Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Lady of Silences

I'm revisiting all my safe places this week - Tommy Stearns and I have been in conversation once again. My collected Tommy Stearns has pages falling out (round The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday), but I have never read Choruses from the Rock before. I have to say I don't think I was missing much, it's Tommy at his worst - fussy and misanthropic and in full misguided agreement with Damon Albarn that modern life is rubbish.

But next up were the Four Quartets. My mother has a copy of The Imitation of Christ by the C.15th mystic Thomas à Kempis that she claims she can open at any place and find something relevant to her life. My own Tommy-mystic's Four Quartets serve a similar purpose for me. Here we find Tommy in East Coker on having nothing to say right now:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Tommy, you might be a miserable auld fuck, but I should not doubt you. The Four Quartets have never let me down.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Roman Mysteries

CBBC have just started showing a glossy series based on the Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence. I haven't read the books, although from watching they seem to be like the Famous Five in Ancient Rome. That is not meant to be snide, I enjoyed the Famous Five books as a child very much, even if it did seem treachery to be reading something not published by Puffin.

I rather enjoyed this first episode, thought it was quite jolly. People ate snails and dormice, and explained who Vulcan was. Therefore it entertained, educated, and informed - tick! The stories centre around Flavia, the ten-year-old daughter of a sea captain living in Ostia. Flavia likes to find things out, and is a bit bossy (so, Julian). In the first episode she assembles her team: Jonathan, the son of the Jewish next-door neighbour; Nubia, an African slave that Flavia buys on impulse after hearing Jonathan's father, Dr Mordechai, say that it's not right to own people; and Lupus, a mute runaway who - in the books - has had his tongue cut out (not in the TV version, alas, although there was one point where someone asked him to stick out his tongue and I was sure they were going to go with it). So far Flavia is the only one who has had any lines, what with Lupus being mute and Nubia not speaking Latin, and Jonathan... well, not being the lead.

Which on one level is charming to watch: this very active, intelligent girl running about explaining what's going on to the people around her (and not once wishing she was a boy). But I do wish they hadn't made her so incredibly blonde: I mean, surely the daughter of a Roman sea captain living in Ostia wouldn't be so relentlessly... English? Combined with the young actor's lovely speaking voice, it's slightly disconcerting, like 1950s Britain's social structures have been plonked down into a Roman setting. Particularly when she's surrounded by these near-silent Others.

I'll carry on watching. It's hard to dislike a programme for which the information on the Sky box reads: "Flavia and her friends convince Admiral Pliny of the danger of Mount Vesuvius". Particularly when Pliny is being played by Simon Callow.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

All the time in the world

One of the things I was reflecting on about last night's Doctor Who ('The Lazarus Experiment') was how the action takes place in real time: the Doctor arrives, adventure unfolds - there are several changes of setting, but largely we follow what is happening as it happens. It's an obvious structure for television drama, although - again, obviously - not a necessary one: look at how different experiences of time are managed in 'The Girl in the Fireplace', to name just one example from the same show!

But it set me thinking about what it is that I might have been struggling with in writing in recent months, and I'm starting think that handling the passage of time has been my chief problem. Vignettes come very easily to me, but one review that I get quite frequently is, "I like this, but it's only a taster, there should be more. This story needs to be finished." Usually, on getting a review like this I'm confused: I go to a lot of pains to make vignettes coherent and self-standing, and I tend to think, "But I told the story I wanted to tell - how could there be more?" I've tended to think this sort of response is a function of that continuous story-telling impulse that is the mark the fanficcing mind ("Yes, but what about this gap here...") and I've moved on to the next vignette. Or to the next short story - and my short stories do have an unnerving resemblance to the form and structure of my favourite episodes of television, with tight structures and closely interlinked plots. (Intentionally, in some cases, like Closure or Proof.)

Because at the end of the day interconnectivity is what interests me (and what the novel seems best suited to treat). Because I most passionately believe in our deep connections to each other, across physical space and historical time, and I believe that obscuring these connections is the source not just of injustice but of individual unhappiness and social anomie. All of which I think are bad things, if that isn't clear, and which I have this furtive urge to mitigate.

I know I've tried to represent this connectivity formally in the past: I've constructed interconnected plots before (Hollow Men being the most complicated, I guess, but I think the multiple first-person narrative stories were a stab at it), but recently I've been hitting a wall in writing something long. Eighteen months ago I started on a novel which has everything going for it - an original setting, some great characters, some gorgeous symmetries and imagery, some beautifully crafted scenes... and it's completely stuck. I simply haven't been able to progress it beyond a certain point. I've rewritten the first 60,000 words over and over again. And now I've put it aside and thought, "OK, well, nice try, but let's leave it at that."

And then I woke up this morning, and I thought - it's about representing time, isn't it, about representing the passage of time. What I've been writing before has dramatized the effects of a set of interlocking circumstances as they erupt into some specific real-time action. And of course the novel can do more than this. And of course this is why you're reading and thinking about historical novels, And it seems so simple when I write it down, and I feel so stupid - that it takes so much for me to realize that I really can do whatever I want in this sandbox.

To think that all you need is a pile of paper and a working pen, and the time and space for thought and self-examination. What a thoroughly bizarre and wholly compelling pursuit this is.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Pinching the plot from Plutarch

I read through the introduction to Antony and Cleopatra last night, and it told me that the "problem" with it is that there has not yet been a "classic" performance of the two leads. Well, I think some brainy theatre wallah is missing a trick if they don't get James Purefoy and Lyndsey Marshall from Rome and stick them on stage. Because they have it all - the chemistry, the physicality, the appetite, the gender-bending, the tacky Posh'n'Becks/Victoria'n'Albert display, the no-longer-in-the-first-bloom-of-youth-and-therefore-even-sexier, um, ness. The works.

Alas, I can only find one picture online, which doesn't do justice to either the tissue thinness of Lyndsey Marshall's dresses or the shovelled thickness of James Purefoy's eyeliner. I'll keep looking - purely as a public service, you understand.

They even get the Isis and Osiris stuff in. After Antony has suicided, and Cleopatra comes and sees his body, she sits him in a chair and clambers into his lap, and rearranges his arms around her as she cries and talks to him. Rome is so bloody good.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

O tempora! ect ect

A bookshop couldn't sell me any Shakespeare today. A second one could, just not what I was after. Borders supplied. I merely note this in passing.

What I don't miss

What I don't miss about the US is the airconditioning. Oh, I'd miss it if I was there, absolutely, but it's good to be back in a climate where I don't need it and therefore can breath uncanned air. What I don't miss about Cambridge - the fucking bikes.

Monday, 30 April 2007

Lost, one future

So once I was home, I was able to see the final episode of Life on Mars, only several weeks after everyone in the UK. There'll be spoilers in this post for it, along with spoilers for Pan's Labyrinth and Brazil.

I'll leave you a little space so you don't get ruined.

I wish there was an lj-cut equivalent.

I'm starting spoiling after the beeps.


So Sam Tyler goes back to the future, finds he doesn't like it, and suicides - to wake up again in the Seventies. It's seen as a joyous act, but while I was charmed I was also troubled by it, to be honest - it seems something of a retreat, even a defeat. As if a choice has to be made between fantasy and reality, rather than allowing each to sustain and nourish the other, to make and remake each other. It's the same at the end of Brazil, only in Brazil it's all far more explicitly sinister: Sam Lowry retreats from an unbearable world of torture and the death of the woman he loves into a fantasy escape and life with his love in the mountains. I wish Sam Tyler had given the future another go. The Seventies weren't that great. The Noughties aren't that bad. You can even wear flares, Sam, nobody will laugh. They'll think you're being retro or copying that man off the telly.

All of which - apart from the flares - set me thinking again about the end of Pan's Labyrinth, when Ofelia is killed and triumphantly enters her father's kingdom to be crowned princess. But the big difference to me is that Ofelia doesn't choose suicide: she refuses to submit and is murdered as a result. Obviously it's still hard to see it as a happy ending (not to mention her options are pretty limited when she makes that choice), but nevertheless for reasons that are currently beyond me, I do think it's a victory. I think in part that's because we - watching that film - are a necessary part of its temporality. When we leave the rebels in Pan's Labyrinth, we know they're about to lose the war. But from our POV perhaps that seems different, and their struggle was worth it, and was ultimately - through the passage of time - transfigured into a different kind of victory. In Life on Mars, we're asked to disconnect from the past - the Testcard Girl reaches forward and switches off the telly, switches us off. It's a cool shot, but I don't want the transmissions from the past to be interrupted. I want to keep on remaking them. I don't want the end of history. I want my fantasists alive and well and ready to dream another day.

ETA: I woke up this morning to make connections between this and Moorcock's criticism of something Tolkien wrote about the uses to which fantasy can be put. China Mieville sums up Moorcock's position in this interview: "In On Fairy Tales [Tolkien] says, 'Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?' The fantasy writer Terry Pratchett puts it very simply: 'Jailers don't like escapism.' The trouble is that, as Michael Moorcock pointed out, jailers love escapism--what they don't like is escape."

But I think I'm with Pratchett on this one - jailers don't like escapism either, at least not of a certain kind. Because surely imagining the possibility of a way out is a precondition of enacting a way out. So it seems again that Sam Tyler's is a retreat backwards, not a push forwards. Ah, what do I know? You'd like to think you'd still be giving it your best pop while they're dragging you out to the firing squad, but who knows when you might end up following Sam Tyler and Sam Lowry into the consolation of your own mind, or for what reason.


The Visitor

In Spanish he whispers there is no time left.
It is the sound of scythes arcing in wheat,
the ache of some field song in Salvador.
The wind along the prison, cautious
as Francisco's hands on the inside, touching
the walls as he walks, it is his wife's breath
slipping into his cell each night while he
imagines his hand to be hers. It is a small country.

There is nothing that one man will not do to another.

- Carolyn Forché