Saturday, January 05, 2008

What I Learned Over Christmas

With Nige laptopless behind the stable door, it is probably time I returned to this serious business of blogging. So here is a list of 10 things I learned over Christmas.
1)Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir is good, readable but over-rated. I think I know why.
2)Henry James's The Awkward Age cannot be read with pleasure after page 126.
3)The most perfectly satisfying joke in cinema is in A Night at the Opera. Harpo is lying asleep with a huge mallet in his right hand. The alarm clock rings. Harpo does not wake but smashes the clock with the mallet.
4)John Gapper of the FT is my new favourite journalist. Here he sinks into the Nespresso phenomenon. He has a blog called the Gapperblog. Lightness of touch has been unknown in business journalism since I left that racket more than 20 years ago.
5)Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake are the two worst actors Hollywood ever produced.
6)Barack Obama is terrifyingly smart, not least because of the way he hides it, and Hillary Clinton has all the charm of a broken speak your weight machine. If Mike Huckabee continues wearing a read sweater while playing a bass guitar we all lose.
7)Red wine is best drunk slowly in large quantities. Another Booze Cruise may soon be necessary.
8)I have not had the norovirus; if I had, I may well have finished The Awkward Age and, perhaps, embarked on Proust whose entire critical reputation is defined by the fact that he is almost always read by people when they are ill. Peter Ackroyd once assured me it was only necessary to read the first seventy pages. That I have done. They were very good.
9)Human beings are, to a rough approximation, all dreadful. Always smash the alarm. (Also in A Night at the Opera, Groucho says that Harpo has insomnia and is sleeping it off. I am that Harpo.)
10)Right wing American women are all blonde and all present Fox News.


  1. When the Londoner mentions Booze Cruise, when they really mean is a biggish trip to the offee, just frosts the ... of any beyond an arc with Tring at its apex. Even those in Oxford and Cambridge have that strange glitter in the eye on turning towards those words.

  2. Happy New Year, Bryan. And welcome back to the unreal world, the world of disembodied voices and half-formed thoughts. By the way, I didn't want to mention it at the time, but does Nige live in a stable?

  3. Welcome back BA. Did you also spend a night out with your favourite footballer, Joey Barton?

  4. Happy New year to you sir. There is still time to catch the norovirus should you wish as its out and about in the wild. I would avoid hospitals if I were you, and Hilary Clinton. I think she is looking very old don't you?

  5. I didn't think Nige lived in a stable but lately he has been stamping his foot when anybody asks him the time. Joey and I are as one on the matter of random violence in McDonalds. And, yes, happy new year to all.

  6. Tried Swann's Way once. Think I got to Page 50, so I'm 20 pages short. However, human beings aren't all dreadful. After all, where would be without them? Maybe you should have read A Christmas Carol rather than Henry James. Perhaps the ghost of elberry has entered you soul.

  7. I agree with you about Obama. From the moment he came on the scene, it was clear we were witnessing something very much out of the ordinary. I sincerely hope he can climb the mountain before him. He has brains and he has balls, but does he have the stomach?

  8. Ah yes, the novovirus. We are all drained and barely able to move here in the East. But hey, what a great way to kick off the New Year weight-loss programme. And I've been meaning to get a new sofa for ages. May you all remain unblighted.

  9. Happy New Year, Bry -- good to see you back and in fine fettle.

    People are dreadful, agree with you there. As I told Nige, get a dog instead. (I know you're allergic to cats, but dogs too?)

    Unemployment is another path to reading fat tomes. Moi, I've read both "War and Peace" (excellent Briggs translation) and "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" in the last couple of months -- plus a half dozen other, lesser books.

    Proust never did it for me, but a learned friend of mine has been reading the whole shebang in French these last weeks. His assessment: "Like wading through scented jelly." Well, don't think I'll be picking up "Swann's Way" again anytime soon on that recommendation!

  10. Are you sure they are not foxes and present bland news?

  11. Am i the only human being alive to enjoy Proust? There are many delights in my 13-volume set, not least of which is the great Baron de Charlus (think Withnail's wicked Uncle Monty crossed with Huysmans).

    Henry James i find indigestible apart from some short stories, Portrait of the Lady, The Ambassadors, & the Golden Bowl.

    Once you accept the awfulness of humanity things become easier. Bad people don't upset you and the very rare good people give delight by their mere existence.

    Obama...take it for granted politicians are wicked, but an intelligently wicked one will perhaps realise it's not in his (or anyone's) interests to do anything too disastrously evil.

  12. But James is wonderful. And I recommend The Awkward Age to anyone, have been so doing for years. For a turn of the century novel, it's unusual (more like a poem) for splitting itself into segments reflecting different views of different people in the book. It's as assured as the section of Ulysses that gives different paragraphs headlines as titles, and 20 years ahead.

    There's always a key to the insouciance that makes people give up on a writer at page 126 or whatever, what makes you acquire the taste or not.

    I'd offer James (to whom Geoffrey Hill dedicates one of his first poems in his first book) for being contemporary and well-read in the 19th century French writers. Hill complains in Speech! Speech! about cut price Fleurs du Mal everywhere, and Pound and Eliot (who have almost passed themselves off to history as contemporaries of Rimbaud etc) were in fact as belated newcomers as Jim Morrison, not contemporaries.

    James is the major English-speaking contemporary of the French trendsetters (more interesting to me and most than Proust). In The Awkward Age, by that period, James is starting to get brusque, use words like Hell and Damn, unusual for him, and to feature yellow-covered books - indicated those other Johnny-Come-Latelies and prissy prisms Wilde et al - in the plot as what the young ladies are now reading.

    The Awkward Age splits into books, each from a different perspective, just as James himself is trying to incorporate profanity, bitterness and a more explicit acknowledgement of the French shockers, to accept them but not let them dominate. Otherwise we get cut-price Fleurs du Mal; a wholesale remaking of English literature as if Victorian prose could just be discounted. Yet Victorian prose has in it the English language at its most European, most syntactical, most grammatical, most like a living language without rules and not bluffing "you know what I mean". It's the perfect medium for Rossetti to translate Dante's Vita Nuova, which otherwise can't find an English supple enough.

  13. I meant "with rules". Oops.

  14. Have you read The Dynastic Division of Henry James, Bryan?

  15. Love that 'wading through scented jelly', Susan. Wish I'd thought of that...

  16. By the way, Bryan, if you do get the Norovirus, you won't be doing much reading. Not unless you have the pages laminated anyway.

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  18. What I learned over christmas is that words conspire. I haven't the world's largest vocabulary but it's rare that I come across a word I don't know. I've lived in blissful ignorance for 46 years of this new one and it's deeply worrying that it cropped up in 3 consecutive books I read over christmas. Even more worrying, they were all second hand of different vintages and genres but all from the same shop. Copacetic. I don't think so.