December 17, 2009

find the wheel

(A Fun interpretation by a fellow scribe, Gabriel Orgrease, of a piece by me called

Find the Wheel

Frequently when writers tell stories in unconventional ways--which may be defined as "ways a particular reader is uncomfortable or unfamiliar with"--they are accused of trying to reinvent the wheel. My reply to this has always been:

Telling a story is a completely different kettle of fish from reinventing the wheel. They're horses of a different stripe, and so's a zebra. Some scientists maintain an ostrich is a giraffe of a different neck but I'm not altogether persuaded this reasoning is sound. We're on safer ground I'd say, maintaining that the correct shape of a wheel, for maximum effectiveness, is round and the same might be said, in a way, of the palindrome. But is palindromic invariably the correct shape of a story? It would certainly cut down the size of the slush piles.

Very few fish, while we're on the subject, are round, and to the best of my knowledge at least, no Kentucky Derby winners. Tigers aren't especially round, nor are they horses of a different stripe, though I suppose there are some who might disagree. To convince themselves that this is wrong, I recommend they try saddling a Siamese. (There are obvious arguments against saddling a tiger.) Then again I've never been accused of trying to reinvent the tiger--why is that do you suppose?

Not that I'm looking to take on the project. I don't think I have a single idea that would be a real improvement on the current design, and anyway it's inadvisable for me--I always get too close to my work.

People are rarely round, especially in North--wait a minute, I'd better rethink that one.

Trees embody roundness as a dynamic component of their form, maybe I could reinvent the tree. What would a story look like if it looked like a tree? It's true that a printed book has leaves. . .

Maybe I could reinvent the shaggy dog. True, a certain number of readers are allergic, but who imagines it's possible to please everybody? Did you ever hear of a book with a sold out print run of six billion copies, or even close?

I'm not sure what my point is--then again if this is a wheel, why should it have a point? Actually it would have an infinite number of points (doesn't sound possible I know, but it's true--an infinite number, count 'em up yourself if you don't believe me). That sounds like a lot of points but none of them is the point, since they can't be (successively or predecessively) distinguished from each other. So, fine, I have no point--I should presume to reinvent the wheel? Make it square with clearcut corners that each come to a point, that would cut down on functionality some. But does a story have a function? Have to think about that one. Organize a multi-participant debate. Does anybody know who you'd contact to. . . ?

November 19, 2009

Grown Ups

Years ago back in Saskatoon I was part of the set up and performance of a Winter concert (poetry, music, skits)—Sundog it was called for the rainbows ‘round the sun you can see with particular vividness on a Prairie winter’s iciest days. Two of the organizers’ children were making a lot of commotion and getting in the way. A parent gave them the most ambivalent dressing down I’ve ever heard—scolding himself as much as them for insisting they stop acting like children, or go someplace where they wouldn’t interfere with things. “So if you don’t want to play that game of being boring adults, you don’t have to. But you have to play someplace else.” I watched the two children a moment after he’d walked away. The young girl broke the silence by saying to the younger boy, “Come on. We’ll be adults.” So for the next two hours that’s what they played at; as we all do.

November 11, 2009

Sounds of Silence

A blaring voice over TTC Speakers--heard it two,three times in my travels up and down--informed riders that at eleven o'clock the subway system would observe two minutes' silence in remembrance of our veterans. It occured to me since the speakers are silent mosty of the time, the only way to indicate the reason for this silence would be to announce first, that it was beginning, next, that it had just concluded. I've been on the subway at eleven on Remembrance Day and never noticed that they did that. Usually I only noticed after the time was past.

The canonical or official time, of course, is 11:11. That was the time I observed it, sectioning off the moment with a sip at 11:11, then a second at 11:13, of Creemore. Between these I tried to make the stillness in my head match the quiet around me.

October 11, 2009

Novel Launch (ii) The Day Itself

I always enjoy visiting Word on the Street, but it's a very different feeling to be personally involved. I was able to show an actual book to old friends like Stuart Ross at their tables. I was able to inscribe a few copies to actual buyers--not enough to give me writer's cramp by the end of the day, but eight copies, a little under half of which were bought by people who didn't know me personally.

I'll be busy the next two weeks reading books I picked up at the fair, not only a few I bought but four other titles from Crossing Chaos that the publisher passed on to me. Today I'm looking at Yang Chu''s Poems by Duane Locke--read and enjoyed a number of them Sunday. He's in his nineties apparently, publishing snce the forties and this is his nineteenth book Definitely have to Google him.

I reread mine yesterday in the free moments of my courier rounds--the standbys, the subway rides between calls. I was pleased to see five proofreads each by my publisher, another reader and myself had actually eliminated almost all the typos. There was a rather embarrassing one in the 'teaser' I wrote for the back cover (which they didn't send me to proofread)--the dreaded misplaced apostrophe: 'song styling's of owls'. (Yes, I admit it, there's a poet/singer in my novel who is an owl; performs under the stage name Minerva.) The worst of it is I can't think how anybody but me ould have been responsible for that one. (Though looking it up just now I find no trace of an apostrophe in the original:

It's so lovely being all of you this evening

Smoke, intelligent fog, fun house mirrors, death house aesthetics, a city lit from within and a city of living houses. Riddles and enigmas. What was that language, where is its key? City webworks for instant travel by elevator or magic bus. People who are you and me only fictional. Elf clubs burrowed snug in the friendly earth and nightclubs whose floor show is literally murder. St James Infirmary as you've never heard it in your life before. Song stylings of owls. Storytellers way too invowen with the stories they tell. Red and blue water on tap. Dream or real? you or me?
happening to us or do we make it happen? Plain language that almost makes sense. Bloodsuckers alive and undead. A once-majestic hall of mirrors that now exists somewhere between memory and legend. "Alive and und--ead, alive and unde--ead. . . " Vomiting parties, economic indices, themebook competitions. Action and suspense, stories that begin. Till human voices wake us.
Have you noticed how cities are like dreams? Anything imaginable can happen in them. Cut the deck and snap! the cards. Step right up.

So who knows where the insidious misplaced apostrophe came from? Probably the same place as the misspelling of my name: "Martin Heavidsides" on the spine. These are the things that'll make that print run instantly recognizable to collectors in years to come.)

Undermind in Crossing Chaos Catalogue

September 6, 2009

Novel Launch

I've waited to announce the publication of my novel UNDERMIND 'til I was sure when it was due, which I finally found out late last month: this month, with the launch scheduled for Word on the Street (Toronto) Sept 27.

April 17, 2009

Not Twice This Play Redux

Just a note to say The Living Theatre in New York is going to be presenting a staged reading of Empty Bowl on Monday Apr 27.

Not Twice This Play

Empty Bowl is rewritten, rethought and considerably expanded from a one act play I wrote in 1993, inch foot time gem, which for a one act play intended to run an hour had far too many irreducible flaws. Whole scenes intended to capture the enigmatic character of the Zen koan came out obscurantist and befuddling rather; those I excised. In Act III of Empty Bowl I re-used about two pages of Eshun's long speech from the earlier play, though most of Eshun's dialogue's original to this version. None of the other characters already featured--Nobunaga, Nobushige, Hakuin, Peasant in Blue Kimono (renamed Ainu in Empty Bowl)--spoke in their real voices yet, so their dialogue here is totally fresh. (I tell a lie. I did retain two lines from the earlier, much shorter version of the fairground shell game scene:


It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.


I dunno. Six of one, half dozen of the other if you ask me.

Well, would you have cut that?)

The prologue, 'inch foot', and the epilogue, 'not twice this day', considerably reworked, still frame the action of Empty Bowl. Quite a few images I thought effective have been retained, such as Ainu, back from numerous campaigns, a one-eyed double amputee. Narrative threads originally independent of each other have been integrated into one continuous story line.

Wabi, Tamago, Minaki, Taka and various secondary characters are entirely new to this version. inch foot time gem was missing them.

It often takes a long time for the true form of a play to be disclosed, even to its author.

April 10, 2009

High End Murder

Impossible to understand the current economic crisis if you take it as a one-off: think of it rather as a high water mark on a crisis wave that crests and ebbs; bearing in mind that the low water mark generates more than enough ruined and outright excised lives to be gong on with. By the same token Bernie Madoff is better read less as an aberration than a very slight extrapolation from everyday commercial practice; the subprime mortgage fiasco scarcely seems less consciously fraudulent, and it appears that until almost the end, knowing his methods grew more questionable and his hopes of recovery more desperate hour upon hour, Madoff still imagined that his superior fiduciiary powers, coupled to one exceptionally luck turn of fortune's wheel would save him yet: which was the fervent prayer of the subprimers and the AIG fiasciators--now enjoying their golden handshakes--as well. (After all he had perhaps the world's largest collection of statuary bulls, nary a bear in the lot; surely that would protect and save him in a market, as everybody knows, governed by phases of the planets overhead and concentrate effusions of sympathetic magic.) And as for the Ford Pinto

--(Google this under "gas tank that explodes" if you want the full background)--

that can't be comprehended at all if regarded as an isolated incident, or even one of a firecracker string of them throughout a century and more of intense commercial history--the Dalkon Shield; Bhopal; the Three Gorges Dam; IBM's collaboration with Nazi Germany on the death camps (you ever wonder why those tattooed numbers on the victims' arms? Each was matched to a stippled card with the same number in a primitive version of computerized filing.) I'll grant you IBM's crime has features that are unique. More indecent even than the collaborations of Krupp and IG Farben (now Bayer); IBM's was as great a crime against humanity, but also an act of high treason. Still, it has features in common with relatively much less extreme commercial crimes.

Nobody writing about this or the Pinto case has ever suggested that either board of directors was composed of anything but typical businessmen. I don't know if a paper trail exists from the late thirties, early forties that would show who at IBM was down with the deal, who if anyone resigned in outraged horror, but memos that came to light in the class action suit over the Pinto make it clear the executive board of Ford Motors, fully aware that they were seeding every highway in North America with car bombs, released the Pinto unmodified because it made more sense on a cost/benefit analysis. A fifty cent piece of equipment they might easily ahve attached to the Pinto's volatile gas tank would have corrected the problem, but they would have had to put up the price about a dollar, or absorb an infinitesimal reduction in profit on each auto sold. Add it all up car by car that's a lot of bucks; two hundred thou per wrongful death suit is what accountants tell them insurance settlements are going for and hey! that works out cheaper. What kind of system so easily and reflexively performs cost/benefit analysis on the merits of murdering random strangers in cold blood? How many? Eight hundred is the lowball estimate.

How many of the most depraved serial killers on death row (in the U.S. states that still maintain it) would you need to assemble in a room until confirmed kills among the lot would total eight hundred? The bloodiest hundred fifty cover that spread? Almost certainly double that number, you'd be down from the eight-ten range to triple, double and onetime murderers long before they added up to such a sum.So why do people who are rabid for the death penalty concentrate so exclusively on such comparative small fry. A CEO and twelve or fourteen presidents and vices round a table conspire to murder eight hundred people and the only sanctions called upon are economic ones. They lost that lawsuit big time, paid out way more than $200,000/wrongful death. That'll teach 'em.

Alas, I'm pretty much an absolute opponent of the death penalty, and besides in this case its woeful inadequacy is plainly to be seen. How many times can you effectively execute any one murderer? Once remains pretty much the upward limit in spite of the dazzling technological advances we've seen in so many areas of our lives. Even if the means existed to spark life back into a corpse so you could execute again, 800 executions would ultimately be not only sickening but way monotonous. Even assigning a value of twenty-forty murders per board member, poking in that many successive lethal needles would surely prove ultimately as tedious as assembly line work. So by the law of an eye for an eye, strict retributive justice must remain a perpetually elusive goal. And I did think the money settlement, humungous as it was by the standard of its day, was rather a timid slap on the wrist. What settlement then might have seen rough justice done and, more importantly, allowed good to win out in glory at last?

What if instead of a huge but inadequate (and for a corporation the size of Ford, fairly easily assimilable) money settlement, or better yet along with it, the defendants had been stripped of their stocks in Ford Motors and the class action plaintiffs, in equal shares, invested with them? appointing a new board of directors from among their own number and taking over management of the company completely.

I'm not sure this wouldn't be a wise thing to attempt everywhere in the corporate world, certainly in every failing or failed institution where people whose corruption, incompetence or both has bred chaos, insolvency and a begging bowl mentality on a global scale. Do you seriously think people randomly plucked off any street corner wouldn't handle things better than these self-inflated, overpriced frauds and financial know-nothings? Me, I seriously wonder if children randomly plucked from a playground could possibly misperform as badly.

How many people died of Madoff's scams? Not just ruined lives, pensioners with their savings wiped out joining the line at job fairs to seek entry level positions at McD's (rain forest assassin) in their golden years, but actual deaths directly traceable to sudden catastrophic plunges in the net worth of charities invested with him whose work literally spelt the difference between life and death in many cases? I don't know if it would be possible to calculate, but in spite of the general hatred of Madoff--loud applause in the courtroom when he was sentenced--it's a question, as far as I know, no-one's thought even to ask. (Given the circumstances, I'm not sure I'd put the charge any higher than negligent homicide in his case. But that much at least, justice should insist on.) With the exception of mob hits and killings associated with large inheritances or insurance payouts, people seem remarkable little inclined even to speak the word when it comes to murder visibly linked to commercial gain. Too brutal a word for most of us perhaps, to associate with gentles of such majestically hoarded wealth. The indisputable common denominator among those on death row in all but a statistically negligible number of cases is not that they've committed a murder--dubious prosecution methods cast doubt on how fairly that issue was decided in too many cases; I'm grateful that in the numerous cases in Canada where we've discovered a wrongful conviction, we've been able to restore justice partiallly by releasing the wrongly convicted, rather than speak useless words of apology to a headstone. No, what they have in common almost universally is that they're poor. Where the rich are convicted of murder they serve out terms in prison, and no-one's ever convicted of murder if it's carried out in the interest of a corporate bottom line.

March 3, 2009

Politics and the English Language

Orwell: All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays

In a column on the most famous essay included in this new volume, 'Politics and the English Language' (1946) Robert Fulford drops the rather original suggestion that Orwell's failure to notice Churchill's splendid wartime speeches--in an essay eplicitly devoted to rigorous analysis of double talk and obfuscation in the political rhetoric of his day--was a proof of Orwell's reverse snobbery. Que?

Truth is you could make a pretty good case for Orwell as both a snob and a reverse snob on the basis of any number of things he actually wrote. (Perhaps he was simply being narrowly self-consistent--his upbringing was shabby-genteel, either lower-upper or upper-lower class depending your pov--which afforded ample room to despise the true lower and true upper classes both.) But to argue he was expressing contempt for Churchill by not winkling him into an essay he couldn't have fit into logically--what possibly is the point? He wrote enough words actually about Churchill--admiring and critical both--if that's your litmus test for his response to the upper classes. What would he have accomplished by heaping praise on Churchill as a master political rhetorician in an essay otherwise completely taken up with negative examples? taken it down a blind alley for a paragraph or two before it to its proper course? And how could he possibly have praised Chruchill fulsomely enough to satisfy Rob, 63 years later?

'Most important, the English language had just given the greatest political performance in its history, turning away from England's shores the most formidable of all military machines, Germany's.
' In the hands [sic] of Winston Churchill, language ralllied the British, sustained them through desperate years and led them to victory. It was the supreme political accomplishment of Britain in modern times.
'How could Orwell, writing at precisely that moment, have ignored this central fact of England's existence?'

--Robert Fulford, NatPost Mar 3, 2009

If this hyperbolic gush acknowledges Churchill's role in defeating Hitler, it's hard to imagine what Orwell or anyone, writing at the time with nothing but facts to go on, could have written that wouldn't have struck Fulford as grossly inadequate recognition. Did Churchill's speeches galvanize? yes. Were they the sole force that did? no, though they were a key focal one. At the base level what galvanized the British was simple recognition that Nazism was anti-human and a danger to life and alll human liberty. Was British resistance to Hitler crucial? yes. Was it sufficient? no, anymore than Churchill's language was sufficient in itself to defeat Germany's war machine. Troops moving over air, sea and land were also required, and support troops supplying them in a thousand areas. And they were galvanized, not hypnotically and zombifically driven, by Churchill's powerful rhetoric, and obliged to make complex decisions day by day, hour by hour, that Churchill's speeches could give them no specific guidance on. Some of the credit for their actions--my mother's and father's among the rest--belongs to them as free agents; they weren't simply windup dolls driven forward by a master rhetorician's impulsion. Churchill would have been repulsed by that suggestion, and so should every free citizen.

In one of his essays or columns during the war Orwell spoke of a most-probably-apocryphal story going round about one of Churchill's most famous speeches: ". . . we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!” It was widely rumoured that when he went off mike he added, "We'll throw bottles at the bastards, we've got nothing else." Orwell thought, rightly I'd say, that for such a story to circulate was a strong indication the depth and breadth of affection there was for Churchill, across all class lines. Even more interesting is how stark a topper it is, and what ferocity of resistance it utters. Churchill felt that impulse and fed it, but he didn't originate it: it came from a wider place than any individual, great or small, could occupy alone.

February 27, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

I don't often feel huge enthusiasm for the film that wins best picture at the Oscars. They seem to me mostly such timid and compromised choices. I'm rarely quite so pissed at them as I was in 1972, when I thought it scandolous that The Ruling Class didn't swep every major category. Best adapted screenplay? There certainly wasn't one that year--few any year--so brilliant and incisive as Peter Barnes' adaptation of his own stage play--just as there've been few plays in English that come close to the wit intelligence emotional-philosophical range of The Ruling Class--and five at least of those that did were written by Peter Barnes. (A couple were even written by Shakespeare.) Best lead actress? Coral Browne, hands down. Lead actor? Peter O'Toole. Supporting actress? Carolyn Seymour. Supporting actor--Alastair Sim and Arthur Lowe would have to duke that one out. Direction? Editing? Soundtrack? Cinematrography? Set design, costume design? Nothing else that year came anywhere near The Ruling Class in any of these categories and I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting. But I was angry at a larger injustice than an Academy snub: the loss to a wide popular audience of a genuinely great popular classic.

The Ruling Class had been too weak a draw at the box office to drum up much Academy buzz, and why is a puzzler. Indifferent promotion's the culprit I suspect, by movie executives who had no clue the film's merits--made it at O'Toole's insistence in exchange for his agreement to play the lead in Man of La Mancha. You tell me: was A Clockwork Orange a huge hit? Was Life of Brian? why shouldn't The Ruling Class have been, since it fuses the virtues of both?

Slumdog Millionaire didn't evade the same fate by much. It was slated to go straight to video when a People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (my home town, yay!) got the money boys thinking they might have a viable property on their hands after all. Good that this time around a truly splendid popular entertainment has its chance, a film whose intelligence is not whittled away by compromises aimed at mass acceptance, but amplified by its wide-ranging appeal. Big pictures like Dark Knight or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button almost never have that kind of potency.

Then again some of the people I've been chatting with virtually think Slumdog Millionaire is a big picture masquerading as a small one. The helicopter scene is cited. Here it might come down to your definition of big and small. Through most of the history of movies, $15,000,000 would have been a very big budget indeed, and as recently as fifteen years ago I think it would still have been a mid-sized one. And of course it's still possible to make a film for much less if all involved tighten their belts, defer their salaries and bring their own lunches along. Maybe The Wrestler was made for less, but every other best picture nominee cost more, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button cost ten times as much. (Way more money for sure than ever got out through FEMA for relief of Katrina victims.) And there's this: the entire cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire attended the Oscars. I think they took up roughly a single row of seats. What secondary hall would you have hired to seat everybody else if the entire Benjamin Button cast and crew had turned up? Slumdog aims at epic proportions, which necessitates a certain bigness of frame and scope; but it's always resolutely on a human scale.

Somebody else communicating cross-continentally said he had no interst in seeing "feel good shit" like Slumdog Millionaire. I won't presume to guess what he'll think of the film if he ever does get round to seeing it, but if he still dislikes it he'll have to modify his reasons. "Feelgood shit" has as near as it can come to no emotional range, that would be too unsettling; it doesn't take you on a propulsive roller coaster ride, and it certainly never ends with a disturbing fusion of tragedy and triumph. (The best fairy tales, on the other hand, often do, which is why I have no quarrel with people who call Slumdog Millionaire a fairy tale, unless they mean it derisively. "Just a fairy tale"--why do people say things as silly as that? They never say a story is "just a tragedy," "just an epic" or "just a magic-realist fable". And what, pray tell, is a magic-realist fable when it's at home? a fairy tale. What's the difference between a flutist and a flautist? $50,000 a year.)

I admit to being of two minds about the film's title. I like the classic purity of Q & A, the title of the novel it's based on; but would enough people have lined up to see a film called Q & A for it to win a Peoples Choice Award at TIFF? And the in-your-face quality of the title the filmmakers settled on has its appeal: we're dogs, we're scum, we're from the slum, but you who'd sell your nearest and dearest for some additional cash, we can out-think you any day of the week.

No theme's more richly explored in the movie than the global economy and its frenzies; its easy cohabitation with the gangster element; the uneasy points of comparison between gangsters and the respectably wealthy (Maman who captures stray orphans to set loose in the city as beggars, blinding the sweetest singing ones so they'll fetch more from sentimental passersby, is the psychological twin of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? host Prem Kumar, which is why Jamal with his experience of Maman knows Kumar's offer of help on the ten million rupee question can't be trusted); the empty towering shells it erects and sheathes for quicky mass housing. But the main critique of a money obsessed ethic in Slumdog Millionaire is the lead character Jamal, the film's calm intelligent centre, who apart from what's necessary for survival has zero interest in money. He's known for months if not years how to become a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, but only uses that knowledge as a last ditch measure to reach, in the battlement tower where she's imprisoned, his lost love.

I don't often feel like climbing on the bandwagon for an Oscar pick, but it's the rare rule that isn't sometimes best observed by breaking it.

February 8, 2009

25 Random Things

1. I have no intention of telling you 25 random things about myself. On the other hand. . .
2. Approached as a compositional idea, it has a certain temptation. . . which is a major revelation about how I approach the creative act of writing.
3. I try not to repeat myself too much because I'm easily bored.
4. Also I find that if you repeat something for emphasis or to make a point, it often has the opposite effect: either each repetition diminishes the impact, or the point being made is obscured by the reader's attempt to look for a hidden meaning.
5. If I remember, I roll my socks in pairs when they come out of the dryer. If I don't, which is often the case, in the morning I'm trying to find two matching black socks in the dark, not wanting to wake Marysia an hour earlier than she has to get up.
6. I get up an hour earlier than I strictly need to because it's a good time to catch up with work on the computer.
7. I wake up in the middle of the night with story ideas, perhaps direct from my dreams to me. Sometimes I go back to sleep, sometimes I get up and write out at least a beginning.
8. I'm a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Still can't understand, except as an index of his pretentiousness, a maven of the National Post. lamenting the triumph of trash culture, whose crescendo argument at the end was that scholars write studies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They write studies of The Brothers Karamazov too, what's your point?
9. I like both shaggy dogs and shaggy dog stories.
10. If I had any brains I'd be an idiot, they seem to get all the best jobs.
11. I've thought for years the fundamental unit of meaning in language is not the word but the rhythm, or more precisely the breath. Same in all the other arts really. If a research facility offered me a huge sum to study this for a year or two I'd produce some interesting results.
12. The fundamental unit of all artistic expression really.
13. Of all expression in life, even conversation.
14. I've been known to worry at the thread of an argument an inordinate length of time.
15. At least I don't have any red socks in my drawer. Two black socks, people have to examine the patterns pretty close to know they don't match, and even in the dark I can tell which of my socks are white.
16. I wonder how entropy really
17. I sometimes wish I'd been born in a different galaxy. The trick would be discovering just the right one, with a site available for live births.
18. Is a question ever a random fact?
19. I know how to count but putting the numbers right there on the side helps keep track for sure. Very few people could keep count while speaking 19 consecutive sentences, and I'm certainly not one of them.
20. I like to play slightly subversive games with formal literary exercises.
21. Even informal ones.
22. If I'd been editing Frida Kahlo's diary, I'd have put the translations of the extensive text on facing pages instead of at the back of the book. As it is you have to flip back and forth too much, unless your Spanish is tip top, and the whole point of these illustrated pages overgrown with jungle thickets of text is that you should be reacting to the images and the words simultaneously. Somebody else would have to do the translaation.
23. I have my suspicions about the Universe. I think it may be a collective noun to which no collective unity can be ascribed.
24. I'm listening to Fats Waller right now. The Dadaists could have learned a thing or two from him.
25. So could just about everybody else.

February 2, 2009

Tradition Busting at the House of Lords

So there's a plan afoot to reform the British House of Lords by ousting members convicted of felonies:

"A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: 'In the House of Commons, if you break the criminal law or, for example, it's found that although you haven't broken the criminal law you've been doing something completely improper then the House of Commons can, in extremis, expell you. We're saying that most apply, too, to the House of Lords also."

--Julia Belluz, London Feb 2 '09
(Special to the Globe and Mail)

Dangerous, precedent-shattering idea! Pretty much violates every tradition on which the House of Lords is founded. Those Nobles who don't owe their titles and estates to appropriations from the looting and sacking of monasteries in Henry VIII's time owe it to the pillage and plunder of an entire nation by William the Waster (Alasdair Gray's more apt name for the king usually styled William the Conqueror); or to some lesser episode in the gleefully kleptomanic history of the nobly armed and wealthy. True, there are titled families that have kept their noses clean since, sometimes for as much as a century at a time, and they're to be commended for the fresh spirit of innovation they embody. The trouble is these titles are hereditary. Strip a fourteenth, seventeenth or nineteenth century Lord of title for crimes against humanity, you've pretty much stripped the current Lord of the same title. What to do with a House of Parliament suddenly bereft of Members? Make a jazzy site for a commercial mall. Dibs on the Starbucks site eh?

January 28, 2009


Baudolino, Umberto Eco

The story of a peasant who rises to power when he's taken under the wing of Frederick Barbarossa, adopted in all but name.

A story full of inextricable ambiguities because Baudolino's special talent is to lie persuasively, and he constructs a tapestry of complex, involuted lies, mostly concerning the dazzling kingdom of Pester John to the East, which is already part of the mythic fabric of Europe. Therefore he and four collaborators who help build up the story half believe it already, and come to believe it more the more they fill in the outline and the shape in detail--the shape of a perfect kingdom and therefore impossible for imperfect men to conceive unless it really exists. So Baudolino, inflamed with a passion to journey there, infects Barbarossa with the same desire, which--though it never brings them near Prester John's kingdom if any--radically alters Barbarossa's course in life and the destony of many his path, and sword, crosses.

Is the Crusade against Saladin he undertakes late in life decent or wise? He is far more scrupulous than some of the the thugs who've typically led crusades in the previous two centuries, but Saladin has ruled--except for these bloody crusader wars that keep interrupting him--with a tolerably even hand over a mixed population seething at its extremes with mutual hostility. He's maintained religious tolerance--even toward Christians in spite of all these outside agitations by the tribe trying his patience. Barbarossa has some of the same qualities except for a tendency to fall into indiscriminate--all right, semi-discriminate--massacre when he feels his will has been too grievously crossed. Should he conquer and depose Saladin, would the people of Jerusalem consider it a fair trade? And mark this: war upon Saladin isn't even his main intent, it's the pretext required to get his soldiers moving. The main purpose of his quest is to pass through to the Eastern kingdom of Prester John, to return to him the Grasal or Grail which some unscrupulous knave has abscounded with from that magnificent country.

And this Grasal is what when it's at home? The wine bowl Baudolino's father was drinking from on his deathbed, which a remark of his father persuaded Baudolino was much likelier to resemble the Grasal than the cliche gold cup encrusted with gems and lapis lazuli he'd previously conjured. And if this was likelier to be the sort of vessel Christ drank from, what then? Surely it was likelier the simple drinking bowl of a poor carpenter's son would pass down the centuries from peasant to peasant than from noble to noble? He already half believes the tale when he presents the vessel to his adoptive father. He is still more persuaded when his intimates at court, worldly nad sophisticated counsellors all, instantly believe the story he conjures. Such men would scarcely be so gulled by a transparent fraud! Net result? another holy war of dubious provenance. Humankind should at last outgrow them.

I'm not worried that this detailed account of one passage qualifies as a spoiler, because the book teems with incidents as lively and as parabolically rich. It's generally axiomatic that a book over five hundred pages, even a very fine one, will have passages that could be trimmed without conspicuous loss, but there are exceptions.

January 24, 2009

What's Your Story?

It sometimes seems to me the most underestimated aspect of writing, even by writers themselves sometimes, is the story: which is the whole package.

I recollect a conversation, some years ago, with a rather gifted poet about Mark Twain. I was informed that Mark Twain "of course" was chiefly important as a political satirist. I said he was also a great spinner of tall tales--by which I meant the kind of exuberant flights of fancy you encounter fairly often in his work, which go a long way to disproving his own contention that there's no laughter in Heaven. This was dismissed with a wave of the hand, and the curious thing is the poet, in conversation, was and is a rather gifted talespinner himself.

Clamours to make certain every story emphasizes one aspect of the mix--political opinion, social conviction, psychological insight--strike me as off the main point. All of those, like effective grammar,coherent syntax, language rhythm, a fine balance between laconic stance and wild rhetorical hyperbole--are elements that contribute, ingredients in the mix. Some are more centrally important than others. Good luck trying to convey a psychological insight in a sentence whose rhythm's so clunky it can't be read aloud with effective emphasis and thus can't be heard by the inner ear of the silent reader either. You'll have plenty of company--that's the style of most textbook psychology--but the game's not worth the candle.

The opinions, convictions, insights we carry along with us in life can't actually be left out of the stories we tell--it's not physically possible. If they arise naturally from a story's context there's a mutual enrichment; if they're winkled in at every moment whether opportune or not, they deform and in the worst case destroy any story so afflicted. (See any of Ayn Rand's dreadful anti-novels, in which her convictions are so apparent that the heroes and villains speak with one voice, the heroes exposing the villains' villainies and the villains, with exactly the same arguments, exposing their own. Nobody who's never sympathized with an opposing point of view should ever try writing a story or--handling heavy machinery I suppose.)

Opinions that cut across the grain of a story don't simply work against the story: they work against themselves. As far as stories are able to persuade, it's the ideas that arise from the experience of them that stick, and can subtly alter perception. Nothings easier to see and dodge in a story than an incoming sermonette. Perhaps the key reason is that ideas which can be so imposed must be firm and fixed, and it's impossible to change minds with an inert idea. The change may be subtle, but if a story of substantial length doesn't discernibly change the writer telling it, it's already failed its first reader and will fail the rest.

January 22, 2009

New Orleans

The little Bush deconstruction piece I wrote the other day has got me thinking again about that great city. In one of his last interviews Mailer said there are any number of great American cities--Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A. "if you insist"--but only one world city: New York. He was obviously forgetting New Orleans, but I can't blame him for that. I was too until just now.

What an extraordinary cauldron of cultures, what an amazing greenhouse of hybrid growth New Orleans has been throughout its history! When Walker Percy modestly claimed that his home city had produced no native genius, I thought maybe he was simply too close to its culture to see. I'm sure you could refute this claim at length with extensive examples, but two words are enough for me. In an interview once, John Lennon said "if there's such a thing as a genius, I'm one," and I mean not the slightest disrespect to the Beatles when I say that goes about quadruple for Louis Armstrong.

It's probable that Armstrong is New Orleans' greatest son by a considerable distance--does anyone else so entirely embody the spirit of the city? He was a master of most of its entertainment and musical styles--don't hear much zydeco in his work, but don't notice much else missin'. Great instrumentalist, first rate vocalist, dazzlingly inventive verbal and physical clown--dab hand as a writer too on the evidence of his autobiography Satchmo. Above all a supreme flowering of the fusion style typical of New Orleans, with its preference for strong emotional colouring and mixes of feeling and mood you wouldn't have thought coherently combinable until a strutting player with face painted white, red, cerulean blue, little dab of violet? sure, never missing a beat on an intricate quick step, shows you how it's done--always with a cool philosophical line running alongside as a guide for the perplexed. Oh sure, iti was rare that even the art of New Orleans hit and sustained those heights, but it always aspired to them, and the height of achievement according to more sombre, refined standards scarcely reaches the middle level of New Orleans' carnival/lent/jazz christening jazz wedding jazz funeral aesthetic.

Some of what I've been reading suggests New Orleans is experiencing a diaspora--a mellifluous word of Greek root which can be Englished as dispersion--in the wake of Katrina, but less in consequence of the hurricane than the blowhard efforts of FEMA to rescue--the disaster apparently, since it's certainly done nothing to rescue the victims. How will New Orleans ever rebuild if so many of its displaced citizens choose not to return lest at some point in the future they suffer such a rescue again? at its best recklessly incompetent, at its worst frenzied, high partying kleptomaniac.

(I don't mean to suggest nobody doing good work was connected with official relief efforts in New Orleans and Louisiana generally--I'm sure, among the NGOs especially, there were and are pockets of serious dedication. It's the overall effort, particularly at the highest reaches of patrician accountability, that has sucked worse than the vortex of force at a hurricane's ferocious apex.

I certainly don't mean to suggest that New Orleans natives and expats like Dr John and Harry Coninck Jr. have abandoned or failed their city. If exemplary reconstruction work's going on, they're at the heart of it. So are a number of her spiritual children--who are? oh, every serious artist in North America for a start. Some of us are able to do little but send our hopes and, those of us so inclined, prayers her way, but we know what we owe one of the world's great capitals of the human spirit.)

January 20, 2009

Bush's Parting Note to Obama

Bush's Parting Note to Obama

Watch out for the press. Sooner or later they'll misunderestimate you too.
That's one fine economic downturn you'll be facing hee hee.
Just in case, maybe take electrocution lessons. It's important for a President to always speak good.
None of my cabinet or staff have been able to tell me and I've asked them all, but maybe you know--do the French even have a word for entrepreneur?
Don't be afraid to impose democracy by force in Afghanistan the same way we did in Iraq. It may not win us any popularity contests but it's what America does best.
Don't try to fool all the people all the time unless it's needed for national security and those precious liberties we most hold dear. Don't be too apprised if even then it doesn't work out.
Lincoln's shoes are big ones to fill. I know because I saw them in a museum once. They aren't quite as big as they look on his statue though.
If a hurricane strikes on your watch and you want to throw a rescue party--make sure somebody actually gets rescued or you'll never hear the end of it. Not only that but however perfect the cash flow is, they'll look at the human toll and call the whole operation a failure. Is that fair? dwelling on a minor aspect that didn't pan out so well and ignoring entirely the big picture of fiscal success? Well let me tell you life ain't fair and that goes double for Presidents.
A lot of criticizing's flawed under the bridge while I was President, but nobody ever said I destablerized everything I ever touched with my hands. Once in a while you can fool all the people.
Bear in mind as I always did the wise premonition of Lincoln, and always try to redress the better angles of humans and nature.
When the going gets tough, it's a good time for somebody else to step up to the plate. Here's wishing you a good eye and a high batting average.
When you do leave Iraq, don't forget to turn the lights off.

January 18, 2009

Lung Cancer Research Donation

This letter was sent out in a writer's workshop I participate in by the wife of a colleague and friend in the office who's been dealing for some years with Lung Cancer:

January 9, 2009

Dear friends,

As you are aware, I have been "living" with cancer for the past 5+ years. Through this journey, I have met some wonderful people. A while back I met Mike Stevens who is directly involved with LUNGevity. He and his wife, Susan, are in charge of organizing the walk in San Diego. He encouraged me look into LUNGevity and consider forming a team for the Breath of Hope San Diego Lung Cancer Walk. So that's what I've done!

With my recent decline, I may not be able to participate in the actual walk, but I'm very excited about forming "Pamela's Pals" to help raise funds and awareness for lung cancer research. The event will be held on Sunday, March 8, 2009, with registration starting at 8:00 a.m.

You may donate directly by making your check payable to: LUNGevity Foundation, and then send it to me @:
11121 Madrigal Street
San Diego, CA 92129-1213
or, go to my Website by clicking the link at the bottom of this page where you can donate directly.

Do you know that lung cancer kills more Americans each year than breast, prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers combined?

Every dollar that you contribute to the LUNGevity Foundation brings us one step closer to finding a cure for lung cancer. In fact, due to LUNGevity's unique relationship with our partner organizations that requires them to match our research funding, each dollar that LUNGevity grants will fund more than $1.25 of the most promising research at the top research facilities.

Thank you for considering participating in my goal to raise $5,000. Every step we take will bring us one step closer to finding a cure for lung cancer!

With hope and appreciation,

Pamela F. Hill

Pamela’s Pals

Two people close to me have died of lung cancer: my mother at the fairly advanced age of 83, and the finest teacher I ever encountered in my years at school and University, Professor L.J. (Roy) Morrissey, at 53. This death was unquestionably untimely, but was my mother's as well? People on her side of the family frequently lived into their nineties. Her favourite aunt died of a heart attack at 96, on the bus that was taking her home after she'd bought two bags of groceries at the market.

Roy never smoked, and my mother was a smoker for quite a few years but quit in her late forties (when I was still in High School). "Not soon enough" she said once in her last weeks in palliative care, but it's not generally thought that a cancer whose origin is in smoking can remain dormant in the system over decades.

The main reason for mentioning this is the widespread assumption that lung cancer is overwhelmingly a consequence of poor lifestyle choice. Actually lung cancer is often the result of pollutants in the environment that none of us can completely avoid, but breast cancer research (for example) is easier to solicit donations for because of the assumption its victims are comparatively blameless. There's another reason I think, that operates on men and women both, but a little differently on each: the lungs aren't a visible, much less a highly ornamental part of the anatomy. They're crucial to life however in a way the breasts are not, and even crucial to the health and beauty of the body in all its parts. There can hardly be a more worthy organ to support and sustain through dollars for research and treatment.


January 16, 2009

The Great Game: Review

{The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage
Frederick P. Hitz}

The Great Game: Review

There's a good deal of interest in this comparative analysis of spying as it appears in fiction and reality--Frederick P. Hitz had a long history of service in the CIA and the State Department, so he's able to speak as a knowledgeable insider. But is there something in the nature of secret service work that obliges its practitioners to wear blinders in perpetuity? even long after their official career terminates? It's not that Frederick HItz never touches on a moral issue related to the tradecraft of spying: it's that auxiliary questions seem to preoccupy him to the exclusion of fundamental ones.

It seems clear enough, by the length and detail of the list he compiles if nothing else, that he's unhappy with the many incursions by U.S. intelligence on the rights of its citizens--the buggings, long files on protestors and activists (the length and fanatically schematic detail providing one operative definition of anal retentive thinking), the whole wackily paranoid surveillance drill--that finally so outraged Congress that they demanded direct oversight of intelligence operations. What mainly troubles him however is a consequence of Congressional oversight that nags at his conscience to this day, that it forced the CIA to abandon its contra allies in the covert war against the government of Nicaragua. Forgive me if I point out that there are at least three ethical questions raised by the Iran-Contra business that are far more pertinent and central: 1) why was U.S. intelligence aiding and abetting such an army of rapacious thugs in the first place? 2) what excuse did they have for conniving at the military overthrow of a democratically elected government? 3) did it occur to anyone involved in the drug and gun running operations that financed this dirty caper, that the blowback from those deals would string corpses link by link in an ongoing chain from that day to this present one and beyond? or was that thought of secondary relevance compared to such a golden shot at abridging the freedoms of a sovereign state?

Nowhere is this blindered approach more evident, perhaps, than in Hitz' assessment of 911:

"Successful espionage is impossible without tight operational security.
The events of September 11, 2001, underscore this admonition. There were nineteen Arab men who hijacked the aircraft that struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and crashed in the field near Shankstown, Pennsylvania. They were professionals, for the most part, without previous terrorist involvement, from so-called moderate Arab allies of the United States, i.e., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. They maintained tight operational discipline over a long period preparatory to the attacks. Some of them lived in the United States with their families during the two years prior to 9/11, keeping to themselves, going to flight school, and nobody came forward to report any suspicious behavior. It is still unclear whether all of them knew that their 9/11 mission entailed suicide, but they were remarkably discreet in their movements, and the organization that funded their preparations was highly sophisticated."
--p 72

'Discreet' wouldn't be my adjective of choice to describe somebody who prepares for a suicide mission by taking flight lessons and tells instructors he only needs to learn how to take a plane up, he doesn't need to learn how to land it. Frugal maybe, but discreet no. That this wasn't red flagged was no fault of U.S. domestic intelligence; the blame here rests solely on the insufficient intelligence, curiosity or sense of civic responsibility of whoever shrgged and booked these truncate lessons. But why does Hitz skip over completely what's become common knowledge since: that intelligence of an upcoming attack of major importance was circulating months before the event, which might have been prevented if these early warnings had been properly investigated. They weren't, primarily it seems because of rivalries between competing intelligence agencies. More importantly, there's an extensive backstory to this Al Qaeda operation which once again is silently overlooked, so that there's no possibility of attending to its lesson.

How far back Al Qaeda goes as an organization I don't know, but surely the point at which its power, presitge and visibility on the world stage received its biggest spike (before 911) was during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, when they and the Taliban fought as allies alongside U.S. military and intelligence forces. Whether any Al Qaeda (or Mujahadeen who later graduated to positions in Al Qaeda) were actually flown to Langley for training in guerilla warfare and covert ops, they were certainly trained and armed by the CIA and the Pentagon, and heavily financed by the U.S. state department. Taliban rule in Afghanistan was a direct consequence of their participation in that war. Two wars being fought today at a huge cost in human life and other irreplaceables is only the most prominent and visible consequence of that long-ago alliance. It's probable Al Qaeda would never have grown to an organization capable of the Twin Tower attack without the seminal education of those early fighting years. And why was the war in Afghanistan fought?

Zbigniew Brzezinski was fond of boasting, once upon a time, that he set an Afghan trap for the Soviet Union. This was probably a considerable oversimplification and aggrandisement of his personal role, and I've no doubt the Soviets had their own bad reasons for making no effort to avoid war there. I do notice he's toned down such claims of late--perhaps afraid that awakening interest in Afghan ancient history would lead to too much inquiry, and affix firmly to his back the word debacle? (At best, I can think of far uglier words than that you could apply to starting a war whose ultimate toll was a million dead to get up the nose of a geopolitical rival. That a human being with beating heart and functioning breath could (even if he was hyperbolizing) boast of such an achievement is enough to make a body wonder if he wasn't overhasty rejecting his childhood belief in the existence of a literal devil.)

The reason all this matters is that many people still with considerable power and influence saw no possible downside in boosting the might and educating the coarse killing sensibilities of Al Qaeda if Al Qaeda could direct its force against Soviet Russia, over the bloody proving ground of Afghanistan, with none too much care taken of its civilian population, which has proved not only an evilly cynical but a hugely impractical calculation. New people coming up, hand picked by these genii of disaster, tend to mirror the attitudes that breed these results. Spy tradecraft is littered through its whole history with calculations of this kind, which are typically displayed as badges of superior ability to live in 'the real world'--but subject them to a shred of logical analysis and see if you can find one single point at which they differ structurally from the ravings of the clinically insane. Kafka was the great novelist of the spy genre--or maybe Lewis Carroll.

January 10, 2009

1 Hour With Barack Obama

{This was my response to an Open Call on that theme at Open Salon}

I'd be kibitzing of course, because I'm a Canadian citizen not an American but I think I'd go bold and say "Why don't you announce the U.S. is dismantling its military apparatus and invite every nation of the earth to follow suit?" No, I wouldn't say that except as an opening gambit to get his attention, too impractical, but I would suggest he put the U.S. on the way to leading by example to a world where ultimately weapons are everywhere an obsolete relic of the past. The U.S. could considerably diminish its stockpile of nuclear and conventional weapons and its contracts for new ones without diminishing its ability to defend itself, only its ability to invade other nations. I'm assuming that's an ability Obama has less interest in than the Bushes and Clinton had.

There are many potential benefits to a serious reduction in the armament trade apart from the reduction of war's obvious harms. Everything on the social agenda, from effective green policies through health, education, welfare right down to the establishment of a truly efficient free market at home and abroad is hampered by the deforming effect of runaway military spending. Only the nation that most overextends in this area can really lead. Mr. President?

January 7, 2009

R.A. Lafferty's The Fall of Rome

R.A. Lafferty's The Fall of Rome

Googling R.A. Lafferty the other day I found a few tantalizing excerpts from an interview he gave that I've been unable to get a look at in full as yet. In response probably to a question about the critics who say he's a better short story writer than novelist he said: "The short stories are more readable, but the novels really do say more." This statement (the last part--I find his novels just as readable as his short stories) is not only true but almost self-evident: if you're a master of multum in parvo as Lafferty is, you're not going to say at novel length only what you could say in a short story. But even Neil Gaiman, who certainly should know better, has said that Lafferty's a better short story writer than novelist I mean: Gaiman's a fine writer, particularly in the Sandman series, but I've read one of his novels, Neverwhere. It doesn't much commend his understanding of the form. Two or three fine short stories are embedded in its generally formless slop, but it's astonishing how often and easily he goes on autopilot and lets easy genre cliche take over the act of writing from him. Critics have special dispensation, they can complain about the sloppy construction of a two hour movie or a three hundred page book when they're personally incapable of a sentence whose tail end is on speaking terms with its front end, but writers ought to hold themselves to a higher standard. When Gaiman has written a book half as good as Past Master or Okla Hannali, which is to say ten times as good as Neverwhere, he might have something interesting to say about Lafferty the novelist.

Of course to say that Lafferty's novels are better than Neverwhere is to damn with criminally faint praise. I'm tolerably sure that if I had five hundred people in a lecture-hall, a reliable mike and a basket beside me filled with the collected works of both to flip through for quotes apropos, I could deliver a two hour lecture extempore on why Lafferty's as important a novelist as Dostoyevsky.And as Monty Python might put it, if you're calling Dostoyevsky an inferior novelist I shall have to ask you to step outside.

Then there's The Fall of Rome, anomalous even within his quirky oeuvre. He's written a number of historical novels, but this is more a novelized history--which is to say while he uses all the devices of a storyteller, they're secondary to the scholarship and careful sifting of evidence that an historical account demands if it's to be trusted as any close approximation to fact, and dammitall if Lafferty isn't just as fine a historian as he is a novelist and short story writer! piss you right off, such an intimidating cluster of genius level skills in a literary competitor. I console myself by reflecting that with a few notable exceptions he's no more than a serviceable poet, and so far as I know never even attempted to write plays.

The only way really to review The Fall of Rome is to give you a few generous quotes:

"This short history [Lafferty is here referring to the history, recorded in one particularly eventful chapter, within the larger history] should have something to satisfy every taste and perversion: action, treachery, fratricide and regicide, corruption, and bloodshed. It contains thirteen murders, the victims being mostly of one family. It lists the ways in which a man or an Empire may be surrounded and destroyed; and contains a veritable catalogue of subversions and finely wrought treacheries--which the reader may be able to make use of in his own life. And after this short interruption, we will return to our main action. . .

Constantine had been the last clear and absolute Emperor of all the Roman regions. Constantine was not the first Christian Emperor--that had been Philip the Arab a hundred years before--but he was the first Emperor who declared the Empire to be Christian: though he did not himself become a Christian till on his deathbed.

There were certain advantages in Constantine's advocating a Christianity for others he was not yet ready to practice himself. Nobody would question the sincerity of Constantine, but it was a sincerity that ran off in several opposite directions. He left, at his death, a rich heritage, and too many heirs.

The three sons, with their confusing and too-similar names, were to receive these territories:

Constantinus--Italy and Gaul.

Constantius--the East; that which was to become Byzantium.

Constans--Illyricum and Africa.

The territories which the two nephews, Dalmatius and Annibalianus, were to receive are not known for certain, but they are believed to have been Spain and Pannonia. This would have fragmented the Empire intolerably, but a rude sort of process was soon to simplify the holdings. These were not all the nephews--and possibly not all the sons--of Constantine, but they were the inheriting ones.

Keep your eye now on the three sons, Constantinus, Constantius, and Constans, as the shell game is played out. The three are very alike, but one of them will end up with the pea, and the others with nothing at all--not even their lives."

--pp. 61-62

"Sometime in this period Alaric did penance for forty days in reparation for his murderous raids in Greece. He was subject to remorse, for which reason he cannot be ranked among the great military leaders of the world. And in this period also, the Goths became un-Gothed to a great extent. They caught the Greek fever and discovered sudden new talents in themselves. they borrowed stringed instruments from the Greeks--they had had only horns and bull-roarers before--and went music crazy. It has been mentioned that rhyme in verse and song appeared at the turn of that century for the first time ever in the world. Nobody knew where it came from, but all the peoples took it up at the same time. The Goths made ballads in rhyme, in their own language and in Low Latin; and these became almost the signature of that rural Gothic springtime in Epirus that lasted four years.

When the impulse seized the Goths next, after martial interludes of more than five hundred years, they would be the troubadours of Languedoc in South France."

--p. 184

"Stilicho had already begun to be a little mentally deranged in those years. Though several of his most incredible feats of daring and effectiveness were still in the future, his failures had begun to appear. Some observers have claimed to see the effect of brain injury in the doughty old soldier.

The worst that can be said of him, however, is that he failed to solve certain problems that nobody else even saw. In retrospect, those problems are there clear enough. But the problems were not clear at that time; and the answers are not clear now. Stilicho was the only one who perceived that there were mortal dangers beneath the surface changes.

There were the affairs of soldiers; the affairs of governors; the affairs of Provinces. There were changes of jurisdiction and certain alterations of administration; there were settlements and resettlements; and there were the deaths and resurrections of certain countrysides. Old men were being replaced by new, and the long-time trend towards centralization was being reveresed. They were times of change, but only Stilicho realized that the Empire was dying in the changes; and only he cared.

It may not have mattered. It may be that he was wrong to care. It is only guesswork as to what sort of world it would be today if Stilicho had succeeded in his strong endeavours in those critical times. But for a weird combination of circumstances he would have succeeded. In such a case the empire would not have crashed; not, at least, in that decade and probably not in that century. Naturally, it would not have survived in the same form forever; but enough of it might have survived for a long enough time to have made a great difference.

It might not have been necessary to spend five hundred years just getting onto its feet again. It might not have been necessary to lose certain noble qualities forever. Certain institutions had to be wrought, heated and variously reshaped. Much of the furniture of the Empire was bad and outmoded. But it is possible that the house could have been cleaned without burning it down.

Nothing is inevitable till it has already happened. There, at the beginning of the fifth century, Stilicho still had a good chance of saving the Empire. For a while it seemed that he would save it, and there was undeniable improvement under his hand. The World did not have to end then."

--pp. 200-201


I want to do everything as a writer.

I want to fuse high art and high entertainment so indivisibly that only academic morons can figure out a way to separate them into their component parts, or be bothered to.

I want to make people laugh with genuine openhearted glee and I want to make them laugh a lot when they don't feel a lot like laughing. I've no aversion to making them cry, and I certainly want to make them aware how much our structures of economy and culture are fed by an underground river of shed blood and tears. If tears are a necessary fuel of life, I want to make them tears of laughter.

I want to make people think, improbable as that may seem if they've spent twelve to twenty years in school learning not to.

I want to change the history of the world, which can't be that much more difficult than making people think.

I want to fuse logic and intuition, science and art--what the Hell were we thinking when we separated them anyway?

I want to inflame the mind, heart and conscience of my readers 'til they're so many torches lighting the way in the darkness.

At Judgment Day if there is such a thing apart from each fresh day that peeps up with the dawn, I won't be asked why I wasn't Moses, Hillel or Rabbi Zusa; Blake, Swift, Dostoyevsky or Bosch; William the Silent or Tecumseh; Hakuin or even Matt "the Magnificent" Grunewald. I'll be asked why I wasn't Martin, and I want to be able to answer "I was, as far as circumstances permitted," and prove it with examples.

I want to do what I can do, I don't want to do what could be done just as well if I weren't here.

January 5, 2009

Tell No One: Novel Into Film

Tell No One: Novel into Film

I found a copy of this in the informal circulating library--leave a book, take a book--in the basement of our building, and temporarily put aside Baudolino to read it over the holidays because the French thriller adapted from it was one of the two best movies I saw last year and I'm always curious about the process of adaptation to the screen. What was retained from the original novel? What was changed? How does the impact of the two compare?

The biggest change, obviously, is moving the main action form New York to Paris, which I found on reading the novel made less difference than you might expect. A midlevel drug lord from Harlem becomes an Arab hood from a no doubt equally well known neighbourhood of Paris, but the plot, which involves big money and, therefore, global forces, is retained and here and there fine tuned.

The intricate plot is what's strongest in the novel. Characterizations seemed sharper in the film, though the basis of them was fully laid out in the novel as well. The visual style--film's equivalent of narration--is consistently swift and taut (inconsistently so in the novel, particularly it's first half; I might have had trouble getting through that if I didn't have the filmed version as a spur to reading). The visual style of the film is also beautiful in an unassuming way--finely composed images which never call undue attention to themselves. The style of the novel is at best efficient; never (as it is in Martin Cruz Smith for example) so beautiful that you stop to reread and savour a sentence or a paragraph.

I suppose it's obvious from this that I thought the changes from novel to film were improvements, but it raises an intersting question. The beauty of the film, not to mention its emotional and philosophical weight, rests on the foundation of its marvelously labyrinthine plot, which as I say comes just about completely from the novel. So how do you weigh and evaluate the respective contributions? Guillaume Canet elevated an interesting thriller into a first rate film, satisfying on all its levels, but could he have done the same starting from scratch? I know Peter Barnes, whose script was the chief reason Enchanted April was such a great film, could have written a work to equal or exceed its power without a novel to adapt, because he did more than a dozen times. But a good many film directors, even legendary ones--Kubrick for example--never made a film whose story they personally initiated. Without knowing more of Guillaume Canet's oeuvre I can't say whether he more resembles Kubrik or Peter Barnes in this, but it has got me wondering: in a collaborative medium, how much do visionaries without much talent for structure depend on people whose style might be formulaic and conventional, but whose structural sense is profound and original. And what is the relative weight of each contribution?

January 1, 2009

Here to Stay

I'm listening to Freddie Hubbard. He died at the age of seventy a few days before New Year's. 'First Light' has always been the touchstone piece for me, but he made a great many fine recordings. I had to choose between two at the CD tent in back of the stage at Nathan Phillips Square last summer at the Jazz Festival, the night we were there to hear Salif Keita the Golden Voice of West Africa. I was getting a Thelonius Monk as well, and a Duke Ellington/Coleman Hawkins collaboration. I wanted something by Freddie Hubbard but I couldn't afford two more CDs and wanted the clerk to tell me: which of these two? He gave an "I only work here" shrug. A white haired black gentleman, very robust but in his seventies or older I'd guess by the fine mapwork of wrinkles on his face, took the two out of my hands, looked at them less than a second and handed me the one I'm playing now. Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Wayne Shorter; tenor saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums. HERE TO STAY.