Wednesday, December 31, 2008

That is so 2008

So farewell then, Harold Pinter. There have been many glowing tributes to him, quite rightly, but this one by Minette Marrin in the Times asks the awkward question: why are so many writers (e.g. Tolstoy, Pound, Sartre and Neruda) such idiots about politics?:
It struck me as a child that people with a way with words often sounded much cleverer than they actually were. Lots of upper-middle-class ladies, born to articulacy and witty banter, sounded witty and wise, when my childish experience suggested otherwise.
Contrariwise, people who could hardly string two words together were often much more generally intelligent than their inarticulacy suggested. Verbal articulacy is in part, I believe, rather like the gift some people have for languages: I feel sure now, having known and worked with lots of polyglots, that the gift for articulating foreign words and phrases – and, indeed, one’s own – is a specific kind of cognitive aptitude that may have little to do with logic, argument or judgment.
Someone close to me, much to my annoyance, has for years insisted that the same applies equally to writers who lay claim to logic, argument or worldly judgment. Writing – any writing – is like knitting, he says. It’s an unintellectual knack that some people have naturally, and which develops astonishingly with practice, but which lots of clever people can’t do.
This has always annoyed me profoundly, as it is meant to, but I feel forced to agree that there may be something in it. We should be careful, both readers and writers, of the bewitchment of language: it can often mean less than you might think.
Here is a robust defence of suburban life, so often traduced in novels, movies and pop music (yes, we’re looking at you, David Byrne) from Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal. reviewing the film adaptation of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road:
Yates’s novel, cherished by literary intellectuals and Paris Review interns to this day, expresses American suburban-phobia with crude explicitness. Describing the Wheelers’ new neighborhood, Yates writes: “The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy.... [The neighborhood] was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves.... A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.”
No literary critic that I know of has ever challenged Yates’s puerile social perceptions. The reflexive reverence for “Revolutionary Road” is a testament to the degree to which antisuburban sentiment is one of the most unexamined attitudes in American culture. For what might a neighborhood that had been designed to accommodate a tragedy possibly look like? For a man running down the street in desperate grief to fit right into the landscape, he would have to be hurtling through a place where vampiric towers blocked out the sun and corpses hung from the lampposts.
Chris Bourke has put online his characteristically thoughtful review of Hamish Keith’s memoir Native Wit here. Beautifully done, though I do think he could have mentioned how outstanding the editing was.

Going forward, as we say now, here via Marginal Revolution is a hint about how the new world order may pan out:
Today, Gazprom is deep in debt and negotiating a government bailout. Its market cap, the total value of all the company’s shares, has fallen 76 percent since the beginning of the year. Instead of becoming the world’s largest company, it has tumbled to 35th place. And while bailouts are increasingly common, none of Gazprom’s big private sector competitors in the West is looking for one.
That Russia’s largest state-run energy company needs a bailout so soon after oil hit record highs last summer is a telling postscript to a turbulent period. Once the emblem of the pride and the menace of a resurgent Russia, Gazprom has become a symbol of this oil state’s rapid economic decline.
And the money shot is:
“I can describe the Russian economy as water in a sieve,” Yulia L. Latynina, a commentator on Echo of Moscow radio, said of the chronic waste in Russian industry.
“Everybody was thinking Russia had succeeded, and they were wondering, how do you keep water in a sieve?” Ms. Latynina said. “When the input of water is greater than the output, the sieve is full. Everybody was thinking it was a miracle. The sieve is full! But when there is a drop in the water supply, the sieve is again empty very quickly.”

You had Keith Richards for Christmas so who else but Abba for New Year? Here they are in late 1980, when Bjorn (right) and Agnetha (second right) had been divorced for a year. Benny and Anna-Frid announced their separation a few months after taping this. Still, eh? Agnetha is now 58, Benny is 62 and Bjorn and Anna-Frid are 63. Here they are pretending to wish each other a happy new year. As Bono would say, you too.

I’m going up north for a while to read The Last Cigarette and Coda by Simon Gray (RIP), Bit of a Blur by Alex James, Doors Open by Ian Rankin (I had dinner with him in Auckland once: I went home at 10 pm to wife and baby; he went out into the night with half a dozen of the most attractive women in publishing. Bastard.), End Games by Michael Dibdin, The Pages by Murray Bail, Dubliners by James Joyce (essential every decade or so as a touchstone of good writing), Painting Out the Past: the life and art of Patricia France by Richard Donald, and a bunch of magazines. The view from our room will be approximately this:

Eat your heart out. Normal service will resume mid-January.

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