Friday, 25 June 2010

Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time (1990-2005)


At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland, and already they were singing again as they went. But Adam turned to Staines, and so came back, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within, and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rachel drew him in, and set him on his chair, and put little Daniel upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I read them,' he said.

Here are links to my eleven Wotreviews:

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 1: The Eye of the World (1990)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 2; The Great Hunt (1990)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 3: The Dragon Reborn (1991)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 4: The Shadow Rising (1992)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 5: The Fires of Heaven (1993)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 6: Lord of Chaos (1994)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 7: A Crown of Swords (1994)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 8: The Path of Daggers (1998)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 9: If On A Winter’s Heart A Traveller (2000)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 10: Crossroads of Eclipsing New Moon Twilight (2003)

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 11: Knife of Dreams: If You Build It, They Will Come. And Stab You. (2005)

Below is a brief FAQ -- but first of all there's this important question: does anybody want a complete set of Robert Jordan Wheel of Time novels? Vols 7, 8 and 9 are in hardback, the rest in paperback, although (since I bought all these vols in thrift shops) they're none of them in pristine condition. Oh, and I didn't buy vol 10: I got that out of my local library. But that one volume aside, it's a complete set; and if you want it, and are willing to collect, it's yours.

Otherwise what have I learned? Well, mostly I was reminded of a line from Tibor Fischer's celebrated, or perhaps infamous, Telegraph review of Amis's Yellow Dog:
The way publishing works is that you go from not being published no matter how good you are, to being published no matter how bad you are.
I can't think of a clearer illustration of that baleful truth than these novels. The first is pretty good; the last are staggeringly, stupefyingly bad. Imagine an alternative universe in which Wheel of Time was never published, and in which I spent the last few months developing a cure for hepatocarcinoma instead of reading them. Now imagine a new writer approaching an editor at a major publishing house with the manuscript of Winter's Heart or Crossroads of Twilight. Now imagine the editor leaping upon this unpublished manuscript with cries of joy. But, see, that last one goes beyond what can be imagined by any sane person.

This, it seems to me, has a number of deplorable consequences. One is that, since the market becomes saturated by rubbishy fat volumes issued on the strength of the authors' long corroded reputation rather than any intrinsic merit, good books get crowded out. Yes I'm talking about you sir, and you madam, and the superlative but as yet unpublished Fantasy classic sitting on your hard-drive. The people who should be reading that are instead picking up Wotx. It's a shame for you. It's a bigger shame for them, even though they don't realise it.

I'm not suggesting that publishing is entirely a zero-sum operation, and that the choice is starkly between this rubbish late Wot book and your unpublished, fresh masterpiece. But I am suggesting that commercial publishing works within the horizons of finite bookshop shelfspace and finite reading time in customers' lives. And that, given this, it would be in everyone's interests to see more good books published and fewer bad ones.

The other consequence is even more insidious: good young writers, noting the commercial success of the series, conclude that this is how Fantasy must be written. Their writing becomes infected, their originality degraded, and a kind of malign self-perpetuaing miasma of rubbishness settles over the whole field.

Still, let me not grow cranky. Here's The FAQ.

---------

Will you be reading Brandon Sanderson's concluding three volumes? I will, though probably not for a little while.

Are you going to read the New Spring prequel? No. I'm reconciled to the thought that I shall go to my grave never having read the New Spring prequel.

From frequent commenter Miles: 'I'm trying to think of another long-running fantasy series I've read that Adam can take a whack at after he's done with WoT...' That's very kind of you. I'm touched. I will probably not be launching myself into tens of thousands of pages of Fantasy soon though.

You were supposed to be writing reviews, but all you did was slag Jordan off. This is a 'FAQ'. The Q stands for 'question'. This is a statement, not a question.

You clearly hated these books. Why did you persevere so long with them? You'll find the answer to this question here, starting about a third of the way down after the three little asterisks.

How do you explain the success of the series? Isn't it possible that you were missing something major? If the books are as bad as you say, how come they sold so well? This came up several times in the comments, and is clearly important. And, I agree: I can't argue with the series's success. Frankly I'm not sure why the books have done so well; although I'd hazard the later huge sales were more reflections of the previous books' huge sales than any actual merit in the novels themselves. But that still leaves to be explained the earlier books' huge sales. I'm not sure what the answer is. Here, I pondered thuswise:
There's something or things about this series has resulted not just in many people reading them, but a good number falling in love with them too. Not me, but I probably need to be more open to whatever this 'thing' or 'things' is/are. Part of me thinks it must have to do with the series sheer length; which by a sort of textual brute force can replicate the immersiveness a more skillful writer achieves through style, worldbuilding or character. The shift (as in Star Wars) into increasingly obviously sexualised territory can't have hurt either: I can imagine readers growing up reading the series.

Or, thinking a little more about this (and picking up on Larry's perceptive comment): by 'length' I suppose I mean more than just bulk of pages. I mean the immense accumulation of and attention to trivial details.

Put it this way: there's an interesting bifurcation in the 'market' (horrid term) for SF and Fantasy: on the one hand the texts themselves (as it might be: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) which provide one sort of pleasure, and on the other immensely detailed and elongated fan encyclopedia-style anatomies and extensions of those texts: all the Star Wars novelisations, all the books of ships specs and timelines and whatnot. This latter body of writing appeals to a subset of broader fandom, those SFF fans who want to know every atom of the imagined world.

Now what's happening with WoT, it seems to me, is that after a conventional opening, the series is increasingly turning into a man-and-fly-in-the-matter-transporter-together mutant melding of these two modes of text. Each installment devotes a certain amount of energy to moving the story on, and much more to encyclopedically anatomizing world and character.
And on a different thread David Moles and I had the following exchange:
David Moles: The fans aren't fans of the books, they're fans of the Platonic WoT that's revealed, dimly, through the books ... It's not as though the pleasure provided by WoTworld is simple, or even that it's equally well-provided by a plethora of well-written books. You don't find that level of mechanical complexity very often outside of a role-playing supplement, and when you do it's likely (Donaldson, Feist) to be more or less equally badly written -- let's say, sufficiently badly written -- if not necessarily in the same way.

Adam Roberts: Hmm. I'm not sure that the books' currency is complexity, actually. There's a fetish for minutiae, true; but that's not the same thing. I'd say the appeal is something simpler: not just that this is a wishfulfilment world that is more colourful than ours; but that it combines an idealised nostalgic past with all present-day bourgeois creature-comforts, parlayed through honest-to-goodness melodramatic emotional intensity. Not that there's any shortage of imaginary Westworldesque themeparks in Fantasy more generally that do that, or stuff like it; although I daresay Jordan gains something from the Great Wall Of China, visible-from-the-moon scale of his undertaking.

David Moles: I'm not denying that it provides those pleasures, but I think you can't dismiss the trainspotting, stamp-collecting aspect either -- the sheer plethora of implied, distinct collectable figurines and playsets, the number of possible "which would win in a fight, X or Y?" matchups. I'm not sure there's anything in print fiction to match it.
Moles is a very clever man, and may have got close to the truth with this. And another very intelligent, perceptive man, Rich Puchalsky, developed an interesting trash-aesthetic argument:
The foremost anti-novel is Aldiss' Report on Probability A -- I have a post about it somewhere on my blog rpuchalsky.blogspot.com. It uses deliberately "bad" writing -- incessant overdescription of scenes -- in order to subvert the novel itself. Of course, Robert Jordan isn't doing it deliberately, but it can be amusing to read bad novels as if they are avant-grade, since they both share for different reasons a disinclination to write according to accepted standards.

The transformation of waste -- a phrase from a Patti Smith song, as noted in the most recent poem on my blog -- is what I think that literary SF is really about. SF is a lowbrow, pop genre, and literary values are highbrow values, so literary SF involves turning trash into gold. Some time a genius will perhaps write a little bit like Robert Jordan, but deliberately and subversively, and it could be a masterpiece.

That theory of literary SF seems pretty common, to me, among people whose touchstone is PKD. Stanislaw Lem wrote in my opinion some of the best criticism of PKD, and identified his technique as making things out of trash. And the perennial argument among certain literary-SF types is about PKD's sentences: Delany will be quoted to say that they're trashy, and other people will reply that they may be individually jagged, but they have to be that way to make up the whole.

Millions of people love these books. Do you really think you're 'better' than them? What gives you the right to be so rude? You realise that by criticising Jordan's books you're criticising these fans too? It is, clearly, a ticklish business telling people who 'really really love these novels' that I think the novels are crap. Here's what I wrote a while ago in another place:
So, let’s say, you read The Eyes of Argon and you love it; you’re gripped, thrilled, moved and inspired. Then you read a review that says ‘The Eyes of Argon is terribly bad stuff.’ Do you then

(a) say to yourself: a different opinion to mine, how interesting, let a thousand flowers bloom and a thousand schools of thought contend, one feature of great art is that it provokes a diversity of responses. Or

(b) say to yourself: the review, by calling this book crap, is saying that my taste in books is crap which is tantamount to calling me a big crappy crap-crap. Nobody calls me a big crap-crap and gets away with it. Where does this motherfucker get off calling people big crap-craps like this? Why can’t he keep his offensive opinions to himself?

But of course it goes without saying that reviewers respond to the book they have read, not to the idea in their heads of the sort of people who like the book they have just read. Apart from me, I mean. Obviously when I review, I do so specifically to mock the value-systems and worth of people who read. People like you, sir. And you madam.
Beyond that, we get into the broad territory of what ultimately grounds critical judgment. Properly discussing that would take more time than I have at my disposal. I was, though, terribly interested by the Jordan fan opinion, expressed in the comments, that Jordan was a better worldbuilder than Tolkien and a better stylist than Flaubert.

I'm interested in adapting all eleven of your reviews into a prog-rock opera. Is that OK? Go right ahead.

I must say I find it hard to believe that any of these are real 'questions', asked frequently or otherwise. Isn't it true that you just made them all up, now? It is.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time 11: Knife of Dreams (2005)


I suggest we start by taking a look at the blurb:
As the very fabric of reality wears thin all portents indicate that Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle, is imminent.
Not all the portents, though, surely? For instance, there’s the counter-portent that we’re still two-and-a-half-thousand pages away from even the start of the final volume. So I’m not sure ‘imminent’ is the word I’d use.
--and Rand al’Thor must ready himself to confront the Dark One.
He hasn’t had enough time to ready himself? If eleven fat volumes don’t give him enough time, I’m not sure what meaning the phrase ‘enough time’ can possibly have.
But Rand must first negotiate a truce with the Seanchan armies, as their forces increasingly sap his strength.
That’s a bold move, by the publishers, there. Brave. I mean, putting a reference to ‘sapped strength’ right there, in plain view, on the back of this book.

The cover image, up there, is a bit of a cheat. I actually read this volume (and by ‘read’ I mean ‘forced my weary eyes onward page by tedious page’) in the UK orbit paperback, which has this image on the front:

But the painting cover is so gloriously bad I decided to front the post with it. Bad in a ‘lady goes into a wallpaper shop to find behind the counter not, as she expected, a wallpaper shop assistant, but instead a man dressed as a Spanish conquistador manipulating a life-size ventriloquist dummy whilst a larger feller with three spears sticking out of his arse stands to one side watching’ sort of way.

On the other hand, the Orbit paperback cover has that eye-gladdening ‘Thames Hospicecare 50p’ sticker.

Otherwise, what have we got? Well, stylistically it’s the same hideous jumble, the same self-parodic bloat. Jordan is a writer who writes ‘this fire was not at all small, and the room seemed not far short of hot, a welcome heat that soaked into the flesh and banished shivers’ [343] because he is constitutionally allergic to the phrasing ‘a large fire warmed the room.’ He thinks the former sentence is more precise and therefore evocative. He’s wrong. That's not precision, it’s a finicky fussing textual aspergers, a style that can see nothing but details (and, more to the point, nothing but a certain very limited palate of details – colours of clothing, speed of movement, types of food, gradations of heat and cold—never the telling details great writers master). It is a style wholly incapable of illuminating penetration or evocation. Knife of Dreams is a novel in which this havering, hesitant John Majorish ‘a not un-large fire that was not un-warming’ idiocy has spread into all the limbs of the novel. Quite apart from anything else—‘the fire was hot, a welcome heat that soaked into the flesh and banished shivers’? I ask you. As opposed to a heat that bounces off the flesh and chills the very bones? Because that’s not the sort of heat you want from an open fire. No indeedy.

So, yes, I’m still breaking this butterfly upon the wheel.
Romanda took a longer look, and nearly gasped herself. [508]
I gasped myself the other day, actually. I’ve still got the red mark. Painful. What else? Well, there seemed to be an enormous amount of gathering of skirts in the novel, viz.: ‘Amylia jumped, then gathered her bronze-colored skirts to her knees’ [483].
They were disparate men, alike only in the way a leopard was like a lion. [508]
So these two men were alike in that … they both had four legs?
Gathering her skirts, Malind jumped down and rushed out. [508]
Again with the skirts!
Naris grimaced, before gathering her skirts and darting into the corridor. [343]
OK. I think the skirt gathering point has been made. What I mean is, it’s not as if the novel is all gathering skirts, and nothing but gathering skirts. There’s plenty of other things.
“That would be stealing,” Mistress Anan told him, in a lecturing tone, gathering her cloak around her. [235]
See? Cloak.
First came Seonid, a short woman holding her dark divided skirts up out of the mud.[583]
That one doesn’t even use the word ‘gathering’! This is the kind of stylistic and descriptive variation that makes Jordan the writer he is.
“Fail me, and you’ll regret it!” Gathering the skirts of her silk robe, she scurried away into the crowd. [598]
OK. That one uses ‘gathering.’ I concede that. But, look, there’s plenty you can do with skirts, apart from gathering them up or holding them out of the mud! See:
Her mouth snapped shut, and she smoothed her dark blue skirts unnecessarily…
I rest my case.
…then the small dark woman began walking toward them slowly, holding her pleated skirts up off the damp ground. [607]
Conceivably I rested my case too soon.

The small dark woman is Tuon, a Seanchan princess, and the book gives us a lot of detail, and tells us almost nothing, about her, and her relationship with Mat. There’s also some business with Elayne, and a certain amount of Rand faffing about. Although, to speak truthfully, plotwise there’s not an awful lot to report here. The 90-page prologue does contain some action: tension, a duel, build-up. But it’s a false dawn. The most memorable thing in the novel is that Rand gets his left-hand Luke-Skywalkered. Otherwise a summary of the novel might be: people wear clothes of varying styles and colours; people talk to people about various things; the food is all going off, but that doesn’t stop people eating enormous minutely detailed meals all the time. That aside, what is there in Knife of Dreams but Jordan’s unique prose? That prose ... one last time, for the gipper?
‘On the wind roared … shrieking over military camps near the river where soldiers and camp followers sleeping on the ground suddenly had their blankets stripped off and those in tents awoke to canvas jerking.’ [93] I tried canvas jerking myself, when I was younger. Painful. Or, wait … did I already do that gag?

‘His scowl deepened creases on his flushed face that needed no deepening.’ [124]

‘They slept together like puppies of necessity.’ [168] That’s a quotation from Shakespeare, you know: ‘Cry havoc and let slip/The puppies of necessity.’ Julius Caesar, I think.

‘Only Alliandre was there, lying facedown on her blankets in her collar with a damp cloth dipped in an herbal infusion over her bruised bottom.’ [169] If there's one thing Jordan likes more than attractive women being spanked on their bare arses, it's attractive women learning to love such abusive treatment. The word for this is: cre-e-epy.

‘He must have a leather tongue.’ [176] Must he? What if he doesn’t want one?

‘He was studying the board, when Joline led Teslyn and Edesina into the wagon like haughty on a pedestal, smooth-faced Aes Sedai to their toenails.’ [240] I’m afraid I don’t understand that sentence at all.

‘Essande produced an ivory-backed hairbrush and removed the towel from Elayne’s head.’ [352] Neat trick!

‘Elayne trembled, hands tightening to fists on the arms of her chair.’ [361]

‘Elayne laid one finger atop a bronze horseman less than a hand tall, standing a few leagues west of the city.’ [377] Another neat trick!

‘His ears quivered with embarrassment yet again. He had a great deal to learn about being a husband.’ [414]

‘The face of the man from Shadar Logoth floated in his head for a moment. He looked furious. And near to sicking up.’ [462]

‘She tried to work moisture into her mouth, but it was thick’ [653]

‘She showed him her teeth, hoping he did not take it for a grin.’ [654]

‘Before you can have eyeless prisoners, you need an eyeless victory. What we’ve had are a string of eyeless defeats.’ [737] Wise words.

‘Abruptly Loune seemed to recall who he was talking to. His face turned to dark wood, a hard mask.’ [738] And there’s yet another neat trick!
I tell you what. Let’s give Faile the last word:
‘Faile clasped her hands together. Of course she was solid. Hoisting her robes to avoid any more washing than she absolutely had to do, she began to walk. And then to run. [168]

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Reverend D Hughes, MA, Poems on Various Subjects in English and Latin (1865)


One of the joys of Google Books is the random encounter with fantastically obscure books of nineteenth-century poetry that would never, otherwise, cross my path.

If this volume sold enough copies financially to benefit the Clocaenog School I'll eat my vuvuzela. The poems are awful; stiff, stilted, a hundred years out of date (in 1865). Some of them start fairly well. Here's 'Winter':


I quite like the energy of the line 'and whizzing storms deform the joyless day'. But this is how the poem continues:



A couple of lines stand out for me here. One couplet ('Now negro night lies brooding over all/And horrors black the shuddering mind appall') speaks to the casual racism of the time. But the line 'the flaky clouds with emptied bowels rest', with its implication that the clouds have shat their contents all over the land, is simply gloriously bad verse. The solid gold, stuffed-owl, real deal.

There's more:

This aims at profoundity and instead launches itself into babbling gibberish. And this:


Astonishing that didn't catch on. 'By us sublunary thy will be done ... with viands meet thy humble creatures bless.'

Monday, 14 June 2010

Adam Roberts, Glad to be Bad (1960)


Published five years before that Adam Roberts was even born! Back cover:
THIS WAS V NIGHT

V stood for virginity to Gwen Morgan. And she was eager to trade her virginity for what Lester Gaines could give her. But Lester was a gentleman. And she -- she was a bitch! As ruthless as they came. Poor Lester. How wrong he was about her.

Lester thought she was a sweet young think and he was a lecherous old fool. He fought with all his strength to keep away from her, But what was he to think when he passed out drunk one night and woke up the next morning to find Gwen sleeping beside him in his bed?

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Anthony Burgess, Moses (1976)


I was pleased to pick this up, for next-to-nothing, in a second-hand bookstore. Hard to come by, never-reprinted, minor Burgessiana. But, my, what an eccentric performance it is! An 18-book epic poem on Moses’s life, written in more-or-less undisciplined, sprawly, four- or five-beat variable lines. This is what Burgess says in his foreword:
A few years ago I was commissioned, along with Vittorio Bonicelli and Gianfranco de Bosio, to provide the script for a television series on the birth, life and death of the prophet Moses. I found collaboration difficult and was forced to work entirely on my own, leaving emendation, addition and subtraction to be more or less improvised—by Bonicelli, de Bosio, who was the director, Vincenzo Labella, the producer, the actors Burt Lancaster and Anthony Quayle—while filming proceeded in Israel. The major aesthetic problem was a linguistic one, as it always is with historical or mythical subjects, and I found the only way out of the problem was to precede the assembly of a shooting script with a more or less literary production—this sort of epic poem you have now in your hands. To have written Moses first as a prose novel would have entailed the setting up of a somewhat cumbersome mechanism, in which the devices of ‘naturalism’ would have led me to an unwholesome prosaism both in dialogue and récit. Verse moves more quickly, and the rhythm of verse permits of a mode of speech midway between the mythical and the colloquial. Out of this homely epic I made my script, but the poem, such as it is, remains and is here for your reading.
It’s not entirely convincing, this, as a justification. Poetry, surely, doesn’t move ‘more quickly’; its compression, indeed, has the opposite effect; and writing verse surely doesn’t inoculate Burgess’s text against the debilitating ‘midway’ tone: and the poem itself swerves distractingly from the high-pompous King-Jacobean (‘I am come to deliver them out of the hands/Of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land/Unto a good land and a large’, 36) to the slackly discursive (‘One hundred and seventeen thousand/Five hundred and sixty-seven. That is the latest/Computation, your divine majesty’ 62) and the bathetically mundane (‘“Time to get up,” she said. “You have ruling to do.” 112). More, posterity has not been kind to some of Burgess’s handed-down-on-stone-tablet pronouncements (‘none of us will ever see a film of Beowulf,’ he ringingly declares at the end of his foreword).

At any rate, here's the IMDB page for the resulting fillum. You can see what Piero Sbragia from Sao Paolo thought of it: 'I've seen this movie just because of Burt Lancaster. The whole picture is bad. The direction, the cinematographer, the actors. The only exception besides Lancaster is the score by Ennio Morriconne.' 'Hansbearnl' from the Netherlands agrees: 'Worst Moses ever ... and the biggest question: where did the director get the story from?' Well. Indeed.

Anyway, I read the poem, and it was an interesting experience. Some of it is pretty indigestible; but some works intriguingly, and rather well. Here’s book 6, ‘The Passover’, in which Burgess retells the familiar story with a slightly selfconsciously worked 'dog'/‘bird’ thematic.
Moses in sunlight, with the whirring of Miriam’s doves
And the cry of children about him, sighed and spoke
Softly of the Angel of Death. “Who shall describe him?
Or her? Or it? Like a trained hound of the hunters
He has the scent in his nostrils. He follows the scent.
He will follow the scent of the firstborn.’ Miriam said:
‘You were told this?’ And Moses replied: ‘It is the
Last thing. The tenth figure of the dance.
Four days from now on the night of the
Fourteenth days of Nissan. The nose and teeth of the
Angel of Death will dart straight
For the firstborn. Whether Egyptian or Israelite—
It will be no matter to him of the
Separating out of the nations. Even the
Firstborn whelp of a bitch’s litter. The first
Hatchling of teh hen. He will go for the scent.’ [69]
Mo then explains the Passover ritual that will protect the Israelite firstborn; and the first Passover is described.
Then all suddenly listened.
But there was nothing to hear. ‘The silence,’ Aaron said,
‘Strikes like a new noise.’ Then Moses heard.
‘He is coming. God help them. He is coming. Now.’
Them, from afar, a scream, and another,
And soon the sound of wailing. They sat silent,
The meat grown cold on the table, listening.
Then the noise of a nearing wind at the door,
And the door shaking, but then the shaking ceased,
And the wind passed over. [71]
Which is fairly spooky, I suppose, in a cinematic-cliché sense. Meanwhile, ‘in the imperial palace’, Pharaoh’s ‘infant prince slept in his cradle, placed in the heart/Of a magical pentacle’. Magicians intone lengthy charms, but it won’t do him any good.
Pharaoh looked down on his child, cradled in his arms,
Looked and looked and did not believe and looked
Incredulously toward his queen and all looked and
None was in any doubt as a bank of candles
Flickered as in the draft of a great wind,
And from Pharaoh went up the cry of an animal,
Filling the chamber, the palace, spilling into the night ...
The palace took up the cry and gongs and drums
Turned it to a geometry of lamentation,
While, like a thing of wood or metal, the king
Carried the child blindly, the mother following,
Choked in pain the gongs muffled, till they stood
Before a god of metal and Pharaoh whispered:
‘What do I do now? Beg you to comfort him
On his passage through the tunnels of the night?
Beseech you to remember that he is still
Of your divine flesh, and to restore him to the light
Where he is—needed? Or do I see you already
As very hollow, very weak, impotent, a sham?
Am, I born too early or too late? Does heaven
Remake itself? Has the dominion passed over
To that single God who was neither sun nor moon
But the light of both? But in your eyes there is nothing.
Your head is the head of a bird.’[72]
‘A geometry of lamentation’ is pretty good, and if the ‘passing over’ from pagan to Judaic divinity is a little heavily telegraphed, there’s actual emotional heft in Pharoah’s grief, I think.

Burgess is at his best in these sorts of, frankly novelistic, moments of quiet inwardness. He tends to fluff the larger, more epic set-pieces. The parting of the Red Sea, for instance, is pretty ropily handled: we do not share the Israelite ‘awe’ at ‘a wind that seemed, oh God, to be parting the waters/As a comb parts hair’ [81] (that’s right: as a comb parts hair. Awesome!) Into the desert they wander. Moses goes up the mountain whilst his people dally orgaistically with the golden calf, and Burgess gets to unload his characteristically strong sexual revulsion (‘an obese matron, naked,/Pig-squealed, pleasured by a skeletal youth’, 117). Then, chastened and recipients of the law, the Israelites wander on, through a widescreen wilderness:
The wilderness of Paran. Wilderness
After wilderness, and now this wilderness.
Sand, rock, distant mountain. A copper sun
Riding a wilderness of bronze. [133]
**

Reading the whole was assisted by the pencil annotations of the previous owner. Beside Burgess’s self-penned author note at the back, s/he has written ‘pretentious trash’ and drawn two lines to cross out the text. Elsewhere s/he adds things like ‘he would never artic with these words’ (this is alongside a passage in which Burgess’s Moses artics thuswise: ‘This/punctilious observance, as you term it/somewhat grandiloquently, is of the very/essence of the law.’ [127] Which is probably fair comment.

And finally, for no reason other than completeness, is a list of the typos I spotted. Lots of these, from Dempsey and Squires (the now-defunct publisher):

p.13 line 26 for ‘faver’ read ‘fever’
p.38 line 9 for ‘The is’ read ‘He is’
p.47 line 16 for ‘Mut’ read ‘Must’
p.72 line 5 for ‘servent’ read ‘servant’
p.75 line 18 for ‘brids’ read ‘birds’

I didn’t spot any in the last 120-pages, but maybe that was because I wasn’t reading it quite as closely.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

E K Victor Pearce, Who Was Adam (1987)


I have a natural interest in a title like this, of course; and the cover image, inside that splendidly weedily overgrown '?', gets me quite right in one respect: I'm very very pale. Now, the words inside have the appearance of a devout Biblical literalist attempting to reconcile archaeological and anthropological science with the book of Genesis. But the cover contains a clue that takes us in a different direction. The clue is: no question mark. Pearce is not asking, he is telling: Doctor Who is Adam. Which is to say, I am Matt Smith.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Michael Philip Bessant, 'Sounds -- Far and Near' (?1963)

I bought an old, much-marginalia'd copy of Yevtushenko's Selected Poems in the Penguin Modern European Poets series (this 1963 edition, in fact). When I got it home and opened it, a sheet of A5 typing copy paper fell out with the above poem carefully typed. I assume it dates to the 1960s, from roundabout the publication of the book. If Michael Philip Bessant reads this and wants his poem back (or wants me to take this post down, or both) I'll gladly oblige. Don't mean to infringe copyright. But it's a nice poem. Click on the image to enlarge.