Monthly Archives: December 2006

My best wishes for 2007

Cover design by Tanino Liberatore for Italian magazine Frigidaire

Although thematically appropriate, the above image is no way of wishing you ‘all the best’. Let me try that again:

Garden in Shoreham (1820s or early 1830s) – Samuel Palmer


Carnal Knowledge (1971) – Mike Nichols

Carnal Knowledge (1971) – Mike Nichols [] [FR] [DE] [UK]

G___ lent me a VHS copy of Carnal Knowledge (1971). It’s a depressing look at the effects of the sexual revolution and free love, one of the first films to depict its negative influences, as such it predates Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). While the film deals with themes related to eroticism, it is unerotic in its depiction thereof, and can best be classified as a kitchen-sink realist drama and a celebration of the modernist cult of ugliness. The film is also reminiscent of Coming Apart (1969) and was a feature in David Schwartz’s retrospective on the sexual revolution in American cinema.

Did Bach find Coetzee, or did Coetzee find Bach?


Stranger Shores: Literary Essays (2001) – J. M. Coetzee
[FR] [DE] [UK]

In an essay entitled ‘What is a Classic?’ Coetzee includes commentary on his early confrontation with the classics, and the political direction it might have lent him. Taking a cue from Eliot’s 1944 lecture of the same title [in which Eliot asserts that classic status can be known “only by hindsight and in historical perspective.”], Coetzee speaks of the classic in this way: “What does it mean in living terms to say that a classic is what survives? How does such a concept of the classic manifest itself in people’s lives?” This statement brings the classic from its supposed transcendental realm into the hurly-burly of history and makes it amenable not to passing fashions but to the sustaining values of each epoch. Whatever survives history’s ephemera, ‘that,’ according to Coetzee, ‘is the classic.’

In the first moment of aesthetic rapture upon hearing Bach, Coetzee muses: was the spirit of that culture ‘speaking to me across the ages … or … was [I] symbolically electing high European culture, and command of the codes of that culture, as a route that would take me out of my class position in white South African society … of what I must have felt … an historical dead end? (10-11).

The novelist and essayist—now Nobel prize winner—JM Coetzee, in his provocative essay, ‘What is a Classic? A Lecture’ considers the possibility that we may read for self-centred, pragmatic reasons: the drive for economic and social power. He re-examines his first contact, as a young man, with a classic musical text which he felt, he says, ‘was speaking to me across the ages, putting before me certain ideals.’ Later in his life, he interrogates his response sceptically, wondering whether he was, in fact, ‘symbolically electing high European culture, and command of the codes of that culture, as a route that would take (him) out of (his) class position in white South African society?’ He puts the question succinctly: ‘Was the experience a disinterested and … impersonal aesthetic experience or was it really the masked expression of a material interest?’ In his essay, Coetzee finally draws away from this sceptical account of his motives, but the doubt placed at the centre of the essay compels our attention. — Hermina Burns via


I spent a couple of days with D_______ in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is about 200 kilometers from Antwerp.

Books are my thing these days and my first stop was Kok antiquarian books, where I found Axel’s Castle by Edmund Wilson; a German non-fiction book on popular literature called Trivialliteratur (1981) by Peter Domagalski; Robert Darnton’s excellent The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), a Dutch book titled Verboden boeken (1989) (Eng: Forbidden Books).

I got to see Oldboy, the second fim I saw by Korean director Park Chan-wook in his vengeance trilogy (I still have to catch Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). Just as a couple of months ago, I was very much impressed. It’s a film by a man who is locked away in a private prison for fifteen years without knowing why. When he is released he is contacted by the man who imprisoned him and the quest on why he was imprisoned begins. The film is sufficiently bizar and rather poetical (“when a man laugs, the world laughs with him, when a man cries, he cries alone”). Park’s films are unlike anything I’ve seen in European or American cinema over the last years, combining the spirit of European countercultural cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (a critique of Asian post-industrial society) with the transgressions of 1990s Japanese cinema (think Audition and Tetsuo). Chance would have it that a novel by Sylvia Plath (I’m reading The Bell Jar at the moment) is featured in the film (by a character who appropriately later commits suicide). Over at Wikipedia the film is described as Sophoclean tragedy because it has incest as plot element.

The Frans Hals museum:

The Monk and the Nun (1591) – Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem

This particular painting is an illustration on how the clergy has been satirized in the history of art and literature in a genre that today would be called somewhat irrevently ‘nunsploitation‘, but which can be traced to the 17th century epistolary novel Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1669) and in the visual arts to the work above.

Image sourced here. (follow link for a nice compilation on the naked breast in art)

We went to the Frans Hals museum where I saw a couple of paintings by Goltzius, Van Heemskercke and Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem which were to my liking. Though Hals has been attributed as being a precursor to impressionism because of the hasty brushwork of his latter period — and a generally acclaimed artist — I wasn’t much impressed with Hals’s work, which mainly consisted of portraits of the elite of Haarlem. In the museum shop I found the amazing photorealistic paintings by Pieter Claesz.

Vanitasstilleven met nautilusbeker en pomander aan een gouden ketting (1636) – Pieter Claesz

Schwarze Romantik

“I found the article above on Schwarze Romantik (Eng: black or dark romanticism) at Wikipedia. I was working on my giallo fiction page and thinking about the roots of European exploitation culture. In English, these can easily be traced to the gothic novel (although it is still unclear to me when the term gothic novel was coined). My thesis is that the gothic sensibility can be traced in most European literatures. Every European country also had its own terminology to denote the sensibility of the gothic novel. In France it was called the roman noir (“black novel”, now primarily used to denote the hardboiled detective genre) and in Germany it was called the Schauerroman (“shudder novel”). Italy and Spain must have had their own, but I am unaware of their names as of yet. In nineteenth century France there also flourished a literature of horror on a par with the English Gothic novel or the German Schauerroman. It was christened ‘le roman frénétique‘.
Back to Schwarze Romantik. The term can probably be traced to the 1963 German translation of Mario Praz‘s La carne, la morte, e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica. The German title of this translation is Liebe, Tod und Teufel. Die schwarze Romantik.
While I would like to believe that the roots of the gothic novel are rooted in the darker strains of German Romanticism, this cannot be substantiated as of yet. Granted, the term gothic in the 17th and 18th centuries refers to Germany, and writers such as SchillerHoffmann and Klingemann seem to predate much of the gothic fiction of the UK, but there is of course a whole range of gothic novels that predate these three German authors, most notably: The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764) – Horace Walpole, Vathek, an Arabian Tale (1786) by William Beckford, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) – Ann Radcliffe and The Monk (1796) – Matthew Lewis. Most probably there was a substantial cross-fertilization between German, French, English and other continental strains of dark romanticism that is dealt with as fantastic literature.
P. S. In France, the Romantic Agony was published in 1966 as La Chair, la mort et le diable, le Romantisme noir.

James Brown (1933 – 2006)

James Brown

James Brown (1933 – 2006)

The godfather of soul and funk is dead. See posts by Greencine and Phinn.

L.A. Style: ‘James Brown Is Dead’ (1991)

James Brown, the dynamic, pompadoured “Godfather of Soul,” whose rasping vocals and revolutionary rhythms made him a founder of rap, funk and disco as well, died early Monday, his agent said. He was 73…. Along with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and a handful of others, Brown was one of the major musical influences of the past 50 years. At least one generation idolized him, and sometimes openly copied him. His rapid-footed dancing inspired Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson among others. Songs such as David Bowie‘s “Fame,” Prince‘s “Kiss,” George Clinton‘s “Atomic Dog” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” were clearly based on Brown’s rhythms and vocal style.

If Brown’s claim to the invention of soul can be challenged by fans of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, then his rights to the genres of rap, disco and funk are beyond question. He was to rhythm and dance music what Dylan was to lyrics: the unchallenged popular innovator.

The AP.

On the nature of 20th century reading experience

Recent posts by The Reading Experience here and here on Stephen King made me wonder about the following:

  1. What is the nature of the reading experience today as compared to the 19th century?
  2. Can one measure a book’s success by counting the number of film adaptations? (Dan mentions that he likes the film adaptations of the novels of Stephen King better than the novels on which they are based.)
  3. What is the influence of style and content, (i.e. the split between poetics and storytelling) on the longevity of a novel? (the conclusion of the comments on Dan’s posts seemed to be that Stephen King is indeed a ‘bad writer’ if you consider his style, but a good writer if you consider his storytelling abilities.)

Question 1. The reading experience. The 19th century reading experience has been defined by Stéphane Mallarmé who is quoted as saying “Je ne sais pas d’autre bombe, qu’un livre.” Amos Vogel has successfully defined the film experience in the age of cinema (it has changed since the arrival of television and the VCR). But I have never found a satisfying definition of what the reading experience is in the 20th century since the advent of film and television, today’s main bearers of fiction/storytelling.

Now I don’t want to go as far as some poststructuralist theorists who claim to be able to read everything: from novels to films, from shopping behaviour to football games. To me the reading experience can be:

  • travelling and having light to be able to read a story in a book in order to kill time.
  • reading a book because it is so good that it provides a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in any other medium (moving images, video games, …)

The perfect example of the latter is Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow: Or the Nature of the Offense (1991). It provides you with an experience which I believe to be nearly unfilmable. See also my notes on filmability/unfilmability on the ‘adaptation’ page mentioned before.

Question 2: Film adaptations. Let’s extend the meaning of reading and connote it with the consumption of fiction and connote the term fiction with the art of storytelling.

Let’s also analyse the notion of ‘good writer’ and substitute ‘good’ with the notion of greatness. I’ve defined a work’s greatness by its ability to generate articulative responses.

Let’s now focus on the history of the consumption of fiction. Its history begins with telling tall stories around a campfire, which evolves into theater, and then — in the 19th century only — the consumption of fiction revolves around reading it (first serials, then in separate books called novels). But as soon as the medium film is invented, film takes over the consumption of storytelling/fiction. So the supreme popularity of reading fiction is about 100 years; from the 1830s (first romans feuilletons) to the 1930s (talking movies).

So I think that there is some truth in stating that the most successful novels are those which are most frequently adapted to film — in the sense that these novels — have continued to generate articulative responses, responses which did not have to be expressed in their own medium. (see also a novel’s success by the number of times it has been translated.)

To back this up, some authors and the number of film adaptations of their works:

Virginia Woolf: 5 film adaptations, Eugène Sue: 19 film adaptations, Marcel Proust: 7 film adaptations, Jack Kerouac: 10 film adaptations, Emile Zola: 75 film adaptations, Stephen King: 105 film adaptations, Victor Hugo: 124 film adaptations, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 132 film adaptations, Charles Dickens: 235 film adaptations and William Shakespeare: 663 adaptations. (source: IMDb)

Question 3. Is it style or content which makes some authors’ works more adaptable for film than others (and thus secure their longevity)?I can’t answer it easily. I have thought about this with regards to the notion of intertextuality here. But a remark supposedly by Eisenstein confuses me. He says that it is Dickens’s style that makes his work easily adaptable for film. Admittedly, I have this from an older version of Wikipedia on adaptation, so the source of Eisenstein’s comment is not confirmed:


Sergei Eisenstein noted that the novels of Charles Dickens were filmed more often than any material except the Bible, and he explained this by Dickens’s style. According to Eisenstein, a good source novel contains a great deal of action and extensive physical description. Novels that feature internal struggles and intellectual debate are difficult to film, but novels that offer descriptions of scenery and which posit their debates in plotting are easy to film. Since Eisenstein’s time, film theorists have pointed out that film’s tools and fiction’s tools are radically different. While film can achieve metaphor, it is difficult and time consuming to do so (with symbolism being more common). Additionally, stream of consciousness and internal monologues can only be filmed by means of intrusive and illusion-breaking techniques (such as voice overs). Therefore, novelists such as Stephen King and Michael Crichton, who concentrate on action and externals, are readier for film than Graham Swift or James Joyce would be. — [Sept 2005]


Introducing Castrovalva

I have just stumbled upon a new blog: Castrovalva by a certain Richard R..

From the introduction:

The fulminations, peregrinations and ruminations on this site are the work of someone who would call himself a pragmatist, distrusting metaphysical concepts in favour of the existential, but I’d also describe myself as a romantic, fascinated by decay, decadence, the skewed and the exotic. I would call myself an outsider, but distrust the very term, since the very idea of rebellion and non-comformity is the basis of modern culture and comes complete with its own brands and uniforms. I am a pessimist and sceptic, though this has only ever stemmed from disappointed idealism. I would call myself a traditionalist, revering the literature, art and architecture of past decades and centuries while remaining contemptuous of the modern. But I also feel nothing but contempt for conservatism and would call myself a liberal. I would call myself an atheist, though not a rationalist. To be strict, I would call myself an agnostic, in that although I consider god’s existence highly unlikely I am concerned less with this than with the social and ethical aspects of religion; I became an atheist after reading the Book of Revelations, and being horrified and revolted by it.

At present this site is comprised of three main sections. The first is a gallery of architectural and historical photographs. The tenets section contains a set of observations and notes, combining a journal and commonplace book as well as including impressions of art galleries, museums and books. As an extension of this, there is now a weblog, called The Thief’s Journal. For links and articles, there is also my pages.

From a July 2006 post concerned with individuality [external links changed/added]:

Of late, I’ve been reading two very different texts that share several themes in common. The first of these, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, a survey of alienation in romantic and existential literature. As a work of criticism it tends to be somewhat reductive, seeing anomie as a byproduct of thwarted mysticism, a somewhat difficult theory to approach the post-christian likes of Camus and Sartre with. Accordingly, Nietzsche in deflated to a religious mystic while the moral questions that so excised Bakhtin in his reading of Dostoevsky are declared an irrelevance.

The French Dickens

Alphonse Daudet

Alphonse Daudet (1840 – 1897) is a French naturalist novelist, often called the French Dickens. This title is also attributed to Hugo and Balzac. A man dogged through life by misfortune and failure. Alphonse, amid much truancy, had a depressing boyhood. In 1856 he left Lyon, where his schooldays had been mainly spent, and began life as a schoolteacher at Alès, Gard, in the south of France. The position proved to be intolerable. As Dickens declared that all through his prosperous career he was haunted in dreams by the miseries of his apprenticeship to the blacking business, so Daudet says that for months after leaving Alès he would wake with horror thinking he was still among his unruly pupils.

Though Daudet defended himself from the charge of imitating Dickens, it is difficult altogether to believe that so many similarities of spirit and manner were quite unsought. What, however, was purely his own was his style. It is a style that may rightly be called “impressionist,” full of light and colour, not descriptive after the old fashion, but flashing its intended effect by a masterly juxtaposition of words that are like pigments. Nor does it convey, like the style of the Goncourts, for example, a constant feeling of effort. It is full of felicity and charm, “un charmeur” Zola called him. An intimate friend of Edmond de Goncourt (who died in his house), of Flaubert, of Zola, Daudet belonged essentially to the naturalist school.

The naturalists delighted in description of vice and disease, the dram shop, the hospital and the brothel.


Derrida on Youtube

Padraig points us in the direction of some wonderful Youtube footage of/on Derrida. I especially enjoyed this clip about a visit Derrida paid to Prague, and was framed by the police on account of drug charges. He felt as if the spirit of Kafka had come back to haunt him. Padraig’s post is appropriately tagged hauntology, this moment’s buzzword. In French a ghost is called a revenant, someone who comes back.

A revenant in the Middle Ages was an animate corpse which rose from the grave to haunt the living. Many stories were documented by English historians in the Middle Ages, as examplified by William of Newburgh who wrote in the 1190s “one would not easily believe that corpses come out of their graves and wander around, animated by I don’t know what spirit, to terrorize or harm the living, unless there were many cases in our times, supported by ample testimony”. Stories of revenants were very personal, always about a specific individual who had recently died (unlike the anonymous zombie depicted in modern popular culture such as Night of the Living Dead), and had a number of common features.