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Tag: writing

Nabokov on Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett

Tuesday, 28 April, 2015 0 Comments

Before the anticipation of Mayweather-Pacquiao there was the historical fact of Breitensträter vs. Paolino. The date was 1 December 1925 and the venue was the Sports Palace in Berlin. The fighters were the German Hans Breitensträter and the Basque Paolino Uzcudun. Ringside among the 15,000 spectators was the young Vladimir Nabokov. His account of the bout was published as “Breitensträter–Paolino” on 28 and 29 December in the Latvian émigré journal Slovo. It is filled with delightful observations. This bit on Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett, the boxers, is especially good:

“I have had the luck to see Smith, and Bombardier Wells, and Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett, and the miraculous Carpentier who beat Beckett. That fight, which paid the winner five thousand, and the runner-up three thousand pounds, lasted exactly fifty-six seconds, so that someone who had paid twenty pounds for their seat had only enough time to light a cigarette, and when he looked up at the ring, Beckett was already lying on the boards in the touching pose of a sleeping baby.”

When the Times Literary Supplement published the first English translation of Nabokov’s “Breitensträter–Paolino” three years ago, Thomas Karshan, one of the translators, noted, “In our translation we have tried to do justice to Nabokov’s dashes, staccato or metaphysical, his commas, apprehensive or explosive, and his inversions, abstract or gutsy, all so important in a piece devoted to testing how far art can go in formalizing even those parts of life that might seem most resistant — even boxing, even blood and pain. We have also tried to catch those moments, so far from the oracular pronouncements of the opening, in which Nabokov mimics the brusque street-talk of the boxing fan or commentator, mixing his voice with the voices of the crowd — a democratic ventriloquism unique in his work.”


Road writing

Sunday, 12 April, 2015 0 Comments

Road question


Link love

Thursday, 19 March, 2015 0 Comments

“Link is acceptable in reference to a hyperlink on the web. If an article refers to material of interest to readers, such as a website, document, image or video, provide an embedded link as a convenience.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 2015 Edition

As a convenience, here is a link to a shop selling the updated version of The New York Times style guide. Since the last edition was published in 1999, much has changed, and the new guide reflects the impact of “web, the.” BTW, for the NYT the lowercase form is now acceptable in all references to the World Wide Web. And BTW again:

“abbreviations popular in online and texting slang should be used only rarely, for special effect, and should be rendered as readers most often see them: BTW, FYI, LOL, OMG, tl;dr, etc.”


The ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness

Friday, 13 March, 2015 0 Comments

Snippet from Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett, who died yesterday:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

bootsTake boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

In his writings, the ennobled Sir Terry Pratchet drew upon a noble literary heritage and his work encompassed the abundant genius of Charles Dickens, the enduring wit of P.G. Wodehouse and the stellar imagination of Douglas Adams.


“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.


Pamplona rises again

Friday, 13 February, 2015 0 Comments

The brand-new Museo Universidad de Navarra is expected to bring a stampede of art lovers to Pamplona and it might, in time, rival the economic impact of the annual running of the bulls during the festival of San Fermín. Talking of matters taurine, there’s a wonderful moment in The Sun Also Rises where the protagonist, Jake Barnes, arrives in Pamplona, sees the cathedral, enters and prays. This is Hemingway at his finest:

The Sun Also Rises “I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of, Brett and Mike and Bill and Robert Cohn and myself, and all the bullfighters, separately for the ones I liked, and lumping all the rest, then I prayed for myself again, and while I was praying for myself I found I was getting sleepy, so I prayed that all the bullfighters would be good, and that it would be a fine fiesta, and that we would get some fishing. I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money… and as all the time I was kneeling with my forehead on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realised that there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time.”

Rarely has irony been expressed so elegantly.


English vs. Chinese

Thursday, 20 November, 2014 0 Comments

Sarah Fay interviews Ha Jin for the Paris Review. His books are banned in China because he writes about “taboo subjects”. And there’s another reason he’s unpopular with the authorities: “I write in English, which is viewed as a betrayal of my mother tongue.” Talking of language, here he compares Chinese with English:

“English has more flexibility. It’s a very plastic, very shapeable, very expressive language. In that sense it feels quite natural. The Chinese language is less natural. Written Chinese is not supposed to represent natural speech, and there are many different spoken dialects that correspond to the single written language. The written word will be the same in all dialects, but in speech it is a hundred different words. The written language is like Latin in that sense; it doesn’t have a natural rhythm. The way people talk — you can’t represent that. The accents and the nongrammatical units, you can’t do it. You can’t write in dialect, like you can in English, using a character to represent a certain sound, because each character has a fixed meaning.

When the first emperor wanted to unify the country, one of the major policies was to create one system of written signs. By force, brutal force, he eliminated all the other scripts. One script became the official script. All the others were banned. And those who used other scripts were punished severely. And then the meanings of all the characters, over the centuries, had to be kept uniform as a part of the political apparatus. So from the very beginning the written word was a powerful political tool.”

Read the whole thing and give thanks for the freedom that allows you to read it.


Keep. It. Short.

Monday, 10 November, 2014 0 Comments

“Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

In his blog, Faith and Theology, Ben Myers praises short sentences. “I have been encouraging students to aim for shorter sentences that say exactly what you want to say, not for longer sentences that sound the way you would like to sound,” he writes.

“There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.” Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Myers supports his argument with a quote from Tertullian of Carthage. In his treatise on the Trinity Against Praxeas, Tertullian cites a list of texts used by his critics and responds with a two-word sentence: ‘Legimus omnia‘ — ‘We’ve read all that.’ Impressed by this succinctness, Myers comments, “What a sentence! Sharp as a sniper’s shot.”

Ultimately, sentence length is a matter of style and the best writers know when to balance brevity with flow. The critical thing is knowing where to place the full stop.

“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Truman Capote, In Cold Blood


The debatable future of reading, and writing

Monday, 26 May, 2014 0 Comments

What does the consumption text snippets on portable devices portend? Does scrolling represent the erosion of concentration? Is the constant clicking on links leading us into a cul de sac? Are the skimming and scanning and grazing enabled by our digital devices scrambling our heads? Maryanne Wolf of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University fears that our treasured tradition of contemplative reading is being compromised:

“The omnipresence of multiple distractions for attention — and the brain’s own natural attraction to novelty — contribute to a mindset toward reading that seeks to reduce information to its lowest conceptual denominator. Sound bites, text bites, and mind bites are a reflection of a culture that has forgotten or become too distracted by and too drawn to the next piece of new information to allow itself time to think.”

That’s from Wolf’s stimulating essay titled “Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions — Poses-Questions.” There is a counter-argument to be made, of course, that the new devices are opening up reading for an entire public that previously had little to do with the written word. All is not lost just because form and formats are undergoing change.


One of the great sentences: No. 2

Monday, 19 May, 2014 0 Comments

“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Why is this great? The audacity of it all, for starters. The idea that the trees which once stood on the site of Gatsby’s house were so magnificent that they could have played a role in the “last and greatest of all human dreams” is outlandish, but the author is in full flight here and intoxicated with his imagination. There are passages of expression in Gatsby that rightfully have been compared to music, and there are others in the novel that have been likened to magic and this is one that contains a little of both. Fitzgerald’s ability to display those vanished trees is one of his greatest conjuring tricks.

One of the great sentences: No. 1


One of the great sentences: No. 1

Monday, 12 May, 2014 0 Comments

“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

Why is this great? Well, the rhythm, for one. Capote also uses the momentum of the great American transport arteries to propel the sentence to its end, while hinting at the drama to come.