The Silver Eel

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

Friday, July 27, 2007


On hols as of tomorrow, though just how much rest we're going to get with Thing #1 and Thing #2 is open to question. Hol reading, more in hope than expectation, is Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies on a hot tip from Yvonne, and courtesy of Books and Ink in Banbury because both books are OP in Britain; Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby; the remainder of Italian Tales from the Age of Shakespeare.

We won't be doing a spot of roof tiling on a Venetian palazzo. I just like the painting, and haven't posted an image for a while.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Finished RW today. Comparisons with Garner and Huck Finn are appropriate. Also with Davy. I have problems with the structure of the narrative at some points ('plot' would be pushing it), where it seems to me - and indeed Riddley himself says so - that arbitrary things are happening because it's as if they're meant to happen that way. Instantly, whether it's fair or not, one sees the hand of the author. As we know, it's the laziest, easiest cop-out going, and I can't believe that someone of Russell Hoban's evident imagination and skill (genius might not be pushing it) would make use of it, so I think I must be missing something, as I did with the first few readings of Red Shift.

So I will re-read RW at some point, though not immediately - this is most definitely a novel you want to let stew for a while. The experience of reading it is extraordinary. As a couple of people have written, Riddleyspeak forces you to slow down, to discover, and to absorb, even as Riddley himself does - in fact you begin reading like a child again. For this alone, probably for this most of all, I'd recommend it to anyone. Why did he have to make it so difficult, indeed! - that's the point!


Oh Jesus. Nearly two years since I bought it. This is a slow train.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Another use of literacy:

I keep thinking of Anna Akhmatova, outside the prison in Leningrad where her son was being held by Stalin. She wrote:

In the terrible years of the Yeshov [head of the NKVD] terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone recognized me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me...woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I answered: “Yes, I can.”

Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

From the excellent fifth and final chapter of Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky, which I've just read for the second time within a few weeks.


There's quite a lot of useful learning in it, not least this snippet: apparently in the 19th century in America, schemes for the establishment of public libraries and schools were regularly denounced as socialist/communist. And this, in a section addressing the reduction in the number of publishers and news orgnaisations to a handful of conglomerate-owned companies:
Forces of silence can come more subtly from the market than from the edicts of a totalitarian state.
Which Roth and Klima also noted.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Belated post, I know. Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian that it's an indictment of our entire political system that Blair was not impeached over Iraq. One might add that it's an indictment of our elected representatives that any of them supported the invasion in the first place, a far more significant intelligence failure than any coming from the security services. But after all that has been revealed, for the House of Commons to give Blair a standing ovation at his last PM's questions...

And they wonder why the SNP won in Scotland.


One of the Glasgow car bombers qualified and worked as a doctor in Iraq. Which would be enough to turn anyone into an extremist - having to deal with the results of sanctions, radiation poisoning, invasion, civil war.

That doesn't mean that it's acceptable to attack civilians, of course. However, it must be noted that someone whom many might well consider to be an entirely legitimate target will shortly be starting work in the Middle East as, incredibly, a peace envoy. The Eumenides may yet have their day.

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A first-contact response to Davy from US writer Carolyn Hill on her blog, and my comment.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Continuing the theme of the role of literature, if it has one, in the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe:
A work of imagination shares with a living creature or the ecosystem itself the characteristic of not being reducible to its parts, or explicable in terms of the technique of its manufacture. It cannot be exhausted by analysis. It is a system of interrelationships which, since it extends far beyond the words on the page, engages with everything else in the reader's conscious and unconscious experience, and is therefore virtually infinite.

The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes by Keith Sagar
This seems to me a rather hopeful prescription, rather than a description of an art-form, however sympathetic I am towards it. When it comes to literature, so much depends on how you read, or listen. How have you been trained? What prejudices, expectations, paradigms, what baggage do you bring to the work? How open are you to being shaped by it? Can you see the intention behind the words? It assumes that one does not read for entertainment, for a vicarious thrill which ends as soon as you put the book away. Instead one exposes oneself to it - there is an element of risk.

One other point - I'm not alone in having had times when I've been ill or depressed, and it's been story which has helped to carry me. Story as a means of healing, of restoration. That too is a use of literacy. There's a line of Sam Neill's to that effect in Until the End of the World, but it took me years to appreciate it. Hughes, of course, drew extensively on myth forms and saw his own role as shamanistic.

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I didn't enjoy the second volume of Anthony Burgess's memoirs, You've Had Your Time, as much as the first, but there are many memorable stories, and these lines, right at the end, made an impact:
Milan Kundera defines a European as one who is nostalgic for Europe, and he is probably right. Evelyn Waugh's words about the dismemberment of Christendom refer, proleptically, to that nostalgia. If, living out of Great Britain for more than twenty years, I have become a paying guest of Europe rather than a European, it is the better to indulge the soft-centred dream of belonging to a culture that I do not wish to believe is dead...
That identification of nostalgia may well be right - I know I look back more than forwards, and read very little modern fiction, though my defence is that it simply hasn't yet proved itself. By which I don't mean that not enough people have come to the opinion that a given work is a classic over a long enough period of time, though I admit to being as easily-led as the next fella. More that the contribution that any particular work has to give to the dream-life of the nation, the continent, the culture, has to be given time to work.

Literature is, for want of a better phrase, a big conversation, and by reading, writing and thinking, we take part in it. I was very pleased indeed to read recently that Borges thought of it in the same way - a conversation going back and forth in time.

However, when seen in the context of the whole of human history, that conversation is terribly young, even assuming a starting point with the ancient Greeks, and it is now under a greater threat than that of mass philistinism. There are any number of books at the moment telling us that we are in deep, deep trouble, and from previous examples of civilization-collapse it seems that we are virtually programmed to create progress traps and then walk into them. I can't recommend too highly Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress for an account of this, though Clive Ponting's A Green History of the World covered this ground first, and Jared Diamond's Collapse does the same at greater length.

In a recent article in the London Review of Books Susan Sontag was said to have wanted to spend more time trying to write a novel, because she believed the novel to be more relevant, more immediate and more necessary than politics or history. Well, from a certain perspective. The meme survives where an individual human will not, but it won't survive species extinction.

It's not that the conversation of our European civilization is not important, or not beautiful, or not great, but it is just far smaller than those of us who still partake think it is. I'm not optimistic.

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Well, here're two opposing points of view:
Interviewer: You have been a public relations man and an advertising man— Vonnegut: Oh, I imagine.
Interviewer: Was this painful? I mean—did you feel your talent was being wasted, being crippled?
Vonnegut: No. That's romance—that work of that sort damages a writer's soul. At Iowa, Dick Yates and I used to give a lecture each year on the writer and the free-enterprise system. The students hated it. We would talk about all the hack jobs writers could take in case they found themselves starving to death, or in case they wanted to accumulate enough capital to finance the writing of a book. Since publishers aren't putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn't buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks. Otherwise, we are soon going to find ourselves without a contemporary literature. There is only one genuinely ghastly thing hack jobs do to writers, and that is to waste their precious time.
The above from the Paris Review interview with Kurt Vonnegut. Volume I of the selected Paris Review interviews has (fairly) recently been published by Canongate.

Then this:
Doctorow, like Roth, came of age in the 1950s and belongs to what Joan Didion calls "the last generation to identify with adults", well-behaved, sternly educated young people who looked down on the hype and trivialisation of the publishing business because they believed in high culture, high principles and the moral authority of literature.
...not to mention clearly in need of a doobie. From Al Alvarez's introduction to the Penguin edition of Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.

Of course, both are right.


I read Vonnegut's Man Without a Country, which I enjoyed, a wonderful slice of Vonnegutania, that inimitable, humane, wry despairing voice, but £7.99 for just over 100 pages of wide-spaced text is pretty steep. It is basically a pamphlet, like Gore Vidal's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War and Imperial America, the first two of which I've read and enjoyed and recommend, but which come in at £9.99 apiece.

About the worst offender for this practice is Verso, which publishes a lot of good leftist stuff, but at eye-watering prices - I finished one of these recently, Sara Paretsky's Writing in an Age of Silence - at £12.99 (hardback) for 136 pages it can hardly be described as being for the common man, which is a tremendous shame because it's excellent, and certainly written for the common man, and especially the common woman. Also, she's the only person I've come across citing Irina Ratushinskaya as a source of hope and inspiration.

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It is, again, more the duty of broadcasters in the public service to give people what they don’t know they want and what they need for society to mature itself, not to be mired in low-level tastes. That means that you should not start the news by saying that a famous football manager has had a heart attack. We may be very sorry to hear that, but not as the first item of national, even international, news. The BBC has by now much the same bad habit. The ITV executives above were implying that what is "the news" should be largely decided by what people already think and believe and know; whereas the essence of a civil education is that it shows that you do not know what you can like and what you can enjoy and judge well, until you have been introduced to it. As E. M. Forster reminded us: “How do I know what I like until I see what it is possible to have?”.
From a lecture by Richard Hoggart to Glasgow University's Department of Adult and Continuing Education in 2001.

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First, a confession of ignorance. In one of his many fine essays in United States, Gore Vidal writes warmly and admiringly of V.S. Pritchett.

Who? V.S. Naipaul? No. Naipaul was born in 1932 in Trinidad and Tobago and is demi-Indian. Awarded the Nobel in 2001. Knighted 1990. Writes about the Third World, particularly India, and got into scraps with Edward Said, apparently for not being Indian enough. Pritchett was English. 1900 - 1997. Also knighted, in 1975. Poor, unstable middle-class background. After spending some time in McJobs got into literature and wrote throughout his long life, travel, novels, short stories, biographies, criticism and autobiographies, all of which, with the probable exception of the novels, were well or highly regarded.

Still at this point ignorant, I came across a collection, The Essential Pritchett, and began to dip with increasing happiness. This amazon review of the American edition gives a very good account of it. Here's Pritchett on Gerald Brenan's Thoughts in a Dry Season:
There is a moment in the old age of a writer when he finds the prospect of one more long haul in prose intimidating and when he claims the right to make utterances.
Which, oddly, and as if to prove him right, was a very good description of the second volume of autobiography from Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation. In fact it's less of an autobiography than a series of utterances, anecdotes and reflections, most of which have autobiographical roots.

It's very much an old man's book, and has the quality of conversations with the old - you listen, and you gather the scraps, without being sure of how you got from one part to the next, and you wonder if you missed the link. Probably not. It was clear enough in the speaker's mind, but it would waste time to ask for an explanation, and we've moved on now. The title is completely appropriate.

It is still very readable - Vidal is incapable of writing inelegantly, even when his energy is limited. I will buy it, but not in hardback.


Pritchett describes Brenan, apparently an incredibly learned man, as being "innocent of university", as was Pritchett, as is Vidal. What's the collective noun for autodidacts?


At some point in his memoir, Vidal mentions how one of his early novels, Dark Green, Bright Red, was based on the coup mounted by the United Fruit company against the democratically-elected government of Guatemala. Just a few days ago I was encouraged to take a look at Jungle Capitalists, which is all about United Fruit, how it began, the power it wielded in the original 'banana republics', and how it serves as a template for and warning about today's multinationals. There's a summary written by the author on the FT site, but you'll need to log in to read it.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

I hope that [Other Men's Flowers] may continue to give some pleasure and afford some help in these difficult days. I have a great belief in the inspiration of poetry towards courage and vision and in its driving power. And we want all the courage and vision at our command, in days of crisis when our future prosperity and greatness hangs in the balance.

- A. P. Wavell, April 1947 introduction to Other Men's Flowers, originally published March 1944.
I've been wondering what the uses of literacy will be, in the coming global environmental catastrophe, and I suspect we will see a return to poetry, song, the story, the fable, myth - those creations which are portable, condensed, and above all, can be transmitted orally. I've always said that when it comes to books you need to be ready to burn them for fuel if you have to, and indeed, we may have to.

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