Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Scratch and crow

Phil Nugent on the inclusion of one of Helen Hill's short films in the National Film Registry.

(Here's where you can get a DVD that includes many of Helen's films, including two of my personal favorites: "Madam Winger Makes a Film" [2001] and "Mouseholes" [1999].)

Kudos to Dan Streible and many others for making this happen.

Modern Calvaries

An unforgettable piece by Tony Judt at the NYRB on life with ALS:
I leave bedtime until the last possible moment compatible with my nurse's need for sleep. Once I have been "prepared" for bed I am rolled into the bedroom in the wheelchair where I have spent the past eighteen hours. With some difficulty (despite my reduced height, mass, and bulk I am still a substantial dead weight for even a strong man to shift) I am maneuvered onto my cot. I am sat upright at an angle of some 110° and wedged into place with folded towels and pillows, my left leg in particular turned out ballet-like to compensate for its propensity to collapse inward. This process requires considerable concentration. If I allow a stray limb to be mis-placed, or fail to insist on having my midriff carefully aligned with legs and head, I shall suffer the agonies of the damned later in the night.

I am then covered, my hands placed outside the blanket to afford me the illusion of mobility but wrapped nonetheless since—like the rest of me—they now suffer from a permanent sensation of cold. I am offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe; the Bi-Pap breathing device in my nose is adjusted to a necessarily uncomfortable level of tightness to ensure that it does not slip in the night; my glasses are removed...and there I lie: trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Always Hot Always Ready"

At the Sunday Times, John Carey reviews Philip Davies' Lost London 1870-1945:
The late-19th century was the heyday of ornamental sign-writing, before the advent of neon, and the hand-painted signs covering every shopfront appeal to all possible shades of public interest — those who wish to keep up appearances (“Gentlemen’s Hats Polished for Sixpence”), the desperate (“Hammer Guns and Automatic Pistols Bought, Sold and Exchanged”), the hopeful (“Our Noted Lucky Wedding Rings”) and the moribund (“Funerals To Suit All Classes”). Sunlight soap and Colman’s blue and starch are advertised even in blackest Bermondsey, which suggests that poverty did not necessarily mean dirt. The constant advertisements for patent medicines are a reminder that the average age of death in the East End in 1900 was 30, and 55% of children died before they were five. Signs outside eating-houses indicate keen competition. For fourpence you can get a rasher of bacon and two eggs in a coffee shop near the Tower, or a pint of tea, two slices of bread and a plate of cold meat in Borough High Street. Harris’s restaurant in Aldgate offers pork sausages with bread (“Always Hot Always Ready”) for twopence.


Is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"The small drama of opening and eating sweets"

At the LRB, John Lanchester ponders Britain's history as the preeminent creator of cheap chocolate:
[A]ll the great chocolate bars are British, and the first of them, and still my favourite, was Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, invented in 1905. Other great British bars appeared in a burst of heroic creativity in the 1920s and 1930s: the Flake in 1920, Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut in 1928, Fry’s Crunchie in 1929, the Aero in 1935, then in 1937 no fewer than three masterpieces, the Rolo, the Kit Kat and Smarties. All British inventions. According to Roald Dahl: ‘In music, the equivalent would be the golden age of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. In painting, it was the equivalent of the Italian Renaissance and the advent of Impressionism at the end of the 19th century; in literature, Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens.’

The ash-heap of history

At the Atlantic, James Parker on the decade's top ten pop culture moments.

Miscellaneous light reading round-up (I may be leaving out a few): Carol O'Connell, Bone by Bone (why do I like this woman's books so much? They are full of the most obvious writing flaws, page by page they are incredibly irritating to me - and yet they are still better than almost anything that's out there); Aifric Campbell, The Semantics of Murder (very good); John Connolly, Every Dead Thing (maddening in its jumping back and forth between stories, but ultimately really quite good despite implausibly huge number of serial-killered dead bodies - I will read the subsequent installments in the series for sure); random thriller-built-on-romance-chassis whose name I cannot remember; Morag Joss, Fruitful Bodies. Am now rereading Lee Child's The Killing Floor.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Obsessive Ciceronians

At the Sunday Times, a delightful review by Robert Harris of the paperback reissue of R. Shackleton Bailey's translation of Cicero's Philippics (I have been talking regularly about Ciceronian 'periods' in my style class this semester, and have had a bit of an urge to delve back into some orations - might be I should get a copy of this...):
Shackleton Bailey, known as “Shack”, who died in 2005 at the age of 87, was a Bletchley Park codebreaker who became the doyen of modern Cicero translators. He was also one of the great eccentrics of academia, famous for dedicating his edition of Cicero’s Letters to his cat (“Dono Donorum Aeluro Candidissimo”: “gift of gifts, whitest of cats”) and who allegedly resigned as a tutor from Jesus College, Cambridge when he was refused permission to cut a cat flap in his 16th-century oak door. (“His capacity for alcohol was vast,” noted his Times obituarist. “He used to stand on his head at social events.”)
Here is the direct link to the Times obituary.

Toy story

I have a slight yen for a fake hamster myself, but a fake hamster as a substitute for a real one is not a good deal.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wasn't Plannin' on Leavin'

Pistol Pete's song about evacuating for Hurricane Katrina. I first heard Pete sing this song at a memorial for our dear mutual friend Helen Hill, so it means something special to me - but it is a very good song in any case!

No bearing on reality

Virtually unprecedented week-long radio silence at Light Reading - I had no internet access at all over the weekend, and have barely been at a computer for the last couple days either. Lethally busy time of year! But a brief interruption in some frenetic last-minute commenting on student paper proposals to clear tabs, with a promise of some more posts over the next couple days:

Sam Amidon performs his lovely cover of R. Kelly's "Relief" (worth watching the whole 7+ minutes - that song is the second one he sings).

Stephen Covey moves e-book rights directly to Amazon for one year. (I could use a re-read of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People!)

Album of obscene Gillray drawings surfaces in archives of the former Home Office.

Unfortunately a subscription is required to read this wonderful and worrying article about the precarious future of the Adélie penguin by Fen Montaigne at the New Yorker. I saw only one Adélie the whole time I was in Antarctica, out of many thousands (tens of thousands?) of penguins - in that part of the continent, the chinstrap and gentoo penguins really have almost completely displaced the Adélies, which cannot breed in warming climes. The audio slide-show does not require a subscription - take a look at these pictures!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The rightness is all

Anna Clark has a great interview with translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky at The Millions:
TM: Together, you’ve worked your way through some of the greatest fiction ever written. What are the unique pressures you have as translators of fiction that is both beloved and so highly regarded?

RP and LV: The pressure comes more from the quality of the writing itself. There are two questions that it might seem quite proper for a translator to keep in mind, but that in fact will spoil the translation. The first is, “What will the reader think?” And the second is, “How do we say that in English?” A good writer does what he or she has to do in the writing so that it “goes right,” as Robert Frost put it. There is at least as much intuition as intention in the process. A good translator has to follow that process far more consciously than the writer and yet come as close as possible in the new language to the instinctive “rightness” of the original. The greater the writer, the closer you want to come. That is both the challenge and the joy of it. But exactly what that “rightness” is remains undefinable, which is why there is no such thing as a definitive translation.
I would love to dabble in some translation myself. French is the language I read reasonably well, but I (for reasons mysterious even to myself - desire to write spy novels, or perhaps to read Dostoevsky in the original?) took several years of Russian in college, and have periodically said that with a dictionary and an infinite amount of time I could read anything - it is more accessible to me as a literary language than as a conversational one...

Error correction

It was not, honestly, the most inspiring event in the world, although there were several priceless moments (audience question: "What is your most sentimental memory of Mr. Warhol?" - long silence - Mo Tucker [who is absolutely delightful], dryly: "I remember chasing him around the Factory trying to get him to give me $5 gas money to get home" - random audience member: "Did you get it?" MT: "Yes"!) - but I am still slightly in amazement that I just saw significant members of the Velvet Underground interviewed by an incredibly fatuous music journalist who reminded me why I do not read much music journalism!

Supposedly the event sold out online in 3 minutes and 20 seconds. It turned out to be a tie-in with The Velvet Underground: New York Art, which I think it will be worth my while to purchase, with the caveat that Lou Reed, as David Fricke quoted at him some inane casual remark of his own (on the topic of CCR) from an old interview, as part of a rant about inaccuracies in journalism said of the book's editor, "I love Johan but there are three mistakes on the second page!" (Or was it "two mistakes on the first page"?)

(The documenters and interviewers seem to have curiously little idea how the people who make the stuff actually think and behave!)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Penguin love

Tango creators propagate!

"Aesthetic promptings and hesitations"

From Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty:
He was wearing the same old jeans of their first date, which for Nick now had a touching anecdotal quality, he knew them and loved them; and a zipped-up tracksuit top which made him look ready for action, or for inaction, the rigours and hanging about of training.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


Just finished going through the copyedit on Invisible Things, slated for publication in fall 2010. I've got to write some kind of an author's note, but perhaps will see if we can stick in a dummy placeholder for now and add the real thing later on...

Here's a bit of a teaser (now that I have a bit more distance from this project, I can see via the list of place names that I really have written a book that I would very much like to read) - click to enlarge:

The Viennese literary coffeehouse

I was stymied after reading Jo Walton's new book the other night (it arrived in my office mailbox at a point of singularly low morale, as if in response to some unarticulated but profound wish for the book I most wanted to read in the world - thanks, Torie!) as to what I could read next.

I thought I might just read Walton all over again, but delving through the stacks piled up on the living-room floor dealt me Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew, which I read with considerable satisfaction.

(For some reason I have been obsessed recently with the possibilities of the sentence - I really need this sabbatical to start so that I can get some real work done! I went to the preliminary meeting last night at the Guggenheim for Tino Sehgal's new show "This is Progress", and had various conversations with other folks participating which made me realize that I am sort of uncomfortably bursting with ideas right now that I can only shed by writing books - I think the style course I've been teaching will find its way in the near future into a couple of essays, but that perhaps what I had thought of as two complementary book projects [notation of human behavior in bread-and-butter of the novel/transmission of forms of culture that are not best represented by conventional verbal forms of notation] are really a triptych [bread-and-butter of the novel/forms of culture resistant to notation/sequel to bread-and-butter that is not about epistolarity, the first and third person voices, etc. but is instead just about SENTENCES, unconventional and non-chronological ordering systems, the tension between aphoristic and narrative modes, etc.] that can only be achieved by multi-year sustained application of maniacal effort! ARGHHHHHH! I need to put myself into some kind of a trance state whereby the intellectually perceiving brain just communicates directly to the eyes and hands without the intervention of troublesome human-conscious mind - in fact I am going to go and move around the furniture in the living room now to create a better work area to facilitate this...)

Anyway, this site has a very good description of Bernhard's book, with a full excerpt of what is undoubtedly the funniest section, so I will instead quote the thought-provoking discussion of how the actors at the Burgtheater ruined Bernhard's play The Hunting Party:
The absolutely third-rate actors who performed in the play did not give it a chance, as I was soon forced to recognize, in the first place because they did not understand it and in the second because they had a low opinion of it, but being a makeshift cast assembled at short notice, they had no option but to act in it. They could not be blamed even indirectly, after the failure of the original plan to assign the principal roles to Paula Wessely and Bruno Ganz, for whom I had written the play. In the event, neither appeared in it because the whole ensemble of the Burg (as the Viennese call it, with a kind of perverse affection) joined forces to prevent Bruno Ganz from appearing at the Burgtheater. Their opposition was prompted not only by existential dread, as it were, but by existential envy, for Bruno Ganz, a towering theatrical genius and the greatest actor Switzerland has ever produced, inspired the ensemble with what I would describe as the fear of artistic death. It still strikes me as a sad and sickening piece of perversity, and an episode in Viennese theater history too disgraceful to be lived down, that the actors of the Burgtheater should have attempted to prevent the appearance of Bruno Ganz, going so far as to draw up a written resolution and threaten the management, and that the attempt should have actually succeeded. For as long as the Viennese theater has existed decisions have been made not by the theater director but by the actors. The theater director has no say, least of all at the Burgtheater, where all decisions are made by the matinee idols, who can be unhesitatingly described as feebleminded--on the one hand because they have no understanding of the theatrical art and on the other hand because they quite brazenly prostitute the theater, both to its own detriment and to that of the public--though it has to be added that for decades, if not for centuries, the public has been prepared to put up with these Burgtheater prostitutes and allowed them to dish up the worst theater in the world. When once these matinee idols, with their celebrated names and feeble theatrical intelligence, are raised to their pedestals by the mindless theatergoing public, they maintain themselves at the pinnacle of their artistic inanity by totally neglecting whatever theatrical potential they possess and shamelessly exploiting their popularity, and stay on at the Burgtheater for decades, usually until they die. After the appearance of Bruno Ganz had been prevented by the machinations of his colleagues, Paula Wessely, my first and only choice for the role of the general's wife in the play, also withdrew. Thus, having foolishly entered into a binding contract with the Burgtheater, I had to put up with a first performance that I can only describe as unappetizing and that, as I have indicated, was not even well intentioned. For, faced with the least displeasure on the part of the audience, the totally untalented actors who were cast in the main parts at once took sides with the audience, following the age-old tradition by which Viennese actors conspire with the audience against a play and have no compunction about stabbing the author in the back as soon as they sense that the audience does not take to his play in the first few minutes, because it does not understand it and finds both the author and the play too difficult. It goes without saying, of course, that actors ought to go through fire, as they say, for an author and his play, especially if it is new and has not been tried out before, but unlike their colleagues in the rest of Europe, Viennese actors--and especially those at the Burgtheater--are not prepared to do this. If they sense that the audience is not instantly enthusiastic about what it sees and hears after the curtain goes up, they at once desert the author and his play and make common cause with the audience, prostituting themselves and turning what it pleases them, in their infantile presumption, to call the premier stage of German-speaking Europe into the world's first theatrical whorehouse.
The rest of the passage is also well worth reading, but I must stop typing up rants and get on with my day...

The Order of the Elephant

Elephant-spotting in Copenhagen (FT site registration required).

Vile jelly

At the Sunday Times, Erica Wagner on the means of production:
Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote for more than four decades on an Underwood portable. For him, his machine was a kind of first editor. “If this typewriter doesn’t like a story, it refuses to work,” he said. “I don’t get a man to correct it since I know if I get a good idea the machine will make peace with me again. I don’t believe my own words saying this, but I’ve had the experience so many times that I’m really astonished. But the typewriter is 42 years old. It should have some literary experience, it should have a mind of its own.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


At More Intelligent Life, Anthony Gottlieb on the problem of error correction:
For a salutary reminder of how easy it is for well-known “facts” to be no such thing, even when they are often repeated in print, consider some of the entries in “They Never Said It”, a compendium of misquotations published in 1989. Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” (or anything like it). “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver” is a line from a play, not a quote from Hermann Goering. “Let them eat cake” began life in Rousseau’s “Confessions”, not the mouth of Marie-Antoinette. Voltaire never said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And there is no reason to think Abraham Lincoln ever said “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”—though it is evidently true that you can fool a lot of people for a long time with the aid of books. The quip “Too much checking on the facts has ruined many a good news story” has long been attributed to an American newspaper magnate, Roy Howard; needless to say, it appears to be an invention.

Stony places

At the LRB, Michael Wood on T. S. Eliot (with whose poems I was utterly obsessed from ages 11-13 or so - I have just been thinking about it as I spend the evening in a mesmerized trance of reading Jo Walton's excellent forthcoming novel Among Others, which is appearing too long a time from now even to have an Amazon link but is basically what you would get if you tailored Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy to be exactly the book that would most speak to me in the world, or at least to the grown-up version of my childhood self, complete with allusions among many others to Mary Renault, Josephine Tey, Anne McCaffrey, Plato and Tiberius/Sejanus courtesy of what I assume is Robert Graves):
[Eliot] tells his brother about ‘the kink in my brain which makes life at all an unremitting strain for me, and which is at the bottom of a good many of the things about me that you object to’. ‘Life at all’ is pretty amazing, and makes me think Eliot would have liked Hardy’s work better if he had paid attention to a poem like the one that begins: ‘For Life I had never cared greatly,/ As worth a man’s while.’ Of course kink and caring are different, but the sheer dissident simplicity of thinking that life is either all a strain or an acquired taste is certainly striking. Eliot’s description of himself as ‘within measurable distance of the end of my tether’ combines distress with elegance.


I am almost painfully in love with Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. Its bits are woven together in a silkwormish net-like quincunx, but this is a passage I find particularly evocative, not least because I spent part of Sunday morning wandering around the fields on which the first battle of Manassas was fought (coincidentally, it took place on the day of my birthday, July 21):
Why I went to Waterloo I no longer know. But I do remember walking from the bus stop past a bleak field and a number of ramshackle buildings to a sort of village, which consisted solely of souvenir shops and cheap restaurants. There were no visitors about on that leaden-grey day shortly before Christmas, not even the obligatory group of schoolchildren one inevitably encounters in such places. But as if they had come to people this deserted stage, a squad of characters in Napoleonic costume suddenly appeared tramping up and down the few streets, beating drums and blowing fifes; and bringing up the rear was a slatternly, garishly made-up sutler woman pulling a curious hand-cart with a goose shut in a cage. For a while I watched these mummers, who seemed to be in perpetual motion, as they disappeared amongst the buildings only to re-emerge elsewhere. At length I bought a ticket for the Waterloo Panorama, housed in an immense domed rotunda, where from a raised platform in the middle one can view the battle - a favourite subject with panorama artists - in every direction. It is like being at the centre of events. On a sort of landscaped proscenium, immediately below the wooden rail amidst tree-stumps and undergrowth in the blood-stained sand, lie lifesize horses, and cut-down infantrymen, hussars and chevaux-legers, eyes rolling in pain or already extinguished. Their faces are moulded from wax but the boots, the leather belts, the weapons, the cuirasses, and the splendidly coloured uniforms, probably stuffed with eelgrass, are to all appearances authentic. Across this horrific three-dimensional scene, on which the cold dust of time has settled, one's gaze is drawn to the horizon, to the enormous mural, one hundred and ten yards by twelve, painted in 1912 by the French marine artist Louis Dumontin on the inner wall of the circus-like structure. This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position? Near Brighton, I was once told, not far from the coast, there are two copses that were planted after the Battle of Waterloo in remembrance of that memorable victory. One is in the shape of a Napoleonic three-cornered hat, the other in that of a Wellington boot. Naturally the outlines cannot be made out from the ground; they were intended as landmarks for latter-day balloonists.

The discovery of Uqbar

Now I want to teach a class that will start perhaps with Kafka and then move through Beckett, Borges, Nabokov, Primo Levi, Georges Perec, David Markson...

So - Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius":
The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) "primitive language" of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty - not even that it is false. Numismatology, pharmacology and archeology have been reformed. I understand that biology and mathematics also await their avatars...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Up to three idiosyncratic majuscules"

Caleb Crain against camel case! (And more on intercapping).

Belated happy Thanksgiving - I am on the road and shortly about to run a marathon, for which I am truly thankful, only I would not be sorry if it did not always seem to involve getting up so early in the am!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Still or sparkling?

I am mildly averse to scandalmongering, but I cannot resist linking to this little piece about the death of Alan Bennett's female lover because it represents such a good example of how to deflect (if one were only witty and British!) an intrusive or impertinent question:
After the media furore over Bennett's reverse outing died down in the mid-1990s, portraits of the playwright and photographs of him posing with the painter David Hockney on the walls of Davies's tearoom were the only public clues to the pair's long-term relationship. Bennett, meanwhile, kept outsiders in the dark about his sexual preferences. When asked once by the actor Sir Ian McKellen at an Aids benefit whether he was heterosexual or homosexual, Bennett replied: "That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


this is so farfetched that I could hardly believe the email in my inbox - but my younger self would never have forgiven me if I did not get a ticket to this, although it will mean missing a talk that I really wanted to attend! Arghhhh, schedule conflicts...


I think I must go to this, it sounds so exactly my cup of tea, although it will have to be squeezed in before meet-up for early family dinner:

November 21 5PM Andrea Rosen Gallery
525 W. 24th St NY (212) 627-6000

Writer Shelley Jackson offers an illustrated lecture in applied necrophysics, with selections from the archives of the Shelley Jackson Vocational School of Ghost Speaking and Hearing-Mouth Children (founded 1898), including early travel writings from the land of the dead and recordings from the school choir’s Music for Stammererers. The mechanics of channelling the dead and the structure of the necrocosmos will be explained, with a brief refutation of certain errors made by fellow thanatomath Matthew Ritchie. Class will conclude with a collective attempt to channel the dead.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Re: sabbatical plans, I am wanting to write two books and do vast amounts of triathlon training in preparation for IMWI!

4 more Mondays

I teach Mondays and Wednesdays this semester, but Monday is my heavy day: so, four more Mondays and then (it is a strange thought - I have a sabbatical coming up!) I will not teach again until January 2011; I would guess I can scrape through the next four weeks somehow?!?

Light reading around the edges: three books of true excellence, and all (curiously) very much the sort of thing I would have liked to write myself in a slightly alternate life: Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, which is so funny I was actually regularly laughing out loud as I read it but which makes me also fairly glad I do not live in Geoff Dyer's head (but I am certainly now going to read D. H. Lawrence's book on Thomas Hardy, which David Bromwich was also praising recently); Denise Mina's The Dead Hour, which I do not know why I did not read much sooner (it has been hanging around here for some time, I have loved her previous books - especially the Garnethill trilogy - but had a spate a year or two ago of going slightly off crime fiction - however, it was a happy find on the shelf as I bounced off the walls Friday night with exhaustion and the mental insanity of mid-November in a very busy fall semester); and Daryl Gregory's Pandemonium, which is absolutely the sort of book I most perfectly love and wish I could write, only I am having - not a midlife crisis - a midlife acknowledgment that I will never write the books of Dick Francis, Lee Child, Charlie Huston, Mary Stewart, Charlaine Harris or indeed for that matter Daryl Gregory (the list is quite long, and includes my best-beloved practitioners of the Light Reading genre, with or without demons/vampires/zombies) - I highly recommend it, though...

The sequel

More Barthes:
. . . if you like words to the point of succumbing to them, you exclude yourself from the law of the signified. . . . My body itself (and not only my ideas) can make up to words, can be in some sense created by them: today, I discover on my tongue a red patch which appears to be an abrasion, or in medical terms an excoriation--painless, moreover, which fits in perfectly, I decide, with cancer! But examined closely, this sign is merely a faint desquamation of the whitish film which covers the tongue. I cannot swear that this whole little obsessive scenario has not been worked up in order to use that rare word, so attractive by dint of its exactitude: excoriation.

Effet bienfaisant d'une phrase ~ Beneficent effect of a phrase

From Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes:
X tells me that one day he decided "to exonerate his life from his unhappy loves," and that this phrase seemed so splendid to him that it almost managed to compensate for the failures which had provoked it; he then determined (and determined me) to take more advantage of this reservoir of irony in all (aesthetic) language.

Recap: "I like, I don't like"

From September 2007, the Dizzies challenge and my old response...


Reading Roland Barthes is amazing for many reasons, but the latest one is that by looking up the word decalcomania ("Fiction: slight detachment, slight separation which forms a complete, colored scene, like a decalcomania") I have learned the origin of the term decal!

(And: the decal craze of the late 1800s!)

The final assignment

for the class I've been teaching this semester on style:
In “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Sontag writes, “To snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble. The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility.” Adopting the form or mode of “jottings” – other “jotters” we’ve read this semester include Barthes, Koestenbaum, Sante and to a lesser extent Sebald – write a piece called “Notes on Style.” The notes should be ordered by some principle – numbering, alphabetization by keyword – that is neither chronological nor obviously logic-or-argument-driven. You are welcome to use quotations from Austen, Flaubert, James, Proust, etc. as illustrations, but you are not obligated to do so; examples from other spheres are also welcome. Be as vivid and precise as possible, and include at least one original “maxim” or “aphorism” about style or one of style’s affiliates as a self-standing item in your list of jottings.

Typographic errors

“I think sometimes that being overly type-sensitive is like an allergy.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The preamble to Cabinet's Speed Reading event:

(Picture poached from here. And a picture may or may not be worth a thousand words...)

It will be clear to anyone who knows me why I found the following text irresistible - the range of choices included everything from Gilbreth to Virilio - twenty-four of us read various bits and pieces - and in the meantime, a screen with images included an appealing and eclectic mix of stuff on the side (the film of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, record-breaking Rubik's Cube-twisting, speed stacking, cats running in an exercise wheel, etc. etc.).

Valéry Larbaud, "Slowness" ("La lenteur"; 1930)
for Paul Morand
There is a moving tribute to speed in this quote from Samuel Johnson reported to us by Boswell: “One of the greatest pleasures in life is to travel in a coach moving at full speed.”

Though this tribute seems outdated by today’s standards of speed, it touches us, first, because it brings to mind the image we hold of Doctor Johnson: a very tall man, very fat, very slow, hippopotamus-like, thus the thought is made heavy with eloquence, lexicography, and pomposity; next, because this statement was made in the middle of the 18th century at a time when modern speed only existed in the imagination and in people’s desires, as though they could sense it. A promised land toward which they strove as fast as their horses could carry them, and which they sought in this direction, through means of breeding and selection, hoping perhaps to eventually create a race of quadrupeds with winged hooves . . . Yes, this word from the ponderous Doctor summarizes for us the aspiration of those generations who, relatively close to our own, did not know our speed which we obtained through the domestication of fire and thunder, in creating bulls and soon after bees of bronze (the description of locomotives in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is equally moving).

* * *

Shortly after Doctor Johnson came Napoleon, who dashed toward this future and who still surprises us by the truly imperial speed of his maneuvers, due to the skillful economy of well-prepared stops, fast and well-fed animals, and grooms skilled at unhitching and rehitching in a matter of minutes. Had Caligula done any better? . . . He went away on a sailboat, and here, going round in circles in those remote years, in a place before railroads, riding at full speed on a “hell train,” on the high roads around the capital, the coach that carries, through fog and under the fine Parisian rain, Louis XVIII, aging, weary, and sick, sometimes closing his heavy eyelids on eyes that would never see Canaan.

* * *

The generation that was already born then enters the scene. The first steps were difficult, and the Poets sang that Man had mounted the bronze monster too soon. But in a few more years, the Emperor would sharpen the fine points of his mustache, waxed before the mirrors of the railcar-salon-throne-room that would transport him in twelve hours from Saint-Cloud to Vichy. His pretty train—which must have been blue, white, and pink, or blue, white, and mauve like the uniform of the Cent-Gardes cavalry—preceded, and for us, followed, Waltman’s snowplow locomotive, Jules Verne’s Transcaucasian railway, and Rudyard Kipling’s Compounds.

* * *

But the railway cars and the car compartments, especially the first-class compartments, the sleeping cars, and the salon cars, grew weary—one always wants more than one has—of politely following behind the monster, who had become all too familiar and who smoked too much. Like city dwellers and the high and mighty, they felt nostalgia for the country and for pastoral life. They wanted freedom, anonymity, adventure, and horizons without cities or train stations. One night, toward the end of the 19th century, taking advantage of an unexpected stop in the middle of a field and close to a railway junction that someone had forgotten to close, the first-class compartments—which were brand new but without a hallway, and displeased with having been created based on an old model—escaped, scattered, and—finally!—took to the Open Road; the road with neither tracks nor railway switches, the road that branched out in all directions, through all of Europe’s shrubberies, and through the path of school children walking home chewing their crust of bread.

Some died from it, but the others were much the better for it, and increased in strength and speed, and had many children, even more vigorous and fast than their parents, and some of which would grow until they reached the dimensions of the original railway car. The species proliferated and grew into new varieties: there was a flying race, a warrior race, an amphibious race. But it is the road race that reproduces most easily today—too easily, in fact, for our tranquility.

For the automobile’s greatest days were those when the machine already had all of its organs, which functioned without risk for man who steered it, but the species had not yet multiplied to the point of creating the traffic jams we endure in large cities. Back then, the Limousines and Landaus were coaches that had plenty of space, found the street free before them, and ruled the road.

At that time, the encounter with another automobile in the middle of nowhere—“Hey, some comrades!”—was a genuine event, like the encounter of two ocean liners on the high seas. Back then, in the cities in which one stopped in the course of a journey in an automobile, one visited train stations with a sense of scorn.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Drives superb"

At the Guardian, Hilary Mantel on where ideas come from.


An absolutely heavenly evening of theatergoing last night, though I am at this point in the week now so tired that I am looking at the time and wondering whether I might not go to bed at eight o'clock!

The play was Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water, and it was extraordinarily good in every respect. McCraney has invented his own idiom - it is hilarious, it is touching, it is mythic, it is altogether delightful - interesting, too, to see how this one picks up some tricks from the in certain respects quite tonally different Wig Out! I of course especially love it that he has invented a way to include third-person stage directions as part of the words spoken on stage - honestly, though, if you see only ONE thing this fall, go to the Public Theatre and see one or both of these plays (I loved The Brothers Size when I saw it two years ago - with Brent! - but if anything this one is even better - the contrast to the Robert Wilson production the night before is especially painful to contemplate, not least because the use of music and dance in this one is so superb).

And a divinely good meal afterwards, too, at Indochine (spicy beef salad, an entree special of grilled striped bass with sauteed greens, a ridiculously tasty dessert of steamed Vietnamese coffee cake with bourbon ice-cream and coffee granita): a two-for-two night, which does not happen as often as you might think!

"I used to have a map"

At the Washington Post, Neely Tucker profiles Edward P. Jones (link courtesy of The Millions).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brain food

"Nutritious brains"!


Went with my Clarissa students to see Quartett at BAM this evening. Some lovely moments: Isabel Huppert is a sight to behold, and I am fascinated by this notion of transforming Laclos's portrait of eighteenth-century libertinism for the modern stage (but can it really be that Heiner Müller never finished reading the whole of Dangerous Liaisons, as the program suggests? It is not a long novel!). But I found the music utterly awful. Embarrassingly awful! That spells ruination for the production as a whole, since it so much depends on the successful evocation of a sensibility.

(The only other Robert Wilson production I have seen, also at BAM, was much more effective - it was the 2002 Woyzeck - what was happening on stage was quite similar, and Isabel H. is the superior actor, quite mesmerizing at moments - but the Tom Waits music, performed live by a real orchestra, was so lovely in that case that it really brought the whole thing to life for me in a way that worked. The techno moments in this current production really made me squirm, but more generally even the snippets of classical stuff seem banal and thinly imagined - live music, for me, would have made a huge difference, as what was happening on stage was highly watchable, and the language and concept are engaging.)

I have hardly read any books recently! Or, rephrased, I am reading a lot for work stuff and between that and the Worm Triathlon's brain-tunneling effects plus marathon training obsessions, there has not been a lot of Light Reading going on round here. Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December was slight, a disappointment to me as I really loved his last one; William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms was better (and tapped into standard academic's fantasy of walking away from current life for something completely different and under the radar), but not his best. My Columbia colleage Mark Taylor's Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Living and Dying is an unusual and interesting book that really caught my attention, despite the fact that I am not its ideal audience (too pragmatic, more on the ethical and less on the metaphysical/existential end of intellectual pondering).

There is a passage on idleness that particularly resonated, and that I will share here (I was going to say "that I will share when I am less fatigued," but in fact it is precisely the things that make the passage speak to me that mean I am now unable not to transcribe it given that I have mentioned it!):
Nothing is harder for me to do than nothing. The issue is not merely psychological -- it is metaphysical, ethical, even religious. I guess my problem with doing nothing shows how deeply Protestant I remain. I have never been able to forget my grandmother's severe warning to me when I was a child: "Idleness is the devil's workshop." For her the idle person was not merely lazy but shiftless, useless, worthless. As the work of the devil, idleness, I was taught, is sin and sin, of course, breeds guilt. Even today I never feel more guilty than when I am doing nothing. I doubt I will ever completely overcome this sense of guilt and, indeed, sometimes I'm not even sure I want to do so.

What makes idleness so dangerous and thus so tempting is its purposelessness. Idleness, like play, has no end other than itself. If you can explain why you are idle, you are not idling. Redemption from this sin, my grandmother drilled into me, comes from work. That is why she always kept me busy--sometimes working, sometimes playing, or what she thought was playing. The problem was that my grandmother never really understood how to play. Forever suspicious of idleness, she had the remarkable ability to transform play into work, and she somehow managed to pass on this talent to her daughter, who in turn passed it on to me.

Monday, November 09, 2009

"Put to bed in felts"

If I were a true book collector, this would be a book I would think I must have! (As I am, though, really I just covet the linotype machine! But I might order a copy anyway - does the non-deluxe edition have thumb tabs?)

(Link courtesy of Matthew Battles.)

On curiosity

I just learned, in an email from my department chair, of the death of a much-valued colleague, Karl Kroeber. Karl has been seriously ill for some time, and I heard at the end of last week that he was in hospice care at his home, but the news still comes as a blow.

If you have a few minutes, go and read this wonderful interview that Adam Katz and Josh Schwartz did with Karl for Columbia's Bwog a few years ago - it really gives the flavor of his interests and character and his wonderful restless roving intelligence...

Karl made a very lovely gesture upon his retirement last spring. It is common in such circumstances for the university to host a lavish but exclusive party, usually for an elect group of senior colleagues. But Karl observed that the people he'd learned the most from at Columbia were in fact his junior colleagues, that reading their work for various reviews (tenure and otherwise) was what kept him abreast of interesting new developments in various fields and that really he would much prefer to take his younger colleagues out for a really lavish lunch at Terrace in the Sky! And that was what happened - it was a true valediction.

"The same goes for the bed"

From Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (translated by John Sturrock):
We generally utilize the page in the larger of its two dimensions. The same goes for the bed. The bed (or, if you prefer, the page) is a rectangular space, longer than it is wide, in which, or on which, we normally lie longways. 'Italian' beds are only to be found in fairy tales (Tom Thumb and his brothers, or the seven daughters of the Ogre, for example) or in altogether abnormal and usually serious circumstances (mass exodus, aftermath of a bombing raid, etc.). Even when we utilize the bed the more usual way round, it's almost always a sign of a catastrophe if several people have to sleep in it. The bed is an instrument conceived for the nocturnal repose of one or two persons, but no more.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Two by Perec

The first image is from Portrait(s) de Georges Perec; the second is from Ian Monk's translation of "The Exeter Text" in Three by Perec.

"He that writes of himself, not easily tir'd"

From Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian:
It often makes me smile, to think how contentedly I have sate myself down, to write my own Life; nay, and with less Concern for what may be said of it, than I should feel, were I to do the same for a deceas'd Acquaintance. This you will easily account for, when you consider, that nothing gives a Coxcomb more Delight, than when you suffer him to talk of himself; which sweet Liberty I here enjoy for a whole Volume together! A Privilege, which neither cou'd be allow'd me, nor wou'd become me to take, in the Company I am generally admitted to; but here, when I have all the Talk to myself, and have no body to interrupt or contradict me, sure, to say whatever I have a mind other People shou'd know of me, is a Pleasure which none but Authors, as vain as myself, can conceive.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

"Dance capsules"

At the Times Magazine, Arthur Lubow on the fragility of modern dance:
Unlike drama and music, which also unfold in time, dance is not dictated by a written script or score. Although choreographers may sketch out a work for themselves with notes, dance is still taught primarily by one dancer to another, “body to body,” as the saying goes, the way the arts were transmitted in ancient cultures. A sculptor’s blocks of stone or a painter’s pigments are paragons of stability compared to the human clay that the choreographer molds.

Friday, November 06, 2009

"The habits and the aura of a student"

At the Rumpus, Jeremy Hatch provides wonderful excerpts from Sigrid Nunez's memoir about Susan Sontag. Nunez's thoughts on Sontag's contempt for teaching strike me as very perceptive (I come at it, of course, from quite a different point of view!).

(NB I was teaching Sontag's "Notes on Camp" in class this week, together with the demented style miscellany - it is truly a bravura performance...)

(Further thought: I was party to a recent discussion about Kenneth Koch that included the suggestion that he must have been one of the most influential teachers of his generation, not least though also not exclusively in terms of significant writers thinking of themselves as his students after having officially or unofficially studied with him at Columbia - it gave me cause to think about how influence passes strongly through contact inside and outside the classroom as well as through published books - I think that I have sometimes undervalued teaching as opposed to writing, but that the two are in a best-case scenario truly complementary. Of course, student-teacher relationships at Columbia or otherwise are often complex! The letter in which Trilling expresses his dislike for his former student Ginsberg's Howl was described to us very vividly last week [we were having a session for the seminar I'm teaching this semester on Richardson's Clarissa] by the Curator for Literature at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia, which is what caused me to look for that piece just now....)

"Nothing of the costly showiness of Proust and Virginia Woolf"

At the Guardian, Stefan Collini has a very good piece on the new volume of Eliot letters:
Much of Eliot's editorial correspondence deals with what, to anyone who has any experience of literary journalism, will be bound to appear as the familiar constants, almost the universals, of the trade. Here, over and over again, is the desperate last-minute scramble to meet (or sometimes not quite to meet) the deadline for the current issue, followed by repeated resolutions to have the material ready in good time for the next issue. Here, in dispiriting quantity, are examples of the various ways of sucking up to eminent potential contributors, of well-meant evasiveness with lesser supplicants, and of tactful dealings with imposssibly difficult authors (Wyndham Lewis wins the prize). Here, too, are the familiar grumblings about the inefficiency of printers, the usual unrealistic fantasies about circulation and the vehemently expressed regrets at ever having taken on such a doomed and life-destroying enterprise in the first place.

Apologising to one contributor for the fact that, a year after being accepted, his article had still not been published, Eliot tried to enlist his sympathies: "I can only say that there are others – in fact nearly all of my contributors at one time or another – whom I do not dare to meet in the street. Conducting a review after 8pm in the back room of a flat, I live qua editor, very much from hand to mouth, get myself into all sorts of hot water and predicaments, and offend everybody. At the end, the review is squeezed together somehow, and is never the number that I planned three months before." In this case, he promised the article would be published "early next year"; in the event, it never appeared.

"They're speaking in a moron language"

Writers' habits (courtesy of TEV).

Birds of Brazil

At the Times, a lovely obituary for self-taught ornithologist William Belton:
Mr. Belton’s recordings, many of which can be heard online, embrace the firm boink-boink-boink of the dark-billed cuckoo, the amiable squik-squik of the white-eyed foliage-gleaner, the wistful rising halftone — D sharp, E — of the solitary tinamou, and much else. On most recordings, the voice of Mr. Belton can also be fleetingly heard.

The bird names alone read like found poetry. Mr. Belton recorded, among others, the variable screech-owl and the southern screamer; the freckle-breasted thornbird, the sooty-fronted spinetail and the rufous-browed peppershrike; the cattle tyrant, the masked yellowthroat and the piratic flycatcher; the squirrel cuckoo, the laughing falcon, the pectoral sandpiper and the gilded sapphire.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"No one has lived a more useful seven years"

The smell of rubber cement hangs about these pages - I lack a sense of proportion, I am cramming a whole semester's worth of reading into a single day's xeroxed style miscellany in class today - I might dole out some more of these bits and pieces over the next few days, though...

Selection and juxtaposition

I linked to this piece some years ago, but it bears repeating, I think; at the TLS, Alan Hollinghurst on the novels of Ronald Firbank:
where Proust, at just the same time, was expanding the novel to unprecedented length to do justice to his narrator’s complex world and his complex consciousness of it, Firbank had arrived at an aesthetic which required almost everything to be omitted. Where Proust, a fellow observer of upper-class society and sexual ambivalence, worked by the endlessly exploratory and comprehensive sentence, the immense paragraph, the ceaselessly dilated book, Firbank laboured to reduce – not merely to condense but to design by elimination. “I am all design – once I get going”, he wrote. “I think nothing of filing fifty pages down to make a brief, crisp paragraph, or even a row of dots.” He constructed in fragments, juxtaposed without any cushioning or explanatory narrative tissue. Both Proust and Firbank loved describing parties, but where Proust’s parties are occasions for infinitely fine analysis and profound digression, Firbank’s are an abstract mosaic of impressions, in which human intercourse is enacted as a kind of coruscating nonsense. One of his most striking inventions was the depiction of a party as a montage of unrelated fragments, picked up as if by a roving microphone: “Her dull white face seems to have no connection with her chestnut hair!” “ . . . with him to Palestine last spring. Oh, dear me, I thought I should have died in Joppa!” “You mix them with olives and a drop of cognac.” [. . . .] “The only genuine one was Jane.” “. . . poison.” “. . . fuss . . . .” “My husband was always shy. He is shy of everybody. He even runs away from me!”.


Firbank worked in fragments all the way through, amassing phrases in notebooks, and supposedly compiling his early novels on narrow horizontal strips of paper, which could be shuffled and rearranged in a way that sounds prophetic of much later experiments with the cut-up. Everything depended on the instinct for selection and juxtaposition. The Jamesian challenge of “free selection – which is the beautiful, terrible whole of art” has not been abandoned, but the terms that govern that selection have been radically revised. There is a paradoxical feeling, especially in his earlier and more experimental novels, that almost everything on the page is irrelevant and yet that nothing could be omitted. The exclamatory inconsequence of social conversation is deployed as a kind of screen, through which the attentive reader will discern hinted patterns, the intermittent unfolding of an anecdote or a joke. As a means of depicting social life in which any contact is transient and any shared understanding unlikely, the technique is wittily appropriate. Had James read Vainglory, when it came out on his seventy-second birthday, he would have found it to infringe almost every canon of Jamesian law – no centre of consciousness, no unity of effect, no “action” – though he might have hesitated to call it loose and baggy when it was so agile, so indirect, so evidently if so mysteriously “designed”.

Professional development

From Oscar Wilde, "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young":
There is something tragic about the enormous number of young men there are in England at the present moment who start life with perfect profiles, and end by adopting some useful profession.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Dick Francis is a brand"

At the Age, Karl Quinn interviews Felix Francis on taking over his father's fiction franchise. Today is Dick Francis's 89th birthday, by the way - many felicitations to one of my particularly favorite writers!

Clarence as Moby-Dick

Winners of the New Yorker "Critterati" contest - dress your pet as a character in literature (courtesy of my former student Emily Colette Wilkinson).

Radical condensations of interior vacillation...

Internet-prompted reading crisis spurs CAAF to devote the month of November to reading nothing but Herman Melville.

Speed reading

When I first got an invitation to participate in this event, I knew I had to be a part of it!

Sponsored by Cabinet Magazine, it's part of the Performa festival. Event description: "A 90-minute relay race of sorts, featuring 25-35 writers and artists who will take turns reading aloud short texts related to the theme of speed while running on three treadmills positioned side-by-side. The velocity of the treadmills will be controlled by the Speed Demon, the somewhat sadistic MC who will oversee the performance."

Saturday, Nov. 14 at 6pm at Definitions Gym, 19 Union Square West (at 15th St.) - note corrected time

The dead speak

Caleb Crain revisits the to me utterly fascinating question of how John Keats actually talked.

(This post is a nice small example of how Caleb uses his blog to organize and annotate his more official publications.)

Also recommended: Lynda Mugglestone's Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol. And there is a magical essay by Peter Holland, "Hearing the Dead: The Sound of David Garrick," in Players, Playwrights, Playhouses.

Bonus link: Marco Roth has a really lovely piece at n+1 about Caleb's self-published collection of blog posts The Wreck of the Henry Clay.

Sex and the single snail

At the Independent, a brief review by Christopher Hirst of Peter Williams' Snail. The table of contents at the University of Chicago Press website makes me think I really should get a copy of this one...

The trouble with gin

Geoff Dyer has a very interesting piece at the Guardian on John Cheever's journals (the whole piece is well worth reading in its entirety):
What he does not say – how could he? – was that the forms in which he gave dramatic expression to this sense could be enlarged manifestations of confinement, that the hard-won craftsmanship that stood him in good stead at the New Yorker worked against his being able to plumb the complex depths of his being. Only in the shapeless privacy of his journal could he do that. If he was "writing narrative prose" Cheever believed that "every line cannot be a cry from the heart". So he stopped crying. In the journals, meanwhile, he wept "gin tears, whiskey tears, tears of plain salt" and stopped worrying about narrative. The irony is that, while he was instinctively hostile to the splurging of "the California poets", his own best writing would derive from a sustained 40-year word-binge with no thought of form or – at least until very near the end – of publication. A further irony follows: the consummate craftsman ended up being reliant on the posthumous intervention of an editor to turn this repetitive mass of bellyaching, "booze-fighting" and self-lament into a book with immense narrative power.

New wrist joints

At Science News, Rachel Ehrenberg on phantom limbs (link courtesy of GeekPress):
Seven people who had an arm that had been amputated above the elbow were encouraged to learn a particular arm movement that defies biomechanics — turning a hand that’s bent 90 degrees at the wrist the last quarter of a full turn that the hand won’t do. The study participants practiced by imagining that they were moving the phantom limb for five minutes per hour every day until they had achieved the impossible movement or had given up (this took one to four weeks depending on the individual). Four of the participants were successful in feeling the sensation of the impossible movement, the researchers report.

“This shows that body image is constructed in a dynamic manner — it can be changed,” says V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. Previous work by Ramachandran and others has shown that the sensation of a perpetually clenched and painful wrist that often accompanies a phantom limb can be relaxed with a mirror-based therapy: the patient clenches and then unclenches the remaining hand while looking at a boxed mirror that makes it appear both arms are intact. By visualizing both hands unclenching, the patient feels a release in the phantom limb.

To corroborate that the individuals had really learned the new movement (after all, the scientists couldn’t see the phantom limbs) the researchers had them perform a task known as left-right hand judgement before and after their training. The ability to twist the phantom wrist in a new way allowed the participants to react to this task faster than they could before they had learned the impossible move.

Each of the participants who achieved the impossible move also described developing a new wrist joint that allowed the impossible movement. And three of the four reported that moves that were previously possible for the phantom limb were now difficult with their new wrist.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Those pushpins, you wouldn't believe how small they are"

At the New Yorker, Richard Brody on the stop-motion animation of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox production (subscriber only):
Anderson wanted the figurines to have "a believable sort of finish, a lifelike quality," according to Andy Gent, the puppet master. Although the largest of the figurines were only about eighteen inches tall, their fur was, indeed, fur (which, Gent said, came from "safe sources," suc as "food production"). They had been crafted for maximum pliability of expression: Mr. Fox's eyes were poseable, and his foam-latex face had a jointed framework that could register the slightest sneer or snarl or raised eyebrow. Moreover, the figurines had tailored clothing, made with fabric. (Anderson designed the clothes himself, having his own tailor send fabric samples. He has a suit made from the same corduroy as Mr. Fox's.) In closeup, not only are the buttons on Mr. Fox's white shirt visible; so is the stitching on the edge of the collar.

Molly Cooper, the film's co-producer, told me, "Wes wants the references to be from the real world. A desk actually has a coffee stain, piles of papers, things you'd have in a real-world setting." Standing before the set of the supermarket, which is filled with hundreds of miniature boxes and cans and bottles and jars, Anderson told Dawson, "Stores don't put bread in the refrigerator." Dawson joked, "Here they do," and Anderson responded, "I'm saying a serious thing. Maybe we shouldn't have bread in the refrigerator." Another set featured a miniature piano, whose keys could be depressed individually, so that, when a figurine played, the motions matched those of the real performance being heard on the soundtrack. The walls of one character's office were lined with tiny cards that Anderson had based on the scheduling board in the film's production office. On his computer, he'd shown me a still frame of that set and said, gleefully, "Those pushpins, you wouldn't believe how small they are."
Also (courtesy of Wendy): miniature city in The Hague reduces everything to a fraction of its original size! (And I wouldn't mind seeing Miniatürk, either...)

Monday, October 26, 2009

The orchard and the cupboard

Marcel Proust, "Combray," Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis:
My aunt effectively confined her life to two adjoining rooms, staying in one of them in the afternoon while the other was aired. These were the sorts of provincial rooms which--just as in certain countries entire tracts of air or ocean are illuminated or perfumed by myriad protozoa that we cannot see--enchant us with the thousand smells given off by the virtues, by wisdom, by habits, a whole secret life, invisible, superabundant, and moral, which the atmosphere holds in suspension; smells still natural, certainly, and colored by the weather like those of the neighboring countryside, but already homey, human and enclosed, an exquisite, ingenious, and limpid jelly of all the fruits of the year that have left the orchard for the cupboard; seasonal, but movable and domestic, correcting the piquancy of the hoarfrost with the sweetness of warm bread, as lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving and orderly, heedless and foresightful, linen smells, morning smells, pious smells, happy with a peace that brings only an increase of anxiety and with a prosiness that serves as a great reservoir of poetry for one who passes through it without having lived it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Dear Sir, Am I alone in thinking. . . .?"

Unpublished letters written to the Telegraph:
SIR – I find it intensely humiliating to be asked by airport security staff if I have packed my own bag. This forces one to admit, usually within earshot of others, that I no longer have a manservant to do the chore for me. Gentlemen should be able to answer such questions with a disdainful: "Of course not! Do I look like that sort of person?"

Arthur W. J. G. Ord-Hume, Guildford, Surrey

20 questions

"We were not asleep; we were not having an argument; we were not having a fight." (It is impossible not to think that in a certain kind of scenario, they would have been having very good sex!)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Class A foam

At the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear on James Cameron. I was obscurely fascinated by the extreme diving bits, which I did not know about at all:
Making “The Abyss” was brutal. “It was a battle fought underwater,” one crew member said—and it was over budget and behind schedule before shooting even began. The story, about a deep-ocean oil-drilling crew called upon to prevent a nuclear catastrophe, while dealing with a hostile Navy SEALs unit and visitations from a marine alien, takes place almost entirely at the bottom of the sea. Cameron built the set in Gaffney, South Carolina, in the containment vessel of an abandoned (and never activated) nuclear-power facility, which he filled with eight million gallons of water. The principal actors and much of the crew had to be scuba-certified. As part of the production design, the actors wore helmets that were lit from within. Cameron wore a similar helmet, but his contained a one-way communications device that broadcast his every grunt and breath through underwater speakers all over the set. “He loved it,” Al Giddings, the underwater D.P., who designed the system, said. None of the crew members could talk back, or to one another, and some of them came up with their own sign language. Thumbs up meant “We’re fucked.” Thumb and forefinger up meant “We’re double-fucked.”

The crew was in the water ten hours a day; in ten weeks, the production went through ten thousand five hundred air tanks. “When I first got there, it was, like, ‘Put me in the water! Put me in the water!’ ” Vince Pace, who built the underwater lighting, said. “About four weeks into it I was, like, ‘Listen, I’ve been in the water. Put Jack in the water.’ Two, three months into it you’re saying, ‘If you put me in the water, I’m going to kill you.’ ” To break up the water surface and minimize reflection, the tank was filled with tiny black polypropylene beads, which made their way into noses, ears, and mouths. Infections were rampant, even though the water had enough chlorine in it to turn an electric-blue dive suit gray in a day or two, and bleach the hair and eyebrows of the crew albino-white. Leonard Goldberg got pneumonia after visiting for an afternoon.

The gathering

Bats! (Via BoingBoing.)

Virtual autopsies

My friend Sarah Weinman has a very interesting piece at Tablet Magazine on the ways that new scanning technologies may help solve the problem of the incompatibility of the autopsy with Jewish law.

The blank page

From Edward Said, Out of Place:
I have no concept of leisure or relaxation and, more particularly, no sense of cumulative achievement. Every day for me is like beginning a new term at school, with a vast and empty summer behind it, and an uncertain tomorrow before it. Over time “Edward” became a demanding taskmaster, registering lists of flaws and failures with as much energy as accumulated obligations and commitments, the two lists balancing and in a sense canceling each other. “Edward” still has to begin every day anew and by the end of it normally feels that very little has gone right.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Why Stop With a Barnacle?"

At the Believer, Sarah Manguso interviews Lydia Davis (link courtesy of Maud):
BLVR: Is it better to use the word prosaic because it’s the literal translation of prosaique, or to use the word dull because it occupies the same context in contemporary English as prosaique did in Proust’s French? You chose the former, [C. K.] Scott-Moncrieff chose the latter.

LD: I can’t re-create now what led to my choice of prosaic—but as I was translating Swann’s Way I did of course check and double-check every tricky choice to make sure the translation came as close as I could make it to conveying in English in these times what Proust conveyed in French in those times. In your example, I think I liked the closeness in sound of prosaic to the French: it has the same three syllables and the pr opening. It is historically, and rhythmically, entirely different from dull—which is a wonderful word in itself, of course, and one I would be much more likely to use in my own writing than prosaic.

BLVR: In similar situations, would you always choose the cognate?

LD: Whenever I could, I would use the cognate, but often enough that was for reasons of sound, rhythm.

BLVR: In his biography of Beckett, James Knowlson says that Beckett chose to write in French because in French it was easier for him to write “without style.” You’ve said similar things about translating—that it’s an exercise in not imposing one’s own style on the writing. It sounds like the least postmodern position one can possibly take—that there’s some essential truth that style only cloaks.

LD: No, I wouldn’t say there’s some essential truth that is cloaked by style—if I’ve understood your question. I’d say that if I were to translate into my own style rather than preserving, insofar as I could, the style of the original, I would change the nature of the work in an essential way.

I tried, once, for fun, translating Laurence Sterne into more contemporary English. It worked to some extent—some of the narrative content was preserved, some of the humor, quirkiness, etc.—but it was painful. Each time I abandoned some phrasing of his in favor of an “updated” version, an essential, delightful peculiarity of the work was lost.


An odd and fascinating review at the TLS of a book I think I must read!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thoughts on marathon training?

A poem by my late colleague Kenneth Koch, "You Want a Social Life, with Friends," courtesy of Josh Glenn:
You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What's true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn't time enough, my friends--
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends--
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day's end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Born digital

Liz Naiden has a nice piece at the Bwog on Friday's eighteenth-century conference. (Which went very well indeed, by the way - so much so that I think we must have another one!)

In other news, I am sorry to report that After Miss Julie wasn't much good - Sienna Miller wasn't terrible, but the production as a whole seemed pointless and incoherent - there were some very good moments, but it didn't add up to anything much. (Certainly it was far inferior to the Cherry Lane Theatre production featuring Michael Aronov that I saw a few years ago, which had a gratuitous Middle Eastern setting but which had the erotic charge and tension that was largely missing from this production.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Les carbonisateurs

An extraordinary piece by Daniel Howden at the Independent on the attempt to preserve gorilla habitat in Virunga National Park.

"Six working Colossi"

Courtesy of my father, a very good letter at the FT (in response to this piece on the top-secret room-sized computing machine named Colossus, invented by Tommy Flowers - site registration required):
A rebuild of Colossus can be seen by the public at The National Museum of Computing in Block H at Bletchley Park. Block H also happens to be the world’s first purpose-built computer centre and housed six working Colossi in the 1940s.

Before his death in 1998, Tommy Flowers took a great interest in the rebuild of Colossus, which began in 1994, and visited us to give his thoughts, reminiscences and moral support.

The rebuild took 14 years and in the Colossus Cipher Challenge two years ago it once again broke a Lorenz coded message in three hours and 40 minutes. However, a German using a laptop broke the code in just 47 seconds and won the challenge.

Tony Sale,
Head of Colossus Rebuild Team and Trustee of The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park

"I'm the last of our little foursome, the last remaining"

Erica Wagner has an excellent piece about Philip Roth at the Sunday Times.