Just some of the generic words that floated through my head as I walked around Sophie Calle’s null and void exhibition at the IMMA. It was like stumbling into the scrapbook of some potently third-rate conceptual artist. Never have I seen so little idea and originality stretched so thin, so wide across so many rooms. I’d never appreciated that modern or contemporary art could be so wilfully banal, could give so little to its audience. For instance, she’d arranged a series of photos taken from video security footage of ATMs. People concentrating on their PIN and balance. In another room, she’d lent her bed to strangers for hours at a time, photographing each. With little bland captions, and a book full of even milder stories for those patient enough to care. She paid a PI to follow her around and prove she existed, photos of her on the street, the bad angles and absolute boredom of a life where never anything happens. She stole some negatives from a burnt-out flat whose occupant disappeared (some of these were very interesting, but the point was that they weren’t hers). She recorded a break-up of sorts in Japan. She plastered everything with acres of uninteresting text. She glorified the objects of her equally bland childhood. Getting that idiotic glee of the cretin yet?… God, what a hell of emptiness the pit of modern art has become. In retrospect, a bog here or a piss there might actually have made it more palatable, but I lacked the visceral urge at the time. Such a pity — considering the actual venue is great — an historical old hospital with cobbled courtyard and atmospheric crypt café. We hurried away to see some of the regular exhibits, but these were likewise simplistic, overstretched, thin etc. Doesn’t happen very often that you can distinctly feel your initial excitement plummeting to the bottom of despair within minutes. My optimism was like a skydiver without chute. Well, actually, Kathy Prendergast had some subtle and organic pencil city/plan drawings. These I paid some quarter. But what a waste of two and a half hours.
In the brief review today, Christopher Hitchen’s Unacknowledged Legislation. The Hitch is an excellent critic, but not a great essayist. He seems to be somewhat deficient in the more narrative mechanics of the essay. He has humour, albeit a critic’s humour, but not much of the friendly generosity or creative openness of the true essayist. Though all these articles are made of intelligently critical stuff, and he loves splitting political hairs and allegiances, I yearned for the care and accommodation of the reader in his writerly style. The kind of sensibility that novelists keep before them constantly. Hitch has made doco’s and TV pieces (most recently viewed: his ambivalent look at Texas) which are far better in their mode and pace of address, so I assume he’s at least somewhat familiar with what a narrative is and can do.
Hitchen never judges prose, only direct political acumen. His leftist hero is Orwell (does that make him a part of the Orwell Industry, where all media socialists seem to coalesce?). But on the whole, his is an annoying posture of aggravation, fuelled by some broad singsong about the Demise of the Left (and I mean the whole political mass of it), whether in America or the UK, wherever pockets of unity can be still be dismissed as ideologically confused. Sounding much like the gruff ex-Trotskyist who’s so used to covering his own contradictory ideological tracks that he flintily demands every interlocutor, polemicist or tired proselytiser to clearly state his terms of reference. The Hitch argues from a wishful panoptical perspective, yet still comes across acutely personal in his attacks. Yellow or embittered journalism? Either way, I had to skip frequently when he started spouting a line. He tires quickly; he abuses his reader’s patience. And I still can’t shake the feeling he’s doing the dirty thinking-work of American Conservatives. Inadvertently. Like he’s on some US committee or secretive society with ‘Freedom’ and ‘Alliance’ in the title.
The articles on Wilde are excellent. The kinship with Rushdie was interesting. The Conan Doyle, Dorothy Parker and Great Gatsby pieces are excellent. The Amis/Koba critique fails to mention and hence exploits his closeness and familiarity with the Amis household. But then again, the far superior War Against Cliché is almost diametrically opposed (‘symmetrically’ opposed) to this collection. Amis trades general politics for talent and talented writing.
The back cover of my US edition has some interesting (if mixed) critical quotes. John Banville smarmily opines ‘Gore Vidal should be so lucky to have this boy for an heir.’ [my italics, of course] The TLS identifies the Hitch as an ‘editor’s dream’.
But the most pithy stuff comes not from Hitch but from Desmond MacCarthy (re: Wilde).
(iii) Conscience must be merged in instinct before we become fine.
(iv) Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul (p6).
I loved it. Five stars. And, to cram in another cliché, I loved the sheer technical achievement of writing a novel in literal reverse, with all the conceptual and perceptive overtones thereof. It’s a bit like watching a massive mental breakdown in reverse; I could hear the nightmare slurps and swells of backward sounds, as the madness comes to a climax and then (slowly, forwards) recedes to a seeming normality. The genius of the novel is how appropriately the reversed concepts take on Nazi ideology and obsession: shit, the misperception of belief-conviction-denial by herd power, and the resultant dissociation between cruelty and personal morality-integrity. By virtue of reversal, violence, destruction and cruelty become generosity, creation and kindness. Tod, Mr Friendly Death himself, is convinced that all that is good comes from shit and trash, that his acts of surgery initiate and unify life. The most disturbing inversion of perception is the 'creation' of an old jewish man from a shithole. Truly disturbing because the reader understands so clearly the reversal. Tod’s innocence is the absolute crime, like the lesser crime of naïve denial. There’s the relation of power to sex; at one point he exploits the prisoncamp women purely for anal sex (retroactively curing his impotence). And then, at the start (which is later), to see him use women purely for sex, but in a reverse relationship which to him begins with the cruelty of the slap and the pained goodbye. Great continuity, great plotting. Further disturbing because knowledge, though perception-based and experiential, is nonetheless accumulated retroactively, and through memory. Tod doesn't learn or experience correctly even though he remembers; but we, retroactively know and become more aware of the reality of the crime of the Nazis, more bound to the nightmare. There’s a purple patch here and there as is only right. And the normal, almost banal ending (a normal family of sorts, a contented baby, innocence) lays the deep, collective roots for the future, as all fascist crimes begin in the banal.
Walter Pater’s famously conclusive dictum states that all art aspires to the ideal form, which is music. Such absolutism always has a nagging spirit of generic relativity winking behind it, saying any item A aspires to idealistic state B. All art aspires to life. All living aspires to art, etc. One ends up saying very little at all, or at best a reductive & mealy kind of platonic formalism. One tends to downplay the interesting nature of those original forms, by saying these lesser forms aspire to some other perfection.
The Sirens chapter of Ulysses is probably the most exhaustive rebuttal and inversion of Pater’s dictum. It translates music so thoroughly into prose one mightn’t desire any further music. At least, that was the effect on Joyce. The prose itself is the most literal musical poetry.
Maybe all art forms tenaciously desire a state of superstatement (a formal extension of supersizing) where the medium says as much as possible about all contiguous forms and realities it crumbles under its own gargantuan mass and reference, unheeding the reader/consumer’s ill-health or ultimate enjoyment of other arts. Much like Ulysses. But unlike so much music.
The dictum applies to criticism as well, since critics are moved to elucidate crossovers and congruities of form, not celebrate their limits and boundaries. All criticism aspires to generality. All creation to particularity.
One could also get finicky in the intraformal sense: all Beethoven aspires to Bach. All Amis aspires to Bellow and all Gonzo writing aspires to High Journalism. With simple critics’ catch cries as opposed to the steady system or analysis of talent.
I’d be tempted to simplify the aspiration to a movement. Forms aspire to an ideal or standard which by implication broadens their own scope. It could be a role model or previous incarnation or history of form, an extension or adaptation of style. It’s the dialogue, or the wonderfully generic-apposite metaphor of the journey between the two that fuse with talent to create individuated and seeming-ideal because well-executed works.
All this as a waffling preamble to observing a tendency of preference in my reading and viewing of late for works which seem by way of the forms & styles of the essay to point or allude to the creatively calm and open aspirant state of the meditation. DFW, Godard et al.
Adam is right, this has some of Amis' best mature writing. And most revealing. It's clear at times Amis is loath to adopt the unreliable narrator of half- or pseudo-fictive authorship and the first person. But in his discretion, especially in bemoaning the Fourth Estate, he is totally admirable not just because I'm such a fan that he can't do no wrong, but because he navigates the personal and public with such tact and protection. You're left with an acute sense of family bonds and underlying love, as corny as it sounds. Wholly British of course, divorced and dipsomaniacal, obsessed with teeth, but also enough of a study of paternity (and significantly, of parenting) and the unspoken volumes of assumtion and understanding in look, expression and gesture, to make for a complete picture of family. Representatively and psychologically complete: compliments for any novelist. I love Amis' perfectly-judged balance of wit and wisdom. I want all writers to be like this. And most especially, I love the method of this book: episodic, prosaic, hilariously funny, narrative-skipping and fragmentation with footnoting. Some of the best structuring of footnotes since DFW. Also, in writing a double bio, part autobiographic memoir and sympathetic bio of Kinsley as well as meditation on the family and the writing sensibility, I realised that this is how I want all biographies to read. Like a crossover with novelistic method. Which could lead to an issue of perceived persona is this realism or novelism? which question is bollocks of course. Especially if tied to Amis' enviable social mileu. The book is also a sensitive meditation on death, loss and murder, and the private sanctum/estate. The chapters with Bellow are lucid and heartening. Bellow's wisdom is several generations more advanced than Amis' of course but then that's the virtue of ageing. And the chapter in Poland is a fitting conclusion which has me hurtling headlong into Time's Arrow.
Also, a package in the mail has me jumping with anticipation and joy: Neu!, Lazer Guided Melodies, Oblivion, How Buildings Learn.
Also, the first two instalments of Kieslowski's Decalogue: brilliant when viewed for what they are: one hour television dramas. Patient, quiet, simple and thematically humble, a brilliant and deliberate use of the small medium. That is, not to be read along cinematic expectations.
An elegant crossover of social formality (near-boarding house conditions and interaction) and the formal filming of platonic nuance. Absent partners, a mutual love that never actually crosses the formal boundaries (its biggest threat is implication), mutual pain and absence in turn. Brilliant consistency of tropes (handbags and ties, supporting cast affaires and lust), brilliant set and mood, brilliant and rapid intercutting of timeframes: a temporal shift indicated by dress alone. A loving portrait of the diction and punctuation of affaires, of a couple who use the idea of an affaire as rehearsal or paralleling or read-thru for their actual partners. But for whom the film is that reality of that affaire, the love. Seen as a formal exercise (genre: affaire drama), this is filmmaking on the highest plane. Maybe a bit too stylised for some, Tony Leung could nonetheless convince anyone. It well warrants a second viewing, especially to appreciate the abrupt subtleties. Ready now for Wong Kar Wai’s 2046.
To people who ask, there are many and interchangeable reasons I give for wanting to move to Ireland. I’m a conscientious refugee of the Howard regime. I wanted to go somewhere old and cold. I don’t like hot countries very much, I wanted something different. I wanted a European base of operation. But most succinctly, my pet reason for leaving Australia is to experience seasons again. There is something about European seasons, something much more powerful in subtlety here than the mere alternation of Hot and Less Hot in Australia. The differences from one to the next are pronounced and profound; that winter has its own particularity. And when the Oirish look at me like I’m daft, I have to explain that this in itself is good to experience again.
The differences in daylight alone are significant. From going to work at 7 in pitch winter darkness to facing a glaring, advanced sun in the springtime walk to the station. The afternoons seem to stretch forever — daylight saving makes legitimate sense in Europe. Spring’s light contextualises winter’s drab. Summer is the prize of darkness. Whereas down on the other side of the globe, winter is summer’s brief relief.
Another subtle difference is that you experience annual time naturally rather than by man-made reckonings like Christmas, birthdays etc. Each season has its tenor and tone, its subjective signature.
Mornings are currently a revelation of birdsong; afternoons a fantasy of flowering aroma and gentle warmth. There’s a growing spirit of liveliness. On the walk to Blackrock station alone I count 28 different flowering plants. It’s skating perilously close to cliché to say so, but there’s a feeling in the air which is very similar to the feeling of being in love. Things grow, become, blossom. Aroma and warmth seem to hangdrift in the air.
I’d never realised Jim Carrey had such a deep, normal voice. I’d never realised Kate Winslet could do such a convincing American accent. I don’t want to get into an academic review of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because most people already know what it’s about. Suffice to say that I liked the conceit of removing painful and unwanted memories, of being able to erase experiences (and how perfect that’d be for the Oprah generation!), and the film’s unfolding contrapuntal flashbacks of the past relationship, especially its petty conflicts and difficult talking points compounding irrevocably. Winslet wants kids and Carrey is happy to have a loving lay. I liked how the film felt consistently low- or mid-budget despite much digital trickery. Michael Gondry is an excellent director of confusion, and of lively abrupt camerawork, full of surprises. Good levels of invention. Lots of gags and references: Svevo and Rain Dogs (I think) and something like a porno sketch or cartoon, flashed very quickly among Carrey’s memory objects. Probably of Winslet’s knockers, which were wonderfully absent this film. Also a great support cast, bolstering the leads with offset complexity and emotion. Frodo really comes into his own as a side-character. Almost resonating with Soderbergh’s care for the drama of the whole cast. But there was something about the closure, riding ever so close to a plot long in the tooth, where Carrey runs to ask Winslet to wait in the corridor, and a long shot of Winslet’s changing heart would’ve been ideal — but it got rushed somehow and sealed up too neatly — I didn’t really believe it character-wise, development-wise (what is this, a movie treatment, a pitch? Is this me?) Maybe it’s hard to extract depth from an inward, private character like Carrey and a flighty, surprisingly-acute-womanly Winslet. Though I was still chuckled with the romance of it all, the conceits and the plot-workings. Kaufmann does have a nose for plots, or plot-machines as the media calls them, entrapping their characters like Chaplin — but I can’t wait for him to tackle a big Hammett-style plot-murder-mystery with all the trimmings and conceits. Something really meaty.