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.