Monday, September 27, 2004

A teenage girl's view of Rome

"To me, the thought of Rome -- a city adorned with genitalia rather than vinyl siding and stucco -- seemed improbable. I had to see this place. In the weeks leading up to the trip's charter airline departure, I kept waiting for a TV studio buzzer to sound, for an audience to shriek at me, telling me that it was all a big prank." -- Douglas Coupland, Eleanor Rigby.

A work colleague of mine has just set off for a holiday in Rome. It took me a worrying amount of effort not to quote that at her.

[Eleanor Rigby, by Douglas Coupland (Fourth Estate, 2004). May be considered a more satisfactory answer to a friend of mine's question about Douglas Coupland characters and ageing; more satisfactory altogether, in fact, than many of his recent novels, despite the standard slide into fantasy.]

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Form burial

"Beginning on the second day, whenever a patient appeared to be moribund, a piece of paper with his name on it was fastened to his clothing. The corpse detail carried the bodies outside, placed them on pyres of wood from ruined houses, burned them, put some of the ashes in envelopes intended for exposed X-ray plates, marked the envelopes with the names of the deceased, and piled them, neatly and respectfully, in stacks in the main office. In a few days, the envelopes filled one whole side of the impromptu shrine" -- John Hersey, Hiroshima.

The second day is the second day after the bomb. If you look at the lines immediately above, this passage is about a reassertion of respectability: "Disposal of the dead," the line goes, "by decent ceremony and enshrinement, is a greater moral responsibility to the Japanese than adequate care of the living." It seems chilling in a way that set-up doesn't point to, however.

[Hiroshima, by John Hersey (Penguin, 1946). I read the Mary McCarthy attack on this thing (quoted somewhere downpage here; it's in this book) long before I read the thing itself. The journalistic stiff-neckedness she twits him for is real, but proves in some way a strength: if you aren't Dante, better not to try to interview the dead.]

Sunday, September 12, 2004


"The city itself was a revelation and a hope for this skinny little light-brown kid crossing the river on the train, passing through the slums of Herne Hill and Brixton from the suburbs. It was intimidating, a grand imperial metropolis full of massive statues: blank-faced men covered in bird-shit and medals, who had commanded armies and ruled nations. That was the Empire for me: decline, and these relics." -- Hanif Kureishi, My Ear at His Heart.

Zeugma, for the non-littish, is the governing of incompatible nouns by a single verb. In English, with so many verbs to choose from, it tends to be contrived and therefore comic -- "She left in tears and a sedan chair"; Flanders and Swann; The Rape of the Lock. Here, however, it isn't, and serves to do interesting damage to the meaning of "medals".

[My Ear at his Heart, by Hanif Kureishi (Faber and Faber, 2004). H.K. reads the manuscripts of his father's novels, using them to place dad's "semi-broken existence" in relation to his own, more successful life. A middle-aged book: there's lots about turning 50, and revelations include that there used to be more second-hand bookshops, that London's avant-gardes were less cliquey in the 70s, and that there were once lots of good songs on the radio.]

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Class action

"Since Titus had come to Great Mop Laura had seen little of Mrs. Leak. Mrs. Leak knew what good manners were; she had not been a housemaid at Lazzard Court for nothing. Taken separately, either Titus or his aunt might be human beings, but in conjunction they became gentry. Mrs. Leak remembered her position and withdrew to it, firmly." --Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes.

Of course, when you become a witch -- as Laura has just done -- being gentry ceases to matter as much. Mrs. Leak will be inviting her to covens in no time.

[Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Chatto & Windus, 1926). Middle-aged woman sells soul to devil rather than spend the rest of her life as a favourite aunt. Tonally a bit uneven -- the devil's jokes, when he appears, seem to belong in a broader comedy -- it nonetheless casts a spell.]

Friday, September 03, 2004

The (fantasy) lives of animals

"Some thought seemed to be striking Moretobello every now and again; it had had a dream, that night, which was why it had left the stall and felt lost to the world that morning: a dream of forgotten things which seemed to come from another life; of wide grassy plains filled with cows, endless cows, coming lowing towards it. And it had seen itself, there in the middle of them, running about in the herd of cows as if looking for something." -- Italo Calvino, in the story 'Father to Son', in Adam, One Afternoon. Moretobello is an ox, in a valley where mules do most of the lifting.

"The old mule went on putting down its hoofs uncertainly on the surface pitted with flints and new holes; its skin was stretched tight with the impression on it; it had suffered so much in its life that nothing could make any impression on it any more. It was walking along with its muzzle bent down, and its eyes, limited by the black blinkers, were noticing all sorts of things; snails, broken by the shelling, spilling an iridescent slime on the stones: ant-hills ripped open and the black and white ants hurrying hither and thither with eggs; torn-up grasses showing strange hairy roots like trees." -- The same, in the same book, in the story 'Hunger at Bevera'.

These passages were written before (I think) Calvino became declaredly a fantasist; you are in the middle of some politically loaded slice of peasant life, and suddenly the animals are seeing more vividly, and feeling more deeply, than the rural proletarians who own them. It's an odd effect. I'm glad I don't have to guess what it signifies.

[Adam, One Afternoon, and other stories, by Italo Calvino, translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright (Collins, 1957; but before that Einaudi, 1949). Short short stories of the working-class during and after WW2. It's not just self-willed beasties that upset things -- the amoral little boys may be even spookier.]

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Obvious reasons

"Philip met her eyes, and smiled quickly. After which he looked away, and said something she could not possibly have been anticipating. '"What is the name of your goldfish?"'

"Lois frowned. 'I beg your pardon?'

"'"What is the name of your goldfish?" That was the first thing I ever said to you. Do you remember?'

"'No -- when was this?'

"'Twenty-nine years ago. I was round at your parents' house. They threw a dinner party, for my Mum and Dad. You were wearing an incredibly low-cut dress. I couldn't take my eyes off your cleavage.'

"'I don't remember that at all,' Lois said. 'Anyway, I never even had a goldfish.'

"'I know. You were talking to my dad about Colditz, the television programme...'" -- Jonathan Coe, The Closed Circle.

The problem with linking two novels -- this one and The Rotters' Club, in which you can read 'live' the conversation discussed above -- over a gap of 30-something years is that your characters have to keep telling one another their back stories. The advantage is that 'Do you remember?' conversations really happen, and feel less awkward when represented in a double-book.

[The Closed Circle, by Jonathan Coe (Viking, 2004). Second part of The Rotters' Club -- preplanned, so it's unfair to call it a sequel -- set 1999-2003. The less attractive end of the pantomime horse; strong on middle-aged defeat, but weak on Blairism, of which it's in part a satire. The first book's little Thatcherite is now a new Labour MP. Thing is, when he's meant to have been reading Milton Friedman in bed, most future newLabourites were far-left chisellers at the NUS.]