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...