The Oxonian Review http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp Fri, 05 Feb 2016 11:26:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Wrap Up the Week: Solitary Reporting, Food Wastage, The Language Barrier, Infinite Jest, and Bibliophilic Trivia http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wrap-up-the-week-solitary-reporting-food-wastage-the-language-barrier-infinite-jest-and-bibliophilic-trivia/ Fri, 05 Feb 2016 11:26:43 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28003 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Jennifer Gonnerman, James Ridgeway’s Solitary Reporting, The New Yorker. President Obama recently announced his plan to reduce solitary confinement in federal prisons, banning it for all juveniles and for adult prisoners who commit only minor crimes. The inhumaneness of this form of punishment was brought to public attention by the efforts of those like James Ridgeway. Jennifer Gonnerman reports on how Ridgeway, a veteran investigative journalist, set up a scheme in 2010 whereby he encouraged those held in solitary confinement to write to him. Ridgeway has not only provided solace to many desperately lonely prisoners through his personal replies to their letters but, by collecting and publishing their stories, he has also helped catalyse much-needed reform.

2. James MacDonald, We’re Wasting as Much as Half the Food We Produce, Jstor Daily. James MacDonald points to the criminal amount of food that is wasted every year in the world. Substandard transportation, food processing techniques and storage facilities mean that up to half of the food grown is lost before it reaches the consumer. Food wastage is an often overlooked but key contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst some creative start-ups are beginning to tackle the problem, it has never been clearer that its enormity mandates international political action and cooperation.

3. Alec Ross, The Language Barrier is About to Fall, The Wall Street Journal. Within the next decade, Alec Ross predicts, the language barrier will be altogether toppled by advances in universal machine translation technology and bioacoustic engineering. In comparison, Siri and the Google Translate we know will seem like relics from a medieval bygone. Hopefully the fall will not take down with it the myriad pleasures – and oddly pleasurable pains – of learning a foreign language.

4. Tom Bissell, Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20, The New York Times. Bissell offers a homage to David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, as it enters its roaring twenties, and at least twenty reasons to plumb (or re-plumb) its infinite depths.

5. Sarah Lyall, The Tiny London Shop Behind Some of the Very Best Libraries, T Magazine. An end-of-week piece of trivia (and perhaps a weekend trip idea) to treat our bibliophiles!

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A Knife in the Dark http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/a-knife-in-the-dark/ Mon, 01 Feb 2016 09:00:51 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27985 D. J. O’Neill

Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film

Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film
Edited by Wickham Clayton
Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015
254pp
ISBN 978-1137496461
£60 (Hardcover)

 

 

 

 

An elevator filled with blood. A monster beneath the mattress. Knives glinting under moonlight. All are images that conjure memories of watching horror films late into a Friday night and of the feelings they evoke: uncanny insecurity, dreadful delight, and the thirst for sensational titillation. It is this sense of cinephilia that unabashedly shines through in Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film .

The collection of essays Wickham Clayton has collated in Style and Form cuts its way into a dense forest of scholarly material on the slasher film to state an absorbing and fresh argument. Intriguingly, it challenges much of that very material’s approach to film analysis: a broad approach that primarily overlooks the importance of form in, and of, Hollywood slashers. It is a book that will thrill ready-made horror film fans and spark the curiosity of those yet to discover the genre. It does more than merely self-consciously situate itself as a contemporary contribution to a colourful academic field that stretches back to the 1980s. Indeed, Clayton’s collection fills a hole – a wound – in the field left to fester by supercilious scholars who ridicule or dismiss that popular Hollywood horror subgenre: the slasher film.

What, then, is the style and form of Clayton’s Style and Form? It is witty, lucid, passionate, engaging and convincing. It is a collection of essays, arranged by Clayton to logically guide readers through the (surprisingly long) history of the slasher and its garnered academic probing. Most refreshingly, Clayton and the book’s contributors are not afraid to show themselves as cinephiles. Academics can sometimes distance themselves from the films they analyse to maintain both power over the text and credibility in their interpretations. Clayton, however, establishes and emphasises his love of cinema, in particular his intimacy with the slasher film, and then introspectively seeks to disclose why he succumbs to its sensations. This is aptly captured in the (self-)referential title of his essay in the book’s second chapter, “Undermining the Moneygrubbers, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Friday the 13th Part V.” This makes for an engaging and personable read: Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film is the friend who tries to convince you of a film’s value one night at the pub, put more elegantly and with less spillages.

Unlike the majority of texts on the slasher film, Style and Form takes a formalist approach to reading the films it examines. This means its contributors are concerned only with the formal elements found within texts and disregard outside influences: it is the purest of analytical approaches to film. In the book’s introduction, Clayton declares that Leon Trotsky would have reversed his unenthusiastic feelings towards formalism if only he had seen Friday the 13th Part V. It is a bold but playful claim that establishes the book’s primary concerns and also reflects the stylistically subversive capabilities of the successful Hollywood slasher film. The book’s thesis, then, is plain: Hollywood slashers can be studied using formalism and need not oppose – as their recent absence in the field suggests – the theory, interpretation, or non-Hollywood auteur slashers that seem to have thus-far dominated academics’ concerns in the field.

Style and Form’s argument is persuasive. It draws on a plethora of challenging examples to support its thesis and, even as a densely referential text, is easy to navigate. Halloween (1981; dir John Carpenter), When a Stranger Calls (1979; dir Fred Walton), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984; dir Wes Craven) are just a few texts from an enormous filmography referenced in this genre-enriching excavation into a derided cinema. Indeed, the book’s achievements lie in its capacity to cogently cover a great expanse of subjects. Divided into three parts, each of which chronologically focuses on a different period in the evolution of the Hollywood slasher film, Style and Form guides readers through an impressive array of articles without ever feeling overreaching or breathless. And yet, the book’s strengths as a coherent work are also its biggest weaknesses: there is no obvious internal conflict. It is often stimulating to read direct disagreements among books’ contributors, so it is disappointing to see such unity between Style and Form’s covers.

Nonetheless, Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film is ambitious in its aims of analysing stylistic and narrative construction in the Hollywood slasher subgenre, largely overlooked by academics since the 1980s. Clayton’s book is fresh and accessible. It engages in the near one-hundred-year-old debate about formalism’s value to film theory by using a formalist approach to analyse films that seldom garner such reading. It expresses a desire to convince us of these films’ value – films its contributors admire and argue have been unfairly treated – and to analyse oft-forgotten films in new ways that reveal their achievements. It is, above all, characteristic of the cinephiliac culture through which the slasher film has survived.

D. J. O’Neill is currently reading Film Aesthetics (M.St.) at St. Anne’s College, Oxford.

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A Very Educated Thrill http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/a-very-educated-thrill/ Mon, 01 Feb 2016 00:01:59 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27873 Kanta Dihal

thrilling adventuresThe Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer
Sydney Padua
Particular Books, 2015
320 pages
ISBN: 9780307908278
£16.99

 

 

 

 

 

She became a champion of women in computing without ever having seen a computer. He has been considered the father of the computer a century before the first computer was switched on. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, the makers of “imaginary programs for an imaginary computer,” as animator, artist and comic author Sydney Padua describes their undertakings, are such an unlikely duo that only steampunk fiction can do credit to them. Padua’s graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, conveniently published in the year of the bicentenary of Ada Lovelace’s birth, combines steampunk and scholarly research into an original, funny, and surprisingly educational historical treatment of these two unfortunate pioneers.

Their true story is fascinating, but, as Padua shows, hardly the material to fill a 300-page graphic novel. Padua dedicates the first sixteen pages of The Thrilling Adventures to a historically accurate autobiography of Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of Lord Byron, whose mathematics-focused upbringing was intended to stifle any poetic inclinations. She met Charles Babbage (1791-1871), was fascinated by his mechanical inventions, and translated an Italian paper on his ideas for a computing machine, adding enormous footnotes in which several foundational ideas for computer programming can be distinguished. Unfortunately, the real story ends there. Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer at the age of thirty-six after a gruelling sickbed. Babbage’s Difference Engine and its successor, the Analytical Engine, a room-sized, steam-powered, cog-operated enterprise, were never built, as he could not secure any funding.

lovelace_001

Lovelace and Babbage’s story, full of promise but with such an anticlimactic ending, lends itself eminently to the question, what if? It is a question that has been addressed before: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) first explored how the world would have developed if Lovelace and Babbage had been able to get the computer off the ground. Padua’s approach, on the other hand, is unique for its insistence on maintaining a connection to the original sources that informed the storyline.

Padua originally jokingly asked the ‘What if?’ question at the end of a brief comic for her website 2D Goggles about the real life of Ada Lovelace, but her fans were keen to see this further explored. Padua therefore set the sequels to this brief comic in a separate ‘pocket universe’ in which she is free to guess at the implications the development of the Analytical Engine would have had. In a barrage of adventures, Lovelace and Babbage secure funding from the young Queen Victoria by printing a cat picture for her, prevent economic collapse, create a spelling checker for Victorian novels, and fight crime (the crimes being poetry and street music, their respective peeves).

Whereas Babbage is the sort of famous character about whom a deluge of hilarious anecdotes has been preserved, Ada Lovelace finds herself in an elusive Goldilocks zone. We don’t know too much about her, which would ruin the magic by giving conclusive evidence, nor too little, which would not allow us to write a story about her, but just enough: there is precisely that amount of knowledge available that allows historians to construe many different narratives, nearly all contradictory. Amidst this tangle of different interpretations, we find that The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is not even particularly odd or far-fetched.

On the contrary: The Thrilling Adventures may well be one of the most well-researched and scholarly graphic novels ever written, after Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is an academic work on comics written in its own genre. Marketed on Padua’s website as “a cornucopia of comics and a feast of footnotes”, the reader is led to enjoy the archival research that went into compiling The Thrilling Adventures as much as the comics themselves. In fact, this “feast of footnotes” is a multi-layered cake: there are footnotes at the bottom of nearly every page, and each chapter is followed by several pages of illustrated endnotes – which at times come with their own footnotes. Where annotating a novel can already lead to the issue of distracting the reader, footnoting a comic comes with its own further challenges: where does one place the asterisk if the image rather than the text triggers the footnote? Yet Padua nearly always succeeds in carrying over the storyline, as her characters contradict, walk over, drive a train into, or argue with the footnotes.

The ambiguous status of Lovelace’s history has necessarily forced Padua to choose which historical sources about Lovelace to follow; as the form of the book makes clear, she chose the interpretation of Lovelace the mathematical genius and programmer over the interpretation of Lovelace the over-hyped mentally unstable woman. Padua goes to great lengths explaining the context of this debate in the final chapter, which is a parody of Alice in Wonderland. In a wonderful play with footnotes, Padua addresses the “asterisk that hovers over her status as the first computer programmer,” jokingly referring to the many different scholarly interpretations of Lovelace’s relation to Babbage, his computer, and her computer programmes. The asterisk of the footnote rises through the gutters and steps into the panel, challenging Lovelace in a trial that harks back to Alice’s trial by the King of Hearts. Ada gets angry at the footnote, accusing it of “cowardly hedging”. Padua defends herself, yet leaves the question open, deferring to scholarly authority:

You may be looking to the objective authority of the footnote to reveal the actual capital-T Truth about Ada Lovelace now. But I’m not a mathematician, or even a scholar, even though I AM a footnote! For a humble annotation (never mind an even humbler cartoonist) to wade into this tangle seems to be getting, as it were, above myself.

Her words may be taken for false modesty, as Padua has clearly proven precisely how extensive her knowledge about Lovelace, Babbage, and their work is: in December 2015, the British Society for the History of Mathematics awarded her the Neumann Prize for the best popular work dealing with the history of mathematics. Even so, this passage is an engaging introduction to the scholarly debates surrounding Lovelace, presented from the point of view of someone who would certainly be considered an outsider in traditional academic circles.

Padua’s black-and-white line drawings are cartoonish and flippant where the storyline is humorous, and detailed and imposing in the serious passages, yet her style is consistent in spite of the many registers she combines in the comic. Her most impressive drawings are the monumental two-page spreads which convey the sheer immensity and complexity of the Analytical Engine as Babbage had envisaged it. Her drawings of the insides of Babbage’s engine, which grows to the size of a building in this alternative history, are overwhelming in the scope she conveys and the detail she has put into constructing this overview. Her drawings of both people and mechanics are cartoonish and stylised rather than naturalistic, yet even so they are extremely accurate. The work contains an uncountable number of individually drawn cogs. Her drawings are detailed enough to convey an accurate sense of the technicalities of the Analytical Engine, an aspect which comes to the fore most clearly in the appendix she dedicates to the construction and functioning of the Engine.

As with the footnotes, the appendices must be taken into account for a full appreciation of the depth of Padua’s research. Putting together fragmented illustrations and technical diagrams, she presents a visualisation of the Analytical Engine which is more revolutionary than she had intended: “I was hoping to crib shamelessly from some previously existing visualisation… so naturally I was highly disconcerted when I found that no one had ever done one.” More than twenty pages are dedicated to an explanation of the functioning of this engine and an introduction to computer logic – and that does not even cover half of the fifty-page appendix. Equally impressive is her treatment of Victorian England, as her work becomes an engaging Who’s Who that is just anachronistic enough to include all the notables who ever encountered Charles Babbage: Isambard Kingdom Brunel gets an illustrated endnote that spreads over two pages and summarizes him quite adequately as the “builder of the biggest, longest, most audacious thing in almost every engineering category”, and George Eliot has her own adventure as the Analytical Engine devours her book to spell-check it.

Illustration of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is unique in its combination of immensely thorough research in both history and computer science, excellent storytelling, and talented drawing. Popularisations of science and history come in many forms, but the graphic novel is not yet a common one in either. The “Introducing” graphic guides by Icon Books may come closest, yet those are not ‘graphic novels’: their graphics are subordinate to the explanation of the scholarly concept. The Thrilling Adventures, however, is a popularisation in which the fictional storyline is as important as the contextual information. Rather than making the images mere illustrations, subservient to the text, Sydney Padua presents an engaging, amusing and well-drawn narrative that is educational precisely because it is enjoyable down to the smallest footnote.

Kanta Dihal is a second-year DPhil candidate in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.

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A Great Novel, Not A Great Gay Novel http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/a-great-novel-not-a-great-gay-novel/ Mon, 01 Feb 2016 00:01:37 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27922 Bryan St. Amand

Cover of Garth Greenwell What Belongs to You
What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell
Picador, 7 April 2016
204 pp
ISBN 9781447280514
£12.99

 

 

 

 

 

Garth Greenwell’s new novel has been met with a showering of peremptory praise—The New Republic, drawing on a thread of commentary that has evolved over the past few years, hailed it as “the great gay novel for our times.” This seems a strange designation to bestow on a book in which the protagonist—an aging American man in a foreign country, beset with deep-seated feelings of shame over his sexuality—meets a homeless young man in an underground bathroom, pays him for repeated sexual favors, and spends the rest of the novel bemoaning the emotional impact this “affair” (if it can be called such) has had on him. A great novel, perhaps; indeed, it stands in the great bildungsroman tradition of young male bohemians “finding themselves” in the arms of prostitutes—who they desire, renounce, and denounce at their leisure—with scant concern for the human dignity of the person on the other end of this process. But “the great gay novel for our times”? What times? Have we made no progress?

This is not to say that the novel lacks merit. On the contrary, there are passages of beautiful prose (justifying the numerous critical comparisons to Henry James, and then some) and there is an exquisite symmetry to the way the novel is structured. A primary concern of the text is physical intimacy and its valences. In one scene, the narrator (who goes unnamed by the text) observes a girl of three or four in a park, playing by a small pond while her father keeps her from falling with his arm. Comparing this embrace to his encounters with Mitko, the male prostitute, the narrator muses,

“Perhaps here, I thought, was a wholly untheatrical embrace…I could see others watching them, too, smiling and wistful, maybe a little melancholy, as I was, with the sense both of my own exclusion and of how quickly those embraces would pass. They would take on different meanings as the child grew older, they would become impermissible … And so it is, I thought then, as the man and the child released each other … so it is that at the very moment we come into full consciousness of ourselves what we experience is leave-taking a loss we seek the rest of our lives to restore.”

This moment rebounds through the text: in the embraces of the narrator and Mitko; in an encounter from the narrator’s childhood, in which his father rejects his embrace (a scene heavily overlaid with Freudian connotations); and, in another scene, in the lack of intimacy the narrator feels sitting next to his mother on a bus, while they watch a young boy being tickled by his grandmother. This is a primary strength of What Belongs To You: the manner in which the past, the present, and the possible future are all present at once. Greenwell captures and portrays this sensation seamlessly: in the narrator’s thoughts, Mitko is never not present, the narrator’s childhood is never not present, and the narrator’s fear of being shut out of an intimacy—of suffering from a breach he cannot repair—is never not present, as it permeates his past and haunts his thoughts of the future.

The novel takes its title from a moment in Death in Venice—as Greenwell states in an interview with Guernica, “the title actually comes from one of my favorite scenes in Death in Venice, when the barber convinces Aschenbach to try cosmetics and hair dye as a way of recapturing his youth. ‘Permit me to restore what belongs to you,’ he says, and the phrase seems redolent with so many possible meanings, with all the longings—not just for youth, but for beauty, love, a different life—Aschenbach suffers.” And yet, there is an obvious subtext that Greenwell does not discuss in this moment from Death in Venice—that youth does not belong to Aschenbach; Aschenbach has fallen prey to a self-deception so profound that others can sense and exploit it in him. Greenwell’s narrator falls prey to this same level of unwitting self-absorption—and, as in Death in Venice, this self-absorption blinds him to the fact he has completely abdicated any moral responsibility vis-à-vis his lust and its repercussions.

Capturing this sensation—of a tortured man caught between his lust and his shame, between a rock and a hard place (as it were) in his every waking moment—is a triumph. Nonetheless, in the age of gay marriage and informed consent, in which nonprofit organizations are striving to address the plight of homeless LGBT youth (who are often forced to turn to prostitution in order to house or feed themselves), it is extremely hard to empathize with Greenwell’s narrator, who displays a shocking lack of self-awareness about the predatory nature of his behavior. Greenwell’s narrator repeatedly notes that as an American expatriate in Bulgaria, he enjoys the luxury of being openly gay at his workplace, a luxury that is denied to ordinary gay men in Bulgaria, who must go to lengths to conceal their sexuality. And yet the narrative never slows to consider how the narrator’s privileged position impacts his sexual relations with Bulgarian men. Death in Venice succeeds in making Aschenbach an empathetic character by framing his lust for a fifteen-year-old boy as a great man’s fall from grace—Aschenbach’s refined morality is presented in the opening chapters, and the normative voice of the narrator interpolates that refined morality into Aschenbach’s increasingly flimsy justifications for his pursuit of Tadzio. This dimension—any consideration of a moral theme—simply does not exist in Greenwell’s novel.

In Lolita we also have a tale told from the perspective of a sexual predator—and yet, Nabokov imbued his narrator with a diabolical charm and placed him in a repentant crouch. Greenwell’s unnamed narrator lacks Humbert Humbert’s charm and Aschenbach’s refined morality. The novel fails to acknowledge that there is something problematic in the premise of an American expatriate paying a homeless young man for sex. The narrator even goes so far as to suggest, repeatedly, that they are somehow made equals in their relationship, that it may be Mitko preying on the narrator’s needs.

Like Humbert Humbert, Greenwell’s narrator views the object of his desire as a body to be possessed—not as a person, worthy of respect—and he reacts petulantly when he is denied what he wants. Nabokov maneuvers his reader into sympathy with Humbert Humbert through his passionately-felt meditations on love, lust, and loss. These emotions are universal, and part of the terror of reading Lolita is experiencing their universality through the depiction of a monstrous act (namely, the abduction and sexual abuse of a young girl). Greenwell similarly achieves powerful, beautifully-wrought moments of universality in the telling of his tale.

But the narrator’s lack of sympathy for the object of his desire—and the novel’s concordant failure to (at least) address what is wrong in his behavior—sours the experience. In one scene, Mitko comes to the narrator’s apartment and confesses that he may be dying of an unnamed disease. After making this confession, Mitko stands to go, and the narrator thinks, “Now that I knew or thought I knew I would finally be rid of him I didn’t want him to go.” It is extremely hard to feel sympathy towards such a narrator—and his lack of self-awareness, combined with the lack of any consideration of a moral perspective on his sexual predation, undermines the novel.

There is something wrong with what Greenwell’s narrator has done—and the title strikes on it. What Belongs To You: does nothing belong to Mitko, is nothing owed to him, by this unnamed narrator who not only buys his body and youth, but who also coopts his tale, his narrative, his life, and puts it all to the service of a highly aestheticized musing on his own childhood and experience? Obviously a reader need not like or identify with the protagonist of a tale for it to have merit, and this novel does have merit in abundance. Every writer ought to feel envy at the immediacy, the urgency with which Greenwell imbues his narrator’s lust and his sexual encounters with Mitko—as well as the quieter moments of the tale, such as the scene in the park where he observes the young girl with her father.

But the question of morality feels like the elephant in the room; it lingers like a bad smell. Greenwell’s narrator dwells at length (the novel is divided into three sections, and the second section focuses at length on the narrator’s childhood in Kentucky and his relationship with his father) on the sexual shame he carries from his upbringing. It feels as though the narrator offers this shame up by way of an explanation for his behavior—but in this, the age of corporate-sponsored Gay Pride parades, it feels oddly retrograde to be reading a novel in which exploitative behavior is seemingly justified by the shame one carries at being gay. As gay men, we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard now, and the novel fails (on this one dimension) by not at least addressing the question.

Make no mistake, this is a great novel—it strikes the eternal, it mines the mundane for the exuberant—but do not let the fact that the protagonists are gay fool you. This is a profound meditation on lust and loss, on aesthetics and desire—but it is not “the great gay novel for our times.” It succeeds on many levels, but its treatment of gay themes is far behind the times.

Bryan St. Amand is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford.

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Schooling an Intelligence http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/schooling-an-intelligence/ Mon, 01 Feb 2016 00:01:34 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27865 Jacob Lloyd

Cover of Wolfson Reading Keats

Reading John Keats
Susan J. Wolfson
Cambridge University Press, 2015
179pp
ISBN 9780521732796
£12.99 (paperback)

 

 

 

 

There is a scene in Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 biopic about John Keats, in which Keats discovers that his friend, Charles Brown, has sent a valentine to Keats’s beloved, the young Fanny Brawne. Brown defends his conduct as a jest, spitefully observing, “It is a game. It is a game to her. She collects suitors.” Keats reacts violently, grabbing Brown by the lapels and rebuking him: “There is a holiness to the heart’s affections: know you nothing of that?” Brown, the older man, is a cynic whose scorn betrays small-mindedness and a lack of understanding; Keats is the idealist, who embodies romantic sincerity. Yet the “holiness of the Heart’s affections” is a quotation lifted from one of Keats’s letters, a letter about the “authenticity of Imagination”. It is concerned with aesthetics. He is speaking not with the passion of a lover, but with the rapture of a poet.

Bright Star’s dramatic moment of personal conflict is thus a fiction which distorts the historical personality it purports to portray. In the film, Keats’s letters and poems are made subservient to the plot, to the story of his romance. Yet Keats was not a confessional poet; his verse was not an autobiographical presentation of naked subjectivity. Bright Star, though, perpetuates the myth of Keats, rightly dismissed by Susan J. Wolfson as the “fable of a sensitive boy slain by hostile reviews.” By contrast, Reading John Keats provides a series of close readings of his greatest poems, informed by and condensing half a century of work by scholars of Romanticism, which illuminate Keats’s literary interests. The book serves its purpose well as an introduction to the nuances of Keats’s thought and poetic argument. Wolfson reminds us that the lyric “I” is so often in Keats an allegory, meaning another self. Keats’s ideal of the “chameleon Poet” was epitomised by Shakespeare’s ability to empathise poetically equally well with villains as with virtuous heroines. Wolfson usefully draws on the work of scholars such as Nicholas Roe and Jeffrey Cox to explain Keats’s position as a “cockney poet” (a low-class pretender), whose style challenged the establishment poetically. Politically, too, Keats was unorthodox, associated with the circle of the liberal journalist Leigh Hunt.

Wolfson’s Keats is an obsessive reader, a man who, had he been able to take advantage of a university education, “would have been a star student.” His poetry is the product of intensive study, debate and re-examination, such that “Reading John Keats is always to encounter John Keats reading.” The literary forebears to whom Keats turns form a recognisable pantheon: Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and William Wordsworth, but Wolfson’s elucidation of their importance is no less illuminating for its familiarity. Wolfson’s 1986 study The Questioning Presences treated Keats’s relationship with Wordsworth at length, and in Reading John Keats she distils the main discussion. Keats preferred Wordsworth’s explorations of human emotion to Milton’s theology, but, for Keats, Wordsworth’s genius was undercut by his “egotistical sublime”: his tendency to make definitive pronouncements about the significance of experiences and relate the external world to his own personality. From studying these poetics, Keats developed his principle of “negative capability”, the capacity for creating poetry from the uncertainty and doubt provoked by his experience of the world. Wolfson elucidates the process by which Keats formulated and refined this critical theory when writing his poems. She traces an ongoing process by which Keats reinterpreted his influences in order to promote his aesthetic.

Wordsworth’s presence is felt throughout Reading John Keats, but he does not dominate. Keats self-consciously measured himself against Shakespeare and Milton, attempting to match their achievements. However, his attempts at epic and tragedy were either unfinished, or immature. His greatest poetic achievements were realised in sonnets, lyrical odes, and narrative romances. These genres were associated with a female readership, and the snobbery directed against him as a “cockney poet” figured him as effeminate. Keats’s gender and genre anxieties are carefully explored by Wolfson. She provides a compelling reading of Keats’s sonnet ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again’, which demonstrates how the “point by point refusal of Romance for tragedy” advanced is undermined fatally by the last couplet, “But when I am consumed in the fire, / Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” Here, there is “the stretched meter of the last line, a hexameter born out of pentameters, analogous to the last line of the Spenserian stanzas that build The Faerie Queene. Keats talks tragedy, but lingers in a form from Romance.” Wolfson adeptly navigates Keats’s generic confusion, a mixed literary inheritance which led to his best work.

The great strength of this study is that Wolfson presents the development of Keats’s narrative poems as a response and challenge to the characterisation of his work by critics and the reading public. Keats’s reading ensured that he wrote romances which refused to conform to traditional ideas of the genre, meaning that “Flirting with and subverting Romance arguably becomes Keats’s modern mode.” ‘Isabella’, the first composed of Keats’s romances, is explained by Wolfson as demonstrating “ungentleness”. The tale itself is one of murder, mutilation, and grief, and hints at incest, removing it far from the indolent escapism previously associated with Keats. ‘Isabella’’s “proto-Marxian” depiction of widespread exploitation of the labouring class directly confronts the material conditions that enable the aristocratic luxury at the centre of romance. Cruelty is not to be forgotten, nor dismissed as an aberration: it is endemic to the class structures idealised by the genre. The violence and greed of ‘Isabella’ was followed by the explicit eroticism of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, a voyeuristic piece that breached the bounds of propriety in a deliberate attempt to attract a male audience. The poem’s ending, which relates the death of the secondary characters after the protagonists have escaped, concludes by shifting the sentiment from sexual fervour to Byronic mockery. Keats blurs genres, complicates registers and combines influences as he destabilises the certainties of the poetic tradition he read. Wolfson thus provides an holistic view of Keats’s approach to the poetic craft. She combines an explication of his class and gender politics with a continued focus on his use of poetic form and narrative.

Consequently, Wolfson is able to trace the genesis and refinement of Keats’s aesthetic theory through his poems. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a significant development, a poem in which sustained doubling produces a “lyricized ballad (its action not just over, but unknowable)”, where “Keats is on the verge of conceiving a deliberate poetry from self-questioning.” Wolfson’s treatment of Keats’s “Odes” demonstrates this tendency by paying close attention to their rhymes, metrical patterns and structures. The ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a “self-listening poem” in which phrases and sounds repeat with different meaning, casting their original use in new light and demanding reconsideration. Her reading of the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is an extended treatment on Keats’s use of sight rhymes to provide parallel meaning to the auditory, a double structure which enhances the poem’s focus on the balance and competition between knowledge and sensuality, truth and beauty. In ‘Ode on Melancholy’ the doubling is similarly prominent: the ironies of repeated images and echoes of earlier sounds render aesthetic achievement and self-annihilation as one experience in their realisation.

The potential of this approach is best realised in Lamia, the story of a serpentine femme fatale, where the apparently misogynistic metaphor is balanced by the moral defects of its male characters. Wolfson explores the poem as “gordian”: twisted, complicated and unstable. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the term connotes satanic deception, but applied to Lamia it indicates an ambivalent response to an ambiguous presentation. Lamia, both the character and the poem, are difficult to read: is Lamia, asks Wolfson, “a Satanic artist or an imprisoned lover”? And does the poem pity or ruthlessly expose the delusions of lovers? A debate is enacted in the poem between ‘cold philosophy’ (scientific reasoning) and the charms of beauty. Lamia’s beauty is deceptive, but only because it is exposed to the unrelenting logic of the philosopher. One would expect Keats to side with beauty. However, as Wolfson observes, by representing beauty in the form of a serpentine seductress, Keats treats his own natural tendency to celebrate “beauty” to ironic mockery.

Keats may elevate the poet above the philosopher, but, according to Wolfson, his “thinking is more zig-zag than linear.” His approach is dialectical and it is this clash which drives his poetry. In Reading John Keats, Susan J. Wolfson provides a suitably agile account of his gordian poetics. The condensed style of the book matches her subject, Keats’s astonishingly ore-laden verse. Rereadings of Wolfson’s analysis are necessary and can often prove fruitful, although sometimes her prose remains elliptical. However, her concision is, in general, a virtue, forming suggestive comments that will send her reader scurrying to read John Keats again.

Jacob Lloyd is studying for a DPhil in English at Balliol College, Oxford. His thesis explores the political poetics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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The Reality of Narrating Hunger http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-reality-of-narrating-hunger/ Mon, 01 Feb 2016 00:01:05 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27868 Charles Yuchen He

Cover of Hamsun HungerHunger
Knut Hamsun
Translated by Sverre Lyngstad
Canongate Books, 2016
272 pp
ISBN 9781782117124
£9.99

 

 

 

 

 

Some books become emblems of their age, icons of their movement, and eventually milestones in literary history. The books that everyone still talks about, that become reference points for all other writing. Then there are the books that always remain in the background, best remembered as the books that prophesised, through their influence, the great canonical works of art whose status they themselves would never reach. Knut Hamsun’s Norwegian classic Hunger is a rare in-between: acknowledged as a milestone, but not canonical in any particular movement.

Narrated in the first person, the novel tells the story of a young nameless writer who wanders around in Kristiania (today’s Oslo) trying to write to support himself. He ends up in a vicious cycle of hunger: he cannot write without food, but he must write in order to feed himself. The reader follows the absurd logic and irrational ramblings of the narrator during his long episodes of starvation, as he desperately writes against his own body’s need for sustenance. Hunger is not only a violently realistic depiction of the physical and psychological effects of starvation, but it also questions the nature of fiction writing.

Central to Hunger is the narration of madness and disbelief. The spectacularly insane acts that the protagonist performs suggest that he is genuinely mad, but at other times, he only seems to feign madness: “[I] threw a kiss at the window and behaved like a lunatic. At this moment, too, I was conscious of what I did.” Even if he is mad, his madness is inconsistent. The narrator performs erratic deeds on countless occasions that are introduced as pranks or lies, but many times he believes in his own stories, which sometimes seem to be true. The reader distrusts the narrator, but is left without closure. The narrator’s character resists summary and seems to consciously evade predictability at any cost, to indicate a sense of control over the reader’s grasp of his character – which perhaps is another sign of madness. The paradox becomes apparent: if someone tells you he is a pathological liar, would you believe him? James Wood hails Hunger as the first of an exceedingly rare kind of novel with narrators that are “unreliably unreliable.”

Our disbelief in the narrator is further intensified by the shifts in verbal tense. The novel opens in the past tense but shifts, randomly it seems, between tenses:

It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him. […]
Lying awake in my attic room, I hear a clock strike six downstairs.

This oscillation constantly pokes holes in the fabric of the text’s fictionality, baring its own artifice. We are reminded of the novel’s collapse of narrator and protagonist: if the narrator dies in the story, how would he be able to write about it? As Derrida elaborated on the impossibility of writing, we ask if it is ever possible to write in the present tense, since someone – the writer – cannot both live life and write about it at the same time, without incorporating the act of writing into the story itself. Hunger turns the realist idiom on its head. Instead of the ‘normal’ person’s sober account of an insane person, we only get the ‘mad’ person’s version of his own story.

Published in Copenhagen in 1890 – more than twenty years before the flowering of the ‘high modernist’ movement – Hunger is remarkably modernist in its narrative techniques and its exploration of human consciousness. It is easy to fall to the temptation of calling it a forgotten masterpiece because of Hamsun’s later political associations, as many reviewers have done. By the end of his life, Hamsun became a Nazi sympathiser and publicly expressed his support for the occupation of Norway. For example, Rob Woodard writes in the Guardian that “Hamsun is a writer who today is shunned by much of the literary establishment […] because of his far-right political views.” Woodard is right regarding Hamsun, but wrong regarding Hunger: this particular novel was never popular in the English-speaking world. Its 1899 translation by George Egerton failed to make an impact, and it was only after Hamsun’s Nobel Prize in 1920 that he received any substantial attention in Britain and North America. By that time, Hamsun’s work was very different in theme, narration and politics. He was re-introduced as a conservative realist writer, with his 1917 settler epic Markens Grøde (Growth of the Soil), set in the harsh Norwegian wilderness, as his magnum opus. His earlier anarchist novels were neglected. It was not until Robert Bly’s 1967 translation that English readers re-discovered the early Hamsun’s proto-modernist masterpiece.

Certainly, Hunger and Hamsun are no longer household names as they were in Germany, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries, but they are far from forgotten. Among the more recent writers who have acknowledged Hunger‘s influence are Paul Auster, who has written an afterword to this edition, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who went so far as to say that “the whole modern school of fiction in the Twentieth century stems from Hamsun, just as Russian literature in the nineteenth century ‘came of out Gogol’s greatcoat,’” in his introduction to the 1967 translation. James Macfarlane sees Hunger as the “missing link” between Dostoyevsky’s psychologically oriented novels and the modernist works of Joyce and Woolf, and the work is featured as a milestone in the history of Western narratology in James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008).

This reissue of Sverre Lyngstad’s masterful 1996 translation not only features a commentary on the two previous translations of the text to English, but also an appendix highlighting all three translators’ choices for particularly tricky or ambiguous words. In contrast to previous translations, notably Robert Bly’s version, which has been criticised for taking too many liberties, Lyngstad’s pays meticulous attention to Hamsun’s innovative and slippery use of Norwegian. Lyngstad’s translation, widely accepted by Hamsun scholars, is in my view the translation that best captures the manic pace and the disturbingly angular precision of the writer’s style in the original. With Lyngstad’s excellent translation, Hunger can once again be appreciated by English readers. Having read the novel in Swedish, then in Norwegian, and finally in English, I can personally attest to how difficult it is to translate Hamsun’s use of language. The added appendix is invaluable for literature students, but I can’t imagine it being of much interest to the common reader who hasn’t read Hamsun in the original.

Composed under the conditions of real starvation and “hysteria” – to use Hamsun’s own term – Hunger is a remarkable piece of work. Its brutal realism and psychological closeness to the protagonist and narrator go to such extremes that they push the novel towards black comedy and the absurd; surprisingly close to Kafka, and Beckett’s early prose. The black comedy of Hunger explores the commodification of writing. At one point the protagonist holds up a finished piece of fiction and approvingly weighs it in his hand, concluding that it was worth “five kroner, by a rough estimate,” like one would measure potatoes by the kilo. As he gradually fails to maintain the quality of his writing, yet refuses any help, the narrator’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and self-punishing. The unstable narrative creates a dizzying sense of intoxication, but the descriptions of objects and things are rendered in minute detail: restaurant menus, bills, street names and signs are incorporated into the narrative. Hamsun’s use of language is at once disorientating and chillingly precise.

Today, Hamsun’s novel feels much ahead of its time, anticipating both the narrative innovations of modernism, and its themes of urban disorientation, alienation, madness, and the complex human psychology. Jean Rhys wrote in a private letter in 1934 that Hunger gave her “a great kick” and praised its freshness 44 years after its initial publication: “translated 1899 and might have been written yesterday.” Like many of the writers of the Modernist movement, Hamsun intended to create a new kind of literature, blasting away the conventions of realist fiction that he saw as bourgeois parodies of real human characterisation. Hamsun initially wished Hunger to be published anonymously, as the narrator’s true story. The novel created a sensation upon its original release, both in Hamsun’s native Norway and in Denmark. After two disastrous trips to America and four periods of starvation to the brink of death, the novel took all of Hamsun’s experience of the extreme sides of life to write.

Hunger is Hamsun at his most extreme. It is an unflinching account of the conditions of literary production, both an anarchistic revitalisation and stabbing questioning of the oxymoronic name of a form known as ‘realist fiction’. Never again does he write with such maddening intensity as if his life was at stake, which in many ways it was. Nor does he ever physically go to such lengths for the sake of his art.

More than a hundred years after its initial publication, Hunger should not only be read for its historical significance as a landmark of modernist prose narration, but also for its themes of urban alienation and madness that inspired women writers Jean Rhys and George Egerton. Its language of human commodification and darkly comic depiction of the brutal realities of trying to work oneself out of hunger is as fresh a read today, in the age of austerity and anxiety, as it was when it was first published.

Charles Yuchen He is reading for a MSt in modern English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

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Translators Be Warned http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/translators-be-warned/ Mon, 01 Feb 2016 00:01:00 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27863 Jenny Messenger

aldheim

Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles
Translated by A. M. Juster
University of Toronto Press, 2015
200 pages
ISBN 978-1-442628-92-2
$29.95

 

 

 

 

“My name’s a hybrid since antiquity.
I’m called a “lion,” then an “ant” in Greek,
A blended metaphor, a sign that’s bleak;
I can’t defend birds’ beaks with my own beak.
May scholars probe my name’s duplicity!”

The solution to this riddle composed by the seventh-century bishop Saint Aldhelm is ‘Myrmicoleon’, or ‘Ant-lion’, a mysterious creature that came into being as a result of a mis-translation. In his new verse translation of Aldhelm’s one hundred Aenigmata, or riddles, A. M. Juster tells us that, according to legend, around seventy experts working on turning the Old Testament into what would become the Septuagint mistranslated the Hebrew term lajisch, a rare word for ‘lion’, as the Greek myrmicoleon – the ant-lion. The creation lived on, making its way into medieval bestiaries, but it was ultimately ill-fated. Depending on accounts, the hybrid form would starve to death due to incompatibilities of digestion – the ant could not digest meat, and the lion could not digest grain. It is a cautionary tale for a translator, as Juster is well aware. In his commentary, he wryly remarks: “Translators are duly warned about the enduring consequences of their mistakes.” However, there is a twist. The ant-lion has now become a scientifically legitimate entity as the popular name for the ant-eating larvae of the insect family Myrmeleontidae. Translators be warned indeed – mistakes can take on a life of their own.

As a poet, Juster seems well-equipped for the task of translating Aldhelm. He is known for his association with New Formalism, a movement based around a return to metre and rhyme in verse poetry. Current trends in poetry and the overall attitude to rhyme must therefore have been at the forefront of Juster’s mind throughout this project: as he states in the translator’s note, although “contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre, riddles continue to be a guilty pleasure for the public.” Juster is something of an enigma himself. A lawyer by training, he has held senior positions in the US federal government, including Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. He has also published books of poetry and translations of Horace, Petrarch, and Tibullus, using an anagrammatic pseudonym assembled from his name, M. J. Astrue. His identity was only revealed in 2010 by Paul Mariani in First Things, the journal of the Institute of Religion and Public Life, eight years after the publication of his first book of original poetry, The Secret Language of Women.

Examples of the riddle genre can be found in ancient and modern cultures the world over. In Ancient Greece, for instance, riddles were attributed to Hesiod and Theognis, and reading poetry allegorically was a technique that flourished during classical antiquity, particularly in the Platonic and later Neoplatonic traditions, as a means of accessing ultimate truths concealed within texts. As Juster points out, for Aldhelm, riddles were tools of allegory and of religious instruction, and Juster is strongly convinced by Aldhelm’s conception that the mysteries found in everyday life could help Christians get closer to the mysteries of God. The riddles in the collection are at times overtly Christian, such as the juxtaposition of ‘Corbus’, or ‘Raven’, and ‘Columba’, or ‘Dove’, to emphasise the difference in the roles of the two birds after the biblical Flood. The one hundredth riddle is much lengthier, and masterfully encapsulates the overall theme of the collection (the solution is ‘Creation’). Others speak directly to the poetic imagination. For example, the following lines from ‘Nycticorax’, or ‘Night-Raven’, are rendered beautifully by Juster:

“My nature rightly copies my twin name
Since birds and shadows each retain a claim.
I’m rarely seen by people in clear light
For I will hide in star-borne nests at night.”

Aldhelm incorporated references to other sources like Virgil and Saint Augustine in his riddles, and borrowed the title and structure of his work from Symphosius’ Aenigmata, an earlier anthology of one hundred riddles from the fourth or fifth century A.D. Over his lifetime, Aldhelm turned out an extensive and much-imitated body of work composed in Latin prose and verse. His Aenigmata were particularly influential, helping to popularise the genre and probably acting as an important model for the Old English Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems including riddles. Aldhelm’s interest in allegorical mysteries is also evident in his prose works. His Epistola ad Acircium, a letter addressed to Aldfrith, king of Northumbria, contains a treatise on metre as well as a discussion of numerous examples of the mystical properties of the number seven, drawing on areas of learning as diverse as Biblical scripture, Greek philosophy, and astronomy. The Aenigmata appear in the midst of this treatise, but it is likely that they circulated separately as well.

Information about Aldhelm’s life remains scant, but it is generally agreed that he was probably born into the royal family of Wessex, or at least one of its noble families, between 635 and 645. He trained as a monk and became the first abbot of Malmesbury between 670 and 673. What was crucial to his overall development as a man of letters was his penchant for collecting manuscripts, including Lucan’s lost Orpheus. His learning increased with trips to study at Canterbury with the bishop, Theodore of Tarsus, and the North African monk and scholar Hadrian, both of whom imported many Greek and Latin texts.

Yet despite his prestigious reputation and the quality of his writings, until recent decades modern scholarship has largely overlooked Aldhelm in favour of that other learned figure in Anglo-Saxon England, Bede. In producing a new verse translation, Juster’s task is to prompt greater interest in the poetic merit of the riddles, as opposed to the largely philological attention the riddles have received to date. He explains that his edition has been produced primarily with an eye to interested non-specialists who do not read Latin, but with the academic community in mind as well. Indeed, the introduction is succinct (a welcome contrast with the usual introductions to scholarly translations), but the commentary contains a fuller, more academically-minded level of detail. Juster tries to pacify scholars where he alters the usual presentation of the text, such as in the separation of the riddles from their titles in order to allow the reader to try and puzzle them out on their own. This is a welcome move – riddles are fun. That said, some riddles require more context than others, and I, for one, found ‘Pavo’, or ‘Peacock’, particularly impenetrable.

There is always an inherent tension in the task of translation between the literal meaning and the myriad other cultural elements present in a text, but translating these riddles into verse is surely dogged by more potential pitfalls. Juster stresses that his translations, given alongside the original Latin on the facing page, are not “literal” but instead “faithful” to the original text, and that he attempts to capture the sense of each riddle but steers clear of “injecting thought not reasonably present in the text.” By comparison, a 1985 translation by Michael Lapidge and James L. Rosier, which offers literal translations as an introduction for interested students, turns the riddles into short prose paragraphs, lacking the pleasing rhythm and end-rhyme one might associate with riddles. Juster has instead given the riddles an unpredictable rhyme scheme, which he suggests should form part of the surprise and pleasure of reading them. They are in fact enjoyable to read, particularly for anyone who likes cryptic crosswords or, as the blurb states, those who are “lovers of Tolkien, Beowulf, and Harry Potter.” The riddle ‘Ventus’, or ‘Wind’, sounds particularly Tolkienesque:

“No one can hold me in his palms or sight;
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
Yes, I strike sky and scour the countryside.”

In this example, Juster deftly transfers copious alliteration from the Latin (“possunt prendere palmis” and “pulsos polos et rura peragro”) into English, working with sibilants instead of the plosive /p/. Juster’s skill in word wrangling is also apparent in the first riddle, the ‘Praefatio’ (Preface), a remarkably contrived piece involving a double acrostic. The first letters of each line spell out a sentence from beginning to end to create an acrostic, and the last letters of each line spell out the same sentence from the end to the beginning, together forming what is known as a telestich. It is a tricky feat to pull off, and Juster admits defeat in the face of the telestich, but nonetheless manages an acrostic in his version.

In explaining the motivation behind his translation, Juster notes that he found the riddles “fun, fascinating, and deserving of a broader audience.” He has largely succeeded on all three counts, with a translation that makes the riddles both accessible and interesting for a wider readership, while also revivifying such medieval curios as the ant-lion and perhaps even nudging Aldhelm back into the scholarly spotlight.

Jenny Messenger read Classics at Oxford and Bristol. She is currently studying for a PhD in Classics at the University of St Andrews.

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Wrap Up the Week: Opening Sentences, Reading Deeply Digitally, Chomsky on Europe, The Doomsday Clock, and Typographical Confetti http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wrap-up-the-week-opening-sentences-reading-deeply-digitally-chomsky-on-europe-the-doomsday-clock-and-typographical-confetti/ Fri, 29 Jan 2016 10:49:14 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27844 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles your ORbits editor has found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Andrew Heisel, In Search of the Novel’s First Sentence: A Secret History, Electric Literature. A gripping opening sentence is considered as integral a part of the modern novel’s form, Heisel claims, “as an envoi is to a sestina, as a battle is to an epic, as a setup to a joke.” Heisel delves into the history of the novel to trace how our obsession with the perfect first sentence emerged.

2. Paul La Farge, The Deep Space of Digital Reading, Nautilus. Modern technology is indisputably revolutionising the way we read, but not for the worse. Savvy digital readers have – at the tips of their clicking fingers – access to an exhilarating range of new cognitive pleasures.

3. Interview with Noam Chomsky: Is European Integration Unraveling?, Truthout. C.J. Polychroniou seeks Noam Chomsky’s ever-insightful views on some of the current crises facing Europe.

4. Lawrence M. Krauss, Still Three Minutes to Midnight, The New Yorker. The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists predicts that, given the state of global affairs in 2016, humanity only has three minutes before it self-destructs. Krauss reminds us of the actions we need to take in order to push back the clock’s premonitory hands and buy ourselves some more precious time.

5. Here’s What Classic Books Look Like Without Words What better way to end the week than with “a vortex of typographical confetti”?

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Carol http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/carol/ Tue, 26 Jan 2016 09:00:12 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27818  

Rey Conquer

8half

Carol
Director: Todd Haynes
USA/UK, 2015.

“I just take everything and I don’t know anything”

At the beginning of Carol (2015), three young people are watching Sunset Boulevard from the projection booth, jostling to see through the porthole. “Right now,” says the younger of the men, with smug, earnest pride, “I’m charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they really feel.” There’s fun to be had, perhaps, in doing the same here. During the lunch scene, for instance, it is where the correlation is at its lowest that the erotic tension is at its highest: “And you—live alone?” Carol (Cate Blanchett) asks Thérèse (Rooney Mara), the young shop assistant she has—through an act of discreet machination—picked up. There is no way we can avoid knowing what she wants but there is also no way that anyone could, on the basis of her words, accuse her of that same desire.

This is flirting; but more importantly, this is gay flirting, where clues indecipherable to others are routinely reified (what is it to have ‘gaydar’?); and it is gay flirting at a time when disgust and opprobrium were the chief reactions to homosexuality. Even when disapproving, people don’t say what they mean: homosexuality in Carol is a “pattern of behaviour”, a matter of “morality” for “people like that”. Whether homosexual or homophobe, through this indirectness the speaker is willing the other to call their bluff, in the hope that the interlocutor, by showing that they have read between the lines, will expose themself as someone who knows how to read between the lines, and who knows that there might be something to read there in the first place.

Danny, the “film jerk” with his notepad, at least knows this much. He is, in this at least, alone among the men in the film, who are otherwise characterised by an astounding ignorance, a blindness to all that which does not place them at its centre. They are at the bottom of the epistemic heap; at the top is not, in fact, Carol, but Abby (Sarah Paulson), her best friend and former lover, who we understand to be carrying a torch for her (and to be resigned to this), and who is in some ways the film’s ‘chorus’, knowing more than any other character what the others are thinking, or up to. Abby acts as a mediator, a driver, a convenient excuse, mostly in the service of Carol, enabling her developing relationship with Thérèse. As ‘Aunt Abby’ to Carol’s daughter Rindy she is also the archetypal lesbian, and the one person recognised as such, even by men, such as when Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband Harge remarks, pointedly, that Rindy has been seeing a lot of Abby, lately. His cack-handed foray into reading between the lines is brought ironically into focus: he then mentions that his friend’s wife—“Jeanette,” Carol cuts in—that Jeanette had asked after her. “Did she?” Carol replies, coolly. “Well, give her my best—I’ve always liked Jeanette.”

Queers have to know, and have to know how to know, of course; obliviousness is the prerogative of the privileged. This can, of course, be extended: see, for instance, the (black, queer) poet Fred Moten on the (white) critic Marjorie Perloff, here talking about race: “I had to learn about her and many of the things that have gone and continue to go into the making of her. She has never been so obligated, a condition that induces not only ignorance but also cold-heartedness.” For the men in the film, there need never be a gap between their will and the world, with the result that they confuse the two, offering desire as a circular justification for itself. Harge turns up at Abby’s door and demands to know where Carol is. Abby refuses to tell him. “You’ve spent ten years making sure her only point of reference is you.” Harge can only think to say that he loves Carol. “I can’t help you with that,” Abby replies—and she isn’t unsympathetic: Harge is not a brute, it is just that he has never had not to be one. In what to me is the film’s one moment of heavy-handedness, Carol tells him, “we are not ugly people.” Yet passivity in the face of one’s nature—one’s “own grain” as Carol puts it—is something that the men in the film can indulge in, and Harge is at times ugly, and we could find it funny—seeing Abby, for instance, shut the door in his desperate face, or when he stumbles, drunkenly, when trying to convince Carol not to go—did it not have the consequences it does for Carol, for Thérèse, for all the women who are not (yet) what they could be.

Men, in Carol, are always getting in the way. They intrude, they interrupt, they impose; at one point a tactless young man barges in on a meeting between Carol and Thérèse, echoing Brief Encounter’s Dolly Messiter in an act of deft, delicate homage. Throughout the film the female characters look out of or are seen through windows—often blurred or rain-flecked—or grates, or grilles, and in the final scene, a crowd of men take their place, blocking our view completely—and that of Thérèse, of Carol. (It is only when they move out of the way the film reaches its—wonderful—conclusion.) The male characters don’t recognise any desire that’s not their own, any space that might not be theirs to take over. Thérèse, whose face is characteristically impassive, is too young to know how much to let on or to ask about, but, and this is where the film’s real optimism lies, also too young to know that she oughtn’t take over, that she oughtn’t desire. And she also knows—unlike her hapless boyfriend who, like Harge, thinks that to desire a state of affairs is to bring it about, and that “I love you” and “I asked you to marry me” are universally valid justifications—that you have to know what it is that you want, and to know about it. (The film takes quite seriously, more, I think, than the book, the importance of knowledge to love, the way, for instance, that love can manifest itself as, and be expressed in, an insatiable desire for facts: name, living situation, daily routine. Carol wants to know what Thérèse is thinking; Thérèse wants to ask Carol “things she’s not sure she wants asked”; Carol, when they are no longer together, wants to know from Abby what Thérèse is doing, what her day-to-day life looks like. A girl at a party hits, clumsily, on Thérèse by asking if she wants to know how she knows who Thérèse is.)

People have been suggesting, perhaps rightly, that Haynes lost out on the ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Picture’ nominations for portraying a world in which men are irrelevant, for shutting the door in the face of Harges all over. Or Dannys, with their notebooks, unable to read between the lines when faced with a real, cautious, person (he kisses Thérèse thinking her wariness some form of come-on) but trying, at least, to work out what’s going on. Blanchett and Mara have their nominations, though, which seems fitting (Haynes, in Carol and elsewhere, is indebted to Douglas Sirk, and here we might think of his Imitation of Life (1959), where the only Oscar nominations were for the two actresses of colour—both “in a supporting role”). Carol is, after all, about mistaken or exaggerated self-involvement, about people overenthusiastic to cast themselves, for better or worse, as the “only point of reference”. In this, Thérèse often acts as a sort of proxy for the male characters: “I just take everything and I don’t know anything,” she cries. Both Carol and Abby, when Thérèse blames herself for Harge’s behaviour, or frets about not being able to help Carol, tell her it isn’t her fault, it has nothing to do with her. In the context, of course, they’re right.

Rey Conquer is reading for a DPhil in German at Somerville College, Oxford.

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Wrap Up the Week: Lessons from McDonald’s, Reviewer Reflections, Altering Avatars, Impossible Expectations, and Happy Christmas! http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wrap-up-the-week-lessons-from-mcdonalds-a-reviewer-looks-at-himself-changing-avatars-impossible-expectations-and-happy-christmas/ Sun, 13 Dec 2015 10:00:55 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27803 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles your ORbits editor has found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Kate Norquay, What I Learned from Four Years Working at McDonald’s, Medium. In some countries, like the US, working at McDonald’s is considered an embarrassment – but as this employee learned, that only applies to young, white, English-speaking, able-bodied people. Those who do not fit this profile are not ridiculed for working at McDonald’s, because there are no expectations that they can get anything better than that.

2. Pete Wells, ‘Food Whore,’ by Jessica Tom, The New York Times. A book about the fictional restaurant critic of the New York Times is reviewed by the actual restaurant critic of the New York Times.

3. Vinson Cunningham, Why Do We Change our Avatars after Tragedy?, The New Yorker. The rainbow flag and the French flag were two Facebook avatar filters that were enthusiastically, temporarily, embraced by many and ridiculed by as many others. Cunningham explores how an etiquette of online grief is being explored and developed by its users.

4. Victoria Turk, Ada Lovelace and the Impossible Expectations We Have of Women in STEM, VICE Motherboard. Last Thursday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of computer visionary Ada Lovelace. She is currently a figurehead for women in STEM, but her critics are quick to voice the non-computer-related vices in her life – even the University of Oxford ‘celebrated’ her birth by calling her an adulteress in the headline of their article (which has been retracted following outrage). Women in STEM, Turk argues, are pressured to be perfect, because any character flaw is made to overshadow their scientific achievements.

5. Happy Christmas! Here’s a puzzle. We’d send you a witty, intelligent card, but I don’t think we could come up with anything remotely like what the cryptographers at GCHQ are sending round this year. (And if we could, we wouldn’t be allowed to tell you.)

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