quinta-feira, abril 30, 1981

Ruthless Pursuit: "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Original review, 1981-04-30)

The Great Gatsby is essentially a love story. Daisy turns out to be as unattainable to Jay as Beatrice was to Dante but this being the US, the hero doesn't elevate his idol to muse status; instead he embarks on a ruthless pursuit that ends up destroying him.

It's difficult in the present era of throwaway relationships to comprehend the extent of Gatsby's romantic obsession. The questions are: 1) would he have taken to crime had Daisy returned his love and told her wealthy family to go to hell and 2) did he love Daisy precisely because she was a romantic chimera, a glamorous woman who represented a rarefied world he wished to conquer?

Fitzgerald himself never abandoned his sick wife Zelda even when advised to divorce her. He worked himself ragged to pay the high costs of her medical treatments and stays in various clinics. I think it's true to say his own health was ruined because of his devotion and sense of responsibility to his wife.
But then Fitzgerald was a man born into a more chivalrous era, so it's not really surprising that he should produce works like Tender is the Night and the Great Gatsby.

One interesting bit I'm surprised many have overlooked is that Nick Carraway and Jordan both appear to be gay. Not the first one to think of this-- lots written on the topic - but hard to get more obvious than the scene where, after leaving Myrtle's party, Nick winds up in the bedroom of the effete artist where they are both in their underwear. In the 1920s, Fitzgerald would not have been allowed to write a gay sex scene, but this comes pretty darn close. Many other clues - Nick's massive man crush on Gatsby, the fact that he doesn't date, doesn't seem to have any interest in women beyond Jordan, the mannish female golf pro (Nick's descriptions of her make her seem very mannish anyway), very vague about why he wasn't marrying his former fiancé despite the fact that it was expected of him and he couldn't go through with it.) Nick's homosexuality is interesting as both a side note and for what it says that we are seeing Gatsby through the gaze of someone with a massively illicit (for the time) crush on him who builds him up and then tears him down.

The chattering class in Portugal have always had a different definition of the "American Dream" than actual Americans, for whom its essence is owning a home and raising children who have it a bit easier than you did. Both of those aspirations, for that is what the dream is, are in bad shape at the moment. The Portuguese and the Western world in general seem to think the American Dream is some feverish conception of mansions and millions...As for Gatsby, it's the language I enjoy. Should we at abandon wondering at Gatsby to avoid existential bewilderment. Or falter forward and be lost in the aftermath of wonder. Or remain entrenched in conservative certainty. Perhaps it's why so many of us reread this novel. It's also damn fine prose. 

segunda-feira, abril 27, 1981

Rattling SF: “The Affirmation” by Christopher Priest

(Original Review, 1981-04-27)

“Living is not an art, but to write of life is. Life is a series of accidents and anticlimaxes, misremembered and misunderstood, with lessons only dimly learned. Life is disorganized, lacks shape, lacks story.”

In “The Affirmation” by Christopher Priest

A Priest book isn't just a (SF) book. It is the distilled essence of a philosophy, a memoir; a piece of someone's soul. Losing the book is losing that element. On a more mundane level, it is also a memory - I read a book when I was about 7 (a proto-choose-your-own-adventure thing) that I've fitfully searched for ever since and never found, and doing so would put me right back on my nan's sofa on a Saturday afternoon with the wrestling on. Priest was not someone I read for many years, but he was the "gateway drug" to a wider world of SF for me in my younger days, and I think - despite his success - he remains critically underrated as a genre writer because he writes SF, and even more so as an avantgarde writer because he writes the kind of SF no one else writes. Priest too often falls into the trap of "imagine this concept, but on Discworld" as the entire premise of a book (gimmicky stuff), but when he is able to really get his teeth into a concept he is exceptional.

Is “The Affirmation” disturbing? Yes, indeed, but not in a visceral, in-your-face way. Rather, it's disturbing in how it changes as the plot progresses, slowly, almost imperceptibly, until it gradually dawns on the reader that this is no longer a narrative with even a pretense of objectivity, but instead a blow-by-blow description of the hideous unravelling of the mind of the narrator. That's not a spoiler, by the way. You will see signs of what's coming as you read the book, but that doesn't mean it isn't going to rattle you. It has been described as 'a book that is also its own sequel', which is the merest hint of the mental hoops it requires the reader to jump through. I believe I'm right in saying that Priest struggled to write in any meaningful way for a couple of years after completing this novel, and I'm not in the slightest surprised. I felt similarly poleaxed after just reading it. But that's not to say you shouldn't. Indeed, those with the opportunity of doing so for the first time, I envy you.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sexta-feira, abril 24, 1981

Performing in Silence: “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea” by Yukio Mishima

(Original Review, 1981-04-24)

“They performed in silence. He trembled a little out of vanity, as when he had first scaled the mast. The woman’s lower body, like a hibernating animal half asleep, moved lethargically under the quilts; he sensed the stars of night tilting dangerously at the top of the mast. The stars slanted into the south, swung to the north, wheeled, whirled into the east, and seemed finally to be impaled on the tip of the mast. By the time he realized this was a woman, it was done...”

In “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea” by Yukio Mishima.

I've read many scary books with frightening stories before and since, but they don't disturbed me the way this book did. The book was disturbing in a completely different way - it felt as if it was talking about me, saying something that's scary yet true about me. I read it when I was just a couple of years older than the boy in the book, and was probably a somewhat disturbed teenager, with disturbing thoughts. It felt like someone was looking into my head and saw what's going on in my mind, and revealing my own private fears and fantasies. What went on with the boy felt like something very real, and I've no doubt that Mishima was also describing something that's deep in his psyche. I have read books by Western writers, but never have I read anything that felt so psychologically true, suggesting perhaps at a deep level, there is something profoundly different between a particular kind of person like me (or Mishima) who is from the East, and someone from the West. This sounds like a contentious statement, but I don't know if others get disturbed by the book the way I was.

Actually disagree that it's only literature where we feel that art is the same as eating vegetables (that it's worthy and healthy but not enjoyable (and yes, I know vegetables can be enjoyable, run with me). There's a similar feeling in film, where if something's enjoyable it's instinctively considered 'lesser' - just see the way genre films, etc., are completely overlooked at the Oscars. Tellingly, unless they're horror... Whereas 'artier' films are given more leeway for being boring or bad if they're somehow worthy. In fact, there's a general Puritanical vibe across society that enjoying yourself is inherently frivolous, and actually can't be deep and meaningful. Having fun, or joy, is looked down on as inferior...whereas surely the best things can be both. Mishima is both highbrow and highly enjoyable.

segunda-feira, abril 20, 1981

Growing Inward: "The Blind Owl" by Sadegh Hedayat

(Original Review, 1981-04-20)

“I was growing inward incessantly; like an animal that hibernates during the wintertime, I could hear other peoples' voices with my ears; my own voice, however, I could hear only in my throat. The loneliness and the solitude that lurked behind me were like a condensed, thick, eternal night, like one of those nights with a dense, persistent, sticky darkness which waits to pounce on unpopulated cities filled with lustful and vengeful dreams.”

In “The Blind Owl” by Sadegh Hedayat

“My one fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself.”

In “The Blind Owl” by Sadegh Hedayat

Unforgettable is "The Blind Owl", the masterpiece of Sadegh Hedayat, who with this novel inaugurated modern Persian literature. The reader is seduced into entering the dangerous terrain of psychic disintegration, experiencing in the company of the protagonist a vicarious nightmare of hallucinations where the boundaries between reality and dreams dissolve and we are left lost in a labyrinth of terror, to struggle in vain against the sinister apparitions emanating from the shadows beyond the reach of rationality. The reading experience is akin to the existential panic suffered during sleep paralysis when the ego feels overwhelmed by the threat of extinction by an unseen presence. Oh the horror! Reading this tale while stoned enhances the fear and mystery, but can be recommended only to those possessing steady nerves. “I finally learned that I must remain silent as much as possible. I must always keep my thoughts to myself.” Heinlein couldn’t have said it better himself…

sexta-feira, abril 17, 1981

Youthful Frolicking: "The Mysterious Stranger" by Mark Twain

(Original Review, 1981-04-17)

“The Mysterious Stranger” by Mark Twain which presented a very bleak and troubling vision of humanity. It had some Huck Finn style youthful frolicking too but this was swamped by that sense that human history and the consequences of moral decision making are a horrible dream that the narrator may be able to escape from but we cannot. I was expecting some jolly progressive waffle about the stupidity of religion but the book went far deeper than that especially when Satan started compassionately bumping people off because he could foretell how awful their lives would be if he didn't. That similar theme in the book of Double Indemnity that didn't make it into the film also chilled me.

I tend to find macabre short stories more terrifying than novels which contain plenty of other textures beyond melancholy or terror. “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson, “Barbara of the House of Grebe” by Thomas Hardy and “A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner are three memorable tales of this kind. Guy De Maupassant is probably the king of the terrifying and psychologically probing short story.

My general response to famously explicit shockers like “120 Days of Sodom”, “Juliette”, “Crash” and “The Wasp Factory” tends to be laughter. I regard the first two particularly as a form of sexual surrealism rather than a depiction of actual atrocities. And the misanthropy of “The Wasp Factory” is even somewhat bracing. “American Psycho” is sooo tame and obviously a comedy too and James Herbert is far more of a comic genius than a master of terror.

Perhaps reading The Bible and the historians of Ancient Greece and Rome during my childhood made me somewhat immune to brutal descriptions in novels (I am not immune to the display of emotion in them though and often end a particularly beloved or tragic book in tears). The descriptions of the atrocities of the Assyrians kept me up for nights and the image of that guy who took part in the assassination of Domitian and had his sexual organs cut off and shoved in his mouth haunted me for ages. And these events supposedly happened.

Apollinaire's “11,000 Rods” is the only classic of extreme erotica that has particularly troubled me; it was full of psychological nastiness. And “The Story of O” was pretty bland and suburban; the novel was written for comparing the carryings on of O to slaves wanting to keep their masters in the Caribbean made me feel an urge to vomit.

[2018 EDIT: I haven't read McGrath's "Asylum" yet but thought "Port Mungo" and "Martha Peak" were fantastic. And “The Little Friend” was far more terrifying than "The Secret History." Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger" was also quite chilling as was Susan Hill's "The Man in the Picture"; Venice is always a good setting for a tale of terror (Vernon Lee and Daphne De Maurier thought so too). "The Athenian Murders" and "The Art of Murder" by Jose Carlos Samoza come to mind too. “The Kindly Ones” and “2666” are also great novels but the use of real life atrocities was more of a reminder of how awful the world can be rather than of how shocking they are as literature.]

quarta-feira, abril 15, 1981

The All-Powerful State: "One" by David Karp

(Original Review, 1981-04-15)

"One" by David Karp, 1953.

It is like a nightmarish but plausible convergence of an über HR Services Dept. and the State, attempting to flush out and supplant individual heresy with conformity, even when dealing with the life of a most innocuous individual. A bit like some of the places we now have to work in really. Sh*t, I've really dropped myself in it now. I’m so skeptical and paranoid of any workplace that attempts to implement cultural change ever since. (I automatically switch in to heresy mode, can't help it.) They won’t come for me yet but it'd be only a matter of time, why are they waiting? Posting this now before it's too late because I don’t even what I’m going to major in, maybe Theoretical Physics or Computer Science, let alone what work I’ll do in the future [2018 EDIT: It’s so funny reading this in 2018…ROTFL!]

I just finished re-reading this magnificent novel that I first discovered in the early '80s. I had come across this title on James Martin's "Beginner's Manual for Apprentice Book Burners", a satirical list of "burnable" books. I then fortuitously found a copy in the used book sale at my local library for 50 cents and read it right away. The book blew me away. It is easily one of the best dystopian novels ever written. The obliteration of the main character's identity because of his inability to conform is one of the most hair raising episodes I've ever come across. I read that Karp wrote the screenplay for two TV productions of "One" in the Fifties. I would love to find those. This book is definitely comparable to "1984". I would recommend to anyone who likes "One" another neglected classic of this genre.

It is truly the psychological thriller of the genre. There are but three main characters: the protagonist, a Professor Burden, who is oblivious of any threat he may represent to The State until, by chance, he is called into The Department of Internal Examination (The Department) for a review of a report he has made. Professor Burden has a minor but interesting connection to the state. His interview is revealing and he is subsequently brought to the attention of Assistant Commissioner Lark, who must verify if indeed the professor is a threat, and what must be done. From here I found myself unable to put the book down. Mr. Karp has written such a compelling story of the all-powerful state against the individual; we are to find out what the state might, or must, do in order to maintain control of its citizenry. Lastly the reader is introduced to a Mr. Hughes. There are, of course, secondary characters.

All of whom contribute to a riveting story.

[2018 EDIT: Thank you SO much for mentioning this brilliant book Robert. I read it over many eons ago, and thought it as good as or maybe better than in 1981. But I lost my copy, and all I could remember was the title. It’s been driving me mad for years because I would love to re-read it, but searching for “One” on the Net never produced a result. Turns out Amazon listed six copies. Now only four because I’ve just bought two of them - one for me and one as backup. An absolute ‘must read’. Incredibly powerful. Once again, many thanks. This is such an extraordinary - but almost completely forgotten - dystopian novel that I can’t help but add another comment. But first, there are not four but about twenty copies available via Amazon, in the UK and the US. Buy one! You won’t regret it. It’s so long since I read it that I couldn’t write a decent review right now, but here is one from Amazon which sums it up nicely.]

sexta-feira, abril 10, 1981

Would-Be Communism: "Chevengur" by Andrei Platonov, Anthony Olcott (Trans.)

(Original review, 1981-04-10)

Dino Buzzati's “The Tartar Steppe” disturbed me in the most elemental way. I found it extremely hard to finish yet I couldn't put it down. McCarthy's “Blood Meridian” is also unsettling, but in a glorious way. In some respects I found it very similar to “Moby Dick.” Finally, I'd nominate Andrei Platonov's novel Chevengur as one of the most parodic ans horrific horror stories that disturbs because of its truth:

"Chepurny and Piusya went off to make a personal inspection of the dead bourgeoisie. The dead were lying in clumps, in groups of three or four or even more, evidently trying to get close to one another, if only with parts of their bodies, during the last minutes of mutual separation. Chepurny touched the throats of the bourgeois with the back of his hand, the way a mechanic tests the temperature of a bearing, and it seemed to him that the bourgeois were all still alive.
'I knocked the soul out of Duvailo's neck just for good measure!' said Piusya.
'Quite right. The soul's in the throat,' Chepurny recalled. 'Why do you think the Cadets string us up by the throat? So the soul gets burned up by the rope - then you die good and proper! It's no good messing about, killing a man's not easy.'
Piusya and Chepurny felt every one of the bourgeois and remained unconvinced of their definitive death. Some of them seemed to be sighing; while others had their eyes half-closed as if they were shamming, meaning to crawl away in the night and continue their lives at the expense of Piusya and the rest of the proletariat. Chepurny and Piusya then decided to additionally insure the bourgeoisie against any continuation of life. They loaded their revolvers to the full and shot each prostrate property-owner, one by one, straight through the glands in their neck.
'Now our cause is assured!' said Chepurny once he'd got his task out of the way. 'No proletarian in the world can be poorer than a corpse.'"

Not since I read Isaac Babel's great story "Salt" did I encounter a more disturbing explication of the dehumanized mind of the would-be communist.

sábado, abril 04, 1981

Phallocracy: "Juliette" by Marquis de Sade, Austryn Wainhouse (Trans.)

(Original Review, 1981-04-04)

Histoire de Juliette ou les Prospérités du Vice (Story of Juliette or The Prosperities of Vice) by de Sade.

Profoundly disturbing - not only in its depiction of cold-hearted indulgence, by way of a text nearly as long as War and Peace, in murder, rape, robbery and more horrors besides, but also in its capability to beguile and confuse readers of a feminist persuasion.

Angela Carter fell for it: "[Sade's] great women [characters in Juliette], ... once they have tasted power, once they know how to use their sexuality as an instrument of aggression, they use it to extract vengeance for the humiliations they were forced to endure as the passive objects of the sexual energy of others ...”

"Sade declares himself unequivocally for the right of women to fuck - as if the period in which women fuck aggressively, tyrannously and cruelly will be a necessary stage in the development of a general human consciousness of the nature of fucking, that if it is not egalitarian, it is unjust... Sade ... urges women to fuck as actively as they are able so that, powered by their enormous and hitherto untapped sexual energy, they will then be able to fuck their way into history and, in doing so, to change it...”

"... I would like to think that he put pornography in the service of women, or, perhaps, allowed it to be invaded by an ideology not inimical to women."

Both quotes from “The Sadeian Woman” by Angela Carter

Not so. Juliette, the young protagonist of the novel, might be a great, potent criminal, risen from poverty, endowed with high intelligence, dauntless daring and a sharp gift of the gab, seeming fit to set phallocracy trembling and to show the way for new women of nerve, verve and organisation. However, she operates always on a tether and on a precipice, always subject to men even more steeped in crime and even more rich and powerful than she. The narrative repeatedly re-introduces one of these overlords, with whom the male reader may identify and who has all women, even the polymath-in-vice Juliette, within his grasp. She has to refrain from any attack on any of the arch-fiendish men who teach her, supervise her and employ her as director and star turn of many bloody orgies.

Sade's vast novel is a sophisticated “aide masturbatoire” for male (and some female) Reachers who want their lusty, lusting, beautiful heroines always on the rein and the bridle, however gleaming and gilded the leather and the steel, of a master. On the other hand, someone could argue that my reading of Carter is far too dismissive and superficial. I would even suggest that I may have "fallen for" the oft-rehearsed position that sees Carter's analysis as resting on Juliette as a counterforce to patriarchal dominance. It's worth looking more closely, at what she has to say about Justine, for instance. In de Sade's day it was most unusual for female characters to have their own distinctive voice, let alone agency. De Sade has his 'heroines' do or experience horrible things, but they do have a voice and we understand and care about what happens to them.

quarta-feira, abril 01, 1981

D-Cups: "The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction" by Ursula K. Le Guin

(Original Review, 1981-04-01)

My understanding of close reading was what I described in another review gleaning from Empson, and I never intended to dismiss the idea of finding archetypes in literary characters. As far as that goes, I might put myself much closer to the other extreme and be tempted to say: every story contains archetypes because we have nothing else to tell stories about; even non-fiction stories are told primarily if not exclusively about real people who embody archetypes.

I’m now reading a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Language of the Night,” and she offers an interesting take on many of these issues from the writer’s point of view. She acknowledges the appearance of archetypes in her stories, but, with what she considers her best work, the story comes from within her and only after it is written does she recognize the archetype that inspired it:

“The writer who draws not upon the works and thoughts of others, but upon his own thoughts and his own deep being, will inevitably hit upon common material. The more original his work, the more imperiously recognizable it will be.”

Here she is on symbols and meaning in literature:

“In many college English courses the words “myth” and “symbol” are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing courses the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does this Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that’s how Melville did it.

Even when they begin to realize that art is not something for critics, but for other human beings, some of them retain the overintellectualizing bent. They still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically. They mistake symbol (living meaning) for allegory (dead equivalence).”

SF (Speculative Fiction) was the realm where nerdish white boys went to dream of swords and D-cups. (Yes, that is very unfair. I must be slandering at least 1 1/2% of my fellow geeks.) Now it's no longer just boys & men but also girls & women who have discovered how much fun you can have in these genres. So give it some time and the whole community, from the bottom up, will change. Some dinosaurs won't - no: don't - like it and they will complain about the newcomers trying to take their swords and D-cups away. We already see that in the world of gaming and comics. One word of advice to the dinosaurs: comet. No, I think it is unlikely a cabal of females will come to your house and slit your throats with magic swords or strangle you with their bras*. You will just become more and more irrelevant. A group of moaning old-timers who are Fantasy & SF's equivalent of the Creation Museum. I don’t care about the gender of the writer; what I care about is the quality of what they write. If it’s crap, I’ll give them hell as I usually do [2018 EDIT: I’m still doing it… there has been no shortage in the last decades of absolutely brilliant women writing SF. There has, however, been a noticeable increase in the number of titles unambiguously written by women. This increase deserves examination. While there are still very good women writing science-fiction and fantasy, I do think that the number of poorly written books being published seems to be increasing. I think the market has expanded, and publishers are less likely to devote resources for editing. The recent surge of women writing means that women are disproportionately affected by that lack of editing. This is particularly true in Fantasy, as opposed to Science-Fiction, as Fantasy allows more discretion over the rules of the Universe (one can always resolve a plot issue through magic, “deus ex deus”, if you will). Science-Fiction requires a higher degree of internal consistency (“Deus-ex-machina” requires a machina, after all). Again, poorer editorship then has a disproportionate effect on the incoming women writers of Fantasy. To be clear, poor editorship effects both genders and both genres, but hits disproportionately against women writing in Fantasy].

NB: (*) Which might actually come as a disappointment to many a hardcore nerd: sorry (Nah. Not really).

NB: Both quotes from the essay “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction”.

[2018 EDIT: I'm still slightly in shock. Ursula Le Guin was simply one of my favourite writers; a constant companion throughout my reading life. Everything she wrote is worth reading. However perhaps it's worth going beyond these same things that everyone recommends (excellent though they are) to work that people don't read enough or underrate. You could read the Hainish novels. “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed” aren't the first of these. City of Illusions (1967) is perhaps the most Taoist of them all, and does provide a kind of underpinning for many of the others. For my money, the novella, “The Word for World is Forest” (1976), is also one of the best: a brilliant anti-colonial eco-political fable. Then there are her short stories. And don’t get me started on Earthsea…]