There are so many literary awards these days but I think the following notable achievements have been TOTALLY MISSED. So here are the All Time Award wThere are so many literary awards these days but I think the following notable achievements have been TOTALLY MISSED. So here are the All Time Award winners :
Best Keith Richard impersonation : W H Auden
Award for the Best exotic dance : Colette and Diablo Cody (tie)
Most transgendered author : Gustave Flaubert
“Madame Bovary, c’est moi” - Ok, if you say so
Creepiest family portrait : The Fitzgeralds
Most ridiculous hats, if that’s what they are : Rebecca West :
Author who most looked like their own books : Jean Rhys
Author who least looked like their own books : William Burroughs
Best beard : Samuel R Delany
Craziest beard : Georges Perec
Worst dancer : Truman Capote
Most awed by his own talent : Anthony Burgess
Best fistfight between great authors : Vargas Llosa versus Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We give the award to the loser:
Best calypso singer : Maya Angelou
Most pretentious suit : Tom Wolfe
Best interviewees : Margaret Atwood and James Ellroy (tie)
- invite them on your chat show, you'll get your money's worth.
I must have missed out some awards.... any suggestions?...more
Donald Barthelme was the high priest of post-modern literary weirdness but he never suffered for it. Five minutes after relocating to New York from HoDonald Barthelme was the high priest of post-modern literary weirdness but he never suffered for it. Five minutes after relocating to New York from Houston he was signed up by The New Yorker and remained its darling boy until he died. He was the outsider on the inside. The rest of those American avant gardists must have ground their teeth and chanted sellout sellout as they burned effigies of him in some abandoned lot on 12th Street, but hell, he couldn’t care, he was busy getting slaughtered with his third wife and his vast circle of friends – hello Andy! dwarling Renata! - and publishing his fourth begarlanded book of short stories.
I think his collection Amateurs (1976) is – hmmm – maybe - the best, most brilliant short story collection I ever read. This one is his first. And look – I have a FIRST EDITION PAPERBACK published (as Alibris told me) simultaneously with the hardback which means on 1st April 1964 (wow, 51 years ago, and it’s pristine) which means during the week when The Beatles were No 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the American singles charts, something which never happened before or since, so, I’d say, Come Back, Dr Caligari couldn’t be a more 60s book if it was printed on blotting paper soaked in Owsley’s Orange Sunshine, which it isn’t.
JAZZ NOT ROCK
But Don was jazz, not rock. He was Sonny Rollins, not the Velvet Underground. He was bourbon, not acid. So really, he is not my guy. He was in many ways an irritating writer, very self-confident, very know-it-all, really rather smug, and his ideas tended to morph into brainy comedy sketches. In one story a group of friends picket the human condition outside a church, their placards feature slogans :
COGITO ERGO NOTHING!
THE BODY IS DISGUST!
NO MORE ART CULTURE LOVE!
Their leader explains : We are opposed to the ruthless way in which the human condition has been imposed on organisms which have done nothing to deserve it and are unable to escape it. Why does it have to be that way? Four years later Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In would compress that idea into a 20 second sketch. Five years later some of the intellectual silliness would be reborn in Monty Python. Did Don ever watch the Pythons? Did the Pythons ever read Don? Or were they – Don in his New Yorker arrogance and the Python crew with their Oxbridge superiority – just singing from slightly different pages of the same songbook? This is a Python sketch but it could so easily have been a Donald Barthelme riff:
And now here are the scores.
St Stephan 29.9 Richard III 29.3 Jean D'arc 29.1 Marat 29.0 A. Lincoln 28.2 G. Khan 28.1 King Edward VII 3.1
Well there you can see the scores now. St Stephen in the lead there with his stoning, then comes King Richard the Third at Bosworth Field, a grand death that, then the very lovely Jean d'Arc, then Marat in his bath - best of friends with Charlotte in the showers afterwards - then A. Lincoln of the U.S of A, a grand little chap that, and number six Genghis Khan, and the back marker King Edward the Seventh. Back to you, Wolfgang.
Two stories are collages of conversations from social gatherings with none of the speakers identified. William Gaddis’s novel JR (1975) does the same thing (for 750 pages). In one of story he spatchcocks in to the mix whole paragraphs lifted from Time magazine (this is pointed out in Tracy Daugherty’s biography). No one seemed to notice at the time. Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles (2004) does the same thing but he got a light spanking from the commentariat for plagiarism. One law for the Don and another law for the Bob.
For I’m the Boy whose Only Joy is Loving You is my favourite here. It turns out to be viciously autobiographical, something you don’t expect from a surreal jokester. It features several cod-Irish spoof conversations, and this one is between Don and his first wife. Got to admit, I love this :
Ah Martha, coom now to bed there’s a darlin’ gul. Hump off, blatherer I’ve no yet read me Mallarme for this evenin’. Ooo Martha dear canna we noo let the dear lad rest this night? When th’ telly’s already shut doon an’ th’ man o’ the hoose ‘as a ‘ard on? Don’t be comin’ round wit yer lewd proposals on a Tuesday night when ye know better. But Martha dear where is yer love for me that we talked about in 19 and 38? Pish Mister Hard On ye’s better be lookin’ after the Disposall what’s got itself plogged up. Ding the Disposall! Martha me gul it’s yer sweet hide I’m after havin’. Get yet hands from out of me Playtex viper, I’m dreadful bored wi’ yer silly old tool.
By the time of this collection, Don’s 2nd marriage was withering on the vine and he does have some interesting observations on wives and husbands tucked away amidst the spoofiness:
I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. … But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.
Okay, I give this collection 4 stars for boldness, effrontery, chutzpah, take-no-prisoners lunacy and great humour. In truth it’s a three star collection – a few are really tiresome – but heck. It’s a 1st April 1964 time machine! ...more
I had a breakthrough. You know, like you get after months, maybe years, of intensive therapy. The solution had been staring me in the face – it’s ofteI had a breakthrough. You know, like you get after months, maybe years, of intensive therapy. The solution had been staring me in the face – it’s often the way, isn’t it. The thing was, the lowest shelf of my shelves of novels – it’s actually the space between the real lowest shelf and the floor - was just too short. It was 8 inches, which is fine for most of the novels on this shelf but Cold Snap (Jones), Ulysses (Joyce), Lake Wobegon Days (Keillor) and The Collected Works of TS Spivet (Larsen) are 8 and a half inches tall, just because they’re more important than all of Henry James (which are all 6 inches), so they won’t stand up, I have to lie them down on their bosoms with their backsides protruding into the public gaze – it’s just not right. I hate doing that to books more than I hate going to the dentist. But then I noticed the top shelf of the back wall, which was populated by plays and poetry and sundry unclassifiable items. I never read plays and poetry no more. I know – it’s a terrible thing. So I just don’t care if playwrights and poets are on their front or their backside, they probably couldn’t stand up straight if you paid them anyhow, what a bunch of drunks. So I switched the beloved novelists for the less well beloved poets and playwrights and voila! I switched them round! No more dentist!
The above is the kind of thing that Nick Hornby might have but didn’t write in this book. Really, he’s quite similar to me – always playing the giddy goat – but of course he is a beloved million selling writer of novels so the resemblance shrivels and dies right there. This book is a collection of columns he wrote for The Believer, an American literary mag founded by Dave Eggars in 2003. So this is a chatty, witty record of what Nick bought and read in the years 2003 to 2006.
I liked it. I’ve spent 20 years avoiding anything by Nick Hornby until this year when I stumbled on the movie version of High Fidelity and thought it was a real hoot (not a fake hoot). Why did I avoid him? Well, who wants to read about modern British suburban life? No one has any guns, there are few tornadoes, a little bit of doleful adultery, it’s all a bit meurgh.
In true Hornby listlike fashion I will now present
BOOKS BOUGHT BECAUSE OF NICK’S ENTHUSIASTIC WIBBLING
Robert Lowell, a Biography : Ian Hamilton Another Bullshit Night in Suck City : Nick Flynn
BOOKS I HAD ALREADY READ & WAS PLEASED TO SEE NICK AGREED WITH ME
Clockers : Richard Price How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World : Francis Wheen Hangover Square : Patrick Hamilton Like a Fiery Elephant : Jonathan Coe Chronicles : Bob Dylan In Cold Blood : Truman Capote Stuart – A Life Backwards : Alexander Masters Persepolis : Marjane Satrapi
BOOKS I HAD ALREADY READ & WAS HORRIFIED TO SEE NICK DISAGREED WITH ME
No Name : Wilkie Collins (it did not fall apart in the last 200 pages!) The Long Firm : Jake Arnott (it was unreadable macho crap) Saturday : Ian McEwan (it was stupid) Housekeeping : Marilynne Robinson (it was like being buried alive in angel dust)
There’s a much longer list of BOOKS NICK READ SO I DIDN’T HAVE TO such as Philip Larkin’s Letters (ugh) and Oh Play that Thing by Roddy Doyle (sounds grim) or Father and Son by Edmund Gosse (I'm asleep already).
Reading about some guy reading is probably a complete waste of time which should be better employed filling in those terrible gaps in your own literary knowledge like BALZAC or HOUELLEBECQ or GOGOL but this was fun.
Quote from page 67: Oh man, I hate Amazon reviewers. Even the nice ones, who say nice things. They’re bastards too.
Lord knows what he’s said about Goodreads since then. ...more
This book should be available in an edition for Christians. It would then be called WTF,God?! (yeah, rather disrespectful I agree). But all you do isThis book should be available in an edition for Christians. It would then be called WTF,God?! (yeah, rather disrespectful I agree). But all you do is replace the word Evolution with the word God.
So, this book would be full of funny stuff like
These are supposed to be dolphins? God, have you ever actually seen a dolphin?
Look, God, everyone has trouble staying motivated sometimes. Take a walk or have a snack when that happens…Don’t force yourself to make turtles when your heart obviously isn’t in it.
God had not had enough coffee when He made the Surinam horned frog.
Why so gloomy, babirusa? Is it because God gave you some weird extra tusks that are ugly, useless, too brittle to fight with, and may eventually grow so long that they curve around and fatally puncture your skull? Could that be it?
Because the anti-evolutionists believe that every species was created by God individually, and did not evolve from any other species. You know, Genesis and all that :
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
The implications of this have been rarely teased out. The Bible literalists like to say that God created the
But they shuffle their feet and look down at their hands when you mention the tapeworm. But it goes further. God also created the rats which spread the bubonic plague and killed around 45% of the population of Europe in the years 1346–53. But also He spent some time creating Xenopsylla cheopis - the flea which infected the rats. And before all that, He also mulled things over and created the Yersinia pestis bacterium which is the actual disease itself. I mean, without Yersinia pestis the fleas were just hitch-hikers and the rats were just stowaways.
And He created all the other diseases too, which I shan’t list – I’m sure you have your favourites. River blindness, syphilis, malaria, whatever.
So this thing cuts both ways. Yeah, evolution does look pretty silly when you think about that saiga antelope
or the star nosed mole
– but if this indicates that Darwin was barking up the wrong sea cucumber and Genesis is right after all, then I do find it kind of worrying that we’re all in the hands of Someone who thought the Goliath spider was a good idea
I was going to say that this is the book which contains the most mentions of YURTS ever, but of course there’s always
I’m sure that one clocks up an evI was going to say that this is the book which contains the most mentions of YURTS ever, but of course there’s always
I’m sure that one clocks up an even more impressive reading on the yurtometer. BUT THIS BOOK IS SECOND! It was one of those things like when you notice someone has a funny way of blinking or compulsively pulls at their left earlobe. Every two seconds…YURT! We built a YURT. Then we built another YURT. I intended to spend the winter in my YURT. I became concerned about the sogginess of my YURT. Your YURT looks so beautiful in the Scottish gloaming.
THE SONG OF DYLAN EVANS
I was never meant To live in a tent I do not care a damn About your grotty wigwam The idea of a teepee Makes me kind of weepy So pardon me for being curt I intend to live in a Mongolian YURT!
So… Dylan Evans was an academic robotics researcher who decided that he wanted to conduct a real life experiment to see what would happen after civilisation collapsed, no electricity, no manufactured objects, living off the land, old stone age, cool. Like Walking Dead without zombies.
This was just the usual white male middle-class delusional fantasy which has spawned a million science fiction novels. Its half-heartedness and ambivalence mirrored that of its creator and the mild grimness of its grungy no-toilet-paper leaking-yurt daily-vegetable grind send Dylan into a mental tailspin which ended with a few weeks in a psychiatric institution, bemoaning the wreckage of his life.
I didn’t really have to sell my house to fund the experiment. I could have rented it out and moved back in after… with less money to blow on ill thought-out acquisitions that quickly fell into disuse I could probably have done the experiment for a fraction of what I eventually spent. Nor did I have to give up my job….
The concept was to inhabit a couple of acres of the Scottish highlands (one of the wettest parts of the globe) for 18 months only and advertise for temporary residents to come and participate.
He started off in a bipolar high:
More yurts would eventually spring up, and woodpiles, and rows of vegetables… our bodies would grow strong from the physical labour and our minds refreshed by the natural surroundings, far away from the cities we’d left behind.
Yes, more yurts! Yurts stretching all the way to the horizon!
Dylan seems not to have factored into his idyllic bliss-out the stress of vegetables. Anyway, a couple of gnarled ur-hippies join him in his yurtopia. One calls himself (no really!) Adam. One day he sits down with Adam
to figure out some basic rules for Utopia. But all I succeeded in doing was to open a can of worms.
One rule was about what to do about outside purchases.
We can’t just buy a crate of wine every week and tell ourselves that we keep finding well-stocked cellars in the abandoned farmhouses nearby.
This is of course the Walking Dead method of staying stylish – have you ever noticed their clothes? It’s like Rick and Daryl keep stumbling across Alexander McQueen and Paul Smith branches in the abandoned malls of rural Georgia.
OFF THE PIG
Now here’s a sentence you could have predicted:
It felt strange to be eating the animal we had cared for those past few months, and fed that very morning, but it was delicious, and the crackling melted in my mouth.
GOOD GOD, MAN, LOOK AT YOURSELF IN THE MIRROR!
In fact Dylan was a morass of psychological conflict from the get-go – some time after the beginning of the experiment he got his girlfriend to live in a nearby house so he could live both kinds of life at the same time – hot shower on Tuesdays and Sundays, cold yurts the rest of the time. At least, until they broke up. Dylan doesn’t say exactly what precipitated this, but it may have been something to do with his obsession with yurt-know-whats.
THE WORLD SHOWED NO SIGN OF ENDING THAT YEAR
Even though the year this all happened in was the year of the Great Capitalist Shitstorm (2007) Dylan gradually lost faith in the end of the world as we know it. He became able to see it for what it was:
Now, almost a year into the experiment, every trip to the supermarket felt like a betrayal. How valuable a simulation of life after the collapse of civilisation could it be, if we were still popping down to Tesco every week? … The whole experiment began to seem like a sham, an extended camping trip, a bunch of soft-skinned Westerners kidding themselves that they were hardy backwoodsmen
Oddly enough, as Dylan loses faith, his fellow utopians get more committed to the project. Beginning with three people, after a year there were usually between eight and twelve people working away at the vegetable gardens. The horror of Dylan’s self imposed situation became ever more palpable – what was he going to do after the 18 months? Now he has no job, no house, no girlfriend, no prospects. He's spent ALL his money from the house on funding this ridiculous excursion. He gets suicidal and checks himself in to the mental hospital.
RECOVERING FROM UTOPIA
He got better, slowly. More optimistic thoughts arose in his mind :
Given that everything will come to an end eventually, does it really matter if humanity lasts another million years rather than just another thousand? Since civilization is bound to collapse sooner or later, does it matter when?
Hmm, you don’t think that sounds like a man in recovery, gradually rebuilding his shattered life? Okay, try this :
Even if humans discover how to prolong their lives the universe will eventually unravel and freeze. And then there will be nothingness for ever and ever, and permanent darkness.
So, you know, cheer up! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we go to Scotland and live in a yurt. ...more
As you may know, the idea here was to read a work of fiction from every country in the world IN ONE YEAR. It was inspired by AM’s realisation of how iAs you may know, the idea here was to read a work of fiction from every country in the world IN ONE YEAR. It was inspired by AM’s realisation of how insular her reading had been throughout her entire life. She almost never read translated novels, only US & UK ones, like a lot of us. Who, me? Yeah, you. She points out that this insularity is encouraged by the universal recommendation concept of “if you like that then you’ll like this”.
With so much well-pitched material on hand, the prospect of seeking out stories from further afield feels a bit like being asked to abandon the bright supermarket aisles where everything is arranged just as we like it to forage for literary sustenance in the local park.
Along with many people I thought the account of this year of reading through the planet would be a mosaic of reviews of the books encountered, but it isn’t. The blog has the actual reviews. Instead, this book is an exploration of the difficulties and implications of trying to read a book from every country, and international book culture in general. Oh yeah. Uh huh.
SCOTLAND NO, TUVALU YES
She encounters a lot of heavy weather when she tries to find out how many countries there are in the world. What is a country? How do you reach a reasonable definition? If you consult the United Nations official list of 196 members you find that Taiwan is not there at all – only 21 other countries recognise it as an independent state, although it walks, talks and quacks like an independent state all the time. I mean, Taiwan is right there, you can see it. Likewise Scotland is not there, as it’s a part of the UK. But if you tell a Scottish person that Scotland is not a country you might get a Glasgow handshake. Whit? Boom! Stitch that, sonny!
In many ways, it’s a cute but silly idea. 12 of the 196 countries have a population of less than 100,000 – so they get one book each, as does Indonesia (population 255 million), Bangladesh (155 million) and Japan (126 million). The political boundaries of the world are as arbitrary as any other way of categorising humans. My own next reading challenge will be to read a novel by someone who is 7 feet tall, one by someone 6 feet 11 inches, and so on down to 3 feet. The problem is that there has only ever been one 7 foot tall novelist but there are 1 billion ones who were 5 feet 8 inches tall. Ah well.
Only 4% of books published in English are translations from other languages. When AM considers the case of Portuguese, she finds that there are 9 lusophone (new word!) countries with a combined population of 260 million, and in one year (2005) only ten books were translated from Portuguese.
If there’s a theme to this book it’s awkwardness. Discomfort. Things not fitting. Out of balance. What’s the word – koyaanisqatsi? Yes, that’ll do. When you have made some difficult decisions about what a country actually is (Palestine? Kosovo? Kurdistan?) then there’s the problems encountered by the authors themselves. Do they grok the very idea of a novel? If so, what do they want to say? They have to deal with Western cultural imperialism, with their own cultural impediments (maybe in their culture it is not right to make up stories displaying the less pleasant side of life) and with the forces of political and religious repression. They might come from a place of absolutely no books and no publishing. American critic Eric Larrabee commented as follows:
As an exercise in imagination, try to conceive of an author who 1) probably has never met another author; 2) owns no books; 3) is not known to his daily acquaintances as an author; 4) has no personal contact with his publisher; 5) is not certain where his book is on sale; and 6) does not think of himself as an author.
So AM has to go to some lengths to find something to read from some teensy countries. She got one book translated specifically so she could read it. (I sure hope she liked it!) I had to cringe as I read AM’s account of one book from a Pacific island which was a collection of oral folk tales some jolly NGO Westerners had got recorded and written down, as the book is the holy grail of cultural imperishability, and this here folk culture was visibly wilting. The result sounded ghastly, with stage directions. AM says it was “like a po-faced interpreter relaying a stand-up comedian’s routine”. And that is one of the very few places she lets us know what opinions she had of the books she read.
DEALING WITH CULTURE SHOCK (ENCOUNTERS WITH HOMOPHOBIA )
This was the most interesting chapter. I wasn’t so jazzed with the ins and outs of self publishing and ebooks and the dubiousness of translations and so forth, but the chapter about culture shock got my undivided attention:
Newcomers to Nepalese folk tales, for example may find the frequency with which coins are stuffed into animals’ rectums in the hope of making them appear to excrete gold disconcerting
She outlines very well what I think may be the central reason why there are so few non-Anglophone novels translated each year.
Without the context to understand the significance of these events we are left faltering, wrong-footed, unsure how to respond. Should we feel pity for the wife who is forced to submit at knifepoint or treat this as part of a ritualised performance enacted to formalise marriage? Are we supposed to laugh at the gold-stuffed donkey or disapprove of the owner for being cruel? Can we take what we read at face value or is there unknown contextual information that might temper these accounts? …We stare hesitantly at the things on offer, unsure where to start and what is expected of us, afraid of committing a faux pas.
And what about when you plunge in to a novel from, say, Papua New Guinea (AM’s example) and discover
That the casual homophobic slurs that pepper the narrative and the increasingly outlandish plot – which comes close to conflating homosexuality with paedophilia – make giving the novel the benefit of the doubt difficult… It dawns on us slowly that Stella (the author) expects us to share his protagonist’s prejudices, and the result is uncomfortable.
I should say it would be.
AM’s IRON DISCIPLINE
She read 197 books in one year. Now, for some YA readers on this site, that’s like a stroll in the park, but for most people that’s extreme. Last year I read 46 novels – well, not all the way through, I abandoned 12 of those. So yeah, 197 novels in one year, wow. This is how she did it:
I had to be very organised. I worked out the amount I needed to get through every day (around 150 pages to keep on track to read four books a week) and made sure I stuck to it. This meant reading for two hours on my commute (I was working full-time for most of the year) and an hour or two in the evening. I sometimes read in my lunch break too. In actual fact, the reading was only half the battle – writing the blog posts and doing all the research took as much time, so I got up early to spend an hour or two on this before I left for work.
Mind you, AM was always something of a freak reader – she ploughed through The Satanic Verses at age 11. Didn’t understand a word, but read every page anyway.
This was something really worth doing but the present volume is ever so slightly earnest and teetering on the edge of being dull at times. It could so easily have been rescued if AM had included her reviews of the actual books – maybe not all 196 but the 20 best and 20 worst, say. That would have been fun fun fun whereas what we have here is worthy worthy worthy.
I love books about a single movie – two recent corkers were Chain Saw Confidential and The Disaster Artist, both written by actors. But those short loI love books about a single movie – two recent corkers were Chain Saw Confidential and The Disaster Artist, both written by actors. But those short love-letter-to-my-favourite-film books are good too, like Withnail & I and Meet Me in St Louis in the BFI Film Classics series. In those kind of books you get to find out who was doing what with who to get the part (Lucille Bremer as Judy’s sister) and who nearly got the part (Shirley Temple for Dorothy in Wizard of Oz! Of course!) and all that. Hilarious.
So this book is by a guy who wrote one of my real favourite book-about-books, which is Out of Sheer Rage. That is a book about how Geoff didn’t write a book about DH Lawrence.
Geoff Dyer is all about the meta.
But he’s chatty with it. So here in this book Zona Geoff gets to write about his favourite movie. And I thought, in the words of Jeremy Clarkson, “what could possibly go wrong?”
This Dyer guy has got it made. He seems to have been given a contract by his publisher which says : just write about whatever stray idea and whimsical notion that pops into your head and we’ll slap it between two covers. Don’t think twice! So he writes about jazz, DH Lawrence, Venice, World War One, John Berger, Paris, and on and on.
You don’t have to like or know much about DH Lawrence to enjoy Out of Sheer Rage. You just have to be able to empathise with a guy endlessly putting off something which he himself volunteered to do and which has now become a crushing burden. We’ve all been there.
However, in Zona, we have a very detailed account of this movie called Stalker by Tarkovsky and really, you hafta have seen it, which so far, I haven’t. I thought I could wing it. But really, this movie sounds dull. Boring people doing boring things boringly.
You’re going to say – but that is a perfect description of all Eric Rohmer movies, of which I am a big fan. Well, boring is a personal thing. After all, some people think books are boring. Imagine that.
So I got to page 80 and set it down.
What I really want to do is watch Goto, Island of Love. That’s a 1969 movie by Walerian Borowczyk which I saw once in an art house years ago & always wanted to see again and looked for in vain until last week when I found it by accident in a discount shop called Fop – two disc edition, couldn’t believe it.
So here it sits but I’m nervous – it might turn out to be terrible. I thought it was great back then, but who knows. My former self did not have perfect taste. I even had a Moodyblues album once. Don’t tell anyone.
For 75 pages this was all clang clang clang goes the trolley ding ding ding goes the bell but then it turned a sharp corner and I think I done got thr For 75 pages this was all clang clang clang goes the trolley ding ding ding goes the bell but then it turned a sharp corner and I think I done got throwed off the bus. Ow! As it rattled off without me I was left to think carefully about what I’m doing when I read a novel (aside from avoiding the interminable election debates on tv, OMG another 3 weeks to go), and what I think a novel is doing or supposed to be doing. It’s good to be made to think about these things. But why did I get throwed off the bus?
This jampacked little book is all about the why of novels, and it's got some high standards to apply to both novels and readers, so you better shape up, you readers you. Hey - I do mean YOU. Yeah. That's right.
It’s like James Wood expects us to be listening to some random tune and be able to name the bass player and the producer’s previous hits and the singer’s favourite drugs and where it got to in the charts and its relation to the minor essays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Flaubert’s left earlobe.
James Wood is like the gold standard reader. When you read David Foster Wallace you notice that he notices everything, I mean everything, and notices everything about himself noticing things and so on, and so forth. James Wood does all that while he reads every single novel. Not one word passes casually beneath the Wood eyeballs. Every phrase will be cross-examined. Every paragraph will have bamboo shoved up its fingernails until it confesses where it stands in regard to Stendahl, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. And Flaubert.
Frankly, I was outclassed. I was more than a little crushed. I was talked down to. It had been made clear that I'd got on the wrong bus. Me! Moi! As the trolley lurched round another bend I was turning distinctly green. It was all going so well when JW was discussing the free indirect style of modern narration which enables an indeterminate locus of reality to emerge which is not the character speaking and not the author either but a fifth dimension equipoised between the two. All that was great.
But then he gets in to character, a brief history of consciousness and sympathy and complexity. Then the full florid obsessions emerged – no more 20th century, only French and Russians! Balzac! More Flaubert*! Pushkin! Stendahl! Diderot! Chekhov! Tolstoy! Yeah, that’s right, punk! All those guys you never read! You were going to get round to them but well I don’t know but you just never did! Well, I bet you’re regretting that now because you can’t talk about fiction without an intimate knowledge of alla those guys. Sorry. I bet you want to slink off back into the night now doncha. Go ahead, slink.
When the 20th century is reluctantly allowed into JW’s purview it’s Hardy (never read him), Buddenbrooks (never read it), Proust (same), Italo Svevo (huh?), Thomas Pynchon (no thanks) and Saul Bellow (oh, I read one by him – the wrong one).
It must be said out loud: James Wood is an old school patrician sneerer. Even though he’s earned the right to sneer a hundred times over, there’s still no need for it. Here’s where I gagged:
If prose is to be written as well as poetry novelists and readers must develop their own third ears. We have to read musically, testing the rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding whether a metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality. We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful (“she writes like an angel”) is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing “beautifully” as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.
Is this not a bit nauseating? Get off of your high horse, JW! Maybe there are 41 other human beings who read the right books with the perfect superconsciousness using their perfect brains bulging with culture in the way that JW advises, but the rest of us are real people who sometimes read in the bath with the radio on. Some of us have actually not read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education! Think of that! Some of us – you may have to lie down for this – have no intention of reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education! We are the plebs your culture warned you about.
However, at the end of this book we get 20 pages about realism. Here James Wood defends the idea that the business of fiction is to get real life in some way onto the printed page. Suddenly James Wood is my new best friend! Yes! It’s about time someone stuck it to those old haddocks William Gass and Roland Barthes. I love this:
Realism, seem broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I call lifeness : life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes ther forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind is the origin. It teaches everyone else; it schools its truants.
So – what can I say – read the first 75 pages and the last 20, and don’t mess with Mr In-Between.
*We cannot write about rhythm and not refer to Flaubert, and so once again, as if unable to stop rereading the old letters of a former lover, I return to him. (Ugh) ...more
Meaning that the movie begins with the chronologically latest events of the story, then skips back to what happened just b THE STORY IS TOLD BACKWARDS
Meaning that the movie begins with the chronologically latest events of the story, then skips back to what happened just before that, then skips back again, and so on, back through the day. 13 sections.
This is not unique – there’s Philip Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1967), Pinter’s play Betrayal (1978), Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow (1991), Julia Alvarez’s novel How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents (1991) and Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (1995). This is a rape-revenge story, which because of the backwards chronology becomes a revenge-rape story. I Spit on Your Grave or The Last House on the Left refracted through French 21st century extreme cinema. It's the antidote to those meretricious movies. A different experience. I would argue : unmissable. But my tastes may not be yours.
FRENCH EXTREME CINEMA
Well, you can’t really deny it. Frontiers, Martyrs, Switchblade Romance, Baiser-Moi, Inside, Trouble Every Day, In my Skin, Calvaire. Some I like, some I hate. Irreversible is up there at the top, probably number 2 to Martyrs’ No 1. This stuff is soooooo violent. You never saw people suffer on screen till you see French extreme cinema.
BIZARRE CAMERAWORK INDUCING NAUSEA
Remember Leatherface at the end of Texas Chain Saw Massacre swinging his big ole chainsaw round and up and down? That’s how Gaspar Noe uses his camera for the first 20 minutes or so of this movie. So, that plus the violence plus the ugly painful soundtrack will be a bit too much for your mother-in-law, probably. This movie got plenty of walkouts.
AFTER THE HORROR, UNBEARABLE POIGNANCY
This is because we journey backwards through the day. We begin with the arrests, back to the revenge, back to the rape, back to the stupid argument in the bar which causes Monica Bellucci’s character to walk out alone and take some bad advice :
back to the intimate banter between the Monica, her boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend as they went out to the bar (“the only time she had an orgasm with me is when she fell out of bed and banged her head”), backwards before that to voluptuous scenes between Monica and boyfriend Vincent Cassel, a near perfect raunchy couple on a carefree morning. The movie therefore ends in perfect romantic-sexual harmony. Given what we have seen before, that is, know what is about to happen, the effect is devastating.
Amelie and Irreversible were released almost at the same time and of course the whimsical-cutesy fantasy Amelie became the world’s favourite French film up till then. It’s the total opposite of Irreversible. In Amelie romance thrives – a spooky, OCD version anyway – and Paris has never looked so lovely and manic dream pixie girls never so chic. Amelie clearly drives Tim Palmer quite insane and he takes the time to assemble some great anti-Amelie quotes :
Totally disconnected from all contemporary reality….cleansed of ethnic diversity and social problems with a broad CGI brush of smug totalising rightwing bluster… transposing euroDisney to Montmartre…. Opposed to everything Irreversible pursues
I can see all that, but, you know, Amelie and Irreversible are both great films. Suck it up Tim Palmer.
IT MUST BE AN OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD
Film critics and professors seem to develop weird obsessive linguistic tics which they can’t help or just don’t notice. In Annette Kuhn’s terrible book on the brilliant Ratcatcher, she can’t write more than two paragraphs without talking about space or using the word spatial. Here, it’s diegetic. Honest, it comes up every fourth sentence, bong, like a clock striking every ten minutes. Diegetic this, diegetic that.
Something unknown to Tim Palmer : the power of the synonym.
After that, we have a horrendously overused phrase : the French film ecosystem. This comes up about a thousand times.
And of course, it just wouldn’t be a film book written by a professor without some of those brainbending inscrutabilities, such as :
One rallying group goal – onscreen, issuing from that screen to coalesce around the spectator – is to subsume any regulated dispensation of diegetic information to a lyrical, contingent disbursement of cinematic data.
As a film fan, I must say that doing a film course at a university sounds like PURE HELL.
Prof Palmer’s prose is unpleasant and sclerotic, true, but his monograph is stuffed full of interesting angles, and I actually do recommend it to any fan of this movie or French extreme cinema in general. ...more