Monday 22 March 2010

Enemies Of Promise: Cyril Connolly

In the first part of this book, Connolly examines the dual trends of stripped-down, vernacular storytelling and elevated, stylistically ambitious prose in early 20th-century novels. He looks at the strengths and weaknesses of both styles and proposes a synthesis. It's interesting stuff, rendered dated in its prescriptions by the fact that the dam was about burst - a vast array of styles far beyond the elitist 'mandarin' or demotic 'vernacular' of his analysis were to explode on the literary scene. And yet, the essential ebb and flow of forces of stylistic complication and simplification are still a valid way to view literary history.

In the second part, he lists the factors that can prevent a writer from realising his promise. Some of these are largely valid and others seem a bit ridiculous - try telling Shirley Jackson that a pram in the hallway is the writer's worst enemy! His analysis of the alleged limitations of a homosexual writer are ludicrous and there is a tacit assumption that the promising writer is male, despite his acknowledgment of the existence of Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. The thing with all his enemies of promise, is that I can list writers who have realised their promise despite them, but still Connolly does provide a useful list of things that the indisciplined or simply insufficiently driven or inspired writer can use as ways to drift away from writing.

The third section is a memoir of his youth which serves as a fascinating study of the mores of a world that vanished with the world wars, an interesting study in self-analysis and a useful complement to his classmate George Orwell's memories of some of the same aspects.

A very mixed book with some streaks of totally brilliant analysis and much that is contentious at best. Definitely a mandarin book, style-wise!

The Time Patrol: Poul Anderson

A collection of 10 short stories about an organisation that polices the timelines, making sure that history is not altered by renegade time-travellers.

The good: vivid evocation of far-flung time and places, a great sense of how history works, an interesting take on time-travel paradoxes and Anderson's usual large-scale vision of past, present and future, as well as unobtrusively vivid prose and instinct for heroic pathos.

The bad: Basic plots are repetitive, so you can't read too many at one go. Too many firm-jawed manly men and winsome wenches waiting to be won; deeply antediluvian gender politics, in other words. But still not as bad as Heinlein's sexy sexism.

Thursday 11 March 2010

This is the first Vance novel I've re-read and it was pretty damn awesome the second time around. It is on one level a fairly typical Vance narrative where an amoral protagonist claws his way through a rigid, highly-organised society, only to bring the system crashing through and then become a space explorer.

But with Vance, the details are everything. There are the wonderful proper nouns - Vance's characters just have the best names ever - The Jacynth Martin, The Grayven Warlock and so on. His knack for naming places is just as euphonious - the chief settings of the story are the rigidly-structured city of Clarges and its licentious counterpart, Carnevalle. There's an elaborate social scheme, with eternal life as goal, plenty of lush description, pungent dialogue and suspense. One of the highlights is a description of a mime performance. Another Vance highlight are imaginary artforms - this time we are shown a form of water sculpture.

You can't really unconditionally applaud Vance's heroes but you have to admire the determination and ruthlessness with which they go about achieving their ends, and Grayven/Gavin is no exception. I'm not sure this goes in the highest rung of Vance's work - I reserve that for the Demon Princes books, the Marune books, Dying Earth and Lyonesse, but it gets pretty damn close.

Monday 8 March 2010

"Mostly what you lose with time, in memory, is the specificity of things, their exact sequence. It all runs together, becomes a watery soup. Portmanteau days, imploded years. Like a bad actor, memory always goes for effect, abjuring motivation, consistency, good sense. "

"I was coming up on a cross street when a man wearing a filthy suit stepped out from around the corner of the building ahead and directly into my path. Bent with age, he turned bleak red eyes to me and stared. Pressed with his chest to both hands he carried a paperback book as soiled and bereft as his suit. Are you one of the real ones or not? he demanded. And after a moment, when I failed to answer, he walked on, resuming his sotto voce conversation.

A chill passed through me. Somehow, indefinably, I felt, felt with the kind of baffled, tacit understanding that we have in dreams , that I had just glimpsed one possible future self. "

Saturday 6 March 2010

I've been re-reading the short story 'He' by H.P. Lovecraft this morning. The opening passages of this story correspond so closely with Lovecraft's own impressions and experiences of New York that I am moved to point out how much the 'weird fiction' of this man is in fact closely intertwined with his own dreams, hopes, thoughts and quotidian experience. It isn't the richness of a writer's external doings with the world that feed creativity so much as a rich internal life which can transform the mundane experiences that may be shared by many others into unique, illuminating inspiration.

I live in a city that I once loved, or thought I would, and am increasingly dismayed by the way it has grown. This passage by Lovecraft strikes me as a particularly striking observation on the sense of what it is like to live in a place that has outlived all of its original meanings and beliefs, a zombie city, quick with a terrible, unnatural new life:

...I saw at last a fearful truth which no one had ever dared to breathe before - the unwhisperable secret of secrets - the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.

Of course, I have to read this passage with that strange double vision with which I empathise completely with what is being said, while reserving a grain of sourness for the knowledge that those 'queer animate things' may well have included creatures like myself, in Lovecraft's eyes.

Still, what a powerful, dark image that is! And how pertinent when the cities that we live in seem no longer to be conglomerations born of human need and wants but machines that perpetuate themselves, with human lives serving merely as grist to the mill.

Or perhaps I'm just having a morbid morning. In any case, a striking passage that I thought worth sharing.