Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Paris Review Interviews vol. 1

This is the best chat show you ever saw. Cherry picked from between 1956 and 2006, here you have – for the first seven interviews alone – Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges and Kurt Vonnegut, talking at length about life and literature. Is there a better way of spending a Sunday afternoon? The writers interviewed are for the most part elderly, looking back on a lifetime’s achievement. Many are asked about the writing process itself – the routine of it, how it is that a novel or a poem can spring from a person sitting at a desk with a pencil or a typewriter. Asked how he starts a poem, Jack Gilbert is unhelpful:

There’s no one way. Sometimes I’m walking along the street and I find it there. Sometimes it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Sometimes it’s an apparition. (p. 452)

Robert Stone is more practical:

[I type] until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed – you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity. (p. 308)

Richard Price, having gone from writing novels to screenplays, talked up his novel Clockers to publishing houses – not having written a word – as though it were a screenplay: he wanted the ‘hugger-mugger’, the ‘emergency meetings’ of collaborative writing. ‘I wanted someone waiting, someone keeping the light burning in the window.’ (p. 386). Joan Didion constantly re-writes the 90 pages preceding the point she has reached, advancing incrementally. Hemingway believes ‘it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes’ (p. 50), but nonetheless reveals:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, and you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. (p. 38)

Trying ‘to live through until the next day’ is presumably the point at which the interview occurred, because he is extremely testy throughout. It was perhaps unkind to put it directly after the cheery Truman Capote interview:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. (p. 28)

Borges comes across as a sweet, slightly tremulous old man, deeply immersed in and alive with literature. His interview is punctuated every few pages by the entrance of one Susana Quinteros, who announces ‘Señor Campbell is still waiting’, to which Borges responds, ‘Yes, yes, we know. The Campbells are coming!’ (p. 136). She never tires of drawing his attention to his waiting visitor, and he shows no interest in having Campbell shown in before the interview is over, though he is quite aware of the humour in the situation. Unlike Hemingway, he is as engrossed in the interview as he would be in a book. He says, ‘I don’t think ideas are important’, which endeared him to me immediately. A writer should be judged by ‘the enjoyment he gives and by the emotion one gets’. He gives the example of Kipling’s Kim as a book in which the ideas behind it and the feeling one gets from it are at odds with one another:

Suppose you consider the idea of the Empire of the English – well, in Kim I think the characters one really is fond of are not the English, but many of the Indians, the Mussulmans. I think they’re nicer people. And that’s because he thought them – no! no! not because he thought them nicer – but because he felt them nicer. (p. 131)

Prior to reading this interview I’d never read Borges (I’m reading Fictions at the moment), but that’s really not the kind of remark you’d expect from someone famous for such conceptual stories.

There is so much in this book I haven’t touched on (e.g. Billy Wilder’s funny and well balanced take on script writing, Rebecca West’s hard boiled scattiness or Kurt Vonnegut’s awful one liners), it leads in all kinds of directions, adds pounds to the reading list, and is just an all round terrific thing. If BBC 4 modelled a chat show on it – well, you can dream. Here’s one more quote from Jack Gilbert, whose interview is my favourite thing here:

INTERVIEWER: What, other than yourself, is the subject of your poems?

GILBERT: Those I love. Being. Living my life without being diverted into things that people so often get diverted into. Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security – all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, and house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward – the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives – until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice. (p. 456)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Acid Mothers Temple at Stereo, Glasgow, 16th November

There was a live review in Plan B not so long ago saying that the Acid Mothers experience is one which has been scaled down in recent years, and this is true to some extent. I first saw them in 1998, and they tore the roof off the Art School in a way I’ve never seen bettered, or even approached. A juggernaut of noise, incessant and appalling, delivered by creatures from hell or from space. Suhara Keizo looked as though he was having the most fun, with a fixed chubby grin, violently bouncing his bass around; Cotton Casino leaned over her analogue bubble box, twisting knobs and shrieking into the mic, swigging beer between times; Kawabata Mokoto threw his Stratocaster into furious transports (or did it throw him?), jerking upwards to shoulder level and floating there, as though filled with helium. The two-note racket of ‘Speed Guru’ extended over fifteen, twenty minutes, the most exhilarating noise imaginable.

Kawabata Mokoto has spoken of the first Acid Mothers’ LP, which is still the best way to experience the visceral thrill that exploded at us that night, as more or less a solo record. Plenty of people play on it, but he put it together, overdubbing, editing, and it stands as their statement of intent, the key songs being ‘Speed Guru’ and the slower, beautifully trippy ‘Pink Lady Lemonade’. The record ends with several minutes of a tone so piercing you have to turn it off. This out of the way, Acid Mothers went about the business of becoming a band, and subsequent LPs (or the ones I’ve heard, a fraction of their massive output) are gentler, more rounded, more collaborative. Still plenty noisy, of course.

Acid Mothers are now down to a four-piece. Cotton has gone, which is sad, but Higashi Hiroshi fills in on the bubble box, and sings even if he doesn’t scream. He gives the band a different kind of presence, with his long black / grey hair and measured baritone. Kawabata is the same as ever, and this is what you really go to see: his guitar tantrums, his mass of curls (hair is important in this band), the sheer presence of the man. I don’t have any kind of religious belief, but I believe him when he says he picks the music up out of the air, channelling what the spirits have to say through his great and noble band. Tonight they slip onstage, crash with no ado at all into a slab of their trademark noise and it’s a thrill like it always is.

After a relatively brief first song, they play what sounds very much like a cover of Stereolab’s ‘Metronomic Underground’ (plus crunch, minus vocals), before starting up ‘Pink Lady Lemonade’ to cheers of recognition, and staying with it for the remainder of the set. It’s hard to say how long this might have been – the song’s hypnotic pull shreds any consciousness of time passing. A lot of Acid Mothers songs do this. Dip in here or there and you mightn’t notice much difference, but the cumulative effect is what counts. Some time later, the pace hots up, the single spidery riff has been set going in our heads, and Kawabata cuts the rope holding us to the ground, leaving the notes to continue in imagination only as he piles on the rubble with frantic movements across the fretboard. Later still he swings the guitar over his head a few times and you think ‘cool, but who doesn’t do that?’ until he somehow manages to hook it high up into the lighting rig and suddenly magic has happened again: never mind how he did it, the guitar which has spent years in his hands climbing vainly upwards only to be restrained with epic and everlasting solos, has broken free and now hangs, looking not a little lethal, from the ceiling. If we were outside it would be halfway to heaven by now. And we’d be looking down, watching it ascend.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – ‘The Valley of Fear’

I like Sherlock Holmes a lot. He verges on being a guilty pleasure, because the thing I like about him most is Basil Rathbone’s screen version, in a series of films which are only occasionally competent, but which are always funny, often hilarious. Rathbone’s take on Holmes is itself totally great, with just the right mix of teasing superiority and sudden jolts into action when the game is afoot. He is surrounded by buffoons, though – Lestrade and Watson on camera, Roy William Neill behind it, and the films end up as a series of clichés revolving around generalised notions of those great institutions, London, Scotland and Scotland Yard. A bit of fog on a street = London; some bushes on a sound stage (and ‘Loch Lomond’ on the sound track) = Scotland. It’s all palpably for the benefit of US audiences after a bit of UK kitsch. Holmes’ relationship with Watson is sent up mercilessly. On the plane to Washington (in Sherlock Holmes in Washington), Holmes admonishes him like a long suffering parent: ‘Oh, do stop chewing, Watson’, when he tries to get into the spirit of the trip with some gum. At Euston (in Terror by Night), when Watson nearly misses the Flying Scotsman, there is a touching scene in which he runs down the platform alongside the moving train: ‘Watson!’ shouts Holmes from his carriage, genuinely alarmed that he may have to travel without him. ‘Coming, Holmes!’ returns the faithful Watson, and it’s all terribly romantic right up until the cut to the train interior, when Watson scrambles aboard extremely unconvincingly, clearly having just walked through a door in a film set.

The Valley of Fear is much better than any of the Roy William Neill-directed films, of course. It is lean, tautly plotted and gives the impression that it is written by a man at ease with his characters and his craft. Though it shares the awkward split-down-the-middle structure of A Study in Scarlet, it gets away with it because the second section (set in 1875 and not featuring Holmes at all) is no less gripping than the first. Neither section is particularly plausible. I keep wanting to compare it to The Importance of Being Earnest, not because there is any actual similarity, but because both are late works which seem to walk on air, having no reference to anything but their own internal logic. Perhaps because it is so relaxed, Conan Doyle finds time to offer humorous glimpses into Holmes and Watson’s life together. The opening lines are:

‘I am inclined to think –’ said I.

‘I should do so,’ Sherlock Holmes remarked, impatiently.

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals, but I admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. (p. 9)

They might as well be married. Later on, Watson reveals that ‘We slept in a double-bedded room, which was the best that the little country inn could do for us’ (p. 72). Is this deliberately suggestive? Perhaps not, but the two obviously live hand in glove, and the incidents from the films mentioned above – though they’re not in the books – are perhaps not such a stretch after all. Conan Doyle appears far more knowing about the way his characters are perceived than I remember.

The first section of the book is an elegantly expanded short story, based around the familiar idea of retribution in Britain for long ago deeds done abroad (see also ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’ and The Sign of Four). Murder has been done in a house with a large moat, at night, when the drawbridge was up. Holmes isn’t convinced that the only people who could have committed the crime, did so. Moriarty is the cause of the tip off with which the story begins, and the cause of the downbeat ending – he hovers over events as he does in every second Roy William Neill film, but in few other of Conan Doyle’s stories. This device works well in conjunction with the book’s second section, which deals with Vermissa Valley, a mining community in the ‘most desolate corner of the United States of America’ (p. 92). Here a secret society called the Ancient Order of Freemen rule with a regime of terror, extracting protection money from the mining companies and killing anyone who won’t pay up. The story follows John McMurdo into the Valley of Fear, and tracks his descent into exactly this form of crime. The society’s members come across as pirates on land, with their rowdy consensus and then dissent from the one cowardly member, which boss McGinty sweeps aside with grim threats. It’s all about as believable as Treasure Island, and involving in the same kind of way. It gradually emerges that the terror isn’t as localised as it first seemed: many towns in the vicinity also have Freemen lodges, and will loan out men to kill, the idea being that a killer from out of town will be harder to track down. And so Conan Doyle describes the kind of criminal network which he only ever hints at when writing about Britain, and then uses the example to build up Moriarty, who succeeds where the Freemen failed in retribution against the man who eventually brings them down.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A. N. Wilson – ‘The Victorians’

A couple of recent blog posts (at Click Opera and Cultural Snow), in talking about cop show The Wire, had a pop or two at the Victorians by way of demonstrating how outmoded / cutting edge it is. How unfair! I thought: whether you believe Click Opera, (who see the show in terms of ‘The religiose, 19th century vocabulary of secular humanism [which] gets wheeled out time after time to justify the greatness of mega-narratives’), or Cultural Snow (‘The Wire […] has the nerve to stretch a single storyline over an entire season, and then to withhold from the audience any real notion of closure’), the Victorians do badly out of the deal. The Wire is either rubbish because it is as enclosed and as grand in scope as one of the larger Dickens novels, or brilliant because it isn’t. One of these reactions suggests that playfulness is all important, fucking with the formula art’s prime responsibility (actually it will always be a minority pursuit, if a noble one); the other advocates a realism less heightened than in Dickens (perhaps he, with his grotesques and caricatures, is a bad example, because few novelists were ever less realistic – say instead, Trollope, Thackeray, Tolstoy), less plotted in terms of (divine) reward and comeuppance, but no less involved in the length of the piece, the texture of the society represented, the number of characters. Take this quotation from the Wilson book:

To many a young Russian, it must seem hard to understand how the older generation were ‘brainwashed’ into admiring Lenin; it would be harder for him or her to see that by absorbing the new anti-communist ideology they had also submitted to a set of doctrines – for example that capitalism spells freedom – which might seem quaint to a later generation. (p. 604)

It seems quaint to us 21st century sophisticates that 150 years ago, novelists tended to resolve stuff: give to the good, take from the bad, home in time for tea. But narratives still have to do this, in one way or another, otherwise they would not be satisfying (and therefore not successful). They must intrigue us at first, evoke people and places, make us feel part of the situations they describe, and finally wrap things up so we feel that there has been a conclusion. That conclusion may be a series of marriages, or deaths, it may be the realisation that nothing much has changed, it may be Johnny Depp stepping into the mouth of a gigantic octopus (or Momus’ own stately LP closing tunes – ‘Song in Contravention’ for instance), but it must feel like a sign-off. The audience must know when to clap. We get annoyed by anything that signals it too obviously, but is this really a good enough reason to abandon mid Victorian fiction?

The closest A. N. Wilson gets to a mega-narrative in his bewilderingly diverse book is the suggestion that Victorian social policy was informed by Jeremy Bentham’s doctrine of utilitarianism and Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, which held that:

Human population grows at a “geometric” rate, as in the series, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, whereas means of subsistence must grow at an arithmetical rate – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The inevitable consequence of this, he believed, was starvation. (p. 11)

In Wilson’s telling, the Victorians were all about management: machines to manage the tasks previously performed by people (weaving, for example), institutions to either manage or export the economic problems the machines caused (workhouses, the empire). After Prince Albert’s death he despairs of the pace of change, and the selfishness which drives it on. The history proper is interspersed with artistic and literary movements (the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin, a creepy Lewis Carroll) but it is not until the 1890s that the latter manage to get into the driving seat – and it is at this point that Wilson loses sympathy with them, and that I rather lost patience with him. Most people who write about the fall of Oscar Wilde wonder why he didn’t leave the country before the second trial, at which he stood no chance of acquittal. Had he done so, he could have avoided disgrace, imprisonment and an early death. Therefore, implies Wilson, sticking to his logic like Malthus, because he acted foolishly, he is not worth our attention. He did not act for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; nor did he act for the greatest happiness of himself. He acted contrarily. But this is what is important and great and politically significant about him: that at the end of a century which argued itself into such a highly charged, acquisitive, over-armed state that the First World War followed almost as an inevitability, Wilde, when asked to compete on like terms, said to himself, ‘Relax, don’t do it.’

Think I just answered my own question about why formulas need to be fucked with and narratives need to be blown wide open.

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