Saturday, November 23, 2013

The youth of Britain, somewhat before their finest hour.

At my blog for my book on the Pace murder trial, I offer a couple of excerpts from a fascinating LRB review of inter-war British masculinity.

With his ‘constant combing of well-oiled locks of long hair, tidy clothes and well-kept hands and nails’, as one exasperated army physical training instructor put it, the new teenager was symptomatic of a greater national effeminisation that was undermining Britain’s ability to defend itself in an ever more dangerous world. 

Ah, the eternal problem of 'today's youth'.

A game full of forlorn hopes (and striking prose)

It strikes me once again that there is something different about writing about cricket than writing about other sports.

Had Gower played that shot he would have been painted as a carefree dilettante wantonly incapable of recognising the gravity of the situation. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

'A certain bluntness'

From my lunchtime reading--an article at the THE on academic rudeness--here is some intercultural knowledge that accords with my own experience and might be helpful to some of you.

According to Gunther Martens, research professor of German literature at Ghent University: 

“Discussions in the Anglo-Saxon context have all kinds of face-saving measures,” he notes, “whereas continental debates pitch individual academics (and their reputations) against each other. At conferences, colleagues in English studies tend to ask questions, but they will always laud the speaker first. Americans are even more friendly…In the German context, a question is either a downright attempt to present one’s own view on the topic [or] a straightforward attack, meant to call into question the authority of the speaker. It is [considered] preferable to say that something is bad rather than to be implicit about it.”

Citing a colleague’s statement that “academic authority is the ability to offend someone”, Martens argues that this is premised on the notion that “a certain bluntness is necessary to arrive at the truth (which is the sole standard and may disregard other standards of sociability)”. German academics, he adds, tend to avoid blogging and tweeting because “their direct style would be misunderstood in the socially indeterminate space of the internet”.

There is the related issue of humour: a distinct asset in Anglo-American academic debate, it is often seen as a handicap in German contexts, apparently as a result of a widespread opinion that being funny and being serious are mutually exclusive.

But that's an issue for another lunchtime.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing: still needed

While it is not really a surprise, it is saddening to hear of the death of Doris Lessing.

It made me recall a blog post by The Wife back in 2007, 'Why We Need Doris Lessing', commenting on Lessing's receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the ambivalent response that this award generated among some sections of Germany's literary intelligentsia.

To wit: 

Reich-Ranicki and Scheck, although at roughly opposite ends of the age spectrum, share membership in the vociferous anti-Lessing league, which always returns, with a persistence that borders on the obsessive, to the same hackneyed and unfounded prejudices from which its members seem to derive carte blanche to go around rubbishing her work at every available opportunity. These prejudices are:

a) Lessing is a bloody feminist.
b) Lessing is not Virginia Woolf.

Having said that, even those who celebrate Lessing seem determined to get her wrong. Among the more defensive responses was an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which opens with the following line: ‘But for a few weak books, Doris Lessing’s biography is flawless – it is all politically correct. The Nobel Prize for Literature appears to be standing in for the Nobel Peace Prize.’

Drivel like this confirms my sneaking suspicion that many journalists are simply not the sharpest tools in the shed. A politically correct biography!? Doris Lessing? A former Rhodesian Marxist who dumped her boring first husband for a German radical, abandoned two small children to go and live it up in London’s literary set and subsequently dabbled in Sufism and Sci-Fi only to spend most of the rest of her life railing against any form of political utopianism from feminism to Islamism?

She then turned to examining Lessing's 2001 novel  The Sweetest Dream, which we both read and enjoyed in 2007.

There is nothing utopian or politically correct about Lessing’s protagonist. Frances is Everywoman, trying to make do in a world of radically different individuals with conflicting interests and expectations, only to realize that, however hard one tries, there will always be plenty of loose ends left over. It’s those with the grand ideas that have it wrong: the café politicos and middle-class feminists wasting precious time making molehills into mountains. Consider Julie, Frances’s right-thinking journalist colleague at The Defender, a leftish daily modeled on The Guardian, who flies into

a fit of tearful rage when hearing on the radio that it was the female mosquito that is responsible for malaria. ‘The shits. The bloody fascist shits.’ When at last persuaded by Frances that this was a fact and not a slander invented by male scientists to put down the female sex – ‘Sorry, gender’ – she quietened into hysterical tears and said, ‘It’s all so bloody unfair’ (226).
Now, how many ‘politically correct’ feminist icons go around smacking the universal sisterhood upside the head with the more irrational bits of their creed? Like Lessing, Frances resists succumbing to ideology, although at the cost of being excluded from much of what is going on.

The rest is also worth your time. 

Farewell, Doris Lessing.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Turn, turn, turn

I'm still digesting this rather long, thoughtful essay by Princeton historian David A. Bell on the 'global turn' in history, but I thought I'd post it here both for your own edification and so that I can find it again when I have more time to consider it.

What is 'global history', you ask?


What social history was to the 1960s and 1970s, and cultural history to the 1980s and 1990s, global history has become in the first decades of the new century. Forty years ago, a young historian interested in the era of the American Revolution might have undertaken a dissertation on how independence affected daily life in small-town New England. Twenty years ago, she might have traced discourses of masculinity in the newspapers of the early republic. Today, a typical topic is more likely to involve the impact of “global” commodities such as tea and wine on American cities, or the role of foreign sailors on American merchant vessels, or the establishment of correspondence networks between slave-owners in the American South and the Caribbean. 

Everything in its place, I say.

But academia, like everything else, is prone to fashions. 

'What could be one of the most dramatic and exiting election nights since the war'

While looking for some examples of the work of the recently deceased BBC journalist John Cole, I stumbled upon this rather extraordinary video of the BBC's 1992 election coverage.

I only made it about five minutes in, but up to that point you have some pretty interesting viewing, from the overly dramatic TV graphics--which seem more 'X-Factor' than 'Serious Politics'--to the broad and diverse selection of posh accents and the effort to invest the results in Basildon with some sense of drama.

My favourite line: David Dimbleby's ringing announcement (at 1:45) that, 'Here in the studio, we've got bank after bank after bank...of computers.'

That was still the kind of thing you mentioned in 1992, apparently. (And I wonder whether your average smart phone today might be able to handle the number crunching that required those 'banks' back then.)

In any case: the BBC's exit polling in 1992 clearly left a lot to be desired.

Individuality. And idiots.

I have no particularly strong feelings about Jonathan Franzen's novels (I read The Corrections but can't remember much other than one couch-sniffing scene and some kind of Lithuanian political unrest), but I found Joshua Cohen's review (at the LRB) of Franzen's latest book, The Kraus Project, to be not only readable but also informative.

The subject of the novel (and much of the review) is the Viennese journalist and writer Karl Kraus.

But Cohen at a few points turns to the finer points of translation:

‘The masses’ [in Kraus's view] are the by-product of the mass production of language: the linotype machine – the internet of the fin de siècle – ensured the fast and cheap dissemination of more periodicals, and so of more fast and cheap rhetoric, than ever before. In the first Heine essay, Kraus fixates on the industrial capacities of the logos, in a German masterly in its truncations: ‘Glaubt mir, ihr Farbenfrohen, in Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten.’

A version of this characteristically untranslatable sentence might be: ‘Believe me, you multicoloured multiculturalists, turning every idiot into an individual turns individuality itself idiotic.’ Franzen has: ‘Believe me, you colour-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.’ He skips the neurotic beauty of Farbenfrohen, and the economical swerve of the noun Trottel becoming the verb vertrotteln; and though both omissions are forgivable, a culture where prominent American novelists can use the word ‘blockhead’ will itself become a blockheaded culture.

But the most important element lost in this passage, which follows a condemnation of the Frenchification of German, is Kraus’s paradoxical use of Individualität, a noun that had come to German from the French only a half-century earlier. In the 1760s Rousseau redefined individuel from meaning ‘indivisible’, or ‘numerically distinct’, to meaning ‘a single person’, but it was only with the second volume of Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique in 1840 that individualisme took on the positive connotation of a heroic severance of personality from the herd, and was opposed by negative, greedy égoïsme; both terms were soon shepherded into German.

The rest is also worth your time.

Asgard: a land down under

David Weigel's Slate review of Thor: The Dark World offers a comparison that I was not at all suspecting:

Thor followed the Crocodile Dundee paradigm, the tough guy dazzling people in a new land with his rough manners and strange vest. TTDW is Crocodile Dundee II, which put the fish back in his familiar waters, dragging his New York girlfriend to the Outback. 

'The Crocodile Dundee paradigm': a phrase with which to conjure.


Sunday, November 03, 2013

Something new from the Overlook Hotel

Since the relatively late year of 2008, I've been an admirer of Stephen King's horror writing.

But having gone through some of his more 'classic' works in that year -- Salem's Lot, It, The Stand, The Mist -- my free-time reading became captured by other things.

A few weeks ago, Joshua Rothman's New Yorker review of Doctor Sleep, King's newest novel and sequel to The Shining (1977), reminded me of what I enjoyed about King's writing and made me want to read his latest.

But, although I'd -- of course -- seen the film of The Shining (several times), I had never actually read the book.

So I decided to read that first, before checking out Doctor Sleep.

And I'm very glad I did.

Dyed-in-the-wool King fans might think a loud 'Duh!' when reading this, but in case I'm not the last person to find this out: the book is very different than the film. In terms of plot and characterisation it's also much better. (Though I think the film remains a visual and atmospheric masterpiece and very compelling contribution to the horror genre.)

The book creates a much richer constellation of emotions and conflicts and background around the three main characters (married couple Jack and Wendy Torrance and their son Danny). Perhaps most importantly, Jack's struggles with both alcohol and his temper are thoroughly worked out. This background makes the increasingly claustrophobic horror of the Outlook Hotel all the more significant, as Jack's descent into madness -- much more gradual and compelling than in the film -- gets going.

The Shining is a very, very creepy and disturbing book.

In a good way, mind you. 

Anyway, having finished The Shining I carried on to Doctor Sleep  and finished it yesterday.

I'd definitely recommend it to fans of horror and/or fantasy fiction, but it's a very different kind of book than The Shining. Almost the opposite kind of book, in fact: it's far more a geographically sprawling thriller than a claustrophobic horror novel.

But it's definitely intriguing.

As Rothman says:

“The Shining” is introspective, austere, and unsettlingly plausible, which is why it comes to mind whenever you visit a creepy hotel, play croquet, or see an angry dad with his kid. But “Doctor Sleep,” which feels less like a sequel and more like a spinoff, is unapologetically fun, free-wheeling, and bizarre. It’s about a wandering band of psychic vampires who stalk clairvoyant children, kill them, and then inhale their “steam,” or psychic energy, for food. A grownup Dan Torrance—the little boy from “The Shining”—must help a young girl fight off these vampires, who have sensed her psychic abilities from afar and have chosen her as their meal of the week. In place of its predecessor’s unsettling familial violence, “Doctor Sleep” has thrilling gunfights, absurd satanic rituals, and wildly entertaining telepathic showdowns. 

And it contains one of the best (i.e. most harrowing) descriptions of a post-bender hangover that I've ever read.

We're well past Halloween now, but with winter approaching, The Shining makes for perfectly good (i.e., unsettling) night-time reading.

And the sequel's quite good as well. 

If not exactly The Reason for the Season, the two books make a great accompaniment to it.

Hotel Art #6

Part of an occasional series.

Klosterhotel Marienhöhe, Langweiler, Germany. (November 2013)

(No art, you will see, to be found. But a great place all the same.)