Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
I've always been a little scared of James Joyce, not least because he used to come around to our house every third Friday of the month and demand money with menaces back when I were a lad; although admittedly that may not have been James Joyce - I was very young at the time and my memory is hazy. Also, he famously wrote books making use of long made-up words. Anyway, my point here is that, being entirely unfamiliar with the man's oeuvre, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man seemed as good a place to start as any, given that it was his first and is as such supposedly not quite so weirdly impenetrable as his later page-turners.

Joyce famously wrote his narratives as a stream of consciousness, swerving from random thought to subject to event and back often without warning - the prospect of which is probably what kept my curiosity at bay as I imagined something like an Irish William Burroughs but more extreme and with none of the endearing toilet humour. Thankfully I was entirely wrong, and it hasn't required quite so much homework on my part as anticipated to appreciate what Joyce was doing. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is roughly autobiographical, with the specific focus being its principal character developing a sense of aesthetics; and it's probably entirely pertinent that this was written during those decades when European artists - or at least the painters - were most noisily engaged in the development and declaration of new ways of seeing by which to replace those of the classical tradition. Joyce seems less conspicuously modernist than Hemingway in this respect - Hemingway being Joyce's drinking buddy and my other recent point of reference here - but his narrative seems to share some common ground with the swirling subjective imagery of the Symbolists and other decadent types, albeit pared down to the microcosmic world of Stephen Dedalus.

Joyce, it turns out, was keen on rhythm, less in terms of there being a young lady from Ealing, and more so in the same sense as certain modernist painters of his day, persons such as Max Weber or Umberto Boccioni - thinking specifically of the States of Mind series here. I should probably stress that this is something I've noticed rather than necessarily indicative of anything directly or specifically relating to the author or his influences. Maybe it would be easier to simply give an example, such as the swell of the ocean as suggested by the repetition of the word waves in the following paragraph:

How pale the light was at the window! But that was nice. The fire rose and fell on the wall. It was like waves. Someone had put coal on and he heard voices. They were talking. It was the noise of the waves. Or the waves were talking among themselves as they rose and fell.

Rhythms shape the overall structure of the novel as well as the detail, informing the relationship of the five chapters, each representing a distinct age in the development of Dedalus, and almost certainly echoing some theological form of which I am unfamiliar through having little background in that area. That said, the structure reminded me somewhat of the five directions, the five points of the Mexican Nahua world through which one must cycle in order to achieve completion; and so it feels like Joyce may have been doing something similar here, assembling five formative pieces in order to achieve a whole in acknowledgement of some specific pattern.

This development of themes is seen in Stephen the child losing his glasses early on in the novel, for which he is punished over and above simply being unable to see; reflected by his development of aesthetics in the final chapter as he is reborn by some definition, although reborn not necessarily of the vaguely traditional fire, fire having been earlier defined as having two forms - that which God made for the service of humanity, and that more fierce variant which torments the sinners in hell. Stephen appears, at least to me, to take his own path, embracing science whilst refuting the priesthood without any flags unnecessarily nailed to the masts of any ship which might sail too far in any direction other than his own, that of the great craftsman and artist as signified by the name.

Stylistically, Joyce's innovation - so far as I am able to tell - was in banishing all but the purely subjective voice of the world as experienced by his character, placing the reader at the centre of the novel in an entirely new way, but without any of the usual compromises which reduce narrative to sequential melodrama. So we are expected to make some effort to join the dots and to keep up, which can't really be done without superimposing our own subjective experiences onto those of Stephen Dedalus. Returning to possibly spurious comparisons with early twentieth century painters, the steady internal rhythm of this dialogue, coupled with Joyce's refusal to render speech as separate from the narrative, presents a sort of written equivalent of the bold surface of the work of certain Fauvists such as André Derain, no area of the image taking precedent over another, everything levelled out to an even if not necessarily uniform texture.

—A day of dappled seaborne clouds.

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

So, whilst a degree of contextual depth is necessary to appreciate the narrative beyond that which is set down in the novel, we supply that depth, and Joyce therefore has more common ground with his friend Hemingway than may be apparent from first glance.

The first step in the direction of beauty is to understand the frame and scope of the imagination, to comprehend the act itself of aesthetic apprehension.

Hence the unrelenting subjectivity of the narrative.

Pretentious as this all may seem, not least because there's a strong chance I've been firing blanks and in the wrong direction all along, it should at least communicate that there's a lot going on here for those who wish to work at it, and so, as the above probably indicates, I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Nevertheless, I take away from this novel that whilst Joyce's written style may seem an initially daunting prospect, there's really nothing to be afraid of, and this specific portrait makes for rich and particularly rewarding reading.

Monday, 19 May 2014


Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth Wolfbane (1959, revised 1986)

Whilst there was a hell of a lot of His Share of Glory, the definitive short story collection published by the wonderful NESFA Press, even with a few of the tales included being less satisfactory than others, it was obvious that Kornbluth had been an exceptional talent, and that his name should not be allowed to fizzle away into obscurity. To this end I picked up Wolfbane on the recommendation of Chris Browning, this being a full length novel written in collaboration with Kornbluth's fellow Futurian, Frederik Pohl.

The story takes place on a future Earth which has been dragged away from the sun, off into the depths of space by forces unknown occupying the mysterious rogue planet with which it has formed a gravitational partnership. These aforementioned forces unknown have kept what is left of humanity alive by somehow igniting the moon, turning it into a miniature sun giving out just enough heat to keep the permafrost north of the Mason-Dixon line, and Mount Everest has been levelled off by something or other so as to form a platform on which is now sat a vast, presumably alien pyramid; and once this environment is established, the story really takes a turn for the weird.

Wolfbane reminds me a little of Kornbluth's Two Dooms at least in terms of an absolutely unfamiliar world portrayed with complete conviction, and which becomes entirely believable regardless of whatever craziness comes next. Humanity, for example, is reduced not to the clichéd survivalists whom Bruce Willis leads to roaring victory on the surface of that other world, but to adaptation as a strangely formalised society reminiscent of the popular image of dynastic China with the preservation of precious calories becoming a common goal of near-religious significance. I'm not at all familiar with Frederik Pohl's writing, but the distinctive flavour of Kornbluth is immediately recognisable throughout, and this novel reveals his many strengths as he tells a story which, practically speaking, could only really be told as a novel, one for which the sheer bizarre nature of what happens would distract and even diminish the whole were it presented in a visual medium. For example, what becomes of Glenn Tropile as he discovers the true purpose of the pyramid structure is probably as anatomically stomach churning as any horrible centipede film, and yet the poetry of the writing keeps it from becoming mere spectacle.

On another level, this is as eloquent an analogy of western society as I've read, with people fighting for the cause of their own exploitation, reduced to components in a vast carnivorous machine driven entirely by its own continuation. In fact, in some respects it could be read as a precursor to The Matrix, but better, obviously. I'm almost surprised that this one hasn't crossed over to become one of those science-fiction novels that achieves popularity amongst people who don't really read science fiction, and clearly Kornbluth was one of the all-time greats.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Splitting In Two

Robert Dellar Splitting In Two (2014)
I first encountered the name of Robert Dellar back in 1983 or thereabouts as one half of Cult of the Supreme Being whose song Chlorine Fills My Lungs particularly impressed me when I heard it on a compilation tape on the Cause For Concern label; which was around the same time I first began writing to Andy Martin, then of an unusually tuneful punk group called The Apostles. Robert's name turned up time and again under various guises on cassettes put out by Dead Hedgehog Enterprises of Watford, and eventually I met him in person as I ended up playing guitar in one of Andy Martin's later bands and it transpired that they knew each other quite well.

That said, I was never quite sure what to make of him. He always seemed too busy to talk, or just about to go somewhere, and I got the impression he regarded me as merely one of Andy's many drooling acolytes. I attended a Mad Pride live event which Robert had organised at The Garage in Islington in 2003 - in part because I was amongst the performers and was scheduled to appear on stage with the Ceramic Hobs - and I was surprised when Robert came up to me, asking if I had paid to get in. His point was that my name had been on the guest list so I shouldn't have handed over any quids, but I was more taken aback by his actually knowing who I was, as it had been a few years by that point.

Splitting In Two is Robert's autobiographical account of the Mad Pride movement he helped instigate, his life, and his often fraught dealings with the mental health authorities. I know quite a few of the people in this book, and appeared on stage at two of the live musical events described herein. One of people described by Robert regularly slept on my couch every other weekend up to the point at which he started going on about buying rare Skrewdriver albums and thusly somewhat pissed on his chips where I was concerned; and I'm familiar with a few of the more unpleasant stories of psychiatric brutality related in Splitting In Two through having already heard them from Andy Martin, who was also there, and who has by various peculiar twists of fate come to number amongst my bestest friends.

The point to my mentioning any of this is that it will be virtually impossible for me to offer an objective view of this book, because I was either there, or at least stood just around the corner for some of it; although I suppose this at least means I can offer some sort of confirmation that Robert hasn't just made this shit up for chuckles.

It seems initially an uneven read, literally split between lively if occasionally harrowing autobiographical details, and the dryer tone of discussion regarding psychiatric matters, doubtless informed by the number of reports Robert has been required to submit to hospital authorities over the years. This is probably acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, in the title, taken from an Alternative TV song, more consciously chosen as an allusion to the dialectical model of philosophical and political analysis first elucidated by Hegel and then developed by Marx, amongst other things; which is stated on the third page and probably shouldn't put you off. However, this initially uneven quality becomes less apparent as the book goes on, and I'm not sure it even matters; although I have no idea whether I would find the contents quite so fascinating were I unable to recognise at least a few of the persons and situations involved.

Well anyway, from my entirely unreliable position, I would tentatively suggest this is potentially quite an important book. Dellar's beef - as has been that of the Mad Pride movement - is that those diagnosed as clinically insane remain the last group in western society whose human rights may be legally withdrawn without explanation or accountability, who can be pumped full of dangerous mind-altering substances on the say so of someone whose stated justification requires no more medical rigour than it might work, so let's see what happens. The psychiatric system, Robert argues, might therefore be seen as authoritarian and capitalist society in microcosm, stripped free of all window dressing. He further argues that mental illness is itself more often than not either an inevitable by-product of our society, or at very least a condition which is significantly exacerbated by the same.

I'd decided on this course of action because I'd been reminded of the theoretical difficulties I had with the discipline of psychiatry, which saw distress and mad behaviour as an illness caused by genetic and biochemical factors, rather than as a legitimate response to a sad world in which sane responses had proved themselves inadequate.

Having myself briefly gone bonkers back in 2004, the blame for which I lay entirely on an employer concerned more with shareholders than those either doing or being served by the job in question, I'd say that Robert Dellar's assessment seems about right; and even my doctor told me I wasn't mad but was simply responding quite logically to a ridiculous and impossible situation.

Splitting In Two stumbles along, splattering refutations of psychiatric theory left right and centre amongst all the tales of mad stuff and far too much drink, and is a lot more fun than anything with quite so many suicides probably has a right to be, but concludes as a quietly inspiring panoramic view of our society and everything that's wrong with it; and for all the fits and starts with which it kicks off, the closing chapter, is one of the finest, most elegant summaries I've read anywhere, or at least it left me with the impression of my having read something much greater than the sum of its parts.

I have no way of telling how much sense this will make to anyone other than myself, but I hope it will make a lot, because I would tentatively suggest this is one of those rare books which really everyone needs to read.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Lost World

Arthur Conan Doyle The Lost World (1912)
As a kid, I loved the black and white Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and so much so that I read at least two of Arthur Conan Doyle's novels being as they happened to have them at the town library; but this was a long, long time ago, and to be brutally frank, these days I couldn't really give too much of a shit about the great detective, generally speaking, and especially not in any incarnation involving Benedict Cucumber. I appreciate that Holmes has many, many fans but the appeal eludes me, and in all honesty feels like my fellow huboons are no longer able to cope with the idea of novels that don't come as a nice tidy and collectable series of sequential scrapes and adventures with running gags and a regular cast just like proper entertainment, the stuff that's good enough to be made into telly. Not having read any Arthur Conan Doyle for three decades, I realise and even hope that I'm almost certainly wrong; although none of this impacts on the general impression I had of him as an accomplished author, and so I approached The Lost World with the same anticipation as I would the work of H.G. Wells.

I spent the first half of the novel looking for patterns that weren't there, assuming that the vaguely repellent Professor Challenger and his bumptious gang of explorers perhaps represented the scientific and imperial orthodoxy of the early twentieth century obliged to confront their own vanity by encounters with the unknown in the form of prehistoric reptiles. This I took from the fact that The Lost World keeps kicking them up the arse, except of course they mostly tend to roll with the punches, which are reduced then to a series of scrapes and japes.

It also seemed possible that The Lost World might be Conan Doyle responding to H.G. Wells, or at least to the contemporaries of H.G. Wells, by playing them at their own game:

'My dear chap, things don't happen like that in real life. People don't stumble upon enormous discoveries and then lose their evidence. Leave that to the novelists. The fellow is as full of tricks as the monkey house at the Zoo. It's all absolute bosh.'

Maybe The Lost World is the science fiction novel done properly in Conan Doyle's view, as perhaps indicated in the Duke of Durham's speech near the close of the tale:

'Apparently the age of romance was not dead, and there was common ground upon which the wildest imaginings of the novelist could meet the actual scientific investigations of the searcher for truth.'

That said, there is little to suggest a devotion to scientific rigour equivalent to that of the later Asimov and his pals. The fabulous dinosaurs of The Lost World are presented as horrors, with little discussion of their habits or anachronistic survival, and of course there are those pterodactyls with wing spans of twenty or more feet.

Then again, there also seemed to be the possibility that this was a tale of jolly chaps set in contrast to the inhuman scientific eccentricity of Challenger, an interesting character, but not really a sympathetic one. You certainly wouldn't want him batting for your team:

'You should cultivate the scientific eye and the detached scientific mind,' said he. 'To a man of philosophic temperament like myself the blood-tick, with its lancet-like proboscis and its distending stomach, is as beautiful a work of Nature as the peacock, or, for that matter, the aurora borealis. It pains me to hear you speak of it in so unappreciative a fashion.'

Ultimately, I had to conclude that I was overthinking this, and that The Lost World really is just a romp, a ripping wheeze, or the literary equivalent of a good hard game of Rugger before tea, as Brian Aldiss puts it. In fact, it pretty much does everything that Aldiss gives as a reason for disliking John Wyndham's novels, and which John Wyndham's novels don't actually do - chaps having a jolly exciting time with thrills and scrapes aplenty.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of brainless adventure, but for my money, The Lost World doesn't actually do it very well. Whilst it contains none of the commentary or criticism of Wells, and is written by an author who generally supported the colonial interests of his country, the imperialism is fairly understated, as is the casual racism that so often infects novels of this vintage. So it scores fairly high in those respects, and is as elegantly composed as you would expect of Conan Doyle; but I expected more, and I didn't anticipate being quite so bored as I was. Oh well.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Alan Moore: Storyteller

Gary Spencer Millidge Alan Moore: Storyteller (2011)

I probably wouldn't have bothered with this one had I not seen a copy going cheap in Half Price Books, although on the other hand, I wasn't actually aware of its existence until I saw a copy going cheap in Half Price Books. It's a lovely book, a big, fat hardcover thing with a compact disc and glossy pages but twenty-five squid would have been a lot to pay were I still living in England and thus obliged to frequent those miserable walletectomy centres that pass for book stores. Besides, I read Lance Parkin's wonderful Magic Words only a few months ago, so another Alan Moore biography seemed excessive, or would have done were it not for this one reproducing so much artwork, particularly from early fanzines and the like.

Alan Moore is of course the most famous comic bloke of all time, an excessively talented author and by all accounts a lovely man about whom quite enough has probably already been written. Certainly between this and Lance Parkin's biography I can't see that we'll need any more of these for a while. Of the two, Magic Words is, on balance, possibly the superior book, or at least it's the one I myself preferred, it being the one which maintained what I would consider an appropriate level of detail from start to finish. Storyteller comes close, but spends too much time on all of those magical performances, most of which could have been succinctly covered within a single chapter; at least on the grounds that Moore's run on Swamp Thing isn't broken up into a chapter for each issue.

This could of course represent an element of prejudice on my part regarding Moore's magical efforts. It's not that they aren't interesting or even relevant as part of his life's work, but magic, like sexuality, seems such a subjective thing that I tend to feel it rarely communicates well to those outside the experience, and I've never quite worked out why it even needs to be communicated to those outside the experience. Indeed, doing so suggests to me a hunger for witnesses sprung from a lack of confidence. Subsequently, without the buffer of fiction, ritual performances of genuine vitality can simply come across as dull and indulgent, or at worst, Grant Morrison shaving the number 23 into his pubes and jumping up and down screaming look at me, I'm weird!

Similarly, whilst it was nice to also get a compact disc of Moore's music, it's another aspect of the man I personally find less interesting. He's blessed with a great voice which is entirely suited to the spoken word pieces, but less so to the less inspired musical accompaniment resulting in tracks which can't seem to decide whether they're principally narrative in function, or ambient music with added monologue for the sake of atmosphere. Similarly, whilst the numerous songs are as lyrically wonderful as you would expect, they musically tend to sound like the efforts of that bloke from work who's always banging on about his guitar and has been recording his own demos on the computer; so much so that there's even a token cod-reggae number. There is a dry, workmanlike quality to the composition, competently mixed without too much strain on anyone's imagination, and what should have been full-on Tiger Lillies apeshit actually sounds a bit like the work of Mitch Benn or one of those other Godawful indie music Richard Stilgoe types; and yeah, I know David J is on some of this stuff, but quite frankly Bauhaus were wank even at the best of times.

So Storyteller uses up a lot of bandwidth on material for which you probably had to be there at the time, at least more so than I noticed was the case with Magic Words; but nevertheless, the rest is fascinating and nicely brought together, and it's particularly good to see a few of those Sounds strips again, having spent the last three decades kicking myself for giving away my four foot high stack of copies of the music paper. I know they're all online somewhere, but I'd prefer to wait for some sort of reprint than read them off a screen, even though that will probably never happen. Additionally, there was plenty I picked up from Storyteller which wasn't apparent from the Parkin book: that St. Pancras Panda was still better than whatever shit Grant Morrison was selling to D.C. Thompson at the time, despite his protestations; and there's the number of people mentioned in this book I actually know, or have known in real non-internet life, which is all quite weird, if admittedly of no relevance to anything.

In summary, there was probably more here than I wanted, but my understanding of himself is nevertheless increased, so I'm not complaining.

Monday, 5 May 2014

A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway A Moveable Feast (1964)

I can be a bit clueless when it comes to the history of literature besides that which generally has a picture of a spaceship on the cover, although possibly not quite so clueless as some, but more clueless than I would like. Having been drawn to the probably inaccurate idea of Hemingway as a man who wrote books and enjoyed a good healthy punch-up, I decided to start with A Moveable Feast on the grounds that I sometimes like to know something of the character of an author before I proceed further, and being an autobiographical account of our man's life in Paris in the 1920s, this seemed like a good place to start.

Being rather less clueless when it comes to the history of twentieth century art, I'm interested to find that Ernest spent a lot of time hanging around with artists whose work I know, forming opinions which tend to support that which I suspected. He likes Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, finds Aleister Crowley unsavoury, and summarises Wyndham Lewis in a way as to suggest parallels with a certain weird little fannish hard-boiled egg man presently spewing out a million internet words a day on how Terrance Dicks' Doctor Who and the Giant Robot novelisation recontextualises proto-Shakespearian misogyny as a millennial détournement of Situationist theory, which is a shame as I always liked Lewis' Vorticist work, but never mind.

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l'Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.

This passage stood out for me as a good example of Hemingway's greatest strengths, the style he developed, and because of the thematic link to the proto-Cubist painter, Paul Cézanne. Stylistically, Hemingway appeared to be reacting against the baroque excesses of Symbolist writing - if that's what I mean - with an efficient and stripped down text delivering solid blocks of meaning in straight lines without the distraction of adjectives or hyperbole. It is, I suppose, a style that has come to be identified as hard-boiled, at least by me, and might be seen as partially ancestral to the written work of Charles Bukowski, Billy Childish - albeit maybe with a dash of Louis-Ferdinand Céline - and even Philip K. Dick. Rather than presenting a dry, emotionless narrative, this technique instead offers one which might in fact be characterised as more emotionally honest - providing the components of the image, allowing the reader to perceive that which is seen along with the emotional response; or less is more; or as Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

To get to the point, this is essentially similar to what Cézanne and those influenced by him, most notably Picasso, were doing with painting, stripping the subject down to its most basic essence in order to expose artistic truths which had for so long been eclipsed by the artist as the most important part of the equation. In other words, this is what art, whether written or painted, used to do before shit television fooled us into believing sad scenes require tears and Murray fucking Gold sobbing into his London Philharmonic Orchestra in order to convey emotion.

Apparently he wrote better than this, but A Moveable Feast has nevertheless made for a very refreshing change.