I have been reading Boswell by Stanley Elkin

Tuesday 18 July 2006

Ten to fifteen years ago this book was ubiquitous in the remainder piles and cardboard boxes on the pavements outside bookshops. So were a lot of other titles by the same failing publisher, Arena, all with cheap covers featuring nasty, very 80s artwork; but Boswell was the king and everyman of this unloved, occupying army. It took years for the deluge of this one title in its thousands of clones to drain away.
I’ve never seen a copy of this book on sale at full price. My copy was bought second-hand eighteen months ago, from the $1 cardboard box on the pavement. Of course, it had been previously bought as a remainder, with the tell-tale texta stripe visible across the bottom edge of the pages. The flyleaf is inscribed in biro, “To Mahgo, from Liz, Jeremy, Daniel and Adam xxx”. Real classy gift, guys. It must be nice having friends who care enough to chip in about a dollar each for a birthday present.
For years I shunned it when bookhunting – its uninspiring blurb (“It’s a journey of disillusionment, but it is his destiny.”) and egregious presence made it seem ersatz, like a placeholder, a stand-in for another, better book that might have stood on the shelf. It infuriated me. I doubt I would have accepted a copy for free.
My recent change of heart, to happily blow an Australian dollar on a copy, is because, after being out of print for years, it has been reprinted by The Dalkey Archive Press – a publishing house I have happily allowed to lead me by the nose when developing my literary taste. Its parent, the Centre for Contemporary Book Culture, also runs an online literary journal with a righteous bitchiness of the highest order, in addition to publishing a few interviews with Stanley Elkin, and giving some more persuasive writeups of his work than the back of the Arena paperback.
The doomed paperback’s blurb should have touted this as a contender for the Great American Novel: Boswell is a character as archetypal as Gatsby, Kane, and Corleone. Keenly aware of his own mortality, Boswell’s motivation is fame: not the attainment of it, but to exist in the presence of it. To be famous to the famous. Appropriately for the century, his vocation isn’t so much chosen by him as assigned to him, by a visiting technocrat at high school who tells Boswell he will be surrounded by greatness, but never be great himself.
How’s the writing?
Perry is a very popular mâitre d’ in New York, though I have never understood the reason. His dignity and aloofness seem spurious to me. I feel that they’re simply tools of the trade with him, ones he uses a little squeamishly, as a professional locksmith might use dynamite. I like to picture him at home in front of the TV with his shoes off and a beer from Nate’s kitchen in his hand. There are softer, sloppier Perrys inside him, I know…. I looked at this mâitre d’hôtel, at this head waiter who got his name in the columns and was the constant bête noir of a government tax man who worried about his tips.

Boswell’s compulsive pursuit of fame – not merely as an end in itself, but as an entity independent of his own status – makes the book beautifully prescient. It’s hard to imagine it seeming more contemporary when it was written, over 40 years ago, than it does now. The one thing that has dated is its more rarefied sense of celebrity, expecting a standard of fame sufficiently high to seem quaint today. Except: it is Boswell himself who conflates greatness with celebrity. His appreciation for greatness is indiscriminate, embracing anthropologists and gangsters as part of the same elite. As he progresses in his calling he stops seeking out Nobel laureates, and instead monitors who gets the most mentions in Time.

Today, with the indulgent granting of celebrity, however small and meaningless, to anyone who wants it badly enough, it would be easy for Boswell to become some sort of a celebrity in his own right should he choose to do so, simply by virtue of knowing the famous. If this seems to be the one aspect of Boswell’s world that doesn’t jibe with 21st-century culture, you will be equally pleased and appalled with the turn of the book’s final section, which includes some of the most heartwarming character developments I’ve read since The Way of All Flesh.
Now, cheapskate that I am, I’m searching for a second-hand remainder of the other Elkin novel Arena published, The Magic Kingdom. Anyone who makes a black farce out of a guy’s disaster-strewn attempt to take a group of kids with terminal cancer to Disneyland is welcome in my house.

Goodbye Forever Again, see you next week.

Thursday 13 July 2006

There’s been lots of activity here, but very little to show for it. Moreover, my antipodean constitution still hasn’t accomodated the fact that summer is now in the middle of the year.
New material will start to appear next week; in the meantime enjoy the indices and website, which is still pretty much empty but now sports a design that is merely dull, instead of non-existent.

Mars hasn’t replied to my webmail suggesting a follow-up edition called Blame Bars

Tuesday 11 July 2006

These have arrived in my corner shop just in time for the end of the World Cup, which I suppose this was supposed to commemorate. More specifically, to commemorate the England World Cup effort – although I expect these were sold in Wales, Scotland etc as well. By ‘effort’, I mean England’s quadrennial ritual of hubris, complacency, whitewash, arrogance, denial, despondency, fingerpointing, scapegoating, infighting, xenophobia and general self-loathing. I’d say it’s a cack to watch but H.M. Government has my passport right now so I’ll keep quiet until they can’t kick me out of the country.
Unfortunately, I don’t think these will get discounted now it’s all over.
Baby Boromir is posing with the credulous snack atop an old paperback edition of Boswell by Stanley Elkin, which I haven’t quite finished yet but it would have to suddenly turn inconceivably crap for me to dislike it.

Because renaming the server after a Terry Pratchett* character is so five minutes ago

Monday 10 July 2006

I spent the end of last week stuck in Plymouth, testing a new web-based service for my place of employment. This post goes out to the in-house software development guy who left http://goatse.cx in the browser history of my test computer. Sir, you are a credit to the stereotype of IT staff.

* Ten years ago it would have been either Tolkien or Douglas Adams, but for obvious reasons both authors are no longer OK.

Name your quirky new band of critical darlings and their overrated debut album

Wednesday 5 July 2006

Experience the Ferocity of a Pyroclastic Flow!, by Translators from the Ukraine.

Filler by Proxy XXXVII: Filler by Proxy Week Continues! Oh yeah, and music stuff.

Wednesday 5 July 2006

The irrepressible Dr David Thorpe of Your Band Sucks volleys back a few Dorothy Dixers about modern popular music. Now you too can be as well informed about the latest trends in youth culture as someone who honestly gives a shit.
Dr Thorpe answers mail from readers who want to know whether Nirvana or Nine Inch Nails killed more teenagers, what is the current balance of T versus A in pop, as well as resolving the perennial questions about the Corrs and Tegan and Sara. In between, he also gives a few critical life lessons.
Will rap music ever receive the same level of critical acclaim as mainstream guitar-based radio friendly songs?
Hey buddy, next time you go back in time to 1989, bring me back a sports almanac like Biff in Back to the Future II so I can get rich.

Outside my window, yesterday afternoon

Tuesday 4 July 2006

I don’t know why the street was roped off: they were there when I got home and there was no evidence of what had happened. Whatever it was, it doesn’t seem to have been newsworthy; unlike last time the street I lived in was closed by the police, when I was living in Melbourne and Brenden Abbott decided to hole up on my block after breaking out of gaol. That was more exciting, if waiting for six hours to be let 25 metres down your street to get home is your idea of excitement.
He got away, in case you were hanging out to find how that last anecdote ended.
Wait! I’ve just had a leaflet slipped under my door. There was a shooting at the dodgy pub across the street. This place feels more and more like home every day.

Filler by Proxy XXXVI: Harry Pollock and the Halftone Prints*

Tuesday 4 July 2006

*Yes, it’s terrible. Just terrible. But I can’t be arsed finishing the longer post I was writing about art or something, and I’ve been ragging on Pollock lately. Also, this synopsis conjured up pleasing images of the series ending with a thick-set, balding Harry Potter getting liquored up and wrapping his car around a stobie pole. Thanks to the Flickr Crappy Bootleg DVD Covers Pool.

Previously: More fun with shithouse Chinese bootleg DVDs.

Speaking of crap photos…

Monday 3 July 2006

Fresh gherkin! Now part of the 30 St Mary Axe Flickr pool.

Filler by Proxy XXXV: More and more, these people run your world

Monday 3 July 2006

Found via Greg.org: The Online Photographer presents Great Photographers of the Internet:

Edward Steichen
Much too dark exposure and not sharp. I suppose you may say that you tried to make it unsharp but what the hell’s the point in that. I like things sharp. Maybe you should study some other peoples’ photographs here on this forum and get an idea of what a good photograph should look like.

There’s a heap more like this, in the same post and subsequent entries on the Online Photographer’s blog, culminating in some navel-gazing about how everyone feels compelled to point out “mistakes” photographers such as Cartier-Bresson have made by not following “rules” of exposure, framing and focus. Oh, and not using a Nikon. No, a Canon. No! A Nikon!

Taking a photograph in complete ignorance of the “rules” hurts no one, costs nothing, and might even be more fun.

You can read those posts and laugh at the silly nerdboys (there may be a girl or two in there) with their techincal hairsplitting, valuing process over results. But as you do, please spare a thought for those of us who tried to learn music composition at university. I doubt there is any other artform taken so seriously, which is so dependent on the same type of pointless nitpicking as which these internet kibitzers thrive on.
At about the same time as the Online Photographer was making his point, Kyle Gann at PostClassic had finished teaching another semester:

I’ve been becoming aware that, even among the Downtowners, there is a standard academic position regarding electronic music, and am learning how to articulate it. I’ve long known that, though much of my music emanates from computers and loudspeakers, I am not considered an electronic composer by the “real electronic composers.” Why not? I use MIDI and commercial synthesizers and samplers, which are disallowed, and relegate my music to an ontological no-man’s genre. But more and more students have been telling me lately that their music is disallowed by their professors, and some fantastic composers outside academia have been explaining why academia will have nothing to do with them.

Two generations ago, composition professors would promote the careers of unlistenably dull, academic composers who would say approvingly, in all seriousness, that a piece of music was “better than it sounds.” Today, those same fossils are still taking up space in most music schools, but now a whole new exciting branch of electronic music has opened up, so that a fresh batch of careerists can stifle it all over again; and refuse to state whether or not a piece of music they have heard is any good, until they know what technical equipment was used to make it.

Euston: Bend Sinister

Saturday 1 July 2006

In keeping with the overall character of London, there is no consistent plan to the design of the Underground stations. Some haven’t really changed since they opened in the 1860s, others try to keep some semblance of uniformity to distinguish one line from another, and then there are a lot of ‘one off’ designs which may not extend even to the entirety of the station.
Euston is one of the most confusing tube stations, being combined with a mainline train station connecting the north, and joining three different tube lines, two with the same name, in an unconventional layout. As a result the lower platforms tend to become clogged with bewildered Mancunians towing luggage and walking against the flow, trying to decipher the array of diagrams and direction signs in the passageways.
Most of Euston is lined with anonymous grey tiles, in the dreary British interpretation of modernism that influenced the design of the station when it was rebuilt in the 1960s. However, two of the six platforms have a newer, fairly arbitrarily applied decoration, which at first looks like a bit of 80s abstraction. If you’re stuck waiting for a train, you may notice the small plaque explaining what the design represents. It’s a stylised version of the shield in the Earl of Euston’s coat of arms: the Royal Standard defaced with a bend sinister (OK, technically it’s a baton sinister). In other words, the first Earl was the illegitimate offspring of the King.

I wonder how it was agreed that the best way to brighten up such an awkwardly constructed station was to cover it with a colourful display of the ancient symbol for “right royal bastard”.

Have you decided to be a genius yet?

Tuesday 27 June 2006

Get the Hope-Tipping angle!
Reactionary critic, 1956: “Jackson Pollock’s paintings are the crude, formless scrawlings of a drunken lout.”
Progressive critic, 1956: “Pollock is a master of the classically conceived composition and quattrocento line.”
Reactionary critic, 2006: “Today’s artists sorely lack the skill and rigor of Jackson Pollock.”
Progressive critic, 2006: “Jackson Pollock’s paintings are the crude, formless scrawlings of a drunken lout.”
To appear especially insightful, use the above dismissive judgement of Pollock when comparing him unfavourably to a 23 year old, female video artist.

Related: Old art, new art, both are piss easy to get a handle on.

Germaine Greer: I learned everything I need to know about criticism from Stephen Potter.

Monday 26 June 2006

What is more important is that the Mona Lisa is a dull, slimy picture, with more mystery than merit.

What makes this sentence truly brilliant is that it appears in the middle of a passage about the identity of Rembrandt’s portrait sitters, in an article of thundering obviousness otherwise irrelevant to Leonardo. Greer is a worthy disciple of the Lifemanship school of criticism:

The critic must always be on top of, or better than, the person criticized. The subject may be a man of genius, yet he must get on top. How? the layman asks. By the old process – of going one better. Hope-Tipping of Buttermere had never really read a book since his schooldays, much less formed an original judgement. But he specialized in his own variations on the formula.
H.-T. first made a name for himself in 1930 by saying that ‘the one thing that was lacking, of course, from D.H. Lawrence’s novels, was the consciousness of sexual relationship, the male and female element in life.’
‘The deep superficiality of Catullus’ is Hope-Tipping’s, too. Never, by any shadow of a chance, was there a hint of a cliché in the judgement of Hope-Tipping.
Of course, Greer is famously incapable of maintaining a coherent line of thought over two consecutive sentences, so she somewhat spoils the above gem by attempting to follow it up with a tired gambit:
Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione would put it in the shade, if only the smug boneless face of the Mona Lisa had not been reproduced unimaginable squillions of times in every known medium.

Foolishly, I was going to point out that this begs the question of why, then, this crummy painting was reproduced so often, until I realised how she had cleverly disguised the bigger question going begging: has she actually seen the Mona Lisa? In fact, how many people alive today have managed to get one good look at that painting?

Advanced East London Council Works Budget Justification Techniques

Saturday 24 June 2006


Filler by Proxy XXXIV: Another Great Italian

Saturday 24 June 2006

In one of the later, more indulgent passages of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker” novels, he describes an out-of-it band’s music (from dim memory) as one muso playing in 3/4, another in 5/8, while a third played in πr². It seemed like a far-out joke to your callow, nerdy self, right up until you heard the music of Conlon Nancarrow.
Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 40 is written entirely in the rhythmic relationship of e/π. How do you play something like that? You can’t, so you get a machine to do it for you. If you’re living in 1948, in an earthquake-proof bunker in Mexico City, in exile from your native United States without a passport because of your socialist beliefs, the machine in question is a battered 1920s player piano, and you punch the notes for its piano rolls by hand, one at a time.
Nancarrow was obsessed with hearing polyrhythms of a complexity the mind could perceive, but not imagine. He resorted to the player piano when musicians couldn’t, or wouldn’t (“they’ll think I’m playing wrong notes!”) play his music, and so expanded the realm of rhythmic and temporal possibilities beyond anyone’s previous expectations.
I’m only bringing this up now because 2 Blowhards (a propos of drugs) has linked to a page of audio samples of Nancarrow’s music at Minnesota Public Radio, including photos and more neat biographical material. Listen up, he’s fun.
Wait: more Nancarrow links.
  • In addition to the Other Minds page linked above, Kyle Gann has written the book about Nancarrow (literally), and annotates his list of works with the increasingly wild tempo ratios used in his music.
  • The Other Minds Archive has a recording of the long-lost Three 2-Part Studies, written back when Nancarrow was still writing for live pianists and was conventially jazzier, only this version has been arranged for two toy pianos (why yes, it is Margaret Leng Tan, how did you guess?)
  • More from Other Minds: Study for Player Piano No. 40b (i.e. the second and final movement of Study No. 40).
  • I get cranky about live musicians playing Nancarrow’s player piano music.