Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Sponge and the Jellyfish

Back in my college days, during the grim summer I spent in Baltimore borrowing four or five Simenon novels a week from the downtown public library, I came up with the theory that this natural born novelist, who seemed to write as effortlessly as breathing in and breathing out, had created in Maigret a detective who solved crimes by means of intuitions strikingly similar to those of a fiction writer; by moving into a new environment, absorbing impressions, and coming up with a narrative.

This week I finally got around to a Maigret written in 1943, but first translated only in 1979, L’Inspecteur cadavre, which contains the following dead-on passage:

”…at that moment Maigret was living in a world of his own and not in the present at all, and he answered [Louis] half–heartedly without really knowing what the question was.

Many a time at the Police Judiciare, his colleagues had joked about his going off into one of these reveries, and he also knew that people used to talk about this habit of his behind his back.

At such moments, Maigret seemed to puff himself up out of all proportion and become slow-witted and stodgy, like someone blind and dumb who is unaware of what is going on around him. Indeed, if anyone not forewarned was to walk past or talk to Maigret when he was in one of these moods, he would more than likely take him for a fat idiot or a fat sleepyhead.

“So, you’re concentrating your thoughts?” said someone who prided himself on his psychological perception.
And Maigret had replied with comic sincerity:

“I never think.”

And it was almost true. For Maigret was not thinking now, as he stood in the damp, cold street. He was not following through an idea. One might say he was rather like a sponge.

It was Sergeant Lucas who had described him thus, and he had worked constantly with Maigret and knew him better than anyone.

“There comes a time in the course of an investigation,” Lucas had said, “when the patron suddenly swells up like a sponge. You’d think he was filling up.”

But filling up with what? At present, for instance, he was absorbing the fog and the darkness. The village round him was not just any old village. And he was not merely someone who had been cast into these surroundings by chance.

He was rather like God the Father. He knew this village like the back of his hand. It was as if he had always lived here, or better still, as if he had created the little town. He knew what went on inside all these small, low houses nestling in the darkness. He could see men and women turning in the moist warmth of their beds and he followed the thread of their dreams. A dim light in a window enabled him to see a mother, half-asleep, giving a bottle of warm milk to her infant. He felt the shooting pain of the sick woman in the corner and imagined the drowsy grocer’s wife waking up with a start.

He was in the café. Men holding grubby cards and totting up red and yellow counters were seated at the brown, polished tables.

He was in Genevieve’s bedroom…”

And with this Maigret is back in the main narrative, spinning out his mystery-solving account of what must have happened that night, the only thing that could possibly have happened.

There can't be much doubt that Simenon is writing about himself, here. I remember reading back in the day a magazine article about Simenon, I think in Life, that described his working methods: spending six or eight weeks at a stretch just wandering around Paris every day, soaking up impressions, swelling up, until it was time to rush home and write a novel in as little as two weeks. (I suppose a comparison with the process of gestation and birth would work also.)

When I finished Inspector Cadaver I decided to give Fred Vargas a squeeze, if only to test my assumption that France’s current bestselling rompol author could hardly help owing a thing or two to her legendary predecessor. The first few chapters have been enough to confirm this, although they also suggest a more au courant debt to some popular Scandinavian imports.

There are some significant differences, of course: The second in command to Vargas’ rumpled and absent-minded crime-stopper, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, also compares his patron to a deep sea invertebate, though not to a sponge, rather to “a primitive species of jellyfish, without feet or tentacles, top or bottom, a sort of transparent being, floating in the water…”

Remains to be seen how much deeper the similarities run.


"As a male movie critic with both conservative-libertarian convictions..."

Would any reviewer for a major American magazine be able to get away with the right-of-center equivalent of this recent opening ploy of David Edelstein's?

As a male movie critic with both liberal-humanist convictions and a hypersensitivity to injustices large and small...
The question answers itself.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Big B 4 Me

Generic finally offers the eagerly waiting world its presidential endorsement. In retrospect it seems so obvious!


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mamet sees the light...

Read it and weep. Via 2 Blowhards.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Buy The Boss

The online DVD retailer AnyTamil has begun offering the Rajnikanth record-breaker Sivaji - The Boss for sale. We assume this is a pre-order situtation, though they aren't saying so, because the title isn't yet listed on distrib Ayngaran International's own site.

Super Star: That's what you are.



Tuesday, March 4, 2008

No further comment(s)

Frequent (make that almost only) reader Tulkinghorn approves our new approach, and references Andrew Sullivan:

In an auto-pilot, populist web, old-fashioned editors are almost chic at this point.

An additional advantage, of course, is that this way one avoids making quite as open a spectacle of how pathetically thin ones readership has become. So much easier to pretend to rise above.

There is an argument adrift in the b-sphere to the effect that a blog that is edited is not a blog, and neither is a blog without comments. Comments and interactivity are part of the form, the argumment runs, of the new medium itself. The boy genius who is constructing UCLA's new web site references studies (Studies! Blech!) that purport to show that users become much more committed and loyal to blogs that are "open" rather than "closed," that "make them part of the conversation."

Blgrs such as Michelle Malkin, who got tired of wading through reams of racist invective, still often feel the need to explain or apologize when their comments sections go dark. I feel no more compunction about it than a shopkeeper painting over graffitti---which was just about the level of some of the comments I was getting.

Life's too short. Hassles abound. My new motto is "Jhoom, barabar, jhoom."


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Nicholson Baker...

...has published an essay about Wikipedia in The New York Review that seems weirdly naive for such a sophisticated writer. Baker may have been seduced by the way the randomly accumulating structure of the "people's encyclopedia" mimics the sniffling pack-rat sensibility of his own fiction.

Like a lot of people, I use Wikipedia because it is convenient, and I'm often impressed by how much arcane information can be found there, but the honeymoon ended for me several years ago when I realized that key passages in the entry on the wuxia genre had been lifted without attribution from my Premiere article about Crouching Tiger. Hidden Dragon. Notes to the administrators pointing this out went unanswered, and at the time I assumed that the Wiki-hipsters were rolling their eyes over what a square I was to imagine that in the digital age there was a such thing as intellectual property any longer. What a quaint, tight-assed pre-Post notion.

Baker, I imagine, would say instead that in aiming a note up to the top of the chain I simply wasn't playing by the Wiki-rules: only a clueless newbie would fail to understand that the onus was on me to wade in and correct or delete the offending passage; even, apparently, to make sure that it was properly ascribed---which was really all I wanted. On one level I was perversely flattered that someone considered my sketchy account of a 1,000-year-old action genre to be worth pilfering. But what's the underlying proinciple at work, here, that everything is fair game as long as no one complains? Quite apart from the inherent dangers of an encyclopedia that by its very nature boils everything down to consensus positions, this brand of post-Post anti-ethics is just too subtle for me.

Despite his subtlety in ethical matters I doubt Nicholson Baker would be happy if I were to copy out this unbroken-apple-peel of a sentence from his 1990 novel Room Temperature and (would that I could) claim it as my own:

I certainly believed, rocking my daughter on this Wednesday afternoon, that with a little concentration one's whole life could be reconstructed from any singe twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected; that is, that there was enough content in that single confined sequence of thoughts and events and the setting that gave rise to them to make connections that would proliferate backwards until potentially every item of autobiographical interest---every pet theory, minor observation, significant moment of shame or happiness---could be at least glancingly covered; but you had to expect that a version of the past arrived at this way would exhibit, like the unhealthily pale frog, certain telltale differences of emphasis from the past you would recount if you proceeded serially, beginning with "I was born on January 5, 1957," and letting each moment give birth naturally to the next.

Is it just me or does that "I was born" echo the opening line of every Victorian novel you've ever read? In fact, if I was going to steal this slice of Baker it might be as a lead in to a consideration of the shift that occurred in the novel when (was it with Proust or somebody even earlier?) the stream of time was abandoned in favor of the stream of consciousness as an organizing principle. I expected the book(s) I'm reading now, Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, to be classically point-A-to-point-B in their approach, but so far, barely 100 pages in, it seems instead to be the sort of work that selects a few key events in the life of its characters and then circles around them repeatedly, peering at them from several points of view, layering on more and more details. It's not even the stream of one consciousness but of several, a la Laurence Durrell, although the difference of tone could scarcely be greater. Scott's Anthony Powell-like sentences are even longer than Baker's.

UPDATE: You would think that after practicing for 32 years, by actual count, trying to learn how to write, I would be able to explain myself a little more clearly than this.

The point about Wikipedia hinges on the importance of recognition, of being acknowleged as the author of your own words, especially if you are more or less happy with them. At the time when this anonymous Wikipedia public servant confiscated my words for the good of the people and posted them as his/her own, the Premiere piece was the only mainstream synthesis that existed of academic and film festival sources on the subject of wuxia. Each time that material was read by a Wikipedia user who did not realize that I was its author, each time I was deprived of the possibility that said person would read those words and go, "Wow, this guy really knows his stuff," some measure of the value of my work was stolen from me. The apparent remedy of deleting the passage or adding the missing attribution after the fact is only apparent, because it could not reverse the effect of that original failure of recognition. Is that legalistic enough?

I would suggest further that it shouldn't take a shrink to figure out why this particular issue gets this particular writer, tipping the cup upright to savor the last dregs of his career, so exercised---an attitude I intend to stick to, in spite of the fact that it's taken me this long to figure it out for myself, or to figure myself out, or something. Isn't it amazing what 32 years of playing chopsticks can accomplish?