Sunday, 28 December 2008

As an addendum to the below, I just watched the BBC and Rupert 'Adam from Spooks' Penry-Jones make a complete hyperexpository (yet wildly unfaithful) hash of John Buchan's The 39 Steps. Speaking as a massive, massive Hitchcock fan, I thought the Robert Donat version was bad enough, but this little travesty was up there with that woeful Dracula the Beeb did a couple of years ago.

2009 - The End of the (Literary) Affair

So, I noticed that my good friends at the Guardian Guide gave David Peace, longtime head whippet of contemporary British fiction as far as I'm concerned, the entire 'D' section in their 'things to watch 2009' listings, only they were talking less about the writing itself than forthcoming film and TV adaptations of 'factive' football parable The Damned United and Doomsday-by-white-dogshit crime sequence the Red Riding quartet. In protest, I'm re-reading TDU so I can be especially pernickety and cranky when the big screen version comes, but I think it's RR I'm dreading more. I just know that this will go one of two types of terrible: Scenario 'A' see it hammered into the Prime Suspect slot, with the result that it solicits thousands upon thousands of complaints from the Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells demographic and any aesthetic merit of the programme will go undiscussed due to the resultant controversy. Scenario 'B', which is, now I come to think about it, the more likely, will see the writers doing everything in their power to turn it into Prime Suspect, only set in the 1970s and in Leeds, so it'll be more like Prime Suspect with additional Life on Mars.

The third scenario is that it is absolutely brilliant and everyone responds to it with the same gusto that has hitherto been reserved for The Wire, only I won't be able to see it, with the result that my totally puerile 'I liked it first' gene will kick in. If this is the case, I apologise inadvance...

Sunday, 21 December 2008

(post 200)

The formula for the good contemporary (British) poem is, perhaps, that which switches on the massively developed circuitry of serious intellectual effort and the quicksilver infantile play circuitry of pleasure simultaneously and at the same time.

- Andrew Duncan

Thursday, 18 December 2008


I have passed my viva, and only have to correct one or two typos. It hasn't quite sunk in yet, and I'm sorry if the title of this post comes across as triumphalist.

Thanks to everyone whose support and advice made this possible.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Three sleeps... my Mum would say. The only thing is, when she says that, she usually means 'until we go on holiday/ it's Christmas/ your birthday'. Not 'until you have to sit down in a room with two very intelligent people who are going to ask you searching questions about your last four year's worth of work for three bloody hours'.

And I have to fly tomorrow morning, too.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

In lieu of another angry rant about poetics...'s Andrea Brady's brilliant riposte to Don Paterson's Sheriff of Nottingham-like rant about the 'dangers' of non-mainstream poetry. Warning: contains extreme erudition, common-sense, and amusing, yet measured, responses to a very angry Scottish man.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Safran Foer-Phobia

What's with it, asks the 'Manchester' Guardian in a predictably anti-academic blog post.

As I've said, time and time and time again on here, to the point where the blog probably makes me unemployable in the non-academic literary world, the Zadie Smith - Dave Eggers - 'mini Delillo (Frantzen, Safran Foer, Foster Wallace (RIP)' axis of post-postmodernist fiction effectively admits that the novel must be nothing more than a teabag of tried and tested 'experimental devices' - unreliable narrators, self-conscious authorial interjections - dipped, ever so briefly, into the soft water of nineteenth-century realism.

The problem is, however, that the likes of Smith have also colonised contemporary critical discourse about the experimental novel. The first lady of 'Young British Forsterian Humanism' has just published a piece in - I think, don't shoot me - the New York Review of Books in which her lineage of 'experimental' goes, well, Joyce - Beckett - Robbe-Grillet. Sideways could have told me as much. Not even a tokenistic reference to a 'being-rediscovered' figure like Green or Ann Quin. Here, Zadie manages a sideswipe against 'professors and critics' whilst co-opting Roland Barthes - Roland Barthes! - to her cause, because he was a 'practitioner' who understood the writerly agon. Who all these 'professors and critics' who don't write are is a moot point: it reminds me of Don Paterson's paranoid ranting about the 'postmodern' poets who are throttling his craft with their trendy anti-verse (I'll seek this reference out soon). Or not, as the case may be.

On that note, just to bang one more nail in about my frustration regarding the anti-thinking tendency in British literary culture, I'd never before known the frankly weird remarks (see start of article) made by Hugo Williams about John Ashbery and J.H. Prynne before I came upon this review of the (utterly excellent, page-turning) Don't start me talking - Interviews with contemporary poets, edited by the inspiring Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan. On what possible plane is it acceptable to consider Prynne, or Denise Riley, poets who do what they do as a result of exhaustive aesthetic and political deliberation, a 'hipster', while at the same time soliciting applause for young London-based writers whose work is a mottle of pop-cultural reference and unstudied (and Safran Foer-esque) emotional and social generalisation? I say this while laying myself open to allegations of hypocrisy, of course, but still...I find the notion of Prynne endlessly striving (and always failing, but aesthetically) for new forms which might slough off the sullying of language in the third machine age more inspiring, and less 'hip', than the likes of certain poets whose work manifests no formal progression from Four Quartets but invokes modernity via what (I think are) rather desperate references to their time spent as a punk. The difference is, I think, that the likes of Out to Lunch or Sean Bonney keep to their guns, un-hipsterishly, whilst the figure I have in mind dines out on h** ability to view those heady times with a measure of unearned sagacity seemingly inherited from the likes of the (hateful) Larkin. 'I was a punk, now I'm not, now I write blithe landscape poetry'. Etcetera.

Fucking hell. It really does make me mad.

Been reading a biog of Mass Observation founder and all-round oddball Tom Harrisson today, picked up in the Red Bus bookshop for 1000 forints. Inspiring and frightening.

Viva less than a week...

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Starting to sound my age...

...but my teachers used to do these kinds of things all the time, and we never thought it was weird. Actually, we used to think it was kind of funny. Some of our best teachers were dedicated chalk-throwing ranters who thought nothing of making you look like a fool if you weren't willing to work hard, or at least shut up and let other people get on with working.

This isn't a 'political correctness gone mad' argument, by the way...

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

On the subject of pervy links...

Here's one for the Hungarian equivalent of football-porn Gomorrah Pyramid Passion. It isn't quite as easy to navigate as the procastinator's paradise of PP, but it seems to be similarly exhaustive.

Racy Hungarian Art: Part 3

Reclining Nude, by Lajos Pandy, 1930-1933, Hungarian National Gallery.

I picked this one because it seems to represent an aesthetic that has about a cigarette paper's distance from Green's. Like I said about surrealism a few posts back, it's very often not very far away from what one might take for 'realism' at all. For me, this picture could be the illustration for 'Surrealism 101': the half-open (or opening?) door to the parquetted Alice-world, the preoccupation with sleep, the wanton gratuitousness of its subject, the embodied tension between the fantasy of the painting and the fantasy that we are led to believe is being entertained in the painting, the open book which restages the tension between 'reality' and 'imagination' in mise-en-abyme. If Elizabeth Bowen's novels, which exemplify a literature at the ultimate breaking-point of realist style (somewhere out beyond Henry James), described 'life with the lid on', this is representation just to the other side of the looking-glass. It's an obvious allusion, perhaps, but the (Pandora's) box in the foreground has begun to lose its lid.

Less high-mindedly, that's a really comfortable-looking pillow she's resting on.

Don't know a lot about Hungarian surrealism yet. I'd be interested to find out if, like the English or Czech sub-strains, it differs significantly from its Francophone origins. I'm getting all of these pictures from the excellent Fine Arts in Hungary website, by the way, so feel free to go and inform yourself of Magyar art subjects that are less racy, or more to your own tastes in raciness...

Monday, 8 December 2008

Down, Benczúr, Down

I thought we'd best not have Cleopatra at the top of the page any longer. Never fear, I have a large selection of Hungarian nudity to disseminate yet. I'm currently mustering my reserves to tattle something out about parquet floors and surrealism.

Today, though, has largely been about viva prep. Why did I make some of those mistakes? This morning was better: a massive walk through Buda, including jaunts up Gellert Hill and the Rószadomb and an exorcistic sally past the scene of 2006's Great Missed Aiport Bus and Subsequent Expensive Taxi Disaster. From Gellert, it becomes clear just how massive Budapest is. In each direction - south to Csepel, west to Kelenföld, north-east to Angyalföld, north to Óbuda and Békásmegyer - one can see vast post-1945 linear development, pre-fabbed mid-rises in grey, grey, grey. It was a beautiful morning as well, to the extent that the light coming back off the Danube burnt my eyes.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Today's vaguely racy Hungarian painting...

Is Gyula Benczúr's sort-of-Symbolist Cleopatra, from 1911:

It's a bit 'groogh', isn't it?

Did Proust write a PhD?

Because one of his psychopathologies of Swann sounds awfully like a description of the writing-up year...

But most of all, - since in every one of his actions and thoughts which had reference to Odette, Swann was constantly obsessed and influenced by the unavowed feeling that he was, perhaps not less dear, but less welcome to her than anyone, even the most tedious of the Verdurin 'faithful,' - when he betook himself to a world in which he was the paragon of taste, a man whom no pains were spared to attract, whom people were genuinely sorry not to see, he began once again to believe in the existence of a happier life, almost to feel an appetite for it, as an invalid may feel who has been bedridden for months, on a strict diet, when he picks up a newspaper and reads the account of an official banquet or an advertisement for a cruise round Sicily.

That sounds remarkably like me over the summer!

Re-reading Proust has venn-diagrammed with my viva preparation: it seems to be teaching me the value of patience, and helping me to become reconciled with the idea of potential rewrites (obviously I'd rather not). I genuinely think A la Recherche should be on the secondary school literature syllabus and, if I ever get to write my dream undergraduate unit about the inherent strangeness of literature, Swann's Way would be the Week One text.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Károly Lotz, Hungarian National Gallery

Sorry for the shortage of updates this week. I've been scribbling notes in the margins of my thesis in advance of the viva, walking around a lot, and reading Proust in the bath. I've been looking up calls for papers in order to figure out who is going to be the unfortunate recipients of my thesis chapters. I've been getting rained on. I've been to see Ridley Scott's Body of Lies at a multiplex in the mall next to Nyugati Station (B+, Ridders), eating falafels and burritos and pastries, conceiving of articles for which I might plausibly be paid, fidgeting with a poem, and trying to muster the energy to sort my CV out properly. Mostly, though, I've been visiting museums. Yesterday we took in the National Museum, which helped fill in some of the gaps in my (fairly rudimentary) narrative of Magyar history, and on Tuesday I made a solo jaunt over the Erzsébet Híd (returning, incidentally, by the beautifiul Lánchíd at rush hour) to explore the dauntingly vast Hungarian National Gallery.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who suffers 'art fatigue' in big museums. Let's get things straight: as I've got older, I've fallen more and more in love with gallery-traipsing and, to my surprise, my preferences have shifted away from modernist painting (which isn't to say I don't enjoy and value it) to older works. I like battle scenes, Giotto frescoes, Piero della Francesca, apocalytpic Dutch paintings, Cotman, Turner, and - in particular - stuff from the latter half of the nineteenth century. It's the way realism shimmers on the edge of itself, not quite kitsch yet, but riddled with self-doubt. And yet it's also, truculently, not Cubism or Futurism.

Academic painting strikes me as particularly interesting because its techniques were adapted by figures who I'm perhaps more familiar with in my day-to-day interests, namely the surrealists. You find that Classicism in Dali, but for my own work, I've followed it more closely in Tristram Hillier and Paul Nash. Classicism's usefulness to the Surrealists is perhaps obvious: it has, precisely, an 'unrealistic' quality to the twentieth century mind when measured against the hurly-burly of Balla or Modigliani or Braque. When Clement Greenberg talks about academic painting as being kitsch, he is gesturing towards the unreality, even the archetypicality, that the surrealists found in it. Its 'life' had come to represent the dream-world.

So, via that digression...I do get art fatigue. By the 5th or 6th room of a big institution like the NPG or the Tate I'm looking without seeing, and my walking pace increases. So it's often something in the very first batch that grabs me. In this case, it was the work of Károly Lotz, a German-Magyar academic painter and muralist who died in 1904. What fascinated me is that each of his works seemed to have been created in the very last moment, art-historically speaking, in which they could not be entirely kitsch. He seemed to pass from Romantic-Naturalist themes that performed the characteristic early-nineteenth century gesture of ennobling the land and people of an imperially-subordinate country (see Stud in a Thunderstorm, of 1862, above) to quasi-decadent depictions of beautiful women lazing around naked in Hellenistic surrounds (see Bathing Woman, of 1901, below). Both strike we as rather wonderful examples of compromised realism; both would be amenable to a surrealist cannibilisation.

Anyway, that was Lotz. After that, I played an exciting game of grandmother's footsteps with the museum attendants (they love following me: why?) and gave the nineteenth century section another hour or so. By the time I staggered upstairs to look at Hungarian modernism, I was pretty much out of appreciation, so I'll start there next time. My problem with modernist art is its susceptibility to becoming derivative very quickly, and much I saw in there seemed at first to be in imitation of the 'big' interwar painters. Of course, this can be interesting in itself - so next time I'll have to avoid becoming sidetracked by Lotz's women (I'll forego the pun this time).

Anyway, I'll get more on here soon. Back in England for a fortnight on the 15th, to face THE VIVA.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Working to spec...

Spent the weekend writing two articles for an online magazine, and, when I type them up, I discover that they're both 500 words over wordcount.

Does anyone else have as much difficulty following simple instructions as me?