Saturday, October 3, 2015

What's Up?

What's Up round here you ask? Not much. Books and movies and gin and tonics. Usual stuff. I'm going through a 'let's reread Dicken' phase. Just finishing up on Great Expectations. Before that was Dombey and Son. Before that was David Copperfield. The first half of David Copperfield is up there with the best stuff Dickens ever did. Great Expectations doesn't hold up as well as I thought it would. Dickens doesn't do well with novels that are too focused. He needs room to digress and wander. Great Expectations reminds me a bit of Tale of Two Cities; both focus intently on small handful of narratives.  Their cast of characters stays small (for Dickens).  I think they suffer as a result.  His greatest books, to me: Bleak House, Pickwick Papers, Our Mutual Friend. All the rest tend to have at least one or two great characters--Captain Cuttle alone makes Dombey and Son worth reading--but can't maintain consistent greatness throughout.

Just saw Boyhood, which I found really excellent.  My brother and one of his friends told me it was overrated.  I didn't think so--I thought it was properly rated.  I've been thinking of it ever since I saw it.  Especially the last half, as Mason hits high school--a moving and often profound work, I thought.

Anything else?  I read a bunch of other stuff.  Ronald Firbank, Wolf Hall (fantastic), Trollope's Palliser series, some other odds and ends.

We're going to Spain and France in two weeks, so I'll try to write some entries while there.  


JMW said...

I found Boyhood pretty overrated, and I'm a Linklater fan.

Anyway, you should definitely blog during your trip. You won't, but you should.

ANCIANT said...

I will blog from Europe, for sure. Not sure if I'll post in real time, or wait till I get back.

I watched Boyhood in two separate sessions, which may have helped? I think all of it at the same time might have been a lot.

Cartooniste said...

I am not a Linklater fan.

I am also not a Hilary Mantel fan. My feeling is, don't kings and powerful people get enough attention? From real historians? If historical fiction is free to imagine lives that don't leave records of themselves, isn't that more interesting?

@#$@#$ kings. Ladies in corsets. Political maneuvering. Give me a good story about a cordwainer who's trying to make ends meet with a haranguing mother-in-law and serious gambling debt.


ANCIANT said...

Well I'll disagree with you on both counts, Cartooniste. Linklater is great; one of the country's best, I would submit. Have you seen Bernie? One of his lesser-known movies, but well worth your time. Set in East Texas "behind the pine curtain" and based on a true story, it's a movie any Texan will love. Noteworthy for featuring a number of actual East Texas citizens (only about half the people in it are actors) who are worth the price of admission right there. And Dazed and Confused!? How can one not like Dazed and Confused?

I've nothing against cordwainers, per se, but I'm not sure their lives necessarily offer themselves as the ripest of material, for historical fiction. I guess it depends on the life in question. But I'd submit that refusing to read a book b/c it's about kings and queens because one doesn't like aristocrats is just as bigoted, in its way, as refusing to read a book about cordwainers because one doesn't like peasants. Although I acknowledge that that's not exactly what you said.

Put it another way…imagining the life of someone anonymous, who's left behind no record, seems in its way much easier than imagining the life of a figure like Thomas Cromwell (Mantel's hero). The more real events with which a person's been involved the more a writer is limited by what they have to explain and account for. Writing about Henry VIII forces one to pass the narrative through all the many hoops, as it were, that we know his life in fact passed through. Now, that challenge might not be one that excites you--it's not really one that excites me, if I'm honest--but I still think it's a challenge. Perhaps a parallel can be drawn between the difficult in writing in meter vs the difficult in writing free verse? But perhaps not.

Anyway, what stands out about Mantel is her incredibly dexterity with prose. And, too, her evocative powers. Reading Wolf Hall, I feel, however fallaciously, that she has somehow gotten it right. That this, really, is what that time and era and felt like. It's vibrant and exciting. In fact, it's the first work I've ever encountered that's actually made me interested in Henry VIII-a figure I've always found kind of uninteresting.

And about whom, I would definitely agree, there have been far too many fictions written.

Saxo Philologus said...

I despise cordwainers on principle and would never read historical fiction about them. I heard a pretty riveting interview with Hillary Mantel on Fresh Air. She does an astounding amount of research (a la Cartooniste), so I think your assumption that she's getting it right, ANCIANT, is not at all fallacious.

In re the problem of knowing anything about commoners in the distant past, I remember a conference in graduate school attended by all the early medieval history bigshots. At one point a panel devolved into a rumination on the fact that the only people we know anything about were aristocrats. 'I hate them all,' protested the speaker, but alas, they were the only people the evidence told us about.

The first half of Boyhood seemed melodramatic to me; then it merely became uninteresting. It seemed to me like a good idea that didn't really pan out.

Cartooniste said...

I know Mantel does an astounding amount of research. I talked with a history prof who specialized in that era and said "Did she get it right?" and the prof said "Yeah, pretty much." So, great. And I managed to read fully half of Wolf Hall before I forgot that I was supposed to be reading it and instead put it aside to reread The Children's Book, by A. S. Byatt, which lost the Booker to Wolf Hall in 2009 and which is an infinitely more lush, nuanced, involving novel. I'm all for constraint in historical fiction - I'm running into this with my current project, in which there's so much craziness in the primary sources that I'm having trouble seeing a good path for the imaginary stuff that I want to add. What it really comes down to, is that I don't care about Thomas Cromwell. And I found her prose wooden and uninvolving. I felt nothing for Cromwell. I wasn't worried about him, or invested in him. I wasn't persuaded.

Same with Linklater, come to think of it. Dazed and Confused is a simulacra of an involving movie. It might as well have subtitles that read "You're supposed to be feeling nostalgic right now." But there's a difference between being told how I'm supposed to feel, and forgetting myself and starting to cry. Neither Mantel nor Linklater can permit that forgetting, because they're too invested in their own style.

ANCIANT said...

I think Dazed and Confused is one of the best (American) movies of the last thirty years. Every time I watch I still enjoy it--there are precious few movies I can say that about.

I did not read the Children's Book because I couldn't make it through Possession. But I agree that Cromwell is not necessarily an involving character. I can't imagine how you can find her prose wooden, though. I find it incredibly evocative. Her ability to conjure a strong sense of mood, of foreboding, of double-dealing in the shadows and gathering menace, I find extraordinary.

Having style is not the same as being invested in it. I think Linklater especially aspires towards a sort of stylelessness which is at odds with how you describe him. I think of Kubrick as a director too invested in his own style--he's someone who always leaves me cold. It's all virtuosity and nothing else. But Linklater? No way.