Monday, December 21, 2009

Last week I went to the Epstein/Gaudier-Brzeska/Gill exhibition at the Royal Academy, which was excellent, except in that I was hoping it basically would all be modernist robot sentries like the one on the poster, and it wasn't. (More my fault than the exhibition's.) Anyway, one thing I noticed is that several of the sculptures first entered the public museum system through donations by Josephine Porter Boardman Crane, aka Mrs. Murray Crane. The Crane family made their fortune from the Crane & Co. paper company, which was founded as the Liberty Paper Mill by the novelist and war correspondent Stephen Crane (Red Badge of Courage), and then in 1879 won a contract to supply paper to the US mint. In other words, every time Josephine Crane spent a dollar of her inheritance on a newspaper or a toffee apple, she was making use of the very product from which that inheritance derived. What a beautifully self-reflexive basis for a trust fund! She also founded the Dalton School in New York, where some of the minor characters in Gossip Girl go, and her daughter Louise was a friend of Tennessee Williams and Elizabeth Bishop.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I've started a weekly column for the relaunched Another Magazine website. As my esteemed editor describes it there: "Ned Beauman’s Epitaph is a weekly tribute to pioneers and heavyweights who died on this day in history, and the unexpected coincidences that bind them together." Three installments up so far: Ada Lovelace and Abraham de Moivre; Jay Gould, John Nicholas Ringling and Pablo Escobar; and Antonio Stradivari and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On how the Cambridge spies became "traitors to their class":

"The obvious yet rarely understood stroke of secret service genius behind all such operations was the simple recognition of an essential bond between the so-called 'establishment' (by which is meant little more than the elite of a given society), and what Lionel Trilling called the 'adversary culture' – that part of society which, by virtue of its superior education and critical equipment, develops for itself a leveraged position within the middle class, based in ambiguity and the perspectives of criticism and argument, insight and protest. The adversary culture is a branch of the middle class; usually its most vigorous intellectual and artistic wing. It is drawn, albeit ambivalently, to radicalism; radicalism is part of its vision of freedom and truth. The radical solution, it imagines, would tear aside the bourgeois facade; radical insight, it suspects, reaches the deepest truth. In fact the ability really to grasp, if not embrace, radical insight is what the adversary culture believes sets it apart from the vast hypocritical and second-rate middle class to which it belongs but also wishes – understandably, properly – to distinguish itself."

from Double Lives by Stephen Koch

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Notes from Los Angeles, part two:

On the Raymond Chandler bus tour, we are taken into the Mayfair Hotel in downtown, where Chandler briefly lived. The proprietor comes out to inform us that the very first Oscars were held there. (This turns out to be a lie.) He also tells us that the hotel is booked up because of a convention for something called Nu Skin. A fellow Chandler fan whispers that Nu Skin is a pyramid selling scheme for cosmetics. Later, I go to In'N'Out Burger in Hollywood, and find myself in the queue behind 30 or 40 Japanese women in Nu Skin T-shirts. The burger is good, but I can't believe it does much for my complexion.


On Hollywood Boulevard, I pass a quiet group of demonstrators from The Church of God. They all wear close-fitting white shirts with the top button done up but no tie, which makes them look weirdly Dalston 2009.


Also on the Raymond Chandler tour, we stop at the Musso & Frank Grill, where Chandler, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many other writers once drank. Faulkner used to go behind the bar to mix his own mint juleps. There is a bartender there who still remembers serving Bukowski. Again, we meet the proprietor, who says that he wants to turn it back into a literary destination. When I return later for a beer, I am inititally disappointed to find myself sitting next to two men who talk about nothing but "crazy" ex-girlfriends and bad films. But then it occurs to me that Hemingway and Fitzgerald must have been exactly the same.


Katsu-Ya in Studio City, widely regarded as the best sushi in town - and it is indeed very good - is tucked between a Domino's Pizza and Randy's Pet Discount Center in an anonymous strip mall. Apparently that is standard in Los Angeles.


I'm surprised the sunsets here don't cause more car accidents.


Venice Beach is full of legal cannabis dispensaries. I go there with a girl who used to carry a medical marijuana permit. She had no particular desire to get cannabis on prescription, it was just useful in case she ever got pulled over by the police when she happened to have a joint in her car - literally a get-out-of-jail-free card.


At a karaoke bar in Los Feliz, one table along from a nice-looking girl with "EVIL CUNT" tattooed across the backs of her thighs, I find out from a friend that he has now slept with at least two women in LA who have had their pubic hair lasered off. As in, so that it will never grow back. I had never even heard of this procedure. I have no specific objection, but I do think it's a useful signal that it might finally be time to move to rural Nepal.


Going to see Abe Vigoda at The Smell in downtown, I discover that the venue doesn't serve alcohol because it's all-ages. Apparently most of the kids who go there get wasted before they arrive. But the bands don't finish until 1:30am, by which time everyone has sobered up. It's like a London gig in reverse.


In fact, Californians, for the most part, don't seem to get drunk at all. Which makes you wonder, how does casual sex ever happen here? The answer, I assume, is that sometimes it's just the only way to get a lift home.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Notes from Los Angeles, part one:

It's unnatural for a city to smell so good. The entire place feels like a house for sale in which the estate agent has lit an aromatherapy candle just prior to a viewing. Meanwhile, you stay locked in a staring contest with the daylight, waiting for it to blink, but it never does.


There is a white guard dog on the roof of Frank Lloyd Wright's Sturges House in Brentwood. There is also a white guard dog on the balcony of the colonial-style house opposite. They bark at each other hour after hour, staunch canine proxies for the architectural debates of the 20th century.


The serious young women at MOCA who discuss minimalism and Robert Frank with visiting groups of Latino grade school kids may be the closest thing I've ever seen to angels.


In the middle of the day, three deer saunter through the car park of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. They are friendly but visitors are told not to stroke or feed them. The previous night I saw a coyote crossing the street up on Griffith Park. It was only the size of a medium dog. I had honestly thought that coyotes were as big as werewolves.


Later, in the space exploration museum at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we are shown a full-size replica of the Voyager spacecraft that was launched in 1977. It was wrapped in “black thermal blankets” to keep the electronics from freezing. As a result, it looks like something assembled in the back room of a biker bar.


Silverlake is now world famous as LA's Williamsburg/Hoxton; when in fact it comprises about five nice cafes, three vintage shops, and a comic shop.


My last meal would be albacore rolls from Yoshi's Sushi in West Hollywood followed by strawberry pancakes from Fred 62 in Los Feliz. Or maybe a few pounds of the spicy shrimp and clams from the Boathouse in Alhambra, which are dumped on the table in a big clear plastic sack full of blood-red sauce, like something from an organ transplant facility.


As it turns out, house parties in West Hollywood are not really any different from house parties in Camberwell, except that you are apparently allowed to dance to Maroon 5 and Matchbox 20 without irony.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Today I was biked an annotated photocopy of Boxer, Beetle from Sceptre's excellent copy editor, whom I have never met and whose name I don't know but who has made lots of useful suggestions about word usage and commas and so on. I confess the experience of having a novel copy-edited reminds me a bit of the experience of realising that someone has fallen in love with you. In both cases it is alarming, almost sickening, but ultimately exhilarating to have another person pay such close attention to your most insignificant modes of operation. You find yourself not just willing but eager to make little changes, as a way of thanking them for caring so much.

Only little changes, though.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Theory: when Katherine Hepburn pretends to be an eccentric posho in the first of The Philadelphia Story she is actually parodying Irene Dunn's performance in previous Cary Grant screwball comedy The Awful Truth.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Carnival in 18th century Venice:

"The Carnival mask was not, as elsewhere, a simple affair covering mouth and eyes. In Venice it was a sort of enfolding cape or mantle with a black hood over the head and shoulders, the whole surmounted by a little tricorne hat. The actual mask is described as being 'closely modelled on the white mask of classical times, its beaked outline altering the face into that of some strange bird cut in chalk.'

Perfect for its purpose, the bautta became almost a uniform for Carnival. From Doge to kitchenmaid, everybody wore it, man, woman and child of every age and station. Servant-girls went masked to market, mothers carried babies in masks in their arms, the lawyer wore a mask to plead in court.

The long domino-cloak or tabarro so widely used in Venice was generally adopted at Carnival time. In the tabarro, unless a skirt should happen to show beneath the hem, it was impossible to tell the sexes apart, and so the women took care to lengthen their dominoes until they swept the ground. In the whole packed Piazza di San Marco no one could be known or recognised again, unless perhaps it were Casanova and those who, like him, affected the display of a gold-braided velvet coat under the half-open tabarro.

But he and his friends were eccentrics and all the rest were agreed and determined on concealment. If a woman knew whose chatter she was listening to, whether he were a senator or her own shoe-maker, it would ill become her to give any sign of recognition. A man would never hint that he recognised a woman; she would have broken off the encounter at once. It was just not done to indicate that you had pierced a disguise, and when someone spotted the Papal Nuncio in bautta and tabarro and besought immediate blessing everybody, as Montesquieu recalls, was dreadfully shocked.

Watertight anonymity was in fact the great lure of the Carnival, the relish that made it what it was. Goldoni calls the mask 'the most advantageous thing in the world', and there was nothing a masker dared not do. Before him difficulties melted away. Whoever he might be, he could join any company, go into any salon, sit down to cards, take part in the conversation, pay women extravagant compliments. Women, for their part, could walk about as they fancied, enter the cafes or the lowest haunts there were, and have unmentionable adventures. Maskers could even get into the convents whenever they wanted to. Who was to forbid them, when nobody could possibly tell whether they were male, female, rogues and vagabonds or authority personified. There were neither rich nor poor, police nor facchini. There was only Sior Maschera, and who was to set limits for that faceless personage? Noble and commoner were confounded as Casanova says, 'prince with subject, the ordinary with the remarkable man, lovely and hideous together. There were no longer valid laws, nor law-makers.' Difference was obliterated, the social structure cancelled out. Dissembling was suddenly good behaviour and deviousness a merit, as the elite of the underworld rubbed shoulders were the worthier multitude."

from Daily Life in Venice in the Time of Casanova by Maurice Andrieux

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Two interesting passages from Designing and Making Stage Scenery by Michael Ware:

"The historian Pollux, writing in the second century AD, tells us of some of the machinery used in the Greek theatres. He mentions trap-doors, hoists, cranes, lightning and thunder machines, devices for revealing dead bodies – rolled or swung out on what today we would call 'trucks' or 'wagons'. He also describe the Piraktoi which were revolving prisms painted differently on each facet, and the Mechane for lowering a god at the appropriate moment. Whether all these devices were used by the Greeks in the fifth century BC is doubtful, though we do know that dead bodies had to be revealed mechanically as slaughter was not allowed on the stage; and we know that Euripides lowered the occasional god from above to round off the action of the play."

"In Italy and France the enthusiasm for the theatre of illusion and of spectacle had led to a diminished interest in the drama and an increase of interest in the proliferation of design for opera and ballet. Architects began to specialise in designing scenery. It was very profitable. Vast opera houses were being constructed by princes all over Europe to keep up with the other princes. It is an arguable point whether the building of opera houses is more conducive to the harmony of humanity than the making of nuclear bombs, but in the seventeenth century rivalry was confined the explosion of new scenic devices. Giacomo Torelli was the first artist to specialise in designing scenery; some of his effects were so astute that it was rumoured in Venice that he was in league with the devil, which shows the power of the dedicated designer."

Friday, September 11, 2009

From Nabokov's introduction to his second novel King, Queen, Knave:

"One might readily conjecture that a Russian writer in choosing a set of exclusively German characters (the appearances of my wife and me in the last two chapters are merely visits of inspection) was creating for himself insurmountable difficulties. I spoke no German, had no German friends, had not read a single German novel either in the original, or in translation. But in art, as in nature, a glaring disadvantage may turn out to be a subtle protective device... I felt no inclination to persevere in a technique assignable to the French "human document" type, with a hermetic community faithfully described by one of its members - something not unsimilar, in a small way, to the impassioned and boring ethnopsychics which depress one so often in modern novels. At a stage of gradual inner disentanglement, when I had not yet found, or did not yet dare apply, the very special methods of re-creating a historical situation that I used ten years later in The Gift, the lack of any emotional involvement and the fairytale freedom inherent in an unknown milieu answered my dream of pure invention."

Saturday, September 05, 2009

"De Moivre wrote a book on probability theory, The Doctrine of Chances, said to have been prized by gamblers. It is reported in all seriousness that de Moivre correctly predicted the day of his own death. Noting that he was sleeping 15 minutes longer each day, De Moivre surmised that he would die on the day he would sleep for 24 hours. A simple mathematical calculation quickly yielded the date, 27 November 1754. He did indeed die on that day."

Friday, August 14, 2009

'The CIA never quite grasped Sukarno. But the agency's authority under NSC 5518 was so broad that it could justify almost any action against him.

The CIA's new Far East division chief, Al Ulmer, liked that kind of freedom. It was why he loved the agency. "We went all over the world and did what we wanted," he said forty years later. "God, we had fun."

By his own account, Ulmer had lived high and mighty during his long run as station chief in Athens, with a status somewhere between a Hollywood star and a head of state. He had helped Allen Dulles enjoy a romantic infatuation with Queen Frederika of Greece and the pleasures of yachting with shipping magnates. The Far East division was his reward.

Ulmer said in an interview that he knew next to nothing about Indonesia when he took over the division. But he had the full faith and trust of Allen Dulles.'

- from Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner
Glad to see that someone else has typed up "Hollywood Elegies", a terrific poem by Brecht, so I don't have to.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

From the novella “Red Wind” (1938) by Raymond Chandler:

“Seen a lady in here, buddy? Tall, pretty, brown hair, in a print bolero jacket over a blue crepe silk dress. Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat with a velvet band.”


I was thinking that Waldo had described the girl's clothes in a way the ordinary man wouldn't know how to describe them. Printed bolero jacket over blue crepe silk dress. I didn't even know what a bolero jacket was. And I might have said blue dress or even blue silk dress, but never blue crepe silk dress.


There was a tall girl standing there waiting for the car. She had brown wavy hair under a wide-brimmed straw hat with a velvet band and loose bow. She had wide blue eyes and eyelashes that didn't quite reach her chin. She wore a blue dress that might have been crepe silk, simple in lines but not missing any curves. Over it she wore what might have been a print bolero jacket.

We never actually do find out why Waldo has such an eye for ladies' fashions. The narrator's hunch is just left dangling. I don't think it matters, though, because Chandler is making a self-referential point about his craft: noir writers like him do have a strange, almost obsessive-compulsive tendency to pick through every little detail of a character's outfit when that character is introduced. He must have thought it was strange himself, because he acknowledges that here, but he must have thought it was necessary, too, because he kept doing it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Last week I finished The Power Broker, Robert Caro's 1974 biography of Robert Moses. I started reading it because there is a character in my forthcoming novel Boxer, Beetle loosely based on Moses, but of course I wouldn't have spent 18 months getting through a 1,200 page book just to research a minor character unless the book had been rewarding in its own right. In fact, it is not just one of the best books I've ever read, it's probably one of the most rewarding experiences of any kind I've ever had in my life. There are a tremendous number of things I would like to say about it, but for the moment I'm just going to link to this great, lengthy conversation between Caro and Kurt Vonnegut from 1999. It includes an anecdote about how, when Caro had trouble getting Lyndon Johnson's brother Sam Houston to be frank about his early life, he took him back to a precise replica of his boyhood home that was maintained by the National Park Service, sat him down in his accustomed seat at the dining room table, and got him talking! Now that is journalism. And also quite creepy.
Some notes on Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953)

1. Those two (above) are called Mario and Luigi. What are the chances? Unfortunately, the one who looks like Super Mario is called Luigi, and the one called Mario looks like no particular video game character that I'm aware of.

2. The film has a lot in common with Roger Vailland's existentialist novel 325,000 Francs, from three years later. Both are about men who are willing to take banal but incredibly dangerous jobs with big companies for the promise of a better life. But in the end, I think, they're not about dangerous jobs in particular, or even globalised corporate exploitation, but just the very notion of paid work: the sheer horror, the sheer agony, of being trapped for the rest of your life in a room, with strangers, doing something meaningless. Loss of limbs, which takes place in both, is just a metaphor for the loss of your youth and your optimism. I think we can take it that French guys in the 50s did not go to the office with a spring in their step and a song on their lips.

3. The town in which the first hour of the film is set could almost be the same one as in Cyril Connolly's underappreciated only novel, The Rock Pool (1936) - a provincial outpost of purgatory.

4. There is a scene in The Wages of Fear where a driver can't let his speed drop below 40mph or his vehicle will explode. Why might that be familiar?

5. This film is AMAZING.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"In general, I think it can be said that most sections of the United States were first populated by failures. They are usually referred to as 'pioneers', but that euphemism doesn't dispose of the fact that they were doing very badly where they were, and pulled up stakes to see if they couldn't do better somewhere else."

- James M. Cain, "Paradise"

Thursday, July 09, 2009

'On August 1970, [One New York Plaza] suffered a fire in which two people were killed and 35 injured. The deaths were caused after an occupied elevator was "summoned" to the burning floor when one of those thermally-activated call buttons - designed to react to a warm finger tapping it - reacted instead to the heat of the fire on that floor.'

Monday, July 06, 2009

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Terrific bit of trivia from Wikipedia: "In June 1949, [Michael] Standing issued a memo to all staff in which he forbade BBC employees to illuminate any room with an Anglepoise lamp unless the main ceiling or wall mounted light was also illuminated. Standing held a firm belief that a man working at a desk in a confined space with only the light from a low-wattage lamp would nurture furtive ideas and produce degenerate programme material."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

If you search for Raymond Carver in the New Yorker archives, you get this interesting article from 2007 about how Carver's editor Gordon Lish cut some of Carver's stories by as much as 70%, but you also get little truncated abstracts of all the stories Carver ever published in the magazine. These are pretty great in themselves, e.g.:

"The narrator is a reformed alcoholic whose entire family is dependent on him for money. His ex-wife gets her monthly check due to a court order. His mother out in California, is poor and greedy, and he sends her a check monthly. His daughter lives in a trailer with…"

And that's it. What else do you need? It's as if Gordon Lish has returned, crazed, from the grave, determined to cut the stories not just by 70% but by 99%, distilling the prose down to a black poisonous residuum of Pure Carver.

Update: it's been brought to my attention (by two commenters! I had no idea anyone read this blog!) that Lish is still alive. So maybe it really is him writing those abstracts.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

'Curiously, in that country [California], you can get anybody to believe any sort of a tale that has gold in it, like the Lost Mine of Fisherman's Peak and the Duke of Wild Rose. Young Woodin brought me a potsherd once from a kitchen-midden in Shoshone Land. It might have been, for antiquity, one of those Job scraped himself withal, but it was dotted all over with colors and specks of pure gold from the riverbed from which the sand and clay were scooped. Said he:

"You ought to find a story about this somewhere."

I was sore then about not getting myself believed in some elementary matters, such as that horned toads are not poisonous, and that Indians really have the bowels of compassion. Said I:

"I will do better than that, I will make a story."

We sat out a whole afternoon under the mulberry-tree, with the landscape disappearing in shimmering heat-waves around us, testing our story for likelihood and proving it. There was an Indian woman in the tale, not pretty, for they are mostly not that in life, and the earthenware pot, of course, and a lost river bedded with precious sand. Afterward my friend went to hold down some claims in the Coso country, and I north to the lake region where the red firs are, and we told the pot-of-gold story as often as we were permitted. One night when I had done with it, a stranger by our camp-fire said the thing was well known in his country. I said, "Where was that?"

"Coso," said he, and that was the first I had heard of my friend.

Next winter, at Lone Pine, a prospector from Panamint-way wanted to know if I had ever heard of the Indian-pot Mine which was lost out toward Pharump. I said I had a piece of the pot, which I showed him. Then I wrote the tale for a magazine of the sort that gets taken in camps and at miners' boarding-houses, and several men were at great pains to explain to me where my version varied from the accepted one of the hills. By this time, you understand, I had begun to believe the story myself. I had a spasm of conscience, though, when Tennessee told me that he thought he knew the very squaw of the story, and when the back of the winter was broken he meant to make a little "pasear" in search of the lost river. But Tennessee died before spring, and spared my confessing. Now it only needs that some one should find another sherd of the gold-besprinkled pot to fix the tale in the body of desert myths. Well it had as much fact behind it as the Gunsight, and is more interesting than the Bryfogle, which began with the finding of a dead man, clothless as the desert dead mostly are, with a bag of nuggets clutched in his mummied hands.'

- from "The Land" (1909) by Mary Austin. Strangely reminiscent of Borges' "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius".

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Interesting to find that Edmund Wilson wrote about HP Lovecraft in the New Yorker in 1945. He was not impressed. Although:

‘Lovecraft’s stories do show at times some traces of his more serious emotions and interest. He has a scientific imagination of somewhat the same kind, if not of the same quality, as that of the early Wells. The story called “The Color Out of Space” more or less predicts the effects of the atomic bomb, and “The Shadow Out of Time” deals not altogether ineffectively with the perspectives of geological aeons and the idea of controlling time. The notion of escaping from time seems the motif most valid in his fiction, stimulated as it was by an impulse towards evasion which has pressed upon him all his life: “Time, space, and natural law,” he wrote, “hold for me suggestions of intolerable bondage, and I can form no picture of emotional satisfaction which does not involve their defeat – especially the defeat of time, so that one may merge oneself with the whole history stream and be wholly emancipated from the transient and ephemeral.

But the Lovecraft cult, I am afraid, is on an even more infantile level than the Baker Street Irregulars and the cult of Sherlock Holmes.’

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

'The coldness, the “quickly sated intellect,” the awareness of banality, the tendency to be easily wearied and surfeited, the capacity for disgust – it was all constituted to elevate to a profession that same talent to which it was linked.

Why? Because it belonged only in part of the private personality; the rest, however, came from something above the individual, was an expression of a collective sense that the means of art had turned stale and were exhausted by history, of being bored by all that, of striving for new paths. “Art advances,” Kretzschmar wrote, “and does so by means of the personality, which is the product and tool of its times and in which objective and subjective motives are joined beyond differentiation, each assuming the form of the other. Art’s vital need for revolutionary progress and achievement of the new depends on the strongest subjective sense for what is hackneyed, for what has nothing more to say, for those standard, normal means that have now become ‘impossible’; and so art helps itself to apparently unvital elements: personal weariness and intellectual boredom, the disgust that comes with perceiving ‘how it’s done,’ the cursed proclivity to see things in light of their own parody, the ‘sense of the comic’ – what I am saying is: Art, in its will to live and progress, puts on the mask of these dull-hearted personal traits in order to manifest, objectivize, and fulfil itself in them.'

- from Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Just as the businessman
Invests money in a concern, so you think the audience invests
Feeling in the hero: they want to get it back again
If possible doubled."

- Brecht on The Mother, 1935

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ballet costumes by Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), from here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Now that I've finally finished the (staggering) Augie March, four more notes on it:

1. Bellow carries on introducing new characters right up until page 613 of this 616-page book, finishing with the "grotesque" maid Jacqueline, who gets a 300-word paragraph of description even though there is no longer time for her to do anything whatsoever. That is awesome.

2. Relatedly, the book contains my favourite ever compound adjective: "furniture-insatiable", about Einhorn's wife Tillie.

3. Martin Amis often mentions Bellow as an influence, and this passage very much seems to prefigure some of aspects of Amis' style:

"Around him spectators from the millions gowping at him, famine-marks, louse-vehicles, the supply of wars, the living fringe of a great number sunk in the ground, dead, and buzzing or jumping over Asia like diatoms of the vast bath of the ocean in the pins of the sun."

4. Someone called Trevor has, for some reason, used an OCR programme to post the entire text online here, which is useful if you want to look anything up.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"There was another incident that took place prior to the shooting of Notorious [in 1944]. Ben Hecht and I went over to the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena to meet Dr. Millikan, at that time one of the leading scientists in America. We were shown into his office, and there in a corner was a bust of Einstein. Very impressive. The first question we asked him was: 'Dr. Millikan, how large would an atom bomb be?' He looked at us and said, 'You want to have yourselves arrested and hae me arrested as well?' Then he spent an hour telling us how impossible our idea was, and he concluded that if only they could harness hydrogen, then that would be something. He thought he had succeeded in convincing us that we were barking up the wrong tree, but I learned later that afterward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months."

- Alfred Hitchcock, from Hitchcock Truffaut by Francois Truffaut

Thursday, April 02, 2009

"External life being so mighty, the instruments so huge and terrible, the performances so great, the thoughts so great and threatening, you produce a someone who can exist before it. You invent a man who can stand before the terrible appearances. This way he can't get justice and he can't give justice, but he can live. And this is what mere humanity always does. It's made up of these inventors or artists, millions and millions of them, each in his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role and sustain him in his make-believe... That's the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what's real."

"I mean you have been disappointed in love, but don't you know how many things there are to be disappointed in besides love? You are lucky to be still disappointed in love. Later it may be even more terrible."

- both from Chapter 19 of The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I was just rereading a bit of How Fiction Works by James Wood and I think my favourite bit in the whole book is this little section on "capturing a central human truth":

"There is such a moment in The Radetzky March, when the old captain visits his dying servant, who is in bed, and the servant tries to click his naked heels together under the sheets... or in The Possessed, when the proud, weak governor, von Lembke, loses his control. Shouting at a group of visitors in his drawing room, he marches out only to trip on the carpet. Standing still, he looks at the carpet, and ridiculously yells, 'have it changed!' - and walks out... or when Charles Bovary returns with his wife from the grand ball at La Vaubyessard, which has so enchanted Emma, rubs his hands together and says: 'It's good to be home'... or in Sentimental Education when Frederic takes his rather humble mistress to Fontainebleau. She is bored but can tell that Frederic is frustrated with her lack of culture. So in one of the galleries, she looks around at the paintings and, trying to say something knowing and impressive, merely exclaims: 'All this brings back memories!'... or when, after his divorce, Anna Karenina's husband, the stiff and joyless civil servant, goes around introducing himself with the line: 'You are acquainted with my grief?'

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"My name is a brand name, and whoever uses this brand name has to pay for it."
- Bertolt Brecht in 1929, quoted in The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht by John Fuegi

Fascinating to find an arch-Marxist anticipating Warhol's idea of the artist-as-corporation.

Unrelatedly, the book also reveals that Brecht circulated explicitly gay sonnets under Thomas Mann's name as a means of attack on Mann.
"Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was particularly displeased with Thomas Mann for having presented Adrian Leverkuhn [the protagonist of Mann's novel Doctor Faustus (1947)] as the inventor of the dodecaphonic method without even mentioning Schoenberg's name. In Febuary 1948 Schoenberg sent Thomas Mann an article which he had composed for an imaginary 'Encyclopaedia Americana' for the year 1988. Writing under the pseudonym Hugo Triebsamen, he attempted to suggest the damage which he believed the character of Leverkuhn could well inflict upon his own subsequent reputation. The article presents Thomas Mann as a writer who was originally a musician and the true inventor of the dodecaphonic technique. The writer suffers in silence when a certain thieving composer called Schoenberg appropriates this discovery for himself. It is only in Doctor Faustus that the writer openly proclaims this spiritual-musical property as his own."

- from the notes on Theodor W. Adorno and Thomas Mann: Correspondence 1943-1955, ed. Christoph Godde and Thomas Sprecher, trans. Nicholas Walker

Mann later tried to placate Schoenberg but he did not succeed. The invention of real things is an interesting problem in fiction: I had always wondered about The Hudsucker Proxy, in which Tim Robbins' character "invents" the hula hoop, but Wikipedia reveals that although the Wham-O toy company repopularised the hula hoop in the late 50s, they were unable to patent it because it had been in use for thousands of years.

The letters also reveal that Mann lived long enough - by about a year - to see, and dislike, the original Paris production of Waiting For Godot. "I cannot help feeling some anxiety for the society that finds acclaimed expression in such a work."

Monday, February 09, 2009

Read this extraordinary paragraph, appropriately enough, on the train into work today:

"It was now full winter, and barbarous how raw; so going around the city on the spidery cars, rides lasting hours, made you stupid as a stoveside cat because of the closeness inside; and htere was something fuddling besides in the mass piled up of uniform things, the likeness of small parts, the type of newspaper columns and the bricks of buildings. To sit and be trundled, why you see: there's a danger in that of being a bobbin for an endless thread or bolt for yard goods; if there's not much purpose anyway in the ride. And if there's some amount of sun in the dusty weep marks of the window, it can be even worse for the brain than those iron-deep clouds just plain brutal and not mitigated. There haven't been civilizations without cities. But what about cities without civilizations? An inhuman thing, if possible, to have so many people together who beget nothing on one another. No but it is not possible, and the dreary begets its own fire, and so this never happens."

- The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

(For comparison, try this great article about commuting from the New Yorker.)