on the back cover refers to or not. It’s not so much that I identify with Augie, or with one of his myths; it’s more, as he says of another character, a difficult man named Einhorn, that I’m kinda in love with him.

Bellow is a very good writer. This has been said all over the place, and you feel it to be true with an early book like TAOAM (see JM Coetzee’s essay regarding Bellow’s first three novels in the NYRB). You know it to be true with later work like Herzog. And of course, for what it’s worth, he won the Nobel prize for literature.

So the man has skills. And he uses them to good effect in creating the character of Augie March. I want the best for him, and I worry that he gets himself into one scrape after another, either job-wise or lady-wise, or both. And the more Augie’s discourse turns to marriage, land ownership, children, and vocation, the more my heart swells and I long for him to sort his life out and settle into the patterns that most of us live in. Some people live in mansions and palaces, and some people live in the dirt; but most of us live in-between.

Grandma Lausch, an early figure in Augie’s shaping, will not read a book that’s not a roman. This book, The Adventures of Augie March, is a roman, in the lovely, resonant sense of that word: a book that sound romantic, that’s about growing up and living, that’s about loss and gain, life and death.

If you were to read only one Bellow novel, then it would have to be, in my opinion, Herzog (for reasons I hope to go into another time). But this one’s good too.

* John Barth, in a footnote (p309) in his autobiographical novel Once Upon a Time (1994), tells how he worked out the heroic dimensions of his character Ebenezer Cooke, poet laureate to Maryland, from his novel, The Sot-Weed Factor. Barth describes a list created by Lord Raglan used to measure the salient features of the mytho-heroic character pattern. Raglan lists, in chapter 16 of The Hero (1936), 22 features of the hero myth, including such things as the hero’s mother is a royal virgin, his father is a king, and he meets with a mysterious death, often at the top of a hill. Oedipus scores 21 points. Jesus would score 19, comparable to Theseus and King Arthur. Depending on how you score him – literally or allegorically – Augie scores either 2 (the everyman score) or about 15. (Of course, if you re-wrote the measures to characterise the American myth of the hero, the score would be different again. But I think you get the idea.)

blurbing it up

August 11, 2006

(more everyman, more coincidence)

Anyone who has been reading my blog will know that I am innocently and childishly delighted when I encounter coincidences between my life and the world at large. Some of those coincidences are truly cosmic, and some are only really significant to me (more of the latter, usually based on what I’m reading).

So today I apprehended a coincidence between a post on The Penguin Blog and my current train book, The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.

The coincidences are these:

  1. Penguin publish TAOAM. The copy I have is from the silver-backed (like a mighty and aged gorilla book) Penguin Classics series.
  2. This book has a blurb on the back. The post on the Penguin blog is about writing the blurbs on the back of (Penguin) books, classics in particular.
  3. The blurb on the back of TAOAM refers to capital-E Everyman: ‘A modern day Everyman on an odyssey in search of reality and identity…’ (which is slightly overstating things, I feel, but see that post on the Penguin blog! The phrase ‘blurbing it up’ springs to mind.)
  4. Finally, the coincidence clincher: not only did Philip Roth recently publish his own version of a modern day Everyman, entitled Everyman, but just yesterday I blogged about it.

(On a personal note, regarding the agony of getting this post finished, including starting again and re-doing most links about three times… WTF is up with WordPress today?!)

everyman and the plot against america

August 9, 2006

Philip Roth’s two most recent publications, novel and novella, are quite different kinds of story, I think.

The Plot Against America was most absorbing in its front half, getting silly and incredible in its back half. It was good in the beginning because Roth created a detailed life of a child, Philip Roth, in an alternative history of America that was drawn broadly enough to be unworryingly credible. Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency from FDR was handled in a couple of brash, confident gestures of fictional history, and his seemingly benign figure was allowed to fly across Washington in the kind of silver-edged light of Fascist posters and those pressed-back trains that looked like they were speeding past when they were standing stock still.

Through the eyes of young Philip, old Philip unrolled the horrifying predicament of an ordinary Jewish family being suddenly suspended – like something dissolved – in an atmosphere of sanctioned anti-Semitism and right-wing politics. People close to him are trodden down, and others, by deceit and evil ways, are raised up. It’s all very involving until the chapter when old Roth delivers a hand grenade of silly alternative history into the narrative, blasting the story and the mood to smithereens. A real mistake.

So when I heard there was a new Roth novella, Everyman, I was not as excited as I might have been in the heady days of first reading Sabbath’s Theater and all the Zuckerman novels. I only arrived at Roth in 1999 and didn’t stop reading his books until I’d caught him up. Operation Shylock and The Counterlife are phenomenal books, in my opinion, and examples of true postmodernism. So, time passed, the small wound healed, and one day I found a cut price hardcopy of Everyman on ebay – click, click… and it was in the post.

And it’s faultless. It’s no Counterlife, mind, but it’s great. Stripped of the structural intrigue of his more challenging works, and stripped of the rage of his bright-burning books, it is nonetheless an intimate and involving story of a dead man. And it’s got some funny bits. Beginning with the funeral of this nameless character, this everyman, we are transported back in time, initially by the eulogies delivered, until the narrative device fades and the story takes over. The title comes from two sources, the reviewers tell me: it is the name the protagonists father paints above his jewellery store to ensure that he doesn’t narrow his market to the Jewish community only, and it is the name of a play. From the review in the Jewish Quarterly:

We are never told the protagonist’s name and the title of the novel derives not so much from his father’s business as from the fifteenth-century morality drama, The Summoning of Everyman, in which an allegorical representative of mankind finds himself suddenly required to give a ‘general reckoning’ or ‘account’ of his life so that he may be judged and sent accordingly to Heaven or Hell.

So this everyman gives his account. It’s a wonderful story with a soft challenge, I feel, almost imperceptible because one’s so accustomed to Philip Roth’s wrathful philippics (his pun, not mine). The challenge, I feel, is to tell your own story. To draw your life up against this everyman’s tale, and see how universal it really is (ambiguity intended).

I wasn’t going to write about this book but I was stimulated to by something I read on Critical Mass. One of the book critics they interviewed, Jennifer Reese, said:

Only once did I feel totally out-of-step and it was both fascinating and horrifying. The book was Philip Roth’s Plot Against America and with each new rapturous review I felt more and more isolated. Unfortunately, I had written my lukewarm review at the beginning of the tidal wave of praise and only later did I figure out with precision everything that infuriated me about the novel. I took heat for that review. Very unpleasant, very interesting experience. I’ve never thought harder about a book.

In that review, Jennifer Reese put her finger on what I agree is the failure of the novel. She wrote:

Roth has spun an unconvincing fantasy that falls far short of his finest work. While his depictions of the Roth family’s idyllic pre-Lindbergh existence (and Philip’s vibrant, eccentric inner life) are detailed and persuasive, he has set them against a cardboard backdrop of a fatally underimagined alternative America.

So what stimulated me to blog about these two novels is that I want to set the world to rights. Critics generally praised TPAA and they have general been a bit floppy membered about Everyman. I think it’s the other way around. TPAA is not a successful novel and poor by Roth’s standards; Everyman is a successful novel, and whilst not the most thrilling thing Roth has written, is pretty damn affecting.

So. There it is.