Tuesday, 30 November 2010

It's Wednesday - This Must Be Barcelona

When I was in England recently, Downton Abbey was on the television. It is ITV's new programme, and it is wonderful. That is, it's terrible. Just like Upstairs Downstairs, (which they are making a new series of, apparently), it is high-class, (or faux high-class), tosh.

But that's not the point. Downton Abbey is wonderful, because it's an original show. It's wonderful, because, although it is gauzy, lightweight stuff, it is made from nothing but itself. It is a "period drama", but it isn't an adaptation. It didn't take a complex novel, pull out a few threads from it – storyline, characters and series title – and chuck away the rest. It is a piece of light, diverting entertainment and it makes no claims to be anything more than that.

The "classic serials" – the TV versions of Middlemarch, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and the various Dickens novels thus far presented – are also highly entertaining. They tell good stories – romances mainly – and are sumptuously presented - sprigged gowns and silk-ribboned bonnets blossoming at every turn. The problem is, as the visual translations of some of the best novels ever written in English, they are supposed to be more than frothy entertainments. They are supposed to be faithful representations of the great works from which they take their names.

And, in a way, they are - but only in the way a facade behind which an entirely new edifice has been constructed is a faithful representation of its original building, or the reporting in tabloid newspapers is a faithful representation of the truth. Watching the BBC's Little Dorrit, to take the most recent example of a television adaptation, you do gain some knowledge of the novel it is based on, but it is a pretty limited kind of knowledge. After viewing the full 14 episodes, you understand the original book as deeply as you might understand agricultural practices in rural Europe after crossing the Continent on motorways alone. When the final scene of the final episode of Little Dorrit fades from the screen, you are sad to say goodbye to the tale of Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit, star-crossed lovers, who meet, are parted and ultimately are reunited in a joyful wedding scene. It has been a long and not always straightforward romance that you have been watching, but at last it is resolved.

Of course, the Clennam-Dorrit plot line does exist in the novel. Indeed, it runs right the way through the thing. However, it is a pretext rather than the book's main reason for being. It provides the thread of human interest with which Dickens leads the reader on a ramble across his detailed canvas. It is the device (the much loved modern day scriptwriter's phenomenon, the URST) with which Dickens holds our attention, as he shows us the stuff that really interests him.

This ought really to be obvious, for, when we think about the word “Dickensian”, it is not young love but industrial misery that usually springs to mind. In the preface to Little Dorrit, it is not his attempt to depict a love story but his effort to portray a range of social evils that preoccupies Dickens. What concerns him about his new novel's reception is not how we read the tale of Amy and Arthur but whether his presentation of the Marshalsea Prison and of Merdle, the Barnacles and the Circumlocution Office will be a success. His one desire is that readers should not conclude “that nothing like them was ever known in this land.”

And yet, although detailed descriptions of the Circumlocution Office and the Barnacles and the effects of Merdle take up a major part of the text, although the Circumlocution Office becomes almost a character in its own right within the novel -

“Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart … Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT …the Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion … Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office ...” -

in the telly series it appears only on a few brief occasions, reduced to little more than some black-and-white floor tiles, a splendid staircase and Robert Hardy pulling faces up a set of library steps. Our understanding of its effects is diminished in much the same fashion. We see its impact on a few individual characters but there is no way to show how catastrophic and widespread its influence actually is.

Similarly, the far-reaching effects of the collapse of Merdle's business are portrayed in the television series in a very minimal way. What we see mainly are the financial problems Merdle's downfall creates for Clennam and his friends. The more dramatic aspects of the situation are, oddly enough, difficult to recreate in a dramatisation. It is beyond the scope of the medium of television to convey Dickens's description of the vast damage that has been done:

“Numbers of men in every profession and trade would be blighted by his insolvency; old people who had been in easy circumstances all their lives would have no place of repentance for their trust in him but the workhouse; legions of women and children would have their whole future desolated by the hand of this mighty scoundrel. Every partaker of his magnificent feasts would be seen to have been a sharer in the plunder of innumerable homes; every servile worshipper of riches who had helped to set him on his pedestal, would have done better to worship the Devil point-blank... For by that time it was known that the late Mr Merdle's complaint had been, simply, Forgery and Robbery.… He, the shining wonder, the new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts, until it stopped over certain carrion at the bottom of the bath and disappeared – was simply the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that had ever cheated the gallows ...The admired piratical ship had blown up, in the midst of a vast fleet of ships of all rates, and boats of all sizes; and on the deep was nothing but ruin: nothing but burning hulls, bursting magazines, great guns self exploded, tearing friends and neighbours to pieces, drowning men clinging to unseaworthy spars and going down every minute, spent swimmers, floating dead, and sharks”

I know some people will argue that removing the whole “didactic”, political side of Dickens can only enhance the original work anyway – and, after all, who but Fellini could do justice to imagery which includes a “piratical ship” and “floating dead and sharks”? For these viewers at least, removing all that dreary stuff that Dickens insisted on including can only be an improvement. However, even they must notice that there are other valuable elements that disappear in the transition from page to screen. Somewhere in the process, a number of important aspects of the original novels - not just those of Dickens, but also the works of Eliot and Hardy - vanish completely and the resulting productions are the poorer for it.

Just to begin with, the sharp characterisation that words on paper can give us is hard to mirror on film. Although in Little Dorrit – and, indeed, in all the “classic serials” - the acting is excellent, it is difficult to recreate the clarity of carefully chosen words. Even the finest performers are hard pressed to convey what Dickens so often manages in a phrase or two. The actress who plays Mrs Merdle, for example, has to overact like mad to get anywhere near showing us what Dickens conjures up in half a sentence: “she spoke as coldly as a woman of snow”. The actor who plays her husband, Mr Merdle, may look as withdrawn as he pleases, he may seem uncomfortable and slightly constipated, but it is impossible for him to get across what Dickens does when he tells us, “Merdle, as usual, oozed sluggishly and muddily about his drawing room” and had “a somewhat uneasy expression about his coat cuffs, as if they were in his confidence, and had reasons for being anxious to hide his hands.” The actress who gives us Fanny can flounce and stamp her foot to convey her impatience with Sparkler, but Dickens captures the same thing with so much less apparent effort: “At that point the object of his affections shut him up like a box with a spring lid, and sent him away.” Meanwhile the Mrs General on our television must sigh and sniff and purse her lips endlessly, when four words - “a Ghoul in gloves” - are all that is needed to capture her awfulness on the page.

And, as well as sharp characterisation, a truly intense perception of the setting of the story gets lost on the way to the studio. In the book, glimpses of a world swarming with colour and smell and texture rise vividly from the text. Strangely, despite the efforts of armies of designers, set-makers, costumiers, milliners, researchers and so forth, similarly detailed depictions of life in Dickens's London - such as this one, for instance –

"They walked on with him until they came to a dirty shop window in a dirty street, which was made almost opaque by the steam of hot meats, vegetables, and puddings. But glimpses were to be caught of a roast leg of pork bursting into tears of sage and onion in a metal reservoir full of gravy, of an unctuous piece of roast beef and blisterous Yorkshire pudding, bubbling hot in a similar receptacle, of a stuffed fillet of veal in rapid cut, of a ham in a perspiration with the pace it was going at, of a shallow tank of baked potatoes glued together by their own richness, of a truss or two of boiled greens, and other substantial delicacies. Within, were a few wooden partitions, behind which such customers as found it more convenient to take away their dinners in stomachs than in their hands, packed their purchases in solitude” -

do not come across as vitally on the screen.

Frequently humour is a casualty of the TV adaptations also. The verbal elements of the books are so often far too dense for television's speedy pace. We lose, as a result, the whole hilarious depiction of the residents of Hampton Court, including the retired ambassador, Lord Lancaster Stiltstalking, a:

“... noble Refrigerator [who] had iced several European courts in his time, and had done it with such complete success that the very name of Englishman yet struck cold to the stomachs of foreigners who had the distinguished honour of remembering him at a distance of a quarter of a century.”

In addition, with little except dialogue and images to tell the story, a great deal of subtlety ends up getting tossed aside.. For example, Mrs Clennam's steeliness is hideously undermined in the screen version, because it is too hard to explain her complexities with gesture alone. As a result, we even hear the redoubtable old boiler say, on Amy's departure, “I will miss her”, something the original character could never have brought herself to do. This is necessary because telly cannot convey the subtle nuances of personality that Dickens was able to supply in writing:

“As there are degrees of hardness in the hardest metal, and shades of colour in black itself, so even in the asperity of Mrs Clennam’s demeanour to all the rest of humanity and towards Little Dorrit, there was a fine gradation.”

Finally, and for me most grievously, in the case of Dickens in particular, television robs the viewer of the narrator's company. We lose detail, tiny asides – for instance, this comment about Mr Dorrit, when he appears, splendid, in his new dressing gown and cap: “the dormant grub that had so long bided its time among the Collegians had burst into a rare butterfly” - and authorial confidences, all of which are things that are antipathetic to the headlong nature of television and its need for the uninterrupted rattle of unimpeded action. 
 
Eliot, Hardy and, above all, Dickens produce writing that is packed with observation. Dickens's companionable voice adds an important dimension to his books. Without him there, we miss out on the wonderful hint of menace that his description of the signature that Blandois places under those of the Dorrits and the Gowans gives us: “ ... ending with a long lean flourish, not unlike a lasso thrown at all the rest of the names.” We are deprived too of his description of a pompous speech giver “trotting, with the complacency of an idiotic elephant, among howling labyrinths of sentences” and of wonderful phrases like this one: “the ascending night [coming] up the mountain like a rising water”. On television, Clennam merely stumps off down the street after leaving the Marshalsea, whereas in the book we see him “carrying the quiet with him into the turbulent streets”.

Even barely glimpsed characters come alive when we have the narrator at our side. “Young Barnacle appeared, attended by his eyeglass,” we are told. “A man so much in want of airing that he had a blue mould upon him” is pointed out to us, along with a lady who “was in such a tumbled condition altogether, that it seemed as if it would be an act of kindness to iron her.” We see Venice anew, as “a city where everything seemed to be trying to stand still for ever on the ruins of something else – except the water”. These insights and images are all left out of the screen versions of the various books, together with so many others (including, most shockingly, in my view, the fog which so memorably opens the original Bleak House).

Of course, all this impoverishing of the original rich material does not matter if you believe the justification that is often put forward for TV's flimsy adaptations - that they act merely as invitations, inspiring viewers to go away and read the original books. Leaving aside the fact that very few people do get around to doing that, those who actually turn to the original after watching a BBC production will almost inevitably find themselves disappointed. For a start, they will be expecting something light and easy, and they will find instead books that are dense, complex and quite often dark. On top of this, they will find that they have been robbed of one of the central pleasures of novel reading – the exercise of the imagination, the opportunity to form private and unique pictures in the mind. Preconceived images of all the main characters will have already been burnt indelibly into their brains by what they have seen on the screen.

But am I being too purist? Can it be argued successfully that seeing the TV versions of great books is better than nothing at all? Like a 10-day tour of the historic sights of Europe – it's Wednesday, this must be Barcelona – do these series give a wider public a small taste of things that they might otherwise never glimpse? And, if so, is it worth all the money and effort and compromise? A quick look at Milan Cathedral, a glance at the Colosseum, a rushed boat trip down the Grand Canal in Venice and a scurry through the Louvre – does it nourish the soul or is it an expensive waste of time? At what point is an experience so debased that it loses all its value? Does seeing pictures means you've actually got the picture or do you need to read the words as well?

(For anyone who actually reaches the end of this post [it was just something I had to get off my chest - at length], apologies for all the mad formatting - it will not go back to normal, no matter how hard I try; blogspot and I just do not seem to get along sometimes.)

Poetry Retractions

I'd never really understood the attraction of Twitter until last night when a hashtag called Poetry Retractions began. Here are some of the responses. I thought they were funny:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows and hayfever sufferers sneeze wildly

I had written him a letter which I had for lack of butter put upon my sandwich

In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree, but so many voters objected he cancelled it

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my stomach rolled

James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree couldn't fit his name on the Child Protection Forms

I was angry with my friend, I told my wrath, he punched me

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone , actually just wait I'll order a pizza first

When I compare thee to a summer's day, please recall that I'm English. William Shakespeare

SO YOU JUST HOLD THIS DOWN WHILE YOU TYPE EH? CLEVER! E E CUMMINGS

In retrospect, that red wheelbarrow wasn't as important as I thought. Also, I was drunk. William Carlos Williams

Goe, and catche a falling starre / Get with child a mandrake roote / I knowe you woulde / you'de roote anythinge

While Death stopping for me was kindly, I should point out that he talked the entire goddamn ride. Emily Dickinson.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad, but being a librarian in Hull fucks you up even more. Philip Larkin

How do i love thee? let me count the ways. 1. oh, right. i don't. Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

No, May is crueller. Eliot

A sweet disorder in the dress Kindles in clothes a wantonness But can just look a bit of a mess - Herrick

Down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack hatchback-bobbing carpark

This country's not that bad for old men.

Actually the Old Masters didn't really get suffering - at least not when it came to verrucas. Auden

Things fall apart, the center cannot hold/ minority government is loosed upon us all

 I don't even like honey - is there vodka still for tea? Rupert Brooke

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better Knowledge, forgotten to post.

There was movement at the station but I didn't pass the word around

The wedding guest fidgeted, saying, 'Look is this going to take long, I've got a wedding to go to."

The old man lay on the frozen deck

Stuff Clancy and his overflow, at least here i can get a good latte after 5pm

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, but don't touch twitter

"Would you pls be quiet, and hang onto those bloody dogs" Mark Anthony

Yon Cassius has a corpulent and well-fed look

The boy stood on the burning deck, until a health and safety officer made him get off.

Thou still unravish'd bride of - oh crumbs, has anyone got any Tarzan's Grip?

Fate, the moving finger wrote, and having writ, decided not to press send after all

Just quietly... I took the same road as everyone else

The boy did not stand on the burning deck. And any talk of things thrown at dads will get your arses sued off

In the room the women come and go/Bitching about Michelangelo

"Ozymandias in in fact in fine health & remains king of kings. We regret the error & apologise for any distress caused"

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Nah, you're not that hot

Feare no more the heate o' th' Sun Nor the furious winter's rages - with split system air conditioning

 Earth has not anything to show more fair (I wish I hadn't taken this job with the London Tourist Board)

Feare no more the Lightning flash. Nor th' all-dreaded Thunderstone: Stay inside yer moron

The time has come, the Walrus said, To talk of many things: Of how united the NSW ALP is And whether pigs have wings

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around that the train's cancelled & we have to change platforms

"Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house we were searching for the safe place where we hid the pressies

Water water everywhere.. except Tillegra Dam

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse,thanks to the trap

There once was a swagman who camped by a billabong and got moved on for loitering

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters. You must've fallen asleep on the newspaper again

 Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita I decided to give up poetry and teach myself English instead

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear, And the rocks melt wi' the sun; I will luve thee still, despite severe climate change

Put the saddle on the mare, For the wet winds blow; There's winter in the air, even though it's already fucking November

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took my GPS unit on the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. Or maybe it was just something I ate.

I taught myself to live simply and wisely, to look at the sky and dodge falling Qantas engines.

They also serve who only stand and wait, under the award rules regarding eligibility for footwear allowance. 

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though I were John Brumby after conceding

Let me not to the marriage of true mince admit impediments

They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They do mean to. And they do.

Brevity is the soul of Twit(ter) Shakespeare

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. And use your iPhone as a torch!

She walks in beauty like the night/ Doesn't scrub up too well in the morning but

Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of Kevin 07 Emily Dickinson

He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the email to him, just on spec, addressed as follows, Clancy@TheOverflow.com

Wee slicking cowerin timorous beastie, ohyabugger ye bit me! Burns

Twas brillig and the slithy tobes did gyre and gymble... what the hell is it with this keyboard??

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, they're out of season and you can make a killing in the leadup to christmas

I have regurgitated the plums that were in the icebox forgive me they were rancid please remember to refill the ice trays

And into the valley of death rode the six hundred, til one of them said, hang on, we made a wrong turn

In xanadu did kubla khan have a very nice time rollerskating with olivia newton-john

Busy old fool, unruly Sun, you never really verify your sources before going to print do you?
 
But we by a love so much refined, that ourselves know not what it is, but luckily we have the box it came in

I felt a pain rise up in me, a pain so intense and so sudden, that I was forced to withdraw my hand from inside the oven.

As high as we have mounted in delight In our dejection do we sink as low - bloody Aussie cricket team. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I chose the one with fewer brambles because I had new tights on

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko's side, Where the hills are slightly steeper and rougher

Keep calm, it's only the dying of the light

Haikus can be fun, but sometimes they don't make sense, refrigerator
 
You know how little while we have to stay, and once departed may return no more, Rob Oakeshott

 Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the tram to work because it looked like it might rain

Out of the mid-wood's twilight Into the meadow's dawn, Ivory keyed and brown-eyed, Flashes my iPhone

Half way up the stairs is the stair where I sit until I can find my door key

Water, water everywhere - why did I build a Desal plant?


Cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them, cannon in front of them/ So they turned around

"Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who was there"

There was movement at the station, for Word 98 had got around 

Always send someone else to find for whom the bell tolls, it probably tolls for them

So you're back from up the country, Mr Lawson sorry I'll move the Corolla out of your driveway

 Meanwhile, on a different tack, someone asked:

"Why do they lock service station bathrooms? Are they afraid somebody might clean them?"


Monday, 29 November 2010

Rain Stops Play

I woke at two and lay, staring at the ceiling and wondering how the hell someone had managed to sneak into our room and set up a fan. My sleep had been disturbed by it now, because it was making such a racket, but somehow I'd snored through the clatter as they brought it in. Why was it there anyway? It wasn't nearly warm enough to need a fan.

The more I thought about it, the crosser I began feeling. Was it the interfering local government that had done it? They're always coming up with schemes to nanny us, but this was surely a step too far. Or was it the neighbours who are moving in the New Year? Had they come in to dump some of the things they no longer need on us? .

But of course it was neither. I'd been disturbed by a higher authority. It was rain hurtling out of the sky in quantities and at speeds rarely ever seen - or heard. Well, bugger that - I'm too tired to think, and if you can't think, you can't write, so no posting today. The ironing basket beckons - there are worse ways to spend an hour or two.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Adorable

My old mate Geoffrey kicks of his blogging career with the sweetest post  I've seen in the blogosphere.
Meanwhile, in Barcelona, pencil is being put to paper.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Having Fun When Young

After reading about a young man who had been killed by a 'mate' (always something of a double-edged word, it seems to me), I was feeling a little bleak. The deed was done in the Belanglo State Forest, and the murder weapon, oddly enough, was a double-edged axe. The victim and the alleged killer both came from a small town, where, apparently, there was 'nothing much to do.'

Wouldn't reading Proust in the original have been a better response than murder? Or was the education system at fault? Perhaps poor book distribution had caused the killing - French texts were probably hard to come by in Wollondilly Shire.

I was distracted from these musings by a hot water pipe bursting and torrents of scalding water rushing towards me across the floor. The event reminded me that my own education was sadly lacking in major areas, most particularly how the hell you turn off the water at the mains.

But help was on hand in the shape of a very young plumber, who came to my assistance almost within the blinking of an eye (although possibly enough outside the margins of that time frame to allow three or four figures to be added to our water bill, damn it). Like the Belanglo boys, my plumber was little more than a kid and, just as they had done, he'd grown up in a sleepy country town. But there the similarities appeared to end.

With his head under the sink, my plumber began describing the novel he was writing and the large-scale painting of Africa he was hoping to finish over the Christmas break. 'A challenge, that's what makes you happy,' he said, emerging with his spanners. 'I've only managed 45,000 words so far, but I'm getting it done.'

What a relief. We're not going to hell in a hand basket entirely. There are still some under-20s who don't need a double-sided axe to have fun.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Hunter Gathering in the Modern World

My husband thought he'd like a little bit of cheese the other day and so he bought some. Since he works all the daylight hours and many of the moonlight ones as well (although I should point out that I'm not suggesting he's involved in anything to do with moonlight spares), he did not leap out of bed and rush off to the farmers' market (operating hours officially 8 to 11 am each Saturday, but practically 8 to 8.30, since after that time the ravening locust hordes of self-satisfied early risers have stripped the place of anything worth having) to buy it. Instead, he popped into a 'souless' fluorescent-lit supermarket, which,  thanks to some commercial insight lost on the organisers of farmers' markets, was open at a time convenient to those who work - ie most of us.

Events, dear boy, prevented him from actually eating the cheese the day that he brought it home, and so it sat in the fridge until yesterday evening, when he remembered it and decided he'd like a slice. It was not, as it might have been had he gone to the farmers' market (early enough), a dripping  artisanal slice, stinking of the makers' socks and probably ripened a la Sunday Too Far Away's meatballs (I saw that film in a trendy little cinema in Paris with someone who is dead now, and we ran into a drunken Francis Bacon [was there any other kind] on the way out, but that's another story) under the maker's armpits. Instead, it was in a cardboard box.

When the box was opened, it turned out there was a white plastic container with a cellophane seal on it concealed inside. When the cellophane seal was removed, it became apparent there was another plastic seal just under it, which could only be penetrated with a very sharp knife. Once the knife had been fetched and the second seal (isn't that a movie too? No, after a quick look at You Tube it turns out to be something associated with extreme religious delusion) dispensed with, a small round object came into view. And guess what, it too was carefully wrapped, in both plastic and paper.

Undaunted, my husband set about unfolding the two final coverings, excited as the child who reaches the centre of pass-the-parcel (or rather, excited as the child who reached the centre of pass-the-parcel in my childhood, when only the centre contained a prize - nowadays, every layer has to be larded with goodies, for fear some little pet will realise that, yes, actually, life is bloody unfair.)

And, as if to prove that very point, just as my husband turned back the last corner of the ultimate layer of paper protection, the sausage roll he'd grabbed hastily from the dodgy works caff earlier in the day reasserted its presence (or possibly it was just a case of frustration getting the upper hand.) Either way, something made him suddenly and violently sick. Which was what Dame Edna would call 'spooky', for, as my husband pointed out to me this morning (yes, he seems to be fully recovered now, thanks for asking), it is exactly a year since he was last similarly afflicted - although that was in another country and feels like a lifetime ago.

(I would like to point out, by the way, that I resisted the following titles for this post: To Brie, or Not to Brie; Brie Careful What You Wish For ... I could go on.)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Advice to Writers

I don't know who David McCullough is, but he said this very wise thing:

"To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard."

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Words and Phrases that Make Me Grind My Teeth

"No-brainer" as in: "Should I do that?", "It's a no-brainer, mate." To my ears, there is a brutal schoolyard taunting scorn about the words.  I don't like the image of a skull from which the grey matter has been ripped.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Take Away that Nasty Taste

After yesterday's post, some decent poems are in order. Here are a couple that I like:

Bird-watching with Mr Long, by Geoffrey Lehmann

'What's that bird, Mr Long?'
'That's a chipper.'
'What's that small bird over there?'
'That's a fly-bird.'

There's a forest I'll never see again
where birds with exotic names
whistle to each other,
flashing blue and scarlet
as they dart and fan their wings.

'What will you have for breakfast, Mr Long?'
asked my father.
'I could eat the leg of the Holy Ghost,'
replied Mr Long (meaning toast).
'I would not have expected that of you!'
said my father with ice.
But Mr Long was rarely put out.

On a wooden chair by my bed
there's hot cocoa I'll drain fast
because these autumn nights
are taking the warmth out of things
as they loosen the poplars' yellow leaves.

Then I'm going on that journey
Mr Long always promised
through the spinifex
with a covered wagon and cockatoo,
cooking fish on river stones,
to Palm Valley and its wild blacks.
'What's that bird, Mr Long?'
'That's a parson bird with the white collar.'
'And that one over there?'
'That's a grey hopper.'

Walking all day
out on the western plains, Mr Long
could sustain himself
with a line of trees on the horizon.

How to Fold Army Blankets, by Jamie Grant

Everyone's breath burst out of their mouths
just like the smoke breathed
from the lips of rifles facing the range,

that shattered man-made
hummock whose undigested belly-full
of shells would one day


stand to baffle archaeology. Each
morning we'd parade
outside the canteen, polished thoughts still wreathed

with figments strange
as dreams. Nights of fitful sleep on sacks of hay.
The mountain peak south

from the camp was blocked neatly as the tall
crown of my old slouch
hat. The days marched on a curve which always

returned to its start;
they finished with the prim geometry
invented to make

soldiers out of children - with heartless
domesticity
which scrubbed, aligned or folded whatever

we weren't expected
to salute. Imprisoned in those ways
we were taught the art

of folding the army's blankets - we'd take
the stitched seam over,
so and so, till it became a flawless

cube of wool, reflected -
in shape at least - in the cold metal pans
they served our meals from.

Remembering that hard-earned skill, a bored
civil servant years
from his army days folded up the map

of Vietnam
the morning we left the camp. His office
must have been spotless,

with calf-bound volumes lined up into squads,
every paper-clip
gleaming. None of us knew a thing about

that room. The frost-smoke
mountains watched us as we started out
on another clear

cold morning. I longed to fold that country
like a rug which we
could stow forever out of mind. No one spoke.

Monday, 22 November 2010

There's Usually a Catch

I love Dickens, despite his sentimentality and often unlikely plots. It seems to me that you just have to put up with those flaws, if you want the stuff in his writing that you admire. In the same way, I love Vienna, while recognising that one of the things I most like about it - its calm, peaceful orderliness - is largely a product of an aspect of life in Vienna that drives me mad - the bossiness of its inhabitants, who will not brook any social conduct that is not good-mannered and sedate, even from the very young (although small fluffy dogs may do anything they like, of course.)

Similarly, John Manifold, as well as writing The Tomb of Lt. John Learmonth A.I.F. and many other fine works, was also a lifelong Communist, unmoved by the Hungarian uprising and all other evidence of the ghastliness of the Soviet regime. The arguments that can be made in his defence are: a) that he went to Cambridge at the wrong time; b) that he lived in Germany during the rise of Nazism; and c) that he was probably reacting against his wealthy, privileged background. I do vaguely understand b), since I am probably an example of the same process working in reverse: having been exposed to Soviet countries and also Communist China at a very young age, I have been ever since a lifelong conservative, unable to view the Left with anything other than suspicion.

It is an interesting thought though - how much can we forgive in our artistic heroes? There has been much fuss about Larkin's private remarks. His poems have not changed, but some people appear to think that the recent revelations have somehow devalued them. If Shakespeare turned out to have been a murderer or overly fond of sheep, would it alter his plays? I like to think that the true villains of the world - the Hitlers and Pol Pots - would be incapable of truly great works of art. Certainly, Hitler's failure to impress the artistic establishment of Vienna is often cited as a motive for his later acts.

Does it alter our perception of the good poems to know that John Manifold's political judgment was hopelessly bad? Does this poem that he wrote to mark the death of Stalin transform his other works to drivel or is it just an extremely embarrassing mistake? It is the rare person who does not flinch occasionally, remembering some carefully buried, almost forgotten moment of foolishness, but Manifold's error was never acknowledged or remedied, at least publicly. On the other hand, I've never turned to poets for advice on how to vote.

Death of Stalin

North to the reindeer herds, the snowbound dark,
Mammoth-tusk carvings and enormous pines;
South to the great canals, the silk, the vines,
The turbanned heads as brown as wattle-bark

East where the slant-eyed fishermen embark,
And tigers prowl between the silver-mines;
West to the wheatlands where the roaring lines
Of tractors wipe away the invaders' mark;

Such is his vast memorial's extent!
Here - like a fighter-plane, his petrol spent,
But straining dauntless towards a friendly drome

Whilst all his victories yet blaze in air -
Here at the dawn-lit first perimeter
Of Communism Uncle Joe reached home.

John Manifold, March 1953.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Up Close

There was a report on the news on Friday night about a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It is a collection of enormous high definition photographs of "celebrities". When asked about what makes the exhibition worth a visit, the curator explained, "You can actually go up and stare into Andre Agassi's pores."

This statement left so many questions hanging in the air, I thought.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Marketing

A pub we stayed in near Cambridge has been sending us their monthly newsletter for a while. I should redirect the thing to the junk mail, except that it usually supplies - inadvertently - a laugh, (partly because it appears to be written by the modern-day equivalent of dear dim Edmund Sparkler of Little Dorrit fame). Take this month's brilliant editorial decision - to open the letter with this:

Hello from all at xxxxxxxxxxx Inn xxxxxxxxxxxxxon.
This month seems to be flying by with all sorts going on.
Our second set of lavatories off the bar are all but complete.
We have even succumbed to the these new fandangled Dyson Airblade hand-driers - a trifle noisy but really rather efficient at what they do.

There really is nothing like a new set of lavatories for tempting the pubgoing public in - and the added attraction of Dyson hand-driers should mean they'll have to start beating them off with sticks. 

The Age of Vulgarity

This extraordinary "product" might be described as "wicked" by Prince Charles's current wife (that was her comment when asked by a radio reporter about her stepson's engagement; it's a dreadful new usage even from the mouths of babes, but from someone her age it's just shudder-inducing). Anyway, I think Things Bogans Like is right to suggest you will never see anything more bogan, (the site rather than the regal wife - although, now I come to think of it, Sloanes are just bogans with attitude really.)

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Book Clubs

I've been a member of a couple of book clubs, but I haven't liked them. Until I read a short story called “To the Measures Fall” in a recent issue of the New Yorker, I thought my failure to enjoy them was due to a flaw in my character. However, when I read the description by Richard Powers, the author of “To the Measures Fall”, of the book club his protagonist takes her favourite book to, I recognised the scene straight away:

Two club members report flinging the book across the room in a rage. Another demands her three days back. Accusations multiply: it's mawkish, it's cerebral, it's meandering, it's manipulative, it's cold and cunning and misanthropic, it's wrecked by redemption. How are we supposed to care about these characters? I just wanted them all to get a life.”

It's very disconcerting to be given a book, which you read and enjoy, or even don't much enjoy but have lots of thoughts about, all of which you save up for the big night, and then to join a number of people you think you know quite well and who in most circumstances seem reasonable and thoughtful and listen to them say things that are impossible to argue with and not worth articulating, like, 'I just wanted them all to get a life”. Although book clubs are probably meant to foster a sense of community, I came away from each meeting feeling peculiarly lonely.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Annoying Aspects of the Modern World - the Dishwasher Swiz

Leaving aside the loss of those companionable conversations between washer-up and drier-up that took place pre dishwashers, I'm annoyed by the claims that dishwashing machines are labour saving in any true sense. After all, they leave you with the worst part of the process - they never empty themselves and put all the contents away (I hesitate to say 'put all the clean things away', since so often the things that emerge from our dishwasher look worse than when they went in).

I suppose one solution would be to just fill the kitchen with a couple of dozen dishwashers, putting them everywhere, instead of cupboards, Then you could keep things inside them permanently, without ever having to unload.

Monday, 15 November 2010

John Manifold

At The Dabbler there is a beautiful collection of poems to commemorate Remembrance Sunday. Among them is John Manifold's "The Tomb of Lt. John Learmonth, A.I.F."

Manifold was a versatile poet. When not in elegiac mood, he occasionally turned his hand to humour:

"On the Death of Mr Holt

Only a week before Christmas,
   The happiest day of the year,
They held a wake for Harold Holt,
   And the bigwig guests came here.

Bonnie Prince Charlie came owre the sea
   With Wilson, who never smiles,
And L.B.J. from the U.S.A
   And the king of the Cannibal Isles;

Chaps from Siam and from South Vietnam
   And the Philippines too, I think;
Some for the sake of the free, free world,
   And some for the free, free drink.

They made long speeches and shed loud tears
   To propitiate Harold's ghost,
And the king of the Cannibal Isles got up
   To propose a final toast.

He said: "We have had such a splendid time,
   Such generous Christmas cheer,
We hope you'll be able to drown a Prime
   Minister every year!"

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Words and Phrases that Make Me Grind My Teeth

'Stakeholders' - when not used in the context of agricultural work or vampires

Friday, 12 November 2010

Mimosa

Mimosa is a poncey florist's sort of name for wattle, which grows in abundance on the mountain where I walk most days. Lately, I have been looking closely at the wattle and thinking about Philip Larkin. Specifically, I've been thinking about these lines from his poem "The Trees":

"The trees are coming into leaf
like something almost being said."

It strikes me that, if Larkin had been Australian, he might have written this instead:

"The wattle's coming into flower
like something almost being said."






Mind you, wattle is more a shrub than a tree, but he could have called the thing "Mimosa",  (and, yes, since you ask, I do, for the first time ever, have a camera of my own.)

Thursday, 11 November 2010

At the Shops

When I went up to the shops to get the paper this morning, I nearly collided with someone coming out of the cafe next door to the newsagent's.

This person, who was over six foot tall - and 'not fat, just portly', as my husband told his rather tubby aunt she was, in an attempt to cheer her up when he was five - was carrying a cappucino and wearing stilettoes, a semi-see-through flesh-coloured ultra-mini skirt with a g-string visible beneath, (at least from the rear view - there was a little French maid's lace apron covering some of the front), a black-and-white striped bra, a blonde party wig and a hibiscus behind one ear.

Last time I saw this person she was definitely a man - although always with very strong feminine aspirations. She has been away for a while since then.

Perhaps because she started out in life as a gent, she does not seem to have picked up the importance of sitting nicely when wearing a skirt that short. Maybe no-one is taught such things these days but, even though I went to a state school, the authorities in the early 1970s still regarded it as part of their responsibilities to make sure girls learnt about these matters. As a result, a woman from June Dally Watkins, who was so heavily made up that, when she moved her head, we felt a spray of lipstick droplets rain down on our faces, was wheeled in one afternoon to teach us how to get in and out of sports cars without revealing our underwear.

Boys, needless to say, were excluded from this important piece of secret women's business, and so our pal at the shops this morning did not know that you should always sit with your knees pressed tightly together. As a result of his ignorance, of course, it was possible to gather some visual evidence which might suggest that a bit of reductive surgery has recently taken place.

I'm glad I live in a place where no-one laughs or points or screams at such an outlandish figure. Indeed, for years there was a man quite obviously dressed as a woman at our local church; he passed around the collection plate and no-one ever said an unkind word to him. The whole thing was rather cheeringly ridiculous, a sight to be looked forward to and chuckled about internally. That is very good I think - to be kind to the absurd. However, yesterday on the radio there was a long segment about the "GLBTI community", which seemed to be suggesting there should be more than tolerance, that we should grow much more solemn and deny that there is anything at all unusual about such sights.

I do understand that that person at the shop may well be a seething mass of anxieties and unhappiness, and I would never ever behave in a way that was unkind, mocking or disrespectful to her. However, it doesn't seem to me to be helpful to her in any way for me to lie and pretend that she does not cut a pretty silly and, in all honesty, fairly amusing figure. I'm glad she exists. She makes me laugh at the oddity of the human race, of which I am a member. She adds to the famous 'gaiety of the nation'. Is that to be taken from us? Should my pleasure at seeing her be suppressed? If something is ludicrous, must we train ourselves to think that it is not?

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Freedom from Freedom

At last I've finished Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest book. Although I went into the thing quite willingly - and, initially, even found that I enjoyed it - about a third of the way through I began to wish I'd never started and by the end all I wanted was escape. I'd been trapped with Franzen's collection of fairly charmless characters for far too long.

The book opens with a 26-page description of Walter and Patty Berglund, a couple who are gentrifying pioneers of a suburb of St Paul. Whoever is writing this section doesn't seem to like the Berglunds very much and also appears to have access to the private conversations of a neighbourhood family called the Paulsens, who don't seem keen on the Berglunds either. It is Mrs Paulsen who ends this section (and having served her narrative purpose, disappears, together with her husband, from any further participation in the book), summing up the Berglunds with the comment, "I don't think they've figured out yet how to live."

 In the next section the story is taken up by Patty Berglund herself. Through the device of an analyst's suggestion that she write her life as a creative writing project, she tells us about her childhood, her family and how she met Walter, with "his unstoppable blush", and his friend Richard Katz. She also leads us off into the story of her intense friendship with a character called Eliza, who is vividly evoked, has several intriguing characteristics, but vanishes after about page 89.

At the end of 160 or so pages, Patty begins to run out of steam – or the structural difficulties associated with retaining her as narrator start to dawn on Franzen. Her memoir is shut down and she is replaced by an old-fashioned anonymous omniscient narrator, who shifts the focus onto Richard Katz, before moving on to Patty's son Joey - who has until this point been only a secondary character - and then to Walter Berglund and the events of his life. We alternate between these three characters - with a brief excursion into the life of Walter's father from pages 443 to 457 - until page 501, when we return to Patty Berglund's creative writing project. That runs for almost forty pages and then, for the final twenty pages, Franzen – with the help of someone called Linda, who fulfils much the same function as the Paulsens in the first section – attempts to tidy up loose ends.

The odd thing about Franzen's writing is that it is, to begin with, so compulsively readable. I found myself chomping through the early pages of Freedom, eager for more and more. Sadly though, despite the initial excitement, quite quickly I began to feel sated, as if I'd been eating hot chips or sweets: at first, they seem gorgeous and I can't get enough; I gobble them down in handfuls, stuffing them into my mouth in a greedy frenzy; before long though, it begins to dawn on me that they aren't really very satisfying; not long after, it occurs to me that they aren't even particularly nice.

But perhaps comparing the effect of Franzen's prose with the sensation of eating lollies is to choose an unfairly plebeian analogy. After all Franzen did refuse to be included on Oprah Winfrey's reading scheme. He might prefer to be associated with the effects of a more sophisticated pleasure. Certainly the description his character Richard Katz gives of the effects that cocaine has on him pretty much mirrors the effect that extended exposure to Franzen's prose has on me:

" ... he remembered it as fantastic and unbeatable and craved it, but as soon as he was on it again he remembered that it wasn't fantastic at all, it was sterile and empty: neuro-mechanistic, death-flavoured" .

I should point out that Franzen does not lack intelligence. In fact, he provides plenty of very clever insights. Here he skewers the preoccupations of anxious middle-class gentrifiers:

“In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops inactually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighbourhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer?”

Here, in his description of Patty's atttitude to Joey, he nails a dangerous but increasingly prevalent approach to motherhood:

“... if she'd been honest with herself, what she really wanted was for Joey to be delighted by her ... Walter had ruined her friendship with her son ... by being her husband, by claiming her for the grownup side, Walter had made Joey believe that Patty was in the enemy camp."

Here, with equal accuracy he portrays the same relationship from Joey's point of view:

It was "as if she was speaking some sophisticated but dying aboriginal language which it was up to the younger generation (ie Joey) to either perpetuate or be responsible for the death of ... there was her, and then there was the rest of the world, and by the very way she chose to speak to him she was reproaching him for placing his allegiance with the rest of the world."

Unfortunately Franzen is not so strong when it comes to characterisation. His protagonists are, in fact, bafflingly inconsistent. Walter, for instance, is portrayed as unusually generous, warm and friendly. "Not knowing Walter yet, Patty had no idea how unusual it was that he returned this greeting with a cold nod rather than a friendly midwestern smile" we are told when we first meet him. We then discover that he is so kind that he has turned down an Ivy League scholarship, in order to go to university near enough to home to be able to help his mother and also that he "quickly endeared himself to [Patty's] ... friends with his niceness. Her homelier friends appreciated how much more intently he listened to them than all the guys who couldn't see past their looks, and Cathy Schmidt, her brightest friend, declared Walter smart enough to be on the Supreme Court. It was a novelty ... to have a guy in their midst who everybody felt so natural and relaxed around, a guy who could hang out in the lounge during study breaks and be one of the girls." Then abruptly, on page 290, without any explanation beyond a page heading announcing “The Nice Man's Anger” he is presented as in a state of consuming, almost perpetual rage:

"Walter had come to prefer the anxiety of being her passenger to the judgmental anger that consumed him when he was at the wheel - the seemingly inescapable sense that, of all the drivers on the road, only he was travelling at exactly the right speed, only he was striking an appropriate balance between too punctiliously obeying traffic rules and too dangerously flouting them. In the last two years, he'd spent a lot of angry hours on the roads of West Virginia, tailgating the idiotic slowpokes and then slowing down himself to punish the rude tailgaters ..."

We have to simply accept the statement a few pages later that Walter knows "a thing or two about omnidirectional anger", although nothing in the plot has explained how he has gone from being a gentle blusher to a raging fury.

Patty is equally erratic. She develops from being "...one of those miserable adolescents so angry at her parents that she needed to join a cult where she could be nicer and friendlier and more generous and subservient than she could bring herself to be at home any more" into someone who can see "something poignant or even admirable in [her mother]". Such a development is entirely possible, but we have not been shown by what process she arrives at this point. This is partly because, despite the fact that much of the book is supposed to be written by Patty, we are very rarely allowed to view her except within the perspective of her relationship with Walter and/or Richard Katz. Her existence seems to be dependent on being attached to 
one or other of these men.

She does tell Walter early on, "There's something wrong with me. I love all my other friends, but I feel like there's always a wall between us. Like they're all one kind of person and I'm another kind of person. More competitive and selfish. Less good, basically. Somehow I always end up feeling like I'm pretending when I'm around them," and we do know that she was raped when still a teenager, which may give her more reason to behave oddly than most. However, we are regularly told she is intelligent - "She's so smart", her daughter says; "She didn't seem to be very good at living her life, but it wasn't because she was stupid. Almost the opposite somehow," her son observes – and yet her behaviour never demonstrates that she is bright at all. While she does express a kind of head-screwed-on cynicism at one point - "Given what we know about the way people really are. Selfish and shortsighted and egotistical and needy" she says suddenly – the naivety of her behaviour towards her friend Eliza would have to be judged as pretty close to idiotic. On top of this, the fact that she considers having "breast-augmentation" calls into question any claims about her bulging brains, not to mention the fact that her one consistent trait throughout the novel is a complete failure of imagination about the choices available to her: she seems incapable of thinking beyond whether she wants Walter or Richard or Walter or Richard or Walter or Richard; reading Proust in the original doesn't seem to occur to her as an alternative and nor does anything else.

Richard Katz is even less solidly written. We are told by Walter that he has had a rough family background:

" ...his mom ran away when he was little, and became a religious nut. His dad was a postal worker and a drinker who got lung cancer when Richard was in high school. Richard took care of him until he died. He's a very loyal person, although maybe not so much with women”.

For much of the book the loyalty Walter describes does seem to exist. “Richard ...tired of girls so quickly and always ended up kicking them to the curb; he always came back to Walter, whom he didn't get tired of” we are told. "Katz couldn't have said exactly why Walter mattered to him. No doubt part of it was simply an accident of grandfathering: of forming an attachment at an impressionable age, before the contours of his personality were fully set ... No other man had warmed Katz's loins the way the sight of Walter did after long absence. These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow …"

In the light of these statements, what are we to make of his decision to betray Walter and cause him pain? His change of character is never sufficiently explained. The way that he casually leaves Patty's account of her life out for Walter to see, thus deliberately shattering his friend's illusions about his own life makes no more sense than his sudden and brief preoccupation with death:

"Katz felt very, very tired ... To die would the cleanest cutting of his connection to the thing - the girl's idea of Richard Katz - that was burdening him. Away to the southwest of where they were standing stood the massive Eisenhower-era utility building that marred the nineteenth-century architectural vistas of almost every Tribecan loftdweller. Once upon a time, the building had offended Katz's urban aesthetic, but now it pleased hm by offending the urban aesthetic of the millionnaires who'd taken over the neighborhood. It looked like death over the excellent lives being lived down here; it had become something of a friend of his."

Wherever the hell this mood comes from, it doesn't appear again. One ends up having to conclude that Katz is being used as a pawn – in his behaviour towards Walter he is jigging up the sluggish plot; in his sudden world weariness, he is merely a mouthpiece for something Franzen felt like shoving into the text.

Joey, Walter and Patty's son, is equally inconsistent. When we first meet him he is a feckless youth, who moves in with the rednecks next door and appears to enjoy playing video games and pool and listening to loud music, having rejected all the middle-class preoccupations of his own family. We are given no hint that he has any intellectual inclinations and yet on page 270 he is described as "sounding to himself like one of Socrates's young interlocutors, whose lines of dialogue, on page after page, consisted of variations on "Yes, unquestionably" and "Undoubtedly it must be so." When did Joey read Socrates, we wonder.

Again, while he is not without a clear eyed kind of unromantic insight –

“In the days after 9/11, everything suddenly seemed extremely stupid to Joey. It was stupid that a “Vigil of Concern” was held for no conceivable practical reason, it was stupid that people kept watching the same disaster footage over and over, it was stupid that the Chi Phi boys hung a banner of “support” from their house, it was stupid that the football game against Penn State was cancelled, it was stupid that so many kids left Grounds to be with their families (and it was stupid that everybody at Virginia said “Grounds” instead of “campus”). The four liberal kids on Joey's hall had endless stupid arguments with the twenty conservative kids, as if anybody cared what a bunch of eighteen-year-olds thought about the Middle East … there was stupid applause when a vanful of upperclassmen solemnly departed for New York to give succour to the Ground Zero workers, as if there weren't enough people in New York to do the job”

- he is by no means a philosopher. It is therefore almost disturbing when, from time to time, his character morphs without warning into someone who lives on a different level of spirituality entirely and starts to think about "his soul, his familiar personal self,” recognising all of a sudden that “... he was alone with his body; and since, strangely, he was his body, this meant he was entirely alone."

The minor female characters in the novel demonstrate even more clearly how poor Franzen's skills at creating character are. I have rarely come across such badly written creatures in any book. Joey's girlfriend Connie is particularly shocking – it is hard to understand how any decent editor could have allowed a cypher such as this anywhere near the inside of a book cover. I believe she may be meant to represent steadfast love, but she can only really be understood as some kind of warped Franzen fantasy. She is completely passive, devoted to Joey despite unspeakable treatment, submitting to his every demand without any protest and only a small amount of 'self-harm'.

Joey's sister Jessica is scarcely more authentic and Patty's sisters are just grotesque cartoons. The Indian assistant, Lalitha, is so impossible that in the end even Franzen takes fright and kills her off before the whole rickety contraption that is his novel collapses under the weight of implausibility.

And talking of implausibility, there is Franzen's dialogue. It seems to me that he has a complete tin ear:

“Seriously, Walter. That kind of man is very primitive. All he has is dignity and self-control and attitude. He only has one little thing, while you have everything else.”
But the thing he has is what the world wants,” Walter said. “You've read all the Nexis stuff on him, you know what I'm talking about. The world doesn't reward ideas or emotions, it rewards integrity and coolness. And that's why I don't trust him. He's got the game set up so he's always going to win. In private, he may think he admires what we're doing, but he's never going to admit it in public, because he has to maintain his attitude, because that's what the world wants, and he knows it.”
Yes, but that's why it's so great that he'll be working with us. I don't want you to be cool, I don't like a cool man. I like a man like you.”
-------------------
“OK. Sure. It's your life. But how about a smaller piece of the action? The way I read the specs, the Polish Pladsky A10 is gonna do just fine. They're not in production anymore, but there's fleets of 'em standing around military bases in Hungary and Bulgaria. Also somewhere in South America, which doesn't help me. But I'm gonna hire drivers in Eastern Europe, convoy the trucks across Turkey, and deliver 'em in Kirkuk. That's going to tie me up for God knows how long and there's also a nine-hundred-K subcontract for spare parts. You think you could handle the spare parts as a sub sub?”
“I don't know anything about truck parts.”
“Neither do I. But Pladsky built a good twenty thousand A10s, back in the day. There've gotta be tons of parts out there. All you gotta do is track 'em down, crate 'em up, ship 'em out. Put in three hundred K, take out nine hundred six months later. That's an eminently reasonable markup, given the circumstances. My impression is that's a low-end markup in procurement. No eyebrows will be raised. You think you can get your hands on three hundred K?”
“I can hardly get my hands on lunch money,” Joey said. “What with tuition and so forth.”
-------
Veronica laughed. “My talents don't seem to be the kind the world's interested in. That's why it's better if I can exercise them by myself. I really just want to be left alone, Patty. That's all I'm asking at this point. To be left alone. Abigail's the one who doesn't want Uncle Jim and Uncle Dudley to get anything. I don't really care as long as I can pay my rent.”
“That's not what Joyce says. She says you don't want them getting anything either.”
“I'm only trying to help Abigail get what she wants. She wants to start her own female comedy troupe and take it to Europe, where people will appreciate her. She wants to live in Rome and be revered.”.

Others may disagree but I cannot persuade myself that any of those conversations could ever have taken place between genuine flesh and blood human beings in anything resembling the real world.

Yet there is no doubt that it is in the real world that the book is firmly set. Indeed recent US politics – the Iraq war in particular - is one of its major themes. The war is first highlighted around the time that Joey is dragged into the novel's foreground. The way that it is handled once again exposes Franzen's inadequacy as a writer.

Beyond anything, what stands out as shocking about the discussion of the Iraq war in Freedom is the author's barely disguised anti-Semitism in his tracing of its causes. He shows us Joey becoming involved with a rich Jewish family, the patriarch of which is "the founder and luminary president of a think tank devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military supremacy to make the world freer and safer, especially for America and Israel. Hardly a week passed, in October and November, without ... an opinion piece in the Times or the Journal in which [he] ... expounded on the menace of radical Islam. They'd also watched him on the News Hour and Fox News. He had a mouth full of exceptionally white teeth that he flashed every time he started speaking."

This man (with his “mouth full of exceptionally white teeth that he flashed”) recruits Joey to his think tank, after this conversation between them:

"But that's because they're free," Joey said. "Isn't that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it's a pain in the ass sometimes" ... "That's exactly right," Jenna's father said. "Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that's precisely why it's so imperative that we seize the opportunity that's been presented to us this fall. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary."

From the think tank, which “In Joey's view ... did indeed have a hush-hush motive for supporting the invasion: the protection of Israel, which, unlike the United States, was within striking distance of even the crappy sort of missile that Saddam's scientists were capable of building”, Joey becomes involved with "RISEN (Restore Iraqi Secular Enterprise Now) an LBI subsidiary that had won a no-bid contract to privatize the formerly state-controlled bread-baking industry in newly liberated Iraq”, and thence he moves on to highly dubious moneymaking enterprises which endanger lives.

What are we to make of all this? Even leaving aside the barely concealed anti-Semitism (which Franzen once again raises and then narrowly slides away from in his treatment of the character Galina who is identified as a 'Russian Jew' later in the book), the details of the thing are so risible. If Franzen wants to be taken seriously, why does he call an organisation dedicated to introducing breadbaking in Iraq RISEN? It's not a very funny play on words and it undermines the plausibility of the whole episode.

There is one last aspect of Franzen's writing that I find distinctly unappealing and that is his handling of sex. This, however, may be a personal objection: following the phenomenal success of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which I found pretty unpleasant because of the weird and murky scenes of sado masochism at its heart, I recognise that I may be more sensitive than most about these kinds of things. Nevertheless I have to say that the scenes in Freedom involving Joey and Connie having phone sex are probably the most disgusting things I have ever read. I did consider quoting from them, but, remembering how a friend of mine went to see The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover - which I was too squeamish to go to - and then insisted on giving me such a vivid account of it that I might as well have gone along, I realised that all I would really be doing would be unburdening myself in a kind of therapy that would rid me of the horrible experience by passing it on to some other poor innocent. Suffice to say, there is a very vivid description of a fantasy involving poo in that section of the book.

Of course, the phone sex episodes may well be intended as manifestations of the freedom alluded to in the book's title. Presumably everything in the book is designed be seen in the light of that word. The Iraq war is fought for "freedom" by a nation that is freer than any has been in history. Its citizens are freed from the necessity to use up all their energy merely surviving, their lives are largely leisured, family, church, cohesive traditions and mores have collapsed and citizens are free to do as they please. But what dismal choices they are given to make in Franzen's world. As well as ridding them of poverty and disease and fire and brimstone, he seems to have stripped them of kindness and fellow feeling and love. He portrays parent/child relationships as completely doomed, deliberately mirroring Walter's relationship with his father with Joey's relationship with him (Walter is described as engaged in “a lifelong struggle against his father” and Joey feels about Walter that he's “been battling him all his life.” Patty devotes herself to not making the mistakes her mother made with her children, to being there for them, not working, making sure they have her around. Jessica's response is to react against that and return to the role Patty was reacting against: “...she never really made anything of herself except being a good mom. The one thing I know for sure is I'm never going to stay home full-time with my kids,” she says.) This is all well and good, although a pretty bleak way of looking at things. If you do subscribe to that viewpoint, however, Larkin has already expressed the same sentiments, much better and in only two lines.

Given what a thoroughly objectionable book Freedom is, it is surprising to realise that Franzen may have Tolstoyan delusions about it. War and Peace features quite prominently at one stage and I have heard it claimed that Franzen sees Walter as Bezukhov, Patty as Natasha and Richard Katz as some kind of corrupted Volkonsky. Patty and Richard have an affair, but the "truth is that nothing between Patty and Richard was ever going to last, because they couldn't help being disappointments to each other, because neither was as lovable to the other as Walter was to both of them." I think Franzen is trying here to transform the threesome into a tragically noble triumvirate. He does not succeed: they remain what they are – rudderless, self-centred, unloved lost creatures staggering about in a morally anarchic world. Tolstoy had a vision of eternal beauty. Volkonsky lay on the ground and saw something transcendent in the sky. Franzen instead gives us faeces and Joey sorting through his own excrement, searching for his wedding ring.“Mercifully, the ring turned up in the second of the turds he broke apart.” Freedom. It's wonderful stuff.