Thursday 22 March 2018

W.G. Sebald, 'Austerlitz'

I picked up The Rings of Saturn more than 10 years ago, having never heard of Sebald, and now I come to this. A work of genius. A meditation on memory, and especially as it concerns the German people. A tale of great sadness, and of great beauty. Also, as another reviewer put it, the kind of thing you might read at 3 am in a foreign city, jet-lagged, and not be sure the next day what you had read. The narrator is called Jacques Austerlitz, and his parents, from whom he was separated at the age of four and sent to the UK on the Kindertransport, are .part of the memory he seeks to open up. Everything is imbued with detachment, and actual or imminent loss. A woman he clearly loves seems to become unclear at the edges, after a while, and disappear like ripples in a pool. There are themes: of railway stations (Austerlitz is of course the name of one of the great railway stations of Paris, and is named thus for the same reasons as Waterloo in London was named), of moths, of walled spaces, and of narration.  Most of the story is told in the form of narration, and is heavily punctuated with "said Austerlitz", as if trying to secure a story by emphasising the quoted nature of the speech.

I can't read German. The translation is by Anthea Bell, and is of luminous clarity. I was sad to learn quite recently that we will hear no more from Anthea Bell, who is still alive, because dementia has removed her from her work. We are all the losers for that. Did you know that it was she who translated Asterix into English? Asterix is much funnier in English than in French.

Sebald died in a car crash. What a pity the body of work he left is not larger. I don't say this about many books, but I was sorry Austerlitz was not longer ,and I wish Sebald had been able to write more.


Sunday 18 March 2018

Steven Pinker, 'The Language Instinct'

My Goodreads review:

Comrades, this book made me a Chomskyite. No, no, no, not politically, OBVS, but linguistically. I read Chomsky many years ago, and wasn't quite convinced, somewhat under the influence of eg George Steiner.

New readers start here: Chomsky said, essentially, that language was innate, and had what he called a deep structure, common to all human languages. Children have a universal grammar, which is hardwired into their brains before birth, so they do not learn language from others but develop it themselves. This is why children who have just started talking say things like "I goed" instead of "I went" - words they have never heard, but have extrapolated from their pre-verbal grammar. My daughter, aged two, when urged "Quickly!", often replied "I am quickling". Anyway, I wasn't totally convinced, back then, and was in any case prejudiced against Chomsky because, like too many USian academics, he is a monoglot - but Pinker has done it now. It's certainly clear that children are not language tabulae rasae.

Along the way, Pinker points out the Great Eskimo Language Hoax (that there are many words for snow) - in fact the languages of that region typically have fewer words for snow than English does - which hoax is still widely believed; largely I think because people want it to be true.

Pinker is also educational and clear. He tells us straight, for instance, that a creole is the language that results when children make a pidgin their native language. All languages are created by children, and they do it by creating a grammar for the words they use. This would invalidate Orwell's Newspeak, as children would creolise it within a generation.

Thoughts are not words, Pinker informs us. If they were, how could more than one thought be expressed by a single word? Or vice versa?

This book treats of cognitive psychology, and is often complex. I confess to reading the complex accounts of experiments and studies in speech and thought quite quickly, not stopping to study and consider them as I would have to do if I were reading this book in an academic setting.

Pinker points out that what he calls "language mavens", but which he means prescriptive pedants (people who write to newspapers saying that a preposition is something with which a sentence should never be ended) choose their examples of abominable English from sources like welfare applications, insurance claims, and student papers; in all of these the writers are trying to convince, and to make a good impression, and are only rarely using language that is natural to them. And yes, I know how long that sentence just was.

This is not a crowd-pleaser, or a particularly easy read. Pinker's own passions do show through, at times entertainingly: he hates relativism, he says "more than I hate anything, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats", and it is a quirkily amusing read in many places without ever being arch or droll.

This is a book for anyone interested in language - and we all, in our own ways, are.">View all my reviews

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Phantom Thread

Allegedly based on the fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga, this is the story of a fashion designer in 1950s London (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he says is his last film), his sister and business partner, the splendidly named Cyril (Lesley Manville) the woman who comes into his life and disrupts it (no spoilers here) (Vicky Krieps), and the ghost of his mother. Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, There Will Be Blood is one of the greatest films ever made, and this is pretty damn brilliant too. London doesn't look like it did in the 1950s, I am very glad to say (I can just about remember what it did look like), so they are reduced to repeatedly showing a single Georgian terrace, probably empty now and probably owned by a Russian oligarch. There's a lot of rather annoying sub-West Wing walking in through doors. There's a lot of breakfast going on. I like films with breakfast in them. A lot of people walk up staircases a lot. There's a rather creepy soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood, who is apparently a former member of a popular beat combo called Radiohead. Oh and did I mention, all the characters are MONSTERS. With the probable exception of two of the seamstresses. Actually, I thought all those monstrous fashion designer chappies were gayers, but seemingly not. More than this I cannot say without spoilers. Go and see it immediately.

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Jane Is The One: Seven people or things that changed my life (3) Sandra Tooman

Jane Is The One: Seven people or things that changed my life (3) Sandra Tooman

woman for the West

Reading West will need to select a Labour candidate soon. It will have to be a woman, to the chagrin of the Central Committee. In recent years there have been apparently good and able female Labour parliamentary candidates in that constituency, but they have naturally been respectively undermined, briefed against and outflanked. So it goes. And the Reading West constituency retains a Member in the Conservative interest. Now the minds of the Central Committee core have been focused by the disastrous (to them) election of a Labour MP in Reading East, despite their best efforts. Something Must Be Done, they cry. Fear not. Step forward Cllr Sarah Hacker, erstwhile Mayor of the Borough of Reading, whose dad bought her a council seat for her birthday. Oh yes. She has thrown her hat into this particular ring, she tells us, and in these words: she has been considering this move for "a few of years" (Google Translate from Albanian, or Howarth speak?) and wants to "deliver on our city's potential as well as representing the town" - make your mind up girl, is Reading a town or a city? There's more! She continues "Being Mayor means I have an expansive network" - wtf does that mean? Something to do with exercise bands for the Zumba classes she keeps going on about? They aren't doing her much good, by the look of her. If I were her I'd ask for my money back. Where was I? Ah yes. This network is so "expansive", she says, it has "given me the chance to improves". Oh yesss. What has it got in its pocketses? It has gots lovely Reading Borough Council cashes, yess, it has. She wants to be "the first woman to represent Reading West in Parliament". Maybe she does. There is at least one Reading Labour woman other than this creature who is (a) possessed of an intellect and political nous (b) not corrupt (c) has some idea of what the world is all about. So there is still hope for Labour in Reading West.

Sue me.

Thursday 4 January 2018

Maggie O'Farrell, 'I Am, I Am, I Am'

This is an account of Maggie O’Farrell’s 17 brushes with death, her own and those of her children.  Some of them would be seen that way by anyone – her own serious illness as a child, her own child’s severe anaphylactic shock – and some brought her close to death perhaps only in her own mind – a frightening encounter with a man who might have murdered someone else, being caught in a riptide, her mother almost, but not, slamming a car boot on her head – but all of them caused her to meditate on the closeness of death, mainly without fear. She suggests that once you have confronted the immediate possibility of dying, which she did aged eight when she contracted encephalitis, there is never again any cause to fear death. I think this is right. I had my own encounter with the Grim Reaper much later in life, in the form of an ectopic pregnancy when I was 38. Undiagnosed it would have killed me within hours (thank you my GP at the time, Dr Asghar), and in the two or three hours from first symptoms to emergency surgery I knew perfectly well what I was facing. There was no fear, and there has been none since, including when I was suspected of having oesophageal cancer two years ago (I haven’t).

She writes it interestingly, setting the scene for each encounter and then veering to another time and place in her life, and then back to the history that led to the encounter itself. In the process she tells what seems to be the whole of her life. I liked the way she describes the men in her life, briefly and obliquely, but tellingly and vividly. There is a lot of love in these stories.

Maybe this work will set a new trend, for an episodic picture of a life, on a theme, rather than straight autobiography.

I hope so.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

Maggie O'Farrell, 'This Must Be The Place': a gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover

This is an accomplished work, and is the story of a man, Daniel Sullivan, a New Yorker who is a linguistics professor living in the wilds of Ireland, and his relationship, mainly, with his second wife Claudette. There is a shifting cast of other characters, and notably of children and adolescents. It is stupendously atmospheric in places, although a bit annoying as it jumps around in time and place, and, particularly if you put it down for a day or so, you have to remind yourself what time and place you are currently in. Two of the female characters, Teresa and Rosalind, are under-used, so that I wondered why they were even there. Some are dismissed too glibly "Maeve always did as she was told", and the second wife, reclusive ex-actor Claudette, becomes more and more perfect as the story goes on, so that I wanted to mess up her perfect face, or for her to actually do something WRONG for once. Also, the total recluse business - Claudette lives in a remote place and no one knows where she is; she also has a demonic Max von Sydow-like Swedish ex-lover who is her nemesis - would never have worked. Those people always have People, who Know Their Secrets. A tour de force, this, but I'm not sure I actually liked it all that much. And there are gaps in the story, but I can't even be bothered to go through it and identify them. I can though forgive a writer a lot if they quote, and use as a conceit, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover".