Friday, May 29, 2009

Leo Tolstoy – ‘War and Peace’ (Vols 1 & 2)

So far, there are no islands in War and Peace, it seems to be a land locked novel. Unless you want to be less literal about that, in which case there is plenty of escaping from Moscow to St Petersburg, from St Petersburg to Moscow, from both cities to the countryside, from Russian to French (French is what the Russians speak when they are trying to be sophisticated – there is an interesting clash of cultural and actual imperialism, given that the two nations are at war for much of the time), from war to peace, and peace to war. Each an island for the time its novelty takes to wear off. Which could be why this long book’s chapters are so short, and why it is so exhilarating to take them in by the dozen. Tolstoy knows how to distract his readers, but he knows too that distraction is not just a trick to keep his fiction moving, it is also how people can bear to live.

Sometimes Pierre remembered what he had been told about soldiers in a shelter under fire with nothing to do, trying their best to keep busy and thus make danger easier to bear. And Pierre pictured all men as soldiers like these, escaping from life through ambition, cards, law-making, women, little playthings, horses, politics, sport, wine, even government service. ‘Everything matters, nothing matters, it’s all the same. If I can only escape, one way or another!’ thought Pierre, ‘And not see it, the terrible it.’ (p. 592)

I can hear Scott Walker singing that as an extra verse to ‘Next!’ Elsewhere the same idea is expressed in terms of the fall of man, after which our ‘sense of morality will not allow us to be both idle and at ease.’ (p. 533). The opposite of ‘idle’ being not ‘productive’ but ‘occupied’, so it is difficult to see where morality comes into that. It seems such a modern idea, the inability to do nothing, the need for our attention to be saturated. Surely TV caused it, or Rock ’n’ Roll, or computers? Not at all, it was there all along. There is that great line on Jeffrey Lewis’ recent LP, ‘And you just apply it to whatever’s passing by it’. There’s Bill Callahan: ‘If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat.’ There’s Popeye: ‘I yam what I yam’. People are not in control: they follow their natures, which react to other natures, and drive them to distraction when clarity or boredom threaten. As Marya Bolkonsky reflects:

Like the old French émigré who declined to marry the lady with whom he had spent all his evenings over many years because if he got married he wouldn’t know where to spend his evenings, she regretted that with Julie being here she had no one to write to. (p. 594)

This is not to say that War and Peace is amoral, far from it. When Natasha Rostov visits Moscow with her family near the end of a long separation from her fiancé Andrey Bolkonsky, she provokes two reactions: Pierre, afraid of how attracted he is to her, leaves Moscow for a short while on a pretext; his brother-in-law Anatole Kuragin, though he knows about the engagement and is already married himself, quite deliberately plots to seduce her – more than that, to kidnap her and marry her in secret (this section’s thrills are reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo: Dolokhov as Danglars, manipulating events with an easy conscience). Moral action is possible, but never quite detached: in upbraiding Anatole and reassuring Natasha, Pierre finds himself drawn to her in exactly the way he had wanted to avoid.

These are the events which bring Volume 2 to a close, and they are so vivid that it would be easy to forget the scope of what has led to them. Much of it I have already forgotten – not because it was a great deal less vivid (though Volume 2 does build to an incredible peak), but because there is so much of it. Someone said of Proust’s sentences, that if you tried to hold on to the sense of them all the way through, you were lost, and a similar thing is true of the plot of War and Peace: it is only necessary to be conscious of a small subset of it at any one time. I am already starting to think that re-reading it would be helpful for the clues you’d pick up about characters from accounts of their behaviour when they were children, but that is a pleasure for another time: letting go, is how to enjoy this book.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Don’t Stand Me Down

Who saw this coming? Apart from the whole money thing which has been busy extracting all interest from the news for the last six, eight months. And the way no-one wants to buy things on paper any more when they can get them for free online. Stewart Gardiner says ‘it wasn’t the web that necessarily did for Plan B’, pointing to the ‘advertising recession’ instead. Isn’t that driven by the web, too? The other day I left rather florid comment at Cultural Snow, which wound up:

Someone commented here recently that Twitter won’t replace blogging because it’s all links, there needs to be something for it to link to. Blogging is similar – there’s more to get your teeth into, but still half the point is to pick up recommendations of ‘proper’ things.

The interesting questions are, how is ‘proper’ going to be redefined by the internet age? How will money fit in (because it must, if art is not to be marginalised by technology)? And of course – is a pop song still a pop song if only five people have heard it?

The ‘proper’-ness of a magazine is in the effort it takes to put together, and the collaboration it entails. And, OK, the money. Stephen Pastel says in a comment on Everett True’s music blog: ‘ego’s ok sometimes but there was great community in this’, which is a great summary of ET’s career. Of course that community can continue, as Everett says, at the Plan B website, but it will have lost the focus it currently has. Maybe something will grow out of Plan B, as Plan B grew out of Careless Talk Costs Lives. I hope so, and I hope there is community in that too. Because the thing about blogs is, there is always one person’s voice to be heard above the others, they can’t do what a magazine does, that assault from all sides at once, that giddying, mob enthusiasm. We needed you, Plan B. Thanks for being there.

A better, more specific elegy (one of many, I’m sure) at the always fabulous Attic Plan blog.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tim O’Brien – ‘In the Lake of the Woods’

What I thought at first:

You hear all the time about books which read like film scripts. In the Lake of the Woods is like a script for a comic: descriptions not of how characters feel, but of how their feelings make them look.

A little further in:

In the Lake of the Woods veering deeper into the Vietnam war with a horrific description of the slaughter at the village of Thuan Yen. As it does so the nastier aspects of John Wade’s character become somewhat excused – and the book cancels itself out, almost. What is the point of him if he is to be made sympathetic? I can’t help thinking of Adam Curtis’ section of Charlie Brooker’s recent Newswipe programme, on ‘Oh Dear-ism’, in which news becomes simplified and de-politicised to the point where the only appropriate response is ‘isn’t that awful?’ The destruction of Thuan Yen is unequivocally awful, but I don’t see where it takes you. There is no political context provided – either of the war, or of Wade’s later campaign to become a senator. You can’t even say that the point is that it shouldn’t be allowed to happen again, because you are not really told what happened in the first place.

A little further still:

Maybe ‘Oh Dear-ism’ is more appropriate to the novel than the news broadcast.

It took a while for this book to win me around. It begins with a countdown to the disappearance of Kathy Wade, wife of John, who has just suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls (the press reveal John Wade’s involvement in the Thuan Yen massacre at an awkward moment, and – end of campaign). A sympathetic supporter has lent them a remote cottage for a few weeks, to give them time to come to terms with this. There is a suggestion that he kills her: he is shown pouring boiling water over the pot plants in the living room, then boiling the kettle again and making his way to the bedroom where Kathy is sleeping. There is another suggestion, given at least equal weight, that she takes the boat out early in the morning and gets lost on the huge and rambling Lake of the Woods, which lies at the intersection of Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba. In the opening chapters the focus is on the couple, the election, and Kathy’s disappearance: the Vietnam war creeps in gradually, and I suppose it should be predictable that it will take over, but I didn’t feel that reading it. Instead, the book felt like a thriller: I groaned at the prospect that Kathy would disappear, there would be a search operation, and eventually they’d find her body and prove that John had killed her, because of his unhappy childhood (his father’s suicide is repeatedly alluded to). That seemed pretty uninteresting, but the prose was so basic I didn’t hold out much hope for a more imaginative plot development. ‘At least don’t tell us what happened to Kathy,’ I thought.

It doesn’t, it is not that kind of book. Uncertainty is its theme, and nothing produces uncertainty quite like a missing person. O’Brien is very open about the desirability of this effect. This is from one of the footnotes in one of several ‘Evidence’ chapters (which mix real quotations on war, Vietnam and magic with invented testimony from those who knew Kathy Wade):

The thing about Custer is this: no survivors. Hence, eternal doubt, which both frustrates and fascinates. It’s a standoff. The human desire for certainty collides with our love of enigma. (p. 269)

On one level the book is playing a trick: it seems to promise a simple, certain resolution to a criminal act (the murder of Kathy). But it pulls away from even admitting that the crime happened. Why is this a good way of illuminating war crimes? I think it’s to do with John being unable to accept what he was part of in Thuan Yen: he has constant flashbacks to that day, in particular shooting an old man who came at him with what he took to be a gun, but which turned out to be a hoe. This and a few other images will not leave him alone. A parallel with a murder would not be enough: his memories of the massacre are too fragmentary, alive and insistent to be compared to anything so definitive.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Lost and Found

Some bad lyrics from the new Camera Obscura album:

You with your dietry restriction
Said you loved me with a lot of conviction
(from ‘French Navy’)

On the bus radio, ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’
I laughed at the irony
But life is stupid, the irony was lost on me
(from ‘The Sweetest Thing’)

What does that mean?! Was the irony lost, or wasn’t it? What does a wheat intolerance or whatever over specific under specified thing is being referred to there, have to do with someone saying they love you, apart from that forced rhyme? Here’s another:

You kissed me on the forehead
And now I’ve got concussion
We were in love at first sight
And now this crush is crushing
(from ‘My Maudlin Career’)

Lines one, two and four of that are approximately my favourite pop lyric of all time – it is just a pity that line three makes such a nonsense of them. From love to a crush seems an inexplicable reversal.

The weird thing is though, I don’t care at all. Normally I’m as pedantic over language as the next chap – maybe even a touch more – and I could claim that this is why I’m finding it harder and harder to listen to My Maudlin Career with each new day. But that’s not it. It’s the swell and the ache and the liquid reverb, the voice melting into violins melting into soft soft guitar. And horns! I haven’t been so pleased to hear horns since The Sundays’ ‘Summertime’. In this interview, Tracyanne Campbell says ‘it’s a get together knowing fine well it should end, or it’s going to end, and then it does’ record, which of course is the reason why all of this works so well. To be so overwhelmed by a big pop sound, I don’t know what to compare it to – ‘Ten Storey Love Song’, ‘Baby, I Love You’. Mixed with a hurt as big as Billie Holiday’s on Lady in Satin, or Lucinda Williams’ on ‘Sharp Cutting Wings’. Pick your own unhappy love song. At the end a line so simple and perfect you could forgive anything:

I wish my heart was cold
But it’s warmer than before
(from ‘Honey in the Sun’)

Around and around it goes.

Monday, May 04, 2009

True to the Trail

Catching up on Blissblog the other day, I saw a new link on the sidebar: ‘Monorails for Codsall’. Scrolling downwards past photos of Fleetwood Mac, it was enough to catch my eye for two reasons: Codsall is the village in Staffordshire where I grew up, and Monorail is a record shop in Glasgow of which I am fond. The link brought up a site which gives the history of the monorail system which serves the ‘South Staffordshire Autonomous Zone’, an area which is not legally part of the UK at all, and has not been since 1985. Funny I didn’t notice that at the time – it was certainly good of West Midlands Travel to continue to run buses to Codsall under the circumstances. What with those and the trains I just never thought to look up. But leaving aside the plausibility of what the website says, what I can’t understand is why Blissblog’s author, Simon Reynolds, a rock critic from London living in New York, would be interested in it. Or whether there is any connection to the record shop at all. It seems like such a bizarre convergence of things. What could possibly explain it?

I woke with a start this morning and realised that I am 33 ⅓ years old.

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