The Silver Eel

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

Monday, September 24, 2007


In which we consider how dissatisfying the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate was compared to the 1962 original, which was as quick, detailed and cunning as the remake is clunky, obvious and over-wrought. I was afraid this would be the case, and when it was released at the cinema I deliberately stifled my initial reaction to rush out and see it immediately. While I could think of many good political reasons to remake it, even with the application of thumbscrews I doubt I could come up with a good artistic one. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is simply the most finely-crafted film I think I've ever seen, even better than The Third Man. It works as a political thriller and as a psychological study; it uses every trick there is to tell its story and not one of them seems anything less than entirely right; it is, as Roger Ebert says, "inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience" - for which read, assumes the audience is intelligent, something you practically never see on film or TV - "and plays not like a 'classic' but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released." Quite. Why remake it?

Well, the road to hell, and all. Playing "overheard" audio or TV commentary as the transition between scenes is just the laziest, the most hackneyed, the most ham-fisted way of providing context, and when it's used to deliver a political message it becomes perfectly obnoxious - and I agreed with everything it was saying. Yeah, yeah - war on terror, undermining of civil liberties, America being destroyed from within, I geddit, I already goddit, and therein lies the problem. By taking elements which were floating around some hazy interzone of public consciousness, fitting them together and bringing them into sharp dramatic focus, the 1962 version was eery, disturbing, and as it turned out, in some measure prophetic. The 2004 version doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. It's playing catch-up.

The basis of the original film is that, in a brilliant inversion, communist spies are using the very forces of tub-thumping anti-communism (read, clearly, McCarthyism) to work their way to the White House and undermine American freedoms by riding a tidal wave of public fear and hysteria which will allow them to assume "powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy" - presumably with full public support. In a final twist to this plot, Angela Lansbury's character intends to turn against her communist backers. The message that comes through is that by this stage it won't really matter who is in power, or what they believe, which is why a film ostensibly about dirty commies continues to appeal to knee-jerk liberals. It also chimes nicely with Senator Vandenberg's comment to Truman that in order to continue public funding for the military at a wartime level, they were going to have to "scare hell out of the American people" - a trick which continues to work well. In fact the old film is more on the button than the new one, which for its part tells us - what? That politicians can be bought? Indeed they can, in which case why go to the intricate trouble of brainwashing one? There couldn't be a more compliant president than Bush, though in his defence it doesn't seem he has much of a brain to wash.

As a final note, it's essential to both plot and theme that all of this is to be achieved through what Neil Gunn called the breaking of the mind - the cracking open of a single individual so he can be remade to political ends. It's as potent a central idea as that of Life is Beautiful - the protection of the child in the midst of horror, in order to save humanity.


I'd find the disappointment of Candidate Mk#2 easier to bear if it wasn't the second time it had happened in a year. The State Within was similarly shaky, disappointing and redundant, like a cut-and-paste of news clippings. A few weeks after the final episode was broadcast we watched Defence of the Realm, which was simply chilling, and accurately reflected the occult (to use David Peace's word) quality of politics in Britain in the 1980s. Now it just seems sordid, and sad, not to mention enormously destructive if you're Iraqi.


The buying of politicians is nothing new, and is a central motif of 1876 by Gore Vidal, which I'm reading with easy pleasure. I tried it ten years ago and couldn't get anywhere with it, said so to a friend, was so non-plussed I was even considering flogging it back to the second-hand shop. The friend, with not-quite mock condescension, counselled me to put it by: "You know, one day you'll be looking for something to read and -" he pointed and winked sidelong "- that'll be it." And he was right.

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Awful, I know. An informative and enthusiastic review for the new translation of Belli's sonnets at (formerly the Scottish Book Collector). Translator Mike Stocks' website is here.


Monday, September 10, 2007


Whose name I know only because we had to translate one of his letters for Latin GCSE. The gist of it was that he had uncharacteristically spent the day hunting, although he'd caught nothing having passed all his time writing, and was advising a friend to do the same if ever he got writer's block, "for you will find that Minerva does not dwell on the hills less than Diana" - or somesuch.

The immediate relevance of it is in the opening line: "You will laugh, and it is permitted that you should laugh." I've joined a book group.

First book was Richard Ford's Independence Day, which almost none of us enjoyed and only two out of six finished (I was not one of them). Good excuse for a natter and a trip out to Kinghorn, met some new folk whose company I enjoyed, and the discussion was useful and brought out a few things I hadn't considered, thus enabling me to give a more fully-rounded rejection of a Pulitzer prize-winning novel. Pleasant afternoon, shame about the book. I intend to give it a few months, anyway.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

At ‘the little Savile’ I remember much kindness and toleration. There was Gosse, of course, sensitive as a cat to all atmospheres, but utterly fearless when it came to questions of good workmanship; Hardy’s grave and bitter humour; Andrew Lang, as detached to all appearances as a cloud, but—one learned to know—never kinder in your behalf than when he seemed least concerned with you; Eustace Balfour, a large, lovable man, and one of the best of talkers, who died too soon; Herbert Stephen, very wise and very funny when he chose; Rider Haggard, to whom I took at once, he being of the stamp adored by children and trusted by men at sight; and he could tell tales, mainly against himself, that broke up the tables; Saintsbury, a solid rock of learning and geniality whom I revered all my days; profoundly a scholar and versed in the art of good living. There was a breakfast with him and Walter Pollock of the Saturday Review in the Albany, when he produced some specially devilish Oriental delicacy which we cooked by the light of our united ignorances. It was splendid!
From Chapter IV of Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling.

It was indeed an immortal evening. Wordsworth's fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats' eager inspired look, Lamb's quaint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation, that in my life I never passed a more delightful time. All our fun was within bounds. Not a word passed that an apostle might not have listened to. It was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age, and my solemn Jerusalem flashing up by the flame of the fire, with Christ hanging over us like a vision, all made up a picture which will long glow upon

that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.
Benjamin Robert Haydon, quoted in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes [2nd ed.] p172.

The full excerpt is too long to quote in full, but for anyone up for a laugh, let alone having an interest in literary history, I can't recommend looking it up too highly. Note that the 2nd edition is now OP, and the 3rd edition (recently published) contains a completely different selection.


Saturday, September 08, 2007


[Riddley Walker reviewed in 300 words]

Riddley Walker is famous for being difficult, written in the vernacular of a post-holocaust world where language itself has become degraded: “On my namin day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.”

Which might dismay the casual reader, but shouldn’t present problems for anyone familiar with non-conventional English, be it Chaucer or Irvine Welsh. This language is not degraded but powerfully authentic - in fact it’s a literal rendering of the Kent accent, the area in which the story takes place, and once the eye and ear become attuned, the reading is straightforward.

Moreover, Riddley and many of the other people in his world are highly articulate. What has become degraded is their understanding of where they have come from, and where they should be going; it becomes Riddley’s task to make the best sense he can of both, much of it done through the unravelling of stories which combine legend, litany and entertainment in the manner of the Mystery Plays, and have been passed down from “time back way back.”

As he picaresques around Kent, taking one side then another in the struggle to control the present and reawaken the past, it becomes clear that his true role is not to solve his smashed land and people, but to recount, interpret and provoke. A lesser novel would present a glimmer of salvation for all at the end. Hoban offers no closure, only another beginning and the prospect of an ongoing testing. This refusal to give easy answers is a mark of both strength and relevance. Riddley’s plight is ours, but unlike him we have not yet begun to live with its full consequences.


I know Joe disagrees, and look forward to picking this particular crow with him soon.


Friday, September 07, 2007


[Music playing - my choice]

Me: Hope you're okay with Jethro Tull.

Colleague: I've got nothing against Jethro Tull at all. [Pause] It is like being in a car with my dad.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Art makes Europe European - Joyce's Dublin, Cervantes's Spain, Camoës's Portugal, Dickens's London, Kafka's Prague, Proust's France, Rembrandt's Holland, Bach's Germany, Sibelius's Finland, Ibsen's Norway, Mozart's Austria, Leonardo's Italy - all made common property by art's genius. You may find works by the divine Giorgione not only in his native Venice but in Amsterdam, Bassano, Bergamo, Berlin, Budapest, Dublin, Florence [...] Vienna. After a lifetime of familiarity with reproductions of his Sleeping Venus, all unexpectedly I came across its original among the war-ruins of Dresden. I was not in the least surprised. I was not even ecstatic - merely pleased to see it there. It was like coming across an old friend in the street one day, not far from home.
From Jan Morris's Europe [p54].

Though it should be pointed out that there must be, and must have been, many Spaniards who know who they are, collectively, know where they come from and what they belong to, without having to rely on Cervantes to put them straight. Which leads me to think that culture, like national identity, is expressed, not explained, and that drawing it from a book comes a very watery second to drawing it from the people around you.

If I were going to try to say what makes Europe European, I'd plump for topography, climate and Christianity before art.

I think what Morris is saying is that the European-ness of these artists comes from their work drawing on a common foundation, which makes it relevant and comprehensible to audiences in their neighbouring countries. That's the European dynamic, that torque between the provincial and the continental. I'd balk at saying it's the genius of art which permits them to be European - where present, genius makes them universal, which is why Darcus Howe could grow up in the Caribbean and still be enchanted by Great Expectations as a boy. Nor would I pick Bach over Beethoven as a typically German composer - Bach rises above not just nations but pretty much the rest of humanity.

In fact the more I look at this quote the less sure I am about whether it's profound or daffy. Sorry.


That said, I was pretty shocked to hear from an acquaintance about a recent theatre outing she'd made, in the company of two students, both of 'em well-educated and reasonably bright. Not only did they not know the story of Faust, they'd never even heard the term "Faustian pact". The common store must have been fresh out on the day they paid a visit.


I guess most people at some point have played the game of picking the literary character they feel most resembles them. Unfortunately I have just found mine: Doctor Desprez in the Stevenson story The Treasure of Franchard. The only consolation I can take is that this vain idiot is presented so sympathetically, I suspect RLS drew on some of his own worse characteristics to create him. The idea that we might now and then be pillocks in the same way is something I am, perversely, quite pleased about.

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