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The Paris Review Vol. I

March 17, 2010 by  

The Paris Review was first issued in 1953 – as it happens, the year that I was born! I received the four-volume set for Christmas and these quotes are from Volume I.

Introduction by Philip Gourevitch: “the interview as a genre of literature unto itself is a distinctly modern phenomenon, a mode of expression that, to a large degree, came into its own during the second half of the twentieth century in the pages of a literary magazine of decidedly modest circulation called The Paris Review.

Dorothy Parker. Quotes: It’s easier to write about those you hate – just as it’s easier to criticize a bad play or a bad book… I was a woman of eleven when I first read it [Vanity Fair]… I know so little about the typewriter that once I bought a new one because I couldn’t change the ribbon on the one I had… (From Issue 13, 1956)

Truman Capote (claims to read about five books a week – the normal-length novel in about two hours!). Quotes:  When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium… I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence – especially if it occurs toward the end – or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all…

I seem to remember reading that Dickens, as he wrote, choked with laughter over his own humor and dripped tears all over the page when of his characters died. My own theory is that the writer should have considered his wit and dried his tears long, long before setting out to evoke similar reactions in a reader…

Hemingway once said anybody can write a novel in the first person. I know now exactly what he means…

Never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper. – (From Issue 16, 1957)

Ernest Hemingway. A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes… The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from four hundred and fifty, five hundred and seventy-five, four hundred and sixty-two, twelve hundred and fifty, back to five hundred and twelve, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so h won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.

Many times during the making of this interview he stressed that the craft of writing should not be tampered with by an excess of scrutiny… Hemingway finds it difficult to talk about writing – not because he has few ideas on the subject, but rather because he feels so strongly that such ideas should remain unexpressed, that to be asked questions on them “spooks” him (to use one of his favourite expressions) to the point where he is almost inarticulate… The occasional waspish tone of the answers is also part of this strong feeling that writing is a private, lonely occupation with no need for witnesses until the final work is done.

Hemingway quotes: the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that… Worry destroys the ability to write. Ill health is bad in the ratio that it produces worry that attacks your subconscious and destroys your reserves… it is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well…I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work…

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.

Saul Bellow. Mr Bellow was not interested in responding to criticisms of his work that he found trivial or stupid. He quoted the Jewish proverb that a fool can throw a stone into the water that ten wise men cannot recover.

Bellow quotes: all of us have a primitive prompter or commentator within, who from earliest times has been advising us, telling us what the real world is…

There is such a thing as overcapitalizing the A in artist. Certain writers and musicians understand this. Stravinsky says the composer should practice his trade exactly as a shoemaker does. Mozart and Haydn accepted commissions – wrote to order. In the nineteenth century, the artist loftily waited for inspiration. Once you elevate yourself to the rank of a cultural institution, you’re in for a lot of trouble…

Literalism, factualism, will smother the imagination altogether.

Jorge Luis Borges quotes: when a writer is young he feels somehow that what he is going to say is rather silly or obvious or commonplace, and then he tries to hide it under baroque ornament, under words taken from the seventeenth-century writers…Then as time goes on, one feels that one’s ideas, good or bad, should be plainly expressed, because if you have an idea you must try to get that idea or that feeling or that mood into the mind of the reader… I remember that Stevenson wrote that in a well-written page all the words should look the same way. If you write an uncouth word or an astonishing or an archaic word, then the rule is broken; and what is far more important, the attention of the reader is distracted by the word. One should be able to read smoothly in it even if you’re writing metaphysics or philosophy or whatever.

Kurt Vonnegut quotes: It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

Robert Stone quotes: It’s hard to come down from a high in your work – it’s one of the reasons writers drink. The exhilaration of your work turns into the daily depression of the aftermath. But if you heal that with a lot of Scotch you’re not fit for duty the next day… What you’re trying to do when you write is to crowd the reader out of his own space and occupy it with yours, in a good cause. You’re trying to take over his sensibility and deliver an experience that moves from mere information.

Jack Gilbert is asked: Many writers talk about how difficult it is to write. Is poetry hard work? Gilbert: They should try working in the steel mills in Pittsburgh.

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The Art of War

March 8, 2010 by  

‘The Art of War’ was written by Sun Tzu in China about 2,500 years ago. On Sunday (7th March) I was interviewed by the historian and broadcaster Julian Putkowski for the World Service of the BBC on the enduring nature of the advice given by Sun Tzu. I first read the book in Long Kesh in 1973, along with books like ‘The War of the Flea’ and Kitson’s ‘Low Intensity Operations’. Tzu exhorts one to make conflict unnecessary but that in conflict one should act rationally and not emotionally and should treat prisoners with kindness and respect. He also says: “those who celebrate victory are bloodthirsty and the bloodthirsty cannot have their way with the world.”

There are many lessons to be learnt from this little book. He speaks about not prolonging operations far afield and to always remember the weather! Clearly, Napoleon re Moscow and Hitler re Stalingrad forgot that important bit of advice.

You can see Sun Tzu’s influence in Machiavelli and Clausewitz, and there are even resonances in Shakespeare. Tzu says, “When the trees move the enemy is coming”: Macbeth was assured by the witches that he was invincible “Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane [Castle]”, which would never happen, but happens!

6th March. Finished Volume I of ‘The Paris Review Interviews’.

3rd March. Finished ‘The Resurrectionist’ by Jack O’Connell, not my usual fare but was given it as a Christmas present. Allegedly crime fiction but it was a fantasy and un-engaging yet the author is highly regarded. On the second last page the narrator speaks about Sweeney, the very dislikeable main character, thinking “about all the places where the story’s creator [of a story in a fantasy magazine] had gone wrong, fallen down on the job. It was as if the artist had come to hate his characters and his audience. And for Sweeney, this was a helpful exercise in learning how to craft his own tales.” It’s a pity – I thought – that O’Connell hadn’t thought about that himself before writing this very disappointing book.

16th February. Finished ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins who is less militant and less egregious than the pugilistic Christopher Hitchens; but, nevertheless, a thought-provoking book, less abrasive, less visceral than ‘God Is Not Great’.

15th February. Went to the Opera House to see ‘Haunted’ written by Edna O’Brien. Met up afterwards with Edna whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. Enjoyed the play, especially the second half which had more pace and drama.

12th February. Leslie and I went to see Winter in Wartime is a 2008 Dutch war film directed by Martin Koolhoven. The screenplay was written by Mieke de Jong, Paul Jan Nelissen and Martin Koolhoven and was based on the novel of the same name by Jan Terlouw.

The film was hugely successful in the Netherlands out-grossing competing films like Twilight and The Dark Knight. It was the highest grossing film in The Netherlands during Christmas 2008 and the first weeks of 2009.

It was also chosen by the Dutch Critics as the best Dutch film of 2008, it won the PZC Audience Award (best movie based on a novel), three Rembrandt Awards and three Golden Calf awards. It is the Dutch entry (Best Foreign Language Film) for the Academy Awards of 2010.

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The God Delusion

March 6, 2010 by  

The inspiration for this book, according to its author Richard Dawkins, was a two-part documentary he made for Channel 4 in Britain, Root of All Evil?in 2006. He aims to offend, to outrage, by his attacks on all faiths (and agnostics!) and how ridiculous he considers belief in a God. It is not just a delusion but ‘a pernicious delusion’. In Chapter 2, The God Hypothesis, he says:

‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’

And that’s just for starters! He says the New Testament is no better and cites the fundamentals of Christian belief as a variety of the following:

*In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved* The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life* The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days* Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky* If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act  upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world* If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death* The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but as ‘assumed’ bodily into heaven* Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man*

When put like that it is striking. Furthermore, Christianity was spread by the sword, ‘wielded first by Roman hands after the Emperor Constantine raised it from eccentric cult to official religion, then by the Crusaders, and later by the conquistadores and other European invaders and colonists, with missionary accompaniment.’

Thousands of people, he points out, have been ‘tortured for their loyalty to a religion, persecuted by zealots for what is in many cases a scarcely distinguishable alternative faith. Religion devours resources, sometimes on a massive scale…Devout people have died for their gods and killed for them; whipped blood from their backs, sworn themselves to a lifetime of celibacy or to lonely silence, all in the service of religion. What is it all for? What is the benefit of religion?’

He analyses what is known as Pascal’s Wager:

‘The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God’s existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.

‘There is something distinctly odd about the argument, however. Believing is not something you can decide to do as a matter of policy. At least, it is not something I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them. But none of that can make me actually believe it if I don’t. Pascal’s Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim t believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he’d see through the deception. The ludicrous idea that believing is something you can decide to do is deliciously mocked by Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, where we meet the robotic Electric Monk, a labour-saving device that you buy ‘to do your believing for you’. The de luxe model is advertised as ‘Capable of believing things they wouldn’t believe in Salt Lake City’.’

His chapters on cosmology are excellent but there are others where he descends into complex arguments on memes and I was completely lost.

This book is full of little nuggets, including this dismissal of fear of death from Mark Twain: ‘I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.’