The Silver Eel

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

Thursday, August 31, 2006


"A certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering" (Frank Kermode). Huzzah, say I.


We are watching Season 2 of Babylon 5. I first saw it around seven years ago, when the whole Clark/Psi Corps/Nightwatch story brought Nazi Germany to mind, but now...sheesh. You don't see anything but Bush, and the Office for Homeland Security or whatever it's called. JMS called this one exactly right, and how we wish he hadn't.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


A horrible quote comes back to me, from, I think, Hilary Spurling on Start the Week in March this year. She said: "There are more creative writers [in Britain] than the culture can support." She was mostly speaking about the Royal Literary Fund's Writing Matters report, though.


Interesting interview with Scott Pack, former buying manager at Waterstone's. He also has a new blog, on which he gives his reasons for quitting. Pack was seen by many book and book-trade people in something akin to the way politics junkies view Peter Mandelson. This may or may not have been fair - at least he writes very well.


I have rejigged links - simply too many of them. Have removed the political stuff, which I hadn't looked at in ages. If and when I become politically active in the real world again, then they'll come back.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


John Sutherland was on Front Row this evening punting his new book How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide and saying some not wildly original but still cogent and welcome things, among them, that reading well is nearly as difficult as writing well - which is very, very difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to write a novel will know. It's like, says Sutherland, picking up the violin and expecting to be able to play it at concert level on the first go. Quite. Ties in nicely with Alvarez and Thoreau. It'll be good to compare it to Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why, which I enjoyed and found useful a few years back. Worth a listen.


The Collins Complete Works of Shakespeare has an introductory essay by Anthony Burgess on Shakespearian (Bryson says -ian, Amis -ean. Infinite are the arguments of mages) theatre. It includes a few paragraphs on pronunciation in Shakespeare's time, and how it has changed, thus making understanding of some of the rhymes and puns difficult for modern readers. AB makes reference to this at least a couple of times in his autobiographies, once by recounting how a demonstration he gave of how Shakespeare originally sounded shocked his academic listeners. There are a couple of mp3 examples given on this page - most interesting.


With Blackadder in mind, I listened to the BBC's - or rather Simon Armitage's - radio dramatisation of The Odyssey this week. It was good to put all those names and episodes which one constantly stumbles across into narrative context (I haven't read the book). Rich use of Yorkshire accents among the sailors, and Yorkshire vocabulary too - "Stop your mithering!" I still have on tape from 20 years ago the radio version of The Golden Ass, which uses Geordie accents in the same way. Odysseus is played by Tim McInnery. He does very good work, and you get used to him, but for the first half-hour or so it's impossible not to visualise Captain Darling, or Lord Percy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


As with many, many other books, I have eyed and been tempted by Walden/On Civil Disobedience (Penguin Classics) for a few years now. I was flicking through it the other day and came across a chapter titled "Reading", which includes the following:

"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written."


"Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to
stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

"I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on
the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled "Little Reading," which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to. There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of this, even after the fullest dinner of meats and vegetables, for they suffer nothing to be wasted. If others are the machines to provide this provender, they are the machines to read it. They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true
love run smooth -- at any rate, how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on! how some poor unfortunate got up on to a steeple, who had better never have gone up as far as the belfry; and then, having needlessly got him up there, the happy novelist rings the bell for all the world to come together and hear, O dear! how he did get down again! For my part, I think that they had better metamorphose all such aspiring heroes of universal noveldom into man weather-cocks, as they used to put heroes among the constellations, and let them swing round there till they are rusty, and not come down at all to bother honest men with their pranks. The next time the novelist rings the bell I will not stir though the meeting-house burn down. "The Skip of the Tip-Toe-Hop, a Romance of the Middle Ages, by the celebrated author of `Tittle-Tol-Tan,' to appear in monthly parts; a great rush; don't all come together." All this
they read with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard, whose corrugations even yet need no sharpening, just as some little four-year-old bencher his two-cent gilt-covered edition of Cinderella -- without any improvement, that I can see, in the pronunciation, or accent, or emphasis, or any more skill in extracting or inserting the moral. The result is dulness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market."


Thoreau and Alvarez have been welcome because I've been having some doubts over the past few months about the worth of reading...literature...books in general. It seems a sorry substitute for life - RLS said the same thing, somewhere, which I find ironic, given that he's one of the few writers I can depend on to revive one's faith in writing. I do recognise, however, that the world is created in our imaginations, and our beliefs, and that writing is a powerful means of influencing those things. Also that in a highly mediated world, we spend a lot of time thinking - and worrying - about things that we have no direct experience of. And that writing is a way of extending experience. One can describe the War on Terror as a perverted use of story. And while we may experience event (x) directly, the way we interpret it may depend on internal narrative pathways laid down by - blah blah blah, I'm really too tired for this. But it's a notion, which I'll have to float with four acquaintances who're practicing head-shrinkers of various denominations.

As with other sloughs, I suspect the answer to this one will simply be to get the head down, and keep moving forwards.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I only saw Foss [a famous stagecoach driver] once, though, strange as it may sound, I have twice talked with him. He lives out of Calistoga, at a ranch called Fossville, One evening, after he was long gone home, I dropped into Cheeseborough's, and was asked if I should like to speak with Mr. Foss. Supposing that the interview was impossible, and that I was merely called upon to subscribe the general sentiment, I boldly answered "Yes." Next moment, I had one instrument at my ear, another at my mouth, and found myself, with nothing in the world to say, conversing with a man several miles off among desolate hills. Foss rapidly and somewhat plaintively brought the conversation to an end; and he returned to his night's grog at Fossville, while I strolled forth again on Calistoga high street. But it was an odd thing that here, on what we are accustomed to consider the very skirts of civilisation, I should have used the telephone for the first time in my civilised career. So it goes in these young countries; telephones, and telegraphs, and newspapers, and advertisements running far ahead among the Indians and the grizzly bears.


RLS is writing about the prevalence of forest fires in the California mountains:

I have an interest of my own in these forest fires, for I came so near to lynching on one occasion, that a braver man might have retained a thrill from the experience. I wished to be certain whether it was the moss, that quaint funereal ornament of Californian forests, which blazed up so rapidly when the flame first touched the tree. I suppose I must have been under the influence of Satan, for instead of plucking off a piece for my experiment, what should I do but walk up to a great pine-tree in a portion of the wood which had escaped so much as scorching, strike a match, and apply the flame gingerly to one of the tassels. The tree went off simply like a rocket; in three seconds it was a roaring pillar of fire. Close by I could hear the shouts of those who were at work combating the original conflagration. I could see the waggon that had brought them, tied to a live oak in a piece of open; I could even catch the flash of an axe as it swung up through the underwood into the sunlight. Had anyone observed the result of my experiment my neck was literally not worth a pinch of snuff; after a few minutes of passionate expostulation I should have been run up to a convenient bough.

"To die for faction is a common evil;
But to be hanged for nonsense is the devil."

I have run repeatedly, but never as I ran that day. At night I went out of town, and there was my own particular fire, quite distinct from the other, and burning as I thought with even greater vigour.


I've recently finished an intermittently brilliant (and rather expensive, for the size of it) book called The Writer's Voice by Al Alvarez. He manages to crystallise something I've been mulling over for the past couple of years, namely that the worth of a piece of writing lies ultimately in what he calls 'voice', the sense of what is implied, the tone, the sense of what lies in between and underneath the words used, in the same way that music is what takes place between the notes. Writing that doesn't have that depth, that level of perception and control, is no longer of any interest to me. But you have to be awake to it, and I don't think I was, prior to beginning to read poetry in 2003 - with poetry, each word has to be in the right place in order for the whole to work. When you begin to apply that level of focus to prose, in which I think one can get away with a lot more, it begins to reveal things you weren't previously aware of. That's been my experience, anyhow. Alvarez goes so far as to say:

"In order to acquire facts efficiently, scan a synopsis, or gut a newspaper, you have to master the art of reading diagonally. Real literature is about something else entirely and it's immune to speed-reading. That is, it's not about information, although you may gather information along the way. It's not even about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures. Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice. When you read a novel the voice is telling you a story; when you read a poem it's usually talking about what its owner [owner?] is feeling; but neither the medium nor the message is the point. The point is that the voice is unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you, communing with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way [...] an undeniable presence in your head, and still very much alive, no matter how long ago the words were spoken."

That thing about the secondary importance of storytelling seems radical to me. I can't remember who it was - possibly Somerset Maugham - who said something along the lines of, one has to be slightly immature to care whether or not Tom will fall for Daisy and vice versa. What I take from that is the essential silliness and vulgarity of the machinery of plot, the sense of things working out so, just because the author has determined they will. Stephen King describes plot as a jack-hammer - but then he also also asserts the primary importance of story. Of the novels in my top ten, plot only has a significant role to play in two of them; and in Kidnapped, the heart of the novel, what Henry James called the "really excellent" chapters of the flight in the heather, is pure narrative; in The Day of the Owl, the plot is merely a skeleton on which to hang the exploration of the mafia mentality - whether or not Colasberna's killer will be caught quickly becomes a moot and relatively minor point.

I'm not sure if I'd go so far as to say voice is the single most important, or significant thing in any novel, but I do agree that no novel can reach the summit of achievement without it. One simply isn't convinced, otherwise.

A final note on this - Alvarez distinguishes between style and voice, noting that one can get in the way of the other.


Alvarez quotes Samuel Beckett's phrase for the hard work of getting the right words down on paper: "balls-aching". Which ties in neatly with a quote from RLS, from a letter to his mother, in fact, during the writing of The Silverado Squatters: "I work, work away, and get nothing or but little done: it is slow, slow, slow: but I sit from four to five hours at it, and read all the rest of the time from Hazlitt."