Archive for November, 2009

Imhotep IV and the Professor's Daughter

Whenever I read a comic book by either Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman I make the silent resolution to read more comics. Comics are a very versatile medium that have successfully interpreted Shakespeare, Proust, Agatha Christie and all the great classic novelists. There have been some really wonderful interpretations of the great French poets recently too by the imprint Petit à Petit. Of course they take comics much more seriously in France and whenever I go there I usually stock up with a bundle of new bandes dessinées. But it does take patience to sift through them and find the gems. Luckily we have a number of good comic shops in London too and in one of them I came across this beautiful little book by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert.

It’s a love story. I’m a devotee of love stories so of course I would like it but this one is a little bit special. It’s best not to tell you the details because it’s full of surprises and plot twists. The pictures are a perfect complement to the quirkiness of the story — delicate, subtle and full of energy. There is even a happy ending. Fabulous!


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A mystery

The Visitor by Lee Child

A friend of mine who likes thrillers recommended Lee Child.

I’d never read a book by him and I wasn’t going to until I saw a selection of books that had influenced him spread out on a table in a bookshop. There was a little card on each saying why he liked it. He had such good taste I decided to give one of his own books a try.

The one I chose is called The Visitor.

It’s  about a maverick tough guy called in by the FBI to help find a serial killer. Hmm. Very humdrum, isn’t it? Some people call it a thriller. It’s not really a thriller. It’s a mystery novel that’s not very mysterious because you can anticipate the rough outline of the plot as soon as the main characters are introduced and you can guess who the killer is about half way through. Lee Child makes an effort to kick up a little dust to disguise the identity and motive of the killer but he sticks so closely to the conventions of the genre that there are no shocks or surprises. That’s to his credit, I suppose. He has a very competent narrative style and a dry sense of humour, which makes the grisly subject matter a lot more palatable than it should be.

Why do people read so many of these kind of books?

I’ve no idea.

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Promethea by Alan Moore

Here’s what I’ve been reading in the last month or two. There is something to like in all of them.

Hungry As The Sea by Wilbur Smith

Wilbur Smith writes exhilarating sentences that pull you along through page after page of cliff-hanging action. When it comes to describing how to rescue a stricken cruise ship from the icy wastes of the Antarctic, he is awesome. But ask him to play with the relationship between a petite curvy blonde and a fearless rugged adventurer and he falls back on hollow clichés. He’s still far ahead of Colleen Collins but he’s a long way behind Maugham, while Flaubert is just a tiny speck on his horizon. His prose never falters but he has no vocabulary for the nuances of lived emotion.

A Spy By Nature by Charles Cumming

This introspective and accessible novel appears to be based on real experiences. It has the stamp of authenticity in part because the protagonist is gauche and immature, an intriguing blend of intelligence and stupidity that makes you fully believe he could be rejected by MI6 and used instead for a piece of trivial industrial espionage in which the the height of danger is the possibility of being caught at the photocopier. There is a touching scene in which he is almost seduced by a lovely American woman who turns out to be working for the CIA. Who would have guessed? There are some nicely observed descriptions of, for instance, a piece of bread dissolving in olive oil. The ending made me wince. What an oaf!

A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert

Sublime and beautiful. Frédéric Moreau is another naive and gauche young man and at times I wanted to wring his neck. I could relate better to the cynical and louche Arnoux. But when you start to feel like this about the characters it’s because the details are so masterfully drawn. The story lacks the narrative verve of something by Wilbur Smith and I had to re-read many passages because my concentration wavered, but the personalities and the events linger on in the imagination long after the book is back on the shelf.

The Dark Forest by Hugh Walpole

I downloaded this from Project Gutenberg. Hugh Walpole was a bestselling novelist in the 1930s and I was curious about the quality of his work after reading that his success was largely due to his ability to make social connections and take his detractors out for a good dinner at an expensive restaurant. The Dark Forest is based on his experiences with the Red Cross on the Eastern Front in World War One. It’s sombre, earnest and very slow. The characterisation is painstaking but desperately dull. Wilbur Smith would have had a lot more fun with this material.

Promethea (Book 1) by Alan Moore

This is brimming with mischievous ideas, as you might expect from a work extolling the virtues of the creative imagination. Alan Moore lets his interest in magic and the occult have free rein in this comic series, which is about a young woman who becomes the mythical creature she is researching. This mystic mayhem and witty hocus pocus is definitely good for the soul. I love the way Alan Moore’s playful imagination makes use of everything it encounters. He’s one the boldest adventurers in the realm of the Immateria, which is the place where stories live.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I love this novel. I enjoyed every moment. It has depth, insight, humour, pathos, subtlety and suspense. I find it hard to analyse because I just like the way Dostoyevsky thinks and the fun he has with his characters. He lets them talk and talk. Sometimes they seem to talk about whatever comes into their heads. I loved this about The Idiot too. It was reading The Idiot as a teenager that made me decide to spend three years studying comparative literature at university. I thought to myself, whatever else happens in my life, I will always make time for reading the novels of my friend Fyodor Mikhaylovich.

Shock Waves by Colleen Collins

The subtitle of this novel is Sex on the Beach, which kind of gives away the whole plot. I was hoping to identify with the heroine, Ellie Rockwell, who likes Lou Reed. (I like Lou Reed.) She also likes Marilyn Manson. (I don’t like Marilyn Manson.) Her dubious musical tastes and the fact that she is really a black-haired goth rather than the blonde beach babe she has turned herself into, are her guilty secrets as she tries to seduce and hang onto her childhood idol, Bill Romero. I didn’t like Bill Romero. Unfortunately, I didn’t like Ellie Rockwell either. I think she likes Lou Reed for the wrong reasons. Still, it was a very easy book to read with simple but effective vocabulary.

Medea by Euripides

What a shocker! After bringing his exotic barbarian wife home to civilised Corinth, Jason deserts her in order to marry a local princess. Who is the barbarian here? Understandably, Medea is plunged into despair. But she puts on a false face, poisons the rival princess and stabs her own children to death in order to deprive Jason of the joy of holding them in his arms. She gets away with it, too, fleeing the scene in a chariot whisked through the heavens. The scene with the chariot is pretty impressive but, disappointingly, the horrible deaths happen off-stage. This is a failing in French classical tragedians too. Didn’t anyone explain to them the show-don’t-tell rule? Thank goodness modern film makers have read all those books on how to write screenplays.

Les Femmes Savantes by Molière

This is what happens when you bring together the disciplined focus of classical French theatre and the exuberant buffoonery of improvised Italian farce. Sheer comic genius. Molière is a model for writers everywhere. There are some lessons for grammarians here too.

The Hairless Mexican by W. Somerset Maugham

This is a spy story based on Maugham’s experiences in World War One. It’s more exciting than A Spy By Nature, funnier than The Dark Forest, sexier than Shock Waves, more ironic than Hungry as the Sea and shorter than The Brothers Karamazov.

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I’ve always wanted to write a book on how to write. I think I might be quite good at it. I’m sure many writers could have done a better job if only they’d had a copy of my writing rules. Let’s look at this promising poem by Will Shakespeare, for example. What a mess he makes of things!





The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

1. Show don’t tell. Oh my goodness, Will, this rule could have been made for you! Where is the showing in this poem? It is all abstract concepts and sweeping generalisations. Who has done what to whom? We are dying to know and yet the poem leaves us completely in the dark. How can we trust what you say when you don’t show us the interaction between the characters? This could be true love for all we know. Such unresolved tension is unbearable.

2. Avoid the passive voice. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! A very basic error here, I’m afraid Will. Passive, passive, passive all the way through. It’s as if you’re a slave to your desires. It’s not until the final couplet that we get some active verbs, which surely add too much vigour to a lamentable conclusion.

3. Restrain those adjectives! You were having a bit of fun with us here, weren’t you Will? Leaving aside the two consecutive lines stuffed with adjectives, this whole poem is just one long adjectival phrase. What a mockery of style!

4. Vary your vocabulary! You’ve allowed some really clumsy repetitions to slip in here, Will. It’s as if you’re suffering from a monomania. Look at all these blunders — “lust in action, and till action, lust”; “Past reason hunted”/”Past reason hated”; “mad/Mad”; “well knows…knows well.” But don’t feel too bad about it, Will. It’s nothing that a careful line edit by a decent proof reader couldn’t solve.

5. Avoid vulgarity. All right, I admit, you’ve not resorted to the depraved vocabulary of some of your contemporaries but it’s not a pretty topic for a poem, is it? You’ll be writing about venereal disease and unweeded gardens next. You have to remember that some of your readers say their prayers and go to church. Not everyone likes to read about this kind of thing, you know. Some might even call it sacrilegious.

6. This is not a rule but … “Had, having and in quest to have…” What were you thinking? You’re not in your Latin class. You’re writing a poem!

That’s probably all you need to know for now. Just remember, even though it sounds good to you, an experienced editor will have seen it all before and won’t be impressed, so murder your darlings!

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Baudelaire’s vampire


When I first read some poems by Baudelaire at the age of sixteen I became very curious about him as a man. I imagined him as a fiery revolutionary with wild hair and a desperate look in his eyes. For a long time all I knew about him were his poems and his surname. When I discovered that his first name was Charles, my image of him took a bit of a knock. It was too ordinary a name. He should have been called Théophile or Rémy, I thought, something unmistakably French. That’s if he had a Christian name at all. Later, at university, I bought a new edition of his poetry and there was a photo of him inside the front cover. It was this photograph by Félix Nadar.

Once again I had to rethink my image of him. At first I was disappointed. I thought he looked more like a lawyer than a poet. Looking at the picture again now I can’t understand how I thought so. Did I miss that narcissistic gleam in his eye, the obstinate, cruel set of his mouth or his exquisite cravat? Surely I didn’t fail to notice that extravagant overcoat, its collar turned up rakishly and the poet’s hand thrust inside with Gallic hauteur? Probably I didn’t miss them. I just didn’t want to see them. The Baudelaire I imagined wasn’t like this. He was sensual but not cruel, wild but not vain, determined but not arrogant.

There are other photos of him where the qualities that come across in his poems are even more evident. You get a sense of his reckless vanity, his defiance, his anger, his desperation and his intellectual fastidiousness. In the biography by Claude Pichois and Jean Ziegler there’s a photo by Etienne Carjat where he even looks vulnerable and sensitive, which I can’t find on the internet.

But, although I never realised it at the time, it was the cruelty, the vanity and the arrogance that made Baudelaire’s poetry so compelling. It isn’t enough for a poet to be sensitive. Baudelaire eviscerated everything that had gone before him and defined, with his works, a completely new aesthetic.

He is famous for his decadence. He had a lazy, self-indulgent lifestyle. He was a dandy who took arsenic to make his complexion fashionably pale. He wrote poems about prostitutes, drunks and beggars. He even found beauty in the corpse of a dog that was left at the side of the street. Anyone can write about these things. Anyone can be indolent. What sets Baudelaire apart is the discipline and beauty of his language, those long, flowing and perfect alexandrines that can never be properly translated, his eye for the telling detail and his ironic intelligence.

What I loved about his poems, though, was that he found beauty in the turmoil of chaotic emotions and confusing desires. This was very attractive to me when I was sixteen and being brought up, like him, under a very strict moral code. But then, what sixteen-year-old can resist the undying lure of the vampire?

Le Vampire

Toi qui, comme un coup de couteau,
Dans mon coeur plaintif es entrée;
Toi qui, forte comme un troupeau
De démons, vins, folle et parée,

De mon esprit humilié
Faire ton lit et ton domaine;
— Infâme à qui je suis lié
Comme le forçat à la chaîne,

Comme au jeu le joueur têtu,
Comme à la bouteille l’ivrogne,
Comme aux vermines la charogne
— Maudite, maudite sois-tu!

J’ai prié le glaive rapide
De conquérir ma liberté,
Et j’ai dit au poison perfide
De secourir ma lâcheté.

Hélas! le poison et le glaive
M’ont pris en dédain et m’ont dit:
«Tu n’es pas digne qu’on t’enlève
À ton esclavage maudit,

Imbécile! — de son empire
Si nos efforts te délivraient,
Tes baisers ressusciteraient
Le cadavre de ton vampire!»

Charles Baudelaire

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W. Somerset Maugham

Writers are a self-conscious lot. When they are not analysing their emotions and setting every pulse and palpitation down on paper, they are introspecting about their craft, wondering whether to use pen or pencil, PC or Mac, coffee or cocaine. Dozens of questions present themselves each day before they can sit down to write. What kind of music will get their juices flowing? What is the best time of day? Does word count matter? What genre are they in? Dare they call themselves a writer yet? What is fame really like? Can they expect payment for their grand opus in their lifetime?

Then there is the delicate issue of self-promotion. Facebook or Twitter? WordPress or Google? Should they self-publish by e-book or go the traditional route and deal with those dastardly devils called agents?

They look to luminaries of the industry for inspiration. How did Stephen King avoid the horrific pitfalls? Does Dan Brown have divine wisdom? Is Stephenie Meyer in possession of immortal truths?

Lately I have been studying the life and works of Somerset Maugham. Having written a few novels and plays with little success, he was on the point of giving up and resuming his career as a doctor when he heard that one of his plays had been unexpectedly taken up by a producer.

Lady Frederick, rejected by seventeen managements and all the leading actresses of the day, became the passport to lasting fame and fabulous wealth. Written on the back of a discarded typescript because the author was so short of money, it was an overnight success. By the following year he had four plays running concurrently in London and he became known as England’s Dramatist.

But how did Maugham look back on his life as a writer? Like this…

… I began to meditate upon the writer’s life. It is full of tribulation. First he must endure poverty and the world’s indifference; then, having achieved a measure of success, he must submit with a good grace to its hazards. He depends upon a fickle public. He is at the mercy of journalists who want to interview him, and photographers who want to take his picture, of editors who harry him for copy and tax-gatherers who harry him for income tax, of persons of quality who ask him to lunch and secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture, of women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him, of youths who want his autograph, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan, of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions, of agents, publishers, managers, bores, admirers, critics, and his own conscience. But he has one compensation. Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as a theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

[From Cakes and Ale]

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