Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Books

Gatsby and the robots

Wednesday, 26 August, 2015 0 Comments

“Belief in ‘the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,’ as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, is a characteristic American trait.” So writes the seasoned pundit as he prepares his readers for a think pieces on… robots. Watch now how he deploys Gatsby:

“Is a yet more orgiastic future beckoning? Today’s Gatsbys have no doubt that the answer is yes: humanity stands on the verge of breakthroughs in information technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence that will dwarf what has been achieved in the past two centuries. Human beings will be able to live still more like gods because they are about to create machines like gods: not just strong and swift but also supremely intelligent and even self-creating.”

Gatsby But just in case the tech-optimism gets out of hand, our pundit reaches for Mary Shelley, creator of “the cautionary tale of Frankenstein”. Intelligent machines have a scary side and this could herald “great dangers,” such as “soaring unemployment and inequality.” Is this, then, our destiny? “The answer is no.” Hawking, Musk and Gates may be sounding the alarm bells but, “What we know for the moment is that there is nothing extraordinary in the changes we are now experiencing. We have been here before and on a much larger scale.”

Bottom line: “The future does not have to be a disappointment. But as Gatsby learned, it can all too easily be just that.” All this, and more, can be found in “Same as It Ever Was: Why the Techno-optimists Are Wrong” by Martin Wolf in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. The article shows how useful Gatsby can be as an inspiration for, well, anything, including robots. The novel never gets tired.

Tomorrow, here, Jay Gatsby is sent to the front lines of the gender wars. Gays and feminists battle it out as they seek deeper meaning between the sheets, er, pages.

Did James Joyce imagine Snapchat?

Tuesday, 16 June, 2015 0 Comments

Happy Bloomsday! The name is derived from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses by James Joyce. The novel’s characters wander around Dublin on 16 June 1904 and as one of them, Stephen Dedalus, remarks: “Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”

Ulysses is said to be the most written about book ever after the Bible and, like the Good Book, it contains truth and prophecy. In this exchange from Episode 1, Telemachus, Joyce imagines the invention of a mobile messaging app that allows users to capture images that self destruct after a few seconds.

“— Is the brother with you, Malachi?
— Down in Westmeath. With the Bannons.
— Still there? I got a card from Bannon. Says he found a sweet young thing down there. Photo girl he calls her.
— Snapshot, eh? Brief exposure.”

Snapshot, eh? Brief exposure, eh? Isn’t that Snapchat?

I believe in capitals and the occasional comma

Tuesday, 9 June, 2015 0 Comments

“James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks.” So said Cormac McCarthy in a rare 2008 interview with Oprah Winfrey.

McCarthy’s combination of declarative sentence and minimalist punctuation can be seen at work in this graphic excerpt from Blood Meridian:

Toward the morning they saw fires on the horizon. Glanton sent the Delawares. Already the dawnstar burned pale in the east. When they returned they squatted with Glanton and the judge and the Brown brothers and spoke and gestured and then all remounted and all rode on.

Five wagons smoldered on the desert floor and the riders dismounted and moved among the bodies of the dead argonauts in silence, those right pilgrims nameless among the stones with their terrible wounds, the viscera spilled from their sides and the naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts. Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out their grinning mouths. In their wigs of dried blood they lay gazing up with ape’s eyes at brother sun now rising in the east.

The wagons were no more than embers armatured with the blackened shapes of hoop-iron and tires, the redhot axles quaking deep within the coals. The riders squatted at the fires and boiled water and drank coffee and roasted meat and lay down to sleep among the dead.

Rain: Too much and not nearly enough

Monday, 8 June, 2015 0 Comments

“Do not be angry with the rain; it simply does not know how to fall upwards,” said Vladimir Nabokov. His comment is atypical as rain rarely earns a good punch line. Worse, in a rapidly urbanizing world, rain is regarded as a nuisance and few people have a kind word to say for it. The stuff that fills shoes, wrecks hairdos and allows unscrupulous umbrella sellers to practice a form of surge pricing that would make Uber envious lacks a lobby. But that should change soon thanks to Cynthia Barnett, author of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Using humour and science she examines rain’s role through the ages, and what emerges is a unifying force of nature that has nourished our planet for more than four billion years. Snippet:

“Rain brings us together in one of the last untamed encounters with nature that we experience routinely, able to turn the suburbs and even the city wild. Huddled with our fellow humans under construction scaffolding to escape a deluge, we are bound in the memory and mystery of exhilarating, confounding, life-giving rain.” Cynthia Barnett, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History

Rain

Dracula Therapy

Tuesday, 26 May, 2015 0 Comments

Dracula On this day in 1897, Dracula, a novel by the Irish author Bram Stoker, was published at a price of six shillings. It had a print run of 3,000 copies and the book was bound in plain yellow cloth with the one-word title in simple red lettering. In time, Dracula would become the supreme example of horror fiction. The critic Maurice Richardson described it as “a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match”. What’s not to like?

“Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer — nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited — waited with beating heart.” — Bram Stoker, Dracula

In his longing for eternity, Dracula developed an insatiable demand for blood and it’s not surprising that one of the hottest treatments in the anti-ageing business right now is the vampirish “Dracula Therapy.” Officially titled Stimulated Self Serum skin therapy, it involves having your face injected with your own blood and it was developed by the London-based French cosmetic specialist, Dr Daniel Sister. A variant of the treatment is popularly called the “vampire facial” and recipients include Kim Kardashian.

A modification of the therapy, called “Rejuvula”, promises the same tightening effect — but not for the face. Irishwoman Claudia McGloin claims that she is the only female medical professional offering the treatment “for Vagina Rejuvenation in Europe.”

“The blood is the life!” — Bram Stoker, Dracula

Houellebecq and the capitulation of cover art

Thursday, 5 March, 2015 0 Comments

“For the purpose of Appreciation and Categorization” is the motto of The Book Cover Archive, and there is much to appreciate and categorize on this World Book Day when it comes to book covers. Think of the art of Roger Kastel for Jaws by Peter Benchley. With Soumission, the latest novel from Michel Houellebecq, however, we’re seeing a different kind of cover art. The art of capitulation.

In his book, Houellebecq paints a picture of an old, ailing Christian nation, France, submitting to a more vigorous ideology: Islam. It is a bitterly funny critique of the tolerance of the intolerant and a terrifying vision of the multicultural endgame. The book is a best-seller in France, Germany and Italy, despite the best efforts of its publishers to neutralize its appearance. The two-tone cover of the original French version is devoid of art; the German version, Unterwerfung, features the head of a bird, and the Italian cover of Sottomissione dispenses with imagery completely. The US publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is silent about the cover of Lorin Stein’s forthcoming translation but one fears that the supine trend will continue. Given the vital role of cover art in the history of book making, it is hard to accept that publishers would willingly embrace aniconism, the proscription against the creation of images, but Sottomissione is the proof.

Soumission Soumission Soumission

“Music always sort of sharpened me up”

Wednesday, 25 February, 2015 0 Comments

“I refuse no reasonable offer of work,” Anthony Burgess declared in 1978, “and very few unreasonable ones.” During a lifetime that began on this day in 1917, Burgess wrote more than 30 novels, dozens of film and television scripts, several symphonies, hundreds of newspaper articles, studies of language, music, Shakespeare and James Joyce, a pair of plays and books for children, a volume of poetry, a ballet, and a two-volume autobiography. His most famous creation, A Clockwork Orange, is a disturbing exploration of violence and evil. Filled with innovative language, the book questions the role of “culture” in society. Alex, the narrator, is a thug who loves classical music, but rather than temper his cruelty, it actually spurs it:

There was music playing, a very nice malenky string quartet, my brothers, by Claudius Birdman, one that I knew well. I had to have a smeck, though, thinking of what I’d viddied once in one of these like articles on Modern Youth, about how Modern Youth would be better off if A Lively Appreciation Of The Arts could be like encouraged. Great Music, it said, and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my ha ha power.

Practical grounds for love

Monday, 23 February, 2015 0 Comments

One year, 2012, actually, “What is love?” was the most searched phrase on Google. The answer remains elusive but it’s worth pondering this exchange from Pride and Prejudice, when Lizzy Bennet is questioned by her sister Jane:

“My dearest sister, now be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved him?”

“It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”

Lyme Park

Primo Levi remembers the horror of Auschwitz

Tuesday, 27 January, 2015 0 Comments

Primo Levi described his return to Italy from the Auschwitz concentration camp in La tregua (The Truce). The Truce In this Paris Review interview, Levi reminisces about one of the book’s characters: “You remember Mordo Nahum? I had mixed feelings toward him. I admired him as a man fit for every situation. But of course he was very cruel to me. He despised me because I was not able to manage. I had no shoes. He told me, Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war.”

Today, as the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we should strive to understand the revulsion that Primo Levi felt towards those who took part in the Nazi extermination campaign and also towards those who could have but did not speak out against it. In memory of the murdered millions, here’s an excerpt from The Truce:

“There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is hate that is not in us, it is outside of man. We cannot understand it, but we must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Consciences can be seduced and obscured again — even our consciences. For this reason, it is everyone duty to reflect on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that when Hitler and Mussolini spoke in public, they were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were ‘charismatic leaders'; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the soundness of things they said but from the suggestive way in which they said them, from their eloquence, from their histrionic art, perhaps instinctive, perhaps patiently learned and practised. The ideas they proclaimed were not always the same and were, in general, aberrant or silly or cruel. And yet they were acclaimed with hosannas and followed to the death by millions of the faithful.”

Michel Houellebecq reads in Cologne

Monday, 19 January, 2015 0 Comments

Topping the bestseller list at Amazon.fr is Soumission by Michel Houellebecq. Is his vision of a supine French “submission” to a gradual Islamic takeover a farce or a warning? Tonight, in Cologne, people will have a chance to make up their own minds when the controversial author makes one of his rare trips abroad to speak about his work. Unsurprisingly, the Lit Cologne event is sold out.

Soumission is set seven years in the future, in the year 2022. Mohammed Ben Abbes becomes president of France and immediately all women must be veiled in public, state secondary schools adopt an Islamic curriculum, and the protagonist, François, is told that he cannot return to his university job unless he converts to Islam. He happily submits to the new order, not for any religious or philosophical reasons, but because the new Saudi owners of the Sorbonne pay far better — and he can be polygamous. As he notes, in envy of his new boss, who has converted already: “One 40-year-old wife for cooking, one 15-year-old wife for other things… no doubt he had one or two others of intermediate ages.”

For those who are not fortunate enough to have a ticket to see Michel Houellebecq in action tonight, this Paris Review Q&A, “Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book,” is essential reading. Snippet:

Have you asked yourself what the effect might be of a novel based on such a hypothesis?

None. No effect whatsoever.

You don’t think it will help reinforce the image of France that I just described, in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?

In any case, that’s pretty much all the media talks about, they couldn’t talk about it more. It would be impossible to talk about it more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.

Doesn’t it make you want to write about something else so as not to join the pack?

No, part of my work is to talk about what everyone is talking about, objectively. I belong to my own time.

Soumission by Michel Houellebecq

The Warmth of Other Suns

Friday, 16 January, 2015 0 Comments

In 2014, more than 276,000 people immigrated to Europe illegally. That’s almost 140 percent more than in 2013, according to figures published by the EU. The most of these migrants sailed across the Mediterranean, and the newest method of trafficking them is cruel and effective. The smugglers buy cargo ships from scrapyards, pack hundreds of people onto them and collect thousands of dollars from every one. Then, in the middle of the Mediterranean, the captain sets the auto-pilot for Italy and jumps ship.

Migrants

Isabel Wilkerson addresses the mass movement of people in the The Warmth of Other Suns and while her focus is the American South during the 20th Century, the eloquent conclusion she reaches is universal:

“The migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
They left.”

The warmth of sun