Musings/Träumereien/Devaneios

Claustrophobic and Baroque Experience: "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust

Swann's Way - Marcel Proust, Lydia Davis

I read Proust's masterpiece back in 1985. What did I know of life then? Nothing!

 

Having recently read a Smithsonian editorial that made fun of the novels, and remembering all too well one particular hilariously snippy Monty Python sketch (the Summarize Proust Competition), I too wanted to be able to rub elbows with the elite intellectuals who mocked Proust, so I picked up the first of three volumes (the weighty Moncrieff editions because I have no french whatsoever) and got started. The first few pages were tough going, but soon I became mesmerized, then I fell in love, and by the end of the summer I was tucking flowers into the plackets of my blouses and wearing bows in my hair.

 

Oh you kids. “Swann's Way” is the swiftest, plottiest volume in the monster, with “Un Amour de Swann” a little novel in itself, with a beginning, middle, end, and all that sort of thing. Originally drafted in a mere three volumes, the Recherche grew as Proust re-Proustified the later volumes while waiting for publication; many readers have wished that that long mini-book could be recovered. The pace picks up again in the last volume, which the author's death prevented him from reworking it, so that a dinner party—one of the greatest scenes in all literature, by the way—takes only a few hundred pages to describe, what with the jolts of consciousness with which Proust bracketed it, while the first half of the volume is impossibly brilliant about the first World War without ever leaving Paris.

 

 

If you're into Mundane Fiction, read on.

Such a Beautiful Hindquarter of Pork: "Emma" by Jane Austen

Emma - Jane Austen, Fiona Stafford

I wonder if a variation on the Unreliable Narrator is permissible here? Jane Austen's Emma, while narrated solely by the author herself, is told exclusively from the title character's point of view (chime in and correct me if there are scenes in which she doesn't take part, however minor) so that Austen becomes Emma's interpreter, and our interlocutor. It's a very deliberate choice, because Austen then goes on deftly but in plain sight to give you every reason to question Emma's headlong conclusions, while knowing full well that you'll simply go right along with Emma anyway. Surprisingly, none of this feels tricksy or opportunistic, though of course it might had Austen not had this particular objective unwaveringly in her sights: The Unreliable Reader. If we look at the story from within Emma's world, she's a classic unreliable narrator, primarily to poor Harriet Smith. Emma's wishful and willful narratives consistently mislead Harriet, who depends entirely on Emma's versions of things. To make matters more complex, Emma really should have known better, as she admits (to her credit) when her eyes are opened. Nor is Emma the only unreliable narrator. She is misled in her turn by Frank Churchill's camouflaging accounts of his relationship to Jane Fairfax. Again, the reliability angle is enriched when Frank thinks at one point that Emma does perceive his attachment to Jane.

 

 

If you're into Mundane Fiction, read on.

Frazzled Frenzy SF: "The Stand - The Complete & Uncut Edition" by Stephen King

The Stand - Stephen King

One of my favourite SF books was Stephen King's 1979 "The Stand", which I read in the full unadulterated double-doorstop version released in 1990, which was considered far to voluminous to release in 1979. This is the second time I'm re-reading it. How did it fare?

 

This is the sort of SF that is all too plausible, an accidental spill from a biological weapons facility releasing a plague-like virus which sweeps the planet in a matter of weeks, leaving 99% of humanity dead. King introduces a scores of protagonists, split into two camps of good and evil, the good 'uns drawn to Boulder Colorado through a shared dream of a 108 year old black woman, and the baddies under the control of supernatural drifter Randal Flagg.

 

King said he had been wanting to create an American Lord of the Rings, saying he:

 

“...just couldn't figure out how to do it. Then . . . after my wife and kids and I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I saw a 60 Minutes segment on CBW (chemical-biological warfare). I never forgot the gruesome footage of the test mice shuddering, convulsing, and dying, all in twenty seconds or less. That got me remembering a chemical spill in Utah, that killed a bunch of sheep (these were canisters on their way to some burial ground; they fell off the truck and ruptured). I remembered a news reporter saying, 'If the winds had been blowing the other way, there was Salt Lake City.' Only instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg. The land of Mordor ('where the shadows lie,' according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas”.

 

If you're into Massive SF, read on.

Pax Americana: "Double Star" by Robert A. Heinlein

Double Star - Robert A. Heinlein

Implausible and impossible to put down- like all of Heinlein's books I've read its hero is a man of action and boundless self confidence, a wisecracking all-American cowboy figure who brushes obstacles aside, a genial dictator figure who knows that as long as he's left in charge everything will be o.k. The voice is always the same - and I can see why the new wake of science fiction writers reacted against Heinlein: Aldiss, Moorcock, Ballard, Dick. Heinlein's Pax Americana and paternalism vision of the future certainly does have fascist overtones. But he's still a great storyteller, his books filled with mind-bending concepts presumably achieved without the help of the consciousness expanding substances that inspired some of his successors.

 

Yes, the Bonforte character was a very macho autocrat...Who cares? Nevertheless, “The Great Lorenzo” doesn't quite conform to the macho 'tit man' narrator as Heinlein... although the authorial voice does creep through in interesting ways in his stereotyped descriptions of Lorenzo's camp-actor personality and co...Heinlein enjoyed challenging established ways of thinking, and for most of his great period of writing liberal politics was on the rise, so he took great pleasure in poking holes in political sacred figures.

 

 

If you're into SF, read on.

Crap on Repeat: "Two Kinds of Truth" by Michael Connelly

Two Kinds of Truth - Michael Connelly

I used to feel that I shouldn't like reading Crime Fiction so much, but then sensibly decided that a well written Crime Fiction book has as much "value" as any other book, however much the literary snobs may turn their noses up. Good writing is good writing, whether it's a spy novel or a romance, a whodunit or a family saga. When I had finished all of the wonderful Wallander books, I started looking elsewhere for Nordic detection. Helene Tursten's Inspector Irene Huss (Swedish) is wonderful as is Ake Edwardson's young, hip Inspector Winter, while Liza Marklund's newspaper reporter, Annika Bengtzon gets herself into some rivetting, nail-biting situations. Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer (Norwegian) is great, as is Arnaldur Indridason's Inspector Erlunder (Icelandic)! These are all excellent translations (unlike the earlier Swedish thrillers by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose translations leave something to be desired). When I had got through all the Wallander books I was devastated, which is how I found these other wonderful Scandinavian mystery writers and a few others, namely their American counterparts. There is apparently something about the Nordic climate and temperament that makes for unbeatable crime stories! Unfortunately, it is looking like there won't be any more Wallanders since Mr. Mankell has gone to another plane of existence - though one can always hope.

 

 

If you're into Crime Fiction, read on.

Who am I? : "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

I'm a big Pynchon fan, too, so don't get me wrong here, but it seems to me like the main difference between Dick's writing style and Pynchon's--or at least, the difference that mostly accounts for Dick being treated as a "pulp" author with some interesting ideas whereas Pynchon is considered a major "literary" figure--is simply that Dick tends to write in crisp, straightforward sentences that just directly say what he means to say, whereas Pynchon's writing is (in)famously dense with allusion and rambling esoteric figurative expressions to the point where it can be an intellectual exercise in its own right just trying to figure out what the hell Pynchon is trying to say.

 

All of which makes major Dick novels like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” or “Radio Free Albemuth” sort of resemble, IMHO, what “Gravity's Rainbow” might have looked like if Pynchon had been working with editors who expected him to actually keep tight deadlines.

 

I think Dick was really gifted as a wry satirist, too, and this is something I think he's often under-appreciated for. Probably my favourite single episode in all of Dick's stories I've ever read--and I was quite overjoyed to see this faithfully recreated in the film adaptation--is still the "suicide" sequence from “A Scanner Darkly”. In short, I don't think Dick was ever bad at writing--he just doesn't seem to have had any real interest in the kind of writing that people like James Joyce or William Burroughs (or Pynchon, for whom to my mind it seems that both Joyce and Burroughs were major stylistic influences) were famous for.

 

 

If you're into SF, read on.

On How to Spin a Top-Notch Yarn of Bullshit: "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein

The usual pretty crude pneumatic sex-fantasies cropped up... But women actually have a pretty dominant role in Heinlein's lunar society... It's a penal colony, and Heinlein reckons that means there are going to be far fewer women then men there - so he's come up with a system called 'line-marriage'... wherein a few women in a household share numerous husbands... And the head of the household is a woman... and women call the shots... Meanwhile, outside the home, women are treated with far more respect than they are on earth because they are so rare and precious... Obviously, he's not going to get any badges from feminists, but he does at least ask a few interesting questions about the way women were viewed in his own world...The characters explicitly reject using patriotism as a method to revolution.  

 

I think that Prof De La Paz's 'rational anarchism' is also expressed by Jubal Harshaw in 'Stranger', though not in as straightforward a manner. Both seem to say that it's not that hard to figure out what ideal behavior should be but expecting actual live humans to live up that is impossible. After accepting that point, they both want to move on. Yep, humans are hypocritical and sometimes hard to live with. What of it? The other big point of this is that only the direst situation (near term cannibalism here) justifies butting into other people's business. Sadly, this attitude is pretty rare today. The characters explicitly reject using patriotism as a method to revolution. 

 

 

If you're into SF, read on.

The SF Lamp was Broken: "Six of Crows" by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows - Leigh Bardugo

After having finished “Six of Crows”, I would encourage anyone to consider the potential for SF to help us all drop our lazy assumptions about Realism, mimesis, and how any writing made up of words upon a page ever really relates to or captures some discernible, locatable "real world." As someone who prefers poetry over novels (Yep. I know I'm built that way), I turn to SF (science-fiction, weird fiction, fantasy) for the same sort of liberation from the tyrannous fantasy of the Real. Forget the mirror; look to the Lamp. Every piece of fiction is just that, fiction, and for those who read attentively and with appreciation of the power of the imagination. Dickens's London in “Bleak House” and Eliot's “Middlemarch” are just as artificial and speculative and weird as Carroll's “Looking Glass” world or Stoker's “Transylvania” or Barrie's “Neverland” or Mirrlees “Lud-in-the-Mist” or Jack Vance's “Dying Earth” or Peake's “Gormenghast” or China Mieville's “New Crobuzon”. All of these fantastic places are projections of the imagination. All of them hold prime value in the way they transport us away from our easy assumptions about what is real and then return us, much changed.

 

 

If you're into romancy SF, read on.

Beckettian SF: "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

“The Man in the High Castle” is my second favourite PKD novel, after “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. I read both novels in the same year, back in the day, along with “Ubik”, “VALIS” and “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”, and most of PKD's short fiction. Without doubt the most mind-bending year of reading I've ever had, and the one that hooked me on SF more than any other. The thing I love about his stories more than anything else is their mastery of chaos and illogicality. Reality in a PKD story is held together by the desperate hopes of his characters, and its always falling apart beneath their feet. Love it!

 

As for PKD's prose not keeping up with his ideas and co... I agree... and also agree it's often part of the fun. Although here, as noted, I found his writing mainly quite elegant.

 

I've been hunting around for speculation as to why PKD called Hawthorne Abendsen's book “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”. Dick says in the book that the title is a quote from The Bible, but if so it is not in a common translation. You can find some speculation elsewhere; being speculative about a Dick novel means we'll be wandering into some fairly strange territory... I've also asked the question on my own blog, so there may be enlightening comments there.

 

 

If you're into SF, read on.

Thinking in Code: "Antao's Tetris Ported from Python"

 

If you want to have a go at my version of the game, you can install it from here at the Google Play Store (Python version running on the Chrome Browser here).
 
Any idiot can code, and many do. The skill is in understanding the maths and algorithms (speaking as an idiot who codes).
 
Lazy (or to be fair perhaps just poorly informed) people have taken to use the word "coding" as a synonym for software development. Actually, coding is tricky in and of itself (read the C++11 reference manual and tell me it ain't so) but it is still only the "bricklaying" part of construction, so to speak. Programming is creative and exploratory and stimulating to the imagination. It's a different way of thinking that serves people well in all sorts of life situations outside of software. So as a way to develop skills in logical thinking, problem solving and invention it's very useful. Not every child will go on to write software as an adult but having a basic understanding and insight into systems has to be a fundamental part of every child's education I say. If you don't understand the systems controlling your life how can you ever use them to your best advantage?
 
Actually the basics of code are not directly computer related at all. A simple binary device is an on-off light switch which says something like when I am 'on' my user is at home and when I am 'off' my user is away. A second light switch allows this develop into when both lights are on my user is awake and when only one light is on my user is asleep and so on. The code is what you make the light sequences mean. The same use is made of morse code, an abacus, flag signals , hand gestures, anything that can be logically explained to mean something for each different state. I think most children develop logic rather more quickly than we believe possible, and the only problem with computers is demystifying their apparent complexity when they are only ever very fast at very simple arithmetic and being given very precise instructions about what to do with all that speed adding numbers together.
 
 
If you're into Android Game Development, read on.

The Risks of Universal Enfranchisement: "Starship Troopers" by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship Troopers - Robert A. Heinlein
Word of warning. I’m going to discourse both on the book and on the Verhoeven’s movie.
 
He didn't include them as "grunts" probably because the training was sufficiently hard that most wouldn't have made it. If you read the description of the training it wasn't just 12 weeks square-bashing, it reads far more like Special Forces.
 
It might also have been because he was paying lip service to a society kind of modelled on 50s America where the ladies were the home-makers and females in the frontline weren't even on the radar.
 
However, having said that, we have the fabulous line about females in high rank and esteem:
 
"If the Almighty ever needs a hand to run the universe: hot ship pilot Yvette Deladrier" after Starship commander Deladrier brakes her ship's orbit to recover a lander that has blasted off late and which otherwise would miss rendezvous and all on board would perish. I’ve heard from a lot of my friends saying the movie version is utter shit. I’m not so sure. The thing is, Verhoeven was a master of taking existing texts and subtly pushing them into satire by overdoing Hollywood/MTV filming tropes. The viewer was encouraged to look at the films as broad entertainment and then ask what the actions of the heroes had to do with American culture. He did the same with Joe Eszterhas's scripts for “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls”. “Basic Instinct” is a detective story where the 'hero' is someone who's already gotten away with murder because of his badge, and who shoots another innocent victim before the film is out, while the 'villain' is never actually shown to kill anyone. She's chiefly a suspect because of her sexuality (which is why GLAAD picketed the film) and lack of shame about it. “Showgirls” meanwhile depicts a vision of Las Vegas as a patriarchal dystopia where every woman is judged on her body and literally every male character is a predator of some kind. 
 
 
If you're into SF, read on.

Argghh, Just One More Go Mum: "Exploring Tetris On My Own"

 

"but...but...the Spectrum is for educational purposes Mum! Honest, look it comes with a game called Chess and Scrabble!"

 



Ping pong, Pacman, Defender, Elite, Sabre Wolf, Manic Miner, Jetset Willy, Tekken Sensible Soccer, Mario, Sonic, NHL, PES, Fifa, COD, Forza, Dirt, Bubble Burst, Candy Crush, Donald Trump, Mickey Mouse... Never affected me in anyway whatsoever, thinking back, I still haven't handed in my Technical Drawing homework due in 1985. "Argghh, just one more go mum."

I grew up with a commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. I use to play games obsessively, especially Elite but it never impacted my social and family life. Apart from a bit of cop killing and drug, slave and alien artifact trading here and there I have grown up to be a well rounded member of society

I seem to be the only person in public spaces sitting staring into space, thinking without a device of some kind. Looking at other people using their phones, it seems that we're at the point where they're virtually programmed to reach for their phones as soon at every conceivable opportunity without even thinking about it. Often going through the same cycle, checking text, mail, news. Seems the whole concept of independent reflection has gone out the window.

 

If you're into Game Development in Python and Android, read on.

Darkness Changes Nothing: “Replacement” by Tor Ulven

Replacement (Norwegian Literature) by Tor Ulven (2012-06-19) - Tor Ulven;Kerri A. Pierce

“There’s no point trying to tell yourself that darkness changes nothing; maybe she believes that, maybe she doesn’t, but in any case it’s wrong, because darkness happens, it fills a space, and it could also be full of something like the way a drawer is full of silverware, or the earth is full of insects that scatter in panic when you lift a rotten log, even though darkness could also be a balloon, a balloon filled with black air.”

 

In “Replacement” by Tor Ulven

 

Because of its brevity and yet countless fathoms-deep complexity coupled with what is not easy text I tend to consider “Replacement” as an example of a novel that sifts the casual reader from the committed enthusiast. In the same vein as “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad and “Wild Highway” by Bill Drummond & Mark Manning in terms of seriousness of theme in a small expertly packed parcel, but providing a rather more difficult text to engage with,“Replacement” is an significant novel on many levels.

 

“Replacement” carries a matching authorial mood of darkness that is perhaps the seeds of meta-fiction; you are aware that the style of the telling of the tale is intricately woven into the fabric of the tale itself. The clarity and simplicity of the authorial voices in the two books above-mentioned is not present and you, the reader, are called upon to grapple with the text as part of the experience the book is offering up. And it's a hell of a lot shorter than “Moby Dick”.

 

 

If you're into Mundane Fiction, read on.

Fictionalizing Philosopher: “Philip K. Dick and Philosophy - Do Androids Have Kindred Spirits” by Dylan E. Wittkower

Philip K. Dick and Philosophy: Do Androids Have Kindred Spirits? - D.E. Wittkower

‘In Blade Runner, also, it is an authentic relationship to Being that is taken to be what essentially ensouls both humans and replicants. Such is the import of Roy Batty’s famous final soliloquy:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-Beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.”’

 

In “Philip K. Dick and Philosophy - Do Androids Have Kindred Spirits” by Dylan E. Wittkower

 

 

I just wanted to say that in my opinion any attempt to construct a coherent interpretation pf Phil Dick’s universe is missing the point. To be able to to construct a Weltanschauung of Dick’s writing we should focus only on philosophy. In all of Dick’s fiction time and causality are of the essence. The point is that, once time and causality become malleable, there is no hope of forming a solid, consistent interpretation of events in Dick’s fiction. That leads to our questioning the Nature of Reality. The focus shifts from epistemology - the problem of knowledge - to ontology - the way different realities are produced. This shift, according to Brian McHale, is precisely what defines the transition from modernism to postmodernism. In its resistance to coherent interpretation, "Ubik" is similar to certain more "literary" works of the 60s, for example the “nouveau romans” of Robbe-Grillet, or Richard Brautigan's "In Watermelon Sugar". (Granted these are very different stylistically). Is it because Dick is writing SF that so many assume the incoherence is sloppiness rather than a deliberate rhetorical strategy?

 

I think Robbe-Grillet was perhaps deliberately, not just stylistically, trying to put thinking and theorizing about the art of writing into the structure of his novels to create novelty, as writing, which he called “Noveau Roman”. I don't know what Brautigan was trying to do, but Phil Dick's subjects and concerns about reality weren't about writing per se, but about living. I don't think he was trying to deliberately create a new kind of writing or novel. That doesn't mean his works are narrowly interpretable, but many, many SF novels have time travel, space/time warps, and so on, but are interpretable. Interpretations or readings are just perspectives which aren't meant to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Reasonably consistent interpretations are possible, such a everything-is-perfect's Jungian analysis. Works like Phil Dick's makes people want to interpret them and present many overlapping and partial possibilities of interpretation and perhaps ultimate impenetrability.

 

 

If you're into Literary Criticism on Phil Dick, read on.

Goodreads' Censorship: G.R. Reader's Off-Topic

OFF-TOPIC: The Story of an Internet Revolt by G.R. Reader - G.R. Reader
The closest source I have to hand "the doctrine that knowledge, truth and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute" does seem to cover some of the arguments dealing with Goodreads' censorship. I don't deny that the world's a complex place but when you get down to the nitty gritty I don't see a third space we've carved out for yourselves between relative and absolute values. Literature is not just a social pursuit - if it was, it would be a hobby. Name an education free of the teaching of it in our society? And why would it be universal to our society in that way? It is, in Donne's sense, involved with our social sphere in a way that buying small-gauge railway models is not. But if you are determined that literature is just a social pursuit then indeed, we have no further point to discuss.
 
Amazon are compelling us. One may wish to view it simply as they are offering each of us a choice, and that if sufficient numbers of us choose then we will have in effect voted to change our society - in ways we may not have considered, in ways we may not want, in ways that a minority of us who have never purchased anything from them are powerless to resist. They are no more compelling us than cigarette manufacturers, or the government, or drug dealers, or manufacturers of greenhouse gases, or the nazis, and so on, and so on. I see the logic of laissez-faire capitalism, even extended to the cultural and social sphere. 
 
 
If you "suffered" at the "hands" of GR, read on

 

An Operating System for a New World: "The Algorithm of Power” by Pedro Barrento

The Algorithm of Power - Pedro Barrento

“ ’Are you saying that ecological balance has been achieved through the collapse of the consumer society, media and democracy?’ ”

 

In “The Algorithm of Power” by Pedro Barrento

 

 

The idea that authors have to know science to write SF is laughably reductive, comically self-important, Mr Science Degree probably, and just provably untrue, as non-scientists Ballard or Banks demonstrated, as but one of many. You can describe a technology without knowing how it works, as a character this might work better than any attempt at omniscience... depends on the book! Exposition can be narcotic but often needs resisting.

 

We've got 6, no wait 7.5, soon to be 10-11 billion people all shitting in the ocean (metaphorically), we've got all kinds of other problems besides global warming. Fixing global warming would just get us on a path to be able to even talk about the root causes (late-stage capitalism and overpopulation) that we can't even mention today without freaking people out. Mostly, but we could get along with many more people if all those people weren't operating under the belief that their lives will only have meaning if they have MORE. The economic system/cult we are busily exporting around the world puts very near zero value on all the valuable things in the world like human life and nature and water and air and our very biosphere, while making greed and waste and obsolescence and evanescent zeroes in bank computers the highest possible aspiration for any human culture. With our values so screwed up, we would still be slowly murdering the planet with a far lower population.

 

No, the idea of the novel as a piece of esoteric, self-indulgent showmanship aimed at making the reader feel part of some occult intellectual elite is dying a welcome, although belated, death. Barrento's novel is anything but.

 

 

If you're into Portuguese SF, written originally in English, read on.

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