Lucy and Todd

Archive for the ‘The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature’ Category

Free copy of Doctors & Nurses – quiz closed June 15

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on June 6, 2014 at 10:44 am

In Lucy Ellmann’s rather outrageous study of medicine post-Harold Shipman, the main character was originally called “Loathe Self”. This later seemed too explicit a cross for her to bear, so she was reduced to the humbler name of “Jen”, Jen with her trademark cargo pants, ravenous appetite, and handbag fetish.

All you need to do to win your free copy of Doctors & Nurses is: guess the novel from which the following quote comes.

Three winners will be picked indiscriminately from a handbag, during a ceremony courteously witnessed by pigeons, sparrows and French marigolds (in honour of the apparent advent of summer). Winners will then be contacted and asked for an address to which to send the book.

(NB Former Atelier quiz winners may not participate, on the grounds of being too smart – apologies.)


The quote:

Drearily I wound my way downstairs: I knew what I had to do, and I did it mechanically. I sought the key of the side-door in the kitchen. I sought too, a phial of oil and a feather; I oiled the key and the lock. I got some water, I got some bread: for perhaps I should have to walk far; and my strength, sorely shaken of late, must not break down. All this I did without one sound. I opened the door, passed out, shut it softly. Dim dawn glimmered in the yard. The great gates were closed and locked; but a wicket in one of them was only latched. Through that I departed…

…  I skirted fields, and hedges, and lanes till after sunrise. I believe it was a lovely summer morning: I know my shoes, which I had put on when I left the house, were soon wet with dew. But I looked neither to rising sun, nor smiling sky, nor wakening nature. He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and the axe-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end: and I thought of drear flight and homeless wandering–and oh! with agony I thought of what I left.  …  Birds began singing in brake and copse: birds were faithful to their mates; birds were emblems of love. What was I? In the midst of my pain of heart and frantic effort of principle, I abhorred myself. I had no solace from self-approbation; none even from self-respect. … I was hateful in my own eyes.



June 15:

Many thanks to all who participated. The answer was Jane Eyre, which had a big influence on Doctors & Nurses. This scenes sees Jane at her lowest point, beautifully described. She has just lost Rochester, she thinks, for ever. The contrast between the summeriness outside and the abyss inside her head is ferocious.




The Sweetness and Light Brigade

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 15, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Last Tuesday at the Coach and Horses in Soho, a party was held in honour of the Omnivore’s prize for the Hatchet Job of the Year, and Fiction Atelier was there. A A Gill won, for his excellent review of Morrissey’s autobiography. Much amusement was caused by the organisers’ depiction of the book reviewer as a dying breed, in danger of extinction. They proposed an Adopt a Critic scheme, whereby you make a small donation and keep a critic alive. Along these lines, the winner of the Hatchet prize gets a year’s worth of potted shrimp from The Fish Society. Appropriately, critics were packed into the Coach and Horses like sardines in a tin.

All innocent enough. But in the wake of this jokey occasion there have been many negative remarks made about negative reviews. Mark O’Connell at Slate knocked the Hatchet Job prize, as did Alex Clark in the Guardian. This implies alarmingly little faith in the value of criticism. Under the hypnotizing influence of the internet, a capitalist marketing tool that pretends to be critical but isn’t, optimists have taken over. The result is that newspapers have become sheepish about publishing negative reviews. Even A A Gill seemed a bit abashed as he accepted a little gold-coloured plastic hatchet with which to slice up a book-shaped cake for us hungry, reviled reviewers to wolf down.

It’s said that negative reviews are ‘easier to write’. This may or may not be true, but does that invalidate a review? Does it mean the reviewer lied, calling the book lousy when in fact it was great? That would be a fiendishly irrational and immoral thing to do. In our experience, reviewing is never easy; one doesn’t relish the chance to kill a book. But if reading something has been aggravating and unrewarding, one has a duty to say so. It’s not laziness that drives a reviewer to damn a book. It’s outrage.

Is the ‘negative’ reviewer showing off for the sake of advancing his or her career? On the contrary – a negative view bravely risks the creation of lifelong enmities, all for the public good. It’s the log-rolling, back-scratching favouritism, blackmail and sheer incomprehension found in ‘positive’ reviews that are more likely to bring an aspiring reviewer some scrap of success. In the London literary scene, where everybody knows everybody, the impulse to be polite can be overpowering. But it must be resisted.

‘Hatchet jobs’, so-called because people unjustly see them as gratuitously violent, are a noble effort to improve literature, and to open up honest debate about a book’s merits and deficiencies. Mealy-mouthed, fence-perching flattery is the more tawdry form of journalism. ‘Positive’ (mendacious) reviews cruelly abandon poor readers to their fate, leading them to waste time and money on a stinker of a book. They offer praise where it doesn’t belong, skewing reality for everyone. And what’s worse, they encourage bad writing – and that is a crime.

At least one national newspaper in the UK now has a quota for negative reviews. It’s small. This implies to readers that most of the books being published are good, which we all know to be the exact opposite of the case. A ‘hatchet job’ might offend the writer, the publisher? Boo hoo hoo. The Sweetness and Light Brigade claim that in the adverse climate now faced by literature and the other arts, we must stand firm and be positive about things. But what about the dismay and disappointment of potential readers, who after all are human beings, who’ve been told a book is fabulous, when it isn’t? Simply isn’t. How does misleading them with the equivalent of ‘Well done you’ help books? The air should ring with cries of ‘Codswallop!’, ‘Where’s the editor?’ and ‘I demand satisfaction!’

It doesn’t help, of course, that such limited space is now given to reviewers in newspapers. Apart from the London Review of Books and the Scottish Review of Books, there’s nowhere in Britain that fiction is discussed at a proper length. The whole process of reading and reacting to a book has been reduced to a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, gladiatorial sport. Glibness can result.

We thought John Crace should have won the Hatchet Job prize – though he wasn’t nominated. He should win it every year. His ‘Digested Reads’ in the Guardian provide a vital service. He nobly steers you clear of many a turkey, which he’s very good at tearing to shreds, and making a tasty sandwich of. Long may he thrive.

The unwritten law of full disclosure bids us to say that Lucy was shortlisted for the Hatchet Job prize this year, for her review of Douglas Coupland’s Worst.Person.Ever., the title of which was roundly booed at the party. But it was not a hatchet job. It was a book review – of a book that was no good. Vive la différence!

To Be Precise…

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on October 27, 2013 at 10:24 am

Brontë scholarship has been rocked to its slate foundations (and no bad 
thing). To the astonishment of academics on both sides of the North Sea, it has transpired that the tireless Yorkshire neurotic, Charlotte Brontë, who was thought to have had one of the biggest crushes in history on Constantin Heger, an obscure Belgian teacher, was actually in love with Hergé (né Georges Remi), the worldly, sophisticated creator of the fabulously popular Adventures of Tintin. The recent discovery of certain letters and diary entries proves this incontrovertibly.

The effect these unlikely lovers had on each other’s work has yet to be 
sifted, but already certain shared ideas and trends are discernible. Fans 
agree that some of Hergé’s best panels are of dark, windswept places. He had an almost insatiable curiosity about England and the English, which prevented him from ever coming here. So what more fortunate circumstance could befall him than that of a young, passionate, rapidly-breathing live Yorkshirewoman dropping lightly into his lap? Blistering barnacles! You can practically hear Snowy barking his usual outraged Wooah! Wooah! at the unpredictability of human behaviour.

As anyone who has visited the Brontë Parsonage knows, the sisters engaged throughout their childhood in the fashioning of intricate adventures and fairytale lands, which they laboriously wrote out in their special minuscule Brontë handwriting, and illustrated with vigour on the very walls of the house, at times almost in strip-cartoon style. One can only imagine Charlotte’s deep sense of recognition, the realization that here lay her mate, her future, when a copy of Destination Moon first fell into her hands.

Hergé himself drew from babyhood. Curiously, one of his early attempts was at a graphic novel of Wuthering Heights. Strange to think that in only a few years he would be deeply in love with the author’s sister! The few panels that remain, in graphite and blue wash, show a remarkable grasp of the details of Yorkshire doorknobs and a developing ability to depict lowering skies and brooding wheat.

It seems it was Charlotte who made the first move, by writing to Hergé, the date uncertain. The letter declaring her devotion, was, of course, one of many hundreds received by Hergé every week. Though more long-winded than her lover-to-be (who always kept words to a minimum in order to fit in all the pictures), Brontë had nonetheless learnt from him how to stick to the point. After all, she had by now spent many a lonely night with a torch under the covers of her frost-laden bed, studying the few Tintin books she could afford, surrounded by her snuffling sisters.

On first learning of Charlotte’s crush, Hergé’s instinct, and that of his 
cercle intime, was naturally to ignore her, although he remarked favorably on her grammar. A silence ensued that caused her great anguish. Had he succumbed more readily to her glottal-stopping charms, we might never have had Jane Eyre, that supreme wail of the unrequited. But had he resisted her forever, we certainly would not have as much Tintin! Like Rochester, Hergé was inspired and at last impressed by her tenacity. Leaving his Brussels atelier one day, Hergé found Brontë in the garden beside an appropriately storm-blasted tree, weeping with lust and longing over the dog-eared parsonage copy of The Red Sea Sharks. This fascinating, if somewhat weedy, English fan could be denied no longer. No matter how shy she was, nor how 
puny, nor how weird her family, not to mention her inexplicable libertarian principles which failed to conform to his colonialist views, it was time to wallow in her arms.

There is no doubt but that it was a torrid affair: in the margin of one of 
Charlotte’s notebooks there is a not half-bad little sketch of Hergé smoking a cigarette, subscribed with the legend ‘my bad Belgian’. For his part, Hergé had a long period of drawing a girl he called ‘Jane’ (who had, however, the Brontë features) with her knickers down. He introduced Charlotte to all the excitements of aeroplane meals, Algeria, and cigars. It was a passionate relationship, but also a companionable one: she knitted warm socks to protect them both against the damp, while he would gently scold her about her interest in her characters’ psychology: in an undated letter to Emily, Charlotte remarks with surprising complacence that ‘H. believes good colour separations are all that matter.’ From letters and postcards it is obvious too that Snowy and Keeper became fast friends, whether fouling the beach together at Ostende or shivering under the sleet of Haworth.

Similarities and mutual influences abound in the works of the lovers. For those to whom the gradual growth of sword-fighting and exploding mummy-cases in Charlotte’s later novels was a source of bemusement, the origins of this are now clear. And Hergé’s deepening romanticism, the softer eyes of his female characters (Bianca Castafiore comes to mind), and his increasing absorption in gothic subjects had to be generated by the love he felt for his ‘little governess’, as well as his involvement with her family. One of his final projected strips seems to have been a work actually set in Yorkshire: The Scary Brother has Tintin and Snowy on the trail of a missing glass of beer which they track to a little-used railway signal box; there a deranged man confesses to downing the pint and muses (rather too long) on art and life. There are notes, too, on a Tintin adventure tentatively called The Madwoman in the Attic—clearly a direct steal.

Thanks to Hergé’s kind ministrations, Charlotte’s later work became more dynamic, more storyboarded. Filled with the spirit of adventure, she happily made plans for two novels which were to be dedicated to her dashing, cosmopolitan love: The Lost Thread Mine of Reverend Raoul, and (with Branwell again the subject) The Adventure of the Badly Soiled Chair.


Coming soon: Mute Testimony – the tempestuous love story of Johnny and Rachel Carson.

Padgett Powell — The Interrogative Mood

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on July 26, 2013 at 7:21 am

‘these questions want you bad’  (113)

This is a marvellous creation, a kind of pop art that sets off blasts in your head in mystifying, startling, explosive, and expansive ways. The language is by turns old-fashioned, elegant, even (as Powell would put it)  ‘recherché’, or zapped through with deadpan profundities, bursts of slang and some superb snippets of repartee, often in black speak, or Southern dialect anyway (Powell lives in Florida). So the tone can change in an instant from po-faced and stuffy – ‘Do you think it plausible…’ (60) and, ‘…the phrase enjoys, I believe, considerable currency’ (91) – through attitudes technical and philosophical – ‘Is all life clueless, or is most of it clueless with momentary bursts of clueness, or is it a spectrum of cluelessness to clueness on which people reside at various points, and are the points at which people reside on the spectrum of cluelessness fixed or variable?’ (80) – to low-brow, with terms like ‘cut slack’ (3), ‘…do Psalms do it for you?’ (1), ‘is it received hogwash…’ (14) – or sometimes all at once, as in: ‘Do people who purport to know what a fractal is have a leg up on those who confess they don’t?’ (18) I like that ‘leg up’. Or this perfunctory quandary: ‘Should non-asses have to put up with asses?’ (109)

The weird effect of all these questions is warmth, humanity, and an infectious curiosity (about life and, apparently, about the reader). It’s welcoming! The questioner seems lenient about human failings, and human perplexities. How easily bamboozled we are if someone shows us the least bit of attention. It makes you feel loved and needed, to be talked to this much. I’m a sucker for it: I love being asked questions! And our interrogator is always polite, painstakingly so. ‘Can you see yet (I hardly mean to single you out: we will all look horrible and we will all look like old women) how horrible you will look as a very old woman?’ (7)

These are probing questions, and one’s instinct is to answer them. If it’s a novel, it’s certainly a very odd one; but in the end the book is asking what all novels ask the unseen reader: is anyone out there? Powell chafes at this divide and wittily acknowledges it. Does he care about the answers? There are times in the book when he directly puzzles over who we are, and demands details: ‘If there is a missed sexual encounter in your past, do you recall the name of the person it might have involved? Would you be willing to share that name and the particulars with me?’ (77)

It’s also a deconstruction (not in the Lacanian sense, more in the bulldozer sense) of what a novel, or poem, should be: a sincere exploration of what’s in the writer’s head at the time. The only other similarities here to more conventional types of novel include flashbacks, some hints of autobiographical info, incidental factual (loosely educational) asides, and indications of the narrator’s main concerns, worries, irritations, foibles and even medical problems. Recurrent themes are birds (especially owls, eagles, buzzards and blue jays), pine trees, handyman tools, guitarists, model train sets, medieval sieges, nakedness, clowns, hospitals and nurses, rain, guns, chocolate, vegetarians, dogs (poodles and terriers), snakes (moccasins in particular), monkeys, horses, whores, whiskey, radishes, ‘questionable’ water drunk from garden hoses, and the author’s apparent aversion to getting mail and talking on the phone. All very reasonable preoccupations! He also likes to conjure up fantasy hidey-holes – abandoned silver mines, Andean cabins, powerboats on Lake Michigan. Again and again, the idea of wholesale retreat, hermitude, comes up, lying in a hammock somewhere and living in a secluded, self-sufficient kind of way. But, he asks, ‘What if the cartoonist R. Crumb were your neighbor? Would you sleep better, or worse, or the same knowing R. Crumb was your neighbor in the next quaint stone medieval cottage in the South of France?’ (44)

Rather than forming a cohesive thread, these ideas are laid out for us intermittently, as a cat of ours used to lay out the organs of her prey in a straight line across the doormat. Some are innocent questions, some sweet: ‘Do you suppose that once a bird knows how to fly he pretty much can expect to fly without incident, more or less as, say, we walk about, or would you think bird flying to be fraught with aeronautical accident?’ (118) Others are loaded questions, like: ‘Have you ever been not disappointed by a banana split?’ (122) Most don’t lead in any obvious way from one to another, in fact Powell’s great at giving each separate question equal weight and making them work against each other. Each is distinct, there’s no hierarchy of the important vs. the trivial: they all get an airing. And the discontinuity is part of the pleasure. The book has a nice childish element to it too, since it’s children who ask the most questions, and you come to depend on the inexhaustible flow of them here. In fact, what starts as a bewildering array of random thoughts becomes a tight-rope walk – you fear Powell will fall and forget to turn every sentence into a question. That would be hugely disappointing. But he doesn’t, not once, and the effects of all this are weird and new. And fun.

There’s a lot of information about the world here and free handy hints, words of wisdom, touching pastoral moments and shifts into nostalgia – for green shield stamps, for instance, and the ice cream man, or those ‘manila rubber buttons in the garters that held up ladies’ hose’ (3). ‘Do you think the heyday of hairspray was the 1960s, or has it lived on?’ he asks, and ‘Are Kotex still worn on belts?’ (120) He throws all this at you without seeming to draw breath, and you end up astounded to consider this pile he’s amassed (or we have) of all the things human beings know and think about; everything we’ve been through, and are yet to go through.

The wit is in the way he uses language, but also in the absurd juxtapositions, when he follows a serious question with something incontrovertibly frivolous, as in: ‘If you were sitting…on a stool at the soda fountain of an old drugstore…and a robber came in armed and commenced holding the place up, and you had a nice safe handy shot at the back of his head with a convenient good and heavy blunt instrument, would you take it? Do you find the expense of alterations at an alteration shop prohibitive?’ (36-7) Another fine pairing: ‘Do you realize that on Sunday-morning network television in the United States of America one can hear a voice-over in a commercial for erectile dysfunction informing the target audience, presumable families headed for church, that an erection lasting more than four hours should be regarded as a medical emergency? Would you rather be kicked in the head by a horse or a bull?’ (111) As a result, the book is a non-stop thrill to read: moving, disturbing, heroic, and terribly funny at times. There are horrific moments too, scary images abruptly shoved before you, such as his description of cows being slaughtered (128), which is barely contained a question 170 words long, making it really a mini-essay on what our beef needs entail.

At first you just don’t know how the thing works, but within thirty pages I was completely hooked and noting my favorites. Quoted in order of appearance:

‘Are you comforted by the assertion that there are yet people on Earth who know what they are doing? Or, like me, do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction?’ (6)

‘Are you comforted by good tile?’ (11)

‘Is the sky the limit?’ (14)

‘Does the question of where all the garbage goes and how can it not soon not be able to go there bother you? Should I have put that a little more clearly?’ (19)

‘Would you trust a vegetarian veterinarian? With your own dog?’ (21)

‘Do you carry a big gob of keys or have you managed to pare down?’ (24)

‘Is good amateur theater oxymoronic?’ (28)

‘Why do you think the hole in 45 rpm records was so large and the hole in the much larger 33 rpm record was so small?’ (29)

‘For good furniture, what is your wood of choice? Can I sell you on walnut?’ (31)

‘Have you ever carpeted a room with carpet samples?’ (38)

‘Do you miss Tab and do you fully understand its disappearance?’ (43)

‘Do you credit that a man seriously advanced “cogito ergo sum” with a straight face?’ (53)

‘Do you have a favorite dinosaur, and do you trust that the popular images of dinosaurs bear any resemblance to what they really looked like, and do you have any idea how dinosaur scientists think they know, from bones alone, what the damned things looked like?’ (56)

‘Have you ever known anyone proficient on a unicycle who struck you as a normal person…?’ (86)

‘What does “It just goes to show you” mean?’ (111)

‘Is Santa Claus in your view essentially a pedophile?’ (111)

‘Do you comprehend exactly how more casualties on a battlefield can be said to render previous casualties on the battlefield not to have been in vain? Is the argument beneath this logic not that the losing dead are worse off than the winning dead? Is there any hope? Do we need galoshes?’ (112)

‘Would you check in for a long stay, a short stay, or would you not stay at all at The Hotel Enema?’ (143)

‘Is the chief function of the doily protective or decorative or both?’ (146)

‘If told your house was to be painted either “arsenical green” or “cupric yarng,” which would you pick?’ (147)

‘Would you rather see a cancan show or a turtle race?’ (151)

And so it runs on, splendid, brave and fascinating. If there are faults, they would be these: it begins to feel as if Padgett assumes his reader is male, rather than male or female. Though this does allow him some fun jabs about erections and other stuff, it seems a mistake to make women feel excluded. And there are moments, just a few, when it can seem a bit too Americacentric. Also — I wasn’t convinced by the ending. This was perhaps inevitable because I didn’t want it to end. The whole book is sort of an open-ended question. And maybe that’s as it should be. But if I were the editor, I’d have recommended ending it with the entertaining riff on Jimi Hendrix. End on a high note.

So I will too. We have pity for each other. That’s a great human trait (though I’m sure animals have it too). We didn’t need Jesus or Mother Theresa to tell us to do it. Human beings have been pitying each other since the first woman breastfed her baby, and the first person spoke to another (unless they spoke in anger). And you see it when infants start to interact with other infants: the pity that comes when total selfdom bows to an awareness of other people. Social life requires empathy, and within empathy comes a humbling sense of equality, fellow feeling. This is the source of civilization, socialism, and most good novels. Within every question Padgett Powell asks, pity is there.

So we think The Interrogative Mood should be America’s new Citizenship Test.


(These quotations are the copyright of Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood, Ecco Press, 2009; Profile Books, 2010)

Eduardo Galleano, on the conspiracy of indifference

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on July 24, 2013 at 8:48 am

‘“…our militarism, machismo, racism all blinds us… There are so many ways of becoming blind. We are blind to small things and small people… My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia. I wrote to recover the memory of the human rainbow, which is in danger of being mutilated.”

By way of example he cites Robert Carter III – of whom I had not heard – who was the only one of the US’s founding fathers to free his slaves. “For having committed this unforgivable sin he was condemned to historical oblivion.”

Who, I ask, is responsible for this forgetfulness? “It’s not a person,” he explains. “It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten… We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.”‘

Eduardo Galleano talking to Gary Younge (‘My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia’, the Guardian, July 23, 1013)


A Poem by Jade Bruno

(to Todd and Lucy)

If you’d be my friend,
I’d eat a cake
and kiss a snake,
burn a fox
paint a box,
break a house
kill a mouse,
hug you tight
then take on a fight
and smile without end
If you’d be my friend.

(copyright: Jade Bruno)