Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Reading Note:
The Ghost Writer, Freedom

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Does the principal action of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer take four days or five? This is the question that I keep coming back to as I prepare to write a few remarks about the film, which I have been watching in an endless loop for four or five days.

Let’s see: on Day 1, the unnamed ghost writer is awarded the job of taking up where a previous ghost, whose corpse washes up on a beach in the film’s second scene, left off. The new ghost flies to from London to Martha’s Vineyard that night. On Day 2, he arrives at the seaside fastness belonging to publisher Marty Rhinehart, whose firm has paid former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang $10 million for his memoirs — a manuscript in serious need of ghosting. The ghost writer reads the manuscript and takes a walk with Lang’s wife, the acerbic Ruth Capel — clearly the political brains of this gang.

On Day 3, the ghost and Lang have their first (and only) session, interrupted by news that Lang might be prosecuted for war crimes: he has assisted American President Bush in the dark practice of extraordinary rendition. With the Lang household in an uproar, the ghost retires to his hotel to work. He has a strange encounter with an Englishman in the hotel bar, and finds that his room has been improperly entered. In the morning of Day 4, he is told to check out of the hotel, which is now the site of a media feeding frenzy, in anticipation of an ICC investigation of Lang’s conduct. Lang’s lawyer flies in and arranges for a whitewashing reception by the Secretary of State and the Vice President in Washington. After Lang’s departure, the ghost discovers interesting photographs in his room, previously occupied by his dead predecessor. An intimate evening with Ruth Capel ensues.

On Day 5, the ghost decides to go back to his hotel, but the GPS in the spare van that’s kept on for guests, and that was previously driven by the dead ghost, leads him on another mission altogether, to the Massachusetts home of a man who figures in one of those interesting photographs. On his way back to the island, the ghost worries that he is being followed by ill-intentioned men, and he seeks the aid of a Lang defector. Notwithstanding this, he is fetched by Adam Lang’s plane, en route from New York to the island. The ghost and his client have an argument about terrorism on the short flight. At the airport, Adam Lang is assassinated by the Englishman who accosted the ghost at the hotel.

What follows, through to the film’s end, occupies an indefinite extent of narrative time. In film time, however, exactly ten minutes elapse between Adam Lang’s death and the moment of Ruth Capel’s realization that her dreadful secret has been discovered by the ghost writer. The film itself is over within the following minute. 

I’ve had to work this out on paper because Polanski seems to be interested in effacing the boundaries between one day and the next: his action appears as a unitary affair that never sleeps, even when the characters do. But it has been very carefully thought out and very densely packed. There are all sorts of formal flourishes that won’t be noticed by most viewers until the fourth or fifth exposure. On Days 2 and 4, for example, Ruth and the ghost walk over the dunes, back from the beach, and Ruth expresses regret. First, that she would rather be in England. Second, that the previous ghost died “so far from home.” I’ve notice this, as I say, but I don’t yet know quite what to make of it.

Ever since Chinatown was released, in 1974, it has been hailed as a triumph of screenwriting. No less superb is its score, by the late great Jerry Goldsmith. Alexandre Desplat’s score for The Ghost Writer is equally intense. There is a wonderful Hitchcock moment, when the ghost is bicycling in the rain in what really does amount to a vintage Hitchcockian episode; I ought rather to call it a “Herrmannian” moment.

Just when I worry about getting a bit sick of The Ghost Writer, along comes Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which somehow, I’m not quite sure why, came into my possession today. If Freedom came with a soundtrack, it would be every bit as sticky as Polanski’s movie. Considering that I haven’t read it through even once, it’s actually stickier.

Reading Note:
Fun Stuff
Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

It’s actually rather refreshing not be entirely on the qui vive where Muriel Spark’s bizarre hommage to Watergate, The Abbess of Crewe, is concerned. I really don’t want to know! Don’t want to trace the connections among the references! Having put the book down only to wonder if Walburga is Ehrlichman and Mildred Haldeman or the other way round is nightmare enough. At the remove of over thirty-five years, I’m not going to spin an inch of exegesis: I’d only trip on it and break my neck.

Rather more frustrating: I haven’t been able to find a juicy-red quotation from fiction by Ivy Compton-Burnett — imagine Oscar Wilde come back as Florence Bates — that would prepare the ground for saying how very much the following sportif passage reminds me of her (Ivy Compton-Burnett, that is, not Florence Bates).

“It is useless to tell me not to worry,” the Abbess says, “since I never do. Anxiety is for the bourgeoisie and for great artists in those hours when they are neither asleep nor practising their art. An aristocratic soul feels no anxiety nor, I think, do the famine-stricken of the world as they endure the impotent extremities of starvation. I don’t know why it is, but I ponder on starvation and the starving. Sisters, let me tell you a secret. I would rather sink fleshless to my death into the dry soil of some African or Indian plain, dead of hunger with the rest of the dying skeletons than go, as I hear Felicity is now doing, to a psychiatrist for an anxiety-cure.”

Such literary revels! Alexandra, the slender, obelisk Abbess of Crewe, dances, to taped music, a triangular quadrille with her very anti-type, Richard Milhous Nixon, and his political heir, the lady groceress of Grantham.

Reading Note:
Vendler’s Dickinson

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

As it is, I can barely crawl. The book, manifestly superb, defies my attempts to crown it; any reaching toward grand transcendent pronouncements on my part will be flattened by obvious ignorance. I don’t begin to know enough about Emily Dickinson’s poetry to tell you how wonderful Helen Vendler’s new book is, or why it is wonderful. Attempting to praise the book would be, for me, essaying a swan dive into an empty pool: the risk of disaster followed by the certainty of it. I can barely summon the mettle to urge you to buy a copy, as soon as possible, of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. But do — oh! — do. In Helen Vendler, Emily Dickinson has a reader who takes her with complete, exhaustive seriousness, unafraid to state the obvious if it throws (as it does here) Dickinson’s vision into “relief.”

To crawl, then. Before dinner — a chicken was roasting; water was coming to the boil for spaghetti; the table was set, and Kathleen was on her way home — I opened Dickinson and read two poems, together with the commentaries. The first choice was absolutely random, the first poem that i encountered. Entitled “Indian Summer” by Dickinson’s first publishers, it contains this amazing tercet:

These are the days when skies resume
The old – old sophistries of June –
A blue and gold mistake.

Here’s what Vendler has to say about these lines. 

But she cannot remain fixed in her “objective” critique of what she initially calls “The old – old sophistries of June – ” (as if June, seeming to promise eternal skies of blue and gold, were a philosopher manipulating the truth) and secondly names as “a mistake” (as though June were a prophet in error).

As if, as though: it’s wonderful. The final line, “A blue and gold mistake,” has thrown a shard into my heart, not least because blue and gold used to be the Notre Dame colors, before that nasty leprechaun inspired a change to green and gold, a detestable combination of two colors that I love. Yes, yes; Dickinson doesn’t say “green and gold mistake.” In poetry this well put-together, opposites are found to have been smoothly compressed into the barest phrases.

The second poem was chosen after some riffling of pages, probably because it’s quite short — eight lines in all. “This is my letter to the World.” I’m so ignorant that I didn’t know that it is a “justly famous poem.”

The sticky line for me:

The simple News that Nature told –

Vendler unpacks it magnificently:

Yet almost everything about both this Nature and this messenger puts into relief the maleness of God’s authoritative messengers, from Moses and the prophets to Jesus and his disciples. Jehovah is masculine, but Nature is feminine (by virtue not only of her Latin gender, but also of her ability to bear fruit). God’s “Majesty” is intimidating; Natures is “tender.” God gives a Decalogue; Nature gives “simple News.”

Everything that Vendler says is obvious — the moment you’ve read it. But the shock of the last sentence persists, as if it were the very opposite of common knowledge. There are big, important things that, until now, at least, men really haven’t bothered to think or talk about. Sometimes, understanding the world is a matter of listening to “simple news,” not interpreting codes.

I hope that I’ve kept it simple.

Reading Note:
The Two Georges
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

I’m reading A Single Man, the Christopher Isherwood novel that Tom Ford turned into a movie. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s cattier and less elegiac than the movie. This has everything to do with the difference between reading a book and watching a movie. It’s difficult to be intimate with movie characters, even when you’re taken to the very center of their turbulent hearts. That’s because they live in such powerfully rendered locations, places (usually) utterly unlike the ones in which you spend your time. The George of the movie inhabits an incredibly stylish house, a real work of architecture, and not the upper-Bohemian treehouse of the book. As Tom Ford’s provisional alter ego, George dresses with the maximum of easy but disciplined self-consciousness. Isherwood’s George probably owns a caftan or two — something a bit ratty from Morocco. On film, George is a grand figure, and his plight is tragic. But precisely because it is catty rather than monumental, the book brings home the full weight of George’s loss, the absence of his one and only love. In the movie, Jim is already dead, a creature of occasional flashbacks. In the book, he still bumps into George in the narrow doorways.

Also, because it is cattier, the novel is better at explaining George’s loss. The movie really can’t do more than attest that George and Jim were very much in love. It’s horrible to lose someone you love. But the book shows why George is one of those people who isn’t going to move on, who’s going to be stuck with his loss. That’s because losing Jim confirms something that George learned early about life, something we’re told about at the beginning of George’s day.

He fixes himself a plate of poached eggs, with bacon and toast and coffee, and sits down to eat them at the kitchen table. And meanwhile, around and around in his head goes the nursery jingle his nanny taught him when he was a child in England, all those years ago:

Poached eggs on toast are very nice —

(He sees her so plainly still, gray-haired with mouse-bright eyes, a plump little body carrying in the nursery breakfast tray, short of breath from climbing all those stairs. She used to grumble at their steepness and call them “The Wooden Mountains” — one of the magic phrases of his childhood.)

Poached eggs on toast are very nice,
If you try them once you’ll want them twice!

Ah, the heartbreakingly insecure smugness of those nursery pleasures. Master George enjoying his eggs; Nanny watching him and smiling reassurance that all is safe in their dear tiny doomed world!

There is an Englishness about this pessimism. You run into it in the odd highly stylized American, but it’s rare. Why it should have become common among the scions of England’s upper classes I have no idea. George Eliot’s contemporaries, no matter how prone to despair, never sulked, and not just because it was ill-mannered. What happened? The end of empire? The vulgarity of democracy? The nihilism of the Flemish trenches?  Somebody is going to raise is hand to remind me that George is a homosexual in an intolerant era. But it’s not that. Everyone in the novels of John Fowles is similarly disaffected, notwithstanding plenteous access to sanctioned booty. It’s as though an intelligent person would be insulted by promise.

Anyway, Jim’s death just proved what George always knew, which is that life sucks. George isn’t going to stick his head out a second time (or so he thinks). There’s nothing particularly homosexual about this “lesson,” either. There are obvious reasons for George’s finding it easier to stick to his resolve than for a straight man’s doing so. Finding a lover whom the world will join you in celebrating is tough enough. Finding a forbidden one has got to be daunting. 

The curious thing about the movie — well, it’s about movies generally. In the book, George is a gay man. In the movie, he’s a man who happens to be gay. There’s a real difference, whether or not there ought to be. You might say that “gay man” is a type of homosexual, in the way that “Don Juan” is a type of heterosexual. Actually, if any straight profile comes to mind in connection with George, it’s Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, not because the men share any kind of erotic interest — they certainly don’t — but because of the fastidiousness of their resentment.

It would have been unappealing to watch Colin Firth impersonate Isherwood’s George. But that’s my point about the movies. So far as I know, a gay man like the George of Isherwood’s novel has never been the protagonist of a conventional feature film, even though that’s not what “conventional” means anymore. If I’m not complaining that Tom Ford failed to do justice to Isherwood’s novel, it’s because I’m not sure that I want to watch a movie about Isherwood’s George. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that I’m very happy to read about him.

Reading Note:
The Declaration of Adventure

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Here is the fatal paragraph:

Whatever the cost, Uzaemon vows, I shall free her. But I need help.

Don’t worry: I am not going to unpack this passage. I’m not going to spoil The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for you by explaining who “she” is, or why Uzaemon resolves to free her, or even who Uzaemon is. For my purposes, none of that is necessary — and that is what is fatal about the paragraph.

What I will do is point out that Uzaemon’s vow is meant to be taken seriously by the reader. There is no irony here, no distancing tug at the reader’s sleeve. So the vow differs in no way from hundreds of other such utterances that the reader may have read, and, especially, read when young. What we have here is the absolutely standard declaration of adventure that, with implicit contractual clarity, promises not so much a measure of excitement and derring-do as a simplification of motive. And it is not the character who utters the vow, either, but the author. The author promises to propel his character as a hero, in the single-minded pursuit of a worthy aim that will end in either triumph or death.

I would call it a boy’s own story, but I’m not sure that girls aren’t equally drawn to oaths of this kind. I speak, of course, of oaths in books, not of real-life commitments. It would be impossible to generalize about the latter; no two personal missions are alike. But in adventure stories, generalization is precisely what’s invited. With his vow, Uzaemon slips beneath the surface clutter of his contingent life as a Japanese man of a certain stature in Nagasaki, circa 1799. He sets aside the problems, great and small, that make up his everyday life. When he has stripped the accidents of existence away, he is seen to be wearing the hero’s armor, which protects him, above all, from ambivalence.

Here is why young readers of any age like declarations of adventure: ambivalence is banished. (Ambivalence — the emotional conjunction of palpably incompatible feelings — takes getting used to, and many people never succeed.) Anyone who makes Uzaemon’s oath is a good person, and a good person pure and simple, no matter how well or ill endowed with capability, intelligence, and fortitude. When a character comes to the oath with a spotted moral history, the vow itself is a redemption. The cost that Uzaemon vows to pay is the suppression of distraction: henceforth, nothing but the mission will matter. This means that nothing else will matter to the reader, either. The mission will part the world into the good and the bad, placing an uninhabitable gulf between the two. The indifferent will disappear: everything in the story, from other characters to the weather, will wear either the badge of help or that of hindrance.

But I need help. A second adventure! Freeing the girl requires the hero to field a team of loyal supporters with special skills, and this, too, is an adventure, no less clouded by the threat of disappointment and betrayal than the main event. (I see it — the rounding up of the helping posse — as a kind of temporal forecourt to the inner sanctum of dangerous rescue.) A complementary host of ritual obstacles confronts writer and reader alike with the satisfactions of knowing exactly where things stand with respect to the story, no matter how uncertain the hero’s arrangements might chance to be.

To the question, why does David Mitchell, a sophisticated novelist, issue a declaration of adventure at just about the point where an adult novel would be heading in the opposite direction, toward the uncertain resolution that George Eliot taught us to treasure, I don’t have an answer. My guess is that the writer is more concerned with genre than with character, more interested in a game whose rules are known to all than in the ineffable oddity of each human heart. When I saw what he had done, my curiosity about his novel — a book whose surface generates a turbulence of puzzlement — underwent a heroic simplification of its own, and I hunkered down with the sole aim of all genre fiction: to find out how it all comes out in the end.

Reading Note:
Why would you want the iPad to function like a laptop?

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010


Why, I wonder, have the editors at The New York Review of Books drafted Sue Halpern to cover the iPad, when it’s clear that she is unsympathetic to the device? Her long piece in the 10 June issue of the Review never touched on the iPad’s function — its primary function, in my view — as an Internet reader. Now, in an entry at NYRBlog dated 8 June (but obviously written long after the printed piece), she comes closer, but lets the point slip out of her hands.

As it is built now, the iPad is the ultimate consumer device, meant primarily to consume media, not to produce it. That’s why, in its first iteration, it has no native printing application, no camera, no USB ports for peripherals.

Because Ms Halpern wants the iPad to be a computer. Why on earth, I wonder?

But the impulse to make it into something else, a lightweight computer that can stand in for a PC in the classroom, at a meeting, on the road, wherever, is strong. This is why iPad users have been buying keyboards to bypass the touchscreen, and finding apps that allow for rudimentary multitasking, printing, and remote access to one’s home computer in order to use non-iPad-enabled software like Microsoft Word. The paradox of having designed the ultimate consumer device is that ultimately the consumers will make of it what they want—if Google, with its rumored Chrome Tablet, doesn’t get there first.

Doesn’t she already have a computer?

Heading the blog piece is the image of an extravagantly marked-up book; we’re told that it is David Foster Wallace’s copy of Don DeLillo’s Players. Ms Halpern helpfully outlines a hack for writing notes on books that you’re reading on your iPad, although she complains that you have to know what you’re doing “to avoid getting tripped up.” Awkward or not, I won’t be giving the hack a try, because I don’t write in books. Except to insert the odd “Ex libris,” I do not mark my books. Possibly because I am really very bad at multitasking, I find taking notes to be unhelpful. I find that it’s better to let strong impressions simmer untended; if I feel that I have something to say when I’ve finished reading, then I try to write it out in as finished a manner as possible, often in the form of entries that, without too much editing, appear on this site. But that is me; that is my idiosyncrasy. In the end, reading books is not what the iPad is really for.

Well, that’s precisely what the iPad may be for — the specific tablet sold by Apple — that and all the other apps that Apple markets. I don’t have much time for apps, and, like James Kwak, I think that there’s something retrograde about them. Eventually, there will be other tablets, with or without their own apps markets. Some of them may support browsers superior to Apple’s Safari. I may come to prefer one of them to the iPad. All that is down the road. As Jason Kottke wrote when the iPad first appeared, it’s a “proof-of-concept gadget for adults.” But the concept that it proves is that reading the Internet can be as pleasurable as, or at any rate no less pleaurable than, reading a book or a magazine.

Since my way of reading the Internet is pretty much the same as my way of reading books, I am not incommoded by the difficulty of taking notes in a browser. The Daily Blague might indeed be regarded as a notebook, even if it’s a notebook that’s designed to be intelligible to other readers. Or just plain intelligible: in my note-taking days, I was often at a complete loss to make sense of a good many scribblings, even when they were perfectly legible.

When I acquired my first personal computer — an IBM Peanut — in 1985, I had high hopes of using it to organize my life. But life is far too complicated to be addressed by one machine. For several years now, I’ve been writing longer things on a laptop, in another room, without opening any email apps. The sensed difference between the computer where I work (with its two screens) and the one on which I think (in order to write) is intense. Now the iPad has introduced a third — and, I suspect, a completing — mode: a computer on which to read. Sue Halpern may try to tarnish the device by using the dirty word “consumer,” but I’ll embrace the description. As I stroke through Safari, I’m letting the other guy speak.