Archive for September, 2006

reading for Q3, 2006

September 26, 2006
  1. Curry by Lizzie Collingham
  2. Shroud by John Banville
  3. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
  4. Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields
  5. Mercator by Nicholas Crane
  6. Samuel Beckett by Anthony Cronin
  7. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
  8. Everyman by Philip Roth
  9. Star Trek 6 by James Blish
  10. Brilliance of the Moon by Lian Hearn
  11. Grass for His Pillow by Lian Hearn
  12. Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
  13. Gem Squash Tokoloshe by Rachel Zadok
  14. Medici Money by Tim Parks

the siege in the room

September 25, 2006

I finally finished reading Anthony Cronin’s biography of Samuel Beckett about three books ago. I’ve not had a chance, in the meantime, to put my thoughts together into a coherent post. Partly this is because of the demands of life but also because reading and finishing this book turned out to be an emotional experience.

I’m sure you know the feeling, on finishing a book you’ve been closely involved with, of not really wanting to start anything else right away. And in many ways, this, to me, is the sign of a truly excellent book; a book so good that it precludes the desire to read again or to read another. Of course, generally, we get over this feeling in more time or less, and we pick up another book and off we go.

And indeed, this is exactly what I have done. First I picked up the seventh volume of James Blish’s adaptations of the original Star Trek series episodes. I had hoped I’d be able to get on with something quite different to a literary biography. But no. So I spent some time sitting on the study floor, gazing at the book shelves and the pile of books against the floor, trying to decide what to read next. I picked some books up, flipped through them, put them down again. My lovely wife joined me in the study, sitting, as you do beside a hospital bed when someone is ill, with me silently, supporting me in my efforts to choose the next book. After a time, she made some suggestions and offered me a cup of tea. We discussed – again – how to store all the books: airtight containers in th garage, sell them on ebay, give them to Oxfam, etc. Eventually she left me to it and went to bed.

I chose Umberto Eco’s latest – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – and for a time I got on well enough with it. I am now fed up with it but I’ll finish it. No more about that.

This small drama was directed, from the behind the scenes, by the character of Samuel Beckett, still so present in mind, who had been so clearly evoked by Cronin. I’ve not read many biographies, and I’ve not read much Beckett, but I think in this one I struck gold. It is a sensitive and well-written life of a great but private and, in turn, sensitive writer. The Beckett I have read includes:

  • Watt
  • Waiting for Godot
  • Endgame
  • Stirrings Still

This is not a lot, although they are some of the key works. I will read more. In fact, one of the books I held for longest on the study floor is the Beckett trilogy of novels, published in a single edition: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. After reading the first 5 pages, I realised it was too soon to be taking on Beckett’s masterpieces, his great novels.

This biography was such a satisfying read, I think, because it offered many intermingled streams of information: facts about Beckett’s life, such as where he grew up and what he did in the periods of his life; contextual and historical information that gives a better picture of how Beckett lived, and shows how his writing fits into the larger endeavour of modernism; the saga of finding a publisher for his work, before he became famous, and what it illustrates about how he approached personal and business relationships; detailed textual analysis and likewise detailed accounts of the staging of his plays and his role in the performances; and more.

What this all adds up to is the golden biography I described earlier. As I read about him, I came to realise how my single concept of Beckett, based on what I’d read and the steely black and white photographs of him that are so striking, was of a hard, spare, fiercely intelligent man. And to some extent, this notion of the man is probably not inaccurate but what Cronin offers is another concept of Beckett: a private, painfully polite and deeply gentle man.

an audience with JG Ballard

September 15, 2006

A. and I went to a JG Ballard reading and discussion evening yesterday. It was fun and entertaining, and I even got to ask him a question, which was a small but personal thrill.

JGB’s old and creaky and fat and deaf now but his reading was great (I don’t mean that description nastily but I was a bit taken aback by the obvious disparity between the most-used photographs of him and the reality). He had an engaging way, bizarrely reminscent of Richard Nixon, of acknowledging the audience’s applause by throwing out both his arms at about 60 degrees elevation and smiling winningly. Like Paul Auster, who I also saw reading at the Logan Hall, he read his own writing with great good humour, making it sound light and funny, which is not how I normally read Ballard. I always hear those didactic dialogues in an earnest and slightly drugged/crazed voice but he read them like a comedy routine.

He then discussed the new novel – Kingdom Come – with the literary editor of The Observer, Robert McCrum. This guy was a bit of a let down because he chose to re-tread the well-trodden ground of JGB’s Shanghai childhood, his war camp internment, his arrival in a foreign-feeling England, studying medicine at Cambridge etc. All the same old stories that journalists repeat every time a new JGB book comes out. It would have been much more interesting to discuss the new book in the light of its subject – the Britain of today. Ballard’s writing is all about enpresenting, about looking at the world around you today and how our human psychology is changing with and because of it. Hence the setting of this most recent novel in a shopping centre in an M25 town, where consumerism and boredom are the presiding religions. JGB was clearly physically uncomfortable during this discussion, needing to shift his weight around in the chair again and again, and flexing and massaging his knees. His ideas shone through the fidgeting and the weak questions, and he was enthralling, I thought, on the subject of Britain and humanity, and the madnesses that we pursue.

Asked about the start of his writing career, JGB told how in the 1950s he felt that British fiction was tired out from apeing the heroic modernism that came before and not really breaking new ground. And then he discovered sci-fi and had ‘a shock of recognition’ – this was a hidden literature that displayed the only vitality in British writing at the time. So my question was, in relation to this, where does he see this kind of vitality now, in what form of writing etc.? His answer, as I expected it would be, was ‘on the internet’, which he described as a shared landscape and a great democracy. Mine was the last question so it got a bit of a short answer. But it was fun to be able to ask one.

I used Ballard’s brilliant Cocaine Nights as the main text of my English Honours dissertation, and used the novel again as one of the texts for my Ricouerian readings that was my Masters’ thesis. Cocaine Nights was the first of four novels, the most recent being the fourth, that look at how our psychology is changed by the way we are plugged into readymade environments like holiday resorts, security villages, corporate parks, and shopping malls.

I had another question that I wanted to ask, had I been given the chance. If you examine the general output of Ballard fans on the internet – blogs, a flickr pool, etc. – it tends to focus on his urban stories and themes. People are drawn to, and reproduce, his symbols of urban decay and power, such as empty swimming pools and high rise apartment buildings. This makes sense, as many of JGB’s novels provide powerful symbols of the urban experience that so many of us are embroiled in. And yet, Ballard has also written novels that vividly depict jungle and tropical environments that present symbols of fertility, human isolation, and the brutal indifference of nature to human concerns. I wonder why people tend not to pick up on these symbols and images as much as the urban ones (beyond the obvious answer about people living in cities being the ones mostly creating internet content), and I wonder what JGB might think about this.


September 11, 2006

John Banville’s Shroud is a companion novel to Eclipse. Cass Cleave, playing a different kind of daughter in each, appears as a character in both novels.

Where Eclipse was an ethereal and slightly hysterical novel, Shroud is grim, dangerous and bleak.

Nothing better illustrates this than the overarching theme of dead bodies that is signified by the title. The shroud of Turin, where most of the novel is set, supposedly shows a ghostly image of Christ’s dead body. It is a persistent image of the man, and the novel is about (amongst other things) how we maintain our image for others, and the lengths we go to to secure a persistent image of ourselves.

The male protagonist, Axel Vander, is half-blind and half-lame, but also powerful and insightful at the same time. Earlier in his life he used his insight to write towering academic edifices and built on them a solid and masterful career as Professor Vander. Now, near the end of his life, he sees visions, ghostly and gruesome.

He sees himself as a dead albatross hung around his own neck; a rotting dead-weight, from which the flesh falls:

Lately I have begun to feel that I am falling off myself, that my suety old flesh is melting off my skeleton and soon will all be gone. I shall not mind; I shall be glad; I shall rise up then, bared of inessentials, all gleaming bone and siinew smooth as candle wax, new, unknown, my real self at last. (p8)

And in his passionate desire to get close to her, he sees the female protagonist, Cass Cleave, in the following terms:

…as we climbed the stairs I saw myself in my imagination stop and turn and take her in my irresistible grasp and rip apart her clothes to press the length of myself against her. Even her nakedness would not be enough, I would open up her flesh itself like a coat, unzip her from instep to sternum and climb bodily into her, feel her shocked heart gulp and skip, her lungs shuddering, clasp her blood-wet bones in my hands. (p107)

I have been struck, whilst reading this book, by Banville’s great lyricism and, in this case, his almost terminal abstractedness. These two extracts are fine examples of Banville’s descriptive talent. And yet… and yet. Too often, it’s not entirely clear what the characters are talking about, where they are, or even who they are. And I find this difficult – too difficult for the District Line, at least. The story jumps from the sticky closeness of events in Turin, to a more lightly related past in Germany and London, and back into the mad (and maddening) visions of the two narrators. And ultimately, although you are generally aware of the subject of the novel, the story escapes you a bit. If nothing else, reading Banville is good for building your vocabulary.

Some Vander/Cleave words, given to either of the narrators:

  • nescience = lack of knowledge, ignorance
  • plosive = of, relating to, or being a speech sound produced by complete closure of the oral passage and subsequent release accompanied by a burst of air, as in the sound (p) in pit or (d) in dog
  • moll = prostitute
  • goughing = ?
  • preciosities = extreme meticulousness or overrefinement, as in language, taste, or style
  • ephebe = a young man
  • squinnying = squint
  • fissile = capable of being split or divided; cleavable [clever John Banville!]
  • ormolu = gold or gold powder prepared for use in gilding, also to imitate gold
  • estamint = ?
  • instauration = renewal; restoration; renovation; repair
  • apocatastasis = the state of being restored or reestablished; restitution; also, the doctrine that Satan and all sinners will ultimately be restored to God
  • termagant = a violent, turbulent, or brawling woman
  • netsuke = (in Japanese art) a small figure of ivory, wood, metal, or ceramic, originally used as a buttonlike fixture on a man’s sash, from which small personal belongings were hung
  • integument = covering, coating, enclosure
  • bibelot = a small object of beauty, curiosity, or rarity
  • colleen = an Irish girl
  • boreal = of or pertaining to the north, or north wind
  • flapdoodle = nonsense, bosh
  • pococurantish = uncaring, apathetic
  • peccant = violating a rule, principle, or established practice
  • gonadolescent = ? (although I can guess)
  • berylline = transparent, transluscent, glassy
  • freshet = a sudden rise in the level of a stream, or a flood, caused by heavy rains or the rapid melting of snow and ice
  • bombasine = mourning material, with a warp of silk and a weft of worsted
  • gallimaufry = a hodgepodge, a jumble, a confused medley

projecting Mercator

September 4, 2006

Have finished reading Mercator by Nicholas Crane.

I have already mentioned that Crane:

  1. Presents more history than biography. No insight is offered as to where Mercator most liked to have a drink, or how he felt about any of his siblings (or anything of that sort). I don’t fundamentally disapprove, as I enjoyed the history of mapmaking that the book presents, but I was a bit surprised as I thought this was a biography and hoped to learn more about the man himself, not just his work. It would be bleak indeed if our work is mostly what defines us.
  2. Elicits a connection between the physcial world of Mercator (and his colleagues) and their discoveries in the world of mathematics and mapmaking. At the beginning of the book you learn that triangulation was an easy concept to absorb in a flat land with straight roads where you could see before you what you were marking down on paper. Likewise, near the end of the book, Crane offers the insight that the course of Mercator’s life – the external pressures he was subjected to – equipped him to make the conceptual breakthrough of making maps that were stripped of silly decoration (big fish etc.) and instead displayed physical reality with abstract relationship overlaid. For example, maps including political boundaries, dominant religion by area, population density etc. All of the types of map we are accustomed to now were devised by a man whose life had been subject to these abstract relationships to physical reality. Mercator and his family had had to migrate across northern Europe in search of work, or religious tolerance, or to escape imprisonment, etc.

Mercator’s projection has outlived its creator and shows no signs of dying out. Apparenly a recent map of Mars used the Mercator projection. Mercator was also the man who coined the term ‘atlas’ to denote a book of maps. A few people had collected maps into a book before him, but Mercator’s was the first to include space for the overlapping of sheets and a consistent grid for aligning multiple sheets.

You can turn the pages of Mercator’s atlas on the British Library site.

Another strong theme of this book (that reinforces its coincidence with Brecht’s The Life of Galileo in my mind) is the entanglement of religion and science (and art, literature, government and so on) at this time. Mercator, in executing and publishing his projection and his atlas must support his scientific and mathematical findings with a detailed account of creation. Likewise, any newly created or redrawn political aspects of a map had to be prefaced by a description of the approach taken, justifying the map maker’s choices.

I enjoyed this book very much. It builds a convincing portrait of the man behind the maps. Crane sometimes hurls 16th century names at one with a reckless disregard for a potential lack of interest in these passing figures. Also, he strikes a somewhat hagiographic note more than once, leading one to question his objectivity: when I read the brief introduction to Mercator’s atlas on the British Library site, I had to chuckle as Crane had made it sound like a divinely inspired work of purest passion, and the Library notes dryly record that it was a commissioned work. But despite these small weaknesses, this is a very readable book that explains some key mathematical and historical concepts with ease and an engaging style.