It’s #orwellday today. The first ever. Thanks to my good friend Katriona Lewis at the Orwell Prize, I received these four splendid editions of George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, published recently by Penguin. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the essay. It’s certainly the single most useful piece of writing I’ve ever read. It offers general advice on good writing, laying down helpful rules, and then explains, with some choice metaphors, why good writing leads to more responsible politics (and bad writing to some very dangerous thinking). Four copies in my possession, if you would like one, please leave a good reason why and one is heading your way.
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I have finally conquered the Magic Mountain. It has taken me six long months to reach the summit. I started the ascent as early as last August, then laid languid in a sun-filled flat in Helsinki thinking I could get over it before I went back to work. I finished it yesterday evening. In the bath.
Has ever a book had such an apt title? Just like a mountain, Thomas Mann’s magnificent novel is no easy climb. It’s nearly 900-pages long and some of the passages, particularly those the characters discuss metaphysics at great length – each as involved as a university lecture – are hard going indeed.
And it can be grim. I suppose what do you expect of a novel set in a Swiss sanatorium before the outbreak of the first world war? Several of the main characters die of tuberculosis. Others commit suicide. There’s one particularly harrowing sequence when a young girl patient goes to visit a nearby cemetery. With a subtlety that is profound (I don’t use that word lightly) Mann shows you that she is visiting the grave that she will inhabit in a few weeks hence. Nothing is said, nothing is spelt out, you somehow manage read her fate in the expressions of the characters and in what is not said between them. The House at Pooh Corner this is not.
What it is, though, is one of the most beautifully written books that I have read. The view from the mountain top, and at several vantage points along the way, is frequently wonderful. The bath water often went cold around me as I read about the goings on of the patients, a terrific game of cards, the arrival of a gramophone, a ghost story as spine-tingling as anything by Poe. There’s a lot of humour in the book and much delicious food.
Mann is known for his depth, he’s was a German Nobel Prize laureate for christsake, and the book is often forceful in its exposition of humanism (personified in the character of Herr Settembrini), which he explores assiduously. But he’s at his best when he’s merely describing the outer world. Here is a scene from the novel’s early pages, when Hans Castorp, the novel’s protagonist, visits the dock at Hamburg. Describing the hordes of workers, the “cadavers” of ships returning from far-flung corners, the goods piled high, it is as fine a piece of descriptive writing as I have ever read.
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I have just started The Thousand Autums of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell’s latest novel. It revolves around the man-made island of Dejima built by the Japanese in Nagasaki bay for Dutch traders, during the country’s prolonged period of cultural isolation between 1639 and 1856.
Here’s a rather charming scene of a Dutch dinner party from the period painted by Kawahara Keiga. Note the hook noses of the “southern barbarians” dining greedily on wine and huge plates of meat, their complexions as pale as porcelain. Notice also the Batavian servant in the background, beturbuned and barefoot and bringing a rather limp cut of meat to the table. It’s a fascinating period and a (so far) fascinating book
New baby + new job = so very little time to blog. So here is a quick nod towards the the work of art photographer Peter Ross who was recently given access to the New York apartment of William Burroughs, which has been preserved, like some beat version of the Blue Peter time capsule. since his death in 1997. Burroughs lived in the former locker room of a Bowery YMCA in a windowless space known as “the bunker”. His friend, the poet John Giorno, has kept the apartment exactly as it was, leaving many of Burroughs’s possessions sitting where he left them.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four may or may not be the most important novel of the 20th, as claimed on the front page of the Times earlier this week, although it is a very important one. The novel celebrates the 60th anniversary of its first publication on June 08. Naturally all the papers have been full of it. Here’s a rundown of the best bits:
The Torygraph offers a handy A-Z of Orwell, which includes the delightful vignette about the Queen Mother sending a Royal Messenger to Secker & Warburg to buy a copy of Animal Farm. They’d sold out. So off he goes in his bowler hat to the Freedom Bookshop, the anarchist bookshop in Whitechapel.
Over at the New Statesman, which once spiked Orwell’s eyewitness account of the Spanish Civil War, Keith Gesson praises Orwell’s “eternal vigilance”, while DJ Taylor claims that his novels of the 1930s were even more frightening.
Robert Harris in the Times offers this more general piece which suggests, erroneously in my opinion, that 1984 would have lost some of its “unassailable posthumous integrity” if Orwell hadn’t have suffered an early death. Really?
The LA Times takes the tourist route: you too can go on a Orwell holiday.
While I might go and see Orwell: A Celebration at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall.
JG Ballard, who died on Sunday, will be remembered mostly for his fiction As noted in today’s Guardian he left a legacy right across the spectum of the arts, but he also left behind some of the most apt aphorisms and witty one-liners of the last century. Here is a sample of the most memorable:
On the legacy of science fiction:
“Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.”
On fear of the future:
“I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again… the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.”
On the internet:
“Twenty years ago no one could have imagined the effects the Internet would have: entire relationships flourish, friendships prosper…there’s a vast new intimacy and accidental poetry, not to mention the weirdest porn. The entire human experience seems to unveil itself like the surface of a new planet.”
“Rockets “belong to the age of the 19th century, along with the huge steam engines. It’s brute-force ballistic technology that has nothing to do with what people recognise as the characteristic technology of this century: microprocessors, microwave data links – everything that goes in the world at the speed of an electron.”
On space travel:
“The suspicion dawned that Outer Space might be – dare one say it – boring. Having expended all these billions of dollars on getting to the Moon, we found on our arrival that there wasn’t very much to do there.”
On the American dream:
“The American Dream has run out of gas. The car has stopped. It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies. No more. It’s over. It supplies the world with its nightmares now: the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Vietnam.”
On the American people:
“Americans are highly moralistic, and any kind of moral ambiguity irritates them. As a result they completely fail to understand themselves, which is one of their strengths.”
On American politics:
“The president of the United States bears about as much relationship to the real business of running America as does Colonel Sanders to the business of frying chicken.”
On his night at the Oscars:
“A wonderful night for any novelist, and a reminder of the limits of the printed word. Sitting with the sober British contingent, surrounded by everyone from Dolly Parton to Sean Connery, I thought Spielberg’s film would be drowned by the shimmer of mink and the diamond glitter. But once the curtains parted the audience was gripped. Chevy Chase, sitting next to me, seemed to think he was watching a newsreel, crying: `Oh, oh . . . !’ and leaping out of his seat as if ready to rush the screen in defense of young [Christian] Bale.”
On the 20th century:
“The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the specters of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy.”
On novel writing:
“Any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it. “
“If you can smell garlic, everything is all right.”
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Just want to pay my tributes to the great JG Ballard, who has died of prostate cancer. For me he was one of the most truly original thinkers around and one of our most gifted writers.
Some of the early coverage: The Times got hold of Iain Sinclair last night, which was the most appropriate thing to do, as well as pointing out that, if nothing else, he added at least one word to the English language.
Salon.com has put up a guide to his greatest work. The Guardian has put up an extract from Empire of the Sun, which seems a safe choice. Maybe they’ll put up the Atrocity Exhibition later. They’ll be much more up tomorrow morning, I’ll add to this list then.
AP have put out a story headlined “Empire of the Sun author dies” which is not on quite the same freeway as the Sun’s similarly reductive response to the death of Orson Wells (headline: Sherry Man Dies). Ballard was so much more than that. So much more of him to miss. His contribution to literature was just so immense, but I can’t yet fathom it.
Simon Callow laments the “bibliocide” of Charing Cross Road, London’s celebrated book village. Fastly becoming an extension of Chinatown or an annexe of Oxford Street. Regular readers of the blog will recall that we like a good bookshop at the Northern Light and we regret the street’s passing too.
+ The Guardian went to town with its analysis of the G20 riots, noting that the rise of the “citizen cameraman” is changing the relationship between protestor and police. Ian Jack offers some awesome analysis on how powerful the photograph has become, but warns that at best they only offer a half truth. Elsewhere, Paul Walker reports on how the shock of Ian Tomlinson’s death was felt around the world; while Martin Preston , a press photographer, gives a vivid account of what it feels like to be at the business end of a police baton.
+ The great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm admits that socialism has failed and that capitalism is bankcrupt. He asks, what’s next?
+ Not a Neverland built on the never-never. Johann Hari on the dark side of Dubai: “a living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing into history”.
+ If Dubai’s vision of the future is now obsolete, what comes next? John Geraci, founder of DIY Cities thinks that open source applications could lead the way to a new kind of urban planning. “The conversation about the future of our cities should involve the people living in those cities … it should be about how to reinvent these services as modern, efficient things, how to make them work at a fraction of their current cost, and, while we’re at it, how to make them better than they are now.” My vote would be to work out a way that hisoric quarters selling, say, books, shouldn’t be left to fade away.
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I’m intrigued to learn that the life of Lucien Carr is to be made into a film. Carr was the man who introduced writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (to be played by British actor Ben Whishaw).
Kill Your Darlings revisits an infamous night in 1944 when Carr stabbed his friend David Kammerer to death. He was later convicted of the manslaughter. Kerouac spent a night in the clink for helping Carr dispose of the knife.
It’s difficult to gauge how good it will be; films about the Beat Movement have been so uniformly dire, which is strange because you’d have thought that the movement would be made on the silver screen. All that great music; those wide open roads; the scenes of bohemian hedonism have somehow never been successfully translated to the cinema.
+ Incidentally there is a decent-looking Kerouac documentary is doing the festivals circuit.
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Glad to see that the Orwell Prize for political writing has been extended to included blogging. Heard Jean Seaton on the Today Programme this morning saying that if Orwell were alive today, he would have been a blogger. She added: “He was always absolutely avid about whatever was the contemporary form of media.”
“He would have been interested in the democratic possibilities of it – anyone can do it as long as they’ve got access to a machine,” said DJ Taylor, Orwell’s biographer. “[But], the misuses to which blogging has been put … would have appalled him. There would, in all probability, have been an essay on Blogging and the English Language.”
First Showing is reporting that David Mitchell’s masterful Cloud Atlas will be adapted for the big screen. The film of the book (that should have won the 2004 Booker Prize) will be produced by the Wachowski Brothers and directed by Tom Tykwer, who previously directed Run Lola Run.
My first thought is that Cloud Atlas is pretty un-film-able. The book is a literary jigsaw puzzle: something both entertaining and difficult at the same time. It takes a long time to ponder, without ever being too heavy. So much of that will surely be lost in translation.
What will remain, I think, will be highly entertaining,. Like Danny Boyle’s re-making of Trainspotting, it will romp along nicely enough; hopping through different adventures and riffing along different genres. Think of Timothy Cavendish’s misadventures, for instance, and how they would make for a tight little Ealing-style comedy.
But it will be a fluffier Cloud Atlas on offer. Of course it will. The Brothers Wachowski can only carry it up to a point. Their V for Vendetta simplified much of Alan Moore’s political message after all and it made for a frustrating adaptation, despite excellent performances from Geoffery Rush and Natalie Portman (the latter an evens-bet for Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas). The brothers also famously failed to give the Matrix Trilogy much sense in the end. Could they do better with Cloud Altas with just two hours to play with? I wonder.
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AV Club has pulled together “15” things Kurt Vonnegut said”. My favourite – aside from the epitath of his headstone (right):
“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”
Just wanted to note the passing of Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas eve. Actor, playwright, nobel laureate, cricket lover, political activist and, as Nick Cohen points out, apologist for Milosovic.
He was one of the few artistic greats I ever witnessed in the flesh: performing in his own play, the Hothouse, at the Comedy Theatre in 1995. I was a first year undergraduate and it made such a lasting impression on me that I went on to discover both Brecht and Beckett off the back of it.
In its obituary the New York Times notes his “gifts for finding the ominous in the everyday and the noise within silence [which] made him the most influential and imitated dramatist of his generation”. Despite Johan Hari’s protestations that Pinter was full of “commonplace insights” I think he constantly tapped into something more often profound. His contrarian stance will be sorely missed, not just in theatreland.
In 1992, William Gibson wrote a 300-line poem and published it on a magnetic disk which was programmed to erase itself upon exposure to air.
Collaborating with the Dennis Ashbaugh and award-winning journalist Kevin Begos, Jr they put it in a handmade book and filled it with disappearing ink.
It was “performed” at the Americas Society in New York and transmitted across “the wilds of the internet” later that year, but has since been lost to time.
Now the Universities of Maryland and Santa Barbara have recovered the original file from one of the discs and published it as the Agrippa Files.
A deep and complex website, the Agrippa Files contains “emulations” of the poem, a facsimile of the book and exhaustive documentation
Roddy Doyle’s much anticipated creative writing centre. Fighting Words, has gone online prior to its opening in Dublin in January. Taking its inspiration from David Eggers’ 826 Valencia, the centre pairs volunteer professional writers with local children. It doesn’t mention the fact explicitly, but the subtext here is that one-on-one mentoring can help revive a deprived quarter of a city.
Doyle’s centre is the first European member of the Once Upon a School movement that has swept across the deprived cities of America. It is beautifully inspiring stuff. For more on this see Eggers’ (very funny) speech at Ted Conference earlier this year.
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