Posts from 10th November 2004

Nov 04

“I HAVE KILLED” — Part 2 of 2

Blog 7Post a comment • 156 views

“I HAVE KILLED” — Part 2 of 2

(Continued from The Brown Wedge)

Currently, a slew of my fellow citizens are fighting a whole bunch of folks in a far away city that, by all accounts, is little more than a bloody mess now. I can’t even think how many noncombatants must also be dead. That’s bugging the fuck out of me in ways I can’t begin to describe, but I can do little but track from a distance and hope that things don’t get any worse than they already are.

Perhaps now was the time to get myself in a book about something far away and nothing to do with the current situation, and thus Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor, studying Vienna in 1888 and 1889 and having as its core figure Crown Prince Rudolf. That said, death was also key to the story, unavoidably. On January 30, 1889, friends and servants, worried about the lack of response from his room in a hunting lodge in Mayerling, burst in to find Rudolf and his inamorata, Mary Vetsera, dead. Rumors and debates have swirled since, but Morton’s interpretation is a solid and reasonable one — the two, having decided to commit suicide some time previously, did so, with Rudolf slaying Mary first, then putting the gun to his own mouth. Then nothing but the dripping of blood from his mouth and an extended pause until the door was broken down some time later.

Morton’s portrayal is careful, calm…and very romantic. Not in a sense of approval, I’d say, more in a sense of acknowledgement. Morton’s avoidance at specifically identifying, or more accurately claiming to identify, what drove them to this pass is actually a strength. At its clearest, Rudolf is frustrated with a political situation in which he can do nothing, contribute nothing, is a mere functionary despite his desire to vent about the state of the empire he is destined to inherit. Suicide was a way out, and suicide with a young impressionable lover — who, if Morton’s argument is correct, agreed with Rudolf simply and perfectly for love — was even more of a ‘perfect’ way out.

It’s a state of mind I could never see myself in, and so to try and apprehend it at a distance of time, culture, society, political role, language, mode of thought — it’s a challenge. But it still fascinates, cruelly and weirdly. Morton’s ability to capture a moment is perhaps never so sharp as when he details Rudolf’s father, Franz Josef — the model of dull rectitude, eternally correct, utterly uninspired, emperor because he was emperor — letting loose with a collapsing-to-the-floor sob in almost total privacy, with only one witness, a moment that occurred when he learned that while Rudolf and Mary had both left a number of letters, Rudolf had left none for him — nothing, no explanation, no last word.

He did leave one for his mother, though — in which he said, among other things, “I have no right to go on living….I have killed.” Mary didn’t pull the trigger, she lay down on the bed, perfectly composed, and her lover then reached for the gun. Somewhere between her last breath and his, he wrote that letter, a winter’s night all around him outside. What must it have been like in his head, in that room, what kind of horrific sense of finality was achieved there?

Some things are beyond my ability to fully understand or empathize with. For that, I am glad.

“I HAVE KILLED” — Part 1 of 2

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 109 views

“I HAVE KILLED” — Part 1 of 2

by Frederic Morton

My love for history being well-documented, no surprise that this would have caught my attention. By chance at that, but that’s why working at a library is good for the soul in many ways — working at a wide-ranging university library the best. But this one didn’t come in as a random return, it was actually part of someone’s cockeyed attempt at a donation. We get these at the library from time to time, somebody flings in a whole bunch of books in a heap in our drop box, they turn out to be somebody’s personal items that are being cleared out, and for the most part they either get routed through for donation or added to our book sale pile so we can raise some extra scratch on the side for our employee organization. There are worse fates.

But the cover caught my attention — late Victorian/European finery somewhere, splendor indeed, the subtitle ‘Vienna 1888/1889’ promised more than some tedious novel of the time and so it proved. Morton I don’t know much about, aside from the fact that he’s American, did his research, and had family roots in Vienna. But he tells a good tale — written in the late seventies and published in 1979, it has a certain, not breeziness, but sense of style and location that makes for a good popular history, placed somewhere between biography, social study, art and music report and novel. An illustrative difference might be between the Massie approach to Russia — involved, detailed, striking and strong but almost self-consciously so — and here, where it’s not so much statements and conclusions to be drawn as outlines and impressions sketched (literally so in that nearly every chapter has some pen-and-ink artwork from someone — apparently one Georg Eisler, from his book Wienerstadt — of moments of life and times in Vienna of that age, horse races, promenades, street scenes, and so forth).

It mostly but not entirely steers clear of projecting. Its hero — about whom more shortly — is Rudolf, the Crown Prince of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and in the portrait of him our sympathies (‘our’ = late 20th century Western existence) are meant to be excited. Liberal (as it stood then), intelligent (clear enough), talented (a writer who vented his criticism of the Empire through anonymous text in a leading newspaper), more than once Morton expresses a dream that had he lived he might have helped prevent WWI — an assumption seductive but by no means obvious (and then again, Franz Josef, the decades-ruling Emperor, did not himself pass on until the middle of the war itself. Elsewhere some of the figures are talked about in terms of their eminent futures in order to place them for a reader — Klimt, Mahler, Freud, Schnitzler, Herzl, Wittgenstein (the latter barely born).

But the book does its level best to live in the moment, and to build and swirl to the point of its highest drama — Rudolf’s harrowing double-suicide pact with his lover Mary Vetsera. The impression sketched by Morton is of a case where ‘everything changes,’ a moment on par with a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11. To our eyes it might seem a ridiculous comparison, but perhaps we cannot but see it as little more than a frustrating waste. The book argues that’s precisely what Rudolf felt with his life and situation, yet intriguingly — and perhaps understandably — never exactly pins down what drove him to the extreme he did. Instead it’s yet more impressions, confusions, reactions, a portrayal of moments, domestic, private, public, famous, obscure, as is the whole book.

It ends with the birth of Hitler, in obscure provinciality. The tracking of the roots of a modern anti-Semitism is part of the book’s tale, so it’s as logical enough a conclusion as could be suggested. But how apropros in our modern Net continuum — where invoking a comparison to Hitler and fascism is seen to be the end of an argument, no matter what it is about — that it should end on so simple and absolute a conclusion. It’s a projection too — the world did not stop and shudder at Hitler’s birth. But like a good novel should, A Nervous Splendor knows, quite simply, when to bow out.

(The second part of this post will appear on Blog 7.)

You’d think I would know this but…

Proven By SciencePost a comment • 144 views

You’d think I would know this but…

Is there a proper definition of the point at which simply ‘not shaving’ becomes ‘a beard’? And if not can we science one up please?

Belgium Fannydangle

TMFDPost a comment • 241 views

Belgium Fannydangle

“Ob-La-Di is cracking

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 229 views

“Ob-La-Di is cracking – it’s about gender reversal and other things and is very philosophical – the title means ‘life goes on’ – and it does.” – cheap PR fun at BBC Talking Point.

I WAS A GOBLIN: Check The Rumour Table

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I WAS A GOBLIN – Check The Rumour Table

tavernEnough of the rules. How did a typical D&D game actually unfold?

The adventure would begin with a lengthy introduction – very lengthy, in the case of some published modules. It would usually start “It has been many leagues since you last saw a friendly hearth” and end with your players arriving in a village, possibly touching on some troubling portents along the way. Whatever atmosphere this stuff created would be quickly corroded as the referee, whose ability to conjure purple prose from nothing was limited, took control. “You see a tavern. Do you want to go in?”

The truth about role-playing is this: the conflicts between the heroes and their monstrous foes are feeble compared to the ongoing struggle between the referee and the players. Every session would see a titanic battle of wills as the referee attempted to get the players to do something that would move the plot along and the players happily did anything but. It didn’t help that published adventures were written by inhabitants of a utopia where player characters did outrageously unlikely things at the slightest hint. As a referee you would learn to fear blithe phrases such as “when the players figure out the puzzle” or a laughably optimistic instruction to “stress the might of the opposition – players will soon realise that combat would be hopeless”.

So of course the players wouldn’t want to go into a tavern. “We’ll sleep in the open.” “A guard comes along – you can’t sleep here mate, he says, there’s rooms IN THE TAVERN” “I kill him”. OK, rewind. They go to the tavern. “The bartender hands you a foaming mug of ale.” “I murder him and take his gold.”

Eventually things would settle down and the players could get on with talking to the rich merchant who was looking for adventurers to rescue his daughter from the goblins. Or to the shadowy hooded figure in the corner – Tolkein unwittingly to blame for the whole tavern trope, as with so much else. “Will you help my child? he pleads piteously” “I backstab him.” And so on until the dungeon was reached.

(This wretched way of starting adventures was hardly unique to D&D. Other games in other genres would still involve a rich merchant equivalent – sci-fi RPG Traveller for instance codified such people into “Patrons” and every single game would involve a meeting with The Patron in The Spaceport and a few rolls on the Patron Encounter Table. Of such things is wonder made.)

Watch the closing credits of Kore-Eda’s Nobody Knows very carefully.

Do You See1 comment • 379 views

Watch the closing credits of Kore-Eda’s Nobody Knows very carefully. (Obv watch the whole film first, its pretty damn good, but stick around for the start of the credits even though its slight overlong running time might be putting pressure on your bladder). After a measured, non-hysterical film playing the downside of the Home Alone scenario, the actors playing the five main kids names come up. And then the name of the mother who is around for the first twenty minutes and then takes leave of her kids. Who is this actress playing this potentially demonising role? The Kore-Eda suggests it is YOU!

(This may be just a quirk of translating, but I don’t think it is).

It is a compliment almost, as the mother plays a vital role in setting up the scenario. She smuggles her kids into the apartment whose landlords so not want kids in it. She is the one who tells them that they do not want to go to school. And when she leaves you almost feel sympathetic. Almost. The film does not want to be too judgmental about her, it does not want us to blame one person when this is an issue in society.

If the film has a judgment at all it is how these four kids can live for a year with no parents, no power, water and little if any money without anyone noticing or caring. Reading around the subject there is a greater Japanese story about kids often born out of wedlock who are never declared as being born so do not legally exist. Yet for all their virtual imprisonment in the apartment for the first half of the film, even when they start tramping Tokyo in search of food and water, still no-one notices. Yes they are superhumanly well behaved children, but their increasing dirt and threadbare clothes should become aware to the shopkeepers they regularly see. The fact they survive for so long makes you as an audience wary, as the film gets past two hours you are really not sure how (or when) it is going to end. If the film has anything to say though it is not that Nobody Knows as Nobody Cares.


Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 445 views


My favourite Tooting curry house varies according to mood, but this month Amma, on the Mitcham Road, has a pretty strong claim. It serves rich (but rarely unsubtle), tasty South Indian food which is just right for chilly evenings – its selection of starting ‘fries’ hits the spot particularly well (fish fry, squid fry, chicken liver fry – all delicious). Like a lot of South Indian restaurants, though, it seems to frown a little bit on poppadums, serving them on sufferance because that’s what curry houses do, but not with enthusiasm – it would much rather you went for one of its (enormous) dosais. The chutney boats available at South Indian places are often perfunctory – the mango, the green one, maybe some kind of lime chutney if you’re lucky – but Amma goes one cheekier. Spooning an intriguing looking red sauce onto the poppadums we all realised pretty much simultaneously that this traditional Indian spice was in fact value ketchup.

A lot of the reviews for the West End version of The Producers opening last night

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 153 views

A lot of the reviews for the West End version of The Producers opening last night have hailed it as a great return to musical comedy on stage after years of portentious semi-operatic shows. I think there is a place for tackling unusual subjects in any form, musical theatre as much as anything. But it is undeniable, singing and dancing does have a nice fit with gags.

I went to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd last week at the New Ambassadors. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I do not particularly care for Sondheim, and that was from hearing bits and bobs of his stuff. Having seen a full show my opinion has not changed. He is very good at what he does (teasing out individual themes and overlapping music), but there was probably only one show-stopper in the piece. The rest was aural wallpaper for the characters to sing the plot over. They could have just talked.

What was good about the show was its staging. The ten piece ensemble were impressive as singers and musicians, this adaptness papering over the uneasy cracks in the tale which was never sure if it was a black comedy, and indictment of 19th Century London poverty or a horror. But you don’t walk out humming the tunes, or the buckets of blood.

Biographers of film directors

Do You SeePost a comment • 299 views

Biographers of film directors tend not to follow the example of their literary cousins in that intense examination of inner life is usual eschewed in favour of discussion of the director’s work itself. This makes perfect sense inasmuch as film is clearly a collective effort at every step, whereas writing — at the moment of writing — is a solitary activity. Martin Amis (wrongly) says that writers are just a bunch of guys in rooms; and the upshot is that the film biography tends to work better as a ‘portrait of the age’ than of the individual creating mind. In other words, they should have much broader appeal: personally I can’t be bothered with the childhood and old age sections of any biography, and prefer ‘group biographies’ to books devoted to individuals. But other people don’t seem to.

Which is a shame, because Kevin Jackson’s biography of Humphrey Jennings is likely to be overshadowed by whatever Bloomsbury blockbuster is tipped for Xmas fame this season as a result. Jennings isn’t simply a film director, so Jackson manages to weave in a some lovely sketches of, among other things, the foundation of Cambridge English in the ’20s, the Grierson documentary movement, British Surrealism, and Mass-Observation. IF you buy two film books this month, make Jackson’s the other one.