Page 946. In fact it’s cold and wet outside this evening, but still…

Friday 11 May 2007

Was the long winter really done? and “the fireside, the slippers and the waiting bed” no longer there to “protect the depressed person from himself… This line of retreat recedes as the day grows longer,” the World Health Organization reported, finding, in these verdant expressions of springtime’s acceleration, “the never-ending daylight difficult to bear,… and the glorious sun becomes a curse.”

Filler by Proxy L: Special Commemorative Edition ($250 unframed, $350 framed)

Monday 30 April 2007

First, a piece of self-generated filler: I was testing for dead links and discovered that Haiku Review has finally published the Richard Tipping review they asked me for about three years ago, and which I submitted to them about two years ago:

Les techniques sont semblables à ceux employées par des «pirates de l’air de médias» et autre activistes, qui ont puisqu’alternativement coopté et reassimilated par industrie de publicité. Quant à la bureaucratie, travaux tels que retentir le silence être maladroit dans leur monumentality et leur contenu didactique, définissant un message édifiant que n’importe quel bureaucrate ou conseil à l’âme noble pourrait approuver.

It’s also available in Dutch, Korean, Portugese, and English, among other languages.

All Kinds of Stuff
John Kricfalusi regularly updates his blog with lots of strongly held opinions about cartoons: in particular, the aspects of art, design, writing and acting that go into them, and the way that corporate economics can screw them up. His last posts have been observing the decline of cereal box artwork, and the difference between acting and dialogue performed by a real person, and performed by a cartoon:

I had just read the script for “Disco Droopy” and someone tipped me off on where the scriptwriter was hiding out…. I chased him down and began to deliver God’s justice upon him… reality sunk in slowly; it produced a last rebellious and futile spasmic outcry. This is what artists face every day of their lives in the terrible icy world of animation scripts.

The real surprise in this post is his brief reference at the end to the extensive restoration work recently done on Ren and Stimpy, salvaging scenes from an old VHS tape. They had to restore Ren and Stimpy. What has the world come to?

Music Stuff

Composer Daniel Wolf has been posting frequently on Renewable Music about the ways that music seeps into other parts of life, including a recent series on Music Landmarks (see the sidebar), a bit like The Rambler’s Music Since 1960 series.
Finally, WFMU has video of John Cage performing his Water Walk, complete with bathtub, pressure cooker, blender and watering can (but not working radios) on the American TV game show I’ve Got A Secret, in 1960. The previous year, Cage had performed his music on the Italian quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia, where as a contestant he won enough money to buy a minivan for Merce Cunningham’s dance company. Has any composer beaten Cage’s record for TV game show appearances?
In case you hadn’t guessed from the description, the video is a great bit of fun.

Filler by Proxy XLIX: “Great Expectations presented as a log flume” – I’m not making this up.

Wednesday 18 April 2007

I’ve been to the opera, but I can’t post about it today: I’m off to Dickens World!
Never mind that the books tackle child exploitation, poverty, murder and domestic violence; the indoor attraction is based on designs by the creator of Santa World in Sweden so the emphasis is firmly on fun, fun, fun.
Dickens World feels like Disney gone to the dark side. In place of the Magic Kingdom there is Newgate Prison; instead of talking animals there will be shady characters loitering in dark corners. Although the attractions are all faithfully Dickensian, the larks are very much 21st century….
The whole project cost £62m and hopes to present Dickens to coaches of schoolchildren without having to call in the Muppets for backup.
It’s all within a day-trip from my house, apparently.

The Kurt Vonnegut post

Thursday 12 April 2007

I was just invoking Kurt Vonnegut’s depiction of an arsehole to describe a photograph when I heard that he had died. Tim Sterne at Sarsaparilla has posted a brief farewell.
Crud Crud has posted an mp3 of an old LP of Vonnegut reading excerpts from Cat’s Cradle.

Literary Stowaways of the Antipodes

Thursday 12 April 2007

The parlor game – which books for a desert island? – was played by America in earnest. Homer’s book was not just there, as in London or Leyden; one decided to bring it along, or send for it, or decided not to.
– Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era.
After discussing what Australian authors didn’t make the trip to London, I made a quick survey of the ones that did. This seems to be just about everything:
  • Obviously I like the more experimental poets: Ania Walwicz, Jas Duke, Chris Mann, ΠO, and several issues of 925 are all present and correct.
  • Some other small zines (see photo).
  • A little history: Michael Cathcart’s abridgement of Manning Clark, Ann Coombs’ Sex and Anarchy, a history of the Sydney Push.
  • Meaghan Morris’ Ecstasy and Economics, along with John Forbes’ New and Selected Poems and a “self-pirated” collection titled Humidity (“I’ll probably change the title to The Banquet of Cleopatra.”)
  • 22 Contemporary Australian Composers, The Pink Violin, and Violin Music in the Age of Shopping.
  • More history: The Life and Death of Sandy Stone, Bruce Petty’s Australia and how it works.
  • Noel Stock’s biography of Ezra Pound, written during his transition from being one of Pound ‘s defenders to one of his detractors.
  • Fiction: Patrick White (Voss, Riders, Vivisector, Storm, Leaves, Twyborn, Three Uneasy Pieces), some Mary Fallon/Fallin, a David Brooks (The House of Balthus) I know nothing about but picked up for a dollar shotly before leaving, a slim volume of Henry Lawson (“The Union Buries Its Dead” etc), and… where’s the rest of it?

Not Wanted on Voyage: Further Perils of Categorisation

Tuesday 10 April 2007

After reading about Elizabeth Jolley’s death, I went to my shelves to take another look through some of her books, and couldn’t find them. The organisation of my books had been hasty and haphazard since unpacking them last year, when they finally arrived in my London flat a little over a year after I left Melbourne. Besides the confusion on the bookshelves, an unknown number of books remained squirrelled away in a tower of unexplored boxes stacked in the hallway.
A month ago on Sarsaparilla, Sophie wrote about the complications of trying to organise her bookshelves for the first time after moving house. I was unable to comment at the time, as I was preoccupied with moving house myself, but was very interested to read what others had to say about bringing some order to their bookpiles, to see what I could learn. However, none of the solutions that worked for other people offered a viable alternative to the method I have adopted in the last few years. What’s more, Sophie’s question about whether she was ghettoising the Australian books in her library went largely unanswered.
I used to prefer straight alphabetisation by author, without further categorisation, to avoid the problem of overlapping and conflicting categories that so many others have mentioned. This, however, led to two problems which I found sufficiently annoying to cause me to abandon the system altogether. Both of these problems were consequences of the logical rigidity demanded by this system.
Firstly, the alphabet would dictate that books be placed on shelves too small to fit them, forcing them to be shelved perpendicularly or out of sequence on a more generously sized shelf. This is a particular problem for people with bookshelves of a fixed height, such as those older bookcases designed for a collection of Penguins and the Everyman Library, ill equipped to accommodate the influx of remaindered titles from American publishers. The problem is especially vexing when an outsize book is orphaned from companion volumes by the same author (see fig. 1).

Figure 1: Published titles by the same author can vary widely in size, as demonstrated here by Charles Olson’s Maximus and Causal Mythology. The Kit Kat is included for scale.
The second problem is that alphabetical order disregards the location of the most frequently consulted books where they are most readily accessible, being as likely to happen as not (see fig. 2). Woe betide the Walter Abish scholar of short stature with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a love of alphabetisation; likewise lament the plus-sized Louis Zukofsky buff with a need for order.

Figure 2: Predicted location of the most frequently consulted books in a collection (Stephen Potter, Ezra Pound) sorted alphabetically by author in a six-shelf bookcase one metre wide, or multiples thereof.
In the end, I abandoned any pretense of an objective, consistent system and grouped books together by the regularity with which I consult them. Or would like to think I consult them, at any rate. Basically, the position of a book on my shelves is a rough measure of the esteem in which I currently hold it.
Because my interests focus upon modernists and postmodernists, the middle shelves are given over to books by or about Ezra Pound – sheer numbers make this the default point of origin. Everything else radiates out from this central plank: Wyndham Lewis on a shelf immediately above or below, through Pound’s contemporaries and heirs to Charles Olson, and from there on to the postmodernists. John Cage, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Kathy Acker form a loose alliance of convenience on the upper and lower shelves.
Stray individuals are slotted in to fit available space, grouped by subjective affinities. Laurence Sterne, Sei Shōnagon, Velimir Khlebnikov and Konrad Bayer all share favourable placement thanks to their exploration of the nature of writing. Banished to the least accessible heights and depths are the occasional Dickens and Rushdie, ancient Romans, renaissance Italians, and a surprisingly large number (more than two!) of French existentialists and surrealists.
For what it’s worth, the Australians were always mixed in with everybody else as though they had every right to belong there. This was partly to uphold the noble idea of a global village, but more honestly to hide my suspicion that the Australian section would look embarrassingly small by comparison. In turn, this would have goaded me into buying a number of books by Australian authors I could never bring myself to read.
So, after all the boxes were finally unpacked, on which shelf did I end up putting those Elizabeth Jolley novels? Nowhere, as it turned out. Jolley wasn’t there. Or rather, she had been relegated to the books left in storage in Melbourne. This may have been an accident or oversight, but seeing as all my most important books are over here, and that I hadn’t missed her until now, it looks like I made a conscious decision to leave her books behind.
Jolley is by no means alone. Now that I rack my brains to think what else is missing, I realise my library lacks some of the less helpful books about Pound, still more French existentialists, plenty of remaindered Viragos (don’t we all have those hidden somewhere?), and Australians. Peter Carey and Andrew McGahan didn’t make the cut, for instance. Patrick White did, but this seems to be more out of guilt than enthusiasm.
As a pack rat by nature, I probably knew in the back of my mind as I was marking the boxes that I would regret the decision sooner or later, but why did I make these particular choices at the time? My guess is that I had created a virtual shelf in my head, one further remove from the epicentre of Pound, Stein, Joyce et al, whose books were deemed excessive to travel and were placed in a storage crate. The distance to that last shelf is a little too great, and now I regret my mistake of banishing at least Miss Peabody’s Inheritance to the Big Shelf Down Under.
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

Test your word power against a dead squirrel

Tuesday 13 February 2007

Future historians will wonder at the turn-of-the-century trait of people forwarding each other emails and web links containing allegedly humourous or entertaining material. I’m lucky enough to have friends who spare me, by and large, from this practice. Nonetheless, on a slow work day someone pointed me towards “33 Names of Things You Never Knew had Names”, one of a number of lists published on Canongate Books’ website to promote their publication The Book Of Lists.
If I wore a bow tie and/or lamented the occasional, elegant use of a terminal preposition, I would resent the assertion that I didn’t know these things have names, let alone that I didn’t know what those names all were. Instead I’ll put my brain where my mouth is and review a selection of the words, to see how many I do know, and even whether the list gets something wrong…
Aglet is the first word on the list. Feh! Anyone who reads Achewood or has done prison time knows this one.
Columella Nasi. I almost called this one wrong, misinterpreting the description as referring instead to that classic obscure body-part, the philtrum. Philtrum is an excellent word, naming an essential yet overlooked (literally) facial feature that is right under your very nose (again, literally); furthermore, it has a beautifully arbitrary etymology, and renders one of the definitions in The Meaning of Liff redundant. Columella Nasi is not excellent. Latin terms like these aren’t very impressive: they suggest you’ve merely boned up on a science book, rather than achieved the command of a wide-ranging vocabulary through a lifetime rich with variegated experience. It’s like saying “rattus norvegicus” when you could say “Siberian hamster”.
Hemidemisemiquaver. As a rough guide, there’s not much enjoyment to be had from a word if it’s useless for both Hangman and Scrabble. If you’re going to fill up your list with technical jargon, there are much better words to be had from the field of music, even starting with H, such as hocket, hemiola, and Hennessy.
Jarns, Nittles, Grawlix, and Quimp. They don’t give you any pictures of these to show precisely which is which, so here you go. Funnily enough, the font set linked above shows that a jarn is the same thing as an octothorpe, and there’s a character called a phosphene. The research behind this list is starting to look less than extensive. In case you were wondering, these terms were all coined by Mort Walker, who also invented the similarly useful word, briffit.
Keeper. The lamest name for the dullest definition. Even if they believe you, knowing this word is guaranteed not to impress anyone. Honestly, this sounds like something a five-year-old came up with.
Minimus. “The little finger or toe.” For names which are supposed to define amusingly specific things (see nef), this one is maddeningly vague. Pick one appendage and stick with it! I’m sure this word is responsible for at least one erroneous amputation.
Peen. What part of “ball-peen hammer” don’t you understand? Besides the “peen” part.
Purlicue. This is entering my personal lexicon immediately, and I shall never admit that I got it from a stupid list someone emailed me.
Rowel. This one came up on one of those forensic science dramas (the one where everything’s dark blue even though they’re in the middle of a desert) a while back, so along with dragées and ferrule I’ve got 8 out of 33 so far, while Douglas Adams has 0.
Zarf. I’m docking myself half a point for getting this one hopelessly wrong, thanks to a newspaper article I read years ago which asserted that the correct word for those cup-holders is swarf, derived from the large wood shavings that lathe operators used to wrap around their hot mugs of tea. It turns out that guy was confused and wrong, and so, in turn, was I. Swarf typically means fine shavings and filings, and zarf is an unrelated word of Arabic origin. I’m pretty sure I read my misinformation in a column in The Adelaide Review, so I’ll take comfort from blaming this on Christopher Pearson.
Any suggestions for better, more obscure nouns are more than welcome.
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

The Patrick White Reading Group is back

Tuesday 6 February 2007

This time, reading The Solid Mandala. Starts 20 February. Everybody welcome. Won’t be joining in this time. Gone off White after Vivisector experience. Also no time for articles, pronouns, conjunctions, certain verbs.

Another London Pilgrimage: Wyndham Lewis

Sunday 19 November 2006

This jolly building is No. 4 Percy Street, Fitzrovia (“it would be called Soho by a careless guide”), sometime home of Wyndham Lewis at the time he was writing Tarr. No blue plaque marks the site, although Charles Laughton and Coventry Patmore have plaques on the same block. Appropriately, the ground floor is now a boutique called “Almost Famous”, and the first floor houses a “brand development” company.
(In fact, Lewis does have a blue plaque, but at one of his later residences, in Kensington.)

A little further south, across Oxford Street, is Soho Square, where T.E. Hulme once hung Lewis from the railings after an argument got a little out of hand. “I never see the summer house in its centre without remembering how I saw it upside down.” According to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Pound, the dispute was about which man had bonking rights over Kate Lechmere, but I haven’t found corroboration for this anywhere else, and Carpenter had a habit of ascribing motivations to his subjects based on nothing more than his distaste for them.
The statue is of Charles II. Despite his presence, there are no pelicans to keep down the rampant pigeon population.
Soho Square is also the place where Hulme was once apprehended by the law for urinating in public, in broad daylight. Hulme was indignant: “Do you realise you’re addressing a member of the middle class?” The policeman apologised and went away. I looked, but couldn’t find a plaque to commemorate the event.

London: City of Disappearances

Friday 10 November 2006

As part of my recurring curiosity about London’s psychogeography, I went to the launch of the book London: City of Disappearances in Bishopsgate. Bishopsgate was an appropriate location for the launch: the City’s frontier, the line of the old city wall acting as a threshhold where the establishment’s corporate bastions give way to the rapidly redeveloping East End. All around the Bishopsgate Institute’s Great Hall are new cafes and bistros built over what was formerly bohemian squalour, and before that working class and immigrant enclaves.
My own place in Hackney is on a similar border, but between two manifestations of the same economic weather. To the west, gentrification and property speculation encroaches, as the housing estates gradually disappear, one by one. Just to the east lies Olympic territory, the Hackney Marshes destined for wholsesale reconstruction by 2012.
The book, a collective repository of memories from the famous and unknown alike, solicited from an open call for contributions, was edited by Iain Sinclair, whom I have discussed several times before. He spoke of the intertwining of history and myth, of the city as a tissue of ephemera related from one individual to the next, its identity made or lost through what someone remembers or forgets.
“Every appearance is a disappearance,” we were reminded, thinking of the construction sites that surrounded us. It was not a necessary injunction. As a newcomer, I knew that arriving in a city entails always being reminded of how much you have already missed. As for Londoners, they are so preoccupied with memories, with conservation and preservation, that every change in the city is regarded as a loss. The preservationist urge is so strong in most Western cities today that the population’s response to the cityscape is almost entirely reactive, focussed exclusively on what is to be destroyed, with no deep consideration of what is to replace it. Really, it would be more instructive to remind ourselves that every disappearance is an appearance, for ill or good.
Sinclair himself has been guilty of this kind of barbaric nostalgia – who, not knowing what is of value, hoards everything – reacting to every alteration and relocation with an innate fear and mistrust. Transported back to Victorian times he would have doubtless been dismayed by the excavation of the sewers. His attitude has become more enlightened lately, having explored further afield into the suburbs, and learning from J.G. Ballard how to appreciate the new city that has sprung up in the Docklands.
Someone asked how he knew that all the stories collected are true. “I don’t.” Everyone invents their own world, and so each London described cannot help but bear a greater or lesser resemblance to the city you or I would recognise. Some of the collected memoirs are likely fabrications; some flatly contradict each other. (Two ageing anarchists in the book claim to have been working in the same Charing Cross Road bookshop at the same time, and each vociferously denies that the other was there.)
The book will not give a definitive overview or coherent mapping of a city plainly seen, but hopefully in its omissions, repetitions, dead ends and contradictions, its confusion will make a truer reflaction. As someone who prefers to play the hunter-gatherer of used and remaindered books, it will again be a portrait partly eclipsed by time when I get around to reading it.

Patrick White is a middlebrow hack.

Monday 16 October 2006

The final instalment of the online reading of Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector. Previous posts here and here.
“Then we also have our obligations to animals and humans,” she added with a moist pathos.
He remembered the sackful of cats, and she lowered her eyes, perhaps on catching a reflection in his.
We remember it too, because we were told about it only two pages earlier. Even then, it was carefully spelled out to us that if a man is carrying a sack of cats to water, he means to drown them, do you see? The first sentence of The Da Vinci Code should be enough to convince you it’s not worth reading, yet it’s scarcely any worse than passages like the one above which litter The Vivisector.
There’s an old dictum that writers should show, not tell; but White has an exasperating compulsion to show, and then tell what he’s just shown. Perhaps he didn’t trust, or recognise, his own abilities as a writer. Perhaps he was pitching his writing toward an envisaged audience of reluctant students. Perhaps he was afraid that not quite everyone would appreciate his Depth of Feeling, and so had to keep reminding people that he was a Serious Writer, at the expense of the writing itself.
Just in case we’re too thick to get that the cats are Symbolic, Hurtle and Hero then proceed to argue about them for no-one’s benefit other than our own. Ridiculously, this carries on for several pages. Every subsequent, inevitable reference to cats for the remainder of the chapter (including one otherwise effective moment when Hero addresses her “adopted” Aboriginal child as “kitten”) comes across as phoney and heavy-handed as, well, something out of Dan Brown. An especially self-important Dan Brown.
For those wanting to keep track, Hurtle’s previous clichéd lover, the Maternal Whore, has been disposed of by authorial fiat and replaced in unconvincing circumstances by Hero, another clichéd lover, the Slumming Patroness. (Her husband is that other great cliché of the novelist’s time, the Greek Shipping Tycoon. Perhaps White was trying to forestall silly questions about where he gets his ideas from.) There is, of course, another patroness on the scene, and so another cliché, the Triangle, inveitably ensues, thus fulfilling the need for a section about The Artist And His Women.
Strangely, neither woman has apparently ever shown a personal interest in any other bohemian besides Hurtle. He is that most infuriating of stock protagonist types, the Guy Stuff Just Keeps Happening To.
The last three chapters of the book improve dramatically, inasmuch as they begin to play with our expectations more than fulfil them, albeit in a way that renders the preceding seven chapters superfluous. Hurtle is such an inert, narrowly defined character in the novel’s first 400 pages that there is nothing in him or the limited depiction of his world that enlarges upon our appreciation of the final 200. In fact, knowledge of the earlier chapters may even hinder our taking seriously the latter part of the book, with its plot heavily based upon a series of reunions of sufficient improbability to make Dickens blush.
White’s description of people and places is so thoroughly squalid that it becomes unintentionally comic; you could almost make a drinking game out of the number of times a character eats food that has spoiled. Ultimately, his unvarying determination to depict the vulgarity of everyday life is revealed as a veneer of bourgeois titillation to disguise the utter conventionality of the author’s thoughts behind it; a surface of exaggeratedly gritty reality to distract from the dishonesty of the characters and plot: the Crucified Artist Hero and Redemption Through a Child. The noble overreach of the book’s ambition is hamstrung by White’s self-regarding redundancies and need to assert the profundity of his unexceptional insight.
The Readers’ Group is planning another online reading of a White novel soon, which I won’t be joining. Reading this book put me off White more than I expected, and I don’t want to return to him in a hurry, when other, doubtless better books sit unread on my shelves. In particular, I don’t want to reread a White novel: I rather liked the ones I read years ago, and I’m afraid it will spoil my memories.

Filler by Proxy XL: An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin

Wednesday 4 October 2006

For those of you with a love of the funerary violin, that obscure genre of music rendered almost extinct after it was condemned by the Catholic church in the 1830s, you will be glad to learn that Rohan Kriwaczek’s brand new book An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin is now available on sale from Amazon (UK site only). Fittingly, Kriwaczek’s book is published by Duckworth, purveyors of the poetic oeuvre of William McGonagall.
If you don’t care much about funerary violin music but have a grudge against Pius X for his 1903 motu proprio on sacred music, this book may also be up your alley.
The New York Times gives a little more information about the book and the mysterious Guild of Funerary Violinists (you may need Bugmenot to get past registration).
Strangely, The Rosenberg Archive has been silent about this guild.

The Vivisector: Another chapter, another cliché

Tuesday 19 September 2006

Me, reading chapter 3 of Patrick White’s The Vivisector:

It would be too funny if in later chapters he conflates artistic and sexual activity!

Patrick White, chapter 4:
He began fiddling, rubbing, masturbating in nervous paint on a narrow board. […]
He put her out of his mind while his drawn-out orgasm lasted: he had already decided to call this painting ‘Electric City’.
Heh heh oh dear.
If I had to recreate the original prank of submitting a chapter of White to a publisher in the expectation of being rejected, and had to use The Vivisector, the first scene between Hurtle and Nance would have suited admirably:
He let down her hair. It fell around them.* […]
… Nance was holding the Delicious Monster against her periwinkle of a navel. […]
Ahhhh they were flooding together in cataracts of light and darkest deepest velvet.
The whole passage is pretty funny but I can’t be bothered typing the whole thing out. We all know that sex is difficult to write, but White’s attempt to infuse it with a stream-of-consciousness reverie by Hurtle about his childhood only makes things worse.
Nance, by the way, is the Maternal Whore, just in case you thought White had used up all his clichés in the first three chapters. Oh, and later in chapter 4, painting and anal-expulsive behaviour are linked as prosaically as possible. At times it’s like White is simultaneously parodying his novel while writing it.
Perhaps that’s it. Hurtle Duffield’s life as an Australian artist is an imitative parody of life as an artist. The books narrative conceit, and Hurtle’s sense of self, is founded on a sanctimonious, romantic myth of the artist hero, an idea that was in its death throes at the time Hurtle develops into manhood. An impossible idea to convey seriously when the book was written, and one that a “modern” painter like Hurtle can cling to only at the expense of his own relevance to the art he wishes to serve.
The parody turns on Hurtle’s inexplicable, impossible isolation, working like a mad scientist in a B movie; living in a rural shed or suburban Sydney, utterly cut off from any community that would have necessarily, in reality, sustained him. Like an Australian in the world, Hurtle works disconnected from his social context: White explains that Hurtle actively avoids contact with fellow artists. His study in Paris is barely mentioned and seems to have made no impact upon him.
Before the Great War Wyndham Lewis was already publishing manifestos in London, rejecting the judgement and classification of art upon psychic criteria, renouncing the possibility of discerning psychology through paint. Lewis wrote several novels set amongst the artistic community in London. In each of these he depicts artists not as sensitive individuals, but as a pack, a caste, enacting a grotesque, vicious parody of the society from which they disdainfully set themselves apart, needing to exploit each other as much as the greater community at large. The Revenge for Love (1937) focuses on an expatriate Australian painter, whose daily life at home and grappling with his chosen medium are reflected in White’s descriptions of Hurtle painting at home. There is also a strange, siginificant event in the plot common to both works, which I won’t describe for fear of dropping spoilers to either book.
Perhaps I’m too enamoured of Lewis at White’s expense, but White’s most perceptive writing in The Vivisector has come when its world comes closest to Lewis’, in his study of the relationship between Hurtle and Caldicott, his dealer: the two of them cagily playing up to their roles, seeking simultaneously to cajole and dismay.
Incidentally, unlike Hurtle Duffield, Lewis’ Victor Stamp holds no delusions about his own importance, or indeed his own worth as a painter. Realising he will never be any good, what passion he had has dissipated, and he paints in a perpetual state of hapless bemusement.

There was, however, a consolation for these things. But it was a consolation with which he passionately refused to have anything to do. It was this. Most Australian or English artists were little, if any, better than he was himself.

* “Waaah, I’m bald!” she cried. (Sorry – blame The Muppets.)

Vivisector month, week one wrapup

Thursday 7 September 2006

I was trapped for what seemed the better part of a week at a Keiji Haino gig and so haven’t been able to give nearly as much time to writing as I wished. Analysis and comments of chapters 1-3 of Patrick White’s The Vivisector abound at the Readers’ Group.
What a cynical and complacent piece of hackwork this book is shaping up to be! Having previously gone some way toward talking myself out of liking White’s work at all, I was prepared to be “surprised” by the novel’s qualities and rediscover depths to his writing that I had forgotten. As it turns out, either I’m more persuasive than I thought or White is still worse than I remembered.
The admired vividness of White’s prose, his descriptions of place and character, keeps getting lost in a muddle of inconsistencies in his style. The most conspicuous but least offensive lapses are the clumsy images he hopes might shock, which read like a self-conscious attempt to build a reputation as an imitator of Kingsley Amis. Then there are the brief shifts to a second-person narration, which appear too frequently to appear to be giving us any particular revelation, and instead come across as a stylistic tic; they do, however, help disguise White’s egregious habit of interpreting his own writing for us. Like a school text, he can’t help deflating the authority of his words by letting an explanatory gloss trail limply after.
To welcome them, Mamman had been wearing an apron over her dress as though she had come from cooking the dinner herself, which of course she hadn’t.
“Oh, Harry,” she said, and when she came up for breath: “It’s been so lonely!” In a house full of maids, and Rhoda, and Miss Gibbons.
As if Mrs Courtney’s capacity for self-delusion needed further explication. Bizarrely, more subtle points are permitted to stand for themselves. (Mrs Courtney once comments while reading Hardy that he means to shock her: is she reading The Mayor of Casterbridge?) You’d like to think the narrator only knows what Hurtle knows to excuse these lapses, but tracking the shifts in narrative tone ultimately dispels this hope.
This is not an assertion that the only worthwhile books are those written, god forbid, in an immaculate, or even consistent, prose style. What makes this book the work of a middlebrow hack is its pandering to the intellectual pretensions of its presumed readership. So far, the plot resembles A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as though it were written by Stephen Dedalus himself, cribbing from the back cover blurb of Jean-Christophe, with a dash of Great Expectations to spice things up. If you haven’t read the book, you can probably invent your own precis of the first quarter of the novel based upon what you already know about other artistic Bildungsromans, or Hollywood movies, and it will match White’s themes pretty closely.
Perhaps (I hope) I’m too thick to have noticed it yet, but I keep waiting for the first sign that the book is about to truly begin, and rise to challenge a single received idea it has indolently offered us. It hasn’t happened. Given his reputation, it is astonishing that White affirms, affirms every bourgeois pseudointellectual commonplace that was the currency of mid-century chattering. The special child who stands apart from his peers. The Artist as an individual possessed by a vision no-one else can understand. A boy’s sexual curiosity as an adjunct to his artistic insight (it would be too funny if in later chapters he conflates artistic and sexual activity!) Salt of the earth working class versus pretentious, decadent upper class. Mutual antipathies and alliances between siblings. Distasteful Freudian aspects of family life which simmer and – yes! – boil over. The squalour of everyday life for the common man. An unbroken list of cliches, all permitted to sit undisturbed for 170 pages and counting.
It is the book that “Makes Us Look Smart, because it follows the rules we’ve been taught to explicate.” And White has thoughtfully written his own Cliff Notes into the text, in case we are too busy to understand what we’ve just read.

This is how you Take Back the White

Wednesday 23 August 2006

The month of Vivisector-related blogging approaches, and the Patrick White Readers’ Group has worked out a plan on how to read and/or write about Patrick White’s evidently-neglected novel. That is, provided you have managed to get hold of a copy.
Previously: I don’t read Patrick White. Not as a rule, anyway.