13 July 2012

Dan Brown

I've started to read my first Dan Brown book, Angels and Demons, which I picked up for 50p at a charity shop. I intend to be an utter snob about it, and will try to highlight particularly egregious phrases. I understand this is like shooting a barrel in a barrel, but that won't stop me.

The opening sentence is well known, but irresistible:
Physicist Leonard Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

But PLV dies soon and we're in the world of Robert Langdon, with his strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. He's taken away to Geneva in a private jet that flies at Mach 15, making the trip in an hour. Is this possible? Apparently not, a quick Wikipedia search suggests. Brown likes to stress the factuality of the background of his stories, and it's strange he should go into obvious science fiction so soon.

Another thing I've read about Brown is that he likes to reveal as astonishing surprises quite mundane facts. Here's one - a dramatic chapter ending:
As their notoriety spread, these lethal men became known by a single word - Hassassin - literally 'the followers of hashish'. The name Hassassin became synonymous with death in almost every language on earth. The word was still used today, even in modern English ... but like the craft of killing, the word had evolved.
It was now pronounced assassin. (p 32)

Odd sentences.
He had always had a fond love of architecture. (p 35)

Langdon arrives in CERN and it's still more science fiction-like, with a touch of Bond villain fortress. But he takes the opportunity to learn that One square yard of drag will slow a falling body almost twenty percent and to tell us this will be useful knowledge later.

Page 53: Brown (or at least Langdon) appears to think Islamic is a language.

On the other hand, there's sometimes a lack of surprise. Langdon was certain Kohler [the head of CERN] would recognise the name [Galileo] (p51) and he's not at all surprised that Kohler had heard of [Freemasons] (p 56), where the possibility of doubt is the amazing thing. It doesn't stop Langdon going all expository about the subjects, though, giving a short history of Freemasonry to the unprotesting Kohler.

Now, here's a character who looks like fun. Vittoria, the daughter of the late Vetra is a bio entanglement physicist:
Recently she disproved one of Einstein's fundamental theories by using atomically synchronized cameras to observe a school of tuna fish.

I'd like to know more about that - which even Langdon boggles at - but I doubt if we will. She's not that bright though. As a child of eight she had to be told what adopt means - despite the fact she was an orphan, living in an orphanage.

* * *

OK, I've got to page 130 now, and the book's not entertaining me in any way. At this point the situation is that someone - possibly the Illuminati - has stolen a quantity of antimatter from CERN and has placed it somewhere in the Vatican. It's in a protective container, but in less than 24 hours the container's batteries will run down, the antimatter will react with real matter and kaboom!

Obviously, Langdon and Vittoria will run around Rome trying to find the antimatter, solving a few puzzles along the way, but I just don't care any more. I don't feel a trace of curiosity as to how he will use his new knowledge of the parachute effect. For all its reputation as a page-turner, the book's been very slow-moving so far, largely because of all the exposition that Brown packs in. I've also realised that the book was written in 2000, long before the LHC was operational, making it even more a work of science fiction. I like some science fiction. At its best it can offer interesting insights into contemporary life, even into large philosophical questions. Angels and Demons doesn't seem likely to do that. It's just a rather clumsy adventure thriller, set in a clunky vision of the near future. The SF elements are just a means to avoid having to face up to reality.

There are nearly 500 pages to go. I'll skip to the sex bit (p 619):

Langdon shook his head. 'No, and I seriously doubt I'm the kind of man who could ever have a religious experience.'
Vittoria slipped off her robe. 'You've never been to bed with a yoga master, have you?'


12 June 2012

Timon of Athens

The National Theatre is putting Timon of Athens on next month. I have thought about going but don't know the play so I read it. It's a curious work, kind of unfinished and unbalanced but you can see why the NT might be producing it at this time. Timon is a rich man in Athens, who has spent all his money on parties and helping out friends. When his debtors call in some debts, he finds he has nothing left. Worse, he finds none of his supposed friends is prepared to help him out.

So he goes mad, becomes a raving misanthropic wild man of the woods, and ultimately finances the rebellion against the Athenian government. In a week when we've seen a Nazi member of the Greek parliament physically attack a woman on a television programme, this is almost prophetic. All we need is a character called Imfio to complete the picture. But the end of the play ties all together again. Alcibiades, the rebel, shows mercy towards the subdued city, in contrast to Timon's scattergun malice. Like The Merchant of Venice, the play essentially suggests that extremes - either of generosity or of misanthropy - don't work. It's not a particularly complex finding.

 I've a feeling I won't be going to see the play. It's a play whose quality allows, in fact demands, a tendentious production and I don't think that's something I'm particularly interested in.

11 June 2012

The Merchant of Venice

I saw the film version (with Al Pacino as Shylock) of this on television recently. It seemed reasonably faithful rendering (in fact, too faithful to be a memorable film) and it reminded me it's a play I've barely thought about for many years. But what had struck me in the courtroom scene was the way it embodies some of the presumed conflict between early Christians and the Jewish establishment. In some ways it's an exposition of St Paul's thoughts on the attitude to The Law. In the play, Shylock adheres to a rigid interpretation of his bond, while Portia puts the case for mercy.

The other thing I wanted to check was the way the chant "Tell me, where is fancy bred?" is used. I can't remember where I saw the suggestion that this is a blatant bit of cheating. Bassanio has to choose between three sealed caskets, of gold, silver and lead. If he chooses correctly, he wins Portia's hand in marriage and all the fortune that goes with it. Portia clearly fancies him, and she's already seen that gold and silver are the wrong answers. And while Bassanio is pondering (Act III, scene 2) she sings:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
where the three lines all rhyme with "lead". Once this has been pointed out, it's so obvious, but it seems to go unnoticed quite often. For example, Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare is as always enlightening about many aspects of the play, but doesn't mention this. Is it just too obvious? Is it just me who finds it remarkable?

Whatever, it suggests that Portia is willing to bend rules to get the right outcome, which prepares us for the courtroom scene. Here she initially tries to persuade Shylock to be merciful, but when that fails she hoists him on his own petard, with a ridiculously to-the-letter interpretation of the bond: the famous pound of flesh must be exactly a pound, and must contain no blood.

And then, in her disguise as a lawyer who has been brought in as an independent expert by the Doge, she accepts a gift from Bassanio, one of the litigants. Which can't be right.

OK, it's clear we're not dealing with moral certainties. And so we come to Shylock, and things get even more difficult. In the courtroom scene, it's difficult not to feel intensely antagonistic towards him, but I think this antagonism is always based on his behaviour, not on the fact he's a Jew. Until this scene, his Jewishness has (to a modern audience, which is the only one there is these days) provoked sympathy for him. His hatred for Antonio arises from Antonio's prejudiced mistreatment of him - which nobody begins to deny. Similarly, it's clear that he's suffered from institutional racism of the state of Venice. He has legitimate causes for complaint, but as an individual - a Jew, not the Jew - his proposed remedy is disproportionate. By whatever means the play has to bring about restoration of appropriate responses. And yet it goes further. When Shylock refuses to risk enforcing the bond, with the inevitable punishment by death that would follow, he loses everything. There's no legal logic to this. His bond, however wrong-headed, was, as everyone accepts, perfectly legal. What law has he broken that all his goods should be forfeit? Finally he is punished for disrupting the assumptions of what reasonable behaviour is. The logic of the play means he must be punished. So, it is a comedy, after all. A largely happy ending reassures us that there can be sensible answers to terrible situations. But the world in this play is unsafe in the long run and non-conformity can be costly. The word "happy", after all, once meant "lucky". And the fate of the awful Gratiano, who ends the play with a bawdy pun, reminds us that unworthy people sometimes prosper.

01 June 2012

Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is a long poem (a long poem) about the life of a female poet in the nineteenth century whose life is divided between England and Italy. But it's not about EBB herself, really. You could see this approach as similar to Simon Amstell's Grandma's House except that no-one ever called EBB a post-modern ironist.

The poem's had an interesting critical history. It received a mixed reaction on publication, and after EBB's death 1861 it disappeared from view, unlike, say, her Sonnets from the Portuguese, which continued to be popular. In the 1970s feminist literary theorists repopularised it, and it was one of the first publications of The Women's Press (in 1978).

The introduction to this edition, by Kerry McSweeney, tends to see the poem as having survived the feminist attention, sees that as a stage in its critical rediscovery, rather than as the only, or best, way of reading. He comes close to suggesting that it can't be a feminist work because EBB was no feminist and "what is enunciated is not a feminist vision". The fact that feminists including George Eliot and Virginia Woolf enjoyed and praised the work suggests there is a feminist vision within it. And once again, we find that the text that is created when the poem is read is not the same as the text that was written.

For me, I found the earlier parts of the poem astonishingly feminist for their time. Aurora Leigh is fiercely independent and sets out to make her own way in life living off her poetry and rejecting marriage to her wealthy cousin, Romney. At the end of the poem they are reconciled, after he is blinded, and, reader, she marries him. The last two books (of nine) disappointed me: Aurora loses some of her independence of spirit and her christianity is more prominent. Earlier, it had seemed that she was in part dramatising the Church of England's reaction to the crisis of faith, showing how belief had become more philosophical than historical, but towards the end the belief becomes less considered, more axiomatic. There's also a regrettable triumphalism over Romney's renunciation of his progressive social aims. A feminist view could see this as an indictment of Aurora Leigh's society, which is seen to allow her to succeed only in the sphere of poetry and, ultimately, marriage.

The style of the poetry is sometimes difficult. Characters have improbably long and fluent speeches in blank verse and there's a lot of influence of German philosophy in the very language used. I'm thinking of terms like "artist-soul" and other compounds which read like calques. It's also obvious that EBB was incredibly well-read and fearsomely intelligent.

I don't think it's outlandish to suggest that the neglect of the poem for about 100 years was partly because of the feminism within it, which fans and critics alike recognised. EBB had stepped outside the proper sphere of the lady poetess, while the Sonnets, and her life story as an invalid love-object, gave the world a woman much easier to read, anthologise and admire.

14 February 2012

Translating Galdos (2)

Still on Fortunata and Jacinta. I'm such a slow reader these days, and it's a long book. But once again I'm struck by some quirks in the translation.

Often, Agnes Moncy Guillon will use footnotes. For example on p 287 she leaves the word señoritingo untranslated and italics and adds in a footnote "the suffix -ingo makes the word extremely contemptuous". I like this kind of footnote and I wish they were used more often.

But then I found this:
[Don Pedro was] a native of the northern Province of León ...He received shipments of the famous mantecadas, cookies from Astorga, a city in northern Spain. (p 288)
and, unsurprisingly, the geography lesson isn't in the original. One option for the translator would be to leave out the references: any reader who cares can look up León or Astorga to find out where they are. But it would mean that the north-Spain connections of Don Pedro might go missing for the reader. A small loss, but avoidable. So, why not footnotes again?

In a modern, Kindle-type, edition of course, the placenames could be hotlinked to their Wikipedia entries. I wonder, though, if that would be a good thing. I'm surprisingly undecided on the issue. Do we want all texts to be infinitely linked to everything else in that way?

11 January 2012

Fortunata and Jacinta

Hello again. It's been a while, hasn't it? I'm currently defying time and mortality by reading Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Perez Galdos, in a translation by Agnes Moncy Guillon (with occasional lookups to the Spanish Wikisource text). It's tremendously enjoyable so far, like Spanish Dickens with added sexual frankness and a believable, complex female character (possibly two - Fortunata hasn't really shown up yet).

The translation's not too irritating, either, despite being clearly American. It is annoying that place names are semi-translated, so we have for example Cuchilleros Street, rather than Calle Cuchilleros, which I'd have thought would be acceptable. There's a lot of gottens (although that's soon going to be standard UK English again). There's that funny way the Americans have of using himself as the reflexive pronoun for one. At one point Jacinta and Juan, her husband, are together:
For a while they stared at each other, each riveting his eyes on the other ... (p 72)

Here's the Spanish:
Uno y otro se estuvieron mirando breve rato, los ojos clavados en los ojos

Which reveals that the translation is not only a bit sexist, but terribly weak.

But here's the worst one. A character remembers hearing
the collectors going by, ladened with money (p 85f)

Ladened? I looked it up for examples, and found, among others, this:
It would be writer pragmatic to see it as a pursuit that pays a few century dollars a period, or swan it as a ladened reading job paid up to a few thousands if you are consenting to move it a small farther by working yearner hours on them.