The Silver Eel

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Looking at some blog comments on Garner's writing, I noticed one person complaining about the abrupt endings of, in particular, Elidor and The Owl Service. I agree with her, and one might add The Moon of Gomrath to the list. It's not that Garner can't write endings either: Red Shift, Tom Fobble's Day and Thursbitch all have wonderful closing paragraphs. In the case of The Moon of Gomrath, I've read - in Neil Philip's A Fine Anger? - that from the drafts it's clear that Garner was becoming bored and frustrated with the book, or at least with the characters. Allegedly, Kidnapped ends the way it does for the the same reason.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking. The ending of The Owl Service is abrupt, it's true, but a defence can be made that the story has done its job - anything more would be superfluous. Garner has often cited Aeschylus as an inspiration, or a foundation, for his work, and in H. D. F. Kitto's Greek Tragedy we find a comment on this: in the Agamemnon a herald comes to the Elders of Argos with news of the Greek victory at Troy. He then tells them that a terrible storm has destroyed the victorious fleet, as far as he knows, entirely. Having said this, he leaves. What will the chorus say now?

"What this incredible chorus does is to begin a chant about Helen, the ruin she brought to Troy, Hybris and Justice. We hear no more of the lost fleet; never again is the storm mentioned, not even by Agamemnon, one of the few survivors. [...]

"Oddly enough, readers of the play are not in the least perturbed by the failure of the chorus to be sensible at this point. Naturally; the reason is plain enough: all our attention is focused on the theme of crime and its punishment; to it, the storm makes its own immediate contribution, and that is enough; it has done its work. What the chorus deals with next, namely Helen and the Trojans, is a perfectly logical continuation, though the logic of it is that of Aeschylus' own dramatic conception, not of the story or situation. Had Aeschylus made the chorus mourn the loss of thier own sons at sea, we should feel it to be an irrelevance. His loyalty, which in turn succesfully claims ours, is not to the events but to the idea."

(pp 107 - 8)

Kitto spends a lot of time in this chapter, "The Dramatic Art of Aeschylus", defending him against critics who he claims have misapplied the expectations of 19th century psychological realism, the bread and butter of the well-made play, to work which is founded on a wholly different set of principles. In short, if you come to Aeschylus expecting one thing and you get another, don't blame Aeschylus. Kitto's defence is total - Aeschylus is a genius in complete command of his art - and I'm simply in no position to judge whether that's justified or not. Nevertheless, from the examples he cites, it seems that a fair number of academic howlers have been committed.

(I feel bound to tell you that you really need to know, love, or want to learn about, Greek tragedy to read this book; Kitto's The Greeks, on the other hand, is also still in print after 50 years and is a lively, witty introduction to the subject - I recommend it heartily.)

Given that an awful lot of people - many of them schoolchildren of the 1970s and '80s who were force-fed it - have found others' enthusiasm for The Owl Service incomprehensible, it's worth bearing in mind Kitto's comment on Agamemnon, which boils down to this: it depends how you read it. It took me three years and three readings to get past my initial reaction to the The Owl Service, which was that it was a neat but unexceptional kids' book of a kind which one might well expect to be a taught text.

Dead wrong. Reading it that way is like staring at a locked door; you have to get up close to it, so close your face is right up against it and you're looking through the keyhole. Then it all comes to you. In Garner at his best, everything is implied. Everything is there, but not all of it is shown; indeed, one of the characters, who is pivotal to the story, never appears herself but is understood by the reader from the effect she has on the people around her, who we do meet. It is the art, the concept, the idea, the myth, which comes first, and it succeeds brilliantly. The effect is to create an immediacy of the story in such a way that you feel involved, enveloped by it. It's for this reason that I have no desire to read Red Shift again, not at the moment, not for a while. I don't want to see and feel Tom and Jan going through what they do, and even thinking about it hurts.

That said, the ending of The Owl Service still seems to me to be two or three sentences too short. Even if it works, it feels ungracious.

Oh, I came across praise for Garner from John Rowe Townsend - anyone reading this know anything about him, or read his books? He's roughly contemporary with the likes of Garner, Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield, but as a kid I seem to have missed him.


Guess whose cost more.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Check out Michael Gilleland's blog entry for Saturday 19th November on The Song of Roland (ignore the politics). I read a translation by W.S. Merwin a couple of years ago (his later translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was not received well by Garner), but I've never seen the Old French original, or indeed Old French. The Latin element is clear.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


The direness of "Rome", which seems to be quite consciously cowering in the shadow of "I, Claudius", with a rotten script ("I'm your man for that, to boot") and incoherent story-telling, nevertheless whetted my appetite for Roman hokum, so I ended up watching "Gladiator" for the umpteenth time. It seems to be one of the few films I can watch over and again, and as it's been a few years since the last viewing, a few things came out differently - most clearly, how melodramatic it is. A little more exposition on the history and background, a little more fleshing-out, wouldn't have been missed either, and I think that's what stops it being a truly great rather than simply a very good movie. Someone said to me, after seeing it for the first time, "You never see anything they don't want you to see", which I still think is pretty perceptive. It's very directed, and never takes its foot off the gas. I still haven't seen the extended version, so it'll be interesting to see if that makes any improvements, and includes any material not on the original bonus DVD.

That doesn't stop it being hugely enjoyable, of course. Performance-wise it scores over "Rome" simply because the actors seem to be working with the script rather than labouring under it, and despite some standout speeches and exchanges, the dialogue in "Gladiator" isn't always great, either. Done badly, it could be very bad indeed; but they always look as if they believe in it, rather than merely wanting to, as they do in "Rome". With the exception of Kenneth Cranham (Pompey), there's an awful lot of mugging going on in place of getting to grips with the words, and it's not for want of talent and experience, either.

Standout this time round in "Gladiator" was Joaquin Phoenix. His substitution of "w" for "r" ("The gweatness of Wome?") should be laughable: it isn't. It's chilling, as if he were a little boy in the body of a man. There's something unevolved about him. The character's a true monster, and yet totally human; Phoenix, who I've always thought was very good, struck me this time as absolutely superb. I only saw a piece of acting once, where he almost seems to tip a wink to the audience - "He vexes me. [Pause] I'm tewwibly vexed." Which, to be fair, is just crying out for it.


From "Travels in a Thin Country" by Sara Wheeler:

After dinner pisco was supplanted by wine and tobacco by marijuana (most Chileans I met seemed to have a little bag of the latter about their person). They took off Pink Floyd and put on Chilean blues, and two people danced. Later Pepe began reciting a Neruda poem, and the others joined in. They knew it by heart. I couldn't think of a poem which all the guests at a dinner party in London would know.


"This is what you need to know of our country," said Enrique, sliding another cassette into the machine and passing me the case. The label said Violeta Parra, and showed a bad drawing of a woman with large eyes and long black hair.
"Now our culture is to consume," he said. "But this is what we were, and we still know it. She sings our north, our south, our centre."
What she was singing about was pain and betrayal.
Although he was by now quite drunk, I was struck by the words 'our north', 'our south' and 'our centre' from a man who had barely left the central valley. I had, in my ignorance, looked at the shape of the country, considered the massive social, economic and climatic differences between the north and the south and concluded that there couldn't be much of a national consciousness. But the reality was that their sense of nationality bound them together as closely as if the country were a perfect circle.
"Violeta, Neruda and La Gabriela, these are the ones who express what we are," said Enrique's wife, swaying slightly. "Their work is an expression of our culture - our real culture."
When I left, Enrique stood at the door.
"This country, it has many problems. We want to be more like you. But underneath there is pride. Sometimes it's difficult for us to find it now, that's all, because there's so much junk on top."

Thursday, November 10, 2005


The Grauniad quoted at length in the G2 section today from Mathieu Kassovitz's statement on the French riots, posted on his site here (you need to click on News when you get there). It gives an interesting and useful light on matters by commenting on the character and motivation of the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Having checked out his profile on the BBC and Wikipedia websites, one's confidence is not encouraged. Ambitious, shallow and charming are three words which come to mind. Remind you of anyone?

Hint: loser. Huzzah!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


It's extremely easy to get caught up in US-watching, and spend a lot of time on it to no lasting avail. Nevertheless, in some link-jumping this evening have come across the following, which are well worth a look.

The first is a report in the Washington Post on the FBI's use of something called "National Security letters" to carry out checks on US citizens, outside of any judicial or legislative overview. The spirit of Nixon lives.

Second, via Postman Patel, is an allegation made in a letter allegedly sent to Reg Keys, who stood against Blair in his Sedgefield constituency at the General Election in May, that the UK is compelled to go to war at the command of the US thanks to a clause in a 1983 treaty signed by Thatcher.

This wouldn't surprise me in the slightest, and would go some way to answering the question which has always bugged me about the Iraq invasion, which is, why the hell did Blair agree to it? Aside from being, y'know, totally corrupted by power, and probably long before becoming PM.

I never saw the photo taken at the Sedgefield count of Keys and the Blairs, being out of the country at the time of the election, but if you haven't seen it, check it out here.

Finally, have begun reading Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark. So far, it's very good.

Monday, November 07, 2005


"To treat all subjects in the highest, the most honourable, and the pluckiest spirit, consistent with the fact, is the first duty of the writer."
RLS, "The Morality of the Profession of Letters"

Which I guess one could argue is a prescription impossible to disagree with, given that everyone knows and approves of honour, pluck and highness in general; what I take from it is the concept of professional honesty - as soon as you get the idea you're being screwed by the writer, that s/he has done hir job lazily, crassly or purely for the dough, it's time to leave. Speaking of which:

"His unpredictable, dangerous moods and Tudor low cunning had at long last been neutralised by the omnipotent hand of death." (The Last Days of Henry VIII, by Robert Hutchinson.)

As opposed to Jacobean incompetence or Windsor Teutonism? Even disregarding the adolescent, airport-trash style which appears to blight it, I'm beginning to develop a deep and sincere hatred of modern popular history.

Took a glance at Elias Canetti's Party in the Blitz today. I won't be pursuing it, but in the introduction I did come across one of those useful compound German words, which Canetti used disparagingly of the many English parties he attended in the '40s: Nichtberuhrungsfeste, which is to say, "ritualised celebrations of non-contact".

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


It’s worth considering in the current climate just how the midlist and midlist authors are going to fare. About a thousand years ago - 1989 to be precise - Charles Platt was a columnist for Interzone, and one of his pieces was indeed titled “The Vanishing Midlist”. The concerns he was raising were ones which anyone who has even a passing interest in matters literary will be familiar with, although looking back it must seem that he had no idea of how good things were by comparison with today, or how bad they were going to get.

There is an argument that with increasing pressure on new authors to produce an instant hit, only the very good or the very commercial will succeed, and this can only be for the good of the reading public, who will be spared the tedium of wading through fiction - or any book - which is merely average. One of the most useful theories to come out of SF is Sturgeon’s Law, which of course states that 94% of everything is crud. That’s to say, 94% of any given category is at best OK. There is only 6% of anything - people, conversations, books, waking life - which is worthwhile. As I’m becoming increasingly resistant to anything in print which strikes me as having the potential to be less than terrific, this is a rule I apply on a regular basis. And in principle, you ought to have a very good reason indeed to draw people’s attention away from the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Cervantes - in other words, all the acknowledged greats who are read - actually read for pleasure and enlargement - by relatively few people. Me included, by the way.

The problem is that fiction - literature - story-telling - makin’ stuff up, call it what you will - just disnae work that way. The author cited by Platt as an example of being uber-midlist was Philip K. Dick, who wrote on the breadline an awful lot of the time, who produced novels which were often fatally flawed - even the good ones! - and who managed to make a living through writing but as far as I’m aware never got rich by it. But take the body of his work as a whole, get past the often clunky prose and bizarre plotting, and you have one of the true SF greats. Did he ever have a hit?

I came across two other example fairly recently. In his new introduction to Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks notes that hardback sales were unspectacular, and paperback sales not a lot better. It took time for it to become the enormous bestseller that it is today. The Amnesians even wanted him to move the action out of WWI - too old, too depressing. John Irving, in his memoir/essay The Imaginary Girlfriend tells of a conversation he had with his agent, asking him if he would take on today Irving’s first novel, which was published in the late 1960s. The agent hemmed a moment, and admitted that he probably wouldn’t.

In other words, it’s a slow burn. You don’t know when - or if - the big one is going to come along, and if you don’t give the writers a chance, it won’t come along at all. Moreover, you don’t know that the masterpiece will be recognised for what it is at the time, or even if it is, that it will turn a profit. Stevenson wasn’t financially independent until the age of 37, when his father died and he inherited money won from building lighthouses. That’s after writing
Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Finally, there’s the unavoidable truth that what we need isn’t always found on the heights. Three authors. To begin, Alan Garner. Alright, Garner defines the heights, at least for me, but Strandloper and Thursbitch wouldn’t have been published if it wasn’t for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service, which are acknowledged classics (and it should be noted that while Weirdstone drew plaudits galore on publication in 1960, sales were low). If you find a copy of Strandloper in the shops today, though it’s still in print, you’re doing well. Second, Edgar Pangborn, who is practically unknown today and never had really big sales in his lifetime either, though he had (and perhaps still has, in some corners?) devoted readers much in the way Garner does. Like Dick, flawed but brilliant, and treasured. I hold hopes that Davy will be published in the Fantasy Masterworks series. Third, a chap called Neil Ferguson, who got a bunch of stories published in Interzone in the ‘80s, and who wrote Bars of America, Double Helix Fall, Putting Out and, best of all, English Weather. All out of print, and none of them, except maybe for English Weather, what you could call great books, but there’s a humanity and a tenderness in his writing which is incredibly rare. Again, midlist. I can only say that I’m indebted to all of them.

The richness of literature comes from its variety. That includes the crud that allows the 6% to grow, bearing in mind that the 6% might be well be found in a novel - or a lifetime’s work - which is otherwise crud. As we kill off the midlist, our countries, our cultures, and crucially, our imaginations (wherein the other two are generated) are poorer, shallower, cheaper, and that is emphatically not what the game is about, folks.