Au Tombeau de William McGonagall

Sunday 20 August 2006

Beautiful city of Edinburgh!
Where the tourist can drown his sorrow
By viewing your monuments and statues fine
During the lovely summer-time.
I’m sure it will his spirits cheer
As Sir Walter Scott’s monument he draws near,
That stands in East Princes Street
Amongst flowery gardens, fine and neat.
And Edinburgh castle is magnificent to be seen
With its beautiful walks and trees so green,
Which seems like a fairy dell;
And near by its rocky basement is St. Margaret’s well,
Where the tourist can drink at when he feels dry,
And view the castle from beneath so very high,
Which seems almost towering to the sky.
* * *
Beautiful city of Edinburgh! the truth to express,
Your beauties are matchless I must confess,
And which no one dare gainsay,
But that you are the grandest city in Scotland at the present day!

– Wm. McGonagall, “Edinburgh”, Poetic Gems (London: Duckworth, 1970), p.84.

Great moments in poetry: Charles Olson writes to his would-be publisher to discuss the typesetting of proofs for his Maximus IV, V, VI, 1968

Thursday 10 August 2006

Where in hell did anyone get the idea these lines are not as written… Oh Jesus! where again does such ideas – in the face of a incredibly careful mss – go fucking haywire??… Here again SHRINK LEADING!!!! oh God it’s too much!… Note: whoever directed the Printer to set this this way shld lose his fucking head.

Why I don’t read Patrick White

Tuesday 25 July 2006

I have read and enjoyed Patrick White’s Voss and Riders in the Chariot, and sat through Shepherd on the Rocks without undue discomfort. The back cover blurbs of his novels interest me more than most books published these days. And yet I have always balked at reading more White. Why?
The Nobel Prize doesn’t help. There’s something about the average Nobel laureate that makes them seem like the sort of author UN delegates pretend to read. It is the epitome of officially-sanctioned literature, its demand of “idealism” (extraordinary word, just ask Allen Upward) become an officially-approved meliorist sentiment. It deals in certainties, it evades ambiguity the way it avoids awkward details and disturbing complications. It is perfect for Goverment-sponsored reading programs.
How many of your favourite, literary, capital-S Serious authors received a Nobel prize? Just look at the anointed Americans.
My other problem is the same one Kyle Gann at PostClassic encountered recently, when reading a comprehensive handbook of 20th Century composers:

Eurocentric criteria with which I might have been sympathetic when I was 20, before I became more acclimated to the changes that came with postmodernism. On one hand we have “the wider human condition,” i.e., the programmatic holdover from Romanticism that music is supposed to encapsulate some echo of the bourgeois man’s relation to society. On the other, “the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day,” which seems to reflect a modernist belief that the Hegelian World Spirit, moving ever westward… is embodied in a mainstream of music on which all “serious” composers must comment, and to which they all contribute.

For “music” read literature, another artform we still cannot quite believe has no insides. My taste has always instincively been for the art that tells us something else beside the cultural received opinion. No matter how I liked White, I always had the feeling he was limited by the need to Say Something Important, and spent his career, on-page and off, play-acting The Great Author, mummifying his books in thematic boilerplate.
Despite these reservations I cannot bring myself to dislike what I’ve read: there is enough discomfiting unevenness in his writing to keep it lively, as his splenetic visions of righteousness wrestle with his petty meanness. The Readers’ Group is my excuse to finally read White again, and to see whether the good outweighs the bad.

Take Back the White

Tuesday 25 July 2006

Six months ago: The Sunday Times in the UK sends a chapter of some book by V.S. Naipaul anonymously to several British publishers. Of course, it gets rejected. At the time I wrote about how probably no-one involved in the caper on either side had read Naipaul, but then my argument devolved into pitching into James Frey or Peter Phelps one more time.
Two weeks ago: After several weeks of brainstorming, The Australian sends a chapter of some book by Patrick White anonymously to several Australian publishers. Of course, it gets rejected. I like to think that the journalist simply submitted the Sunday Times article anonymously to the editor to see if it would get rejected.
Amazingly, there’s more than one publisher left in business in Australia to submit novels to. Even more amazingly, at least one of them seemed to have read the submitted chapter before rejecting it. However, as the discussion of the caper at Sarsparilla observes:

in amongst all that commentary and discussion one thing kept coming up again and again: hardly anyone has read a novel by Patrick White and seen for themselves what the fuss is about.

In response to this dilemma, The Patrick White Readers’ Group has been formed. Punters are invited to read The Vivisector and share their opinions during September. The tricky part for White’s fellow Australians will be getting hold of a copy: his novels are no longer printed in Australia.

Literary gaffes: a nitpicking footnote to Boswell

Wednesday 19 July 2006

In his otherwise very fine novel Boswell, Stanley Elkin has his protagonist “lunch with Ezra Pound at St Albans”. No doubt Elkin meant to say St Elizabeths, the mental hospital in which Pound was incarcerated at the time the novel takes place.
It seems a fitting mistake, given that Pound’s writing is notorious for being stuffed with references to obscure people and places, quite often misspelled, misremembered, or just plain wrong. For nearly ten years a team of editors pored over Pound’s Cantos and identified several hundred factual errors for correction, before deciding to abandon the project: not out of fatigue, but of a realisation that they were probably pulling apart the web of allusions that held the poem together, or at the very least “spoiling some of his puns.”
Some editions still have these “corrections”, others don’t. There was a general consensus among Pound scholars thirty years ago not to tinker with the poem any further, one way or another, until they had a better idea of what the poem is about.

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.

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?

Suck it, play it, put it in pocket.

Sunday 11 June 2006

I’ve previously mentioned musicians being tempted by the music-like writing of Samuel Beckett’s plays: not the musicality of the language, but the organisation of his scripting resembling musical scores. Now it turns out that the Analog Arts Ensemble and percussion ensemble Loop 2.4.3 have been working up their interpretations of Breath, “the original microscore”.
The Analog Arts Ensemble has the complete score, er, play, on their blog, complete with another piece of repurposed Beckett: three MP3s of them playing a musical adapttation of the sucking stones game from Molloy. Beckett’s love of permutations also makes him particularly appealing to musicians. Has anyone attempted an entire musical version of Watt?

Google search result #667 for “Dan Brown sucks”.

Saturday 27 May 2006

Lordi knows I don’t go off about Dan Brown nearly often enough, so what with The Da Vinci Code movie being out now so that people who don’t read can now see The Book Read By People Who Don’t Read without having to read it god I’m drunk.
Wait, I didn’t finish that last sentence. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, Cassette Boy has thoughtfully abridged the audiobook of the novel for your enlightenment (MP3, 1 minute, 1.25 MB download). I think someone lifted it from the album Dead Horse, but that doesn’t explain why this track was on my hard drive.
Hosted by The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade! Exclamation Mark!

Filler by Proxy XXXIII: The World According to Google (Da Vinci Code Version)

Thursday 25 May 2006

Beckett and Gaburo: Let’s Dance The Screw

Wednesday 3 May 2006

Speaking of the influence of Samuel Beckett’s antiphonal dialogues on Kenneth Gaburo’s music, UbuWeb has a complete recording, with sleeve notes, of Gaburo’s Maledetto, a 40-minute disquisition on the word screw “for seven virtuoso speakers”. If you’re unsure about downloading the whole thing, here’s a 2-minute excerpt (MP3, 3.5 MB). Hosted through the Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade.
Bonus Beckett links: Filming Play. Dunno if this could be any good (screenshots, Anthony Minghella, etc.)
Video clips of John Hurt doing a Krapp.

Repeat Play

Monday 1 May 2006

The best-known line in Samuel Beckett’s Play is one that is never heard spoken on stage, but its consequences are heard throughout the second half of the play, and define the drama. Out of all the plays being put on at the Barbican for the Beckett centenary, this is the one I was most eager to see: reading it, even with the most conscientious imagination, can in no way substitute for experiencing it in live performance.
Luckily, I managed to get to see it. (In an indication of my artistic seriousness of late, I missed most of the Beckett centenary events because I was in Italy doing pretty close to sweet bugger all. I had planned on going to see Krapp’s Last Tape when I got back but some fool cast John Hurt in it so it’s been booked out for months.)
In terms of drama, Play gives you everything and nothing. The plot is a received idea: a love triangle, the most hackneyed of cliches but an inexhaustible source of dramatic machinations. If in Waiting for Godot nothing happens twice, then in Play something happened, once. The three protagonists – man, wife, mistress, all long dead – pick over the details of the affair, interrogated in turn by an inquisitory light. What remains of the story when there is nothing more to it than memory?
The three, being dead – cremated, in fact – are ash confined to urns: the “action”, such as it is, consists of their voices and the light. Performing the play hinges on questions of timing and execution – musical questions – as much as of dramaturgy.
The connections between Beckett and music have always been obvious. Music appears as a character in its own right in several of his radio plays, and his stage scripts took on musical directions to varying degrees; from the mysterious Quad, a wordless choreography apparently more suited to dancers than actors, to Krapp’s Last Tape, a monologue with deft use of tape recording and playback that has been, or should be, the envy of composers who have attempted combining live performers with tape. (Morton Feldman, a composer who collaborated with Beckett on several occasions, was astonished to learn that Beckett didn’t own a tape recorder.)
Play is the text that most entices musicians: it’s closing direction “repeat play” caps off a text that resembles a musical score as much as a drama, with its dependence on vocal dexterity and precise timing between the three actors. Kenneth Gaburo conducted a performance of Play by his Mew Music Choral Ensemble (NMCE), interpreting the script as they would a piece of music.
Back when he was interesting, Philip Glass was hired to write music for a number of Beckett stage productions, including Play. What impressed him was that at every performance the emotional climax came at a different point in the play, proving that the substance of the play was not in its text, but in the relationship of the text between the actors and the audience. Play makes clear the audience’s complicty in theatre.
In this performance, the great emotive moment came early in the second half, as we realised we were hearing the same story all over again. The lighting, already wan, dimmed to near total darkness; the voices, already soft, retreated to a murmur that would have been unintelligible to anyone entering the theatre. This knowing use of sound, of how little of the voice was needed to carry through the small theatre, was the most successful part of the production. The audience silent, craned forward slightly to hear a tale they had heard before.
At first we laughed (the new received opinion: Beckett is funny) at the seemingly irrelevant details of their story, which seemed then to define the triviality of their minds. The second time around these little digressions became uncannily poignant, the enduring memories of a life irretrievably lost, clung to as dearly as their self-inflicted hurts and humiliations.
If you really want to see John Hurt perform Krapp’s Last Tape, he made a film of it in 2000, the same year he narrated The Tigger Movie.

Book corner: Survey says “Duh!”

Thursday 2 March 2006

The literary world (pretty much like the real world only with worse dress sense) is rocked by the shocking findings of a survey of everybody in the whole wide world, even that really old bloke down the road who never leaves his house and you thought was dead: people feel good about books that make them feel good.

Book readers love a happy ending, according to a survey carried out to mark World Book Day.

“That does it!” vowed one author who asked to remain anonymous. “From now on I’m only going to write books people like.”
The other survey findings include: everyone’s favourite book was that one they saw on TV last month. Other favourites include books that shed unsightly flab from you thighs and abdomen while you read, and books that shower you with a delicious assortment of chocolates whenever you open them (soft centres only).
Men liked books about guns, while women preferred novels with bright pastel covers.
More importantly, the survey confirmed that you should never, ever trust a librarian’s taste in books. It looks like they’ve given up on last year’s attempt to pretend they’re sexy and relevant and have gone back to telling everyone to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, at least someone in authority finally had the guts to step up, put their reputation on the line and dare to make approving comments about this book. You VILL enjoy this book! It is Helen Darville’s favourite!
The second most librarian-suggested book is the Bible. I wonder how many of these librarians said that the Bible is the only book they recommend, ever; whether it’s for a punter looking for the rack of Star Trek novels or a kid researching a school project about ants. Where was this survey conducted? Please say Iran.
In unrelated news, TMFTML offers free advice to James Frey on how to revive his career:

May we suggest the concept for your next book? In A Million Supposedly Fun Things I Never Did Before, you go back and actually do all the stuff you said you did in Pieces (i.e., get root canal without novocaine, board a plane covered in puke, drive some girl to suicide, etc.) and then write about it. Trust us, A.J. Jacobs and other purveyors of gimmick lit will have nothing on you. Oprah will once again be eating out of your hand. Assuming you don’t get it cut off in a bar fight.

Also, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and J.R.R. Tolkein. I’m not sure if they have anything to do with the above but apparently you can’t write a book article these days without mentioning them. Hopefully by xmas everyone – well, people with healthy social lives, anyway – will have forgotten about Tolkein again, which will make all our lives just that little bit easier.

And then I’ll take the Million Little Pieces and I’ll jump on them until, until you’ve had enough!

Thursday 9 February 2006

It’s getting late, but having first stumbled across that wonderful review all those months ago, it seems fair to give some room for John Dolan at The Exile to gloat over finally being vindicated about A Million Pieces of Shit, and to taunt the senders of hate-mail one more time:

These readers actually consider themselves noble savages, whose responses are all the purer because they haven’t sullied themselves with books. That fraud is a perfect complement to Frey’s: he pretends to be a scarred veteran and they pretend to be cultural virgins, rather than thrashed sluts who’ve been fucked a million times by every after-school special, every Brian’s Song death-porn tearjerker, and can’t imagine anything better.

And so he continues in his customary fashion. The whole affair has reminded me of the antics of those phony psychics, who trot out the same hokey old magic tricks (table-tapping, spoon-bending) but can’t pull them off well enough to entertain an audience. So they lie; they pretend it’s real, attracting an eager audience who needs something to believe in. It never ends well for the deceived.