Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fiction at Work

James Wood's How Fiction Works

The principal side-effect of reading James Wood's How Fiction Works is an almost overwhelming yearning to re-read the canon - a yearning that can only be fully allayed by taking, say, two weeks off and spending them drowned in a heady cocktail of Flaubert, James, Bellow and Tolstoy. This is great news if, for instance, you have two weeks of summer vacation coming up and have been wondering what to do with it, but for the rest of us, reading Wood's book is liable to lead to a profound sense of dissatisfaction, the direct consequence of having it demonstrated that we haven't really read the books we think we've read [1]. As Wood puts it:

"Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught how to read it."

Touching faith in the power of fiction aside, this is a deeply depressing thought. If even Wood was missing stuff when he was twenty, what about the rest of us? For the point about Wood, the thing that makes him, in my view, one of the finest book critics writing today (aside from the lucid quality of his writing itself) is his eye for detail. In many ways, Wood is a preternaturally careful reader, and it is this that gives him, I think, that most prized of abilities for a book critic - the ability to take a book you've already read and make you see it anew.

These qualities of Wood's criticism are on ample display in How Fiction Works, which is less the coherent statement of a world-view and more a loose association of ideas about fiction, a circling of intellectual wagons around a center that remains somewhat vague. The key insight of the book comes, I think, in the last chapter (though in a way the entire book has been building up to it) and has to do with the nature of realism. Realism, according to Wood, is not a stubborn insistence on depicting the commonplace, but the pursuit of what he calls 'lifeness', an attempt to portray what is 'true', to create characters and situations that strike the reader as somehow genuine, even if they lie outside his / her own life experience. Few people, for instance, have killed an aging moneylender in an attempt to test whether God exists. But that does not make Crime and Punishment a work of speculative fiction or fantasy. Dostoevsky's novels are savagely, hauntingly real because he is able to imagine himself so firmly into the minds of his characters, and make us share so vividly in what he imagines, that his depictions of the Raskolnikovs of the world are instantly recognizable, and entirely authentic [2]. And that, to Wood, is the essence - not only of 'Realism' (a term he dislikes) but of fiction more generally. What realism requires then - and to Wood all good fiction is realistic - is not the recycling of mudane detail into a simulacrum of existence that approximates our own, but an adventure of the imagination that retains our sympathy and our sense of the genuine, even as it widens our idea of what life can be.

Nor is it simply plot or character to which Wood applies this principle, if it may be called such (though his chapter on the development of character, in particular the misleading - according to him - distinction between 'round' and 'flat' characters is fascinating). It applies equally to what Wood calls style. Wood's general idea - or at least my (admittedly unreliable) interpretation of it - is that simplicity is the product of careful artifice, that the skilled writer uses language with carefully studied precision, combining inventiveness, a wide range of registers, and an eye for the telling word or phrase to create prose that is almost transparent, that lives unobtrusively on the page but is successful in operating at multiple levels at once, so that the reader experiences the work both from the narrator or character's perspective as well as from the writer's [3].

This is an exalted view, and an exacting standard. If there is a criticism I have of How Fiction Works it is that its notion of fiction seems, if not quite old-fashioned, then at least middle-aged. Wood is scrupulously fair, but his allegiance seems to lie squarely with the nineteenth century novel. His gods are Tolstoy, James, Bellow, Flaubert and Chekhov; a good three quarters of the books he cites date from more than fifty years ago; and the more recent writers he does praise - McCarthy, Saramago (and, surprisingly, Roth) - he seems to like for the way they carry on the old traditions, rather than for any inventiveness on their part. This is not, by itself, a criticism; this is not a pantheon I would care to take issue with, and it is certainly true, as Wood every now and then bemoans, that a lot of rubbish is written in the name of the avant garde. Still, I can't help feeling that the views of fiction that Wood exposes to ridicule are those of convenient strawmen, and that a book that claims to discuss how fiction works should have more to say about the way in which fiction has evolved in the twentieth century. Wood is quick to give the credit for the development of the modern novel to the French writers of the nineteenth century - Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust - but he's mostly silent on everything that's been done in French fiction (or in European fiction more generally) since.

Wood's defense, I suspect, would be that he's not so much trying to detail all the directions in which fiction can (and perhaps should) go, as trying to establish the central current of what fiction consists of, to which all other innovations are mere distributaries. As he puts it:

"Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life bought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, is makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind - lifeness - is the origin. It teaches everything else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magic realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist."

What Wood is trying to do, then, aside from setting down his thoughts about fiction on paper, is establish the basic principles (as he sees them) upon which all fiction may be built, and against which it must be judged. This is what excuses his slightly stodgy approach to fiction, as well as his limiting himself, in his discussion, so firmly to the canon. More than anything else, though, what saves this book from becoming insufferably pedantic is the acuteness of Wood's skills as a reviewer, his ability to make you see established classics in a new light. By itself, Wood's claim that "almost all the great twentieth-century realist novels also reflect on their own making, and are full of artifice" seems a little inflated. What rescues the claim is that it comes accompanied by mini-essays like this one:

"James is really suggesting that he has not formed his character, that she is still relatively shapeless, an American emptiness, and that the novel will form her, for good and ill, that Europe will fill in her shape, and that just as these three waiting, watching men will also form her, so will we, as readers. They and we are a kind of Greek chorus, hanging on her every move. Two of the men, Lord Warburton and Ralph Touchett, will devote their lives to watching her. And what, James asks, will be the plot that poor Isabel will have written for her? How much will she herself write it, and how much will be written for her by others? And in the end, will we really know what Isabel was like, or will we have merely painted a portrait of a lady?

So the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility - let alone likeability - than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character's actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character 'Isabel Archer', even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here." (italics in the original)

It's been eight years since I read The Portrait of a Lady, but even from that distance (or perhaps because of it) this seems both accurate and insightful. Certainly it is impossible to argue with, and once you grant that James is an intensely 'modern' novelist, who can you possibly exclude?

More than anything though, the last sentence of that extract contains the best description of the book it is taken from. Wood's real strength is not as a theorist but as a critic, and he is most sure-footed, and most engaging, when he leaves the big questions aside and focuses on detail. His new book may leave you with some additional, if somewhat obscure, insights into the enterprise of fiction, but mostly it will delight you with the sincerity of its admiration, with its marriage of an active and appreciative intelligence to a deep and instinctive love for great prose. Consider, for instance, one final extract. If this doesn't sharpen your appetite for fiction to the point where you want to drop whatever you're reading and go find your favorite Woolf, I don't know what will.

"'The day waves yellow with all its crops.' That is Woolf, from The Waves. I am consumed by this sentence, partly because I cannot quite explain why it moves me so much. I can see, hear, its beauty, its strangeness. Its music is very simple. Its words are simple. And its meaning is simple, too. Woolf is describing the sun rising and finally filling the day with its yellow fire. The sentence means something like: this is what the field of corn on a summer's day will look like when everything is blazing with sunlight - a yellow semaphore, a sea of moving colour. We know exactly and instantly what Woolf means, and we think: that could not be put any better. The secret lies in the decision to avoid the usual image of crops waving, and instead, to write the day waves: the effect is suddenly that the day itself, the very fabric and temporality of the day, seems saturated in yellow. And then that peculiar, apparently nonsensical waves yellow (how can anything wave yellow?) conveys a sense that yellowness has so intensely taken over the day itself that it has taken over our verbs, too - yellowness has conquered our agency. How do we wave? We wave yellow. That is all we can do. The sunlight is so absolute that it stuns us, makes us sluggish, robs us of will. Eight simple words evoke colour, high summer, warm lethargy, ripeness."


[1] I had to make do with a re-reading of Joyce's 'The Dead'.

[2] The example is mine, by the way. Wood uses Hamsun's Hunger to make more or less the same point, though.

[3] Did I mention that Wood gives the credit for the creation of the modern narrative to Flaubert? He writes: "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him."[4]

[4] See my point about the middle-aged thing? In what century do they live, these poets who thank Spring?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Last Mistress

Okay, give it to me straight. Am I really the last person on earth to discover Asia Argento? To be fair, I'd vaguely heard of Ms. Argento before, but never actually watched anything she'd acted in, largely because her repertoire seemed to consist of vowel-less action flicks and macabre horror films (not my favorite genre) directed by Ms. Argento's father (nepotism alert!). Then, this evening, I watched her play Vellini in Catherine Breillat's Une Vieille Maitresse [1] and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't blown away.

And it isn't the nudity (though there's a lot of it) and it isn't the sex scenes (which are done with Breillat's customary vividness and make Ang Lee's little jaunts in Lust, Caution look like a game of Twister for fourteen year olds), it's the smouldering presence of the woman, the brutal, almost contemptuous sexual confidence that reminded me of no one so much as Jeanne Moreau [2]. This is not some tarted-up siren diverting Ulysses from his Penelope, this is Circe herself, a woman capable of turning men into pigs with a snap of her fingers. At one point in the film Vellini's hapless lover, M. Marigny remarks to the grandmother of his fiancee how she's probably surprised that anyone would be willing to ruin herself for 'such a creature'. The genius of Breillat's film - and an achievement that I have no doubt owes as much to her talent as to Ms. Argento's - is that having seen Ms. Argento's Vellini the idea that someone would want to destroy his life for her doesn't seem surprising at all. On the contrary, you have to wonder what all the other men in Paris are doing that might be equally worthwhile. When Ms. Argento takes a knife and playfully slashes her lover's cheek with it, what you feel is not horror, but envy. Oh to be a cheek under that knife, you think, or words to that effect.

In any case, Une Vieille Maitresse is a mesmerising, subversive and visually ravishing film that is all the more brilliant for having Ms. Argento as its magnetic center. Now if only someone would convince Julie Taymor to do a film version of Carmen with Ms. Argento as the lead. That I would kill to see.

[1] It seems to me that 'maitresse' is one of those few words where the English translation actually sounds sexier than the French word. 'Mistress' sounds suitably sibilant and sinful, Maitresse sounds like a cross between someone who shows you to your table and something you put on your bed (and no, I don't mean it that way, smartass!).

[2] Which, just in case you had doubts, is high praise indeed.

Scooped / War and Headpiece

One of most exhilarating and depressing things that can happen to you as a writer is to discover that an idea you came up with totally out of the blue has already been done (and needless to say done better) by some greater writer ages ago.

Take this sentence from James Wood's new book How Fiction Works (on which more later):

"Tolstoy, again, in an electrifying moment at the end of his novella Hadji Murad, imagines what it might be like to have one's head cut off, and for consciousness to persist for a second or two in the brain even as the head has left the body."

Which reminds me, of course, of this. Needless to say I haven't read Hadji Murad (has anyone? Except Wood?) and had no idea till I read this that it had a similar conceit.

Now one part of me [1] is thinking: "WooHoo! Tolstoy! Him and me, we're like two peas in a pod, see? Okay, so he has a wee bit more published work than I do, but what's a deathless 1000 page classic or two between friends?"

And the other part of me is thinking: "Some writer you are. Tolstoy only beat you to it, by, like a HUNDRED YEARS! Tchah!"

Next thing you know I'll find out that my idea for a novel about a girl who meets this really arrogant guy but then figures out that he's actually quite nice has been done before as well.

[1] These are both parts of Night Falstaff, naturally. Day Falstaff is busy explaining to anyone who will listen how it isn't really that surprising if you think about it; how it's all just random chance and doesn't prove anything. Day Falstaff is perilously close to having a Hadji Murad experience himself.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Yup, it's that time of the year again. The Booker Prize Longlist is out, and as usual I've only read two of the thirteen books on it. Well, two and a half.

Of those I have read, my pick would be Netherland (see post about it here) which I really liked and would not be disappointed to see win. I also quite enjoyed The Enchantress of Florence, which felt like Magic Realism without the Realism, or in other words, an out and out fable gloriously told by one of the most silvertongued writers of our age, though not, on the whole, a meaty enough novel for me to want to read again.

The only other novel on the list I've read (or more accurately tried to read) is Aravind Adiga's White Tiger, which was so awfully synthetic that I gave up on it some 100 pages in.

Of course, the real joy of the Booker Longlist is reading the books you've never heard of before (and probably wouldn't have heard of at all, but for the list), which are invariably the best of the lot. That said, I think I'm unlikely to come close to reading the whole of the list this year (too much else to read / get done) though I'm hoping to get my hand on the Barry soon, and maybe a couple of the others.

Sigh. So many books, so little time.

Monday, July 28, 2008


"Have you ever considered the immortality of spoons?"

"Oh, Christ! Not that again!"

"Here we sit, you and I, polishing our souls to silver, rubbing language into our wounds. And all the while it is this spoon, this humble spoon, modest, depressed, the perfect servant, that will outlast us all, will outlive every mouth that has fed from it, will taste the lips of our grandchildren as it once savored the tongues of our grandmothers."

"Yes, yes, all right, now drink up and let's get out of here."

"I think I would like to form a religion of spoons. A religion where the spoon was both cross and prayer. Where the spoon was a psalm endlessly lipped, hymn to a convex God."

"You'd better put that thing down before you take your eye out with it."

"Oh, the knife has an edge to it, I grant you, and the fork is more intellectual, but it's the spoon, this balding pot-bellied spoon that carries the weight of the world. Can you imagine what we would be without it? Mere animals, all of us, snouts in the trough"

"Don't you even think about reaching for that bottle! You've had enough!"

"I empty my glass and find the moon at the bottom. Who said that? Have you noticed how the spoons have a special bond with the moon? Lay one out on a table on a moonlit night and you can see it calling, see it yearn. Like some stranded alien calling to its mother ship. At such times the future is very near, very delicate. All you have to do is take the silver spoon from your mouth and cross your palm."

"Yes, yes, all right. Time to go home now. See, the moon is out there, waiting for you, calling you. See it? So come on then. That's right. No, put the spoon back. Don't put it in your pocket, put it back on the table! No, you can't take it with you. Because you can't. Go on, put it down. That's a good boy! Come along now. Sorry about this, Jose. You know what he's like when he's drunk. You'd think at his age he'd show a little more dignity. No, it's all right, I can manage, but thanks anyway. Good night!"


"Ssshhh! Quiet! People are trying to sleep!"


"Quiet I said!"

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Martin Adan

Love is anywhere, but nowhere is it any different.


The world is not exactly crazy, just overly decent. There is no way to make it talk when it is drunk. And when it isn't, it abhors drunkenness or loves its fellows.

But I honestly don't know what the world is or what mankind is.

I only know that I must be fair and honorable and love my fellow man.

And I love the thousands of men within me that are born and die each instant and do not live at all.

Behold my fellow men.

Justice is a few ugly statues in city squares.


I am not wholly convinced of my own humanity; I do not wish to be like the others. I do not want to be happy with permission of the police.

Now there is a little sun in the streets.

I don't know who has taken it away, what evil man, leaving stains on the ground like of a slaughtered animal.


I want to be happy in a small way. With sweetness, with hope, with dissatisfactions, with limitations, with time, with perfection.

Now I can board a transatlantic liner. And during the crossing fish adventures as if they were fish.

But where would I go?

The world is insufficient for me.

It is too large, and I cannot shred it into little satisfactions as I would like.

Death is only a thought, nothing else, nothing else.

And I want it to be a long delight with its own end, its own quality.


The panaroma changes at every corner like a movie.

The final kiss already echoes through the shadows of a room full of burning cigarettes. But this is not the final scene. This is why the kiss echoes.

Nothing is enough for me, not even death; I want proportion, perfection, satisfaction, delight.

- Martin Adan, from The Cardboard House (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What endures

Outside the storm gathers. The lightning cracks its whip, as though punishing the thunder, which growls in disdain. Great slaps of rain buffet the window. The world dissolves in a pattern of blurred light, skids down the glass.

Inside Richter is playing Schubert. Sonata in G Major, first movement. The patient dignity of these notes that recognize the moment's sanctity, its delicate precision. And the majesty of spirit that goes to the making of a great pianist, an amplitude of heart that allows the music to assume its rightful shape, then entrusts it, ever so gently, to sound.

And the longing of one who, being mortal and therefore unworthy, finds himself caught between these two weather systems, these two species of awe, the one furious, the other tranquil. Two infinities of turmoil that the mind can barely comprehend, much less contain.

P.S. You may also want to see this. A lot of footage of Glenn Gould talking about Richter, some of it insightful, some rather ironic, but all made up for by snippets of Richter playing the G Major Sonata.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Pawn

Let's get one thing straight. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is not the new Batman film. The character who calls himself Batman in the film bears a passing resemblance to that superhero, it's true - he has the flying cape, the mask with the pointy ears and a certain facility in hand to hand combat. But there the resemblance ends. This Batman is nothing like the noir crimefighter we know and love. This Batman is all sentiment: he's lovestruck, he has qualms; he's so bad at concealing his secret identity that a quick audit of the Wayne Corporation's accounts will tell you who he is; he likes cooperating with the police and putting criminals in jail but dislikes killing, in fact, he gets so upset when he realizes that people are being killed because of him that he has an existential crisis and decides to give himself up. He doesn't quite say "with great power comes great responsibility" but you can see him thinking it, and it makes you realize that with a different costume this guy could be Spiderman or Captain America or any of a half dozen other superheroes. In short, he's a nauseatingly all-American goody two-shoes, and the most vanilla incarnation of the caped crusader since Adam West's 1966 appraisal of the role. Hell, even George Clooney was edgier than this guy (though only just).

No, what The Dark Knight really is is the new Joker film. Because Heath Ledger's Joker isn't just far and away the darkest villain ever to appear in a Batman film, he is the scariest, most bruisingly magnificent vision of pure evil to appear on screen since Hannibal Lecter. Sadistic, psychopathic and machiavellan, Ledger's Joker is chaos brought to life, a whirlwind of destruction that whirls through the film leaving human debris in its wake. To call him a megalomaniac would be to miss the point, so powerfully does he tower over his opponents that what you're seeing is not delusions of grandeur, but grandeur itself. Callous violence one expects from a comic-book super-villain and a certain amount of maniacal bloodthirstiness is par for the course, but it's the insidiousness of the Joker's villainy, the casual cruelty that hides behind the grotesque slurping exterior, the sense of murder as a vocation, the ease with which the Joker finds the weakness of his opponent, or uses his strength against him, that is both hypnotic and chilling. Ledger's Joker is a modern-day Iago - a villain of such elemental proportions that he transcends the trivial details of plot and action. It's an indelible performance.

Perhaps a little too indelible. The trouble with Ledger's Joker is that he makes everyone else in the film look tame by comparison, so that the movie seems deeply unbalanced, with the viewer wishing the good guys would go away so he / she could see more of the Joker. It is a good thing that the plot, for the most part, goes along with this, ceding almost all control to the Joker and reducing the good guys to little more than trained circus animals dutifully jumping through the hoops the villain lays for them, otherwise the contrast between Ledger's dominance and the Joker's subservience would tear the film apart. As it is, the Joker seems to preside over the action like some anarchic deity, some leering Beelzebub or red-nosed Baal. Even the end seems not so much a defeat as a conclusion - the Joker gets his comeuppance, of course, and Batman 'wins', but it is a pyrrhic victory, and one is left with the distinct impression that the Joker, having inflicted irreparable damage on Batman, has got exactly what he wants.

But all that is not enough. The central conceit of the film (aside from extremely overdone references to the 'two sides of a coin' analogy [1]) is that the confrontation between Batman and the Joker is a face-off between two people who play by very different sets of rules (the Dark Knight and the Joker, chess and poker, see?) with the obligatory connections to 9/11, the war on terror, etc. etc. In truth, however, what we see is a confrontation between two different genres - a scarily real villain matched against a cast of make-believe heroes. The genius of Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker, two decades ago, was precisely that he was a comic-book villian; a bizarre, larger-than-life arch-fiend, who seemed to have stepped straight out of an animation. He was psychotic and scary, but in a way that conformed to the boundaries of the genre, so that the battle between him and Batman was a comic-book battle fought by comic-book rules. And every Batman villain since has more or less conformed to that standard. What Ledger does, however, is step out of that frame, and give us a villain who is not so much larger than life as viciously life-like, a villain who belongs in a hard-nosed crime thriller, not in the make-believe world of Gotham, a villain, in short, who makes the rest of the film's enterprise seem ridiculous by comparison. Watching him toy with Batman is like watching a man-eating tiger take on Mickey Mouse.

To be fair, Nolan tries desperately to find a way to match the gravity of this Joker. The body count gets ratcheted up, both qualitatively and quantitatively, there's a great deal of heartbreak, a lot of 'serious issues' get discussed. There's even a 'people are fundamentally good at heart' scene, which I suspect is meant to be a poignant affirmation of some sort, but comes across as just being corny. None of this does any good. So wholly does the spirit of the Joker rule this film that all Nolan's attempts to counter it just end up weighing the film down further - robbing it off momentum without adding anything of consequence. Nolan even goes to the trouble of giving us a second villain, but compared to the Joker what's-his-face seems so trivial that his scenes prove unintentionally hilarious, as though someone had wandered off the sets of the Mummy [2] to provide light comic relief.

All in all, The Dark Knight is a film worth watching only for Heath Ledger's performance. But that performance alone more than justifies the price of the ticket.


[1] People who've seen Sholay - which is probably all of you - may recognize a familiar plot device.

[2] Did you know they're making a third Mummy film? I saw a trailer for it today. So apparently Shrek Goes Fourth will not be the most unnecessary sequel ever made. Pity.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Earth's Imagined Corners

Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World

"Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone -

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness - that the darkness flung me -
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain."

- Randall Jarrell, 90 North

If the line between eccentricity and genius is a thin one, no one walks it more consistently than Werner Herzog. Herzog's latest film, Encounters at the End of the World is half a travel video made by a cantankerous grand uncle, and half a sublime exploration of the human will to adventure whose sheer visual splendor reminds you why cinema is, after all, an art form.

Nominally, Herzog's setting here is Antarctica; in truth, though it is Herzog-land, a stark continent of consciousness through which people wander like stray thoughts come to life. Herzog understands, better than anyone, the true meaning of the word craft, and his work has a raw handtooled quality that stands in gruff contrast to the blank machine-like perfection of so much of what gets projected on our cinema screens. This roughness can be disconcerting, but it is precisely this edginess (in every sense of the term) that gives his films both their power and their poetry. Because Herzog is more concerned with letting the medium breathe than with taming it, his camera captures scenes of bizarre and haunted beauty; images whose very link to the world we live in seems tentative at best. Yet for all that there is something almost preternaturally clear-eyed about Herzog's vision, a directness of gaze so unflinching that even the icy barrenness of Antarctica cannot faze it.

In Encounters at the End of the World, moreover, Herzog has finally found the cast of his dreams. Here is a group of people who are, on the one hand, successful and respectable individuals - scholars, scientists, experts - people with PhDs in charge of important cutting-edge scientific research. Yet they are also, on the other hand, the ultimate outsiders: denizens of a freakish and alienated land that is equal parts utopia and dystopia, dreamers of a half-mythic otherworld that exists on the border of mysticism and intellectual curiosity. It is a world where philosophers operate bulldozers, where a journeyman plumber claims to be the true descendant of the Mayan kings, where scientists celebrate the discovery of three new species of single-cell organisms by playing electric guitars on the roof of a mobile lab parked in the middle of a frozen sea.

And Herzog is the perfect person to capture the idiosyncrasies of this magical yet marginal land, because as a crank among cranks he fits in perfectly. In fact, it is Herzog's very whimsicality that helps bring the more eccentric side of the people he films to life. When Herzog wants to tell you about a project to capture high-energy neutrinos, for example, he doesn't give you computer generated diagrams to explain what a neutrino is, accompanied by professional-sounding voice-overs, and followed by slickly edited soundbites from interviews with scientists that have been pruned to include only the relevant facts. Instead, he just thrusts his camera in the face of the project leader and asks, in his most embarassingly naive everyman voice: "What is a neutrino?" then lets the man in front of the camera talk for as long as he wants.

What you get, as a result, is not some polished lecture about neutrinos that you could have found in any textbook but a sustained clip of a man whose entire life is physics talking excitedly about what he loves, a clip in which he first struggles to describe what a neutrino is in the simplest layman terms, then talks about how he feels about neutrinos, the sense of wonder they excite in him, and ends up comparing neutrinos to a kind of invisible spirit that populates the Universe. There is much that is clumsy and even ridiculous about this speech, but for all that it is genuine and heartfelt in a way that no conventional documentary footage would be. It may not tell you very much about neutrinos, but it speaks volumes about the nature of mankind, and the strange, almost mystic motives that underlie our endless search for the truth.

This then, is Herzog's method - and his true genius. At the heart of Herzog's vision lies the knowledge that it is not our qualities that define us but our eccentricities, what makes us wierd is also what makes us unique. What Herzog is searching for, therefore, is not the representative but the idiosyncratic, not the central but the marginal, not the general but the defiantly particular. His is an art of outliers, and Encounters at the End of the World is a fine addition to that oeuvre. In some of the most spectacular shots in the film Herzog transmutes tiny details of the underwater world beneath the Antarctic ice (bubbles moving across the ice's surface, a luminous jellyfish, the minutiea of some plant) into images of glowing, transcendent beauty. These scenes are breathtaking, yet at the end of the day it is not them but Herzog's ability to find beauty in the plebian details of human life that makes him so fascinating a director.

Herzog begins his film by stating that he has no intention of making a film about fluffy penguins. It is ironic, therefore, that the most iconic shot of Encounters at the End of the World, the one that best captures the spirit, not only of this film, but of Herzog's work more generally, is one that involves a penguin. This is not some cutesy penguin living out its well-regimented family life as part of the flock, however. This is a penguin that, having grown disoriented on its trek to the sea, and having left its companions behind, is marching relentlessly inland, heading towards certain death in the heart of the continent with a deliberateness of purpose that is at odds not only with its lack of true direction but also with the clownishness of its walk and appearance. It is a chilling yet lyrical image, an image made even more heartbreaking by the sight of the scattered humans who watch it pass and do not try to stop it, partly because they are under strict orders not to interfere, and partly because they know that nothing can turn the penguin from its path, that no effort of theirs can shake it off its conviction that those distant mountains are where it needs to go.

It is precisely this kind of dislocation, this journey into a hinterland of doubt, this voyage towards unknown meanings through a great expanse of wilderness that Herzog's films are a testament to.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Two Cities / Cricket

"London is what it is. In spite of a fresh emphasis on architecture and an influx of can-do Polish plumbers, in spite, too of the Manhattanish importance lately attached to coffee and sushi and farmers' markets, in spite even of the disturbance of 7/7 - a frightening but not a disorienting occurrence, it turns out - Londoners remain in the business of rowing their boats gently down the stream. Unchanged, accordingly, is the general down-the-hatch, who-are-we-fooling lightheartedness that's aimed at shrinking the significance of our attainments and our doom, and contributes, I've speculated, to the bizarrely premature crystallization of lives here, where men and women past the age of forty, in some cases even the age of thirty, may easily be regarded as over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of themselves; whereas in New York selfhood's hill always seemed to lie ahead and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: the you might have no climbing boots to hand was beside the point."


"Each of us is a year older. Throwing a ball is harder than we remember, as is the act of turning one's shoulder to bowl a ball. The ball itself feels very hard: skyers struck in catching practice are a little frightening. Bats that were light and wandlike when picked up fantastically during the off-season are now heavy and spadelike. Running between the wickets leaves us breathless. Trotting and bending down after a moving ball hurts body parts we'd thought renewed by months of rest. We have not succeeded, we discover, in imagining out of existence cricket's difficulty. Never mind. We are determined to make a clean try at things. We show in the field like flares.

I've heard that social scientists like to explain such a scene - a patch of America sprinkled with the foreign-born strangely at play - in terms of the immigrant's quest for subcommunities. How true this is: we're all far away from Tipperary, and clubbing together mitigates this unfair fact. But surely everyone can also testify to another, less reckonable kind of homesickness, one having to do with unsettlements that cannot be located in spaces of geography or history; and accordingly it's my belief that the communal, contractual phenomenon of New York cricket is underwritten, there where the print is finest, by the same agglomeration of unspeakable individual longings that underwrites cricket played anywhere - longings concerned with horizons and potentials sighted or hallucinated an in any event lost long ago, tantalisms that touch on the undoing of losses too private and reprehensible to be acknowledged to oneself, let alone to others. I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice."

- from Joseph O'Neill's Netherland

I have neither the time nor the heart to write a proper review of Netherland, and anyway James Wood does a finer job of it than I ever could. Suffice it to say that I think Wood's invocation of Fitzgerald in discussing O'Neill's book is apt - a trifle exaggerated, perhaps - but apt. Netherland is a graceful, meditative and quietly compelling book, that manages, despite a few rather ham-handed 'political' passages to be one of the most successful accounts of post-9/11 angst and the means of coming to terms with it. O'Neill succeeds where others have failed, I think, not only because, as Wood says, he has found the perfect conceit to portray the sense of dislocation that 9/11 gave rise to, but because he brings to the subject a depth of perspective other books have often lacked. Because the story is told from the perspective of 2005, and told moreover, from the point of view of one who has made peace with the aftershock of that calamitious day, it has a calmness, a sense of elegaic proportion; 9/11 is important, it is even cathartic, but it is not everything. And because it is told from the perspective of a narrator who is very much an outsider to New York and to the United States, because O'Neill takes the trouble to sketch for us not only the alienation following 9/11 and the reality of the marginal communities and neighborhoods that surround our Sex and the City version of Manhattan, but also the authentic feel of that Manhattan itself, the energy and vibrance of that most idiomatic of cities, we experience a real sense of place, a location that is essential to imagining the dislocation that is the focus of the book. At the same time, O'Neill is careful not to overstep his brief - he keeps the novel closely focused on the specifics of one man's, no, two men's story, and never, for a moment allows ambition to lead him astray into trying to tell the story of a city. Which is not to say that the main action occurs in a vacuum, Netherland is a book firmly located in its time and location, but the guide ropes that tie it in place are provided by a rich cast of marginal characters, who flicker on the outskirts of the story, without ever causing its central focus to shift.

But that's not what I really wanted to say. What I really wanted to say was that Netherland also features some of the finest portrayals of the game of cricket that I've ever seen in print. As regular readers of this blog know, I'm largely uninterested in cricket, to an extent, in fact, that is almost unpatriotic, but reading O'Neill's descriptions of the game even I found myself moved by nostalgia for the old bat and ball. Nostalgia is the operative word here, because the cricket that O'Neill celebrates is the old gentleman's game of elegance and finesse (see, for instance, the final section of this opening excerpt), a classical pastime he celebrates not only in his descriptions of the sport itself, but in the very tone and pace of his book, which with its quiet, wristy touches, its little nudges to the plot, its lyrical strokes of story-telling has the ballet like quality of a well put together test innings. If you love cricket and good writing, this is a book you simply have to read.

Looking Back

There are precepts we must follow, dimensions we cannot escape.

Death is only the first of many finalities. It is the looking back, the retracing of choices now fixed for ever, that turns a life into theater, sculpts coincidence to stone.

In the end, memory is a superior realism. Not what really happened, but what we have come to believe.

Monday, July 07, 2008


Introcide n. The killing of assorted bad guys in the first ten to fifteen minutes of an action flick, just to establish the main character's fundamental deadliness.

I always feel kind of sorry for introcide victims. After all, they're villains too. They too must have dreams of world domination. They too must have finely honed personality disorders and suitably psychotic behavior tics. They too must have spent years of deprivation and / or depraved violence getting to the point where they're a real threat to society / mankind at large.

But do they get to show us any of this? No! Five minutes after the movie starts they've been scotched out, usually by as painful a means as possible, and before we've learnt the first thing about them. Just so the star of the film can prove his (or, occassionally, her) action hero chops. And if that wasn't bad enough, they don't even get to put up a proper fight, because the whole point of this opening scene is to show how uber-cool the hero is, and it wouldn't do if he had to actually break into a sweat to get rid of these bad guys.

[I made the mistake of watching Hancock over the weekend [1] - which, as it turns out, is one of the most interesting superhero films I've seen in a while for the first 45 minutes, after which it rapidly deteriorates into a kind of X-men meets City of Angels whose central revelations are that a) Married people are boring and b) Will Smith really is God's Gift to Mankind. Like we didn't know that already.]

[1] I know, I know. But this is what happens when you go to the theater to watch Sex and the City [2] and don't bother to notice that the show's at 10.25 pm not 10.25 am.

[2] Not that I particularly want to watch Sex and the City. It's just that I have such a stinging review of it all composed in my head, and I feel I should at least watch the film before I post it.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Progrestination n. The state of putting off, for one more day, something you've been meaning to do for a long time, on the grounds that since you've put it off this long one more day won't matter.