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Looking Back, Moving On.

What is that Mark’s reading? 

At the moment, basically nothing. I am in a sort of transitional phase. 

Incipit Vita Nova, Dante once wrote. Things have changed for me and, for a while now, I have been hoping to realise those words. That’s not easy though. New lives don’t really exist, what’s past is what’s real. 

But we decide – even if we don’t decide – what parts of the past are continuing and which parts are well and truly history. 

Writing is for me and always will be. But blogging, I think, may not be. And this blog, I know, is not. I have been mostly happy with what I’ve written here, sporadic though it has been. But it’s also never fully been what I want – in no small part because I’ve been unable, like Olivier’s Hamlet, to make up my mind. 

So, I consign What’s That Mark’s Reading!? to history. 

For the last time, thanks for reading! 

The Food of Love

In years past I have eagerly awaited Spotify Wrapped. This year it was not on my mind at all because I have not used the platform much – I did, though, get 3 months free premium with my new phone. So I did use it then. But Wrapped wasn’t on my mind until God’s Poison (my brother from another mother, true story) showed me his – and, not expecting much, I decided to check my own. Note that all links below are to YouTube for your listening pleasure – and mine. 

Somehow, I accrued 7,195 minutes (roughly 120 hours or 5 days) of listening time on the app. It’s by no means representative of my year’s listening – my own collection and YouTube surely both exceeded it. There are still a few things I want to mention. Here’s my snapshot: 

First of all, you’ll notice, if you know, three of the top five songs are by my top artist this year: Rory Gallagher. Rory accounted for 544 minutes (9 hours) of my listening time, which placed me in the top 1% of his listeners. I am quite proud of that; but also rather saddened. To be in the top 1% with such a meagre serving suggests that too few people are listening to Rory. Do yourselves a favour, eh?

Although ‘Bad Penny’ was my most listened to track from Rory, it is not my “favourite”. That honour goes to one of the other two listed: ‘I Fall Apart’ and ‘I’m Not Awake Yet’. Forced to choose definitively, I’d probably choose the former for its absolutely incredible breakdown/guitar solo (I’m never completely sure what qualifies as a breakdown). Bad Penny earned its spot for a simple reason though, I had such a ball jamming along with it – the main riff and chord progression, I could strum away at indefinitely without succumbing to boredom – and, while my solo work hardly merits mention alongside Rory’s, I still had such a blast “noodling” over the track. Anyway, you can’t go wrong with Rory, whichever track you choose. 

But Rory wasn’t new to me this year. My second most listened to song, ‘Bakerman‘ by Laid Back, was. Holy hell, what a song! I can only regard the circa three decades prior to my discovery of it as being in some way deficient. That single song made “Classic Danish Pop” my fourth most listened to genre on Spotify. Yes, I will make an effort to listen to some more Classic Danish Pop (any recommendations in that genre or another are welcome by the way). If I could force you to listen to one song today, it’d be ‘Bakerman‘.

Of the three other artists, two, Whitney and Fleetwood Mac, are stalwarts who’d rank among my most listened to artist in any given year. In previous years it is the most popular iteration of Fleetwood Mac (Rumours and The Dance era) who have been responsible. I can’t fail to mention now the sad news: the death of Christine McVie, writer and performer of some of that era’s best songs. A sad day for music and music fans Everywhere.

This year, however, I’ve been mostly drawn to the exquisite Peter Green era. Need Your Love So Bad, Albatross, The Green Manalishi, Black Magic Woman, and so on… Guitarists have something of a reputation, hence the joke: “what’s the hardest thing for a guitarist to play? Nothing.” But not for Peter. His geetar neither cries nor sings unless it serves the song. Tasteful, tasteful is the word. 

In avoiding overplaying he does the same, in my view, as Whitney. You may scoff at that. But it’s true. Whitney – peak Whitney at least – never sings more than is absolutely necessary. Perhaps you’re thinking right now: “AAAANNDDD Iiiiii….” Well sure, that’s a big note, but why do you remember? Why does it make such an impact? Because everything that comes before it is a masterful display of restraint. Her vocal control is insane (I can’t do it, before you ask, but I can observe it). For me, Whitney is unmatched – unmatched – in her ability to convey vulnerability and strength (or heartbreak and hope) at the exact same time. 

Also, no one has ever, or is ever likely to, come close to Whitney’s rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. The patriotism swells within me — and I’m not even American! Just look at her too, effortless: if you’re alone, or in the shower, just try and hit any of those notes; now try it without looking like you’re going to burst a blood vessel.

My apologies to Bill Withers but I don’t have much to say about him here. Who doesn’t like Bill Withers? Whoever doesn’t can wither as far as I’m concerned. Again, in one word: restraint. Everyone knows ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, of course. But do you know about ‘Grandma’s Hands’, a beautiful song (and it was also later sampled in Backstreet’s ‘No Diggity’, of that fact I am in no doubt). 

The food of love is an inexhaustible subject. I could go on. But, to be honest, all this talk on the subject has got my fingers itching for the feel of nickel-plating. As I said above, I’d love to hear your recommendations, whether on the genres and artists mentioned or not; and indeed if you’d like to tell me about your own Spotify Wrapped go for it! 

Bye for now then.

On My Mind Today

I have been trying to speak to my energy supplier today. Anyone else get the impression that it’d be easier to get an audience with the Pope? And Pope Joan at that. Having failed to get through, to even be added to the queue, on the phone, I tried the webchat: position 220! (it hardly matters whether I am exclaiming “220” or saying “220 factorial” here, what pragmatically is the difference? It’s like the difference between a trillion miles and infinity miles, either way you ain’t travelling it). 

But on to cheerier things. I recently watched CosmicSkeptic’s video on Jordan Peterson’s religion – with which I completely agree except for at the start where he says that Peterson’s religion is complicated. It’s really not. One need only read Dostoevsky. Peterson desperately wants to be a Karamazov, to be a sort of intermediate between Ivan and Alyosha. He’s said in the past, in conversation with Stephen Fry, that Ivan is right but Alyosha is the better person. 

Ivan is right, he says. Ivan does not believe in God. Dostoevsky’s two better known works (Karamazov and C&P) tend towards the same conclusion: in essence, the noble lie. True or not, people have to believe in a “higher power” in order to be decent people. I make no attempt to hide my love of Dostoevsky; few writers, in my eyes, have so successfully captured the “human experience”. But I agree with Camus that the endings of those two works are “philosophical suicide”. 

(Maybe it is because we tend to want those we admire to be “smarter” than they are, but I never get the feeling that Dostoevsky believes what he’s writing. It is after all nonsens, because (a) we can find many, many examples of non-believers acting “morally” and (b) we can find perhaps even more examples of believers acting “immorally”. Incidentally, I have the same problem accepting that Abraham Lincoln was religious; he appears – though I’m no expert – not to have been in his youth; maybe he was suddenly subject to a divine epiphany, however (on a purely personal basis!) I think the epiphany was more likely along the lines of “I won’t be elected if I am not a Christian”.) 

Anyway, Peterson commits the same “philosophical suicide”, and that’s only if his words are interpreted with a certain generosity (and I am generally in favour of doing so – I think there’s great wisdom in Hanlon’s Razor). It’s the following quote, from a clip included in CosmicSkeptic’s video, that I have been unable to stop thinking about: 

“So people say to me, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And I think, ‘OK, there’s a couple of mysteries in that question – what do you mean ‘do’? What do you mean ‘you’? What do you mean ‘believe’? And what do you mean ‘God’?”

One of two things is happening here. It’s either philosophical suicide – of the kind you’ll often see otherwise intelligent people fall into when their religion is the topic of discussion – or it’s pure sophistry. As I said, philosophical suicide would be the generous interpretation, it’s also one I have difficulty accepting here. And that’s because of Peterson’s own golden rules, one of which is “be precise in your speech”. Does precision in speech entail the use of words you don’t know the meaning of? Because he does, apparently. ‘Do’ and ‘you’ are features of all four of Jordan’s “questions” – they are also notably, despite his claims of ignorance, used correctly in each case – what are we to make of this? 

Maybe a salad. 

But that wonderful illustration is just gravy since it’s perfectly clear what Peterson really thinks. Peterson believes Ivan was right (there’s no god) but that Alyosha is the better person (because he acts like there is). And that Ivans (and others) throughout history have died at the hands of such “better” people does not, somehow, detract from the argument. That is peak confirmation bias, don’t you know? Well, Peterson does. He knows – or ought to know – all about confirmation bias. 

The thing is that I think Peterson is spot on in identifying the importance of fiction in the development of a social consciousness. But we do not, on taking a moral from a story, have to pretend that the story is factual. And, even if we did, the idea that those stories – those of the Abrahamic religions – are the best ones for doing so is, pardon the French, connerie. Here’s my contention: you will find a better role model in Superman than you will in Jesus. Jesus in himself, by the way, is a fantastic character – the problem is he comes packaged alongside a bunch of genocidal loons who are to be treated with a similar, if not exactly equal, reverence. And the most lunatic and most genocidal of them all is supposed to be revered above all: the great I am – what are you, a psychopath? 

Gaslighting has been declared Merriam-Websters’ word of the year. You can call him Jehovah, El, Yahweh, Allah, or plain old God; I’m going to call him the Great Gaslighter. Wipes out the entire population of Earth and he’s the good guy? The creator of “original sin”, which ranks highly on the list of deplorable doctrines, is the good guy? It all begs the question, what the hell do you mean by ‘good’, eh Jordan? It’s all for our own good, of course. The Great Gaslighter has much in common with domestic abusers. 

I am, by the way, completely in favour of religious freedom, not the least because I believe the suppression of religion – particularly those which revere martyrdom – tends to strengthen it. I may as well go all in with this heretical post and confess that I do consider the indoctrination of children to be an abusive practice. Not just abusive either but socially irresponsible. 

That said, as I told my brother, God’s Poison (a cunning play on his name, fyi), earlier today we can accuse the writers of the Bible of many things but illiteracy, his claim, is not one of them. The Bible is beautifully written, the King James one certainly, and infinitely quotable: so with regards to the above: Quod scripsi, scripsi – or, in English: fuck it. 

Words of the year, another thing that’s been on my mind. ‘Permacrisis’ from Collins – I regard as meh. The already mentioned ‘Gaslighting’, apparently determined by number of searches, which I can accept but it doesn’t seem, to me, to really capture the year: Permacrisis, for sheer relevance, is probably more powerful. And Oxford has gone democratic – something I wish could also be said of some of its former students. I voted for ‘Metaverse’. Although I consider the metaverse to be one of the dumbest ideas we humans have ever landed upon, I think I’m more likely to use that word than the other options: ‘goblin mode’ and ‘#IStandWith’. Certainly I’ll never use the latter, present instance excepting, because I do not “hashtag” in speech or in writing. 

Anything else? 

Oh, yes, we might say, “in lighter news…” Not long ago I was interviewed for a position with a dairy company. I didn’t get the job. It involved upselling, I am not good at convincing people to buy shit they don’t want. I say I’m not good at it, I don’t even try it. That role was advertised as “customer service” – as, more egregiously, were some door to door sales jobs I’ve had or interviewed for – despite my youth, I feel lost at what seems a modern use of those words. Customer service, to me, simply involves serving the customer, not lining my own pockets at their expense. Crazy, right? 

Anymoo. The dairy, I didn’t get the job. My response, which was, I assure you, without bitterness: “Hi B–, Thanks for the update. As they say: there’s no point crying over spilled milk, which perhaps isn’t the line you take at __’s Dairies but, as I won’t be an employee, it’s a practice I can follow in good conscience. All the best, Mark.” I know, I astonish myself; which is just as well since no-one else seems to find me funny. Oh well. 

An Open Letter

To Gordon Smith, Enforcement Manager, Kilmarnock TV Licensing.  NOVEMBER 2022.

Dear Sir, 

I have so enjoyed our correspondence, one-sided and cyclical though it has been. I have been thoroughly entertained by it for several years now. I must call you out though: your very first line (in the attached letter, how I wish I’d kept the others) ascribes blame to me for not answering your letters – it is you, sir, that has consistently failed to append a return address. Had you done so, I assure you that the present answer would have reached you sooner. As it is, you have left me no alternative but to pen this open letter. 

I hope you will not consider it rude of me to remark that you are clearly suffering from a fragmented memory. You have “opened an investigation” and “proceeded to its final stages” more times than I can count (though I wish, as I said, that I’d kept the others so that I could count).  Admittedly I don’t read all of them; they are after all quite repetitive and utterly devoid of artistic merit. Those most swiftly directed, unopened, towards the bin (the recycling bin; your department may hate trees, sir, but I do not) are those beauties with the window in the envelope and the question “will you be in on” one date or another? 

Sir, I am exceedingly likely to be in on any given date; please don’t feel the need to check beforehand, just send your people. I was visited, a few years ago, by a member of your team. When I told her that no, she could not come in, she said “it’s inconvenient for us to have to come back later”; to which I say: good. No. Good is too light a word. I say: superb, splendid, wonderful, excellent, etc. etc; I only wish I knew of some way to inconvenience you more than I am currently able to.

To the latest letter, which apart from the date is identical to many others. “An officer has been scheduled to visit”, you say. What, again? Am I to expect an army of officers at the door – or have those mentioned previously been unable to find my address? “The officer [N.B. I am deliberately de-capitalising] may visit your property any date of the week, morning or evening.” Indeed they may; as I’ve said, I’m usually in. And they will be told the same thing as that other officer who visited. However, should it be an army of officers that appear, I will be content to speak with just one of them, who can then relay the message on my behalf – that message, incidentally, will be along the same lines as the Swabian Salute.

The first point under the heading ‘what you need to know…’ reads: “we can apply to court for a search warrant to gain access to your property.” I appreciate the sentiment but you are confused, allow me to set things straight: “you (i.e. your officers) can only gain access to my property if you (they) have a search warrant.” Though you are correct in certain regards: you can apply for a warrant and you have intimated that you will do so. Yet, despite the amount of paper you have wasted, sir, you’ve failed to produce the only piece of paper that would be of interest to me except as light reading.

“You,” your letter says, “risk a fine…” No, sir, I do not. There can be no punishment in the absence of a crime. I do not want your service. But I refuse to “let you know” about it in any formal capacity. The need to do so is inconsistent with justice. You are not, on entering a shop, required to declare that you do not want this product and that. Sky Engineers [N.B. the unnecessary capitalisation, this is because Sky Engineers have a proper job as opposed to… well, you know] do not appear at your door to make sure that you don’t want Sky.  

An officer is going to visit to make sure I’m not breaking the law? That is contrary to the foremost legal principle: the presumption of innocence. I am well aware that you are “just doing your job”, that it is governments that mandate your acts – but I, sir, am not a formalist: a bad law is not worthy of respect; and neither are those who “enforce” it. 

I’d ask that you forward this to whichever of your myriad officers eventually finds the place. They can refer to it during their brief visit to my door mat.

Yours faithfully, 

The Legal Occupier (“Mark”) 

P.s. I eagerly await your next letter; I may even open it. 

**You, the reader of this Open Letter, might find my putting it here odd. The fact is I do not use any other platforms for publication. It is unlikely to ever reach Smith or his people, but on the off chance anyone here knows him, please direct him to my letter or my letter to him. Thank you.**


I’ve had a great month on the reading front. Below are impressionistic, highly opinionated, reviews and/or responses to what I’ve read. 

White Nights (1848) in The Best Short Stories of Fydor Dostoevsky (2001), translated by David Magarshack

“It was a lovely night, one of those nights, dear reader, which can only happen when you are young.” 

In White Nights a “dreamer” narrator is lonely in the city until he, by chance one night, meets a girl. He sees in the girl some hope of defeating his loneliness but she has a warning: not to fall in love with her. She is promised to another, though things are “complicated”. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, though written early in Dostoevsky’s career, it is recognisably his work, incisive as ever is. I don’t doubt the other stories are of a similarly high standard, but can’t formally vouch for them. Recommended

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott 

“I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.”

An imaginative novella I’ve also discussed before. A. Square introduces the reader, in “Space”, to his two dimensional world populated by shapes. A book of two halves: the first a detailed analysis of Flatland and Flatlanders – Abbott uses geometry to guide the leader in imagining how things would look from that other perspective, it’s easy to follow, satisfying and fun. The Flatlanders, however, being a take on Victorian society, operate on the basis of rigid hierarchy. Among those at the bottom of Flatland society are women who, being straight lines, have sharp ends at each end – potentially deadly, then, they are severely imposed upon by the laws of Flatland. In the second, less expository, half, A. Square encounters worlds of one and three-dimensions and the story heads towards an ultimate message of open-mindedness. Quick and fun, and funny, so naturally Recommended

Crow Road (1992) by Iain Banks

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Perhaps the best opening line ever is followed by a novel not easy to categorise. Fundamentally a coming-of-age story, as the central character comes to terms with the existence of death and what that means for living. There is way more going on than that, but I also don’t want to spoil it. Bank’s is playful with language and that’s a quality I’m always drawn to. This is definitely a character-driven book and the cast of characters is wonderful, with many of them explored in considerable depth. Probably the funniest book I read this month. Definitely Recommended

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1980) by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.”

So, you’re about to begin a book that I found enjoyable and thought provoking, but never quite captivating. The story presents “you”, a reader, with a serious problem: the books “you” keeps buying are unreadable (for a variety of reasons) after the first chapter – ten different first chapters are presented, breaking up the true “you”-based narrative. The novel reads as a sort of Calvino-course in literature, as his characters reflect on what it means to be a good reader, and, reciprocally, to be a good writer. Not a masterwork of story but perhaps masterful study of story. Recommended

Vox (2018) by Christina Dalcher 

“If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them.” 

I can save you a few hours: vox, voice, use it or lose it. By no means a terrible book but one that is explicitly, and one might say solely, a vehicle for that message. By no means terrible but with an utter flop of an ending. The ending is not the only thing preventing Vox being a great example of its genre but neither is it an insubstantial factor. The message is repeated and rephrased and reiterated throughout, from page one to the last. Not that it’s a bad message in itself and I’m not unsympathetic to the ever present threat of state power being directed against one or more societal groupings, but it’s been done better and why settle for mediocrity? Choose The Handmaid’s Tale, of which this is a fanfiction; choose 1984 which ends with conviction; Flatland, above, would be a fair substitute too. Not Recommended.

The Blue Tower (1996) by Thorarinn Eldjarn, translated by Bernard Scudder

“I am here for the most part alone with my thoughts, because my guards say little to me that I can understand, apart from what concerns my most basic needs.” 

This may be the hidden gem of the month. Icelandic historical fiction, taking place over roughly the first half of the seventeenth century. Hero Gudmundur, an intellectual and onetime minor member of the clergy, is imprisoned in Copenhagen’s Blue Tower. From his cell at the top of the tower he relates how he came to be there. The Great Edict, a puritanical code, imposed on Iceland by the Protestant king of occupying power, Denmark. The Edict forbids adultery, but is only rigorously enforced when an illegitimate child is sprung. Gudmundur, father of an illegitimate child, writes a tract against the Edict, and it does not help that Gudmundur has uneasy relations with the men of power in his own land. The Blue Tower is brilliantly written (and translated) and a compelling argument in favour of a sort of common sense ethics. Recommended. 

** Also obscure (I think), also recommended (I know) and also translated from Icelandic by Scudder (I’m led to believe) is Justice Undone by Thor Vilhjamsson. That touches on similar themes, and others not so similar, in a radically different style best compared (in my opinion) to Cormac McCarthy. **

Plagues and Pencils: A Year of Pandemic Sketches (2021) by Edward Carey 

“I blame the pencil.” 

Edward Carey is an author and illustrator, though not one I’d previously heard of. I am sitting here in admiration of that opening sentence – I had thought to write that the main draw and lasting impression of Plagues and Pencils is the visuals. I have written them actually and they are true, but I can’t deny that’s a fine line, and reminds me that the read itself was pleasant enough. What is written is mainly Carey’s reflections on the drawing process – at the beginning of lockdown he decides to post a pencil drawing to Twitter every day – insights into creativity are always welcome as far as I’m concerned. Part of the appeal of Plagues and Pencils comes simply from admiring Carey’s Nike-certified spirit. Carey’s subjects are diverse-ish – famous people from all eras, fictional beings, animals and very few places – and all are captured well in what must be Carey’s trademark style. The pandemic itself is naturally mentioned but, like I said, the words left less of an impression than the images, and the words that did leave an impression were craft-oriented. A category of subjects is “RIP”, so Plagues and Pencils sometimes functions as a chronological and selective in memoriam – a peculiar sort of memory lane but not without its appeal. Recommended

How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Writers (2021) by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh

“You accuse us of stamping out young literary talents.”

A clear contender with Crow Road for funniest book of the month, is this compilation of honest but affectionate editorial responses to budding writers. A Polish poet and Nobel winner, Szymborska, offers some genuinely good advice to writers but it’s the expertly worded rejections, and sometimes outright rebukes, that make How to Start really special. My favourite among other favourites: 

To Anonymous, from Krakow Our mundane mailbox rarely yields such sensations. We kept turning pages; you’ve got a flair for narration, a transparent style, and a gift for the vivid, if superficial description. We were just about to suggest your next project, an adventure tale for children, when you suddenly revealed your true ambition: a new theory of psychological prose. After many weeks of sailing, Columbus, your story’s hero, doubts that he’ll ever reach land. He considers abandoning his route, but a heavenly being descends to proclaim, “Sail on!” Columbus does as he is told, and eventually reaches his goal. Those poor psychologists who waste time analyzing our behavior! It’s all so simple: we’re moved by divine intervention. We may seem to make light of your serious effort. Dear Mr. Anonymous, please don’t take it amiss. A spirit said our words might do you good.” 

A book I do intend to return to consider Szymborska’s theory of writing more, I was enjoying it far too much to think about it closely. A sure smile-inducer. Recommended. 

As I Lay Dying (1930) by William Faulkner 

“Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file.” 

If, as I lay dying, I were reading this book I would not be unsatisfied. Book of the month and maybe book of the year. I’ll talk about As I Lay Dying in some detail later. Recommended, obviously. 

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) by Albert Camus, translated by Justin O’Brien

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” 

Which leads to no and “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” More manifesto than treatise and far from conventional in style. It considers how a meaning-seeking entity like us should live, if at all, in a meaningless world. He recommends embracing the “absurdity” of it all through a constant awareness, continually re-reminding ourselves that now is all there is for us, so we’d best make the most of it. After resolving the suicide question, Camus considers some exemplary absurd men, considers the possibility of absurd fiction and confirms its existence in an appendix on the works of Kafka. Another one I’ll cover in more detail at a later date, probably. Recommended.

How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse (2018) by Thomas C. Foster 

“One of the problems that newcomers – and sometimes not-so-new-comers – to poetry have is that they believe that they don’t know how to read a poem.” 

Which is a problem no comer of any kind will have if they read Foster’s book. It’s a lighthearted, conversational guide to all the fundamentals of poetry. It includes diverse examples, though of mainly English poetry because, as Foster says, nothing loses so much in translation as poetry (those may or may not be his actual words) – this gives a nice tour, helpful for identifying poets or types of poem to pursue further. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of poetry, some topics necessarily are more interesting than others, none are painfully dull. I feel better equipped to read poetry than before I read the book, so can fairly call it a success. Recommended

Why Birds Sing (2005) by David Rothenberg 

“It is March 2000 and I am in Pittsburgh to jam with the birds of the National Aviary, the finest public collection of caged birds in the United States.”  

Could be reviewed succinctly: a passionate mess. Its conclusions can be summarised: no one knows why birds sing, but I make music for the joy of it, therefore that’s what birds must do. This is from a professor of philosophy, mind you. At one point Rothenberg that his book is more “philosophical” because he prefers questions to answers – naturally, this reminded me of my own experience with philosophy: when in The Moral Law Kant asks is there a maxim to govern ethical behaviour? In On Liberty, Mill boldly aks, as no philosopher had before, where does the balance lie between individual freedom and state interference? And in the Myth of Sisyphus of course Camus asks, “should I kill myself?” and leaves the matter there. Rothenberg gives a roughly chronological account of human responses to bird song, from poetry to music to philosophy to neuroscience. The details of the history are, in fact, really interesting – bird song really is fascinating it turns out – there are lots of “fun facts” to be extracted like: did you know America now has European starlings due to the mad ambitions of a Shakespeare fanatic? But whenever Rothenberg editorialises it tends to be repetitive: either “this person was correct because they anthropomorphised the birds” or “no, no, this person has completely neglected to anthromorphise, they’ll never learn “why the bird sings” that way!” 

That, of course, is how you must understand Rothenberg’s question. He doesn’t want a mechanistic answer, the bird sings because the bird evolved to sing. He wants to know why the bird think it sings – ultimately “arriving” at the conclusion I mentioned above, joy. There’s nothing particularly wrong with his question, least of all in philosophy. The problem is Rothenberg, for some reason, needs an enemy and spends the length of the book pretending that science, only being interested in the mechanistic answers, has forbidden anthropomorphism. He’ll do this so much that when, late in the book, a scientist tells him: your question is univestigatable, or, scientifically inept. You, Mr. Rothenberg and everyone is free to anthropomorhise, but consciousness in others might be inferred but it can never be experienced. He knows that, though, he explicitly refers to Nagel’s famous bat paper – he doesn’t go into depth on it and that’s because he doesn’t have a single thing to add, not even a faulty argument, he opts simply to ignore it. 

A book with too many flaws. Billed as “one man’s quest to solve an everyday” you’re expecting something along the lines of Jon Ronson, I call the genre ‘journey-alism‘, the format: journalist has a question or a bias, journalist investigates taking the reader with them, journalist learns along with the reader. In March 2000 at the beginning of the book Rothenberg did think mechanistically (so he claims). But Rothenberg doesn’t have the good sense to write from that perspective: immediately we’re told, “I thought that and I was wrong!”. Rather than walk the reader through the development of his thinking on the subject, Rothenberg just spits out facts (interesting, as mentioned) that’s he learned and condescension. 

You probably think the book is terrible. It’s not, the facts, the historical responses, to bird song are the bulk – why he didn’t just write a history of responses to bird song is beyond me – and those are truly fascinating and likely will, if – like me – you’re not already a keen bird observer, cause you to think about and notice them a little more than you currently do. Rothenberg, a flawed writer, clearly loves his subject. Too flawed though to recommend. Not Recommended

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (2011) by Stanley Fish 

“In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” ” 

Another ‘how to’. Like Foster’s this is light, conversational and eschews terminology (though with decidedly less complaining that terminology exists at all) in favour of practical thought indeed going so far as to say: 

“Technical knowledge, divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” 

A good example of this popped up on a blog to which I made a lengthy reply. It’ll be useful here to see how Fish goes about “teaching” (plus I like my argument). Consider the sentence: 

“You can have it for free.” What might you say about the sentence? 

The proverbial “strict grammarian” will apply their technical knowledge, their “rules” and their rule will be phrased along the lines of: “a preposition must be followed by a noun or pronoun”. Their dictionary will not recognise “free” as either noun or pronoun (they will not be deterred, though, by the dictionary’s recognition of “for free” as a ‘for’ phrase). They’ll inevitably conclude that “You can have it for free” is not a grammatical sentence, i.e. not a sentence. 

They’ve divorced technical knowledge from what it’s knowledge of and have only an illusion of understanding. They think their rules have concluded the matter, when in fact they’ve only demonstrated their rules – properly their application of the rules – can’t accommodate the language. They treat grammatical “rules” like Ikea instructions; but the “rules” are just a model for analysis, like music theory is. Strictly speaking, a strict grammarian who follows the above course actually shows little interest in grammar. 

If they follow along with Fish – and sensible grammarians – they will use grammar for its purpose, not instructional but instructive. “You can have it for free”, is a sentence, so analyse it – though for the reader’s patience we’ll stick to “for free”. Fish explains that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships. We already know the relationship here, in the grammarian’s terms: “a preposition must be followed by a noun or pronoun”, in simpler terms: “for is always followed by a thing”. I’m convinced the misunderstandings of grammar have something to do with how the “rules” are emphasised. Let me draw a short scene to show how this rule really works. 

Younger Scribe: I say, I’ve come across this word “free” and can’t figure out what it is, a noun, a pronoun, a verb, an adjective? 

Elder Scribe: Hmm, well how is it used in a sentence? 

Younger: You can have it for free. 

Elder: A-ha simplicity itself. Don’t you see? It follows for, and for is a preposition. Since it follows a preposition (and is intelligible) ‘free’ must be a noun, in that instance.  

So, you see, there’s really nothing wrong with the rules or “technical knowledge”, it’s incredibly useful, when properly utilised. It’s too often been a tool of those who’ve mistaken the map for the territory and now rage at the coastline for being jaggy in the wrong places.

Fish’s breakdown of the language is very interesting, if that is the sort of thing that interests you. He provides some exercises for practicing sentences, more importantly, for those who are going to practice, he gives readers the tools to develop their own exercises to suit their needs. Fish and fishing come to mind. Naturally, he uses many examples, many of which are great sentences. It’s obviously not exhaustive, but covers a few styles of writing. If you wondered, I write in what Fish calls an additive style, with free flowing associations, without a plan, I’m sorry if the revelation shocks you. Though Fish might also question whether it isn’t the case that my plan is to be spontaneous. Food for thought. Recommended

P.S. This book also inspired all the first sentences you’ve been getting here. 

That’s what I read in September, any thoughts? Any experiences with these books?

Before I Read: ‘As I Lay Dying’… Again. 

Last weekend I published a post before reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and then, over that weekend, I read it. I reached the punchline of the novel late on Sunday, with Monday morning fast approaching. I was, like a trampoline on a stormy night, blown away. 

Without reservation, I can say As I Lay Dying is the best book I’ve read this year. Though a short novel, at 240 pages, it is dense – not a word is wasted, every line is pregnant with meaning. In my previous post I classed a line from the back cover as “fluff” and that only confirms what I admitted last week – that I was primarily guessing. The line: as epic as the Old Testament.  Well, I was wrong: it’s not “cover fluff”. It is, it turns out, simply true. 

Yet I would not, without reservation, recommend As I Lay Dying. Not to just anyone, that is. As I Lay Dying is not an easy read – how, with 15 narrators, relating the story in stream-of-consciousness, each with an utterly distinct voice (and viewpoint), could it be? As I Lay Dying is demanding of its readers. Hey, I sound like a bit of a cunt, right now, eh?: sort of, I loved this book but it’ll go right over your head. 

But, no, that’s not what I mean – that’s not why I wouldn’t universally recommend the book. You see, when I got to the end, my thoughts ran something like this: wow! Wow! wow! … What? Actually, As I Lay Dying triggered a self-admonishment: I could only acknowledge that: Mark, you’ve been doing it wrong. Reading, that is. I’d been reading wrong – or so As I Lay Dying has convinced me. 

What I realised: I don’t reread enough. I don’t reread often enough and I don’t reread soon enough. 

Obviously I am being somewhat hyperbolic here. In so much as I probably would – if you asked: should I read As I Lay Dying? – say, yes, it’s a fucking masterpiece! rather than, I dunno, are you willing to read it twice? A good book is a good book, after all, however many times you plan to read it; a great book, quadruply so. I am aware that some people are averse to rereading and that, ultimately, is none of my business. 

My revelation might be more diplomatically phrased: I’ve been reading wrong for me. Bearing in mind that my opinion here cannot force you to change the way you read, I want, anyway, to share my thoughts – and, if I can convince you to reread, or at the very least make you think about rereading in a different light then that will be fine too. So, all the subjectivity disclaimers out of the way, we press onward. 

Vladimir Nabokov opens his Lectures on Literature with a short essay entitled “Good Readers and Good Writers”. He writes: “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” What does he mean by that? 

Well, first of all, it’s about purposes. What are you reading for, what are your goals? If your only goal in reading a book is to discover what “happens” in it, then Nabokov (and by extension Mark) is full of shit. If your goal, even, is to extract the “message” or such of the book, then, again, one reading can (in theory) suffice. But what Vlad and I have in mind is this: appreciation of literature as literature. That caveat will, likely, do little to drain this statement of controversy I am, though, convinced: you cannot fully appreciate literature, as literature, on the first read. I mean, quite literally, that it is impossible. Why? 

Because to appreciate art, to fully appreciate art of any kind, the parts must be understood and experienced in relation to the whole. Okay, art is not real life – I know, it pains me too, but it simply isn’t. Nabokov, to illustrate his points, compares reading to viewing a painting – and it’s a very helpful illustration so I’m stealing it. 

In viewing a painting, we are presented immediately with the “whole” of the art. There it is. Now what? Well, once you’ve taken in the full view, you’re going to want to zoom in – see how the thumb and index, once united, now go their separate ways! You examine, at your own leisure, the individual parts of the painting. You consider the parts in relation to the whole and, indeed, can always “pinch” to reorientate yourself within that whole – certainly, too, your look at the parts might change, somewhat or entirely, your assessment of the whole. The point, however, is that your interaction with the painting begins where it does: appreciation then is merely a matter of considering the parts, geadually refining your impression of the whole. 

You can, perhaps, deduce where this is going. You are never, with a book, with literature, able to see the whole. You have first to construct it from its constituent parts – and construct it mentally at that. As Nabokov says, during a first read a “good reader” must “notice and fondle details… study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new”. What, you may say, if you take meticulous notes throughout this first reading, so that, come the end, you can look back at all the parts and how they stack up to make the whole? 

I’m sorry but no. Doubtless what you’ll have there is a thorough understanding of the work as content. You’ll know precisely what the book says and perhaps when it says it. But literature – ditto cinema – is about more than its culmination; it is a journey – how you get there matters as much as where you’re going. Think, then, of reading literature as being on a train. Your first journey, free spirit that you are, is made blind: you don’t know where you’re going. However, impressed by your destination, you decide, later, to take the same trip again. This time, looking from the window, the land has a new meaning: that hill, this time, is not just a hill; it is a hill forty minutes from your destination, or whatever. Well, so it is with literature. 

There is a conceit in literature – especially that first time. The conceit is that there is progression, that the end follows on from the beginning. But, as we know, this isn’t true. The beginning of a novel, in fact, however much we pay attention, “fondle details”, means nothing until we know the end. Until we know the end, that hill is just a hill. I say, as we know, because – whether you reread or not – you do know this. 

Consider The Sixth Sense (1999). That twist. Maybe you saw it coming, in which case you picked up on the clues the first time. But many people didn’t and to such people, their second time watching The Sixth Sense (if they bothered to do so) was a fundamentally different viewing experience than the first time. They – you – know on a repeat viewing where the film is going and have that ending in mind while watching. It is the same film, obviously, but you are better able to appreciate it for all that it is. 

The same is true of any great twist ending – or rather any great work of art that has a twist – and also of mystery stories. It’s not limited to those genres though. All great literature and all great cinema is the same. “I believe in America. America has made my fortune,” says Bonasera, as The Godfather (1972) begins. The words mean something in themselves, it’s a great introduction. But why, oh why, does this epic film begin with the woes of an undertaker? Why should we care what he believes in? Well, I trust you know already (either from having viewed The Godfather more than once or from being able to follow my written “argument” here) that those words resonate differently once you know how this tale of Sicilians ends. 

One more example? Just for the heck of it, let’s use As I Lay Dying. Look at this: 

That’s page 73 (of 240). You can well deduce what, at that point of my initial read, that Chapter meant to me. I chose it here because, if I do say so myself, it perfectly illustrates what I’ve been arguing. That part of the book, if you’ve never read the book, will mean very little to you – I was seventy pages into the thing and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Now? Now I have that mental image of the whole, I know exactly what Vardaman means. Or, at least, I feel I do. 

But it’s not enough, as I’ve said, for me to just revisit that chapter and say, aha it means this. Remember, the how is as important as the what in literature. As important as what that Chapter means is why that Chapter is there. Again, I could, if I wanted, look at my jottings for the Chapters before and after. But that is not enough. No more would that be appreciating literature than your reading my words on The Godfather above constituted your watching The Godfather. 

Appreciation of literature, I reiterate, requires you to take the journey with the complete knowledge of where you’re going. You need the ability, during your perusal, to zoom out and see the whole, that mental painting you have made. 

Reminder. You can read literature without rereading it. You can enjoy literature without rereading it. You can review literature without rereading it. You can even understand literature without rereading it. But you cannot fully appreciate literature as literature without rereading it, that is all I am saying. 

But where does that leave me? I’ve figured out I ought to reread more and reread sooner? But how much and how soon, I don’t know. On completion of As I Lay Dying, a part of me did want to just start again then and there – but I didn’t do that. 

I read other things – one incidentally was a reread: Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. That’s one I’d been planning to reread soon anyway but it was As I Lay Dying inclined me to it now. I’m hesitant to say there are substantial links between the two but, still, I had a feeling: and this one line from Faulkner really struck me and stuck with me: 

“Vernon spits into the dust. But it will rain before morning.” 

Perhaps there’s something Sisyphean there and in the book as a whole. Indeed, there’s a reason I referred to the ending as a “punchline” above; it leaves one wondering whether it’s all just a big joke. All humanity has done or will do is destined only to be washed away, like teardrops– I mean spit in the rain. 

That’s all I’m prepared to say about the book now. This post is called what it is for a reason. I’ll start reading As I Lay Dying later today and, you know, I have a presentiment: I think I’m really going to like it.

Before I Read: ‘As I Lay Dying’

As I Lay Dying    William Faulkner 

“The death and burial of Addie Bundren is told by members of her family, as they cart the coffin to Jefferson, Mississippi, to bury her among her people. And as the intense desires, fears and rivalries of the family are revealed in the vernacular of the Deep South, Faulkner presents a portrait of extraordinary power – as epic as the Old Testament, as American as Huckleberry Finn.” —from the back cover.

Like many of the Vintage paperbacks: the cover of this 2004 printing of As I Lay Dying gives away intriguingly little; and comes “bare bones”, inside is only the story and an ‘About the Author’ section. My knowledge of Faulkner extends to knowing his name and the names of some of his books, I can only guess at the themes he tackles, broadly and in As I Lay Dying. I can only guess, and so that’s what I’ll do. 


Author: As I lay dying. 


Me: Go on..? As you lay dying… what?


Oh, and just who are you, who were dying, anyway? 


I see, I’ll have to read on to find out, eh? Well played. Exeunt.

Music is tension and release and it is often said, of a chord progression, that it wants to resolve – strictly speaking, that we “want” it to resolve. “As I lay dying…” likewise wants to resolve, we – naturally curious creatures – want it to; a good title. 

Doubtless, Faulkner wrested his title from some poem or other. Things Fall Apart. Of Mice and Men. No Country for Old Men. &c. 

Cover Illustration

A close-up of a horse’s eye credited to Colin Jarvie and Millennium. The significance? Haven’t a clue. 


“The death and burial of Addie Brunden”. The titular ‘I’? Less likely, since she is not the narrator, not a Point-of-View character. (Correction: Addie does narrate one chapter.)

The transportation of Addie’s coffin to Jefferson, Mississippi – Faulkner’s home state – for burial. From where? This is bound to be a more humble procession than we have seen in recent days. 

Addie’s “people”, people of the Deep South. Faulkner was born in 1897 into “a family proud of their prominent role in the history of the South”. A sentence that cannot be read, considering the dates, without at least mild trepidation. But people will, and maybe must, feel proud of their heritage, however they define it; and after all, there are babies and there is bath water. 

The separation of art from the artist question seems roughly analagous. Hitchcock, we know, was horrible to Tippi Hedren.  Should we continue to watch his films? He is ‘problematic’ and so his ouevre is ‘problematic’ – it would all be less problematic, of course, had Hitchcock’s work been as poor as his behaviour. Alas. 

As with Hitchcock, our own histories and the past of Faulkner’s Deep South can be ‘problematic’ – we remember some things with pride, others with shame. Dissonance, particularly perilous to those who cannot readily identify an infant human; those who see bath, water and baby as a single entity, indivisible. So, perhaps As I Lay Dying will address that in some way. 

A last subject, the “intense desires, fears and rivalries” of Addie’s family. 


As I Lay Dying uses multiple narration, “told by members of her family”, “in the vernacular of the Deep South”.

Chapter headings reveal there are 15 narrators, unequally distributed across 59 Chapters (and 240 pages). 

The narration suggests a likely candidate, not Addie, to be the titular ‘I’ who lay dying. 19 of the 59 chapters are narrated by Darl, almost double the “runner-up” Vardaman (10 chapters). Darl also narrates the opening chapter. Whether his (or whomever’s) dying is literal or metaphorical, he does not have the last words, the final chapter being attributed to Cash (who has 5 chapters). 

I stressed before the importance, for my enjoyment of multiple narration, of the characters having distinct voices. I previously compared the success of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (note, another vernacular work) to the failure of Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party in the use of distinct voices, idiolects, in this post. I hope – and, to be honest, expect — that Faulkner will give each narrator their own linguistic fingerprint. 


A book is not complete wthout cover fluff. 

“Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature” – sure to mislead a few into thinking Faulkner won the award for As I Lay Dying (like the Booker, say) rather than for a body of work prior to the award. Faulkner’s Nobel was awarded in 1949, As I Lay Dying was published in 1930 – for reference, that’s the same length of time as passed between Owen and Beru Lars adopting the infant Luke Skywalker and the couple’s untimely incineration. A lot can happen in 19 years. Still, it is hardly the fault of Vintage that you don’t know Tony from Oscar. 

“Brilliant and compelling” says The Spectator. Well, I am sold. It’s rare to find such effusive praise on a book cover. 

“As epic as the Old Testament”, hopefully with less meticulously logged begetting. 

“As American as Huckleberry Finn”, a cliche, of course. Two Marks, and the twain have not met! – i.e. I haven’t read any Twain. 

Loose Ends

A burning question remains: when? Contemporary with publication, 1930ish, or somewhat earlier? I’ll let you know.

Romantic Geometry

So, after reading Dostoevsky’s White Nights (see here) I felt fairly certain my desire to read would last sometime. But to really motivate myself – and because I was already in the area, on Friday – I picked a few more books up from a charity shop.

Six books, in fact. Two by Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver! Twist. Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I read in school and thought I might read again. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is just huge, and the size – whether it, with the other books, would actually fit into my bag – almost prevented me from buying it; but then the size – a penny-to-pages ratio of 1:30! – and the fact I do want to read it, convinced me to take it. The other two were very much cover-based purchases. David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing, awesome cover and an intriguing subject. Daniel O’Malley’s Stiletto: I don’t know what this one is, my thinking was, Mark, you don’t have enough fun books, this shiny blue cover looks fun, and that was that. 

Each of the books now has its place in the bookshelves – I had first, though, to rearrange the bookshelves. I didn’t have to, I could have fit them in. But I’d previously had fiction in one unit and non-fiction in the other – arranged, in both cases, by title. Now they’re combined and arranged by the author. The sorting left me with a whole empty shelf on which I’ve put a few photos, my pens, and, always, for the time, to be found on my bookshelf, my share of my dad. I briefly considered defenestrating him, late one night, but I need to give it more thought. 

The reshuffling also inspired my next read. I decided to read whatever was my “first” book – the alphabetically first title by the alphabetically first author. As it happened, for me, that book was Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Abbott, Edwin A. (the “A” stands for Abbott). I was almost deterred from my “first book” notion – stupid idea, anyway. For one thing, despite having reshuffled my paper books and that being the whole point of this first book thing Flatland is a Kindle ebook (an AmazonClassics edition) – my paper collection begins with Aciman. Another, even bigger concern was that word, “romance”. 

A momentary lapse, I recalled that “romance” has more than one meaning. The obvious, contemporary use and the other one. I had in mind Hawthorne, whose House of the Seven Gables and Scarlet Letter are both subtitled “A Romance” like Flatland. I read Flatland without further research, I had, when I started it, no idea what it’s about – the book, and a number of other AmazonClassics, including House of the Seven Gables had been free at a point and, obviously, I couldn’t not “buy” a free book. I read Flatland and was glad of it, and will come to why presently. 

But first, upon finishing Flatland – a novella, by the way –, I remembered that Hawthorne had written something on the nature of “a romance” at the start of Seven Gables. I remembered because at the outset of reading House of the Seven Gables: A Romance, I had the same concern over that word. Hawthorne’s words, then, put me at ease. So I checked back, Hawthorne says, in the Preface: 

WHEN a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former – while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart – has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.”

Anyone already familiar with Flatland will know that it fits into Hawthorne’s model very well. It’s a satirical take on Victorian attitudes to class, women, and most of all, open-mindedness and tolerance. Abbott’s take on these subjects are “the truth(s) of the human heart”. The circumstances Abbott chooses to present these truths? Geometry. 

AmazonClassics tend to have weaknesses. There is reference throughout Flatland to illustrations – diagrams – which do exist, but are not included. That was no hindrance in reading the book. Also missing, though, is any mention of the pseudonym used to publish Flatland, A Square (the A, I expect, stands for Abbott). The reader discovers quickly enough that yes, the narrator is a square, but never, I don’t think, do we learn that his name is A(bbott?) Square without the pseudonym. 

Abbott, as Square, describes Flatland – a 2D world. Abbott’s world is derived from geometry and he, as Square, uses geometry to relate the experience of living in two dimensions. The citizens are flat shapes, who conform to rigid social rules based on their shapes – the number of sides being of particular import. Women are “straight lines”, pointy at both ends, liable to impale other shapes by accident or intent, and are therefore subject to particularly stringent rules: 

“2. No female shall walk in any public place without continually keeping up her Peace-cry, under penalty of death.” 

The first half, roughly, of Flatland is dedicated to describing the world – women get a whole “Section” (“chapter”) – also discussed are how the shapes know who (i.e. what shape) they are looking at, why Flatlanders no longer use colour, and the climate of flatland. It’s a lot of fun and incredibly imaginative – and Abbott explains the geometry well enough that the lack of diagrams didn’t matter, I questioned even whether references to the illustrations were not merely pretend. 

The second half is a narrative that explains A Square’s experiences, which led him to writing Flatland and dedicating it to “the inhabitants of space in general”, “space in general” being a 3D world. In the second half the “many dimensions” of the title enter the picture and Abbott/Square’s message of open-mindedness becomes clear. 

A Square first encounters a one-dimensional world, Lineland, and fails to convince an inhabitant thereof that Flatland is even a conceivable place, much less an actual one. Afterwards, an inhabitant of Spaceland (3D, a sphere) visits A Square in Flatland – but fails, at first, to convince Square that Spaceland is a conceivable space, much less an actual one. “It’s like poetry, they rhyme.” The sphere chooses Square to, at last, teach the Flatlanders about Spaceland – but will the intolerant and rigid Flatland society be willing to accept, without “divine revelation”, what A Square, a Flatlander, had been unwilling – unable – to accept without “divine revelation”? 

Obviously not, these are (not) Victorians we’re dealing with. A Square, would you believe it, is persecuted for his beliefs. As a prophet he is a complete failure. It’s all quite tragic, surprisingly serious for a book written by a square. 

And really good, very much recommended for those looking for a short, easy, fun, yet thought provoking read. As to open-mindedness, I’m very open-minded and I won’t hear a word to the contrary. Were I a Flatlander, I would not wish to persecute A Square for his crazy beliefs but certainly would not believe him because, as the book shows, he had to be “shown” Spaceland by sphere to see it. He then failed, in Flatland, to establish any proof other than his own memories. The sphere, if it wants its world to be known to Flatlanders, ought to make itself more widely known in Flatland, don’t you think? 

Links: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions House of the Seven Gables “It’s like poetry, they rhyme.”  

Indictment and Indecision

It’s been, in my estimation, a while since I posted anything here and, therefore, anywhere. 

At first, I didn’t post because I was working. Later, I lost the job and became too low, too distracted, to write or even to read – I have, however, been playing guitar a lot of late. Post-employment reading was of a start-stop nature – I tried a bit of this, a bit of that, but nothing stuck, nothing – whether new to me or read before – compelled me to read on to the end. 

Then, in the last full week of August, two books, it seemed to me, remedied the situation. I had known about both books for sometime – and, indeed, I had known from the moment I first heard about the respective books that I should have to read them at some point. “Some point” as mentioned arrived a short while ago and I eagerly consumed the books, feeling, with each, the joie de lire that other works had lately failed to produce. 

The books in question were, in the order I read, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. Both are unique and each, in their own way, to me, breathtaking. I will not dwell on either for now but know that I unreservedly recommend both – Flowers, had I to guess, will appeal to more people than Bardo (but I must stress that I’m guessing). 

Flowers for Algernon and Lincoln in the Bardo were exactly what I needed at the time. But, as implied by “it seemed to me” above, the books were not a full cure for my reading slump – they were simply the first steps. If consistent reading were a castle, Flowers and Bardo had taken me past the gate, but I still had to contend with a drawbridge that was neither fully open nor fully closed. 

Completing Flowers on Sunday (the 28th), I was unable in subsequent days to lower the bridge. That is, I could not “decide” what to read next. I dipped a toe into Chekhov’s short stories, Roald Dahl’s short stories, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo DaVinci, David Robinson’s biography of Charlie Chaplin, and Salman Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus – all to no avail, where the toe went the foot did not follow. The drawbridge, thankfully, did not close, but still neither did it open. 

I was patient but persistent. The reader will know that the right book is always out there somewhere and that it is, always, merely a matter of finding it. So Thursday came, and with it September, and with it: the right book. Reading it was not, though, an altogether comfortable experience. 

The book in question: the Modern Library Classics’ Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky (tr. David Magarshak) – and, to be completely precise, the first story in that collection: White Nights. Above, you’ve seen the indecision alluded to in the title – White Nights provided the indictment, it indicted me; indicted me, in part, for my indecision.

White Nights, an early work, more novella than short story, in Dostoevsky’s career is just fucking brilliant. Despite its earliness, White Nights is recognisably Dostoevsky, his trademarks – interminable speeches in flowery language, the melodrama, that particular sense of humour that really works for me, and an unnerving degree of insight into the “human condition” – are all present. 

So, I read White Nights and found myself in it. You’d be perfectly entitled to roll your eyes, and say, so what, Mark? Everyone who reads Dostoevsky finds themselves there – that’s what Dosto does, it’s his whole thing. A perfectly valid point, hypothetical person, but in this instance it is the when of the encounter more than the fact of it that really mattered. The truth is that the part, or parts of me, that I found in the story had been on my mind anyway, and for some time. 

The job that I had and lost was, the reader may shudder – and the hypothetical person absolutely will –, was door-to-door charity fundraising. I actually had a wonderful time with it, and perhaps I’ll discuss it more in a different post. Its relevance here: I lost the job because I could not hit the targets (average of 3 per shift) – and I was certainly not alone in that but again that’s a different post. 

Whatever considerations, the economic climate, might have played a part in that, what matters is that the targets were not hit. It was often said, by the boss, that to succeed at the job you had to have a purpose. Why was I doing that job? The answer, I was doing that job because they hired me to do that job. I was doing that job because it was a job. I was doing the job because it paid – it paid, actually, rather well. Being paid well I could provide for and contribute to those I care for – chief concern being, of course, my two dogs. And I could, you know, buy some stuff that I maybe want… or maybe, like, go somewhere that I might want to go. 

I only had, what I’ll call, a light purpose – my wants above are, you’ll see, my needs. I want, really want, only what I need. When I have wants, not needs, they are what we’ll call light wants – I want that if it is practicable, if it is convenient, and if not, that’s okay too, as The Stones sing, you can’t always get what you want. If, though, I had wanted a holiday to Madagascar by December – rather than not minding if, at some point, I go on holiday somewhere – I would almost definitely have been more driven. 

The Best Short Stories provides, in its “Commentary” section, an extract from Stefan Zweig, who says: ‘For Dostoeffsky, as for all his characters, “I am,” “I exist,” is the greatest triumph of life, the superlative sensation of belonging to the universe.’ This “sensation”, I think, gets in the way of my having a heavy purpose, heavy wants. What hope would I have, for example, of becoming Prime Minister if I didn’t care one way or the other whether I did because either way life will go on and for the most part be pretty great? Well, none at all. Not caring whether I become Prime Minister, I wouldn’t go to the trouble necessary to do so to begin with. 

Call it equanimity or call it apathy – at some times in my life I’ve thought it one and other times the other – but for whatever reason, I cannot care too much one way or the other. So I take the path of least resistance, I apply for any job and do what is required, and repeat. I take things as they come, I look for the good in things, find it and latch on. Quite often, I take my means of joy with me – indeed, quite often, the joy is me. I don’t mean I’m an unparalleled joy to be around and everyone loves me – I mean I love me, I’m content to sit alone with my thoughts – like the dreamer narrator of Dostoevsky’s White Nights – for a long time. Then, there’s that “superlative sensation” mentioned above – there is always something to see and consider: animate and inanimate. And how long could I simply lie down and cuddle my dog(s)? That’s entirely dependent on how long they’re willing to stay. 

So my big question, right now – that I was asking before I read White Nights and that White Nights caused me to ask more forcefully still: what do you want, Mark? And it’s a trap – what I want, you’ll gather (hopefully, but I don’t proofread), are wants. Ideally, non-abstract wants – I can’t just want happiness because, as we’ve established, I’ll find it without great difficulty. My husband often asks “what are you staring at?” and I’ll explain (yet again) that: I wasn’t staring, I wasn’t using my eyes at all, they were just open – because I carry with me, at all times, a boredom eradicator (so, obviously, does everyone else, but some of them don’t seem to realise its functionality in that respect – every moment with such people must be filled with some sensory stimuli, and ideally much, lest the lament of “I’m bored” escape them. I have in my mind, here, my brother, so don’t interpret that as an attack on yourself, hypothetical person). 

You will be sorely disappointed, hypothetical person, if you were looking for an answer to my big question. I haven’t the faintest idea what I really want. I do know, though, that I want to write. An interesting notion, that can be discussed at a later date. It is, at least, an answer for the moment, a convenient place to conclude – a somewhat “light ending”, the end of an episode, not a season. 

Here are some links: White NightsThe Best Short Stories of Fyodor DostoevskyFlowers for Algernon Lincoln in the Bardo    

The Best Pictures #7: Marty (1955) 

Marty, winner of the 28th Academy Award for Best Picture, is one of the most understated of Best Pictures. The film was just one Oscar away from winning in the “big five” categories – though, lacking a leading actress nominee, it could never have achieved that – having also been awarded Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine), Director (Delbert Mann), and Adapted Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky). In addition to its wins, Marty was also nominated for Supporting Actress (Betsy Blair), Supporting Actor (Joe Mantell), Cinematography (Joseph LaShelle) and Art Direction

Marty is a small film – the shortest to ever win Best Picture – in which not a lot happens. Eight nominations, and four wins, is therefore impressive; impressive, but not at all surprising once you’ve seen it. Marty is utterly charming – one of its posters includes a rave review from Life: “a fine film” – with an ending that only the blackest of hearts could resist grinning at. 

Ernest Borgnine is Marty, a 34-year old Italian American butcher and self-described fat, ugly man. Marty is the last of his several siblings to be married, a “big deal” to Italians and a fact weighing on Marty; not least because, at the start of the film, more than one of his customers reminds him that he should be “ashamed”. He is “ashamed”, but he’s also at a point in life when he’s ready to “face facts”: “whatever girls like” he “ain’t got it”. Over the course of the two days, Saturday and Sunday, that the film portrays, Marty will learn that the “facts” aren’t as immutable as they seem. 

Paddy Chayesfky adapted his own teleplay and won his first Oscar for his efforts. Chayefsky later won two more writing Oscars: for 1971’s Hospital and 1976’s Network, which I’m happy to call the best written film of all time. The dialogue, as written and as delivered by the excellent cast, is the main start of Marty – the film is devoid of spectacle, a real “slice of life” film. A massive strength of the writing is that all threads of the story point towards a single unifying theme: the need to live your life for yourself, to pursue your own happiness despite what others, including especially parents, think about it. The final act of the film derives its tension from that question: will Marty act for himself or will he yield to the wishes of those around him. 

It’s a tension derived from one fact: Marty, like Dark Helmet, after him, is surrounded by assholes. Assholes, that is, of the strictly human variety. Assholes who are not caricatures – perhaps with the exception of one character, whom we’ll meet shortly, Marty is not populated with any two-dimensional characters. The assholes surrounding Marty are all very sympathetic, their reasons for assholery are clear and understandable – the viewer will often simultaneously want to punch a character and give them a hug. It’s writing, and acting, of the highest calibre. 

On the Saturday night, Marty reluctantly yields to his mother, Theresa’s wishes and goes to the Stardust Ballroom – a dance hall that is reputedly “loaded with tomatoes”. Also there, while Marty and his friend, Angie (Mantell) “stag” (i.e. go to the dance sans female partner), is Betsy Blair’s Clara. A 29-year old chemistry teacher – who, like Marty, still lives with her parents (parent in Marty’s case) – is on a double date, set up by her coupled-friend. Her date, the caricature, is of the sleazebag variety: a doctor who was “expecting somethin’ better” and who, shortly after arrival, finds “somethin’ better” and conspires to get Clara off his hands. He approaches Marty and offers him $5 to take his place on the date. Marty, obviously, refuses, but watches as the sleazo easily finds another sleazo in Marty’s stead. When Clara rejects her proffered partner and goes off alone to cry Marty comforts her and things goes as things go in the movies: they spend the rest of the night together, dancing, talking and eating pie. 

They find that they have much in common. Each regards themselves as “dogs”. Each, too, are on the verge of momentous decisions that they lack the confidence to make. The butcher shop where Marty works is going to be sold by its owner and Marty wants to buy it, but is hesitant to take the risk and is already insecure about the butcher’s lower position on the “social scale”. Clara, meanwhile, has been offered a department head position that would require her to relocate, leaving her parents, and especially her dad, whom, she claims, “depends” on her too much to leave him. 

The two are quick to tell each other that they should respectively go for it. Marty tells Clara that he thinks she’s “kidding herself”, that her dad doesn’t need her, she needs him; that she’s just scared of being lonely. So, we are soon treated to one of the sweetest moments in cinema: when Clara gets home, far later than she usually allows, and rapturously explains to her parents the events of the night. Almost as a footnote amid the ecstatic recollection of Marty she mentions that she has decided to take the job and when she leaves the room, her father says to her mother that he’s glad she’s finally going to “stand on her own two feet” – she was kidding herself, after all. 

If only things were so simple for Marty. Having promised to call Clara on the Sunday – after, of course, they’ve both been to mass – and having been assured that she really wants to see him again, Marty wakes on Sunday in an exuberant mood. He, alas, is the only one. Every one else that he knows, all the assholes, are dead set, for their own selfish reasons, against his seeing Clara again – therein lies the aforementioned tension. 

Angie, the friend he was “stagging” with, tells him that Clara is “a nothing”. Marty would be much better off, in his view, to continue frequenting the pubs and clubs every weekend with him, continuing on a course that so far has caused Marty “nothing but heartache”. In these scenes Angie’s petulance is particularly infuriating and yet, as I’ve already said, it’s impossible to hate him. Mantell’s Oscar-nominated performance and Chayefsky’s script make him too real to hate. His apparent selfishness is plainly motivated by fear of being alone: he’s had as little luck and as much heartache as Marty has until now, and if Marty has someone else, who will he have? It’s heartbreaking. 

A second thread of Marty’s story relates to Marty’s family and is also focussed on the need to live for one’s self. Marty’s cousin and his wife, Thomas and Virginia, have had Thomas’ mother, Catherine (pronounced cat-e-rin-a), living with them and Virginia is at her wits’ end. The couple, with newborn, have no privacy, they “can’t even have a fight” (and what’s a marriage without fights?). They ask, on Saturday, whether Marty and Theresa would be willing to take Catherine, Theresa’s sister, into their home. Marty and Theresa agree to do so and on Sunday Catherine moves in, Thomas and Virginia accompanying her with her belongings. In this branch of Marty’s family there are two more sympathetic assholes – Catherine and Thomas – who present obstacles to Marty’s future happiness with Clara. 

Thomas, first of all, goes in a right huff with Virginia for, as he sees it, not even trying to get along with Catherine. He’s understandably – more’s the pity – upset having seen his mother crying for the first time. Though one can’t help but imagine how another cinematic Italian-American might advise Thomas in these circumstances. Thomas, though, makes his feelings all too clear when he advises Marty – who is still seeing the world in vivid colours after his Saturday night – to stay single and free. Little realising that by “single” he apparently means “married to his mother” and by “free” he means “beholden to his mother”. Again, infuriating; again, mitigated by the sheer humanity of it all. 

Catherine reminds me of Dicken’s Mrs. Gummidge, facing her last days as a “lorn, lonesome creature”. It’s a curse, she says, to be a widow (can’t argue with that). And it’s a curse to be a mother whose children have all flown the nest; her children, all happily married with children of their own, it’s sickening, the injustice! No one, it’s quite clear, would become a parent if it was more widely known that babies grow up. Not content to wallow in her own misery, Catherine takes it upon herself to plant doubt in Theresa’s mind: “it’ll happen to you”, she says. Like Mrs. Gummidge, and the other Martyites, it’s impossible not to feel for Catherine, for whom everything is suddenly going contrary. 

It is the flowering of those planted doubts that are most problematic for our hero, Marty. Wouldn’t you know, Theresa begins to see all the signs that Catherine said she would. Marty, out of nowhere, is happy, and it’s all the fault of that “college girl” – and, it is known, that “college girls are one step from the street”. So, Theresa, who herself had pushed Marty out of the door the previous night and assured him “you will get married”, begins, for the first time, to worry about what that means for her. This “college girl”, Clara, can hardly be recommended: she’s a “college girl” for a start, she’s not Italian, she’s not pretty, she even came back to Marty’s house the first night they met (the horror!). But, reader – you won’t believe this –, Theresa’s feelings are completely understandable and the overwhelming urge is to sit her down, give her a nice cup of coffee and remind her that she really would prefer her son to be happy. 

That is how things stand for Marty as the ending approaches. Will Marty pick up the phone? Or will he, contrary to his own advice to Clara, follow the “advice” of his friends and family? Things pan out as you’d expect – and I already indicated the type of ending above – but in film predictability is not proportional, inversely or otherwise, to effectiveness. In 2012’s Lincoln, for example, it was quite apparent that the 13th Amendment would be passed, but the deliberations and voting were still a nail-biting affair. So, it is with Marty: there was never a serious doubt in my mind that Marty was not going to pick up that phone. Instead I was thinking, Quo usque tandem abutere, Marty, patientia nostra? 

The abuse of the viewer’s patience, though, is amply rewarded. The ending when it comes is one of sheer triumph. Marty’s ending is not one one your cheekbones will thank you for, but your heart definitely will. It’s unrelentingly cheering, the movie ends but its effect lingers, it should suffice to insulate you from the normal vicissitudes of daily life – meeting an unsmiling cashier, you’ll think, they should watch Marty

Good grief, I’ve only written another review that’s nothing but gushing adoration. That’s what Marty does, it’s been four days since I watched it and it’s still working its charms, like background radiation or LSD. Though I watched Marty for the first time for this “Best Pictures” series, I’ve watched it three times now – since I said I’d cover it a few months ago and, though I did watch it, I did not write about it. It would be redundant at this stage to ask whether I think it “deserved” to win Best Picture, wouldn’t it? Yeah, it would. If you can’t parse the answer from what I’ve written so far, then you’d likely think “yes” was too ambiguous an answer, too. 

So, definitely, if you’ve not seen it, give Marty a chance. It’s one of those films: I understand, in theory, that some people will not like it, but I cannot imagine how that could be the case. It’s literally – literally literally – flawless. 

Thanks for reading! Next time I am going to cover – let’s see… oh! 2003’s Return of the King, because that will incentivise me to finally finish off the last few chapters of the book. Perfect! I hope you’ll come back for that! 

You can find the other “Best Pictures” I’ve covered here.