Thursday, 3 January 2013

Gosh Where Did the Time Go

It's 2013 already and I'm back on the internet super highway, after beautiful coast days and sweaty turkey roasting days and madly
competitive Bananagrams dominated-days - never have I so enjoyed ANY game, not even fielding at cricket in the garden when I was a kid (which mainly involved reading Beano - or The Beano, for those who prefer, wrongly, I suspect, without any evidence to back me up - in my special child-sized wicker chair).

Here are some of the things I did while I was away:

1. Enjoyed this a good deal, and this, particularly the following brilliant insight within it:

"Seriousness can be faked very easily; this is almost impossible with wit and lightness"

and this, which made me laugh and laugh.

2. Read this, about Patrick White, and was gratified to discover that I'm not the only reader who finds his work  "actively uninviting"

3. Read this and thought, should I tell him he is going to have stiff competition if he decides on the chutney merchant course:

No, I think perhaps I'll just donate all my accumulated stock and let him get on with it.

4. Went to see Skyfall, which was noisy and kind of exciting but simultaneously dull, and Quartet, which was very good, leading me to realise that anything written by Ronald Harwood, however schmaltzy it may be marketed as being, should be given a go, and Liberal Arts, which I do genuinely think is the single most excruciatingly awful film I have seen in my entire life.

5. Read  the following books:

a. For Richer, For Poorer, by Victoria Coren, which was pretty enjoyable, although might have been better if I had any idea how to play poker.

b. Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, a dazzling - but inevitably miserable - portrait of a narcissist. It's told in the first person by a spoilt young American who is on a fellowship in Madrid. He speaks enough Spanish to understand the general gist of conversations but not the details. This leads to what I found - perhaps partly because I know the feeling so well - several hilarious episodes. He wants to be 'an artist' and to appreciate art but he doesn't have a very big emotional range. Although he does not commit physical violence at any point, he reminds me very much of Mr Ripley, because of his utter inability to empathise.

Here are some of the bits I liked:

"I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music 'changed their life,' especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change."

"She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening's general drama ... she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I'd enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she'd said about the moon was childish ... She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn't tell; I heard the names of streets and months; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds."

"Although I had internet access in my apartment, I claimed in my e-mails to be writing from an internet cafe and that my time was very limited. I tried my best not to respond to most of the e-mails I received as I thought this would create the impression I was offline, busy accumulating experience, while in fact I spent a good amount of time online, especially in the late afternoon and early evening, looking at videos of terrible things." [This behaviour reminds me of that tedious thing people used to do of saying, 'Oh we never watch television', which always turned out to be complete rubbish as they proceeded to recognise every reference to telly that came up].

"Of course we engaged in our share of incidental talk, but our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force."

"I came to understand that if you looked around carefully as you walked through the supposedly least touristy barrios, you could identify young Americans whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise, probably living on savings or giving private English lessons to rich kids, temporary expatriates sporting haircuts and clothing that, in hard-to-specify ways, seemed native to Madrid, in part because they were imperfect or belated versions of American styles. Each member of this shadowy network resented the others, who were irritating reminders that nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is, and that their soft version of self-imposed exile was just another of late empire's packaged tours."

"We took a cab to the Sagrada Familia, which was illuminated; it was the ugliest building I had ever seen."

c. The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore, which I thought was going to be really good until about fifty pages in I realised it was an utterly frustratingly hollow, super 'clever' intersecting puzzle with no substance at all, which was quite maddening, since Moore appears to be a good writer, in some ways.

d. Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick, which was somehow unsatisfying, despite being full of perception and so forth. It may have been my fault - I just never really got wildly interested in the characters; they remained thin in my mind.

Here's a nice bit from it, though, to demonstrate that it is very well-written and entertaining, even if I somehow couldn't quite work up huge enthusiasm:

"In the end ... she did not invite Mrs Bienenfeld to Othello. It was being put on in one of those avant-garde cellars in a part of the Village that was really still the Lower East Side. You went down a flight of cracked stone stairs stinking of urine, canine or human, (evidences of both species, a dried-up turd pile, the lost heel of a shoe with the nails sticking up), and stepped into the dark, where rows of battered folding chairs faced a narrow raised platform. The costumes were makeshift and clumsy, and you could see into the wings where the actors were fiddling with wigs and swords, getting ready for the next scene. You could also glimpse a comical lineup of Heinz ketchup bottles, noble Shakespearean blood, on a wooden shelf. The idea of these places was to do the unexpected (the primal word was 'transgressive'): the Moor played by a white woman in blackface and pantaloons, breasts suppressed by a wide silk band; Desdemona a lipsticked young Negro in a yellow peruke."

e. Artemis Cooper's biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which raised questions she seemed not prepared to answer (most particularly about his odd marriage) but was good as far as these things go. The trouble is I'm not fond of biography as a form, because it seems somehow indecent. As usual, I emerged at the end of the thing, feeling thoroughly grubby, as if I'd been forced to sniff someone else's dirty underpants.

So, on with the show. And three cheers for Bernard Tomic (who'd have thought). Hip, hip hurray. Can we dare to dream of a Renaissance for Australian tennis?


  1. On reflection I have decided against a career as a chutney merchant; the increasingly competitive world of chutney selling proved too much for me to handle. Back to the relative safety of literary criticism...

    1. Blast. Anyone want to come to a chutney party?

  2. Dammit, you have now forced me to load 20000 words of things I don't want to miss on the Kindle as bedtime reading.

    But how can I refuse someone who shares my apparently unreasonable dislike of Patrick White's style?

    1. As you will already be disappointed to have discovered, I suspect, that writer goes on to expound White's qualities. So it's back for another bash at trying to read him, I suppose. Or else just stick with good old AD Hope and his 'verbal sludge' point of view

  3. patrick white's style is horridly obtuse, granted - but you seem to like quite a few 'difficult' authors, Z - I'm not a fan of impenetrable prose at the best of times, but I must say that Voss is one of the best books I've ever read, the ending is magnificent - however with the caveat that the main reason I find the ending magnificent is that it's all about being a man, so I can see why you might not like it as much as I did...

    1. I've put it on my bedside table, with some moaning and gnashing of teeth as I did so.

    2. If you like the story of Burke and Wills (which I know you do) then you will like Voss.