The Sense Of A Beginning

They say writing is a muscle which needs to be exercised in order to get stronger, and although I’m in the best physical shape I’ve been in for a long time (yay!), my writing muscles feel like slabs of lard. But it’s been silent here too long, and as always, the thing that’s been holding me back from just sitting down and writing a goddamn post is that peculiar inertia of perfectionism which renders the idea of watching all the Grumpy Cat videos an infinitely preferable prospect to the awful possibility of writing something that sucks.

But if you will forgive me for just embracing the suck and getting on with things, I would like to tell you about Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending. This won the Booker Prize in 2011 and the Guardian review will give you a decent idea of whether it’s the type of novel you’re in the mood for, but I’d caution against expecting too much from it. There is a plot twist so infuriating that I cast the book aside the moment I finished it and stormed out of the room to see if the Internet’s disgruntlement matched my own. Alec (who had read the book just before me and was asleep in bed next to me as I read) later said that even in the mists of sleep, when he heard my angry huff and little stomps, he knew exactly why.

So you’re probably wondering whether, given that Grumpy Cat’s Worst Monday Ever will only take up a few minutes of your crowded life and fill you with immediate joy, this imperfect book is worth bothering with. It is. The writing is fantastic and gave me one of those “How have I spent all these years not reading this author?!” moments, which I haven’t had since discovering Graham Greene many years ago. Even just the first few pages will give you a taste of Barnes’ craft – his descriptions of the protagonist’s boarding school environment include a teacher “whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom”, “a cautious know-nothing [schoolmate] who lacked the inventiveness of true ignorance” and this, which strikes me as an appropriate quote with which to end one year and start another:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

Margrave Of The Marshes (John Peel’s Autobiography)

If you haven’t already heard, parts of John Peel’s record collection will soon become a virtual museum of sorts from now till the end of October 2012. John kept his collection meticulously catalogued and filed with cards he hand-typed on his old Olivetti typewriter, and each week for 26 weeks, users will get access to whatever music was on the first 100 filecards of a given letter of the alphabet, with 1 album highlighted for special attention. (Unfortunately, since access is through Spotify those of us in Singapore can’t actually be part of the fun.)

Alexis Petridis got a first peek into the collection, and wrote a charming article for The Guardian about what awaits us:

In one instance, the sheer obscurity of the music seems to have overwhelmed even Peel. There is a card that features no track listing at all, merely the dark summary “16 songs in Hungarian”.

In light of this, now seems a good time to share some favourite excerpts (I haven’t done that for so long!) from John’s autobiography Margrave Of The Marshes, which was half-written during his lifetime and finished posthumously by his wife Sheila. Funnily enough, I actually prefer the writing in Sheila’s half – the half written by John suggests he never met a comma he didn’t like. Nonetheless, the book is a wonderful read not just for music geeks but anyone who ever enjoyed John’s inimitable personality and radio presence – in my household, for example, Alec (who never listened to The John Peel Show but loved Home Truths) and I (who never listened to Home Truths but loved The John Peel Show) enjoyed it equally. 

The book opens with a quote from John, writing in Disc and Music Echo, 1969:

It is obvious that disc-jockeys, as a class, are essentially parasitic. We are, with lamentably few exceptions, neither creative nor productive. We have, however, manipulated the creations of others (records) to provide ourselves with reputations as arbiters of public taste. There is no more reason (nor no less) why I should be writing this column than you – however I am in this unmerited position and you’re not. I believe very much in radio as a medium of tragically unrealised possibilities and also in the music I play. Therefore accepting the falseness of my own precarious position I will do what I can, wherever I can, to publicise these good things I hear around me. These musicians have made you aware of, and appreciative of, their music – not J. Peel.

Read on for more excerpts from Margrave of the Marshes


I was doing some clutter-clearing today and found this passage I saved from when I read Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter some years back. The protagonist is listening to Beethoven’s 3rd symphony (the “Eroica”) at the time, but you don’t have to have heard it[1. If you’d like to get to know the Eroica, good ol’ Youtube will let you travel back in time to watch the great Herbert von Karajan at work: Part 1, Part 2.] to let this passage take you back to the last time you listened to music that made you feel this way.

She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her. Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget – or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember? Golly! The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart. And the first part was over.

This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes she listened or half the night. The second part was black-coloured – a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before. One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best – glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.

The last time music made me feel like the whole world was a symphony and there wasn’t enough of me to listen was a few weeks ago, listening to Dinosaur Jr’s Farm and losing myself so happily in the guitar work[2. There’s No Here isn’t actually a standout track in this (consistently good) album but it’s a punchy example of one of my favourite things about Dinosaur Jr – how J Mascis’s guitar is basically like the fourth member of the band. If you’re feeling a little more emo, let Said The People build to the solo at 3.05.] that I almost forgot I was on my way to work on a Monday morning. When was yours?

Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)

Alec recently enjoyed Brideshead Revisited so I read it too in a fit of foppery. Waugh’s prose was masterful but I thought the book’s comic moments were far more successfully realized than its theme (described by Waugh in his foreword as “the operation of divine grace” on the book’s main characters).

The Catholics in this book struggle with the outward moral strictures of being Catholic but are indifferent to the internal. We aren’t privy to any thoughtful exploration of their faiths, just an inexplicable attachment to following some rules (eg. not divorcing your husband even though you have a loveless marriage and have fallen in love with someone else) but not others (eg. not cheating on your husband in the first place). I honestly don’t understand why they continue to feel any residual attachment to Catholicism when they have long ceased to practise it; it feels more like an explanation of the power of superstition rather than divine grace. I guess Graham Greene has just spoiled me in this regard, because I really think Waugh’s attempts here don’t hold a candle to anything Greene has accomplished in a similar vein.

But in case anyone reading the previous paragraph has immediately decided that Brideshead Revisited doesn’t sound like their kind of book, let me discourage you from that – it has many inimitably funny moments and it always feels wonderfully luxurious after I overdose on modern fiction to plunge into the vintage elan of a writer like Waugh. Here’s a passage I enjoyed – Anthony Blanche, my favourite character in the book because he’s just totally fabulous, describes the fumbling attempts of some fellow students at Oxford to dunk him in a fountain (due to his excessive fabulousness):

About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners, and they were all wearing coloured tail-coats – a sort of livery. “My dears,” I said to them, “you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen.” Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices. “My dear,” I said, “I may be inverted but I am not insatiable. Come back when you are alone.” Then they began to blaspheme in a very shocking manner, and suddenly I, too, began to be annoyed. “Really,” I thought, “when I think of all the hullabaloo there was when I was seventeen, and the Duc de Vincennes (old Armand, of course, not Philippe) challenged me to a duel for an affair of the heart, and very much more than the heart, I assure you, with the duchess (Stefanie, of course, not old Poppy) – now, to submit to impertinence from these pimply, tipsy virgins…” Well, I gave up the light, bantering tone and let myself be just a little offensive.

Then they began saying, “Get hold of him. Put him in Mercury.” Now as you know I have two sculptures by Brancusi and several pretty things and I did not want them to start getting rough, so I said, pacifically, “Dear sweet clodhoppers, if you knew anything of sexual psychology you would know that nothing could give me keener pleasure than to be manhandled by you meaty boys. It would be an ecstacy of the very naughtiest kind. So if any of you wishes to be my partner in joy come and seize me. If, on the other hand, you simply wish to satisfy some obscure and less easily classified libido and see me bath, come with me quietly, dear louts, to the fountain.

Do you know, they all looked a little foolish at that? I walked down with them and no one came within a yard of me. Then I got into the fountain and, you know, it was really most refreshing, so I sported there a little and struck some attitudes, until they turned about and walked sulkily home, and I heard Boy Mulcaster saying, “Anyway, we did put him in Mercury.” You know, Charles, that is just what they’ll be saying in thirty years’ time. When they’re all married to scraggy little women like hens and have cretinous porcine sons like themselves getting drunk at the same club dinner in the same coloured coats, they’ll still say, when my name is mentioned, “We put him in Mercury one night,” and their barnyard daughters will snigger and think their father was quite a dog in his day, and what a pity he’s grown so dull. Oh, la fatigue du Nord!

The Accidental (Ali Smith)

I’m quite enjoying The Accidental so far, although it appears some Amazon reviewers would strongly beg to differ. (“This book won the Whitbread Novel Award. According to another website, the Whitbread Award lost its sponsor and ceased to exist the same year.”) Here’s a passage from where one of the characters, a professor of English, finds himself suddenly and overwhelmingly enthralled by the family’s houseguest. The rather convenient entry of a large moth into the room, and its doomed flight into a candle flame, sets us up for the following:

Moths and candlelight! Like a moth to a flame! Dr Michael Smart had been reduced to cliché!

Deeply exciting, though, cliché was, as a concept. It was truth misted by overexpression, wasn’t it, like a structure seen in a fog, something waiting to be re-felt, re-seen. Something dainty fumbled at through thick gloves. Cliché was true, obviously, which was why it had become cliché in the first place; so true that cliché actually protected you from its own truth by being what it was, nothing but cliché. Advertising, for example, loved cliché because it was a kind of pure mob truth. There was a lecture in this, maybe for the Ways To Read course. Source? clearly French, he would look it up. Larkin, for instance, the Sid James of English lyric poetry (now that was quite a good observation, Dr Michael Smart firing on all cylinders) knew the power of cliché. What will survive of us is love. His old racehorses in that horse poem didn’t ‘gallop for joy’ but for what must be joy. Larkin, an excellent example. Comic old sexist living all those years in the nether librarian circles of Hull, no wonder he was such a curmudgeon, but he could crack a cliché wide open with a couple of properly pitched words. Or when Hemingway, for example, wrote it before anyone else had even known how to think to express it, didst thou feel the earth move (or however it was he faux-peasantly put it in the not-very-good For Whom The Bell Tolls, 1941 Michael believed), could he have had any idea how his phrase would enter the language? Enter! The language! Cliché was earth-moving, when you understood it, when you felt it, for the first time. Earth and movement, an earthquake, a high-pitched shattering shift in the platelets far down in the heat, below the belt, beneath the feet. Moth plus flame.

“Unless” I’m Missing Something

The book I’m reading now is Carol Shields’ Unless, which I grabbed hurriedly while charging around a closing library. She’s quite a celebrated writer, and the book was nominated for prizes and shit.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

“Tom has asked me once or twice what it is we talk about on Tuesday mornings, but I just shake my head. It’s too rich to describe, and too uneven. Chit-chat, some people call it. We talk about our bodies, our vanities, our dearest desires. Of course the three of them know all about Norah being on the street; they comfort me and offer concern. A phase, Annette believes. A breakdown, thinks Sally. Lynn is certain the cause is physiological, glandular, hormonal. They all tell me that I must not take Norah’s dereliction as a sign of my own failure as a mother, and this, though I haven’t acknowledged it before, is a profound and always lurking fear. More than a fear – I believe it.”

I think my extreme boredom with this book must be a sign of my failure as a woman. What do you think, should I keep trudging through the hormonal mire or just run for the hills?

Travels With My Aunt ( Graham Greene): Excerpts

Travels With My Aunt is the first of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” I’ve read, and it’s as wonderful as his serious novels. This book doesn’t just have one good story, it has about fifty. The first excerpt here tickles my funny bone the same way Dan Rhodes’s writing does, and the second is taken from a great story which I have unfortunately had to truncate, and which is much funnier in its completeness.
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Review + Excerpts: Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

Vernon God Little isn’t a bad read at all, but I’d personally classify it as a borrow-don’t-buy. I was extremely impressed by it, but as someone who reads purely for leisure (okay, and perhaps an occasional intellectual brownie point), I haven’t the faintest desire to ever read it again. It would probably make a fairly good movie, but only if Tarantino directs.

DBC Pierre’s prose is stingingly funny, but the plot is ultimately frustrating for the rational reader, which makes the suspense in the ending fall flat. The entire story is dependent on accepting that the protagonist, who sees the world through glasses so bitingly perceptive that they would best be described as gunmetal-tinted, is more inept at proving his innocence (of a schoolyard mass-murder) than an eight-year-old child would be. At times I was reminded of my exasperation while watching The Blair Witch Project, after which I seem to remember proclaiming “People that fucking stupid really just deserve to die!” a little too loud on the streets of London.

However, if you’re going on holiday, or are sick in bed and need something rollicking(ish) and entertaining(ish) and which pokes merciless fun at fat small-town Americans, you could do much worse than Vernon God Little. Here are two vulgar passages from it to help you decide. If you don’t like them, don’t read the book.

* * *

“Man, remember the Great Thinker we heard about in class last week?” he asks.

“The one that sounded like ‘Manual Cunt’?”

“Yeah, who said nothing really happens unless you see it happen.”

“All I remember is asking Naylor if he ever heard of a Manual Cunt, and him going, ‘I only drive automatics’.”

* * *

“You never heard of the paradigm shift? Example: you see a man with his hand up your granny’s ass. What do you think?”


“Right. Then you learn a deadly bug crawled up there, and the man has in fact put aside his disgust to save Granny. What do you think now?”

“Hero.” You can tell he ain’t met my nana.

“There you go, a paradigm shift. The action doesn’t change – the information you use to judge it does. You were ready to crucify the guy because you didn’t have the facts. Now you want to shake his hand.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I meant figuratively, asshole.”

Excerpts: Fugitive Pieces (Anne Michaels)

I finished Fugitive Pieces before the tsunami took over 250000 lives, but I’ve only managed to get round to typing out my bookmarked passages today. Reading some of them again in the wake of a natural disaster that literally changed how our world turns, I haven’t been able to help reading them in a slightly different light, with new victims on my mind rather than the old.

It is facile to liken a tsunami to the Holocaust, but thankfully that won’t be necessary. This book is much less about whys, and more about what nows, and in that sense at least, the agony of the survivor is universal. Michaels explores this beautifully for the first two thirds or so of the book, but doesn’t manage to sustain it once protagonist Jakob Beer dies and a new character abruptly takes over the narrative. Ben feels like an unnecessary coda to what would have been a complete and admirably compact work on its own, and the reader doesn’t really get enough time or incentive to care very much about him.

Despite its acclaim, Anne Michaels’ writing doesn’t always hit the mark for me – I find some of her pseudo-poetic abstractions a little overindulgent and frankly rather meaningless – but when it does, it is profoundly evocative.
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