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Gatsby: Sam Guo as James Gatz

Monday, 24 August, 2015 1 Comment

With his vast wealth, James Gatz purchased a lavish mansion on Long Island and proceeded to throw elaborate parties. Those who swam in the rivers of booze during those wild nights at West Egg didn’t know he was born James Gatz, however. To them, he was Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire. Likewise with Kui Zhang Guo, a Chinese businessman who bought a manor for $11.45 million in the upscale Hunters Hill area of Sydney last year. Gatsby He prefers to go by his anglicized name, Sam Guo, writes the Sydney Morning Herald, which begins its story about his fabulous parties thus: “His neighbours have already dubbed him the ‘Chinese Gatsby’, which judging by the largesse in the form of rivers of French champagne and no expense spared parties inside his lavish Hunters Hill mansion, would seem like a fitting nom de plume for Kui Zhang Guo.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved it. The Guo-Gatz symbolism is uncanny and with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting another awful day at the exchanges “as tanking Chinese sharemarkets wipe out the past two years of gains on the local bourse”, the scene is set, perfectly, for our annual reading of The Great Gatsby. Let’s kick off with a passage that reflects the thrill of the party on the edge of the abyss:

“The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word.”

Tomorrow, here, a hot young writer on the enduring greatness of Gatsby.


Bob Dylan did not win the Nobel Prize, again

Thursday, 9 October, 2014 0 Comments

Patrick Modiano? His best-known work is probably Missing Person (French: Rue des Boutiques Obscures), which won the Prix Goncourt in 1978 and is about a detective who loses his memory and strives to find it again. And now Patrick Modiano has has been named the 107th winner of the Nobel prize for Literature. The reaction of John Reed is somewhat cruel.

The win for Patrick Modiano means no win for Bob Dylan, again. In some ways, this is understandable as giving the prize to Dylan for his lyrics would be be an admission of the bankruptcy of literature. And that cannot be allowed. But there’s always next year. To keep the dream alive, here are three of the master’s masterpieces.

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.”

The Times They Are A-Changin’

“He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.”

Only A Pawn In Their Game

“Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Blowin’ In The Wind


The new New Yorker

Tuesday, 22 July, 2014 1 Comment

The New Yorker is offering everything it’s published online since 2007 for free all summer long. The impetus for the free-for-all is the the launching of the magazine’s new-look website, and the move coincides with a fresh assessment of the future of an institution that will be 90 next year:

The print version of The New Yorker is still a fine technology (try rolling up your iPad; and don’t drop it too often!), but more advanced technology has some distinct advantages. Publishing beyond the printed page allows us to present the gift of greater immediacy, the ability to respond to events when we have something to say; the site offers podcasts, video, interactive graphics, and slide shows of photographs and cartoons. The new design also allows us to reach back and highlight work from our archives more easily.

There’s a lot of reading to be done between now that the introduction of the magazine’s metered paywall when the fall foliage begins to appear.


Horripilation: Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

Monday, 31 March, 2014 0 Comments

Each week brings with it dreadful stories that would make one’s hair stand on end. Take the one about the four princesses who say that they have been trapped in the Saudi Arabian royal compound in Jeddah for the last 13 years. The mother of the four girls was married off to King Abdullah at the age of 15, and she claims that they have been subject to constant abuse and are effectively being held under house arrest. Sadly, such tales about court intrigue are not new and Shakespeare captured the horror of it all some four centuries ago in Hamlet, where the ghost addresses the young prince:

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

Language note: Shakespeare’s “porpentine” is better known today as the porcupine, and the idiom of hair standing on end refers to the sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to fear. This phenomenon was once called “horripilation” and was defined in 1656 as “the standing up of the hair for fear… a sudden quaking, shuddering or shivering,” by Thomas Blount in his splendidly named Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used.


Cacti with Alps

Sunday, 23 March, 2014 0 Comments

“It was a fairy-tale world, child-like and funny. Boughs of trees adorned with thick pillows, so fluffy someone must have plumped them up; the ground a series of humps and mounds, beneath which slinking underbrush or outcrops of rock lay hidden; a landscape of crouching, cowering gnomes in droll disguises — it was comic to […]

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Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations in Ukraine

Thursday, 20 March, 2014 0 Comments

In 1993, Samuel Huntington put the cat among the international relations pigeons with an article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled speculatively “The Clash of Civilizations?” He expanded it to book length and it was published in 1996 as The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The book was immediately condemned by the multi-cultural complex because of its staunch defence of Western values, but its stock rose significantly after 9/11 as people woke up to the reality that the new, anti-Western barbarians were already at the gates.

Huntington makes a number of recommendations to save Western civilization, including restraining “the development of the conventional and unconventional military power of Islamic and Sinic countries.” But he also urges the West “to accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy and a major regional power with legitimate interests in the security of its southern borders.” When it comes to today’s politics, it’s worth examining how Huntington stacks up two decades after his initial analysis, especially regarding Russia.

Stalin In chapter 7, which deals with “Core States, Concentric Circles and Civilizational Order”, he looks at “Russia and its Near Abroad” and lays out several scenarios for Ukraine, “a cleft country, with two different cultures.” Its “civilizational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy runs through its heart and has done so for centuries” says Huntington and he suggests that “Ukraine could split into two separate entities, the eastern of which could merge with Russia.” He also quotes a Russian general as saying, “Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!” This leads him to conclude: “Such a rump Uniate and Western-oriented Ukraine, however, would only be viable if it had strong and effective Western support. Such support, is, in turn likely to be forthcoming only if relations between the West and Russia deteriorated seriously and came to resemble those of the Cold War.”

And here we are 2014, where relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated seriously and talk of a new Cold War fills the air. Huntington rewards reading.


In the civilized company of the newsosaur

Sunday, 16 March, 2014 0 Comments

Last year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University reported that 55 percent of individuals under 35 preferred digital media as their primary news source, as compared with 5 percent in the same age category who preferred print. Last week, eMarketer predicted that UK mobile advertising spending will top £2 billion […]

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Paranoia

Wednesday, 30 October, 2013 0 Comments

One would think that in these dramatic days of data mining the old-style espionage thriller would find it hard to compete, but the opposite is the case. Three new novels suggest that there’s a lot of life left in the genre yet:

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris explores the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes and ears of Colonel Georges Picquart who, as head of the Statistical Section, a clandestine intelligence unit, gains access to the secret evidence used against Dreyfus. Parallels between the resolution of the Dreyfus Affair in 1906 and recent events revealing the power that intelligence agencies wield is not coincidental.

Solo by William Boyd is a continuation of the James Bond saga. M sends 007 to a West African state split by civil war over oil reserves with the mission of destabilizing the rebel movement under the cover of a journalist for a French press agency (France, unsurprisingly, supports the insurgents). So, in 1969, Bond departs for the Dark Continent equipped with Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter and some toiletries. “He who travels lightest, travels furthest, Bond supposed, and that included weaponry. Into a war zone with a can of talcum powder and some aftershave.”

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan deals with the experiences of its protagonist, Serena Frome, during the early 1970s, when Britain is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism. After graduating from Cambridge she is recruited by MI5, and is sent out to combat communism in the intellectual world. But Cupid strikes and Serena is forced to abandon the first rule of espionage — trust no one.

Reading all three will take some time, but they’re on the list. That same list has been reduced by one with the recent completion of Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Although it was published in 2004, the theme of industrial espionage is as relevant as ever. The problem with the book, however, is that it has aged radically, although it’s less than a decade old. The pace of technological change is so relentless now that a story where LexisNexis is the cutting-edge search engine sounds absurd to our ears. Joseph Finder cannot be faulted for this, but there is a lesson here for would-be novelists and over-reliance on communication gadgets as plot drivers. Robert Harris, Ian McEwan and William Boyd cleverly fix their recent spy stories in the 20th century, which allows them to look back — cynically, humourously, skeptically — at what was once considered the acme of progress and sophistication.

Joseph Finder’s Paranoia was given the opportunity to refresh itself recently via a Hollywood adaptation but the reviews have been universally awful. Describing it as “a ho-hum thriller about corporate spying in the high-tech world,” SF Gate says it “comes off as a lot more preposterous than paranoid, and it takes no more than a few frames for the eye rolling to commence.” Much of the blame lies with the vapid Liam Hemsworth, who was dreadfully miscast as Adam Cassidy, the mischievous, brilliant, vulnerable narrator of the yarn, but the inclusion of Gary Oldman as the villain, Nick Wyatt, is another serious blow to the credibility of Finder’s original. “He had a deep tan, shoe polish-black hair gelled and combed straight back. His teeth were perfectly even and Vegas-white. He was fifty-six but didn’t look it, whatever fifty-six is supposed to look like.” That’s very not Gary Oldman and an over-egged London accent does not make him a convincing corporate shark, either. Ah, well. Solo is sure to be better when it is filmed.


Bloomsday in the track of the sun

Sunday, 16 June, 2013 0 Comments

“Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn. Travel round in front of the sun, steal a day’s march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day older technically.” So muses Leopold Bloom early in Ulysses. Interestingly, one of the books that James Joyce places on Bloom’s bookshelf in his […]

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The aphrodisiac of power

Thursday, 30 August, 2012

In 1975, when Margaret Thatcher was bidding for the leadership of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party health secretary, Barbara Castle, was prompted to commit the following observation to her diary:

“The papers are full of Margaret Thatcher. She has leant herself with grace and charm to every piece of photographer’s gimmickry, but don’t we all when the prize is big enough? What interests me is how blooming she looks — she has never been prettier. I am interested because I understand the phenomenon. She may have been up late on the Finance Bill Committee; she is beset by enemies and has to watch every gesture and word. But she sails through it all looking her best. I understand why. She is in love: in love with power, success — and with herself. She looks as I looked when Harold [Wilson] made me Minister of Transport. If we have to have Tories, good luck to her!”

The aura of attractiveness bestowed on mere mortals by the aphrodisiac of power can now be seen in the person of Paul Ryan, who looks like a young John F. Kennedy, but without the patina of privilege.


Summer reading

Sunday, 15 July, 2012

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral […]

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