The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fare-well but not good-bye

Ah, so that's where you find the post title box...

Well, it was time for a relaunch anyway, so I'm stopping The Silver Eel. You can now find Eelish musings on writing and reading at the imaginatively titled The Silver Eel II. I do hope this will mean more regular posting, and reading of others' posts...

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Our computer died and we've only just got the new (actually, acquired) one up and running on tinternet: hence, lack of recent posts.

Also, despite switching to 'Layout' rather than 'Template' on Blogger, I'm still not getting a 'post title' box when composing posts, a small but persistent irritation for anyone using RSS - not to mention me - which I suspect is due to my ham-fisted buggering about with HTML in order to change the font and colour scheme about two years ago...I shall be conferring with Ningauble and Sheelba.

In the meantime...I note that Andrew Motion's endangered word is 'skirr', which I'm sure is used by Leiber in a Fafhrd and Mouser story - the Mouser parries and his opponent's blade skirrs past his ear, or somesuch.

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Monday, July 28, 2008


I was mean to fantasy recently - not, as Yvonne pointed out, that it doesn't deserve it a lot of the time. When you apply Sturgeon's Law to the fantasy genre the figures don't change - it's just that the 94% is so egregious. Here is Alan Garner speaking in its favour:
One of the things I realised soon after I began was that fantasy was the only way to approach reality with any clarity. I didn't set out with that intent, but I did become aware of it quite early on. I recognised that fantasy wasn't mere entertainment, that it wasn't escapist. [...] Words will not go where we want to go. We cannot say what we most deeply feel. In the end, we can only say what we mean through image. Not through the words, but only through the images that those words can construct. Therefore I came to realise very early on that fantasy was reality, and that I had been aware of it in my classical studies as well. Homer and Aeschylus linked up with my grandfather quite quickly.
(Garner's grandfather was a blacksmith, a fund of knowledge and a nigh totemic figure to the boy and the writer.)


On the subject of escapism, John Sutherland in How to Read a Novel says that the division of literature into low escapism for servant girls and counter-jumpers, and high art which engaged with life and made it more real (Lawrence apparently being the epitome), was codified by the Leavises.

The term escapism is seriously misplaced, I think. Even the most godawful fantasy novel grants not escape, but only a temporary reprieve. That too is a use of literature, and hardly to be sneered at.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Brouage is a small town on the west coast of France, once known for a superb natural harbour and the most important salt-production and export trade in Europe. It also has extremely well-preserved fortifications by Vauban, as can be seen in the following photos:

Four years ago I spent an afternoon there, and had a wander round the walls, stared over the salt-marshes (which once would have been salt-water) and kind of half-mused about the story you could set in such a place, young love, exile from the court at Versailles, a young noblewoman in apparent safety who becomes aware that, far from being removed from court politics in a backwater, she is still very much under observation and suspicion, and that anything can happen to her out here, and what allies she had are beyond her reach...ya-da, ya-da, you could write it yourself. What appealed to me was the juxtaposition of retreat and vulnerability, and the reach that politics can have.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I happened to read this in the Michelin Green Guide to the French Atlantic Coast:
In 1659, the 21 year-old Louis XIV was in love with Marie Mancini, the raven-haired niece of Richlieu's successor, Cardinal Jules Mazarin. The young couple wanted to marry, but their dreams were thwarted. The Cardinal had decided that "for reasons of State", the King must marry the Infanta of Spain [the Queen of Spain's beard, yes, yes] to guarantee the peace brought by the Treaty of the Pyrenees, recently signed by the two countries. Marie Mancini was sent to La Rochelle, where she heard, with despair, of the forthcoming marriage. From September to December that year, she withdrew to Brouage, where another of her uncles was Governor, "because solitude is the only solace for my broken dreams" [quote unattributed]. Mazarin subsequently allowed her to return to Paris.

Six months later, after the royal marriage in St-Jean-de-Luz, Louis contrived to absent himself from the official cortege, returning to the capital, and then rode to Brouage, where he occupied the room in which Marie had stayed, pacing the ramparts, as he too sighed for the love he had lost. Racine was inspired by this melancholy episode to write his tragedy Berenice.
At the time I read this I was, if not gobsmacked, at least a little boggled. I'm almost certain I hadn't come across it somewhere else. Given the setting, though, it's pretty hard not to imagine something like this taking place there.

A worthy repayment for the blood you shed, to be wrapped round buns by a Nuremberg confectioner [think of the scene with Rageneau, poet and baker, in Cyrano de Bergerac], or if your luck's in, to be hoisted on stilts by a French tragedian, and pulled about like puppets on a string!

Schiller, The Robbers

Racine can be described lazily as France's second-best playwright, after Moliere. Which raises the question, who, after Shakespeare, would be England's? (Sons of Ben shouldn't stir themselves to reply.) And who would be Scotland's number one?

Monday, July 14, 2008


One of the things about literature and literacy which continues to trouble me, and makes me wonder if the whole shooting match is worth the bother, is the problem of recall. A while ago Scott Pack blogged about some books which he had a record of having read, but without being able to remember a single thing about them. Given the enormous number of books he /has/ read this is hardly surprising, but it does raise the question, can you really be said to have read a book if you don't remember anything about it? Worse, even with really good recall of a book you've read several times, I'll bet that at best you retain - how much? Does 10% sound about right?

It's a false question, of course, or one which is easily answered. The books are there precisely so we don't /have/ to remember, for a start, they are there to be revisited or not as we please; and secondly, we don't remember every conversation we've ever had verbatim, but we don't deny the capacity of friends and acquaintances to shape our lives, alter our opinions, form our character, or simply make the day-to-day business of living run a little more smoothly and pleasantly.

Moreover, books are not poems or songs or tales, all of which we might be expected to remember in their entirety, certainly if we lived in a preliterate society - though even then, I suspect that most of that task would be given to specialists, tale-tellers and likewise custodians of the common word-hoard.

Lastly, it's my contention that relatively few books hold up well to re-reading. A number of times I've revisited books which I've enjoyed in the past, only to find that they have nothing more to tell me, that whatever work they had to do has been done.

What made me consider all this again was a poem I came across today which addresses, in a sideways manner, some of this question, although really it's about...well, read it and decide for yourself:


Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of

I who don't know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was,
not even

what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can't find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.

- Denise Levertov

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


I've tried a few times to read Steven Erikson's fantasy novels, and always bailed. (Probably the first thing that attracted me was a momentary confusion with Steve Erickson, author of Days Between Stations, Rubicon Beach, Tours of the Black Clock, Leap Year and a whole bunch of other stuff. Slipstream author, much huzzah'd by William Gibson. Personally I've enjoyed reading his work and found it nifty, quirky, intriguing, though never quite satisfying. People who dig Pynchon should definitely try him if they haven't already.) To return to Erikson, I see where he's coming from, I see what he's trying to do, and for all I know, achieving, but reading him is like listening to someone playing an out-of-tune piano with more enthusiasm than ability.

Practically the first sentence of Gardens of the Moon is something along the lines of: "The winds were contrary that day above Ravenspike, blowing the smoke from the rioting this way and that." What he means, I'm certain, is inconstant. After a few chapters of same, one's tongue gets fuzzy and one's ears tintinnabulate.

However, I continued to wonder what I was missing, given the plaudits he continues to attract, until I saw the latest title, which is Toll the Hounds.

This is Erikson, and much of fantasy fiction, in a nutshell. What he means is unleash the hounds, summon the hounds with a tolling bell, but all that came to mind was half a dozen bassett hounds being swung by their tails in a steeple, baying mournfully. Or, as a friend wondered: "Does he want to charge them for crossing a bridge?"


As nipper #1 is now three and a half, I've been introducing him to his letters, spending 10 minutes a day trying to encourage him to write and recognise them. Wanting some tips, I asked my father how he taught me to read, and he said he just used Janet and John. Which names tolled a hound, but I couldn't visualise the books and certainly didn't remember them. Then I came across a facsimile edition which has recently been published by Summersdale, containing immortal lines such as, "See the boats, John. Big boats, little boats. I like my little boat. Float, boats, float."

No wonder it worked. The literary equivalent of march or die. Anything to get away from Janet and John. Same friend pointed out that anything involving a plot, or any action whatsoever would seem revolutionary: "Hey...there's a cat - he's wearing a hat - he's got a box - there's two, two things are comin' out of it! Hey, Timmy, come over here! You're never gonna believe this shit!"


I was curious to see if Janet and John would stir a memory, flicking through the pages. Nothing tangible, but it did provoke a small and delicate internal shift, a realignment which was suggestive of memory, of another place and situation. Of being taught to read, aged three and a half? Possibly, maybe.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sleep and slothful beds and gluttony
have banished virtue from the world of men,
so that our nature, by such use undone,
is almost exiled from its proper way;

and every kindly light that from the sky
shapes human life so spent that anyone
who strives to bring new streams from Helicon
is pointed out as some strange prodigy.

Who cares for myrtle now, who for the bay?
'Naked and poor you walk, Philosophy',
the crowd, intent on wretched profit, cries.

You'll have few fellows on the other way;
thus all the more, O gentle soul, I pray,
abandon not your noble enterprise.
Petrarch, Canzoniere book 1, no. 7.

MOOR: I hate this age of scribblers, when I can pick up my Plutarch and read of great men.

SPIEGELBERG: Josephus is the man you should read.

MOOR: The bright spark of Promethean fire is burnt out. All we have now is a flash of witch-meal - stage lightning, not flame enough to light a pipe of tobacco. [...] An age of eunuchs, fit for nothing but chewing over the deeds of bygone days, mutilating the heroes of old with their learned interpretations and mocking them with their tragedies. The strength of their loins is dried up, and the dregs of a beer-barrel must help to propagate mankind.
Schiller, The Robbers, scene 2.

Stop. Please.
Listen to Nestor. You are both younger than I,
and in my time I struck up with better men than you,
even you, but never once did they make light of me.
I've never seen such men, I never will again...
men like Pirithous, Dryas, that fine captain,
Caeneus and Exadius, and Polyphemus, royal prince,
and Theseus, Aegeus' boy, a match for the immortals.
They were the strongest mortals ever bred on earth [...]
None of the men who walk the earth these days
could battle with those fighters, none, but they,
they took to heart my counsels, marked my words.
Nestor is speaking to Menelaus and none other than Achilles. Iliad, book 1.


Recently read for the book group: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. Good, not great, but recommended nonetheless. Someone from the group summed it up as, "Ye cannae say that", which is terrifically accurate: it's basically about what happens when a government tries to tell people how or what to think, in this instance by making letters of the alphabet verboten. Perhaps surprisingly, it's a light, entertaining read, though that doesn't undermine its effectiveness as fable.

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