Thursday, February 22, 2018

more than 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

you might be familiar with the anonymous 9th century Irish poem "a blackbird over Belfast Lough"
which has been translated many times, perhaps most famously by Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson amongst others... The little Lagan valley blackbird is now the symbol of the Seamus Heaney centre. Anyway I love this little fragment of a poem and I thought I would offer up my own translation for your approval. The male pronoun works I think because in general only the males have a yellow nib to their beak. There's a little bit of invention with the use of "mudflats" but I figured that was ok because most of the translators of this poem use the word "Belfast" and Belfast as a concept didn't exist until the seventeenth century whereas the muddy "Black mouth" of the Lagan clearly did exist as a place back in the 9th century. I also didn't completely cheat in the rhyme scheme - in Ulster English beak is pronounced beak and round my way sometimes beagh which sounds a bit like lough. Anyway here's my version of the poem followed by the Irish itself...

a little bird 


from the tip of his yellow beak 

a blackbird among the gorse blossom

throwing music

over the mudflats of Belfast Lough

nt én bec

ro léc feit

do rinn guip, glanbuidi

fo-ceird faíd

ós Loch Laíg

lon do chraíb, charnbuidi

-anon from the Irish c.9th century

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

An Alternative History Novel Primer

finally got to see the Ridley Scott series Man in the High Castle so I'm reblogging my article on alternative history novels from the Guardian. I'm not attempting to be comprehensive here, it's more of a trawl through some of my favourites...
With Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Man In The High Castle on Amazon and SS GB on the BBC we can safely say that the alternative history genre is hotter than ever. The Man In The High Castle was not the first alternative history novel, nor even the first Nazis-win-the-war novel but it is still probably the most influential book in the genre. Anyone who likes historical fiction should be able to enjoy good counter-factual scenarios. It’s fun imagining how things could have been otherwise. As Ray Bradbury demonstrated in ‘A Sound of Thunder’, one tiny change in the past could have momentous consequences in the future. A “Butterfly Moment” (from the so called butterfly-effect) is the point from which our timeline diverges from the AH timeline. Structuralist historians tend to discount such moments but clearly if Franz Ferdinand’s driver had driven straight on instead of turning right the entire history of the twentieth century would have been different.
           Of course the most successful AH novels are good novels per se with interesting well rounded characters and a plot that moves. Some writers such as Harry Turtledove, SM Sterling, Jasper Fforde and Ken Flint have spent nearly their entire careers writing alternative histories, others such as Kingsley Amis, Iain Banks, Stephen Fry, Stephen King, Kim Stanley Robinson and Philip Roth have merely dabbled in the genre. Wikipedia has compiled a rather daunting list of alternative history novels, here but if that’s too much to contemplate you could do worse than try some of the following:
The first real AH best seller was L Sprague De Camp’s 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall in which a modern time traveller attempts to prevent the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by introducing steam engines, pencils, double entry book keeping and other exciting innovations.
World War 2 and its aftermath really got the AH genre going in earnest. Spawning many copycats/homages such as Fatherland, SS-GB, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, etc. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick is still the best what-if-the-Axis-had-won novel. The butterfly moment was the successful assassination of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Set in the early 1960’s the victorious Germans and Japanese have divided North America between them. Juliana Frink, a judo instructor, discovers that there is a resistance movement to the Axis which has been inspired by a novelist called Hawthorne Abendsen. Abendsen, with the help of the Chinese book of prophecy, the I Ching, has written an alternative history novel called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ set in a world in which the Nazis lost the war. Subtle, menacing and utterly brilliant this is Philip K Dick’s masterpiece. In a nice touch of crazy Dick believed that he had only dictated the novel which had really been written by the I Ching to prove the existence of other Earths.
Directly inspired by Dick’s novel, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, takes place in a 1970’s England where the Reformation never happened and where the all powerful Catholic Church is in a cold war with the Ottoman Empire. A talented boy chorister is forced to become a castrato to preserve his beautiful voice, but in so doing his gift as a composer is lost. (Amis following Nietzsche believed that sex lay behind all great art.) The fragmented and weak resistance to the church militant is motivated by a novel called ‘The Man In The High Castle’ authored by a certain Philip K Dick who dares to imagine a world in which the Reformation triumphed. Look out for odd cameos from Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Tony Benn in this neglected tour de force.
The Alteration incorporates some elements of the steam-punk genre, one of the most entertaining of the AH sub-genres. The who-invented-steam-punk debate is a surprisingly vitriolic one that I shall neatly sidestep here, instead I’ll briefly draw your attention to some of the best steam-punk authors. Michael Moorcock and K W Jeter really got things going in the late 1970’s and by 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s wonderful The Difference Engine saw steam-punk reach its maturity with a novel about the brilliant Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter), Charles Babbage and a mechanical computer that achieves sentience Terminator style. Other great books in this oeuvre are Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack (which contains a  very clever butterfly moment) and Neal Stephenson’s fabulously detailed Baroque Cycle.
I’m not sure that books that contain magic really count as AH novels as the butterfly moment is somewhat ill-defined, however if you want to stretch a point Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series could be seen as alternative histories of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain in the 1990s/early 2000’s respectively. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August the very impressive debut novel by Claire North is an interesting spin on butterfly-wing tinkering over multiple lives within the same time-line.  
What about some big really big canvas AH novels? Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt takes place in a Europe that has been utterly devastated by the Black Death and is being repopulated by Muslims from the south and Chinese from the west. The world gets divided up between China and Islam and a dazzlingly imagined alternative Middle Ages is the result. West of Eden by Harry Harrison takes alternative history as far back as anyone ever has attempted, imaging what would have happened if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs at Chicxulub and of course Philip Pullman's universe keeps expanding with his new Book of Dust...
             Anyway, I hope that you have enjoyed this little run through the AH genre and that I’ve given you some ideas for future reading... 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

5 reasons to read...Ian Rankin

5 reasons to read Ian Rankin's Rebus novels...
(a lot of Ians get mentioned here but I totally missed a trick by forgetting to list Ian McEwan)

Friday, February 16, 2018

5 reasons to read...Hue 1968

another one in my new youtube series 5 reasons to read. this time it's five reasons to read Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

5 reasons to read....Agatha Christie

Yeah, I know who needs a reason to read Agatha Christie when the books are EVERYWHERE...Here I provide my thinking:

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Maybe We've Been Laughing At You The Whole Time

There is a strong tradition in England of thinking of the Irish as subhuman
animals. Famously the Irish were drawn as gorillas or cave men by Punch magazine throughout much of the nineteenth century. This cartoon (right) is from that liberal politically correct bastion The Guardian and was drawn just last year! As Tacitus observed we can't help despising those we have wronged and the English wrongs in Ireland have been going strong for 800 years. A traditional response of colonised people has been to mock the oppressor with humour, irony and sarcasm. To my mind the three peoples who have developed the most acute use of humour as a rhetorical strategy are the Jews, African Americans and the Micks for analogous (but not identical) reasons.
I'm from Ulster which has traditionally been seen as a dour, rainy sort of place lacking in wit and jokes. But the hit TV show Derry Girls has suddenly wised the rest of the British Isles up to the fact that people from Northern Ireland are funny. Derry Girls's humour is a little bit too broad for my taste but it affords me an opportunity to point out that the vein of comedy runs very very deep in Ulster. When a girl brings her boyfriend home for the first time pretty much every sin can be forgiven except for "he doesn't have much of a sense of humour does he?" We'll never see that lad again. Ulster comedy is everywhere but it's usually so subtle that outsiders don't see it. It's a kind of cant or code switching that we can read but outsiders cannot. Slang and the accent help hide this demotic of deepest black comedy and in mixed company we often have to dumb down the meta in the discourse so that outsiders can get it. But once you start looking you'll see this ironic use of language everywhere. It's there in the plays of Brian Friel and Sam Hanna Bell. It's there in the comics of Garth Ennis. It's there in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Sinead Morrissey, Ciaran Carson etc. It's there in the fiction of Robert McLiam Wilson, Bernard MacLaverty, Colin Bateman, Eoin McNamee and so on. 
I'm glad Derry Girls is a hit but it worries me a bit because now the secret is out the English are going to realise that actually we've been taking the piss out of them the whole time. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sticky Fingers

my review of Sticky Fingers from last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine – Joe Hagan

Sticky Fingers is a much better book than it has any right to be. This is an official history of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine and as such it could have quickly become one of those hagiographic puff pieces which were the bread and butter of Rolling Stone for much of its early history. This is Joe Hagan’s first book and he was personally selected for the task by Wenner so my expectations were not particularly high for Sticky Fingers’s objectivity or readability. In fact the book is a terrific read and surprisingly critical of Wenner’s motives, tastes, ethics and loyalty.
            Wenner was born into a wealthy California family who made their money selling cut price baby formula. A somewhat demanding child he was  packed off to boarding school in Los Angeles at the age of thirteen in 1959. It was at the exclusive Chadwick School that Wenner seems to have developed his addiction for celebrity, preferring to hang out with the children of movie stars.
            After graduation Wenner moved back to northern California just in time for the explosion of the San Francisco music scene. After dabbling in journalism, Wenner married the beautiful Jane Schindelheim and promptly hit up her parents for a loan to start his own rock magazine. Mixing reviews, gossip and marijuana recipes Rolling Stone struggled to find its feet until Wenner scored a long form interview with his idol John Lennon who was in the mood to dish about the break-up of the Beatles and his problems with Paul McCartney.
            Rolling Stone rode the coat-tails of the Lennon interview for years and printed every word of John, Yoko, Paul, Mick, Bob etc. as if they were gospel. Wenner made deals with record companies, managers and bands and unsurprisingly the record companies who bought advertising in Rolling Stone tended to get better reviews for their products than those who didn’t. As Hagan points out in a key passage if Wenner only had one great idea it was the notion that the Sixties “for all its passion and idealism was at its sacred core a business.”
            Perhaps Wenner’s real talent was for nurturing talent. He effectively kick started the career of photographer Annie Leibovitz. He discovered writer Cameron Crowe, encouraged Tom Wolfe to write a novel and it was Wenner who sent “Gonzo journalist” Hunter Thompson to Las Vegas to gather material for an article and book. Wenner subsequently fell out with all these people as his interest in art declined and his desire to make a lot of money became paramount. Wenner founded three other magazines, sold a stake in Rolling Stone to the Disney Corporation and was a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
            Hagan takes the story of Wenner and Rolling Stone all the way up to 2017 but the last two decades of this narrative are not terribly interesting. Rolling Stone was past its peak by the 1990’s with its readership skewing to an increasingly elderly demographic still tragically spellbound by Beatles, Stones and Who minutiae.
            The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chapters are fascinating as an insight into Wenner’s pedestrian tastes. Unimpressed by metal, grunge, punk, R&B and hip hop Wenner put Bono of U2 on the cover sixteen times before he himself conducted a fawning 16,613 word interview in 2005.
            Wenner’s personal life is a lot less interesting than his professional one. We get the obligatory 1960’s acid tests, 1970’s marathon drinking sessions and 1980’s cocaine nights. Wenner’s long suffering wife Jane seems to have put up with several affairs until finding herself genuinely shocked when Jann came out as gay in 1994.
            Wenner continued to make money hand over first and it was only the 2008 financial crash that spared us from a series of Rolling Stone hotels complete with Gonzo clubs that would stage musical versions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 
            In his Afterword Joe Hagan explains that Sticky Fingers was written in the quietude of a New York monastery and this has clearly helped the quality of the book’s excellent prose. Gossipy, scabrous, cynical, reflective and ultimately compassionate, Sticky Fingers is one of the best biographies I have read this year. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

5 Reasons To Read...JG Ballard

the first of what hopefully will be a new series: 5 Reasons To Read...Up next I think, Angela Carter.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Exit, Pursued By A Bear: The North Water by Ian McGuire

"Hull is other people" is a nice gag from a Christopher Hitchens review of Philip Larkin's letters that beautifully sums up The North Water. The book begins in a grim Hull dockyard sometime in the late 1850's with a rape and murder by one Henry Drax who is taking ship on a Hull whaler bound for Greenland. Drax is a harpooner by trade who boards the good ship Volunteer looking for opportunities of every kind. Also on the Volunteer is the Irish ship's surgeon Patrick Sumner who went to medical school in Belfast but who through unlucky circumstance has ended up in Hull. Hull and Belfast then (another echo of Philip Larkin). 
The North Water is a great read by a new author (at least new to me) Ian McGuire. The characterisations are superb and the language is often very beautiful. The story moves quickly too. It is, as Jerry Lee Lewis liked to say: no filler, all killer. The reviews on the cover are from Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel and people like that and the novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize. I liked it very much too but, and here's the rub, in many ways its really just a Patrick O'Brian novel for people too snobby to read Patrick O'Brian. A philosophical Irish ship's surgeon who is addicted to opium? Check. Encounters with whales and whaling? Check. A shipwreck on an ice flow? Check. A crew divided against itself with a maniac onboard? Check. Climbing inside a bearskin to survive? Check. Return passage on a ship called the Truelove? Check. Now what Mr McGuire is doing here is called a homage and I admire that but for those of you (and you know who you are) who are too stuck up to read the source material I'll point you anyway to Desolation Island/Post Captain/The Far Side of the World/The Wine Dark Sea/The Truelove which are the Aubrey-Maturin novels that cover this material. 
I'm not knocking The North Water. It's a great book. I am knocking those people who knock Patrick O'Brian as a mere romancier. He's as good a writer as McGuire and he got there first. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Writing Advice From Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler to Frederick Lewis Allen (Harper's) dated May 7, 1948.  

"A long time ago when I was writing for pulps I put into a story a line like "he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water."  They took it out when they published the story.  Their readers didn't appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action.  And I set out to prove them wrong.  My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action.  The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.  He didn't even hear death knock on the door.  That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn't push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ursula Le Guin – An Appreciation

In the long rainy summer of 1978 after a series of dull novels I finally could take it no more and I huffily demanded of the librarian “are there any books in existence as good as The Hobbit?” 

The place was Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland and I was ten years old. 

“Yes,” the librarian said, “follow me” and she led me to an author called Ursula Le Guin in the science fiction section. “This one,” she said and put into my hands a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. I was skeptical. The cover had a pensive looking boy staring at the ocean in a battered paperback edition. But when I flipped the book open there was a map of an archipelago that didn’t exist anywhere in our world. “Ok,” I said and sat down on the floor and began reading. 

The librarian tapped me on the shoulder, “We’re closing up now,” she said. When I looked out the window it was night-time and about four hours had gone by. 

That’s what Ursula Le Guin who died on Monday January 22nd had the power to do. She created entire worlds that readers fell into and believed in utterly. Her complex, philosophical Earthsea books for children about a young trainee wizard were the gateway drug to her even more psychologically astute and ethically complex science fiction. 

Le Guin raised questions in the fields of science fiction and fantasy that no one else was asking at the time. Questions about sexuality, gender, feminism the morality of war and peace. She knew that science fiction was a genre about ideas but a genre dominated by white men in their forties and fifties needed fresher ideas to keep it interesting. Le Guin’s ideas came out of left field. She didn’t talk about it much (and it wasn’t mentioned in her New York Times obituary)  but she went to the same high school and grew up in the same milieu as Philip K Dick. For PKD and Le Guin their big original ideas had to be backed up by consistent internal logic and intellectual rigor. If a planet has three genders instead of two how would that affect society? If a man’s wishes were always somehow coming true what nightmares would that induce? Could a society based on anarcho-syndicalism actually exist and if it could what would it look like? Should a species that doesn’t value its ecosystem even deserve to survive?

Le Guin came from an academic family and she didn’t suffer fools gladly (she wasn’t impressed by anyone in the Trump administration) but she was also an incredibly generous book blurber, encourager of young talent and teacher. I never met her in real life but my wife Leah took a short story class with her once and Leah remembers a mentor who saw patience and kindness as the highest virtues. 

Later in that summer of 1978 I walked into a library in Carrickfergus and skeptically asked a librarian if anyone had ever written a book as good as A Wizard of Earthsea. 

“You liked it then?” the librarian said. 
“Very much,” I told her. 
“You should write to the author and tell her. Authors like to hear that sometimes and who knows she might even write back.” 

It was the first time I’d ever written to an author and two months later an envelope came back with a Portland, Oregon postmark on it. Le Guin had taken the trouble to answer all my questions about Sparrowhawk, ‘the rule of names’ and how exactly the magic worked on Earthsea. 

Winner of the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, World Fantasy Award, in 2014 Le Guin was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She was the last of the giants of the golden age of science fiction and her wit, intelligence, kindness and originality will be sorely missed. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Sorry Hitch, Women Are Just As Funny & Probably Funnier Than Men

a post from three years ago that feels a little prescient now...
I think the reason men kept women out of so many occupations over the centuries was the fear that women would do those occupations better than they would. Most men grew up with mothers who were wiser than them, stronger willed than them, more patient than them, harder working than them etc. World War 1 and 2 taught us that women can do every single job in the modern world as good as or better than men. The reason they weren't doing those jobs (riveting, truck driving, etc.) was because men had kept them out. What about the actual fighting of the war itself I hear you ask. Oh sure men having always been good at fighting but again thats only because women haven't been given the chance. What's the #1 box office movie at the moment? American Sniper - the story of Chris Kyle. No woman could surely do that job, right? I guess you haven't heard of Lyudmila Pavlichenko who shot 309 Nazis on the Ost Front including 35 enemy snipers trying to kill her. Pavlichenko was one of 2000 female snipers in the Red Army. You really should know about her. She met FDR. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about her. 
If you look at the list of well governed countries where the rule of law prevails, corruption is minimal and people are generally happier it's always the countries where women are most empowered that are the near the top of every table. Denmark, Norway, Finland etc. And if you look at all the nightmare countries in the world it's always the countries where women are treated like shit. Any place where men with guns (or worse men with guns and holy books) are in charge is always going to be a hell hole. We've known for years that the single best way to move a society out of poverty is to educate girls. Educating them at a school not run by an absurd patriarchal desert religion that worships an invisible sky god probably works even better.
Ok so what has this got to do with funny? We've never allowed women to be funny. Nothing scares men like a woman who is funnier and sharper than they are, so funny girls until very very recently in the history of our culture were told to cut it out. Women have had to sneak funny in the back door. Jane Austen still makes us laugh 200 years later, whereas I've never laughed at Dickens, or Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones or any of those supposedly funny books. Jerome K Jerome and Mark Twain are the only nineteenth century novelists who can hold a candle to Austen in the funny department... Men like women to be beautiful or tragic or poetic or sexy but not funny. And men ran the entire world (and still run most of it) until pretty much yesterday. It wasn't until the age of television that we began to allow and even encourage funny women. But they had to fight tooth and nail to have their voices heard. It's tough to make it as a comic but it was always tougher for female comics who got told that they weren't funny by bookers and agents and club owners and - crucially - male comics. 
In 2007 Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in Vanity Fair called Why Women Aren't Funny. It wasn't the Hitch's best work and the timing was terrible as Tina Fey's 30 Rock had just started. 30 Rock was the first American successful comedy show with a female head-writer and show-runner since Roseanne. 30 Rock was hit and miss with some very annoying characters but when it was good it was very very good. Fey proved week in and week out that she was sharper and funnier and wittier than the men working on TV. I would love to have seen Fey debate Hitch on this topic, it would have been one for the ages, but she wasn't a God botherer so Hitch didn't engage. 
Fey kicked the doors in for other talented women and its obvious now to any fool that women are just as funny as men. I've said for years that women are generally better writers than men (I'm not going to go into all that again now) but the one area men had left to cling to was in comic writing and now that's going too. Kristen Wiig, Rebel Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler are just about the funniest people on the planet right now. Some people say that the funniest and best written show on TV at the moment is Lena Dunham's Girls. I have a lot of problems with Girls not least because the cast and the girls on Girls come from very very privileged backgrounds and this rubs me the wrong way. No I say that the funniest show on TV at the moment is Broad City now in its second season. Written and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson its also the only comedy show I've ever seen that accurately portrays what living in New York is actually like: the heat, the dirt, the poverty, the crazies...Broad City finally allows women to deploy every weapon in the comedy arsenal: it's not just witty and clever, it's also vulgar, crude, broad, sexually risque and downright silly. 
Glazer and Jacobson will kick in a lot more doors for women. And now that TV execs (still mostly men) see that women being funny can make them a lot of money you should expect to see a lot more funny women on TV. When the playing field finally levels off in a few years we'll see how ridiculous and dated Hitch's arguments are. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

JG Ballard

Excellent 2003 documentary on JG Ballard from the BBC that picks out (rather brilliantly) his five or six most important works. (This being the Beeb there's also some good music.)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Ghost Story

A couple are living in the suburbs of Dallas on the edge of the hilly countryside. The husband, Casey Affleck, is pretty content out here in the middle of nowhere. He's a song writer and this is a nice quiet spot for him to make his minimalist slightly dub steppy piano music. The wife, Rooney Mara, an artist, wants to move into the city to be closer to the craic. She moved around a lot as a child and every time she would move she would leave a secret note in the house on the day she left as a way of saying goodbye. It's ok to move she says. They debate the issue and the husband reluctantly agrees. One night, they hear a creepy bang on their piano but cannot find the cause. (This is explained in the third act.) The husband gets up early one morning, heads out and is killed in a car accident near his home. At the hospital, his wife views his body and covers it with a sheet. The man awakens as a ghost covered in the sheet, and wanders through the hospital, completely invisible, to the doctors and most of the patients. He's in this old fashioned Halloween ghost costume the whole time. He sees a door of light but refuses to go in and the door vanishes. He leaves the hospital and treks back to his house where he watches his wife grieve over the coming months. She eats an entire pie in what has become a famous scene for its stillness and patience. Eventually the wife moves out but before she does so she leaves a secret note buried in the wall. The ghost tries to get it but can't. Time passes. Another family moves in and after putting up with them for a while the ghost terrorises them out. The ghost sees another ghost inside the house next door and telepathically the ghost tells him that she is waiting for someone but it's been so long she has forgotten who she is waiting for. Time passes. The now ruined "haunted" house becomes a place to hold parties and raves. Time passes and the house becomes derelict. The ghost waits. . .
This plot summary covers, I think, the first half of the movie. There's a lot more to the story than this but you really should watch the rest for yourself. This is a supernatural film but it is not a horror film. There are no jump scares or gross out scenes or anything like that. This is Bergmanesque mediation on love, death and time. Some reviewers I've read have complained about the film's slow pacing but I thought quite a lot of stuff happened - perhaps you have to be in a certain frame to mind to appreciate it. I don't know, it does require patience and attention but that attention is duly rewarded and I certainly loved it. I suppose the major underlying theme to A Ghost Story is entropy. It's a question that's been asked by a lot of writers and philosophers over the years: in the face of death what's the point of doing anything. And by death here I don't mean your own personal death which is bad enough but Death with a capital D which is the death of everyone that knew you and the ultimate death of every possible contribution you could have added to the culture in your lifetime. In 1000 years people might possibly still remember Shakespeare, Beethoven, Orson Welles etc. But in 10,000 years? 100,000? 1,000,000? Unlikely. In two or three billion years from now the sun is going to become a red giant and swallow the Earth before it dies. In a few trillion years all the stars are going to die. Eventually all the atoms are going to decay into protons, neutrons and electrons and according to the Georgi–Glashow model, protons transition into a positron and a neutral pion, which then decays into 2 gamma ray photons. Estimates put the half-life for protons at 1.29×1034 years which is a long time but only a blip really in the vastness of infinity. Unless there is a big crunch the future of the universe is going to be an endless void of black nothingness with the odd random photon floating past. This is not a cheery prospect to me and it's rare these days to see a film tackle this idea that entropy must maximise and will eventually conquer everything. (Isaac Asimov considers this in his classic short story The Last Question which you can read for free here at the Princeton Physics Dept web site.)
So what then do we do when we know that everything we attempt here is for naught? Again a lot of philosophers have discussed this over the centuries. If you believe in God well then you're fine you don't need to think or worry about this anymore but if you don't believe in God then the subject becomes more interesting. Epicurus didn't know about the entropic heat death of the universe but he did know that life is short and death is long and he said that we should Live Now in the moment, enjoying friends, family, music, food, art. Epicurus prefigures contemporary mindfulness thinking and he dismisses the idea that we should build for eternity. Forget eternity, he says, try to live in the extended moment. The Stoics also rejected gods and the afterlife. Their picture of existence is a little less rosy than Epicurus. Life is hard they say but it can be borne when you compare it to death. Things can always be worse, more painful, more miserable and death is the worst worse of all so try to bear it if you can. Stoicism and Epicureanism are two sides of the same coin really and we don't get another entirely original solution to the entropic question until Schopenhauer comes along in the nineteenth century. Schopenhauer looks at life, finds it appalling, full of pain and suffering and recommends that we reject convention, social norms and all that bullshit and, to quote Philip Larkin, "to get out as early as we can." Suicide will end the constant striving, the torment of 'time's whips' and the endless suffering we see around us. After the publication of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation there were in fact a raft of suicides by convinced Schopenhaurean readers and disciples while Schopenhauer himself lived a rather nice life as a famous author and university lecturer. Hmmmm. 
Modern pessimist philosophers lament the evolution of consciousness and the knowledge of our own death and they too advocate suicide as a way out from the torment, but they're wrong. Suicide is not the answer unless you are in unremitting physical pain. Suicide is what the fucking void wants and I think we're here to stick a middle finger up to the darkness and show a bit of courage. Yeah we know entropy wins in the end but we're going to build that sand castle on the beach anyway. Why? Because, that's why. What are you gonna do about it?  Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus urges us to laugh at the meaninglessness of existence. Thomas Nagel has critiqued Camus as being unnecessarily theatrical but I don't know if that's such a bad thing myself. We're all playing ourselves in the movie of our lives. We're all embedded in narratives of our own making. The philosopher Alasdair McIntyre in his brilliant book After Virtue urges us to cultivate the Aristotlean virtues and to be cheerful in the face of annihilation. Be like the heroes of the Icelandic Sagas or the Spartans making jokes at Thermopylae. Treat death with cool disdain and sang froid. We don't all have to live like Mad Jack Churchill but we can try he says. There's something to this. 
The movie A Ghost Story does not provide any answers to the problem of death and the contemporary existential dilemma but it does raise some very interesting questions. Written and directed by David Lowery with a score by Daniel Hart and cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo it's a film worth checking out. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Books of the Year

some of my favourites in various categories in what proved to be a great reading year for me...

History Book of the Year
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue - John McWhorter
Our greatest contemporary linguist explains how English kicked off.

Music Criticism Book of the Year
Listen to This - Alex Ross
A collection of Ross's pieces from the New Yorker.

Memoir of the Year
Hunger - Roxane Gay
Gay's honest unflinching look at her life, trauma, sexuality and her issues with food.

Geography Book of the Year
Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane
A meditation on places and the language we use to describe them.

Psychogeography Book of the Year
London Overground - Iain Sinclair
More gorgeous prose from professional flaneur Iain Sinclair as he walks around London, again.

Crime Novel of the Year
The Force - Don Winslow
Winslow reinvents the NY dirty cop novel for our times.

Australian Crime Novel of the Year
The Dry - Jane Harper
A federal Melbourne cop investigates a murder in his home town during fire season.

Philosophy Book of the Year
Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea And the Deep Origins of Consciousness - Peter Godfrey
A professional philosopher dons a wetsuit and explores octopus intelligence.

Biography of the Year
Sticky Fingers - The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stones Magazine - Joe Hagan
A gossipy, damning all access biography of Wenner written in a superior style.

Novel That Made Me Cry On A Plane Book of the Year
A Man Called Ove - Frederik Bachman
I don't even want to talk about it.

Comedy Novel of the Year
The Forensic Record Society - Magnus Mills
Blokes meet up in a pub in north London to listen to records. Nothing much happens. Genius.

Poetic War Memoir of the Year
My Life as a Foreign Country - Brian Turner
Turner's poetic memoir of his tour as an army Staff Sergeant during the invasion of Iraq.

Science Fiction Novel of the Year
Fear The Sky - Stephen Moss
An alien conspiracy to take over the Earth.

Literary Novel of the Year
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders
Abe Lincoln's dead son wanders through purgatory.

Reread of the Year
The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach
One of my favourite baseball novels of all time now.

Audiobook Reread of the Year
The Wine Dark Sea - Patrick O'Brian narrated by Patrick Tull
My fourth time listening to this one.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Kafka's Old Office

my piece in last week's LitHub...
At the beginning of November I found myself in Prague with enough loyalty points at the Accor Chain to get myself a room in a fancy hotel way out of my usual league. There was one particular room in one particular hotel that I had been eyeing for years and much to my amazement I found that it was available.
The hotel was the Sofitel Century Old Town and the room was the Franz Kafka Suite. The Century Old Town occupied the former Austro-Hungarian Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute and a second floor office of this building was the place where Kafka had toiled as a lawyer from 1908 - 1922. This office and the room behind it had been converted into the Kafka Suite.
Kafka’s childhood home was long gone but for Kafka fans like me it was incredibly thrilling that for enough cash or Accor Reward Points you could spend the night in his old office.
I checked into the Century Old Town at two o’clock on a brisk November Tuesday in Prague to find that the room was not quite ready. Housekeeping was doing a quick final vacuuming I was told and I was given a voucher for a free beer at the bar which suited me just fine.
When the room was all set I walked up the wide, restored nineteenth century stair-case and found myself outside the Franz Kafka Suite where a little plaque confirmed me that this was indeed Kafka’s actual place of work. I put the key card in and opened the door.
The first thing that confronted me inside the room itself was pitch blackness. The outer door closed behind me and rather like – I fancied –Gregor Samsa I too was trapped in a bourgeoisie hell of the indoors.
“Aha!” I thought, you need to find the little slot to put your card in to get the lights to come on. I fumbled around and I did find the slot, but when I inserted my card the blackness remained.
I began to feel a little buzz of excitement. The Kafka Suite was deliciously Kafkaesque already. What fresh thrills and terrors lay ahead? The exhilaration began to dissipate when I turned my phone light on and realized that I wasn’t in a fiendishly difficult psychological maze partly of my own making, no, I was in an ordinary hallway and there was a problem with the electricity.
After a bit more fumbling I discovered the fuse box and although everything was in Czech it was pretty obvious which circuit had been blown by the vacuum cleaner. I flipped the switch and hey presto the lights came back on.
Out of the hallway I discovered that the Kafka Suite was gorgeous. The back room contained a generously proportioned bed, a huge bath, a luxurious shower and dual washbasins. But the front of the suite was definitely where the action was. The front room was an enormous light filled chamber with a sofa, a dining table and a writing desk that looked out onto the street.
This had been Kafka’s actual writing office. He had mostly prepared legal briefs here (the book to read on this is Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold) but you could imagine him working on short stories and letters in his lunch break or doodling away at ideas in the margins of his jotter.
The room was minimalist and contemporary, painted a bright umber with a portrait of Kafka himself lying against the wall in one corner. There was a bookcase containing mostly French hardbacks by second tier novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, but there were also a few modern paperbacks as well presumably left there by previous guests. I had no qualms at all about leaving a copy of my novel Rain Dogs on a high shelf where hopefully it will remain unnoticed for years.
I unpacked, showered and then made a beeline for the writing desk. I had been to Prague as a student backpacker years ago so I wasn’t that interested in sight-seeing, rather, I had come here to work.
The theory of literary osmosis is dubious at best but for a writer it is hard to resist the lure of attempting to compose something in the place where great literary icons did their thing.
 I have tried this game before and it hasn’t exactly worked out. In the old British Museum Reading Room I found what was allegedly Karl Marx’s seat while I was studying philosophy at University College London. The Marxian seat didn’t help me at all with my essays which were uninspired and generally terrible. A couple of years later at Oxford I frequented the Eagle and Child pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to read and write. The epic fantasy novel I began there mercifully disappeared into a crashed hard drive never to be retrieved. 
A few years after that in Paris I toiled as a plongeur during the day while spending my evenings at the Deux Magots café. I was trying to emulate Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir’s philosophizing while drinking enormous bowls of coffee and attempting to smoke Gitanes; but all I got from that experience was a massive jittery headache and a hacking cough.  
My most notorious attempt at literary osmosis was in the piano bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana in 2008. For most of that year I’d had writer’s block and with a deadline looming I took the drastic step of flying to Havana via Mexico City so I could work in the place where Hemingway supposedly wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Maybe I too could write my magnum opus here I thought and initially things went quite well. I got a notepad and paper and the ideas flowed. Half a dozen mojitos later I was writing gibberish and after a couple more cuba libres and mojitos I was attempting to push the deft piano player off his stool so that I could give the well heeled clientele my version of All The Little Puffer Trains Down By The Station.
I wasn’t going to let that happen again. This time I was going to write at Kafka’s desk (sort of) in Kafka’s office over looking the bustling Na Porici Street.
The Kafka Suite had generously provided its visitors with paper, pens and a rather nice mechanical pencil.
I took out the pencil and a sheet of paper and stared at the blank page for a long, long time.
Then I did a little Kafka portrait in the corner of the page, then another little doodle of a cockroach. I did a pretty good drawing of myself scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. Then I went to the book shelf and tried to read Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne for a bit but found it pretty hard to get into.
Back to the dreaded blank page. I wrote a couple of opening lines and crossed them out and got a fresh sheet of paper and stared at that for a while.
I looked through the window at the building opposite. This must have been Franz’s view when he was writing those bloody insurance reports. It was an attractive building and on the third floor there was a large, peculiar sheep bas relief highlighted in gold paint. If it was there back then Kafka must have stared at that sheep for hundreds of hours. He did in fact write one short story about a sheep: ‘A Crossbreed’ which is a story about an animal that is half-cat, half-sheep with odd eating habits and dietary restrictions. It’s not his best work if I’m honest.
The sheep did not inspire me. I wrote a spoof Raymond Chandler short story once set in Ireland called The Big Sheep. It wasn't a great story and The Big Sheep Part 2 didn’t seem like a very good idea.
Unlike a lot of fancy hotel rooms in the Kafka Suite it is possible to open the window and let the city smells and street noise come pouring in. I pulled a chair close to the window ledge and watched the trams, cars and tourists go by for a while. There were more tourists and cars than the Prague of a hundred years ago but I imagine the citizenry riding the #26 tram was much the same.
It began to get dark. I noticed a beer cellar across the street called La Republica. I found my laptop and Googled it and discovered that it served liter steins of Czech beer and pre war staples of Czech cuisine such as pork ribs, schnitzel and pretzels.
“Maybe I’ll just go over and have one stein and a pretzel and then I’ll come back and do some serious work,” I thought.
Unfortunately that decision put an end to the possibility of the McKinty Magnum Opus getting started in Kafka’s office, for La Republica was a very amenable beer cellar indeed. It was full of Irish people, one of whom, as is the way of such things, knew my sister.
I had a very good night with a bunch of new friends. The bar wasn’t that far away from the salon where Kafka, Max Brod and Albert Einstein used to hang out, booze and chat, so I think they would have approved. When I got back to the Kafka Suite I was in no fit state to write anything at all.
But eventually the room did stop spinning which was nice and I settled down in the enormous, ridiculously comfortable bed.

After a night of peculiar dreams I woke up next morning transformed into a middle aged bibliophile who had written nothing at all in Kafka’s room but who was maybe finally over his literary osmosis addiction and was sort of ok with that.