Thursday 3 December 2009

Reports of early demise exaggerated

Anyone who occasionally - regularly - God help you it should be obsessively - looks at anything I write here should please note the above. It's been a meat-grinder of a month or two. Yahweh allow it, things appear to be settling down a little.

In the meantime, please note that the location of the very fine WSER/Silver Eel Radio has shifted to

I have bought a copy of Frederic Prokosch's The Asiatics on the advice of Ellison and Vidal but have not yet managed to get further east than Whitby. On the other hand, Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler is an effective wee thriller, his second novel, from 1937. There are no real surprises in it, but the moments of clunky writing are redeemed by others which are genuinely lyrical, and it all works and doesn't suffer from the sense of over-elaboration or artifice that I think undermines some of Ambler's other books: he just gets on with the story. Seemed to me it drew heavily on The 39 Steps, which in itself is no bad thing. What I find most intriguing is the degree to which it hasn't aged that much, either in literary technique and structure, or subject matter. Worth your time.

Monday 21 September 2009

You don't know what you've got till it's gone...

Clearing out my mailbox I noticed a week-old newsflash from The Bookseller on the forthcoming demise of Chambers, properly Chambers Harrap, and owned by Hachette since 1992. Basically the internet has kicked the feet out from underneath reference publishing and Hachette are cutting their losses. It's deeply ironic that Chambers' fortunes were made on providing cheap, accurate and accessible information to the masses; from Chambers' website:

Education, and making information available to as many people as possible, were always priorities for William and Robert. In 1832 they began to publish The Chambers's Journal. This was a weekly, 16-page journal containing articles - many of them written by Robert - on subjects such as history, religion, language and science. It was an immediate success; within a few years the weekly circulation had risen to 84 000 copies, and it put an end to their struggle to survive although they still had to work hard.

The Chambers's Journal was followed in 1834 by Chambers's Information for the People. This was a series of sheets on subjects such as science, maths, history, geography and literature, bound in sets. Eventually around 170 000 sets were sold, amounting to over 2 million individual sheets. This publication also saw some success abroad; a US edition was published, and it was translated into French (under the title Information pour le peuple) and - more surprisingly perhaps - into Welsh.

These publications were followed by an educational course, an encyclopedia and, in 1872, the Chambers Dictionary.

I must admit to not having supported Chambers on one occasion when I was a bookseller: I seem to recall the rep coming in and my deciding not to go for one of the larger Chambers titles. This was almost certainly based on sales figures, though undoubtedly if we'd been stocking the Chambers and Bloomsbury dictionaries at the same level as we did Collins and Oxford, they'd have been a good deal better. Well, I regret it now.

On the other hand, I always had the feeling that Chambers was a bit fusty, a bit old-fashioned, or (to be brutal) past it - though this was a superficial impression and I never made a detailed comparison between the actual content of a Chambers dictionary and that of its competitors. (I did compare the other three around 2003 and liked the Bloomsbury best on grounds of writing and layout.) While this may seem groundless, as a retailer I think you do get to have sense for books and publishers just as you do for people, and I wonder, given this wholly regrettable news, if there wasn't something in that. (See below.) Should Chambers not have been better prepared to weather the internet? Is it really altogether a case of asset-stripping by a big corporation? - though I never under-rate big corporations' innate capacity for greed and mendacity.

There's an interesting synchronicity between the content of Chambers' latest blog post, which refers to the practice of 'churnalism' - the replication of the text of a news item in multiple publications without any attempt on the part of hacks to reshape, expand or develop it - and an example of same in the reporting of the Chambers story: if you look at the pieces in the Scotsman, Herald, Bookseller and BBC you'll see they are almost exactly the same. Who wrote the original? Presumably it came from an agency.

In fact the timing of the blog post is so fitting that I can't imagine it isn't a subtle dig on the part of the poster, though I imagine it will be lost on the bean-counters at Hachette.


An earlier post comments on the redundant repetition of the the last word of an acronym, as in my pet hate, 'ISBN number'. On hearing it used, I regularly had to prevent myself from emitting a Morse-like snarl against the offender and pointing out that one does not speak of the CIA agency or the FBI bureau.


A more directly personal effect is that that's going to be 27 more book people out of a job - which of course I do not welcome in a general sense - and all applying for the same kind of positions as me. While I do have a job at the moment it's not going to last for much longer, and I dread being back on the dole. This is yet another reason why little of my online time is currently spent socialising, chasing intriguing literary-oriented stuff, or blogging - all of which I'd much rather be doing.


On YouTube, Orson Welles on cold reading: at around 2:00 he begins to explain how it is that one's surface impressions become more than that.


Seen on the wall of a library recently:
A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.
- Jo Godwin
Which in my sometime experience ought to carry underneath it the sign:
Library staff will be happy to help.

Recently read and recommended: Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios; Harlan Ellison, Spider Kiss. Not recommended: Ian McEwan, The Innocent; Eric Ambler, Journey into Fear; Honore de Balzac, The Vendetta. Not sure: G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Put your lips together and blow

From Chapter 7, ' Putting Sounds on the Road', of A Mouthful of Air by Anthony Burgess:
Another trick of utterance is not in the service of entertainment but concerned with serious communication. I refer to the whistled languages in use among the Mazateco Indians of Oaxaca in Mexico, the peasants of La Gomera (one of the Canary Islands) and certain Turks. [...]
[Whistling] is conceivably a medium of communication older than speech, and it relates man to birds, otters and guinea pigs. Taboos are attached to it. 'A whistling woman, a crowing hen/ Whistled the devil out of his den.' Witches whistle (thrice), also whores. [...]
In 1891 R. Verneau published a book called Cinq Ans aux Iles Canaries. He described how the peasants of La Gomera whistled at each other across the deep valleys or barrancos that cross the island radially.
The Wikipedia article on whistled language notes, as does Burgess, that this is far easier when the reference language (should that be referent?) is tonal.


Burgess's suggestion that whistling is an older form of communication than speech made me think of a story in which a man is perpetually plagued by a whistling which only he can hear, and which turns out to be form of communication. Questions: what message is the whistling imparting, and what sin has he committed to be so haunted? One can imagine a half-comic moment in which a child's guinea-pig whistles from its cage and he starts back in horror.

'I know all that, my angry little weasel,' the barbarian replied, tugging the Mouser back. 'And the idea of Fissif escaping displeases me. but putting my bare neck in a trap displeases me more. Remember, they whistled.'
'Tcha! They always whistle. They like to be mysterious. I know these thieves, Fafhrd. I know them well. And you yourself have twice entered Thieves' House and escaped. Come on!'
From the story 'Thieves' House' by Fritz Leiber.


Not quite at Disraeli's level ('Many thanks for your book: I shall lose no time in reading it'), but impressive nonetheless, an Evening Standard blurb on the cover of Lipstick Jungle:
Candace Bushnell is some sort of genius.
Supply your own adjective.

Saturday 11 July 2009

Eric Ambler - The Levanter

Coming rather late to the online debate about Eric Ambler (see blog reviews here and here, and lengthy Guardian piece), I've just finished after some effort The Levanter, one of his later (1972) novels. Ambler is mainly known - to the extent he's known at all - for being a thriller writer of the '30s. I haven't read any of those, although Penguin Modern Classics have recently republished five of his novels to celebrate his centenary.

I first came across him thanks to a second-hand copy of The Intercom Conspiracy, which I bought about ten years ago and finally read about five years later: found it very good. The setting is Geneva; the protagonist is a hack who edits a specialist magazine which has no staff and is read by almost no-one, and then he begins to receive information, for publication, from sources about whom he's far from sure. Naturally this sparks the interest of other parties...I'm sure you can see how it goes from there. Apparently this trope of regular guy becomes piggy-in-the-middle for shadowy business and security organisations is a standard one for Ambler: certainly The Levanter follows that pattern.

What I admired about it was how thoroughly realistic it seemed. I'd worked in Brussels for an NGO (counting the commercial ones, there were estimated to be around ten thousand lobbying organisations in Brussels) and I was familiar with the milieu Ambler was describing of a city soaked in international politics, and of small publications and groups all trying to report on and influence decisions affecting their specialist field. The way that everything which appeared to be normal was slowly becoming subverted, undermined and threatened I found completely credible.

The Levanter, on the other hand, gave me problems. It has the same virtue of being a 'flat tire' thriller - while there is a plot, one doesn't feel that everything which takes place in the book is geared to driving it forwards. One feels that there is plenty of real life beyond the bounds of what is described and related, and that one could have an extended conversation with the protagonist about what happened, about all the things which are not told. No clunking of machinery here. That's no small achievement.

On the other hand, it could have done with another edit. It seems to take a long time to get to the meat of the story, as if Ambler was discovering the background as he wrote the first draft, and while this leaves the reader with a thorough grounding in Middle Eastern politics, business practices in the Levant and the character of the levanter himself, Michael Powell, there's simply too much of it. The realism weighs down the thrills. It pays off in the end, but as they sometimes say on Friday afternoons on fivelive, there's an awful lot of Shawshank before you get to the redemption. Granted, most of the story is told by Powell and he's a businessman and an engineer, as Ambler himself was, but...less, Larry. Less.

Here's an example:
Something had to be done quickly. The Howell reputation was at stake, and my own self-confidence had taken a beating. After an exceedingly unpleasant session with Hawa, I secured his agreement to my withdrawing all unsold stocks from the dealers. I also stopped production and did the quality-control research that I neglected to do before we started. Most of this work concerned the zinc containers. These were formed on jigs and had soldered seams. Obviously, faulty soldering would cause leaks, but the chief problem was with chemical impurities. For example, zinc sheeting of a quality that could be used for covering a roof would not necessarily do for battery production.
Etcetera, etcetera. There are people who lap up this kind of stuff - in fact Anthony Lane has said the reason it exists is to keep Americans of a Puritanical streak from feeling that they're wasting their time with frivolities like novels. (He quotes an instance of the narrative of one particular novel being interrupted thus: '[...] covering everything within a hundred feet (33 metres)') It has been done since, and better, in Smilla's Feeling for Snow, in which one learns quite a lot about ice floes and obscure jazz performances and diving and the techniques of spinal injection, although by the third or fourth time it would be nice to come across someone in the book who isn't a bloody expert on somedamnthing or other.

The other issue I have with The Levanter is foreshadowing statements, portents, warnings that things ain't gonna work out as they should. The only novel I've come across which uses them to the same extent and to an equal degree of teeth-grinding annoyance is The Book of the New Sun, which is incapable of closing a chapter without a gnomic utterance along the lines of, 'Of course, I was to break this, as well as many other confidences which had been entrusted me, in my time.'

Howell's part of the narrative opens:
On the fourteenth of May I was in Italy, and I wish to God I had stayed there.

Even an airport strike - if it had delayed me for twenty-four hours or so - would have helped. At least my ignorance would have been preserved a little longer. With luck I might even have escaped direct involvement. But no. I went back on the fifteenth and walked straight into trouble.
Which is not a bad opening, but I'm of the get-on-with-it school, and it irritates me. He's still at it in the penultimate chapter:
I had spent a long time thinking over what I was going to tell Captain Touzani and had rehearsed it carefully. Although I never supposed that he would swallow the story whole - that would have been too much - I had hoped that he would find it politic to pretend to do so. So I did my best to make it easy for him.

It was wasted effort.
I should have worried more about that walkie-talkie, seen the danger it really represented and so been better prepared to counter it.
All of this may be true to character - and you do get a strong sense of Michael Howell as worldly-wise, shrewd, equivocal, wanting to control every last detail - but it has the effect of yanking you back just at the time you want to be moving forward. My wife read the book before I did, and I asked her how she found it; she replied that she found it irritating to read but you still wanted to find out what happened in the end, and that's it in a nutshell.

It still won the Gold Dagger, but I couldn't recommend it wholeheartedly unless you're on a serious Ambler streak, are a thriller devotee who wants something a little bit different, or a businessman in search of a decent read, in which case all the technical stuff is unlikely to slow you down as it did me.

Friday 12 June 2009

Praiser of things present

I like this post from Michael Gilleland very much, although I feel something of a hypocrite in recommending it. Being job-free (for the present) is not unlike feeling oneself popping back into one's natural shape, like Tom moments after he's been flattened by a dustbin lid or an ironing board.

Monday 8 June 2009

The King's up against it

"He can't fight with a crossbow hand-to-hand, son. A crossbow's a range weapon, not a melee weapon. Get him a sword."

This is not the language in which one should talk to four year-olds, but it seems to be coming out of my mouth anyway. Once a gamer, always a gamer. Break out the d20. *Sigh*

Saturday 6 June 2009

God save me from my friends

David Langford, winner of multiple Hugo awards for his fiction and fan/critical/review writing, is being interviewed by a local television station during an SF convention. He is being asked about the geeky/unwashed/weird/social-misfit thing, or about poor writing or silly covers or unpronounceable names. And he goes on to give a reasoned and articulate defence of science fiction, pointing to the fine writing of Le Guin and Leiber and Ellison and Aldiss and Ballard, the classics like 1984 and Brave New World and We which the gatekeepers won't acknowledge as SF, the way SF reflects the contemporary concerns of modern society and is the only branch of fiction really to get to grips with technology as the defining force of the 20th century. He points to the number of scientists now working in their field because of the inspiration they got from people like Asimov and Clarke and Pohl. And he is beginning to wind up by saying, with a slight chuckle, "I mean, you mustn't assume that we're all - "

- and at that exact moment, someone wearing a Darth Vader mask walks behind him, repeatedly pulling the trigger of one of those guns that fires ping-pong balls and shouting "Kill! Kill! Kill!"

At which point the interviewer, and the audience, assume that we are indeed all.

(With apologies to the original teller of this anecdote in Interzone.)

Friday 5 June 2009

Bastardstone's part deux

Something about an earlier post was bugging me so I've cut it back. Whereof one cannot speak without foaming at the mouth, therefore one must be silent. Anyone who hasn't been shouted at recently is welcome to email me on the subject. Earplugs will not be supplied.


In defence of anonymity...

When I began this blog, or its predecessor, in 2005, it was as little more than a response to Joe's occasional pestering encouragement. I had no idea what blogs were and didn't really see the point in trying to write one, particularly as I didn't think that my opinion really counted for much.

Four - good grief - four years on, and I get the blogging thing, and I still just about manage to write one; I do so mainly to pass on something which I think is intriguing or entertaining to whoever might pass by, or to try to figure out what I think. In other words, for the usual reasons people write, in whatever medium.

I still don't think my opinion is worth much. That's my, my opinion, the person writing this. I really don't matter to anyone who doesn't know and care about me, and I don't want to. My life is my own, and small though it is, it ain't really any of anyone else's business. But the argument, the case, the choice of words, I believe matter a great deal, and they stand and fall on their own merits.

It's a question of the voice being important, not the speaker, and in a curious and intriguing way I find the voice of 'The Silver Eel' (the blog) has taken on a life of its own. If this seems like an abdication of responsibility I can only reply that I don't think it is. The (rather thin) anonymity puts the reader's and writer's focus on what is written, and therefore encourages a greater responsibility, a greater loyalty, to the text.

Medieval copyists left their work unsigned - they worked for the glory of God. Ideally, so should writers - no names, no covers, just works.

Of course, the above could all be horseshit; I have a rotten cold which is keeping me from sleeping, and possibly from thinking very clearly as well.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Alexander the Greedy

Some years after having bought it, I am reading Michael Wood's In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. I saw at least one episode of the TV series during its original run in 1997, and remember enjoying it. The book seems to have been worked up from Wood's TV notes; as travelogue it's pretty thin, but it seems a good introduction to the story and I'm happily eating it up. I am curious as to how Alexander beat the Persians three times - at the battles of Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela - with what to my untrained eye appears to have been exactly the same strategy: attack the right flank at its weakest point and then veer left into the body of the Persian forces. You'd have thought they'd get wise to it.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Free as a bird, poor as a mouse(r)

It is no great revelation to say that I was, until very recently, working for Bastardstone's, which was one of the reasons I blog anonymously and the secondary reason I didn't blog about work stuff - the main reason being that, actually, it warn't all that interesting. I prefer to focus on the things that sustain rather than those that sap.

However, in the light of my redundancy, along with a whole lot of other booksellers across the country, I am at least now free to say this:

[The body of this post has been editorially eviscerated due to excess venting of spleen. Vitriol of this kind will not be permitted. Fluffy bunny stuff like the following paragraph is okay - Ed. 05/06/09]

I enjoyed working with the books, and with a lot of the staff, and actually got to enjoy working with the customers a lot of the time as well - there's a simple but fundamental pleasure to be had from helping people.

But it's pretty clear now that the gargoyles have not only taken over the cathedral but have started pissing on the congregation and defacing the stonework. [Guess I missed this bit. Ed.]

In fairness to Bastardstone's, they are still trading where Ottokar's and Thin's aren't. But I can't help thinking of Mother Courage.


One of the good things about working from home (and anyone who thinks looking for work isn't work in itself has either never done it, or isn't doing it hard enough) is that I've been listening to a lot more of WSER. It's bloody good.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Simple trumps subtle part deux

From Conversations with Isaiah Berlin:
Of course, I think that professional philosophers are needed because if they are any good they do clarify ideas; they analyse words and concepts and the ordinary terms in which you and I think, and this makes a great deal of difference to the progress of thought. Perhaps freedom from thought would make us happier, but it is not attainable. Still, it is the basic difference between human beings and animals. Let me tell you a story which is merely an anecdote. The late Harold Macmillan told me that when he was a student at Oxford, before the First World War, he went to the lectures of a philosopher called J.A. Smith, a Hegelian metaphysician. In his first lecture to his audience of students, this professor spoke as follows: "All of you, gentlemen, will have different careers - some of you will be lawyers, some of you will be soldiers, some will be doctors or engineers, some will be government servants, some will be landowners or politicians. Let me tell you at once that nothing I say during these lectures will be of the slightest use to you in any of the fields in which you will attempt to exercise your skills. But one thing I can promise you: if you continue with this course of lectures to the end, you will always be able to know when men are talking rot." There is some validity in that remark. One of the effects of philosophy, if it is properly taught, is ability to see through political rhetoric, bad arguments, deception, fumisme, verbal fog, emotional blackmail and every kindof chicanery and disguise. It can sharpen the critical faculty a very great deal.
Now to follow, here's a story told to me by a colleague. The scene is an Edinburgh pub. Colleague and a friend of his are sitting at a table with the friend's father, a retired miner from Fife. They get talking to a couple of men at the next table who, it turns out, are Americans on vacation, and the conversation goes something like this:

Ex-miner: So what d'ye dae then?
Yank: We're philosophers.
Ex-miner: Oh, aye. Aye. [Pause] So...what is it ye dae?
Yank: We're philosophers. We study philosophy.
Ex-miner: Oh, right, right. [Pause] But what d'ye dae?
Yank: Well, we think about things, about some of the big questions in life.
Ex-miner: Oh aye. What like?
Yank: Well, like the difference between right and wrong.
Ex-miner: [after considering this] How old are you, son?
Yank: Thirty-two.
Ex-miner: So, tell're thirty-two...and ye dinnae ken the difference between right and wrong?

I thank you.


Restored after much shameful delay, a link to WSER Silver Eel Radio, created and presented for your delight by the similarly Leiber-loyal mrdeadbob.


Saw the film version of Christ Stopped at Eboli, directed by Francesco Rosi. Sadly, however noble the film-makers' aims, and however accurately the film itself reflects the book, it'll mean nothing to you if you haven't actually read the book first, as so much of the drama is internal. The memoir is basically about stasis: unsurprisingly, this doesn't translate very well to film.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Modern myth-making

From the introduction by Declan Kiberd to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ulysses:
The human need to make myths is very deep-rooted, since myths are symbolic projections of the cultural and moral values of a society, figurings of its psychic state. The French Revolution, which purported to put an end to all myth-making, instituted the myth of modernity, the notion of perpetual renewal which animated spirits as diverse as those of Ezra Pound ('make it new') and Leon Trotsky ('permanent revolution').

Standing on the verge of modernity in 1800, Schlegel [...] foretold the emergence of a new mythology, which would be less a radical act of creation than a 'collaboration' between old and new. Ancient myths embodied people's immediate response to their physical experience and were not seen as fictive by their adherents; but the new mythology would be abstract and aware of its own fictive status.
There is much more in Prof Kiberd's introduction which I find both interesting and useful (and some which I find simply baffling), but this part struck me as an excellent description of Alan Garner's work in Strandloper and Thursbitch. Strandloper even has what seems to me to be a self-referential line where one of the characters foretells the writing of the book, with an oblique nod to Garner himself.


I don't feel the reading of Ulysses is going too badly - seven chapters out of the way, though that only comes to about 150 pages. The more I read of it, and around it, the more I think I'm getting out of it; nevertheless, it feels less that one is reading it, more that one has engaged with it - or that it's moved in. I feel a little like Deep Thought - irrevocably committed to thinking about the ultimate question and unable to deal with anything else until the answer's been found. I am certainly finding that it changes the way you think and perceive, though I'm not sure I can articulate in what way. A Joycean way, I suppose. Whatever else, it's certainly an excellent whetting stone for the faculties - I'm reading Bleak House for light relief and finding that an absolute doddle by comparison.

Admittedly Martin Amis poses a good question - who on earth reads Ulysses? Not researches it, studies it, consults it - who actually curls up with it in bed?


Ulysses came top of the 1998 Random House Modern Library board's list for the 100 best novels published since 1900. A little pointy-headed, you might say, and I'd agree, but still preferable to the readers' choice of Atlas Shrugged. And if that gars ye grue, the non-fiction list is positively frightening. That's your argument in defence of pointy-heads and gatekeepers right there.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Room at the Bottom

We all know the joys of degradation. Perhaps I should rephrase that: We must all have lived through times when we discover it was pleasurable, even relaxing, to run ourselves down. […] Then we find ourselves in a place where we can wallow blissfully in our existence, our smell, our filth, our habits, the place where we can abandon all hope of self-improvement and stop trying to nurture optimistic thoughts about other human beings. This resting place is so comfortable that we cannot help feeling grateful for the anger and selfishness that has brought us to this moment of freedom and solitude.
From Chapter 36, ‘Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground: the Joys of Degradation’, in Other Colours by Orhan Pamuk:
A film still veiled his eyes but they burned no longer. A power, akin to that which had often made anger or resentment fall from him, brought his steps to rest. He stood still and gazed up at the sombre porch of the morgue and from that to the dark cobbled laneway at its side. He saw the word Lotts on the wall of the lane and breathed slowly the rank heavy air.
- That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.
From Chapter 2 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

Monday 23 February 2009

Simple trumps subtle

From Philippe Sands' review of The Liberal Defence of Murder in the Guardian Review section, Saturday:
Who can say, after all, the real reason that President Bush decided to go to war in Iraq, or what truly motivated a particular individual to lend support.
From Generation Kill, p. 241:
[US Marine Sgt. Antonio] Espera believes the whole war is being fought for the same reason all others have for the past several hundred years. "White man's gotta rule the world," he says.
Gee, Philippe, how hard can it be?

Friday 13 February 2009

Imagination leads, reality follows

On page 119 of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, we learn that according to Stanford archaeologist William Rathje's Garbage Project, contrary to what we might think, plastic accounts for less than 20% of buried waste by volume. The bulk of what is in landfills is construction debris and paper products. Newpapers, for example, don't biodegrade when hidden away from air and water. Researchers pull perfectly readable newspapers out of 1930s landfills. "They'll be down there for the next 10,000 years" says Rathje.

Now hear this:
Story-telling has its own kind of law and order, which can be in conflict with the emotional order of the storyteller. The tragedy of compulsive writers and bad authors is that they often put everything they have into their work but the work itself bears no trace of this. Writing was, after all, rather more complicated than it first seemed to me. This is fortunate. If it were not so, the world would have many more writers than it does today, and would drown in an avalanche of printed paper. Which may well be one of the ends that awaits it.
From 'How I Began', in the collection The Spirit of Prague by Ivan Klima.

The Spirit of Prague is rather mournful in tone - hardly surprising considering its author's life and times - and has a touch of "I told you so" towards its end, but it contains an awful lot which is inspiring, instructive and elegantly argued - and at 6.99 it's positively a steal.

However, the phrase "compulsive writers" strikes me as either ill-chosen or ill-translated. It's clear what Klima means, but anyone who writes does so out of compulsion - or delusion - be their output mean or profound.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Shakespeare Satori

The most intensive period of study in my life - so far - was for my A-Levels. For English Literature I suppose we studied about 6-8 key texts, one of which was Hamlet, so the damn thing is in there for good. From time to time I find myself thinking about it or drawing on it, and today it came to me that Hamlet's very last line, "The rest is silence", which can be taken to mean that Hamlet is saying, 'here is the end of my life and there is nothing more to be said - everything has been acted out - make of it what you will', can be heard as "Th' arrest is silence"; in other words, death is the end of speech.

This obviously resonates with the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, and it struck me that although Hamlet is a play very much taken up with and informed by ideas of death, most of what Hamlet does is talk, an activity solely the preserve of the living. At the end of the play, when he's confronted with the actuality of what he's so far considered exclusively in theory, he finds, ironically, there is nothing to say.

I've always had a problem, as I suppose many people have, with Hamlet's inactivity. Four or four-and-a-half acts of doing bugger-all, and then he finally gets it together. Laertes, by contrast, learns of his father's death and immediately sets out with sword in hand. But the whole revenge and retribution thing is really only what George Saunders calls the Apparent Narrative Device, and what he calls the dirt, the thing the writer loves to do and which the reader only gradually realises is the thing that s/he actually came for, is this exploration of Hamlet's character; this growing-to-awareness is actually what the play's about.

If this seems obvious to the point of scarcely worth mentioning, I can only apologise and cop to being a bear of little brain, but it did solve for me a problem I've had for twenty years. I may have been able to articulate the above argument before now, and for all I know I have done, but I think this is the first time I've had a solid gut feeling about it.

I doubt if I'd have come to it if it hadn't been for reading Sara Paretsky's Writing in an Age of Silence, wherein she says something along the lines of, we write because not to do so is to give in to death, and to those who would control our lives through our silence. (I paraphrase greatly.)

Incidently, if you haven't read Saunder's essay on Huckleberry Finn in The Brain-Dead Megaphone, I commend it highly. I admit to not having read any of the rest of the book, so can't say what it's like overall.


Having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man last year, and holding firmly onto Uncle Anthony's hand, I have begun Ulysses. On the advice of Marvin Exobrain, I started at Chapter 4, the Calypso episode, and have so far managed two and a half chapters. So far, it doesn't strike me as being beyond the capacity of the average reader, but by God you have to apply yourself to it, with full attention; also, I am gently tending toward the opinion of those who believe that Dubliners marked the high point of Joyce's achievement, with each subsequent book being more self-regarding and reader-unfriendly. I don't, so far, see anything which Joyce didn't tell us about ordinary lives in Dubliners, the advance (if one can call it that) being in technique. But I admit this is very early days and I am perfectly willing to be convinced otherwise.


I first came across Joyce in a conversation being held (appropriately enough) in the toilets of the student theatre during my first year at university: I remember the name Stephen Daedalus being knocked back and forth, and someone saying that Joyce believed (or possibly that Joyce demonstrated) there was no such thing as a boring person, someone whose life wasn't worth examining. It was a pocket-sized idea which I carried away, though most of the discussion was completely lost on me, and eighteen years later, reading Dubliners, it seemed to me to be entirely justified.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Female Agents/Carve Her Name With Pride

[This is a review I wrote back in August for Unfortunately there was a delay in the latest online issue being published (it's just out now) and due to time constraints Laura decided to drop some of the film material.]

Female Agents
is inspired - mark you - by a Times obituary spotted by director Jean-Paul Salomé in 2004. It celebrated the life and achievements of Lise Villameur, one of the few women Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents to have been honoured after the end of the war. “I wanted to pay them homage,” Salomé is quoted as saying. Now this counts as fair warning, twice over.

In the film Villameur is characterised as Louise Desfontaines, played by Sophie Marceau. With her brother, also an SOE agent, she is charged with assembling a crack team for a special mission. It is 1944: an English spy, a geologist who was gathering material vital to the success of D-Day, has been wounded and captured. The Germans holding him don’t know who he is or understand his importance – yet. He must be sprung. Desfontaines recruits two more servicewomen and a prostitute under a death-sentence for murder, none of whom has operational experience.

Cut to France: a rather dashing SS Intelligence Colonel believes, alone among his comrades, that the forthcoming Allied invasion will not be made at Calais but in Normandy. He needs proof, and knows the English geologist is there, somewhere...a report comes in of an unidentified man in a military hospital speaking English in his sleep, and the Colonel sets off to interrogate him. We should pause to note that one of the women in Desfontaines’ team left the Colonel standing at the altar two years ago in Paris.

Though the set-up is as ludicrous as the summary above suggests, there’s no reason to suppose, at this point, that Female Agents won’t at least entertain. Most of the film is taken up with the female agents’ increasingly frantic attempts to prevent Colonel Heindrich (yes) from reaching Rommel with the information he is gradually piecing together about D-Day, but the progression from one set-piece to another seldom generates any real tension or gives a clear sense of where, beyond resolving this McGuffin, the focus of the film lies. It looks, frankly, superb, but what appears on the screen far outweighs anything that happens there.

The incidental failings are numerous: a note which was begging to be burned, eaten or simply flung out of a window the moment it was written is left intact; the Gestapo torturers are surprisingly ineffective apart from the one time when the plot requires them not to be; four times a drawn pistol serves to remind backsliders of where their patriotic duty lies (none attempts to run at the next opportunity); the runaway bride, who freaks out at the suggestion of even seeing Colonel Heindrich again, is shortly afterwards attempting to date and kill him. When and how was she talked round? We don’t know.

Though the content is adult, the emotions are adolescent, save for those generated in a very few scenes by Marceau. Her character is determined to the point of being icy, and when her control breaks in moments of terror, fatigue or rage, she suggests what Female Agents could and should have provided: an understanding of what it must have been like to be squeezed between terrible necessities, and of the sacrifices people were prepared to make, voluntarily, without coercion and in full understanding of the circumstances and the stakes. Individual moral compromise is splashed all over, but that is not the same thing.

No such problem with Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), and no loop-holes of “inspiration”: we are told at the beginning that this is the story of Violette Szabo, and story – as opposed to spectacle - is what we get. London girl seeks French boy for the 14th July celebrations to appease her French mother; girl finds boy, a charming officer of the Foreign Legion. Will they...? Of course. This is straightforward, but pleasantly and effectively done, and provides the emotional background for what follows: recruitment by SOE, training and active service. It is clear that Szabo is fighting for home, liberty, honour, memory.

Curiously, while Carve Her Name is strong in all the areas where Female Agents is deficient (namely, character motivation, background and development; emotional involvement; a strong story arc) the film is so concerned to tell us who Szabo was that it doesn’t tell us much about what she did. Whatever else is said about them, the Female Agents do get up to a lot, though most of it closer to the A-Team than the reality of creating and organising networks, acting as couriers and collecting intelligence. Carve Her Name suggests all of this but never really explores it. More information, or simply screen time, would have been welcome. For instance, Szabo was in France for three months before her famous engagement with the Germans; in the film she has barely parachuted in. Similarly, we see her receiving codes and cyphers training, but she never actually sends a message. Barring its end, it seems an oddly inactive service and makes the story thin where it should be meaty.

Nevertheless, it is certainly a finished film in a way Female Agents isn’t. Virginia McKenna is proper and winning, with the early hints of strength shown to harden as her training progresses; the acting from the other leads, who include Paul Scofield, is good and often very good; the supporting characters support without need of formal introduction; the lighting is wonderful, especially in the interrogation sequence, craftily and movingly handled by image, suggestion and reaction; and the king-and-country coda is genuinely touching. The script does its job without really taking flight, which makes it overall a solid three- or four-star film, worth seeing without being essential.

On the other hand, if someone suggests watching Female Agents on DVD, resist.


Female Agents wasn’t helped by its English title, which in French was Les Femmes de l’Ombre (Women of the Shadows). This is clearly playing off L’Armée des Ombres (1969) by Jean-Pierre Melville, a flat, unglamorous portrayal of the French Resistance, much closer to the reality, filmed with a genuine artistic sensibility and now available on DVD.

Books: Carve Her Name With Pride by R.J. Minney continues to be in print; the latest (2006) edition is from Pen and Sword, price £8.99. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm is published in paperback by Abacus (2006), price £8.99; Atkins ran the women agents of 'F' Section in SOE and appears frequently in Carve Her Name With Pride. Leo Marks, who also appears unnamed in the film, eventually had his memoir Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941-45 approved for publication by the UK government in 1998 (latest edition Sutton, 2007, £8.99). He was the actual author of the poem “The Life That I Have”, which features in the film.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Old Rope Heated Over

Skimming and dipping, I came across the following:
the impression one has of his personality is that of a reserved and unsociable man, self-absorbed and, for no apparent reason, unhappy.
The writer of this, um, material is Javier Marias, from his book Written Lives, and the writer he's talking about is Rudyard Kipling. That's Kipling who lost his daughter aged 6, and lost his son aged, oh, I don't know, 17 or 18, and who was almost certainly blighted his whole life by the legacy of his thoroughly miserable childhood exile in England (see the autobiographical story 'Baa Baa Black Sheep', one of his most powerful and affecting). I understand Marias is trying to be playful and irreverent and mischievous, but unless he's also being ironic beyond my capacity to perceive, this is not only untrue and unfunny, it's simply pointless. Moreover, what writer isn't self-absorbed?

Initially I wasn't sure I wasn't missing something, so I took a look at the chapter on RLS. Several pages on how much of a cow Fanny (his wife) was. Oh God, we're not back to this, surely? Contemporaries and biographers have wondered long and loudly what Louis was doing with this apparently charmless creature, and the only possible response can be drawn from one of the early Stevenson essays on falling in love: the state and circumstances which draw two people together are often incomprehensible to observers, even as they absorb the actors, and that's just the way of it. Stevenson crossed the Atlantic and the whole of America to get to Fanny, with little money, no certainty regarding his reception and in pretty poor health. That, surely, says enough.


I was interested to see that Virginia Woolf thought Kipling belonged quite comfortably in a list of "great writers" with the likes of Defoe, Austen, Hardy and Trollope. Today he seems almost on the margins, remembered primarily as a children's writer, and by those with an India fixation or a liking for tales of imperial derring-do. I agree with very little of Woolf's concluding paragraph, by the way.


Faber have reprinted Nicholas Rankin's book on Stevenson, Dead Man's Chest, which I heartily and thoroughly recommend. £14.99 is steep given the rotten print quality, but if it's that or oblivion, I choose memory and eye-strain.