I know this isn’t how you read a book!

February 27, 2012

Lanchester’s Capital is making me feel snarky, like a chair I can’t get comfortable in. Brain keeps making unhelpful comments.

The new craze was for doing up basements…

[Why are you repeating that thing about the basements conversions as if you haven’t said it before? You wrote about it two pages ago!]

On a rainy morning in early December [you did this before], an 82-year-old woman sat in her front room at 42 Pepys [ffs] Road, looking out at the street through a lace curtain. Her name was Petunia Howe [no it wasn’t] and she was waiting for a Tesco [Tesco really? Really Tesco? Tesco Tesco Tesco] delivery van.

See? Unhelpful. Trying to enjoy it, can’t because of stupid snarky brain.

Since they were put in there had not been a single day on which Albert did not complain about them: literally not a single one from the day the road reopened to traffic until his sudden death [hm. what? read again. ok u mean ‘after’ not ‘since’].

English City banker Roger is talking to his German boss, Lothar:

‘They’re a good bunch,’ he said. ‘Work hard play hard, same way all kids are these days.’

‘Figures look pretty gut,’ said Lothar in a neutral voice.

[hang on.go back. who’s German? Why’s Roger speaking like Arnie Schwarzenegger?]

…Roger’s own PC, given over to email and IM and video-conferencing and his diary [ahhh… IM? this… it’s not quite right, is it? Shd b just ‘messaging’ or something surely?]

*puts down book, stares out of window*

[Tho now I realise my problem with Tesco I think! It’s not that they’re kinda immaterial – IM, Tesco – it’s just the neat touch that JL has in his essays of showing and utilising a connection with the everyday, your and my everyday, that other writers on the same subjects usually haven’t got, seems rather heavily deployed here, so that they become not descriptive but very mildly totemic, without really being usefully totemic, just ‘here are some modern things’.]

*picks up book. frowns*

[Must just get on with this. Plenty to enjoy, I’m sure. I’m only 28 pages in, just whizz through, don’t worry about what are really very minor stylistic things, find the stuff to enjoy, like… Well, it looks like something is going to happen – these notes being posted through people’s doors, the financial crash – so that’s good. I kinda enjoyed the banker going through his personal finance stuff in that chapter – it was a neat encapsulation of a type – tho it reminded me of The Bonfire of the Vanities a bit, and JL did all that high finance thing in Whoops! much much better, feels it’s a bit heavy handed here. Must ignore the fact that I keep thinking JL=Martin Amis neutral. Maybe that’s why the style keeps barking my shins. Forget MA.]

*concentrates on book*

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Also – spare a thought for the sleeping promo dept. They haven’t had an idea in two years.

February 22, 2012

oh – fyi


In Conversation With: John Lanchester

February 22, 2012

John, you’ve got a lot of credit at the bank with me. I loved Whoops! and the various attendant LRB articles that surrounded it. They were stylistically great as much as anything else: easy, intelligent, with a sharp ear for a neatly turned thought and phrase.  I learnt a lot.

And I remember liking The Debt to Pleasure a lot when I read it all those years ago. I’ve got that one about Shanghai lying around on my shelves – I haven’t read it yet (it was a present, I never get round to presents), but I’m keen to read it at some point.

So you’ll readily understand my consternation when I found out that your latest novel Capital was about a disparate set of people living and working in close proximity to each other. I tire of this premise! The close physical juxtaposition of different fates and fortunes feels like a concept loaded in favour of the author.  It’s not stretching far for its rewards, and feels heavily freighted with tacit ‘messages’. I’m sure it’ll be better than that! You’re a good writer. No, no, don’t thank me.

I did just read the first sentence tho: 

At first light on a late summer morning, a man in a hooded sweatshirt moved softly and slowly along an ordinary-looking street in South London.

No one but a writer could have written that sentence could they? I think it’s the hooded sweatshirt.

Softly and slowly… ordinary-looking street… 

Don’t worry. I’ma pour me a beer tho and sit down with it later. See how it goes. I’m sure it’s going to be great.

Thanks for the chat, John. Can you pick up the tab? I’m a bit short.


Comparing Meerkats

February 20, 2012

So I’m reading Apes and Ape Lore by HW Janson. I love this book! I’ve read it before but I got it out of the library again because there was a tiny reference to marginal snail combat in it that I was trying to truffle out. I ended up reading a lot of it again. It’s an exhaustively detailed catalogue of the history of the portrayal of the ape in medieval and Renaissance times. Much of it is a very careful working out of a taxonomy of ape motifs. The book as a whole expresses very well the virtue of going so deep into one relatively minute subject that it starts to blossom into all sorts of strange areas and become paradoxically inclusive. There’s plenty of room for anecdote: I particularly like the the Spanish-Galician story that relates how a man climbed into a tree in order to frighten the Saviour and found himself changed into an ape.

The chapter titles are very enticing as well:

Figura Diaboli: The Ape in Early Christianity

The Ape as Sinner

Similitudo Hominis: The Ape in Medieval Science

The Ape and the Fall of Man

The Fettered Ape

The Ape in Gothic Marginal Art

and so on. And of course it’s all related in a dry, droll academic style of the specialist.

I found a footnote that well expresses the soothing poetry of this sort of writing, with its German citations, the rather Quixotic romanticism of the pursuit for historic truth through MSS, the careful and accurate-feeling balance of assertion and doubt. In the main text, I was reading:

The Ecbasis captivi, probably the earliest animal epic of the Middle Ages (c.940), mentions the ape (simia deformis) and the monkey (cerula catta maris) in a few lines as keepers of the king’s bed and light, but does not let them take any part in the action of the story.50 <—————– footnote.

CANNOT RESIST THE FOOTNOTE. Even if it is an end-of-chapter note requiring the sort of digital dexterity normally only required for Fighting Fantasy books.

footnote——————> 50 Ed. Ernst Voigt (Quellen u. Forschungen zur Sprach- und Kulturgeschichte der GermanischenVölker,  VIII) Strasbourg, 1875, lines 654, 656. Erdman (Dtsch. Archiv. IV, 2, 1941) suggests a date of c.1040 for the epic. The term catta maris is of particular interest, since it is obviously a translation of the German Meerkatze (guenon) and thus represents the earliest reference to the latter word, at least a century before Hildegard of Bingen, who is cited in Grimm’s Wörterbuch and other dictionaries as the first datable instance of the term. The fact that the word was interpreted to mean “(trans)marine cat” as early as the tenth or eleventh century, would seem to throw further doubt on its proposed derivation from the ancient Indian markata, already protested by Fr. Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch d. Dtsch. Sprache, Berline-Leipzig, 1934.  

In case you’re wondering about the modern application btw:

Etymology:  < South African Dutch meerkat (Afrikaans meerkat ), transferred use of Dutch meerkat a long-tailed monkey of the family Cercopithecidae

The forms mier-cat , mier-kat , mierkat reflect the Afrikaans variant mierkat (with the first element altered by folk etymology after Afrikaans mier ant, termite).

Actually I’ve spent most of the time writing this trying to remember which Half Man Half Biscuit song has the line MEERKATS ARE CLICHED at the beginning. It seems to be from a live performance of You’re Hard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1999, but I can’t find any recording although I’m pretty certain it was broadcast on Radio 1 at the time.

I know it’s not the same, but here’s some Hildegard of Bingen chawn. Although like most medieval writers and philosophers she was more of an aggregator than originator, in her Physica she was one of the first people Classical or Medieval to emphasise the shared menstrual cycle of the primates with humans, singling this feature out from a more or less mystical/magical 6th century tract by the Egyptian Horapollo. Of course Nigel Blackwell transmutes the intense sadness of modern England to the gold of wry humour that enables us to get to the end of our natural life without recourse to our own hand. Nevertheless he can take a back seat for once:

lol the start of that video’s pretty odd.


Walter de la Mare – Another Ramble

February 14, 2012

A problem with London in winter is that the low sun leaves many streets unlit for much of the day. You get strange lozenged corridors of light, passing through the interstices of  buildings, or sudden golden and blinding boulevards appearing for half an hour, then as suddenly losing their magic. Some London squares net quantities of the sun for longer, and the current Crossrail work, with its impromptu demolished areas of brick dust and rubble, has opened up some unusual angles of visibility and light in novel places. Nevertheless, on a day such as today, with the sky a glorious, ringing blue, and the sun’s clear light transmitted without impediment of warmth through the cold and crystal air, the only thing to be done is to get out of London and into the countryside.

I’ve always liked England’s winter landscape: black, green, damp and stark, even in its darkness strangely lucent. I thought I’d take some poetry with me and first of all grabbed Hardy, but he wouldn’t fit in my inner pocket, so I subb’d in Walter de la Mare, some of whose short stories I’d read at the beginning of last year and liked a lot. I’d flicked through his Collected Poems before and enjoyed what I’d read, but as I had a train journey ahead of me I thought I’d go from the beginning and work my way through.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Intellectual and the Dog

October 27, 2011

One of he many great things about reading Empson is the regularity with which his intellectual wit produces the most remarkable imaginative conceits and insights. No matter how silly they may occasionally seem, there is always the strong sense of intellectual rigour, so that I disagree only cautiously and often as not find myself a few sentences later revisiting the point to examine further. It happens page upon page.

Of Voltaire calling Dr Johnson a superstitious dog:

The stress, of course, is on superstitious; with the stress on dog it would have seemed as rude then as it does now. Dog is unstressed because the phrase assumes everyone is some kind of dog, so that that is not the distinctive feature of Johnson. It is the pastoral idea, that there is a complete copy of the human world among dogs, as among swains or clowns.

The Structure of Complex Words by William Empson, from The English Dog chapter

The effect is to show how far the robust intellect need not fear either nonsense as obtuse argument or “nonsense!” as an accusation.


A Student’s Guide to the Prose of China Mieville

October 5, 2011

If you’re going to read China Mielville’s newish novel Embassytown you might want a few tips to help you through it. I’ll choose one paragraph at random and then go through how to negotiate it.

A complex, many-chambered place the angles of which astonished me. Everyone who had ever talked about my poise would have laughed to see me literally stagger backwards in that room. Walls and ceilings moved with a ratcheting machine life like the offspring of chains and crabs. A kind staff member steered Scile and me. Our party walked without Ariekne chaperone. I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart. I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them. More than I’d ever seen.

Ok forget the fact that the first sentence isn’t a sentence. Well, don’t exactly forget it, because it’s indicative of Mieville’s notebook style, just try to ignore it a bit maybe. I’m not exactly sure whether it’s a go at a ‘modern’ prose style, denuded of bourgeois fripperies of phrasing – it’s minimalism! – or whether such telegraphese is expressive of thoughts coming directly from the mind of the narrator, without any intermediary articulation. Up close and personal in an alien mind. Choose one, move on. You can say ‘hazy stab at a bit of both’ if you want.

Because there’s no description we just have to say ASTONISHED AT ANGLES and nod. After all, gothic ribbed vaulting is pretty impressive. That has angles.

There’s an odd subset of people/alien things you’re asked to imagine now. Here goes. Ready? “Everyone who had ever talked about my poise would have laughed”. Why are we being asked to imagine them? Not sure really. Wait, the narrator is female. Is this weird ‘teen girl’ style meant to be shorthand for ‘female’? Maybe gloss over this bit.

btw why is poise italicised? Hmm. Maybe it’s the equivalent of a recent French loan word in their alien tongue. I will say it PWAHZ.

I can’t quite do “to see me literally stagger backwards in that room”. I mean I know ‘literally’ is always easy pickings, but what’s it doing there? I think it’s quietly suggesting that “to see me stagger backwards” might be ambiguous, potentially metaphorical. Also somehow it manages to imply ever so slightly that it’s “backwards” that is open to ambiguity and that without “literally”, “stagger backwards” might be potentially be misunderstood as “stagger forwards”. Just silently take it out. It’ll be ok. Maybe it’ll be taken out for the paperback. Plain sailing now.

Or at least it would were it not for… well, never mind Embassytown, we’ve just hit PREPOSITION CITY. So the narrator and her group are walking into the room. Staggers back. Only preposition that really makes sense here is “out”. Well it doesn’t really make sense, but that’s the motion. But no, she staggers backwards in. No wait she staggers backwards “in that room” (which one? oh, that one). OMG THE ANGLEZ.

Ok! Description time! Welcome relief! “Walls and ceilings moved with a ratcheting mechanical life”. Shit! Sounds pretty cool! I wonder what that’s like! “like the offspring of chains and crabs”. Oh. Like that. Sounds painful. Cool man, cool. Chains and crabs, mechanical and organic, not sure whether this is metaphor or not but whatevs – got it.

“A kind Staff member steered Scile and me.” lol where. are they a golf buggy.

“I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart.” I could feel my bum.

“I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them.” Suddenly the author couldn’t be arsed. (Reminds me of the time I tried cycling home after a lock-in and plenty of whisky and ‘suddenly’ a parked car came out of nowhere).

“More than I’d ever seen.” Notice the way he balances the paragraph with non sentences at either end, lending formal symmetry to the whole.

The cumulative effect the short sentences have of building up the excitement and tension is well worth studying:

“I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart. I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them. More than I’d ever seen. Phone dentists. Do laundry. Bills.”

OK, I didn’t choose the paragraph at random.

And I do feel bad. Mieville does stuff I feel I should be interested in – genre experimentation and constructing places that are attempts to reach outside realist description, building stuff out of a non-rectilinear imaginative Lego. But unfortunately it’s shit.