Friday, December 25, 2009

post-bad places

Finished Coetzee's Disgrace on the place. Spare, gut-wrenching prose. Like Waiting for the Barbarians - although maybe a little less so - he really drags you through the dust. There are no (false) silver linings. Sometimes I wonder if there is something about the continuing privilege of the white South African in there. Those who can leave have the privilege of not finding any redeeming feature in the new configuration of things. But of course he is mostly writing about the predicament of the white South African in Disgrace. The most enduring image for me in the whole book is David Lurie helping Bev Shaw treat a goat with an infected scrotum infested with white grubs. It reminded me of the horse head in Gunter Grass's Tin Drum, being eaten away by maggots. Post-apartheid South Africa, post-Nazi Germany. Something about the body having been sapped of its vitality by the rot within.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'adverse weather conditions', weddings, love, language

One more euphemism and I will scream. Actually, I'm already screaming. The weather is not the top story in either the NYT or the Washington Post, even though the weather on the North American eastern seaboard is much worse than anything here. In fact, British weather makes the front page of the NYT in its pictures of the day section, one of which features the ongoing chaos at Kings Cross St. Pancras as the Eurostar groans to life again. It just goes to show: it's not what you get from the sky that makes the news, it's how you deal with it. Can I suggest that for its next major grant, DFID forget about the heart of darkness out there and focus on the heart of incompetence in here. Suggested project: 'Adapting to "adverse weather conditions": Learning from the Canadian experience'. Yes, money, but one gets the feeling that whatever mitigation cost-benefit analyses were made in the past, the regularity with which things are grinding to a halt as a result of the 'wrong amount' of snow suggests that something needs to change here. Why the angst? I need to get on a plane for the most important wedding of my life that is not my own (now there's a riddle for you).


I blog erratically. Today, mostly because I am trying to stay awake. What was your best read of 2009? Mine was probably Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys (thanks DR). I have always been fascinated by the year 1916, particularly India and Ireland in 1916.
Ireland and India were the two British colonies that already had relatively well developed independence movements by the beginning of the twentieth century. Irish nationalists had been impressed by the Indian revolt of 1857 and they perceived in the Bengal famine of 1874 an echo of their own imperial history of the 1840s. Ireland in turn was a beacon for anti-colonial nationalist movements the world over, pioneering many of the techniques of agitation that would be attempted elsewhere (the term ‘boycott’, for example, comes from Captain Charles Boycott (1832-97), who was a land agent for the estate of Lord Erne in county Mayo during the Land League agitation of 1873). In 1916, the Indian nationalist movement was radicalised by the creation of the Indian Home Rule League, modelled on the Irish equivalent, by the Irish theosophist Annie Besant. Her arrest by the British government in India the following year became a cause célèbre, precipitating the convergence of different factions of the nationalist movement. Following her release, Besant became president of the Indian National Congress. Early twentieth century Dublin and Bengal were characterised by remarkably similar conversations between distinct strands of anti-colonial resistance: constitutional agitation, a vigorous and articulate cultural nationalism, mass-based passive resistance in the form of strikes and boycotts, punctuated by more sporadic acts of revolutionary terrorism and insurrection. 1916 was also the year that James Joyce and Rabindranath Tagore published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ghaire Baire respectively (in book form - both had been serialised before). For more on why you should read those two books together, see chapter 4 of my forthcoming book (yes, I'm becoming a publicity whore).

Now, O'Neill has written into the literary landscape that Joyce made famous, a love story between two boys - Jim Mack, the son of a cornershop owner, and Doyler, a half-lame worker in the city's sewage works (such as they were), both fifteen - set against the backdrop of the Easter Uprising. You don't have to be a 1916 geek to enjoy this story of love that has begun to have a name (Oscar Wilde has been tried and sentenced and everyone in this story operates in the vaguely chilling shadow of that event), but it is a name that the boys do not use for themselves. I'm tempted to say that this is a love of the inarticulate kind we saw in Brokeback Mountain, but actually this is a book that is full of language, words that mean many things, and much Irish dialect (though nowhere nearly as difficult to read as Joyce because - luckily for us English speakers - some of the central characters are from the Catholic aristocracy who, nationalist as they may be, need their Erse translated for them; fortunately, it's all done very credibly so you don't feel like O'Neill was just trying to expand his market - although it would be interesting to know if the Irish literary world has been wracked by the same angsty debates about language and audience that have been so much the lifeblood of English literature and criticism in India.) In this tumultuous time when all Irish are called upon to make a stand for God or Country and often both, it's hard not to be moved by the Joycean spirit that wraps itself around all three boys at the heart of this story. Listen to Jim Mack, who made me cry at pg. 389:

'We'll be asked to fight for Ireland, sure I know that.'
[His friend MacMurrough] 'But what is Ireland that you should want to fight for it?'
'Sure I know that too.' He raised a shoulder, his head inclined then turned: an attempt to shrug shake and nod, all the same time. When he was shy or self-conscious of something he would say, his body would often fail him. 'It's Doyler,' he said.
[MacM]: 'Doyler is your country?'
'It's silly, I know. But that's how I feel. I know Doyler will be out, and where would I be but out beside him? I don't hate the English and I don't know do I love the Irish. But I love him. I'm sure of that now. And he's my country.'
The boy looked up from under his lashes. The color had tipped his cheeks. 'I think a little bit of it too is yourself, MacEmm.'
[MacM]: 'Me? My gracious.'
'Though I don't suppose you'd want me fighting about it. But I don't know anybody else I could talk these things with. I used think I'd burst with all the words in my head. I can talk things now. I don't know but it's like we have a language together. It's great with the swimming, but it's better again with the talking. You're a part of my country too now, MacEmm.

I guess I have this language and I am a part of this country too. I am going to this wedding and I am going to use this language. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Buy my book.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

(picnic, lightning) in Lolita (1955), is like [Time Passes] in To the Lighthouse (1927). In both, a mother dies in parentheses.

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