The Brown Wedge

Aug 03

Isn’t it a cliche

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Isn’t it a cliche about tradespersons homes being the worst places to see evidence of their skill? Electricians and plumbers are known for having death-trap exposed wires and dogdy pipes as much as they are for being tapped up by bored housewives when they’re on the job? Presume something similar holds for most trades in this respect; maybe bakers make crap bread at home, or just buy it from the supermarket. Bus drivers drive badly in their own cars. My dad took years to get a fence put around the back garden, whilst my mum always you to be far more slapdash when doing my hair than her customers. She also used to give me a clip round the ear if I didn’t keep my head still which was simply because she could, whereas the little darlings in her shop got a sweet smile for annoying behaviour.

I’ve just finished The Athenian Murders

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I’ve just finished The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza. I’d read a review in The Guardian which compared it to The Name of the Rose which is my favourite novel (currently read it 9 times) so I went out and bought it straight away. It was difficult to get into to begin with, so it remained on my bedside for a year before I bit the bullet and took it with me on a mini break to Dorset.

The story is interesting enough, but the really noodle-baking aspect is the dual story being told by the translator in the story who is working on an original Greek text and who produces the English text we read above. In English, I suspect that it has a greater effect, since the book was originally written in Spanish, so we’re reading a translation of a book which is about a translator and a text. As a result, it took me a few pages to work out that the translator referred to is a character, not a note from the actual translator of the English version.

As the story progresses, the translator’s notes become more involved leading to a novel way of reading; the flow of the Greek translation is broken by reading the notes. In some chapters, I read the footnote immediately; in others, I read the translation then went back and read the notes. It didn’t feel gimmicky though and led to an enthralling read, which it goes without saying I couldn’t put down*. There were plenty of gasps of surprise, and it’s a very good whodunnit too, not to mention whydunnit and whatthefucksgoingonandwhatsactuallybeenduninthefirstplace. Recommended.

* – Admittedly, Dorset seems a good place to get lost in a book, since rival distractions on Portland were few and far between.

(A better sense of the inside of West’s head

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(A better sense of the inside of West’s head could be gleaned from the photographs of the interior of 25 Cromwell Street, published in the Guardian colour supplement with an extract from Burn’s book, back when it was just coming out in 1998. As a professional builder, decorator and electrician, West was apparently in demand: but – to judge by these picture – the work he did on his own home, left for so long to his own designs, was a nightmare of unfinished, bodged bleakness. A choke of anti-sensual nothing, incapable of settling or reflecting, for fear of what might gaze back.)

There was a two-part doc on Channel 5

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There was a two-part doc on Channel 5 which made a claim about them I didn’t remember, so I picked up Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers: the True Story of Fred and Rosemary West again. I quite quickly remembered why I disliked it so much the first time: Burn borrows the device Emlyn Williams used so effectively in his 1967 Moors Murderers book Beyond Belief, and re-uses it, badly. Williams’s book is a collage of fact, guesswork, the cliched speech of the locality (working-class Manchester, 40s-60s) and snatches from pop songs; Burn’s book, three times as long, is the same. Williams has an exceptional ear, for how a shared phrase can speak utterly differently in different mouths: Burn turns the whole region (rural working-class Gloucester and environs, 40s-90s) into a featureless mulch. Williams gives a sense of a community, lively as well as limited, and what the killers – self-declared hipsters – shared with it and did to it. You slog through Burn’s overlong, disastrously organised book feeling that the author can’t and won’t distinguish between the Wests and the entire West Country all round them: that he’s indicting everyone equally, the time, the place, the police, the poor, caravans, immigrants, fashion, pornography, mankind. One reason for the difference may be this: Brady was a voracious reader, and therefore never so distant – in one sense – from any writer imagining his inner life; West was functionally illiterate (he could write, but only barely, and didn’t read). Which may make West far more alien to the book-proud than any of his crimes. Another reason may just be that Burn isn’t that good.

Aug 03

Lorrie Moore – Anagrams

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I’d heard glowing recommendations from a couple of friends, so had to try Lorrie Moore. It’s a long time since I’ve read a novel so satisfying on every scale and level.

Her use of words is bright and playful, her sentences sharp and sweet and often very funny, the ideas they make up are original and full of intelligence and feeling, an all too rare mix of qualities. She combines sharp wit with genuine emotion, mostly understated and often ironically or obliquely expressed, but still unmistakeably deep. The way she can write something that makes you sad and makes you laugh, not in separate sections but at the very same instant, is a particularly rare skill, needing the finest control and judgement – this reminded me a little of the undervalued (too popular, I think) Larry McMurtry, an old favourite.

I guess most of my favourite contemporary novelists are Postmodernists, especially those playing with form and notions of realism. This novel starts with four chapters, taking up a quarter of the book, that put a few characters through four permutations, shuffling and remixing their lives and relationships and jobs. The rest is one more mix – my guess (supported by the text to some extent, but never stated outright) is that this longer section is the novel’s ‘reality’, and the others are fantasies, thought-experiment life-anagrams composed by the protagonist Benna, often for comfort and consolation. This is a daring and fresh way of getting at the hopes and dreams and fears of your character, a way into her character that is incisive and new, an exciting and disorienting conceit.

Thrillingly, a quick bit of googling suggests that this, her first novel, which I found remaindered just a couple of weeks ago here in London, is far less well regarded than any of her other books. The others must be astonishing…

Aug 03

Weblog Response

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Weblog Response: To make up for the lack of a comments facility, if you’ve got something to say about The Brown Wedge and want to make it public, this is the thread to do it on. (We’ll be adding this as a permanent link somewhere prominent, as it’ll be a rolling thread.)

More Zenda action

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More Zenda action: the other thing that struck me reading it is how difficult the sexual codes now are to understand. Early on in the book the hero visits an inn and flirts with a lusty wench: there’s a bit of banter on the stairs and the hero says “so I gave her something of no value”. A kiss, thinks Tom. But then he and a friend return to the inn later and there’s much discussion of this girl’s charms and seductive abilities with the hero acting very knowing – perhaps it was more than just a kiss, hmm. One of the villains insults the hero by implying he’s shagged the Princess (who is pledged to his double!) and the hero flushes at a point well-scored, but then later the hero goes into paroxysms of thank-heaven-i-did-not-do-that-to-which-i-was-sore-tempted chestbeating. WHAT IS GOING ON!!! I’m assuming all this stuff would have been transparent to the Victorian reader but it’s baffling to me. At least with modern popular fiction you know that the wild mushroom risotto isn’t some kind of euphemism for bum sex.

I am A Boy Band-Benny Ramsay Menerofsky

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I am A Boy Band-Benny Ramsay Menerofsky
Single Channel DVD

The concept here is insanely simple, a man dressed as a boy band sings a 16th century English Madigral. A love song then is a love song, the melodramtic heart break, the “i sigh, i die” lyrics, the melodic compexity, and a sense of theatrics are common to the form, and exist as much now as they did then.

He plays all four members of the band, the romantic one, the hot one, the atheltic one and the thug, the same four that you could find in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, that came down with the latest crop, NKOTB gave birth to N Sync and Backstreet Boys, but bands often break up and there is rarely a break through artist…having one member play all four solves that problem.

As well by embodying all 4 members of boy bands he engenders sympthathies–this music is mocked by those who go to galleries as sappy, banal, boring or beneath them, in this space with this audience, using this music there may be a reconsidering.

The work is subtitled making matrons understand what little girls have always known, that having yr heart broken is so painful that only hyberbole will do.

Aug 03

Characters taking over

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(an addendum to Tom’s Prisoner Of Zenda item below): there was once a daily newspaper strip called Thimble Theatre, and its creator, E.C. Segar, needed his lead character, Ham Gravy, to take a sea voyage. He introduced a rough and tough sailor, who took over completely, until Ham Gravy rather disappeared, and the strip was renamed for the sailor. Popeye became, for me, the greatest daily strip the comics form has ever seen. Sometimes recognising that you have created something special, and changing direction to go with it, is the right thing to do.

The Prisoner Of Zenda

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The Prisoner Of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Yesterday I spent two long bus journeys reading this classic of Victorian adventure fiction. My rip was definitely roared but the novel seems to me an excellent example of the perils of an author letting a beloved character run away with him. The book is proceeding at a cracking pace right up until the middle, with the dashing hero playing deadly political games with grim-hearted Black Michael, an evil Duke. All well and good, but Black Michael has six henchmen, one of whom is introduced midway through and steals the book. Or at least he does in the author’s mind.

Avoiding spoilers as much as possible*, this new character starts cropping up in every chapter and eventually forces Hope to fluff up the climax of the book, avoiding any kind of climactic confrontation. The narrator and hero hammers home quite how much the author is in love with his new villain, by himself going woefully cock-eyed over his foe’s combination of evil, dash and gall. The sequel (not read yet) is named after him. Oh, he’s a nasty piece of work alright, but having spent half a book building up the depravity of Duke Michael it’s frustrating to see that tension slowly dissipate.

Adventure fiction is full of larger than life types so this beloved-character syndrome is a recurring one, especially prominent in serials. You used to see it a lot in Marvel Comics, particularly series with a long-running regular writer. The readers may have had their favourite characters, but if Chris Claremont suddenly fell for a new X-Man (generally a sassy young teenage girl with a wisdom belying her tender years) then woe betide you if you didn’t agree.

*If you want to get this book then PLEASE AVOID the Penguin Classics edition, or at least don’t read the back, which gives away the entire story of Zenda and its sequel in two paragraphs. But of course no discerning reader would be reading a designated Classic for something as vulgar as the story!