Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The Next Doctor (2008)

Doctor Who's 2008 Christmas special. Fair enough; and we all settled down, plump with food, to watch it. Before it had got through a quarter of its allotted--David Morrissey seemingly the Next Doctor, though afflicted with amnesia by the Cybermen, accompanied by his assistant the standard-issue attractive young female (Velile Tshabalala)--my sister said: 'I reckon what's happened here is that he's the assistant, and she's the actual Next Doctor. He's got amnesia, and she's letting him carry on thinking he's the Doctor to protect him, or something like that.' We all went: mmmn! and aaah! and hunkered deeper into the settees to watch the rest of the programme. But one consequence of having in mind so clever a twist (for it would have made sense of the story in various ways, not least the script's inchoate proto-feminism) was that the actual narrative denou. seemed monstrously lame and inconsequential. I mean, I think I would have found it lame and inconsequential anyway; but the way it jarred against my sister's much better idea meant its lameness and inconsequentiality assumed monstrous proportions. If I hadn't been made torpid by turkey I'd have given voice to my disapproval.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Zola, La Débâcle (1892)

Premise: I shall read Zola’s Rougon-Macquart books in reverse order. Obstacle: But I don’t have Le Docteur Pascal to hand. Glorious overcoming of obstacle: I instead read La Débâcle (1892), starting with a Leonard Tancock/Penguin Classics edition which I’ve had for what the French call yonques and yonques. I enjoyed it so much I stopped by the library to pick up the newer, better OUP translation, plus a copy of the French original, to check to see whether there's any basis for the way Tancock works charmingly archaic 1930s-public-school idiom in with odd moments of the Deadwood style: 'hooray, there's a nice smash-up!' 'It's too dangerous lad,and I'll never let you do anything so barmy. ... Look here, we're in on this together. It's a grand idea to fuck off.' 384). I don’t believe it's really like that, tonally, in the French, though it's hard for me to say.

It would be mere fatuity for me to say this is a very good novel. Of course it is. Colour me fatuous, then: I was very impressed. But by gum it’s not a realist novel. Enormous quantities of raw fact are assembled by Zola only to be pressed, like blocks of tofu, into a tripartite quasi-trinitarian harmonic schema. I don’t say this to be negative, exactly; but the latter does sometimes rub painfully up against the former—making the facts seem, often, prolixly redundant and over-detailed; whilst at the same time making the artistic pattern (sin, fall, atonement; separation and reunion; the sickness of individual bodies as pattern for the sickness of a nation, and vice versa) seem creaky and overegged, too reliant on coincidental meetings-up-again and hamstrung by a structure that gives over pretty much nine-tenths of the novel to the build-up and fighting at Sedan, and maybe one-tenth to the Paris commune.

The main fictional thrust of the novel is the love that develops between conservative, working-class corporal, Jean Macquart, and emotionally volatile Romantic gentleman Maurice Levasseur, who has enlisted as a squaddie (le ésquaddie) as France marches off to fight the Prussians in 1870. I was throughout reminded—but reminded in a technical sense, the same way watching Battleship Potemkin ‘reminds’ me of dozens of later films—of 20th-century cinematic widescreen battle-stories: Zulu for instance; or A Bridge Too Far. That is to say, Zola can claim enormous credit for effectively innovating a method of conveying the larger-scale sweep of history by subordinating to its narration the embedded narratives of a number of localised caught-up-in-the-middle-of-things individual storylines against which we can locate, affectively speaking, the bigger picture. That’s fine: there’s a reason why precisely this strategy became the default approach for big screen epic history; the reason is that it works. You both learn a lot about the historical period, and you care about the particular characters and therefore commit to the story emotionally.

Nevertheless I was struck, I suppose, that where Zola’s technical control of the big crowd scenes, and in particular his eye for the telling or haunting detail or image, was extraordinarily impressive, his individual storylines were all, to one degree or another, cheesy and melodramatic. Even the burgeoning love between Jean and Maurice, touching for a while, grows very cloying very quickly. I appreciate that men in wartime can develop very close love-bonds with one another; but even in that context Zola’s slightly stare-eyed emphasis, towards the end of the novel, on the transcendent heroic-altruistic love the two men shared stuck in my craw. The repeated insistence on its purity seemed to me one step away from naked homosexual panic. More, did I not like the (by gum, completely unrealist, this is precisely the sort of thing Tolstoy would revise his novels in order to cut out) contrived ending, where Jean and Maurice end up on different sides in the 1871 fighting in Paris and, sob, Jean kills Maurice with his bayonet. Also Zola’s step-downs or step-ups, his transitions from big picture to small picture, were often a little jolting. But when it’s good, this novel is tremendously good.

Given that it is so densely researched and that Zola took such pride in his accuracy (going to great lengths to refute contemporary critics who doubted this detail or that; in the whole book apparently only one thing--the killing of a German spy--was invented) one thing puzzled me. Zola seems to assume (in a sort of anti-Gravity's Rainbow way) that in war it's possible to see shells coming towards you, having been fired from cannons, and even to dodge them provided you keep your eyes on them. ['Henriette went on again, with eyes fixed on the horizon, looking for shells so that she could dodge them', p.239]. That's not right, though, is it? Surely not.

On the other hand, the scenes of confusion during the marching to-and-fro prior to the battle are just marvellous; and there are some genuinely haunting moments. For example, here's Maurice's experience of the opening of the battle, lying with his whole battalion prone amongst cabbages:
The frightful din was what upset Maurice the most. The battery near-by was firing incessantly with a continual roar that shook the very ground. Were they going to stay like that a long time, lying in the middle of the cabbages? ... Above the bare line of the fields the only thing Maurice recognised was the round wooded top of Le Hattoy, a long way away and still unoccupied. Not that a single Prussian could be seen anywhere on the horizon, just puffs of smoke going up and floating for a moment in the sunshine. As he looked round he was surprised to see down in a lonely valley, isolated by steep slopes, a peasant unhurriedly ploughing, guiding his plough behind a big white horse. Why lose a day's work? The corn wouldn't stop growing or people living just because there was fighting going on. [210]

Terrence Malick quotes that moment, I think. Also, to repeat myself, the book simply stands up and implores the reader to put it through the paces of a queer-reading. I don't doubt French Literature specialists have done just that, if I knew the secondary literature a little better. So, there's something fascinating in the novel's representation of Napoleon III (one of the main reasons I want to read Zola's books in the first place), wearing rouge and other make-up; desperate to get himself slain on the battlefield but impotent to achieve that aim. Impotent, indeed, in every sense, not least the sexual one. On the other hand, posh Maurice and peasant Jean get very friendly with one another indeed:
They hugged each other in a passionate embrace, made brothers by all they had gone through together, and the kiss they exchanged seemed the gentlest yet the strongest in their lives, a kiss the like of which they would never have from a woman ... absolute certainty that their two hearts were henceforth one for ever. [388]
Is it hot in here, or is it just me? At the end Jean comes up on Maurice from behind, pins him to the barricades and 'thrusts' with his hard pointy rifle prong 'between two sandbags' and into M.'s body. It's a climactic moment, rather gnashingly rendered: 'Maurice had not had time to turn around. He screamed and looked up. The fires lit both of them with blinding light' [481]. Sexxy.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Hogarth’s ‘George Taylor Triumphing Over Death’ (circa 1750)

This is one of two Hogarth chalk-on-paper designs (the other is here) picturing this handsome eighteenth-century boxer and wrestler. It’s in the Tate, London, and this is what the gallery’s website has to say about it.
This drawing forms part of a design by Hogarth for a tombstone for the famous boxer and prize-fighter, George Taylor. Nick-named 'Taylor the Barber' because of his other profession, he became Champion of England in 1734. From the early 1730s Taylor was proprietor of the Tottenham Court Boxing Booth. He also ran an academy where gentlemen were taught the art of self-defence. Taylor, who clearly had a fine physique, may also have modelled at the St. Martin's Lane Academy, where Hogarth himself taught.
And what a splendid, weird little image it is.

The implication must be that Taylor is so expert a wrestler that he has defeated death. Is that the Last Trump, emerging hornily from the clouds to bring in the end times? Nothing less, surely, would be required. But doesn’t that horn look a little like … a bone? And isn’t there something disconcertingly … sexual about George’s posture? His musculature is so pronounced, and drawn in such an angular, inorganic way, that it seems almost to detach from the flesh: there’s almost a parallel between the solid mass of pectoral muscle, there, and the solid swathe of modesty-preserving cloth about his loins. And his gestures are so angular and awkward (his head at such a dislocating angle, his arms like two branches of a swastika, the twist to his torso, the one leg straight the other tucked away like he’s playing Long John Silver on the stage) its as if his body is trapped in painful mimicry of the skeleton beneath. Does it look to you as if Taylor’s left leg almost extends behind him in skeletal form? Is that some kind of Mannerist visual echo?

Taylor’s knee is penetrating, breaking indeed, the ribcage of the skeleton beneath him. But the skeleton’s left femur, paralleling Taylor’s leg, occupies an almost lasciviously obvious phallic position. The ambiguity it enhanced, isn’t it, by the fact that this is only a sketch: the bare bones, we might say, of a picture.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

G K Chesterton, Charles Dickens (1906)

There are times when it's hard for me to quite get my head around just how ubiquitous Walter Scott was for Victorian readers (everybody loved him; everybody not only read him but re-read and re-re-read him); hard because, although I've read a great deal of Scott, and enjoyed much of it, I can't really see how it is that people fell so completely for him. He's so often prolix, and dilute, and underpowered. He's not, surely, worthy to touch the hem of Dickens's garment.

Now and again, though, I get flashes, like distant lightning, that illuminate for me at least the possibility of falling more deeply under Scott's enchantment. One of the incidental joys of Chesterton's superb little monograph on Dickens is the comparison between Scott and Dickens in his tenth chapter; a reading that quotes a line of Scott from The Antiquary that seems to me one of the most profound things the nineteenth-century produced. Here, at length:
At the very beginning of this review I remarked that the reader must be in a mood, at least, of democracy. To some it may have sounded irrelevant; but the Revolution was as much behind all the books of the nineteenth century as the Catholic religion (let us say) was behind all the colours and carving of the Middle Ages. Another great name of the nineteenth century will afford an evidence of this; and will also bring us most sharply to the problem of the literary quality of Dickens.

Of all these nineteenth-century writers there is none, in the noblest sense, more democratic than Walter Scott. As this may be disputed, and as it is relevant, I will expand the remark. There are two rooted spiritual realities out of which grow all kinds of democratic conception or sentiment of human equality. There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction (with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic. Shelley, for instance, was an aristocrat, if ever there was one in this world. He was a Republican, but he was not a democrat: in his poetry there is every perfect quality except this pungent and popular stab. For the tragic and the comic you must go, say, to Burns, a poor man. And all over the world, the folk literature, the popular literature, is the same. It consists of very dignified sorrow and very undignified fun. Its sad tales are of broken hearts; its happy tales are of broken heads.

These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.

In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter, in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man, in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul. The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and first love: the things that are common are the things that are not commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old beggar in the Antiquary when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.

In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, had in the strangest way, the heart of the Revolution. For instance, he regarded rhetoric, the art of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the oppressed. All his poor men make grand speeches, as they did in the Jacobin Club, which Scott would have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect that he was, as an author, giving free speech to fictitious rebels while he was, as a stupid politician, denying it to real ones. But the point for us here is this that all this popular sympathy of his rests on the graver basis, on the dark dignity of man. "Can you find no way?" asks Sir Arthur Wardour of the beggar when they are cut off by the tide. "I'll give you a farm . . . I'll make you rich." . . . "Our riches will soon be equal," says the beggar, and looks out across the advancing sea.
Chesterton goes on to suggest that whilst he is manifestly Dickens's inferior in so many ways, in this regard (in the sense of the beggar's haunting, chilling observation) Scott was the greater author.
Now, I have dwelt on this strong point of Scott because it is the best illustration of the one weak point of Dickens. Dickens had little or none of this sense of the concealed sublimity of every separate man. Dickens's sense of democracy was entirely of the other kind; it rested on the other of the two supports of which I have spoken. It rested on the sense that all men were wildly interesting and wildly varied. When a Dickens character becomes excited he becomes more and more himself. He does not, like the Scott beggar, turn more and more into man. As he rises he grows more and more into a gargoyle or grotesque. He does not, like the fine speaker in Scott, grow more classical as he grows more passionate, more universal as he grows more intense. The thing can only be illustrated by a special case. Dickens did more than once, of course, make one of his quaint or humble characters assert himself in a serious crisis or defy the powerful. There is, for instance, the quite admirable scene in which Susan Nipper (one of the greatest of Dickens's achievements) faces and rebukes Mr. Dombey. But it is still true (and quite appropriate in its own place and manner) that Susan Nipper remains a purely comic character throughout her speech, and even grows more comic as she goes on. She is more serious than usual in her meaning, but not more serious in her style. Dickens keeps the natural diction of Nipper, but makes her grow more Nipperish as she grows more warm. But Scott keeps the natural diction of Baillie Jarvie, but insensibly sobers and uplifts the style until it reaches a plain and appropriate eloquence. This plain and appropriate eloquence was (except in a few places at the end of "Pickwick") almost unknown to Dickens. Whenever he made comic characters talk sentiment comically, as in the instance of Susan, it was a success, but an avowedly extravagant success. Whenever he made comic characters talk sentiment seriously it was an extravagant failure. Humour was his medium; his only way of approaching emotion. Wherever you do not get humour, you get unconscious humour.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks (580s-594)

Splendid, splendid: this is what you want from a history: viz., interminable lists of battles and meetings by people you've never heard of but whose names you find a constant delight, interspersed with theological debate and the occasional Sign and Wonder. Most of it, then, is like this:
While King Chilperic was still in residence at Nogent-sur-Marne, Biship of Rheims arrived on an embassy, with the chief notables of Childebert's court. A conference was arranged and they made plans to deprive King Guntram of his kingdom ... Lupus the Duke of Champagne had long been harassed and despoiled by those who were hostile to him, especially Ursio and Berthefried.[328-9]

It should be law: any booksellers selling a history book be required to ask 'do you want Berthefrieds with that?' The Cs alone are worth the price of admission: the son of Lothar I is called 'Chramn'; the King of the Alamanni is 'Chroc' and Chilperic (a major player, is Chilperic, which is ... you know, great) has a daughter called Chroma. I shall never need to invent a SF or Fantasy name, ever again.

The signs and wonders sometimes live up to their name (snakes falling from the clouds, loaves of bread bleeding when broken etc) but more often than not Gregory relates things under the 'signs and wonders' heading that seem to me less than wonderful, and significant only of ordinary winter weather: 'great signs and wonders ... floods devastated parts of Auvergne. The rain continued for twelve days ... in Bourges there was a hailstorm' [295-6]; 'signs and wonders ... that year the wine harvest was poor, water lay about everywhere' [483].

But by far my favourite intervention is when Gregory stops his narrative in Book VII in order (chapter 41) to tell us about a giant. Understand, the whole of this (admittedly fairly short) chapter is given over to this. 'One of the servants of Mummolos was brought to the King. He was a giant of a man, so immense ...' Yes you're excited. A genuine giant. You're thinking, what, 40 or 50ft tall? You read on: 'so immense that he was reckoned to be two or three feet bigger than the tallest man ever known. He was a carpenter by trade. He died soon afterwards.' [425] So, to recap: Gregory stops his history to tell us about a man two foot taller than a Frenchman. Isn't that splendid? 'Never mind the battles and councils, look over here! A fairly tall person!' Chramn it, I'm two foot taller than a Frenchman. Which leads me to believe that I ought to be in the history books. Where is the modern day Gregory of Tours to immortalise me?

Monday, 1 December 2008

Ian R. MacLeod, Song of Time (2008)

My review of Ian R. MacLeod's Song of Time has just been posted at Strange Horizons. Seriously, though, I pick nits with that book. Musical nits, French nits, defition-of-resolutely nits. I was in some nit-afflicted place when I wrote that review, like the guy in the first paragraph of Dick's Scanner Darkly. You may hope for more than this from a review. If so I direct your attention to Martin Lewis's excellent review of Dead Set at the same venue, which is rather better.

Muldoon, 'Medley for Morin Khur' (2006)

The sound box is made of a horse’s head.
The resonator is horse skin.
The strings and bow are of horsehair.

The morin khur is the thoroughbred
of Mongolian violins
Its call is the call of the stallion to the mare.

A call which may no more be gainsaid
than that of jinn to jinn
through jasmine-weighted air.

A call which may no more be gainsaid
than that of blood kin to kin
through a body-strewn central square.

A square in which they’ll heap the horses’ heads
by the heaps of horse skin
and the heaps of horsehair.

What's this? The web seconds Muldoon's own definition:

The Morin Khur or horse-headed violin is a typical Mongolian bowed instrument with two strings … The horse hair of the bow doesn't go between the two strings, instead, the instrument and the way of playing is more similar to cello than to erhu. The instrument was originally made from a horse head for the body, horse skin for the resonator, and horse hair for the strings and bow. The music played upon this instrument is of great variety and virtuosity. Much of the music typically sounds like human voice, and can imitate a horse to such an extent as real such as galloping horse, the whinnying, etc. The modern Morin Khur has a wooden body and soundboard, 2 horse hair strings, and has a rich warm tone and very beautiful sound. The peghead is decorated with a detailed carving of a horse's head.
These dismantled horses touch the keynote of the whole book (Muldoon’s Horse Latitudes, I mean), a collection in which most of the poems are in various ways about horses. Of the title, the book-blurb tells us: ‘the horse latitudes designate an area north and south of the equator in which ships tend to be becalmed, in which stasis if not stagnation is the order of the day, and where sailors traditionally threw horses overboard to conserve food and water.’ But this poem is Mongolian in subject, and that’s a long way from the ocean.

There's plangency here, and it is evocatively handled: five simple three-line stanzas rhyming abc, although from time to time Muldoon puts a shake into the rhyme by shifting the stress from the rhymed syllable to the previous, mixing what used to be called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ rhymes in such a way as to evoke halfrhymes (‘horsehair’ doesn’t quite rhyme with ‘air’ and ‘square’; ‘gainsaid’ doesn’t quite rhyme with ‘head’ and ‘bred’). It’s a poem about an unusual music, and its own unusual music chimes evocatively as a way of embodying that topic.

The third and fourth stanzas seem to weigh two orientalist models of Mongolia against one another: the exotic-romantic (the jinn-haunted jasmine-scented air of Shangri-La) against the bloody news-story modern-day sense of Mongolia as a place of violent conflict (‘a body-strewn central square’). Presumably the idea is to dismantle the body of discourses of the east in order to reassemble them as an instrument; a means of music-making.

What is it about horses? Elvis Costello has a song called ‘King Horse’ which is all about the equine oxymoron: ‘built of tenderness and brute force’. Peter Schaeffer’s Equus taps a sense of the erotic potential of that tenderness and forcefulness: these ton-heavy vegetarians, so gentle-eyed, so heavy-kicking. Such musculature and momentum! Such childlike idiocy of mind! Who are all these horses, anyway?

The whinnying of a horse. The whining of a violin. The crying of bereaved human beings. The breathlessly heavy ‘h’-alliteration of Muldoon's last stanza, there.

The horses are us. We are the beasts of burden and velocity, those weird evolutionary outliers without a specific environmental niche who have nevertheless survived the pressure of the Darwinian cull. We are creatures of the herd, thrown into battle over thousands of years to be mangled and crushed; beings whose misery has consistently be turned into art and beauty. We are muscle and soulfulness. Little girls, by identifying their subjectivity so wholeheartedly with the horse, have the sort of clearer vision sometimes granted to children and occluded in adults. We are ridden.

This is the peculiarity of Muldoon’s poem here: that horses are defined along two major axes. One is the sound they make, rarely a reason people give for loving horses. Here of course that sound transmuted, via dismemberment, from harsh and unmusical into beautiful and haunting—this is the metamorphosis of Orpheus, so centrally important as a defining mythos of poetry. The other is precisely the sense of horses as horseflesh: to be tortured and butchered. Paris Communards piling hunks of horsemeat for sustenance. Wouldn’t it be a striking irony if violence against humans found more eloquent articulation via an account of the violence against horses than in simple repetition of yet another instance of man's inhumanity to man? What would a world look like in which people cared more about the killing of horses than the murder of humans? (Imagine two people killed, and seven horses. Imagine a world where the deaths of the horses created more outrage than the deaths of the people. Why, do you imagine, would a Northern Irish poet be interested in such a story?)

Is there an awkward pun lurking behind Muldoon’s words? ... the thoroughbred of violins; the violence enacted upon thoroughbreds. I wouldn’t put it past him.