Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro is coming to Seattle at the end of this month, and I’m looking forward to going to see him. I got talking about him with a friend and fellow writer, and in a burst of enthusiasm went out and bought both When We Were Orphans and the new novel, The Buried Giant. (Spoiler alert: the article I’ve linked to gives away a bit of the plot, which is unfortunate, but it also has some comments from Ishiguro on the style issues I talk about here. If you want his comments without the spoilers, skip down to the last four paragraphs of the interview.)

After I finished The Buried Giant all I could say was, what a strange guy he is. And I knew, if I had the chance to ask a question when I see him, I’d say this: “You’re a master of style, of voice, of tone. What was it about the narrative voice in The Buried Giant that drew you?”

Here’s my guess at an answer. (It doesn’t jibe completely with what Ishiguro has to say in the Star article I’ve linked to above, but it’s not completely off, either.)

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Fantasy as constraint

I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an entertaining fantasy set in early nineteenth-century England, and enjoying how the book thinks about magic, in two different ways. First, simply the variety of the magical inventions; second, the way it integrates the essentially unbelievable aspects of the story—the magic—into what otherwise presents itself as a realistic situation, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes about the magical texts and personalities. It’s historical fiction, with recognizable figures (e.g. the Duke of Wellington, King George) and situations (the war with France), but it blends these conventions with a matter-of-fact presumption of the existence of magic, so that the characters going about their daily lives in London or at war in Spain take it for granted that magic and magicians are real. The book pulls this off quite well, and part of the pleasure of reading is the amusement in recognizing how it renders such implausible material as if it were completely ordinary.

It struck me this morning, as I was chuckling over it again, that in effect what I’m admiring is how the book sets itself a certain arbitrary constraint—presume the existence of magic—and then finds ways to accommodate that constraint while telling a persuasive story. Continue reading

Etymology of Plasma

“Some people,” Miss R said, “run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.”

–Donald Barthelme, “The Indian Uprising.”

Case in point: The word “plasma.” According to the OED, its meaning in classical Latin was an “affected modulation of the voice.” In post-classical Latin it also meant “creature” and “poetic fiction.”

In English, originally, it meant a pot. Or “anything shaped or molded.” Later, long before it came to be associated with blood or the breath of the sun, it also meant in English “a green variety of chalcedony,  valued as a semi-precious stone, and formerly used for carving into intaglios.” In this sense it was short for plasma emerald.

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Blue Spruce

Lying in the hammock on the front porch, looking at the branches of the blue spruce, their craggy shapes against the night sky. They make the shapes whether anyone is there to look at them or not, yet we can only see them with all our preconceptions. Our aesthetic responses, our craving for form, the tension between what is and what we long for, the twanging that the shapes provoke inside us.

Looking at them, thinking about them, I think of the millions of years before human beings existed. Whole continents came and went, rivers cut their way through rock, made canyons, oxbows, alluvial plains, little banks where grasses sheltered crayfish. . . The trees stood up and splayed their branches on the sky. The shapes were there. And then they died, fell into earth, the earth swallowed itself and bent to new shapes we never knew.

There are some ideas here.

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Re-reading To the Lighthouse

Around Christmas and the New Year, everyone in my house got that nasty flu that had been going around. When I recovered, I found I’d slipped into a moderately deep depression. This also had to do with the slow progress on my writing and the perennial doubts that accompany that work, exacerbated by fatigue and lowered defenses from being sick.

Then, for reasons I do not understand, my unconscious lobbed the opening line of To the Lighthouse at me: “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow.” (The full line is “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay.” ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added.”)

I have no idea why this bobbed to the surface just when it did. It had been years since I’d read the book—probably thirty or more, though I might be forgetting something. But Virginia Woolf, and especially The Waves, have been a touchstone for me ever since I first read her in my early twenties. I suppose my unconscious mind, to rescue me from the despair I was feeling, came up with something that has given me immense joy and said, in a weirdly compelling way, “You should read this!”

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Port of Seattle Shell Lease

I’ve decided to make a couple changes to the blog, starting today.

First, I’m going to include posts on political topics, especially having to do with climate change.

Second, I’m going to include more short, personal, spontaneous posts about what I happen to be reading at the moment.

In keeping with the first change, here’s what I wrote to the Port of Seattle Commissioners after attending the hearing on the lease to Foss Maritime, which will sublease to Shell for its Arctic drilling operation.

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Mervyn Peake on drones

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I re-visited Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which I had not read since high school. It’s a funny book—both humorous and peculiar. My Ballantine paperback edition from the 70s classes it as “Adult Fantasy,” and I distinctly remember finding it in the fantasy section of the Paperback Booksmith at the New London (CT) Mall, where I spent lots of time as a teenager (the fantasy section, not the mall). The audio version that I listened to recently was classed either as “Science Fiction” or “Science Fiction/Fantasy.” And yet, the book has none of the conventional fantasy elements—no magic, no mythical creatures, no epic battles, none of that stuff. It has an enormous castle, and a host of highly unusual characters, if not caricatures, and an extremely high-flown style. It also has almost none of the conventional science fiction elements—none at all in the first two volumes, and hardly any in the third. The first two books (Titus Groan and Gormenghast) take place entirely within the castle and its immediate environs, which seem to be a world to themselves. With one or two exceptions, like the sunglasses worn by one of the characters, the time could be any time in the past several hundred years. In the third book, Titus Alone, the protagonist ventures beyond the castle to a world that more nearly resembles the world of the author—mid-century Britain—though with a couple of futuristic touches.

The most notable of those is his prescient description, and critique, of drones. Continue reading

Objectivism, Williams, and counterpoint

This from a while back, when I was doing some reading in prosody inspired by Charles Hartman’s Free Verse.

Dipping into an earlier chapter of Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (while reading Jeffers’s Cawdor, which Gross analyzes, which led me to think of Paterson, which got me trying to remember what Gross had said about Williams). Gross takes issue with Williams’s objectivism. (By the way: I say Gross, although my edition is Gross & McDowell, because I’m assuming the substance of the argument is to be found in the earlier edition, which he wrote alone.) He begins by quoting the following from Williams’s autobiography: Continue reading

Another fine poem by Charles Hartman

Here’s another fine poem by Charles Hartman, from his 1995 collection Glass Enclosure.

Against the Log, the Seed

Against the log, the seed.
Against the public statue, rain
and running fame. Against the deed
the clouds of pain.

Against the hunkered will,
the traffic’s frantic pantomime;
however still we sit, we’re still
hurtling through time.

The painting of a spray
of pansies moves as much as they;
so that we see the color stay,
light storms away.

This poem grabbed me when I first read it, so much so that I had to keep re-reading and thinking about it: enjoying what I liked, puzzling over what I didn’t fully understand (often the same as what I liked), analyzing technical qualities I only intuited at first, going over it again for the sheer pleasure of it all. What follows is my attempt to spell out in writing what I found so compelling about it. The nice thing is that, even after all the analysis, the poem retains its ability to please and surprise and invite reflection. Continue reading