Saturday, 29 March 2014

Invisible suburbs

J. G. Ballard lived in a nondescipt town called Shepperton, where he wrote about thirty books. In one of many interviews he gave, he mentioned 'I need invisible surroundings and this town is practically invisible to me.' This interview came after the success of Empire of the Sun, which catapulted him into near celebrity status. He did not 'run away with a teenage girl,' nor did he ' buy a night club.' He muddled on with the same routine and continued to live in his small detached house. At the same time, he wrote about pornography, depravity and mutilation.

Flaubert's aphorism resonates here: 'Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.' Lou Reed, following the drug-addled hedonism he enjoyed with The Velvet Underground, moved back to his suburban town to live with his parents. Here he wrote some of his most transgressive material, including 'Take a Walk on the Wild Side.' Just lead a quiet, unassuming life and you might produce some of the most lurid material.

Dronfield in all its glory.

The town I have lived in since 2002 is called Dronfield. Sounds dreary, doesn't it? It is. But then, when I immerse myself in my routine, I hardly notice where I am. When I work on my writing or read a book, the row of terraced houses and the bland shopping centre becomes completely unnoticeable. It is odd. I sometimes run into one of my school peers from several years prior and it most jolting. I seem to lead in a completely parallel universe from the majority of the Dronfield inhabitants. The literary cosmology of my stories are closer to home!

These surroundings are optimal. I would not like to live in London. (I may have to soon, because the job market is better.) I feel overwhelmed whenever I spend a week in a bustling city like London, Barcelona, Buenos Aires. When you're there, you are aware that you are in the midst of historical monuments and that important events unfold every second. You can't retreat from it. Not so in Dronfield. You just retreat from the tiny community around you and you can focus on whatever it is you want to do. Ideally I would rather live in a sprawling forest, the countryside, the sea (I did last year!), but this is the next best thing.

In Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company (I'm writing about this book for my dissertation), a character called Blake reconfigures Shepperton into an edenic primeval forest. He moulds the town to his liking. With writing, you sometimes feel like you do indeed possess these supernatural powers. You are playing with little figurines, shaping these ciphers to your liking. The town around with you is bound up to the dictates of law and order. I am completely libertarian. When I am in this town I am not usually working for university nor am I employed. I have the freedom to look askance from the parochialism surrounding me.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The life of a monk

If you are a weird person, someone at some point has most likely barked at you 'Get a life!' Although having a life certainly has its positives - friends, company, etc. - not having a life is one of the most underrated lifestyle choices around.

When you are part of the crowd, you are far more reluctant to look beyond what is familiar to you. If you are part of the mold, you take things for granted. A lot of weird people who are ostracized spend a great deal of time and effort to integrate. This often results in awkward and embarrassing moments.  The best solution is just to think - 'Fuck, 'em I give up.' Whilst this route has been advertised as suicidal, it can actually spiritually enriching. Didactic school plays tell you not to take drugs. If you don't take drugs, you probably didn't because of these smalchy pieces of propaganda. You just thought it through logically and decided your life was better off without those substances. Since you were a squirt, teachers have advised you constantly 'Have friends,' 'Be social,' 'Don't spend too much time on your own.' This, too, is smalchy propaganda.

Just think of all you can do when you are alone! All the projects you can set in motion! If you are surrounded by people 24/7, you won't find the time to start a novel, write a symphony or study string theory. You are probably besieged by your other studies all the time anyway. When you are an alienated little wierdo, you look around more and discover jewels. If I had been popular at school, I don't think I would have run across Captain Beefheart aged 13, James Joyce aged 16 or Bergman aged 18. If I had desperately tried to integrate, it would have also delayed these discoveries.

Now, I don't discount friendship. Friends are great. There have been occasions when I have had unforgettable eight-hour long conversations. Of late I have gone out and been imbibed. Indeed, in the house I currently reside I have a reputation of been a heavy drinker.

Still, I have reluctantly been dragged into clubs and found the experience nauseating. The inordinately loud synthethic music is horrid. It all seems like one big pseudo event. I find it mind-boggling why someone would go into these dank depressing little places to have a good time. I also find it mind-boggling when I go to Canterbury cathedral to attend the performance of a Bach oratorio and it is heaving with blue-haired old ladies. That music is so youthful!

I prefer an austere, calm and quiet life. I like to wander through the woods, the countryside, the sea. I like prolonged periods of silence. I like to go through a whole day without speaking to another human being. By contemporary standards I have lived the life of a monk.

I was thinking how much I would like to live in a 9th century monastery and experience the immutable mysticism. The universe is seems so absurd, and so accidental, that to do that now it would be inconceivable to me. In these post-modern times, we are so fucking self-aware of everything we do. If we do experience mystical moments, it is self-reflexive mysticism. If we are transcended, we are aware of it at the same time. We all know that God is dead. People who dabble in religion now are aware that it is a social construct. I personally find theology and religio-philosophical inquiry fascinating, but I am aware that is just a human way of looking at things. Even priests admit that now. Back in the 19th century, the existence of God was immutable. Theology even informed the thinking of Nietzsche.

Anyway, this is my way of looking at things and I hope you find my advice useful. Try to lead the life of a monk any once in a while, even if it is just post-modern monkishness.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Sound and the Fury on film

It's odd. Out of all the William Faulkner novels you would consider to take to the screen, The Sound and the Fury might well be bottom of the list. Strangely, I have fancifully fantasised about my own  adaptation. As it happens, James Franco's adaptation is already in production. He beat me to it.

How can a book you have to read twice to understand make a good film? Literary novels, on the whole, generally make poor films. Literary conceits/devices are difficult to emulate. It is usually the pulpier books which improve on the screen. It is only when you get an auteur who is equally brilliant on his own right - think of Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg and Vittorio de Sica - that the film can make its source justice. I am not too convinced Franco - incidentally, I hardly knew anything about him before - has the pedigree to see this through.

It would seem that the only natural thing to do would be a linear recreation. Apparently, the 1959 adaptation did just that. The plight of the decadent Compson family, who find their fortune and emincence turned on its head, is a universal theme. It shares parallels with Orson Welles' masterful The Magnificent Ambersons. Whilst the book's technique is literary, the themes can easily be transplanted into the big screen.

Not to mention, the book has startling images that leave an indelible dent on the mind of the reader. The book germinated with a mental image Faulkner had of an innocent dread-locked girl dangling from a tree, with her brothers gazing from below. He called it an image of 'purity.' From there developed the conflicted, even incestual, relationship all three Compson brothers have with their sister. Similarly, there are images of Benjy screaming which would make stellar cinematic moments. When he clings to a fence, inarticulately beseeching his sister to return. The ending of the book, where he screams with all his force has the potential to become on the most searing endings of the history of cinema. They are very loaded moments which are not that difficult to dramatise. They hark back to Shakespeare's phrase, the novel's namesake, 'Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'.

The opening chapter, narrated by the mentally impaired Benjy, has a cinematic quality of a montage reminiscent of Terrence Malick. Yet one of the most distinctive aspects of the chapter is that it is about Benjy's defamiliarising and idiosyncratic language. There are a number of oxymorons and tautologies which characterise his unusual perceptual process. For instance, he repeatedly describes the smell of colours. The use of a voice over would never work, namely because Benjy cannot speak.

The second chapter is the most difficult of all. Again, Faulkner uses language very in a very specific way, this time recreating a mental breakdown through disintegrating syntax. Most importantly, the chapter is pretty much a treatise on the nature of metaphysical time and the decline of social patriarchies. There also a series of ruminations about his family. You cannot dramatise any of that. If he were to discuss these themes with his peer Shreve, it would feel stagy. There are a sequence of images of Quentin with an errant child which would work well cinematically, but placed after a delirous Malick-like montage it would turn the film into a cluttered mess. I think that this chapter would make a good film in its own right if it were treated in an austere way. We could follow Quentin introspecting, travelling on a train, the recurrence of ticking clocks, etc.

The third chapter I guess is less problematic than the two chapters above.  Following Jason in his perambulations would work well, I guess. Yet, once again, the chapter is very subjective. Jason's unlikeable traits are as much evinced by his razor-sharp language as they are by his actions.

The fourth chapter is the most cinematic. I already described how well the ending would well. One of the most pivotal roles of this chapter is that it ties all everything together. Everything coheres in the end and you return to the preceding chapters until everything makes sense. A film would struggle to pull that off because most of the ambiguities and asperities the reader encounters beforehand are to do with Faulkner's opaque language. The ending in the film would not resolve everything, it would just make matters more confusing.

Yet I would certainly attend a screening of this whenever it comes out. Faulkner is my favourite writer and it would be intriguing to see these neurotic, brooding characters on screen.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Global warming!

Shepperton flooded
If J. G. Ballard were alive, he would have appreciated the irony. The town he lived in for forty years, and where he wrote the bulk of his books, was flooded.

Fiction turning into reality? Was Ballard a seer? Did he intimate that those polar ice caps in the North Pole would really melt?

Maybe he was just writing science fiction. If the writings of any post-war English writer were to materialise, then Ballard's world would be the least desirable to live in. Yet we very much are living in a Ballardian world. High-rise skyscrapers, the advent of tech gizmos such as Skype, terrorist attacks, mass surveillance. His early disaster trilogy - novels such as The Drowned World and The Drought - may be waiting around the corner too.

Marx mentioned that capitalism by its very nature is unsustainable. With population growth, the globalised economy will find increasingly difficult to prosper. Add to that the stratospheric cost of global warming - these floods have already cost high sums - and we will be deeper in trouble. It is not clear if these floods are attributable to global warming per se, but the correlation between the two is stark.

Yet governments the world over are reluctant to even legislate incremental remedies. Cameron calls it 'green crap'. Milliband hardly ever mentions it. It was curious how, following these floods, the response from the climate change sceptics was muted. It is an established fact in the scientific community. (Empirical observation has forced these impartial observers into radical political positions.) Many say that, even if it may exist, it is not man-made. That position is becoming more difficult to defend, too.

Anyway, read his crystalline prose and familiarise yourself with our imminent dystopia.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Music and literature

Music and literature, in many ways, seem antithetical. Whereas music is a non-representational form, literature is. Literature connotes concrete meanings. Music, as Stravinsky controversially once said, cannot really express anything other than itself. It is pure form. If a pop/rock combo claim that their latest album is a social critique, that has much more to do with the lyric sheet than with the musical arrangements.

I think that music trumps everything in the end. When literature approaches its greatness it is usually when it is like music. My favourite novels are those which are ambiguous, open-ended and self-negating (in the sense that there are elements which do not fit and which contradict each other). The feelings it elicits are close to music: what does it mean? In the case of modern/post-modern literature, you can analyse the text and offer an interpretation. The text itself has no single meaning. Music can be analysed in terms of its use of harmony, metre, motifs etc., but semantically you cannot impute a meaning onto it.

When you listen to music, you do experience those kind of mystical moments.   In many ways, science is also driven by a desire to unravel the mysterious. Quantum mechanics is especially exciting in that its field of study keeps growing and growing. Even its experts scarcely know half as much as about it as we lay-men. Yet, whatever desires lead to its practice, science classifies and codifies. The ultimate aim is to solve the mysteries which make us scratch our heads. What can music ultimately say? Not as much as literature and certainly not as much as science. When I listen to J. S. Bach pieces I feel an overwhelming urge to grab hold of something and I am unsure what it is exactly. Literature should try to elicit those reactions.

Words in many ways are inadequate. Samuel Beckett wrote 'Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.' Words often try to ascribe meaning to a world without meaning. There is no God; everything is one big mistake. If this is the case, who should care about that big teeming novel I'm keen to write? Who should care about the writing by the masters - Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Proust, etc. - when their insights are ultimately the attempt to make sense out of this meaningless wasteland called Earth?

Sadly, literature has not borrowed from music all that much. There are not that many novels about the lives of composers. The masterpiece on the subject is Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, based on the life of Arnold Schoenberg. This is the consummate novel about music in that it captures the ineffable, psychological and spiritual torments associated with it. Anthony Burgess wrote a novel - I haven't read it - about the structure of Beethoven's Eroica symphony in which he mimics the sounds of the music through language and onomatopoeia.

Before I got into writing, my desire was to become a composer. Sadly, time dragged on and on until it became too late. Composing is a lot of hard work. Also, I do not really have the kind of mathematical aptitude required. I turned to writing. Just as J. G. Ballard includes frustrated pilots because flying was his adolescent desire, my stories are crowded with frustrated composers. If I have never been able to write music, at least I have been able to pay tribute to it in some way. I have written stories about Alfred Schnitkke (my only published piece; available to purchase on the navbar to the right), Carlo Gesualdo (titled 'Desperate Lives'; available on the navbar to the right) and Olivier Messiaen.