Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Buck, Naked

Buck, Naked is up at Pank Magazine. A fine home indeed for the little guy.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin is the moral of Voltaire's Candide - the "subdued vein of wisdom" as Italo Calvino puts it in his essay, "Candide, An Essay In Velocity". The idea expressed by "It is necessary to cultivate our garden" is essentially Aristotelian: don't rely too much on theory, don't rely too much on experience - but try to find a happy medium between the two. Calvino also discusses how Voltaire's work travels the world at great speed, calling it 'around the world in eighty pages'. I would go further than this and claim that the brief, elliptical form of Candide fits its subject very well. It is, in essence, a moral fable for the rational mind. It works because it is built on solid philosophical foundations.

That, in short, is what makes Candide great. Attention needs to be paid to such things, then, if you're going to try and re-work that book. Michael Chabon has a crack at it with 'Gentlemen of the Road'. Evidence for this can be found in the form of the work, (short and elliptical), the narrative (a journey taken) and the themes (religion, war and politics). Perhaps the biggest clue in every sense, however, is the elephant named for 'Cunegonde' - the unfortunate character in Candide who gets fatter and fatter.

What Chabon completely misses, however, is both of the things that made Candide so good. In the first place, the geo-temporal range is limited to the 10th century land of the Khazars. More damaging, however, is the complete lack of philosophical underpinning. What we get instead is a broad range of Hollywood cliche: The pretend fight, the hero going after his hat, the condemned man saved in the nick of time and so on... which is supposed to be entertaining in and of itself. Voltaire certainly worked with the adventure story trope, but he also satarised it, and he did so with a point in mind. Chabon seems to believe that the adventure story is enough in itself, even in a short and elliptical form. But it isn't. The experience is as hollow and empty as, say, 'Tap Dancing with Jean Claude Van Damme', and no amount of Khazar names, castles and religious limning can make up for the loss.

I didn't like the movie version of 'Wonder Boys' either. So I guess that's it for me and Chabon.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Super Friday Once In A Lifetime Prompt Volume One

A dog on a bicycle, spotted and snapped in Bucharest. The bike has been specially modified for EU Dachshund Comfort Needs. The legs up top belong to the owner, who had stopped for a beer. The dog wears an expression of world weary melancholy, as if it had cycled to the towers of Byzantium and back, seen it all, and just wants now to walk, trot and scamper, like normal dogs do. What's his/her story? Where did she come from and where will he go? Note that the bicycle has the word 'Rich' written on it. Does this dog have a dark secret? A cache of bones somewhere? It's up to you to decide.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Foolish on a Wednesday

In for the hat trick, it's 'Foolish Creatures' up at Toasted Cheese, yesterday.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Elephant on Tuesday

The Elephant In The Coffee Shop
- a new piece up at Grey Sparrow Press, and very handsomely presented too, with a nice photo of, I think, Florence.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Sunday on Monday

How I Spent My Sunday is up at Night Train. It's a short one.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Ten Facts About Vatra Dornei

1. Vatra Dornei is a town set at a point where two rivers meet in the Bucovina region of Northern Romania, where the Carpathian mountains also meet the border with Ukraine.

2. What Vatra Dornei does not have: Internet Cafes, Mobile Phone Centers, Starbucks, IMAX, Ihop, Istore, I-anything.

3. You will never starve in August in Vatra Dornei. There are apples everywhere and the pavements are made of cheese.

4. Vatra Dornei, like much of Bucovina, is regularly visited by clouds in summer. They creep around the mountains and hug the streets.

5. Lordini's restaurant in Vatra Dornei do an excellent tuna, garlic and mushroom pizza. It costs about one dollar.

6. Vatra Dornei is full of roosters. No alarm clock required.

7. Vatra Dornei has natural spring water. You can walk into the central park anytime and collect it in a bottle. The park is also full of squirrels.

8. Everyone in Vatra Dornei and Bucovina fills every available space with flowers.

9. Vatra Dornei once had a thriving population of Jews, Germans, Ukranians and Romanians. There is a Jewish cemetary deep in a forest on the hillside.

10. The Workers Syndicate Hotel in Vatra Dornei, where we stayed, is highly recommended. It is bright orange and visible from all the surrounding hills.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Falling off the edge of the network

We're catching the night train from Bucharest to Bucovina today. Bucovina is in the north of Romania, where the Carpathians curve away into Ukraine. According to the guidebook the place is a "...magical realm teeming with legends, trolls, giant mushrooms and invisible spiders. Here there no internet be but bears do in abundance. Bring meat and a gun."

We are sadly unable to bring our dog with us, so we're leaving her at a care home for dogs here in Bucharest. The regime seems strict but the French owners assure us that the dog will be very disciplined when we return:

Back on the 26th, we hope.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd, the London seer, cockney rebel and analyst of cross-dressing trends, has a disturbing tendency to associate land with intention. In his novels and histories of London and England, he often refers to the land as 'working through' its people and usually in a less-than-nice way, as with the murderers of London for example: they didn't do it, the city did. All of this can suggest a highly-unpleasant 'blood and soil' brand of Fascism, lurking under the surface, especially when it comes for example to 'Albion', Ackroyd's "history" of England.

The real story is, I think, more subtle than that. Ackroyd is playing with notions of truth and make-believe. This dynamic motivates the cross-dresser as much as it does the novelist. His histories mix fact with suggestion in a way that is both compelling and repelling. Fictions are seductive, troublesome and dangerous, but there is no getting away from them. They are as much a part of human life as fact.

I think that Ackroyd is at his strongest when he makes the truth/invention dynamic most explicit in his work - when he shows his hand. It works best when he works with the father/son(daughter) structure. In both "English Music" and "The Fall of Troy" there is a major, dominating father-figure set against a naive, innocent child-figure.

The father-figure is not, as one might expect, the arbiter of truth and justice. Quite the opposite. These characters are fuelled by dangerous fantasies. Experience does not open their eyes to the truth - it only shows them how to exploit it for fantastical ends. 'Herr Oberman" (Uberman) in 'Troy' destroys genuine archaeological evidence in the service of his fantastical claims. Clement Harcombe in 'English Music' is a highly dubious "Medium and Healer".

In a neat act of subversion, Ackroyd deploys the children as the rational truth finders. In 'Troy', Sophia (a clear stand-in for a 'daughter' figure) can literally see right through Oberman's lies. Yet, being child-like, she remains in thrall with the daemonic father figure. Similarly, Tim Harcombe in 'English Music' tries to escape his father by slipping into artistic vision.

I believe that these oppressive, anti-rational father figures stand in for the 'land' in Ackroyd's histories. They are both everywhere and inescapable. We are fatally in thrall with them even while understanding the trick of it. And that is ultimately what any novelist would want.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

John Cheever's 'Reunion'

It's less than a thousand words long but it packs a wallop that resonates down through the years. It's one of the best shorts I have ever read. Actually, the first time I didn't read it. I heard it, as a New Yorker podcast. I thought it a little over-warmed that time - a whisky soaked relic from the fifties. I have since learned that listening is the poor relation of reading. Listening with pictures though, after first listening, then reading, is a heartening experience...

The story is a basic one. Charlie has a meeting with his father. The real entertainment comes from the behaviour and attitudes of the father. He seems hell bent on using irony and disdain to prove some far off distant point that no one can quite seem to grasp, least of all him. He shouts a lot, is sarcastic and boorish. In some ways he is hilarious company, in others, a monster. The behaviour might be the result of drunkeness, but it also seems more than that. There seems to be a keen misanthropy deep under the surface, yet there is also a sense of joy that the father has in getting 'a rise' out of people - almost as if he is trying to wake the sleeping world. I love this idea - a character trying to break some kind of social seal with wonder and hard irony: "I have a whistle that is audible only to the ears of old waiters".

The brilliance of the story is that none of these motivations and behaviours outweighs the others. The father is a perfectly balanced enigma - and so, naturally, is the son. Charlie is the counterpoint to this father in that he is quiet while the father is loud. But he is no less enigmatic for that. The story is framed by the key phrase 'The last time I saw my father...' but Charlie never says why. He doesn't comment on his father's behaviour at all - he merely describes it. The only active thing he does is state that he has to catch his train - but is this true or is he just trying to escape the situation? He doesn't say. It might even be that Charlie is the devil - making all this up about his father, or maybe even provoking the behaviour. It is all possible.

I was prompted into revisiting 'Reunion' after reading Brian Baise's "It's Nice When Someone Is Excited To Hear From You" in McSweeney's 29. That story also features a narrator who drinks and acts outrageously but not without reason. Again there is that sense of someone trying to break the bounds of society - trying to show the world something. There is little explanation of the motives, but a lot of description. It was only until I got to the end and read "...that was the last time I went to San Fransisco or saw my old friend Paul" that I suddenly realised this was all Cheever. The key idea was Cheever's - the POV had been switched to that of the perpetrator and the action was updated to San Francisco.

There's a rich seam here, and I'm starting to mine it.