Saturday, 29 November 2008

Blancmange, Happy Families (1982)

Do you know what is a great album? Blancmange’s Happy Families (1982). Electropop? Did you say Electropop? Very eighties, that. Not just eighties, but very eighties. Throw those words together, ‘vereighties’, and you have a term invariably used as unambiguous dispraise. But we need to distinguish between shit electropop and great electropop, and this album is the latter. The boingy, springy baselines, striding octaves, stepping effortlessly across the chasms from tonic to fourths to fifths and back again: daddy-long-legs baselines. Fluting, jittery synth-lines. And that distinctive percussion, all ersatz hammerblows and synthcymbals, like an overcaffeinated DIYer bashing away downstairs. And the vocals! My, the vocals. ‘Feel Me’ is, like, the best track Talking Heads never recorded; though not a cover-version, ‘I Can’t Explain’ snaps off the Who’s metal coverhatch to rewire rawk as minor-key boingy snythesising, and ‘Living On The Ceiling’ (no more room down there, you see) is outrageously good. That means, its virtue goes to 'rage' and then beyond. Outrageous. ‘God’s Kitchen’ is pretty lame, but then again you can’t have everything.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Langford, The Sex Column (2005)

I've been thinking recently about what makes really good comic prose. It is, I'd say, more than just the ability to time a punchline (although of course that is important); it has to do with an ability to capture a particular tone, a sureness and easiness of motion in the prose, a profound likeability and engagement. It's possible to make people laugh, of course, without having any of this; but only to laugh in a number of rather limiting ways. That's why Chesterton was a greater comic writer than Dorothy Parker; and why Wodehouse is so much greater a stylist than Charlie Brooker. It's not that Brooker lacks talent (he's rather disgustingly gifted, indeed, as a stylist); it's just that Wodehouse has all Brooker's technical chops and something more. You admire Brooker's spleen; but you end up falling in love with Wodehouse's comic genius.

These thoughts were focussed by the arrival in the post of a copy of David Langford's The Sex Column; a collection of his SFX columns that sparkles throughout, but with the warmth of sunlight on water not the chill of neon on razor. I say that even though one of the pieces vents Langfordian frustration at, well, me actually, over a publisher's mix-up as to who got to write a particular title (he suspects me of hovering vulture-like and swooping down to snatch his project; I didn't, actually, but I can see why he was annoyed. And he is gracious enough to add an endnote confessing cordial relations with y.t. nevertheless). Otherwise this is as good an overview of SF, publishing, fandom and myriad related topics through the 90s and the beginning of the noughties as I can think of, and its writing is consistently on the Chesterton/Wodehouse side of things, not only in its inherent likeability, but in its sheer technical excellence. Nobody I can think of in genre, and few writers working today, writes comic prose as well as Langford.

Appendix: Three broad currents into which the many theories of human laughter can be grouped. One, sometimes called the ‘dark laughter’ theory, says that we laugh out of a nasty and reprehensible sense of superiority over other people: if we watch slapstick comedy it is the fact that those others are suffering pain and indignity whilst we are not that makes us laugh. Believers in this hypothesis like to point to satire, to cruel caricature, to put-downs, to the racist, sexist and homophobic currents in many jokes as evidence for their theory. A second theory, associated with the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, says that laughter mediates psychic anxiety, shunting it into a pleasurable release rather than external manifestations of distress (Freud observes that the physical signs of laughter, the facial rictus, the noises we produce, the tears running down our cheeks, are very like the signs we make when we are in great distress: indeed if you walked past a restaurant window and saw a woman at the table exhibiting those symptoms you might not, lacking the context, know whether she was laughing or crying). According to Freud the things that make us most anxious, such as death, sex, pain and embarrassment, are the things that make us laugh; laughter being the mind’s defence strategy for dealing with anxieties that would otherwise overwhelm us. A third theory is sometimes linked with the French philosopher Henri Bergson but would better, I think, be thought of as postmodern (Gilles Deleuze is its most eloquent proponent, I think). It suggests that we laugh when mechanical and organic get mixed up, when rhizomatic connections are made juxtaposing all sorts of experience in our mind, making new, disjointed and original connections. That, in other words, we laugh on many occasions when nobody is suffering, and when we are not anxious, but just because we are delighted—we laugh, as we walk into the sea, when a wave surges and the water touches or bellybutton; or when pigeons fly up into sunlight as we drink our coffee, or on a thousand different occasions. We laugh, in other words, not for negative reasons (a nasty sense of superiority over the suffering of others, or a sapping psychic anxiety), not out of lack, but out of a joyful fullness. These three theories are not, I think, wholly incompatible.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Alexei Sayle, Mister Roberts (2008)

Naturally, I'm always interested in stories (or songs) about Robertses, especially if they are science fiction. So I picked up this short novel prepared to be engaged. Then, having read it, I put it down. I thought to myself: 'my, but this book is deeply deeply rubbish.' I'm tempted to leave it at that, reviewwise.

What to make of Alexei Sayle? I have a friend called Malcolm Dixon who works a day-job at the University of Kent and in his spare time writes short fiction. He writes, in point of fact, the best short stories I have read this side of Lorrie Moore. (What's that? You haven't heard of him? That's your loss). Mention Alexei Sayle to Malcolm, in, let's say, a pub, and see him explode. You see, when a celebrity gets a publishing contract, and attendant review coverage and money, it is usually for an obviously ghostwritten piece of glossy flimflam. But Sayle, after garnering tremendous amounts of goodwill amongst left-leaning sorts with his aggressively quasi-situationist stand up comedy, went on to publish his own shite short fiction with literary pretentions. Then he went on to publish his own shite short novels with literary pretentions. Thereafter the blanket review coverage, the gushing endorsements from celebrity chums, the Mark Lawson BBC4 interview in which Sayle revealed that he resented never having shortlisted for the Booker Prize ... all this is liable to rub certain people up the wrong way. Amongst those people would be folk who write superb short fiction that never impinges the public sensorium because they've never been on the gogglebox.

Mister Roberts is mostly set in Spain amongst the expatriates. There's a costume designer called Laurence, and a 13-year-old mixed race boy called Stanley whose mother is a bit of a screw-up, and various other rizla-thin 'characters'. Here's the sfnal bit: an alien crash lands in a human-shaped robot (designed, you see, for exploring the human world unnoticed). The alien dies, but Stanley chances upon and then gets inside the robot. He passes it off as his Mum's new boyfriend 'Mister Roberts' (do you see what he did there?), beats up men who are hassling his mum and shenanigans ensue. It sounds like a YA premise. Stop, strike that. Try again: it sounds like a really weak, second-hand YA premise; but the swearing and violence here suggest that Sayle is pitching it as an adult novel. As a YA novel it would have sucked. As an adult novel it sucks. The difference, then, is one of tense.

It sucks on several levels, but the one that struck me most -- considering that this is a writer narked he's not getting Booker Prize shortlistings -- is just how poorly written the whole thing is. The prose reads throughout like a rough first draft; as if Sayles has not grasped that writing involves first writing down the stuff that tumbles out of your head and then rewriting it to improve it. An example:
For a while, a year or two perhaps, work had been gradually trailing off; the gaps between projects getting longer and longer but this series going to somebody else meant he wouldn't have done anything for well over nine months. [19]
See, that breathless 'I'll have a rough stab at punctuation, comma, comma, semicolon, fuck that, punctuation's too much trouble' style? Not so good. Saying 'a year or two perhaps', like you're not sure? Not good either. (You invented this character and his whole back story: if you don't know, who does?). Let me, as one writing professional to another, pass on another trick of the trade: gush, though bad, is not so bad as gushy cliché. Here's Sayles's alien:

In appearance, like all his comrades, he was small and stocky, about a metre and a half tall, strong muscular arms and legs covered in greenish grey scales with clawed hands and feet, his head longer than ours but with eyes, golden in colour, at the front—the mark of a predator. [22]

I would not be lying were I to say I've read fanfic better conceived and written than that. Indeed, turn it around: I'd be hard pushed to find fanfic worse conceived or more poorly written than that. What might redeem the hastily bodged up prose, uninvolving characters and random plotting would be a touch of the old humour: but the jokes here are weaker than kittens with flu. 'That's the closest thing we have to a philosophy, though, isn't it,' says one character: '"live and let live"?' 'Sometimes,' returns another, 'I wonder whether it isn't more "fuck up and let fuck up".' [92] A prize to anybody posting a weaker gag from a novel in the comments.

Not so much Mister Roberts as Mister Rubbish. Indeed, not so much Mister Rubbish as Rubbish Rubbish.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)

So I read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych, part of my ‘I’m in my forties now and this is a list of the classics of world literature I’ve really no excuse for not having read’ project. It’s really very good. (Both Nabokov and Gandhi, that celebrated double-act, thought it the single greatest story written). Ivan is dead, and the petty little rituals, and banal responses, of his friends and family are picked out at the beginning; then the perspective shifts back to Ivan’s life, his frittering away of existence in a petty, comfortable life, the onset of his illness and finally his prolonged, painful death. I read it and, of course, immediately thought of Woody Allen. Specifically, I thought of my favourite Allen film, Love and Death (1975) the funniest film ever made. And the particular portion that The Death of Ivan Ilych brings to mind is the (incomparable, superb) death scene of Voskovec the Herring Merchant.

Boris is in love with Sonja, but she is unhappily married to Voskovec the Herring Merchant (‘his mentality,' she complains, 'has reduced all the beauty of the world to a small pickled fish’). She takes lovers. (‘She takes uppers?’ Boris repeats, incredulous, when he hears this news). Voskovec, preparing his pistols to fight a duel in defence of his wife’s honour, accidentally shoots himself. Sonja goes to his deathbed in the company of a couple of doctors. In what is, I think, my favourite exchange in all film, Sonja talks to the expiring man: SONJA: ‘Leonid, I know I could have been a better wife to you. Kinder. I could have made love with you more often. Or once, even.’ VOSKOVEC (wistfully): ‘Once would have been nice.’ Here’s the tender deathbed scene:
SONJA: You were a kind and loving husband. Generous and always considerate. (To doctors) What's he got? About eight minutes?

DOCTOR: (consulting his watch) I think I'm slow. He's got about three.

VOSKOVEC: Swimming out! Swimming out to the open sea like the great … wild … herring! [Dies]

DOCTOR: I realise this must be a great blow to you, Sonja. But you must not allow yourself to be consumed with grief. The dead pass on, and life is for the living.

SONJA: (immediately) I guess you're right. Where you wanna eat?
And off they go, Sonja and the two doctors, bickering over which restaurant to go to for lunch. Of course, this scene is a deliberate parody of The Death of Ivan Ilych, just as Love and Death as a whole is a confection of parody of all the classics of Russian literature. The thing is, this little scene makes Tolstoy’s point better than Tolstoy does.

Here's the thing: Tolstoy wants to start with the ludicrous anticlimax of the impact other peoples’ death has on our existence, and wants to end with the intimations of mystic profundity. So he puts his comedy in the early sections: the way Peter Ivanovich is awkward at the Wake and doesn’t know what to say, so just says “Believe me . . . ”; or his mercenary little interview with the widow (‘Praskovya Fedorovna pressed his arm gratefully. When they reached the drawing-room, upholstered in pink cretonne and lighted by a dim lamp, they sat down at the table — she on a sofa and Peter Ivanovich on a low pouffe, the springs of which yielded spasmodically under his weight.’) It’s not hilarious, but it’s tonally light enough to make Tolstoy’s point. But then, as the story shifts to Ivan Ilych’s point of view, and he gets ill, and then gets worse, and then sinks into death-agony (several days of howling in pain), the tone gets all serious and Christian-metaphysical:
And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave his was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. … There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

“It is finished!” said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”
This is the wrong way round. It is not death that is the Distinguished Thing (death, as the Heideggerians remind us, is not a thing at all); the fact that life carries on, indifferent, after individual death is the Distinguished Thing. The vital perspective is not that of our individual consciousness, alarming though its extinction may be from where we’re sitting. The crucial perspective involves the camera in a much much longer long-shot. Actual DNA, metaphorical DNA (art, say), not the itch of consciousness; the mundane business of getting from day to day, not transcendent epiphany. Allen’s instincts were truer; not only is his version mercifully briefer, and much funnier, it is also more profound. The end of life is not consummatum est, not “Death is finished … It is no more!” The end of life is very much ‘where you wanna eat?’

Monday, 3 November 2008

E B Soane, Elementary Kurmanji Grammar (1919)

Kurmanji is a main Kurdish language; and this book (Oxfam, High Wycombe, October 2008, 59p) is, according to its preface 'intended primarily for the use of officers and others whose duties leads them to the southern districts of Kurdistan.' The British military presence in Iraq, 1919--the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, as it was--is one of those ghosts of history still very actively haunting the present. And what a weirdly vivid through-the-chinks portrait this book provides of the sort of world a British officer stepped into (or expected to step into) amongst the Kurds. Here are the sorts of 'common idiomatic phrases' and verb tables the book offers:

akuzhim it I will kill you.
(but) dabe bikuzhim it I shall (probably) kill you.
diz le kewda hatin a khwarawa thieves came down from the hills.

rutit akam I strip thee
rutim akai Thou strippest me
rutian akan They strip me

lai imda I strike
lai imda I struck him
laim ida He struck me
la'ian manda We struck him
laiman ianda They struck us

This is what we get instead of the blander 'cat sat on the mat' or 'pen of my aunt' style phrases other books might offer. Of course it's amongst other things a way of interpellating a whole country, a whole people, as violent and barbaric. In that respect it feels, oh I don't know, rather modern; as a primer in the ways in which Western Europe continues ideologically to construct a notion of meso-oriental existence. Laiman ianda, indeed.

Best of all are the translation exercises that come at the end of each chapter. The idea is that the reader translates the phrases sentence by sentence; but to read these little paragraphs as mini-stories is to enter a modishly postmodern world of oblique, and strangely touching, narrative. Some examples:

TRANSLATION EXERCISE 5: Last year the Persians sold their women for money. Who bought? I know not, but I know that the man who bought a woman bought also sickness. The animal tax of the Jaf will be much this year. The mare which Hama bought he did not buy with his own money. This year grazing was scarce in the warm country and everyone sold his own sheep cheap. I do not know my own mind, what can I say?
Haunting, no? We discover a fair bit about Hama.

TRANSLATION EXERCISE 2:The girls of the Jaf are not pretty, pretty girls are in Sulaimania. Hama's wife was a girl from the Jaf. Take the horses out to grazing. He was from Sulaimania and went to Bana. Bring that big horse here and give it to Muhammad. Kill that cat. I am from Erbil. Where is the son of that woman? In the house of the horsemen.
What had the cat done wrong, we wonder? I daresay say it has something to do with Hama's bitterness at his grinding life and unpretty wife. Finally, this one:

TRANSLATION EXERCISE 7: The Persians are cowardly, they were not formerly so, their work is evil, and their mind is black, so they became cowards and are still cowards. Had they been manly, they would not be wretched today. The Hamawand used to be robbers, now they are ploughmen and labourers and soldiers. The Turks would have been here now if they had been wiser. If in youth I had been lucky, I should never have been here. May he become blind! Would that I were in London now!
It's the twist at the end that makes this one; a soldier's lament on a distant, hostile and thankless posting. If my creative writing students wrote stories half as affecting I'd be a happy teacher.