Monday, December 29, 2008

Adrian Mitchell: A Bit of Heart

It's not much, what with Gaza and Zimbabwe and Darfur and every failing heart or mindless terror wherever it may be, but Jackie Ashley makes a brilliant case for the buoyant, enlarging, healing and ever-expanding effects of Adrian Mitchell's poetry in the Guardian today. Writing about the almost co-incident deaths of three leading lights of leftist writing -- Harold Pinter, Adrian Mitchell, and Bernard Crick -- she concludes:
in terms of spreading good values, getting people to laugh and feel angry for the right reasons, it may be that Mitchell mattered most. Across the country there are people who have been influenced by Mitchell's socialist, pacifist and kindly values. We have plenty of cleverness. We need a bit of heart.
Mitchell's work overspills even a broad definition of heart: generosity, romantic and erotic play, passion, sturdiness, the great beating engine (of rhyme or blood) that keeps things going, that speeds up with excitement. Like a heart, he worked tirelessly to give and to spread, to move the lifeblood of language and song around the body. But because
he was a street poet, and one who loved writing for children [...and h]is poems are full of fantasy and simplicity
he was never mentioned in the same breath as the Nobel Prize. But for the thousands of children whose early, or earliest, theatrical experience was a school trip to his fine version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (with its emphasis on generosity and co-operation), or the teenagers reached by "Puppies" or "The Killing Ground" whose thrum and precision make the link between boring old poetry read in school and soaring new lyrics heard on the radio, Mitchell is *in* their blood. He may not have had an adjective coined after his pauses, but his pacifist and passionate words are as deeply grooved into the British mind as the lyrics of the Beatles. We need him now. Bloodaxe -- a press that has never doubted the power of street poetry -- is publishing his last book next year, Tell Me Lies, with a "remix" of his famous "Tell Me Lies about Vietnam" as its title poem.

Adrian Mitchell from Neil Astley on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Music: Not So Much the Food of Love, as Fuel of History [i.m. Odetta]

Congratulations to Alex Ross, passionate blogger, and winner of the Guardian First Book Award (among other accolades) for The Rest Is Noise, a history of the twentieth century in music. Yes, not a history of twentieth-century music, but a vast landscape of (well, primarily Euro-American) history through the compositions, lives and thoughts of the many men (and, like, two women) who reinvented classical music and the way that we hear.

The book thumped into my hands from the postman in April, a birthday gift from a music-loving friend delayed by - unbelievably - Amazon being continuously out of stock. Classical music is one of my great lacunae (I mean, like a Great Lake-una) despite having studied with Linda Hutcheon, one of the foremost opera theorists. I'm a tone-deaf, word-loving, visually-stimulated fidget and really *listening* is not something that comes naturally to me. All the classical music that I know is directly attributable to its use in films: Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in Jésus de Montréal; Astor Piazzolla's tangos in The Tango Lesson; the Gymnopédies in just about everything.

So, I expected the book to be a huge challenge, although I'd enjoyed reading performance reviews on Ross' blog. But it was exhilarating (although time-consuming because I had to read the paragraphs about diminished eighths several times) -- I'm not sure how to hear some of the musical twiddles that he discusses so ably, but I have a strong sense of what they might mean, not only as bird-flipping to the history of music (and its stuffier critics), but as agonised or ecstatic autobiographical and/or political expression, especially in his painstaking study of Shostakovich's relationship to the Revolution.

What's so exciting about Ross' book -- and frankly, so Guardian-y -- is that he puts politics, and personal politics, back into music, with a particular emphasis on (and love for?) composers on the left (not the party, partisan Left), and with a subtextual thread running through the book about homosexuality and 20th century music, which he writes about most affectingly when discussing Benjamin Britten and John Cage (not together). It's not an all-out "queering" of modernist music, but there is a subtle argument (I think) about the suppression of identity, both personal and political, that canon-making demands.

It makes for great history as well: the sweeping chapter on music-making and the Alphabet Agencies, and about African-American composers before the war, left a deep impression on me (see my previous post about contemporaneous labour poet Genevieve Taggard), although Ross is clear about the project's ultimate failure. And the history of Weimar unfolded thrillingly differently when read through the swirling schools of competing German (and German-Jewish) composers. (Once the book hits the Cold War and its stochastic sounds, it lost its impact a little for me, although I enjoyed the description's of Cage at work).

Considering twentieth-century music demands something more than musicology, and Ross starts the book with the need to understand Wagner and his unique place in music and history, opening up the question of the ways in which music can shape national identity and can be used as propaganda (see above re: Shostakovich), but also an international language of exchange and co-operation.

And also protest: although Ross treats lightly the place of popular music in political and cultural history, (although he does end the book with a shout-out to Bjork), his account of the various musical agencies put together by FDR presages (and gives a historical context to) both Alan Lomax's work (which he does discuss, briefly) recording American folk, and the folk revival of the 60s and 70s, as music and the civil rights movement entwined. By a fluke of history, Ross' win co-incides with the death of a singer whose career exemplifies the undercurrent of music in American popular history, Odetta.

It's a shame that Ross didn't cast his net a little wider, into contexts where women musicians, and musicians of colour, were making the waves (although the success of recent books like Hand Me My Travellin' Shoes and In Search of the Blues, as well as PBS' series on the blues, suggests a burgeoning interest, and a refusal to let these histories disappear -- all three depend -- and thrive -- on oral history). The real threat of that loss is flagged up by a story in caustic style by today's Guardian diary:
More evidence of year zero at the BBC arises from discussions with Bewick Films, the Northumbrian independent, which saw significance in the 70th anniversary of Billie Holliday first singing the classic Strange Fruit, with its images of slavery, and the inauguration of America's first African American president. They suggested a documentary examining the role of the song in the civil rights struggle, which was considerable. Some believe it was a better anthem than "We Shall Overcome". Wasn't this, they said, a perfect idea for BBC4's musically themed Friday nights? Err, no, for "unfortunately the channel feels that there is insufficient appetite" for a Holliday documentary. Moreover, "His career is well served within the BBC archive." Still, for real fans, Billie's legacy endures. We miss him.
Blood on the leaves, blood at the roots: a history that need writing and writing again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Which Side Are You On?

It's not often that you discover a poet right beneath your feet, but that's what happened to me in Berkeley. Given, it's more likely there given the Berkeley Poetry Walk just off Shattuck Avenue, the main street. It's an amazing thing to trip lightly over Sappho, Shakespeare, Ohlone songs, Ursula Le Guin, Ntozake Shange... and then, an unfamiliar name: Genevieve Taggard.

Born in Hawai'i and moving across the country from California to New York, Taggard's early twentieth century trajectory weirdly mirrors that of President-Elect Barack Obama. And as a poet who combined love lyrics and political shout-outs, she certainly would make provocative bedside reading for the world's next leader.

Taggard eschewed her missionary upbringing to join communes (this is in the 1920s, not the 1960s), walk picket lines and correspond with the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work appeared in small magazines and chapbooks that were produced by the leftist community, but was also published (and sold widely) by Knopf.

Although she's been recuperated as a labour poet, a maker of modern ballads like Florence Reece, who wrote the lyrics to Which Side Are You On? during the 1930s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky (you can see her sing the song during the 1970s strike documented by Barbara Kopple in Harlan County, USA), it's an early and ecstatic love poem, written while she lived in California, that shines up in gold letters from the Berkeley sidewalk. She takes her place among better-known radical poets of place like Jack Spicer, whose works encompass picket lines, chorus lines, die-ins, sexual ecstasies, detention camps, weatherboard houses, bookstores, the wind...

While in California, I read a lot (a lot!) of poetry, including celebrations of place, love and politics in C.S. Giscombe's mysterious and wonderful Prairie Style and Luci Tapahonso's lyrical unfolding of family and roots in Saaníi Dahataal/The Women Are Singing. But I also read Howard Zinn's A Power Governments Cannot Suppress and several Ursula K. Le Guin novels, and all this reading from the left made me wonder: where is the literary history of this thread in American literature (taking in Emma Goldman, Theodor Dreiser, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and others)? Where is the literary history of work and workers?

And while I wondered that, I thought: as publishers, film studios and record labels confront the internet era, a recession, and what seems like a dwindling appetite for diverse, serious culture, could community organising and the historical Alphabet Agencies point a way ahead -- and are there artists who would, like Taggard, take up the banner and link poetic lines to picket lines? Where are Grace Paley's street-corner heirs? Who will follow Dreiser, and join WalMart or hotel employees as they strike? And could Obama, deep in biographies of FDR, see a way to incorporate the energy of radical artists in his plans for change in America?

Saturday, November 15, 2008


A magical blog about children's books (chapter and picture) and fantasy literature -- all the posts have a sparkling sense of adventure, a deep love of reading, and a spirit of play. Essential reading in gloomy times!

The SF/fantasy shelf of Delirium's Library has received a good dust-off recently, as I decided to read my way through Ursula K. Le Guin, having revelled in Malafrena and Orsinian Tales, two of her less-known books. While travelling in the US (that most invented of all countries), I read the first three Hainish novels, collected in one volume as World of Exile and Illusion by Orb Books, as well as Fisherman of the Inland Sea (whose title story is one of the most haunting and resonant stories I have ever encountered). Any Hainish stories, which are about travelling across interstellar distances, are the perfect narrative and philosophical accompaniment to transcontinental jet lag!

I also read her odd YA novel called The Beginning Place, which I found secondhand at the incredible Moe's Books in Berkeley, which combines an eclectic range of new books with an astonishing secondhand SF section. _Worlds_ came from the equally amazing Borderlands, a live and kicking SF specialist store in the Mission in San Fran, where I discovered that Le Guin's incredible essay collection Dancing at the Edge of the World has been brought back into print by kick-ass Grove Press, who also revived a lot of Kathy Acker's novels.

I also enjoyed a long browse (and time with some feral kittens) at The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley, rediscovering writers whose worlds I'd inhabited vividly but whose names had slipped from the tip of my tongue, like Jane Yolen, O.R. Melling, Terry Windling, and James Tiptree Jr. (the balance on the 'to-be-read' shelves has been restored by the addition of Julie Phillps' necessary biography of Tiptree/Alice B. Sheldon, to whom I was introducted by Le Guin's series of essays on the 'is s/he, isn't s/he' question that are included in long o/o/p The Language of Night).

The very helpful clerk at Borderlands also introduced me to Emma Bull's _The War of the Oaks_, as I was on a quest to find urban fantasy/SF for a friend with a serious Stephanie Meyer addiction. The quest led me (back) to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, both of whom have been waving their gothic lace-gloved hands from the 'to-be-read' shelf. I'm excited about entering some lurid, graceful, sexy, dreamlike, bitter, funny imaginative worlds. Any further suggestions welcomed!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Smoking the Bible

When Bobby Sands smokes a fag rolled in a page of Revelations in Steve McQueen's Camera d'Or-winning film Hunger, it's a profound and blackly humorous act, a gesture that compactly communicates a whole series of ideas about faith, religiosity, the Word, the body, hunger, narcosis, desire, addiction, pleasure... Such a telling gesture, original and pitch-perfect.

And then it cropped up again, in another film at the Toronto Film Festival: Maria Govan's Rain, a less austere film, but equally as much about bodies finding new configurations of pleasure and self-expression onscreen. Set and shot in Nassau, is no cultural tourist checklist of Bahamian culture - but the film wouldn't be complete without a sensi-smoking scene, here in the safe hands of Magdaline, who invites Rain to smoke up with her under an outrageous and beautiful painting of a black Jesus. Naturally, her skin of choice is Revelations.

Twice is a co-incidence. But thrice is a meme: today's Guardian Review helpfully (because the book sounds like laboured Fischer-by-numbers) reveals that a DJ-ing monkey with a sidearm rolls itself a Bible-skinned spliff.

Which makes me wonder, as Hickling writes of the monkey, is smoking the Bible now "a comic device that has so outlived its useful purpose you want to borrow [the monkey's] gun and shoot it"

Friday, October 10, 2008

Headline Poetry

I am loving this poetry blog from small and perfectly-formed poetry press Wave Books: check out PoetryPolitic, 50 American poets (showing how truly diverse an identity is encompassed by that national designation) offer thoughts, in poem form, through the 50 days leading up to the election. They are profound, personal, political, playful -- and available as downloadable MP3s, to be enjoyed and meditated on. Plato thought poets should stay out of his Republic (because they enchant readers/listeners with their attempts to encapsulate the ideal forms of things in words), while Shelley called poets "unacknowledged legislators." On this blog they are in neither camp (or both): deeply engaged with the intimate daily and earthy, and the myriad ways in which politics is interwoven into our dailiness and our dreams -- pointing up the ways that politics as practiced has come to neglect the personal (except where it interferes for religious reasons) and the real 'popular,' the concerns of the people. The same has been said of lyric poetry -- particularly the experimental stuff -- but these poems show different. More immediate than CNN's newstrack and more vibrant and resonant than the Huffington Post: these poems are news that stays news. Thanks to Susan Schultz for posting it on Facebook!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ni Putes Ni Soumises Ni Sphinx: Arab Women Writers Speak Out

Today's Daily Star has a great article on women writers from the Middle East. Alice Fordham notes the "anglophone appetite of late for female authors from the Middle East," and investigates why that appetite tends to depictions of honour killings and repression, on the one hand, or what could be seen as updated versions of the Arabian Nights harem fantasy on the other. French junior minister Fadela Amara started a group for Arab and North African women in France, whose name aptly sums up the Orientalist imaginings these writers have to fight with: Ni Putes Ni Soumises: Neither Whores Nor Submissives.

To which, in a talk, Joumana Haddad added, neither veiled dancers nor Sphinxes. Surely part of the point about reading is to break down illusions and deeply-held beliefs, not have them confirmed (er, for me, anyway). But publishers have to do what sells - even poetry publishers, as Chris Hamilton-Emery writes in his Salt publishing blog - so it's repression or wild abandon.

The dubious infamy of Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh as a Saudi Sex and the City ignores the facts that a) it's a pretty clever email newsletter novel that's very deliberately playing games with identity and storytelling and b) under the shoes and cellphones froth is a pretty hardcore, depressing picture of double standards (across gender and class) in Saudi society. Alsanea disguises her pin-sharp analysis under a chick-lit dress -- you can't say that for Freya North.

But what's more depressing still (for readers) is that while Girls of Riyadh is available in every airport and megachain bookstore, where are the books by Naguib Mahfouz prizewinners like Nabila al-Zubair, Alia Mamdouh, or Hoda Barakat?

Perhaps the popularity of Alsanea's novel, and a growing interest in the region (even if it's the queasy Dubya 'feminism' that saw (as reported in Harper's) a group of Texan women airlift vibrators to Iraqi women after the 'liberation' -- it should be pointed out that it's supposedly illegal to purchase or own sex toys in Texas...) will lead English-language publishing to reflect the diversity of women's voices across the region -- and booksellers to take stock of what already available through presses like Saqi and the American University in Cairo Press.

Two new online initiatives are also designed to apprise English-language publishers and readers of the depth and diversity of publishing in the Middle East: the British Council has a focus on Arab literature this year, including the New Arab Books list. Most exciting is the English PEN Online Atlas, a handy world literature wiki-type site that is also focusing on Arabic-language writing at the outset. The site was soft-launched at the London Book Fair earlier this year, and there's already hundreds of books and authors listed, and not a houri or moustachioed sheikh in sight...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Good Medicine

Free stories online by leading Canadian Aboriginal authors at The Medicine Project -- including a brand-new story by the deliriously wonderful Richard Van Camp whose short stories Angel Wing Splash Pattern and novel The Lesser Blessed rocked my world one hot, sweaty Toronto summer. So enjoy the free taster at the Medicine Project...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Representative Poetry

Hats off to the Library of Congress for selecting Kay Ryan as the next Poet Laureate. Not only is she a spare, elegant poet in these wordy times, but she is also a) female and b) an out lesbian.

No such luck here in the UK, where Carol Ann Duffy was mooted as Poet Laureate in 1998, but cast aside due to the unsavoury fact of her high profile lesbian relationship with another writer. Articles earlier this year (no, I can't be bothered to dig them out) implied that she might be in the running post-Motion, now that the relationship is over.

It's not often these days that the US pulls ahead of the UK in terms of rights & representation (perhaps not since Auden and Thom Gunn emigrated in search of pastures queer) -- it's about time the UK started celebrating (or at least recognising) the amazing contribution that lesbian, gay, bi and trans writers have made and are making to our literature.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dear Aleister...

NYT Books leads with a surreal story about Portuguese nationalism and the letters betweenFernando Pessoa and Aleister Crowley. Apparently the Portuguese poet (or more properly, poets, as he wrote under multiple pseudonyms in several languages) noticed a miscalculation in the Great British Satan's astrological charts.

The letters are currently in the possession of his family, and the government want to keep them in the country, possibly installing them in the Pessoa house-museum, where poems pop up on flyleafs. I spent the afternoon working in a filmmaker's private archive, and there is a sheer delight in finding a note, a line, a page, a doodle that seems to hold a small, inexplicable key to their working process.

On the other hand, I hate the nationalist discourse that swirls around certain authors' papers having to be preserved 'for the nation.' It's especially rich coming from Britain, which led the world in ripping off cultural and sacred art and stuffing it in mausoleums in London.

But how great would it be to read the letters between Pessoa, one of the twentieth century's strangest writers, and Crowley, the suburban nutcase? Not least because I once had a penpal who was convinced he was the reincarnation of dear Aleister.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Gifted? Absolutely.

Rajasthani-born and Cardiff-raised Nikita Lalwani picked up the inaugural Desmond Elliott Prize for quality writing in popular fiction last night for her novel Gifted, and promptly donated her prize money to the fabulous human rights and free speech organisation Liberty. Liberty's director Shami Chakrabarti has been one of the most visible and outspoken leftist presences in the British media since the invasion of Iraq -- possibly the most high-profile woman of colour to be found on TV, radio and in the press since Moira Stuart was dumped by the BBC for being over the hill. As the current issue of Sable points out, things have improved under Greg Dyke in terms of representation at the BBC -- but not much.

Lalwani's welcome win hints at a turning point in British culture -- the critical and popular success of Gifted consolidates the long-overdue emergence of a generation of British women novelists of colour, writing diverse novels in different genres, on awards *and* bestseller lists (Zadie Smith, Diane Evans, Monica Ali, Andrea Levy). This is a considerable achievement given that study after study shows that all aspects of the UK book industry remain overwhelmingly dominated by white men, something that initiatives such as the Orange Prize (for women writers) and Decibel (a traineeship for people of colour in the creative industries) are working to change.

Not only that, but as a further sign of the times, Lalwani scooped the frontrunner for the award, Tom Rob Smith, who has been the subject of profiles in the UK press for his six-figure deal thriller. William Hill might have quoted odds of 1/2 on Child 44 taking the prize, but as Rumi Vasi, the child maths prodigy who is the protagonist of Gifted would have known, sometimes it's about more than the math. Congratulations to Lalwani for her award and her generosity in showing the true meaning of "gifted": the ability and desire to share.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Literary Consequences

... which is not what happens when, come the morning after, you read something written in the throes of the night before. Rather, it's an storytelling experiment by Hamish Hamilton, which has just added a chapted by a fifth author: Steven Heighton, one of my favourite novelists. The Guardian are up to something similar. So far, Ali Smith is the crossover voice between the two, so maybe a Vargas Llosa meta-consequences will ensue, with characters from Hamish Hamilton turning up in the Guardian's 52...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Au Revoir, Aimé Césaire

At 94, Aimé Césaire had lived through -- and been a major player in -- the postcolonial twentieth century. His legendary poem about Martinique, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal inspired and incited a generation of African and Caribbean writers to fight for independence, self-determination and self-expression with his concept of negritude. Not least among them was Wole Soyinka, who oppsed negritude by saying, "a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude, it pounces," to which Leopold Senghor responded: A tiger doesn't speak!. With Césaire's death, a literary tiger has been silenced.

Free the Comics!

It's only a fortnight until Free Comic Book Day on May 3. I'll be picking mine up at Fantastic Realm in Finsbury Park, but I will be missing the lovely freebie with strips by local artists put together by my old Toronto local, The Beguiling.
It's the seventh year for this annual celebration of independent comic stores across North America and internationally -- a triumph in a publishing climate ever more dominated by big publishers and big chains. Not only that, but schools and libraries are starting to realise that comics are a great way to promote literacy, especially with titles like Shekhar Kapur's Ramayana, Devi and Snake Woman series for Virgin changing the all-white, big-boobed face of superhero comics.

But Virgin are really playing catch-up as Arab countries boast their own superhero comics promoting understanding of Islamic values and Middle Eastern history. There's The 99, named after the 99 traits of Allah, from Kuwait, and Middle East Heroes from Cairo's AK Comics. Not so much with the evil ragheads of classic American comics, AK's series got lots of positive web coverage when it was announced and both books have proved popular.

So far, so positive. But the comics medium is not only there to serve nationalist or community-building purposes -- it can also be used for critique and satire, as well as reportage. While the Egyptian authorities have no problem with Zein, the Last Pharaoh representing their culture in the graphic world, it seems they have more of a problem with "the first adult Arabic graphic novel, is set in a chaotic modern Cairo pulsing with financial and social insecurity." Magdi al-Shafi'i's The Metro uses the story of a bank robbery to throw light on corruption and change pulsing through an urban, modern Cairo that's very different from the cartoon-bright world of Middle East Heroes. It has more in common with critical and political graphic novels like Etgar Keret's Kamikaze Pizza and it's also met an excited reception.

And lo, it's beenbanned. Not just banned, but booksellers have been told to wipe any mention of it from their computers. And the publisher Sheikh Muhammad al-Sharkawi, a blogger, translator and academic, has been jailed (for the second time: he served a previous sentence of two years for solidarity with Egypt's judges against the ruling party). Why? Because the graphic novel is written in colloquial language and could harm "public manners," according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights.

After you've picked up your free X-Men or Amelia on 3 May, take a look at Words Without Borders' translation of The Metro… It's a free comic -- and it could help to set a wrongly-imprisoned man free. Now, isn't that a job for Zein, the Last Pharaoh?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Old Books, Pt II

and also old films, so look away if you're of a purely literary disposition.

Romola has been dispatched and I'm parcelling out Alberta, which is almost as depressing-yet-tempting as Jean Rhys' short stories (cold, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, sexism, but -- PARIS!), and I'm trying to get down to 'serious' work reading. Id est, theory. Stuff published (although not really sub-edited) by Routledge and various university presses. I read about half of Griselda Pollock's new book Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum at the British Library before the buzzing neon lights and chattering/texting undergrads overpowered my will to study/live. It's a brilliant concept: a tour through the privately-curated imaginary 'museum' of an extremely thoughtful and wide-ranging art historian, focused around Canova's Three Graces and various statues, paintings, photographs, and performances that resonate with details from the sculpture. It's also a ridiculously badly-designed book: all the images are in misnumbered portfolios at the start of chapters, instead of in the text, which makes it seem impossibly dense. I'm looking forward to hearing further chapters as part of the Slade lectures in Cambridge. Especially the one on Charlotte Salomon, who is one of my favourite artists, and feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

I was reading an essay over the holidays (because Theory never stops) about Akerman which made me realise that I also need to start Delirium's Cinema, as the number of important films I haven't seen is at least comparable with the bookshelf lacunae. Film and books are totally tied together for me, not only because I am fascinated by adaptation (even more so after reading Linda Hutcheon's enviably readable and comprehensive A Theory of Adaptation) but also because I learnt a lot about film from books, and vice versa. I've never been so startled as when a student came up to me on the first day of the first film course I ever taught and said they were horrified that there was a textbook and a course reader -- they had thought that a film course meant no reading. I'm intrigued by accounts of film-going in novels and poems, and by the use of poetry and literary allusions in cinema. Although cinema studies is becoming fiercely anti-literary, I can't help but see the two as entwined.

That's why I'm enjoying my other big read of the week, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's Unthinking Eurocentrism. Like the nineteenth-century novel, this is a work whose importance I've long known, and whose position I've known about through references in other books, but which I've failed repeatedly to read beyond the useful introduction (linked above).

What's most useful for me is that it's a vast catalogue of films that I either don't intend to see (Drums Along the Mohawk) or wouldn't have a chance of seeing (Brazilian auto-ethnographic video documentaries). Perhaps it's as naughty to expand one's cinematic knowledge through reading about films as it is to presume that seeing the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is the equivalent of reading it, but what a cataloguing project like Shohat's and Stam's offers is discernment and guidance in the overflowing world of media "choices."

Many of the films in my "never going to see" category are the ones that are easily available: screened at multiplexes, frequently on cable, released on DVD. These are the ones that, according to Shohat and Stam, form the presumed canon of cinema. They're mainly Hollywood or Hollywoodized products and there's a widely-promulgated belief that Hollywood is the natural definition of cinema. In fact, they have some excellent statistics as to why not: Hollywood cannot compete with the domestic output of Asian national cinemas today, for example. Even in the early days of film, the narrative that holds that the French invented cinema and the Americans perfected it (with crumbs for the Germans and British) leaves out the development of national cinemas in India, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries, which occurred simultaneously. Yet "early film," as taught in the majority of EuroWestern schools, means Griffith, Chaplin, Méliès, and Murnau. Maybe with Nell Shipman thrown in to demonstrate "diversity." But the whitewashing of cinema is inbuilt into the aesthetic criteria cinema studies inherits from art history and literary criticism: West is best, which means linear narrative, character motivation, verisimilitude, etc. And as in early cinema, the argument goes, so in contemporary cinema. After all, Hollywood's dominant production and distribution model has reached every corner of the globe, so what film hasn't been affected by it? Why, therefore, bother teaching a Malian or Filipino film, when they're just derivative of the superior model? And why even touch contemporary cinema when classical Hollywood film and European neo-realism are the quintessence of filmmaking?

Shohat and Stam's book offers a number of powerful rebuttals to these arguments (which I grinned and bore through dinner with a senior American film scholar last week -- perhaps the reason that I finally pulled it off the bookshelf). Is it necessary to watch all of classical Hollywood to understand continuity editing? Nope, nor to get agitated by the sexism and racism built into the system. Is it necessary to see Knocked Up to know that it's not very funny when it comes to the right to choose? Nope again. That's why film criticism exists, and even Theory, divided off into a scary section of its own in most bookshops. It can encourage people to go and see a more challenging film, like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days by making it accessible as well as relevant.

That's what's also needed with Theory: books like Hutcheon's and Shohat and Stam's, and even Pollock's, have plenty to offer readers who want to be informed. They're not jargony, they have lots of images, and they're all concerned with questions relevant to contemporary life. But while memoirs, pop philosophy, and "history of x" books have seen non-fiction sales soar in the last ten years, books that require readers to think (rather than doing their thinking for them) have been pushed into corners haunted only by students with booklists. Just as even independent cinemas are falling over themselves to screen barely left-of-centre, studio-funded fare like No Country for Old Men. Perhaps I'm alone in wanting a challenge, particularly to the status quo, but I don't think so. Nor did George Eliot. But that's why Romola's never been adapted for the screen. Too much thinking.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

New Blog, Old Books

... which was always the intention of this blog, but being Delirium sometimes the excitement of the new and curious overtakes the best of intentions. Here at DL I've begun the new year by admitting to myself that my knowledge of books written before I was born is, erm, slightly selective despite having studied English Literature at university for about a thousand years. I largely skipped eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction, and admit to some bourgeois/humanist anxiety about the fewness of the European classics in translation on my shelf. Unlike my friend Steve, I don't have the iron will to conceive a program of reading including a moratorium on the new, but I am trying, piecemeal, to spend some time with the Classics shelf in the bookstore.

And it's very seductive, not least because it's one of the few places that classic paperback design persists, with the elegant black Penguin Classics spines dominating at my local independent bookstore (I never liked the garish yellow and red of the 1990s Oxford World Classics redesign). Penguin is rightly celebrated for its excellence in book design, which makes its venture into ridiculous celebrity cover art (Manolo Blahnik for Madame Bovary) seem slightly childish, totally a product of Blair's obsessive "Brand Britain" type of design fetishism. Meanwhile, in the background, they continue to provide an astonishing kaleidoscope of foundational texts from many cultures, including a new translation of the Shahnama (Persian Book of Kings).

That's one for another day. At the moment, my lacuna-filling has brought me to George Eliot. I tried to read Mill on the Floss when I was eighteen, and threw it out of a coach window after about seventy pages. Boooooooooring. Bonnets and Pilgrim's Progress and moors. Where was the wuthering? In the spirit of Alice, I found it hard to see the point of a book with no shagging and no pop culture references. I was obsessed with Kathy Acker, the Sandman, and Michael Ondaatje. I wanted wild poetry, rebellion, experimentation, and general naughtiness.

George Eliot, though, she knew all about naughtiness: how it lives in the smallest acts of rebellion. How it has to stay small in a society as constrictive as hers. And how, in a society where women could only be bodies, perhaps the greatest act of transgression was to stay true to a life of the mind. That's what I learnt from Middlemarch, which I read on something of a dare by my friend Kate. It took me nearly two weeks of reading several hours a day, but I got obsessed with it: not so much with Dorothea but with the catty, arch voice of the omniscient narrator which seemed to speak for/from Dorothea's secret heart. I did in fact once play Dorothea in a play set after the end of Middlemarch, but never read the book. What I mainly remember from that play is the sense of constriction, and the childlikeness attributed to her, which I can now see as misogynistic bobbins. Although everyone considers her unworldly, I find Dorothea - certainly by the end of the novel - one of the most grown-up characters I've ever encountered. Her seriousness of purpose is breathtaking.

Romola, which I'm reading now, seems like a sketch for a novel focused on a serious woman. It's not considered one of the Eliot canon (except by Henry James, who loved the Florentine setting - and probably the tortuous sentence structures) but there's a perverse pleasure in its oddness, the way in which Medicean Florence is turned into Middlemarch, with its churchy faction and its bold young men, its dry scholars and beautiful country women. Romola is a Dorothea who married Lydgate, a serious young woman discovering that a bold, popular young man in probably extremely shallow. It's fascinating to see the pieces played differently.

But it's more of an academic exercise than a pleasurable fiction. My current pleasure read is Alberta and Freedom by Cora Sandel, perhaps Norway's most celebrated woman novelist. I had never even HEARD of her until I encountered a new edition of Alberta in the Galignani bookstore in Paris, which is a treasure trove and possibly heaven. I'd never been there before and it was good enough to distract me from the promise of "Paris' best hot chocolate" at Angelique's next door, which looked like something out of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoninette.

Alors, Alberta. Cora. According to the introduction to Virago's English translation, they are one and the same: a Norwegian woman who has fled a marriage to learn French in Paris, writing occasionally and modelling for artists. It's Paris between the wars, the literary era that most makes me wish for a time machine, and Alberta is part Jean Rhys and part Jean Seberg. There's something in both the mordant observation and cultivation of solitude that reminds me of Tove Jansson.

Is it a Scandinavian thing? I haven't read enough Scandi literature to know. Will I ever? Delirium's Library stretches to the vanishing point...