The Artist

I’m just back from seeing The Artist. I was keen it see it just because the idea of someone making a modern silent movie was a fascinating one. In the end, though, it’s not modern, it’s just new.

Because it’s a generally light-hearted film about the early days of Hollywood, in a lovingly recreated pastiche of the style of those films,* there’s an obvious logic to it being a silent movie which means there’s no challenge for the audience to overcome. It’s still impressive how successful it is — there’s a real pleasure in it just as a technical exercise, but it’s also a genuinely entertaining film — even so, in the end it feels like a brilliant jeu d’esprit rather than anything more profoundly boundary-pushing.

I don’t want to sound too churlish about it. The film is what it is, and on its own terms it’s very successful. But it would have been even more interesting if it was a silent film that was full colour, widescreen and in a contemporary setting. That would be a genuine exploration of the artistic possibilities of silent cinema in an age of sound.

*Although to be strictly accurate, a lot of the time it evokes black-and-white talkies rather than silent films. But it’s all part of the same nostalgia for old movies.

Books of the year 2011

I guess if I was a newspaper I would have published this rather earlier to serve as Christmas gift buying suggestions. Still, friends and family be damned, you can always buy them for yourself as New Year presents.

As ever, these are just a handful of the books that I enjoyed this year; for a more comprehensive list you can browse my archives or check out the even more comprehensive list on Goodreads.

The Read The World challenge came up trumps this year with a couple of absolutely cracking books — as well as some deeply mediocre ones. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas is just a perfect short novel about childhood and landscape and loss. One of the best novels I have read for a long time. And on the non-fiction side, Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich was also brilliant: interesting, tragic, sometimes darkly funny and surreal, and brilliantly written.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa was a genuinely remarkable bit of writing — I can see why people rave about it — but it didn’t give me quite as much pure pleasure because it felt a bit like hard work at times.

Looking back over the year, there are a couple of non-fiction books that stand out less for their literary merit than their topicality: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, and Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson. Nick Davies is the Guardian journalist whose stories helped bring down the News of the World, and Flat Earth News is his book about British newspaper culture. It was written three years ago, before the latest round of that particular scandal broke, but it still provides plenty of useful insights into the industry. Treasure Islands, a book about tax havens, didn’t actually get me very excited at the time I read it — I only gave it three stars on Goodreads! — but it has been sort of bubbling away at the back of my mind ever since. Especially because, thanks to the Occupy movement and UK Uncut, corporate tax avoidance is very much on the political agenda.

I think Lee Jackson’s anthology, Daily Life in Victorian London, deserves a mention, both because it’s really good — I kept reading bits out to people — and because of what it represents about the rapidly changing face of publishing, as a self-published ebook which is as good as any anthology I’ve read for years.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Full title: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. I’ve had this book since February and was finally spurred to pick it out of the pile by the death of Kim Jong-il.

It’s based on interviews with refugees from North Korea which were conducted over several years by Barbara Demick, an American journalist. She interweaves their stories into a chronological narrative to create a picture of everyday life in North Korea over the past few decades.

Obviously there are limitations created by her almost complete lack of access to the country itself, but she focussed on people from a particular city, Chongjin, near the Chinese border, and did her best to cross-check as many details as possible. The result is a very solid and convincing picture. It’s a fascinating and horribly grim picture of a personality cult, rigid bureaucratic social control, and constant fear that saying the wrong thing could get you sent to the gulags… and then the famine kicks in and it gets even worse.

It seems bizarre that a Stalinist system like this can still survive into the twenty-first century, decades after Communism collapsed elsewhere and even as South Korea and China become rapidly more prosperous. But I guess the really extraordinary thing is that it lasted as long as it did in Russia, China and Eastern Europe.

Anyway, it’s a good book, well worth reading.

» The photo Arirang (DPRK) is © Gilad Rom and used under a CC attribution licence.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

I’ve just read two books for the Read The World challenge; one of them, Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, represents the downside of the challenge. It was somewhat interesting, but to be honest, reading it felt like doing homework. And there have been quite a few books which were either boring or just embarrassingly bad. Overall, though, those have been balanced out by all the engaging, interesting books which I never would have read without the challenge.

And, just often enough to keep me going, there are books which are genuinely brilliant; The Ice Palace is one of those. It’s a novel about an eleven-year old girl, Siss, and those weirdly intense childhood friendships, and suspense, and uncertainty, and loss. And it unfolds over the period of one Norwegian winter, so it all takes place in a setting of ice and snow, of darkness and silence.

The most important thing to say about it is that it is a beautiful piece of writing; hats off to the translator, Elizabeth Rokkan, for making the English beautiful. The most obvious thing to pick out is the physical descriptions, of landscape and weather, but I also think the portrayal of Siss’s interactions with the world, and her tightly wound inner life, is nuanced and convincing.

I was saying the other day, in the context of Fernando Pessoa, that there is something of a divide among readers between those who care about prose and those who care about narrative. It’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s a useful one. I am generally reading for the prose, not the plot; but The Ice Palace strikes me as a wonderful example of the narrative working to enhance the pleasure I get from the prose.

Normally when we praise something as having a good plot, I think it suggests ingenuity and intricacy. But this has a very simple plot; by thriller-writer standards, it barely has a plot at all. But what it does have is a very effective narrative structure. The book revolves around one key event, fairly early in the story, which we know more about than the characters, and which creates a situation which needs to be resolved somehow. And that creates enough tension and uncertainty to drive the rest of the book, and means that the eventual resolution, when it comes, feels like an end-point, a closure.

» The photo, On a windy day 1, is © Randi Hausken and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, ed. Anono Lieom Loeak, Veronica C. Kiluwe, Linda Crowl

Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands is my book from the Marshall Islands for the Read The World challenge. It’s a compilation of short pieces published for the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Islands constitution. It includes a variety of subjects, including personal memoirs, accounts of traditional crafts, and more political pieces.

The two chapters I found most interesting were both political: one was an account of the way that, thanks to lax adoption laws in the Marshall Islands and an immigration compact with the US, the islands became a popular target for Americans looking for babies to adopt.

The other was survivor accounts of radioactive fallout from American nuclear testing. The Americans seem to have treated the survivors badly, but they also failed to warn or evacuate the islanders on some of the atolls which they must have known were at risk of exposure. Usually I believe that cock-up is a better explanation than conspiracy, but given the darker corners of Pentagon’s history, you have to wonder whether they knowingly allowed people to be exposed so that they could serve as test subjects.

I found other chapters rather less interesting — there was a description of the techniques for building outrigger canoes, for example, which was just too technical for me — but to be fair I really wasn’t the intended audience for the book.

» The image is, obviously I guess, a screengrab of Google Earth centred on the Marshall Islands. Blue, innit.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

I think there’s a great division among readers between those who read fiction primarily for the plots and characters, and those who read for the pleasure of the prose. Not that the two are mutually exclusive — indeed one might argue that at its best literature should provide both — but I do think there’s a real difference there, and if you read book discussions on the internet, you often see people from the two sides talking across each other.

I would generally say that I am one of those who are more interested in prose style than narrative. But The Book of Disquiet really served to test that idea. It contains some of the finest writing I have encountered for a long time; it also has absolutely no plot.

It is presented as the ‘factless autobiography’ of a Lisbon clerk named Bernardo Soares, and it is a compilation of short pieces — some just a few lines, others three or four pages — which chronicle his inner life: philosophical musings about literature, love, dreaming, religion, and so on. Sometimes it’s aphoristic, sometimes detached and analytical, sometimes more personal and emotional; but it’s almost all inside his own head. We get little glimpses of his office and colleagues, and the streets of Lisbon; but really very little.

The result is often brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes waffly, sometimes aggravating — Soares is too snobbish and solipsistic to be completely likeable — and I did actually enjoy it as well as being impressed by it. But what it doesn’t have is a lot of forward momentum. And so it took me quite a long time to read and I had to make a conscious effort to pick it up again and push through to the end.

» The two photographs are by Eli Lotar from the series ‘Lisbon from 1930-1934’. I found them on the website of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux [1, 2].

London Film Festival: Target and Tahrir 2011

The last two films I went to see at the LFF were Target, a Russian film directed by Alexander Zeldovich, and a documentary abou the recent Egyptian revolution called Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician.

They don’t have distribution for Target in the UK at least, so I don’t know how likely you are to get to see it, but if you’re the kind of person who cares about such things I should warn now: SPOILERS.

Target is science fiction, from the philosophical end of that genre rather than the lasers and bug eyed monsters end. It’s set in a near future which is described in the LFF catalogue as ‘dystopian’, although I’m not sure that’s quite right: it’s quite hard to tell exactly what kind of society they live in, because the focus is quite narrowly on a group of wealthy Muscovites. There’s some sign of serious wealth inequalities, government corruption and a trashy media culture; but by those standards, Russia is probably a dystopia already. There are also hints of some kind of odd, bureaucratic, government enforced social hierarchy, but it’s never really explained in detail.

The film centres around a group of people who go out to a site way out in the Russian steppes to have a treatment which is supposed to be rejuvenating; it becomes apparent that the treatment actually stops ageing altogether, but it also makes them slightly mad: full of energy but manic and impulsive. Most of them self-destruct, including two who die and two who have to flee the consequences of their actions.

There were things to like about the film: it often looks great, for a start. One of the characters works as customs on a massive 12-lane motorway packed with heavy goods vehicles travelling between Europe and China, which looks spectacular on screen. And the landscape out on the wilds were they get the treatment looks amazing too, especially in the final shot of the film which is stitched together out of three separate shots, the first of which is, they think, the longest single tracking shot in cinema history. And there are some nice set pieces, including scenes of a trashy celebrity cooking show, manically presented by one of the main characters.

And I rather liked the fact that the film had unlikeable characters and a shortage of happy endings. Although that fact is only noteworthy because the bulk of commercial cinema is quite so incredibly conventional and limited.

But in the end 2½ hours was too long. It almost always is, really; at least at the theatre you get an interval so you can stretch your legs and relieve your bladder. Not that it was a slow film — it’s not 150 minutes of meaningful silences, thank God — there was just a lot of material. Too many subplots. And so by the end I was losing concentration and finding my stiff buttocks increasingly distracting.

Tahrir 2011 is actually three documentaries made by different people and stitched together — hence The Good, The Bad, and the Politician. The first of them, ‘The Good’, is a fairly nuts and bolts telling of what happened in Tahrir Square this spring, which combined interviews with people who took part and lots of footage filmed at the protests. It’s a fairly conventional documentary, but the events were so amazing that it is riveting to watch. Fascinating and moving.

‘The Bad’ is made up of interviews with members of the police and security services, asking for their account of what happened. Potentially that’s a fascinating subject, but it’s less successful than it could be because they obviously found it very difficult to find anyone willing to talk to them — some of the interviews are conducted in silhouette — and the interviewees are obviously very conscious of finding themselves on the wrong side of history, so they are understandably cagey and defensive.

‘The Politician’ is a portrayal of Hosni Mubarak, framed as an attempt to find out how someone who came to power as a liberal, reforming figure ended up as a dictator. It attempts to present it in a fairly tongue-in-cheek, jokey way, broken into a list of ten items with little animated inserts between them, like a Channel 4 list program. But it doesn’t really come off, and by the end I was falling asleep.

» The photo ميدان التحرير يوم الجمعه ٢٩-٧-٢٠١١ is some rights reserved by أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah.

The Monk

More from the London Film Festival. Le Moine is a film of the 1796 gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis. It’s a long time since I read the book, but I remembered that it was an overblown, melodramatic, sensational novel, so naturally I was keen to see a film version of it.

It lived up to the melodramatic tone of the book, anyway, although it didn’t really try to be shocking by modern standards; they could easily have incorporated a lot more graphic sex and violence if they wanted to, especially since they were messing around with the plot anyway.*

It reminded me of Black Swan, actually: a fundamentally silly paper-thin melodrama masquerading as an art film. It even has Vincent Cassel. It’s set in [early C17th?] Spain, and it looks beautiful, with lots of medieval buildings, arid Spanish landscapes, winding back alleys, and even some gorgeous frocks. Plus an amazing scene of a religious procession through the streets of the town. And the broody Cassel holds the film together as the monk. But no amount of intense acting and beautiful camerawork can disguise the basic ludicrousness of the plot.

Now personally I enjoyed Black Swan, although I know a lot of people hated it, and I enjoyed The Monk. But I think in both cases you need to go in with appropriate expectations: I think a few people went into Black Swan expecting a serious psychological thriller and were irritated to find themselves watching an expensively made horror movie. Whereas I went in expecting it to be a piece of high camp, because I had seen the trailer, and I enjoyed it for what it was. And I enjoyed The Monk on the same terms.

* something I didn’t realise while watching the film — I don’t remember the book well enough for that — but while checking the novel’s synopsis on Wikipedia. I don’t think it’s the kind of book that invites reverential treatment, though.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Grayson Perry has curated an exhibition at the British Museum that combines his own work — ceramics, textiles, ironwork — with objects from the museum collection. Which must have been *the most fun ever*. I mean seriously, I’ve spent hours browsing the BM’s collection online, looking for things to post to Tumblr, but how much more fun to actually wander around the stores, talking to the experts, poking around in drawers and cabinets, and actually handle everything, with an open-ended brief to find anything which is beautiful, or interesting, or funny.

In fact, if it had just been stuff from the collection with some commentary from Perry, that would be enough to make a very interesting exhibition, because he always writes well and interestingly about art and he clearly has an excellent eye.

But the inclusion of his own work does work well. His work always combines a seriousness with humour and absurdity, and its presence affects the way you look at the other objects. Human beings often are absurd, after all, and museums aren’t always the best places to bring that out. For that matter, museums don’t always do seriousness very well. I mean, they’re good at dry, academic seriousness, but they don’t necessarily create the environment for human seriousness.

And in turn it gives you some insight into how he sees his own art to see the things he’s chosen to show alongside his work, and the themes he arranged the exhibition around: pilgrimage, magic, sexuality, maps and so on. And since I haven’t said so explicitly yet: Perry’s work is interesting and attractive in its own right.

So, yeah, a playful, entertaining exhibition full of striking, interesting and beautiful things. Go and see it.

» The image is of a painted wooden figure of a dancing Bes holding a tambourine, standing on a lotus. It’s Egyptian, from about 1800BC. It is from the BM, but it wasn’t in the exhibition.

On The Ice, London Film Festival

The London Film Festival is going on at the moment, and I went to see the first of the four films I’ve booked, which was On The Ice, set in Barrow, an Alaskan town which is the most northerly in the US. It focuses on a pair of Inuit teenagers, and in some ways it’s your classic conflict-between-tradition-and-modernity setup. The film equivalent of a lot of the books I’ve been reading for the Read The World challenge. So they’re living in a world of drugs and hip hop, but also seal hunting and whaling.

The plot revolves around a drunken fight which gets out of hand, and the unfolding consequences. And generally I thought it was very effective. There was a moment in the middle when I thought it was in danger of losing its way, but it pulled itself together and finished strongly.

There’s a particular appeal to these kind of films, made on a microscopic budget with no real prospect of making any money. Not that I have anything against commercial cinema; on the contrary, I tend to think that when an art form ceases to have a real popular following, it dies as an art and becomes a heritage activity, like calligraphy, or hand-weaving, or jazz. Nothing wrong with those things, but their golden ages are behind us.

But still, it seems like there’s a kind of clarity of purpose when a film isn’t even trying to be commercial. It can just focus very straightforwardly on the characters and the story. And while the lack of budget presumably brings its own set of compromises, at least it helps keep the director from being distracted by all the bells and whistles.

Anyway, it’s a good movie, worth checking out if you get the chance.

My perfect Strictly Come Dancing lineup

Peter Mandelson
Winona Ryder
Christiano Ronaldo
Werner Herzog
Tina Fey
Carey Mulligan
Sachin Tendulkar
Venus Williams
Mark Zuckerberg
Sarah Palin
Prince William
Scarlett Johansson
Tom Cruise
Condoleezza Rice

Obviously.

Only Yesterday by S.Y. Agnon

S.Y. Agnon is apparently a key figure in Israeli literature, and Only Yesterday is very much a novel about Israel. But it is my book from Ukraine for the Read The World challenge.

My reasons for assigning the book to Ukraine were basically pragmatic — there wasn’t an alternative from Ukraine which sprang out at me, and I felt like reading something more contemporary for Israel — but it’s quite fitting anyway. It’s a novel about the early waves of modern Jewish settlers to Palestine at the start of the twentieth century, and although nearly all the action takes place in the Middle East, in many ways it’s a story of eastern and central Europe. The various characters are still as much identified with their homelands — Russia, Hungary, and so on — as they are with any nascent Israeli identity. In fact the book’s central character, Isaac, moves in an almost completely European world; the Arab population of Palestine is occasionally mentioned, but I can’t remember a single named Arab character. The few non-Jewish characters seem to be European Christians.

Neither Ukraine nor Israel existed as independent nations when this novel is set; Isaac is a Jew from Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who immigrates to what is then the British Mandate in 1908. It is obviously not a coincidence that S.Y. Agnon was also a Galician Jew who made the same move at the same date. The novel is clearly only autobiographical in a limited way, though, since Isaac is an unsophisticated working man rather than a bookish one.

This is the book I have been whinging about (1, 2) because of its sheer physical weight. And it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I do think I would have finished it quicker and perhaps enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been so unnecessarily bulky. But I still enjoyed it; it’s humane and even quite funny, as literary novels go.

The human story of Isaac held my attention; I did sometimes start to lose focus with some of the more detailed stuff about Zionism and so on. There are so many people and organisations who get mentioned: writers, politicians, theologians, Zionist charities, settler organisations, religious groups. There wasn’t too much of the book taken up by characters sitting around in cafés and having conversations about Zionism, but there was a bit, and I just got the feeling that generally in the novel there was a whole level of commentary and satire that I was missing because I didn’t have enough context. Which is unfortunate.

But even if I didn’t get all the nuances, I still thought that the ideological aspect was important to the novel. One of the striking things about it is the portrayal of people trying to create a new place from scratch. It’s not a utopian project precisely, but all these settlers have made the difficult and expensive journey from Europe to Israel because of some idea or idealism, whether political or religious, and that idea may or may not survive contact with the reality . At the very least, the reality is unlikely to be exactly what they expected.

One of my reasons for reading it was that I was interested in a book set during that early history of modern Israel. But it’s not a history book, and like all(?) good novels what makes it work is an interest in people, not in ideas. And it is a very good novel, and generally a readable and engaging one.

» The first photo is of a street scene in Jaffa in 1917. The second is Jerusalem in 1918. Both from the British Museum.

Afghan Star

Just a quick mention for this documentary, which I’ve owned on DVD for ages but only just got round to watching. It follows season three of Afghan Star, an American Idol type show in Afghanistan. It’s a brilliant idea for a documentary, because the glitz and bombast of those talent shows seem like the very epitome of a certain kind of western consumer culture. And in many ways it seems like the very worst of our culture: vulgar, shallow, manipulative and at least partially fake.

But in a country where quite recently music and television were banned by the Taliban, where people were killed for owning a television, putting on a music talent show — one where women compete against men! — suddenly becomes a powerful thing to do. And its not often that light entertainment gets to take a heroic role, but actually in a country oppressed by dry, moralistic theocrats, I think it is heroic to assert the value of lightness, of entertainment. And it may be the newly democratic Afghanistan, but it’s still the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and there are still plenty of angry, bearded, conservative men in positions of power, and those Taliban are still out there, and they still have guns and bombs. These people are risking their lives to bring people joy.

And yet, despite all the enthusiastic comments from people about the new freedom the show represents, when one of the female contestants does a little bit of very tame dancing on stage while singing, nearly everyone is genuinely and visibly shocked. Not just the beardy imams, but the other young contestants. The whole thing is fascinating on all kinds of levels.

And I watched it directly after watching some of the current British incarnation, X Factor, and it was intriguing to see something with many of the clichés of those shows — the embarrassingly bad early auditions, the queues of people waiting to audition, the dramatic pauses as they announce the results — but put together by people who are inventing a TV industry from scratch and have almost no budget. Although if you visit the show’s website and see some of the more recent videos, the whole outfit now looks a lot more slick.

‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum

So I went along to see the BM’s exhibition of medieval reliquaries. Which was a pretty amazing display of medieval craftsmanship: rock crystal, enamel, ivory, glass, and lots and lots of gold.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have, though, because by the time I got there I had a bit of a headache. And it really didn’t help to be peering at lots of spotlit, shiny gold, trying to make out all the exquisitely worked detail. When I came out I had to take shelter in a dark quiet pub and nurse a pint of orange and soda for a bit.

I actually think gold is a slightly unrewarding material for this kind of thing. The overall effect is spectacular; particularly, presumably, in a dark church lit only by candles: bright, shiny, warm, glowing. But the very shininess makes it much harder to pick out the fine details of the craftsmanship; it was more rewarding, I think, looking at the fine work in materials like ivory and alabaster.

Apart from the sheer quality of the exhibits, it was anthropologically interesting. The scale is staggering, apart from anything else; there was apparently one church [I think somewhere in central Europe, from memory] which had 19,000 relics. It must have been a huge industry; not just the relics themselves, but the reliquaries, altars, altarpieces. And that was just the start of it. All that religious paraphernalia — the chalices and patens and thuribles — the ecclesiastical robes, the figures of saints, the murals, the stained glass windows; the whole business must have provided employment for thousands and thousands of workers. Goldsmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, embroiderers, all employed primarily to produce religious objects, either for the church or for private devotion. The Reformation must have been economically catastrophic for them: it was effectively a whole economic sector disappearing.

The other striking thing, and I know it’s not exactly an original observation, is how ludicrous the relics often are. The foreskin and umbilical cords of Christ probably win the prize in that respect, although all the other relics directly associated with Christ also tend to strain credulity: fragments of his manger, bits of True Cross, thorns from the crown, the spear that pierced his side, the sweat band, the magic sponge, all of which were claimed as relics. If you don’t believe in miracles, it’s very difficult to get into the mindset of a society that sees them everywhere; but even so, surely people must have been dubious about this stuff? Perhaps the idea was that the genuineness of the prayer was more important than the genuineness of the relic, although they certainly didn’t act that way.

Going to this exhibition soon after going to the Horniman Museum exhibition Bali: dancing for the gods, I was left thinking how ritually impoverished my own life is as a (somewhat culturally protestant) atheist. Apart from the occasional weddings and funerals, just about the only festival I regularly celebrate is Christmas — and that only consists of gift-giving and turkey. I don’t even usually do anything about Guy Fawkes Night or Halloween, let alone Easter or saints’ days or whatever. I can’t say I feel I’m missing out on an important part of life, but maybe I am. It’s hard to tell how often these events were genuinely spiritual in nature, and how much they were a kind of entertainment in a society without novels, TV, cinema and computer games to keep them amused.

» The images are all from the British Museum collection, because those are conveniently online, although the exhibition has many items borrowed from other institutions.

Top is the St Eustace Head Reliquary, German, ca. 1210.

Then a reliquary cross in cloisonné enamel and gold, Constantinople, early C11th. The Virgin is flanked by busts of St Basil and St Gregory Thaumaturgus.

The little bundle is a relic of St Benedict, one of over 30 relics in a single German portable altar from 1190-1200.

Last is the iron bell of St. Cuileáin in a copper alloy shrine, from Ireland, a C7th-C8th bell in a C12th shrine.

Heavy heavy books: psychology update!

I was listening to the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast, and I heard Mo Costandi mention that people’s perceptions of what they’re reading are affected by its physical characteristics, including weight. My ears pricked up at that because I was complaining about large-format paperbacks on this blog just the other day.

So I asked him for details over Twitter, and he pointed me to this article he wrote in June. It’s full of odd results, but the most relevant one is this. I’ll quote the whole paragraph, rather than trying to summarise it:

In the first experiment, 54 passersby were asked to evaluate a job candidate on the basis of a CV attached to either a light (0.34 kg) or a heavy (2 kg) clipboard. Those given the CV on the heavier clipboard generally rated the candidate as being better and having a more serious interest in the position than those given the lighter clipboard, even though the CVs used in both cases were identical. Those given the heavy clipboard also rated their accuracy on the task as more important than those given the lighter one, but did not report putting more effort into it. They did not, however, rate the candidate as more likely to get along with co-workers. This suggests that the weight cue affected their impressions of the candidate’s performance and seriousness, but not the irrelevant trait of social likeability, and that the observed effects were not due their perception of their own actions.

So physical weight is apparently makes the reader attribute seriousness and quality to what they’re reading — at least in a CV. You can see why a publisher might want to get some of that action. Particularly a university press publishing a literary novel which they are asserting deserves to be considered a classic.

But it makes you wonder what other effects the extra weight might have: does it make a novel more or less funny? Does it makes the characters more or less likeable? What does it do to the prose style? Or the plotting?

Such speculation aside… I actually wonder whether it’s unambiguously positive to be perceived as more serious, even for a literary novel about important subjects. I mean, I like novels to be more literary rather than less and I’m not intimidated by big fat books, but I still find that serious literature requires a degree of concentration and discipline, even for a book you’re enjoying and reading for pleasure. Anything that emphasises the literature-as-Serious-Business aspect is only going to make it more likely that reading starts to feel like a chore.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

For those of you who don’t know, Stewart Lee is a stand-up comedian. This book is built around the transcripts of three of his shows, each heavily footnoted with his own technical comments: why he thinks things are funny, notes on delivery, where jokes came from, his comedic influences and so on. Preceding each transcript is a chapter explaining that show’s genesis which inevitably involves a lot of stuff about his personal life and the state of his career. The result is a book which combines autobiography with a lot of thoughtful commentary about the art of stand-up.

I was going to say that the book serves as a record of the stand-up routines, but perhaps that’s not right. To quote one of the footnotes, on the subject of the video embedded above:

The chiselling here, where I tapped the mic stand with the mic, went on at some length, sometimes uninterrupted for minutes at a time, with me varying the rhythm and intensity of the tapping. This doesn’t work on the page, and ideally, my ambition is to get to a point where none of my stand-up works on the page. I don’t think stand-up should work on the page, so the very existence of this book is an indication of my ultimate failure as a comedian. The text of a stand-up set should be so dependent on performance and tone that it can’t really work on the page, otherwise it’s just funny writing. You don’t have to have spent too long thinking about stand-up to realise that even though critics and TV commissioners always talk about our art form in terms of its content, it is the rhythm, pitch, tone and pace of what we do — the non-verbal cues — that are arguably more important, if less easy to identify and define.

So the DVDs are the record of the performance; the book is a critical commentary on the DVDs.

It’s certainly a slightly odd experience reading the routines on the page. They have relatively few clearly defined jokes in them, and although you can see where the humour is, they feel anaemic and formless without a performance to hold them together. And I’ve only seen some parts of the routines, on YouTube, and I know that they’re funny, but it’s hard to recapture that on the page. Even more so for the bits I haven’t seen before.

It’s a fascinating form, stand-up. Lee draws a comparison with fooling and clowning traditions, like the pueblo clowns of the southwestern US, who are given special licence to behave in disruptive, socially transgressive ways. And I can entirely see the strength of that comparison. The comparison that occurred to me, though, was with oral traditions, whether the verse traditions of Homer and Beowulf or non-verse oral storytelling traditions. You have one man standing up in front of a crowd and entertaining them by performing long stories from memory, but with a degree of flexibility and improvisation, varying from performance to performance. And one reason that stories from oral cultures often seem slightly odd when you read them may be the lack of performance. Of course in many cases, not only do we have a recording of the actual performance, we don’t even have a verbatim transcript of one particular telling of a story; instead we have some well-meaning anthropologist’s version of what the story is about.

Anyway, I have wandered off topic. It’s a good book.

The stupidity of big books (and the joy of cheap paperbacks)

I’m currently reading Only Yesterday, S.Y. Agnon’s novel about Jewish settlers in Israel before the first world war. And so far I’m enjoying it, apart from one thing. It’s in a handsomely made edition published by Princeton University Press, on high-quality paper, with large type, set with a generous amount of leading and plenty of white space. In other words: it’s fucking enormous.

There it is with my old Penguin Classics edition of Tristram Shandy for comparison.

Ah, but, I can hear you saying, you’ve used the wide-angle effect of the camera to exaggerate the difference in size! And there’s a degree of truth to that, so here’s a different angle:

The Agnon is 5.2cm longer, 4.2cm wider and 1.6cm thicker. The result is that it is nearly three times the volume, and over three times the weight (930g; i.e. over two pounds).

Ah but, I hear you say, you are still being unfair! Clearly the Agnon is a much longer novel!

You might think so, but no, it isn’t (thank heavens; Tristram Shandy isn’t exactly a pamphlet). It’s hard to compare exact word counts, but Tristram Shandy has 659 pages; Only Yesterday has 652. And they have the same number of lines per page and at least roughly the same number of words per line. I counted.

Seriously, though, whose idea was it to inflict these ludicrously big books on us? I spent a large chunk of my youth with one Penguin Classic or another tucked in my jacket pocket; the Agnon isn’t just too big to fit in a pocket, it’s close to being too big to read comfortably at home on a sofa.

The pointlessly large paperback seems to be a particular weakness of American publishers — insert your own joke about obesity or steroid abuse here — but I think it’s part of a general trend. I have a load of old Penguin Classics from the 80s and 90s, and at some point they changed the format. Inevitably they got bigger, by about 2cm in each direction. That’s not as gargantuan as the Agnon, and thankfully they’re still printed on nice thin paper so they’re not any fatter, but it’s probably too big to fit in a pocket.

And if you’re wondering, yes I do dislike hardbacks for exactly the same reason. They’re less comfortable to read, and they take up too much room in your bag or on your shelves.

I think I understand the logic for the publishers, mind you; they need to charge a lot of money for these books, particularly if they’re not expecting to shift a lot of copies. And physically making the book is a fairly small part of the overall costs, so why not spend a little extra producing an object which feels substantial and high quality; that way people feel more like they are getting their money’s worth. The list price for Only Yesterday is $32.50; at that price perhaps people want a lot of paperback for their money.

But it’s madness. Why can’t publishing learn from the tech industry? A book is nothing if not a mobile device; and just as each generation of the iPhone is advertised as thinner and lighter than the one before, why aren’t publishers advertising ultraportable novels?

It’s a silly time to be making this argument, of course, because the decision is being taken out of publishers’ hands. There is an ultraportable format of books: it’s called digital. I don’t often carry books around with me any more; instead I have books on my phone. It isn’t the ideal way to read, but it’s zero extra bulk to carry.

But if ink and wood pulp are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage, I just want to say: what I will miss is not big glossy hardbacks, however beautifully designed and printed, but small format mass-market paperbacks printed on flimsy paper. If the invention of the printing press changed the world by democratising knowledge, then the paperback was the apotheosis of that project; the cheapest, most convenient, most accessible way of communicating ideas and literature ever devised.

Daily Life in Victorian London by Lee Jackson

This is an anthology for the Kindle compiled by Lee Jackson, proprietor of the website The Victorian Dictionary, which anyone who has some interest in either Victoriana or London will surely have stumbled on at some time or another.

If you have visited the website, you’ll know what a great resource it is, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Jackson has compiled an anthology full of curious and interesting snippets about such subjects as a ‘B’ meeting, a baby show, a balloon ride, bar-maids, bathing, bazaars, bed bugs, beggars, bicycle races, Billingsgate Market, black eyes, blackmail, the Blind-School, Bloomerism and burglars. And that’s just the Bs.

It’s a bargain at £1.84 or $2.99.

Mama Lily and the Dead by Nicolette Bethel

Mama Lily and the Dead is my book from the Bahamas for the Read The World challenge. It’s a collection of poems which tell Lily’s life story, running from ‘The Scotsman Gives Lily Her Name (1904)’ to ‘The Granddaughter Sings Lily Home (1994)’. I know Nico a bit via the world of internet poetry, and I’d read some of the poems before, or earlier drafts of them, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but it’s still rather different to have them in actual printed paper form and read the whole lot in order.

Incidentally, if you’ll excuse a slight detour, it still seems weird to me to say I ‘know’ someone when I’ve never met or talked to them. Even if I have interacted with them online over a period of years. I feel like we need a new verb for it. Like: “Do you know Bob?” “Well, I knowontheinternet him.” Or: “I’ve had a couple of Twitter exchanges with George Michael, but I wouldn’t say I knowontheinternet him.

Anyway. As I was saying, I’d never read the whole sequence of Lily poems together before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At their best they have a sharp in-the-moment-ness, a vivid sense of being a particular point in time. And that brings with it a sense of place, emphasised by the use of Caribbean-inflected grammar.

One thing which struck me as interesting, reading them, is as much a point about me as about the poems. Nico* has a particular stylistic quirk of using neologistic compounds — like, for example, using ‘bonechill’ as a verb — which just slightly makes my critical self uneasy; not because I object to neologising, but precisely the opposite: I have exactly the same tendency myself when I write poetry [perhaps I should say when I wrote poetry]. All the times I have come up with compounds and then cast a jaundiced eye on them trying to decide if I was being self-indulgent have apparently programmed a warning flag into my brain which pings up whenever I see them.

I was going to type out an extract but actually there’s no need, because various of the poems have been published in internet poetry journals; so if you want to read some, just put Nicolette Bethel Lily into Google and it will offer you a variety to choose from. You could start with ‘The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul (1914)’, for example.

And a quick note on the actual physical book, which is rather lovely. It’s a numbered edition; my copy is 35 of 200. As you can see above, the cover is letterpress printed† on handmade Indian paper with bits of flowers in it. What you can’t see above is that it has endpapers, also handmade paper, in a sort of translucent acid yellow with thready bits running through it; or that the pages themselves are printed on high quality cotton paper.

It struck me, when I opened the parcel and saw the book for the first time, that this is one future for printed books in a world of e-readers: to celebrate the physicality of them, to make them into covetable objects in their own right. Although, nice as it is to imagine a flowering of artisanal, boutique publishers producing books which are exquisitely designed and made, I guess it’s a red herring really. The point of books is the words, not the packaging. Any defence of printed books purely on the basis of their appearance is straying into the territory of interior designers who buy leather-bound books by the metre because they make a room look cosy.

And actually I don’t think small publishers would be the winners in a world where books were bought for their beauty. I’ve read a lot of books from all kinds of small presses as part of the Read The World challenge, and Poinciana Paper Press is an admirable exception; much more often the books are rather badly designed. Which is understandable; a small press on a shoestring budget has to focus on what they’re good at, which is hopefully choosing, translating and editing texts.

* And this is where the fact I knowontheinternet her comes in again, combined with the generally informal tone of blogging: ‘Nico’ sounds a bit offhand and casual, in the circumstances, but ‘Bethel’ would sound weirdly formal. Especially since I have actually mostly known her over the years by an internet pseudonym. Ah, netiquette.

† Letterpress printed in, of all places, Camberwell. Not that I have anything against Camberwell; my sister lives there. And I think I had some art classes there as a child, though I don’t remember much about them except making some kind of collage out of bits of magazines, and eating pear drops. It’s just a long way from the Bahamas.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chernobyl was written in 1996, ten years after the reactor meltdown. It is an oral history of the disaster; that is, it’s presented as a series of ‘monologues’ by people who were involved in some way, with titles like ‘Monologue about War Movies’, ‘Monologue about the Shovel and the Atom’, ‘Monologue about Expensive Salami’. I’m actually a bit curious about exactly how they were collected; they are presented as verbatim transcripts, although I’m sure they’ve been tidied up somewhat. What you don’t get is any idea of what questions or prompting came from the interviewer. It’s quite an effective device, keeping the journalist out of the spotlight and letting the voices speak for themselves, but I assume there’s an element of artifice to it. I don’t think it detracted from the book, I’m just curious about the process.

The result is, anyway, an extraordinary book. The stories come from all kinds of perspectives: local farmers, soldiers, scientists, officials, construction workers, wives, children. And the material is fascinating: people’s accounts of being evacuated, of working on the reactor site, of nursing dying relatives. There are people who refused to leave, and people who came back because it was home, and people who, having fled conflicts elsewhere, moved to the area because there were houses lying empty. And overlying it all is the extraordinarily inept and chaotic government response, which included, for example, failing to distribute iodine or breathing masks because they thought doing so might cause panic.

And as well as the material being so interesting, it has a very literary quality; bleak and fatalistic, but laced with dark humour and absurdity, sometimes earthy, sometimes poetic. That poetry comes both from the real poignancy of the human situations and the surreal quality of many things that happened: the soldiers sent into the Zone to kill all the cats and dogs; the people whose job it was to dig up soil and bury it in pits; the fact that they were told that drinking vodka would help fight radiation poisoning, so everyone seems to have been rolling around in an alcoholic haze.

It really is a fabulous book. Here’s a little excerpt, from a man who has moved to live in the evacuated zone:

It’s easy to find books here. Now, an empty clay pitcher, or a spoon or fork, that you won’t find, but books are all over. The other day I found a volume of Pushkin. “And the thought of death is sweet to my soul.” I remember that. Yes: “The thought of death.” I am here alone. I think about death. I’ve come to like thinking. And silence helps you to prepare yourself. Man lives with death, but he doesn’t understand what it is. But I’m here alone. Yesterday I chased a wolf and a she-wolf out of the school, they were living there.

Question: Is the world as it’s depicted in words the real world? Words stand between the person and his soul.

And I’ll say this: birds, and trees, and ants, they’re closer to me now  than they were. I think about them, too. Man is frightening. And strange. But I don’t want to kill anyone here. I fish here, I have a rod. Yes. But I don’t shoot animals. And I don’t set traps. You don’t feel like killing anyone here.

And here’s a bit by someone else, who moved back:

Sometimes I turn on the radio. They scare us and scare us with the radiation. But our lives have gotten better since the radiation came. I swear! Look around: they brought oranges, three kinds of salami, whatever you want. And to the village! My grandchildren have been all over the world. The littlest just came back from France, that’s where Napoleon attacked from once—”Grandma, I saw a pineapple!” My nephew, her brother, they took him to Berlin for the doctors. That’s where Hitler started from on his tanks. It’s a new world. Everything’s different. Is that the radiation’s fault, or what?

Voices from Chernobyl is my book from Belarus for the Read The World challenge. If you’re thinking ‘hang on, Belarus, that doesn’t sound right’, well, you’re right, the plant itself is in Ukraine, but it’s just by the border with Belarus and so Belarus was one of the worst affected places.

A quick namecheck for the translator, Keith Gessen, who I’m sure deserves a lot of credit for how well the book reads in English; and just to reiterate, I think this is a really good book and I strongly recommend it.

» There’s a whole load of photos around the web taken by tourists to the contaminated zone. Lots of pictures of the deserted town of Pripyat, particularly of peeling, empty schoolrooms. But after reading the book, they just seem too unpleasantly voyeuristic, so instead I grabbed a map of the contaminated area from Wikipedia.

Open City by Teju Cole

I ordered this novel because I’d read and enjoyed various bits of Cole’s writing around the internet. I’ll keep this short because I’ve been getting pins and needles in my hands which I suspect is down to spending too much time typing, so I’m trying to rest them a bit.

So suffice to say it’s a delicately written, nuanced novel set mainly in New York which is about, among other things, migration and identity. I really liked it.

Tumblr round-up, July 18th

I may try to find a way, later, of incorporating the stuff I’ve posted to Tumblr more closely into this site, but until then I think I’ll start with a weekly round-up. The idea is to post a summary of the previous week, but since I’ve got a backlog, I’ll start by ranging a bit more widely. So here’s a selection of stuff from the past month or two.

That’s a Persian priest, by the C16th Danish/German artist Melchior Lorck. In the 1550s he was part of a diplomatic mission to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople, and he was working on a book of woodcuts from his travels when he died in 1583. I stumbled across them when browsing through the British Museum collection. There are a lot more where that came from: just search for ‘Print made by Melchior Lorck‘. Apart from the historical interest, he has a real graphic designer’s eye.

Parrots have names. Or at least they have ‘signature calls that are used to recognise individuals’, and birds imitate the signatures of others to get their attention. And researchers have found that these names are given to the chicks by their mothers before they are old enough to call for themselves.

Of all the thousands of words I’ve read about the News of the World hacking scandal, I thought this Reuters article about the culture of the newsroom at the NotW under Rebekah Brooks was one of the most striking.

Some ceramics: a delftware wine bottle from C17th London; a Chinese wine-cup; another Chinese wine-cup, this one decorated with auspicious fruits; one of my favourites, a stoneware jug from C12th Korea. And I think this is gorgeous, a tin-glazed earthenware jug from Fez, ca. 1870:

A snail tongue; an amazing mineral; the head of a honey bee; some octopus tattoos; an extraordinary fish; a poisonous newt; a spotty squid [I think]; the newly-discovered world’s smallest orchid.

An icon of St George; a portable figure of Jagannatha (‘Lord of the World’); a guardian figure from Cameroon; a stamp; a watercolour of a stormy landscape by Penry Williams; a Chinese Francis Bacon; a C15th Swiss wild man and wild woman in stained glass.

Twombly, Poussin, Emin and Hungarian Photographers

A bit of an exhibition round up. This is not, as you might think, four exhibitions, because at Dulwich Picture Gallery at the moment they have a combined Cy Twombly/Nicolas Poussin exhibition. Which might seem like a rather odd choice at first glance, since they lived 330 years apart and one of them painted highly controlled classical paintings and the other did scrawly abstracts.

But there is a kind of logic to it. Both of them moved to Rome at the age of about 30, both use lots of classical references in their work, and Twombly specifically referenced Poussin in several paintings, most notably by painting a large group of four paintings called the Four Seasons, a subject Poussin painted 300 years earlier.

And while I don’t think it was exactly revelatory to see them together, it’s always interesting to explore these kind of comparisons, as an intellectual parlour game if nothing else. I guess you could argue that the Poussins brought out a controlled, restrained quality in the Twombly, for example, but it’s rather an elaborate way to make such a straightforward point. I did find myself warming to Poussin more than usual, though. Clearly he’s a great painter, but generally I find his work a bit sterile. But being displayed among modern paintings did at least make the paintings seem a bit fresher.

Meanwhile the Hayward is holding a retrospective of Tracey Emin. I went into it with mixed feelings. She has attracted so much bone-headed mockery from the media over the years that I’ve always felt the need to stick up for her… despite not actually liking her work that much. But seeing it all together it does hold up pretty well. The caricature is that she just splurges her personal life uncontrollably into her work for shock value; and that’s not completely unfair. But of course the execution is what matters, just as a confessional memoir could be good or bad could be good or bad depending on who wrote it. And at her best — some of the appliqué blankets, the video work — Emin’s work is sensitive and intelligent. On the other hand, by the time I had gone all the way round the exhibition, it was also starting to feel a bit repetitive. So she’s still not exactly my favourite artist, but I enjoyed the show well enough.

And at the Royal Academy is an exhibition of C20th Hungarian photography. Why Hungarian photography? Well, because five of the most notable photographers of the C20th — Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi — were all Hungarian. So they provide the core of the exhibition, but other, less famous people are included as well. In some ways the exhibition is about Hungary, with striking photographs recording the various wars political upheavals that engulfed the country, but it also includes many taken in other countries: Brassaï photographs of Paris nightlife, or Kertész shots of New York.

If there is anything distinctively Hungarian about the work, I couldn’t particularly see it. It did feel very European, somehow, and it reminded me again how much my idea of Europe was shaped by the Iron Curtain growing up. Austria ended up on one side of it and was therefore a ‘real’ European country; Hungary was on the wrong side and was part of some shadowy other Europe. And 20 years after the fall of communism, that sense of them not being part of the European mainstream still lingers. I don’t know how much that’s just me showing my age; people just out of university now, who were two three when the Berlin Wall came down, hopefully see the continent rather differently.

Anyway, geopolitics aside, the exhibition is definitely worth going to because it has some very fine photographs in it.

» The Triumph of Pan is by Nicolas Poussin; Hotel International, 1993, © Tracey Emin; Greenwich Village, New York, 30 May 1962 is by André Kertész.

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