Archive for August, 2011

August 21, 2011

Jason, Werewolves of Montpellier

Last week’s Left of Cool piece. This was the first thing I’d read by Jason, and I really liked it. Must find more.

**********************************************

In an alternate Paris where everyone has the face of a dog or a bird, a werewolf burglar leaps across the rooftops at night. Sven is an artist by day, but once a month he dons a werewolf mask and becomes a notorious criminal. His reasoning, as far as it goes, is that if he is caught in the act the werewolf mask will startle his captor enough to give him a few seconds’ head start.

But there are real werewolves in Montpellier. When a picture of Sven in disguise is published in a local paper they realise that his notoriety poses them a serious threat. He must either leave the city or stay and face them. It is with this situation that the story of Jason’s Werewolves of Montpellier (translated from French by Kim Thompson) opens.

But the enmity of a gang of werewolves is not the foremost problem on Sven’s mind. A more ordinary book would focus on the feud with the group of werewolves as the central aspect of the story. But Jason’s graphic novel is anything but ordinary and the werewolf plot is almost insignificant here. This is in part indicated by the fact that Sven’s werewolf mask is only very slightly different from his real face, and by the anticlimactic nature of the resolution of this plot.

And so besides a couple of exciting and somewhat farcical rooftop chases and a minor surprise at the end of the story, werewolves are barely mentioned. This isn’t a book in which plot plays a particularly big role – most of the characters’ time is spent in playing chess or poker, in periods of long silences or in conversations that may have very little to do with werewolves, but do a lot to turn these characters into people. Werewolves of Montpellier is a very quiet book in many ways. It’s not just the sparseness of the dialogue; everything about it is muted, from the artwork (which is deceptively simple, and demands attention from the reader even to keep track of the characters) to the emotional reactions of the characters.

Particularly strong moments include the seemingly inconsequential discussion of how escalators provide opportunities to ogle women.  This is followed a few pages later by Sven’s hesitating before an escalator and then, in the next panel, climbing the stairs instead. Then there’s the section in which Sven is drunk and (in one of the few obviously experimental moments in the book) the panels turn topsy-turvy to indicate this.

Far more than lycanthropic thriller, then, Werewolves of Montpellier feels like an indie movie, or possibly even a romantic comedy. Some of the long, dialogue-free sequences call to mind movie montages. This is particularly true of one section, when Sven and Audrey spend a day together. Audrey’s Hepburn obsession (her real name, it turns out, isn’t Audrey at all) combined with her cat and the fact that she lives in the same building as Sven make for such an obvious movie reference (Holly Golightly is even namechecked) as to suggest that cinema is supposed to inform our reading.

Another presumably deliberate angle from which to look at the book is to take its title as a direct reference to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”.  The Zevon song also makes a point of talking about werewolves in the most mundane fashion possible (the lyrics have the werewolves drinking pina coladas and buying Chinese takeaway). 

As a clever undercutting of the more traditional werewolf story then, Werewolves of Montpellier is excellent. Yet what really makes the book worthy of praise is the laconic humour and the characterisation that somehow makes something sweet and touching (and amazingly, not annoying) out of the existentialist angst of lonely people. In less than fifty pages, and particularly sparse pages at that, Jason does more than you would have believed possible.

**********************************************

August 13, 2011

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw Notes (Chapter 1)

 

Note: unstructured notes and things ahead. Not a real post or a review. 

 

 

 

I’m (along with some other people) reading my way through Samuel Delany’s collection of essays The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. Putting my short notes here seems a convenient way to do this (and you get to mock me for things I hilariously misunderstand) so here is most of what I wrote while reading the first essay in this edition (the 2009 one, with an introduction by Matthew Cheney), “About 5,570 Words”.

——————-

“About 5,570 Words”

Delany starts with the meaninglessness of style vs content arguments: “Is there such a thing as verbal information apart from the words used to inform?” I get the feeling this is something he will be referring back to a lot in subsequent essays, and it’s close enough to my own position (if I have one) that I’m willing to accept it as a premise.

Chapter one seems to be all about the relationship between words in a text -> a word as a sound-picture, and each subsequent word modifying that picture: thus a 60,000 word novel is a picture corrected 59,000 times. (This is where the title of the chapter begins to make sense to me).

He moves on to subjunctivity, which is something I’ve never been entirely clear on (I have only a year of lit theory classes and scraps I’ve read to fall back on here). Delany defines it as “the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between (to borrow Saussure’s term for ‘word’) sound-image and sound-image. The example he gives  if this- something is presented to us as reportage, thus “[a] blanket tension (or mood) informs the whole series: this happened. Which is to do with context, but also, I think, why I’ve been wanting to study rasa theory in connection with genre for some time now.

Delany then discusses the subjunctivity of various genres – naturalistic fiction, fantasy, before elaborating on SF.

SF (events that have not happened) as distinct from events that could have happened (most naturalistic fiction)* or events that could not have happened (fantasy).

‘Events that have not happened’ can include ‘haven’t happened yet’, ‘will not happen’, ‘have happened in the past’ (alt-hist).

Thus there are both a huge degree of subjunctive freedom and a strong corrective process at work here because even as a startling image is presented to the reader, between it and the next words hover a number of possible explanations, and so SF must provide not only the imagery but some sort of explanation for how we got there.

 

*Though he (also in a footnote) makes a case for most fiction to be a form of unverifiable alt-history, and therefore SF.

August 7, 2011

E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady

Last week’s Left of Cool piece. I’d been meaning to get around to reading this book for a while – it had been recommended to me by friends (including the always-reliable in these matters Anna Carey). I loved this so much; the rueful tone, the self-awareness, the snobbery, the not understanding why Robert can’t understand that the new footman has a funny name, the social anxiety and the obvious intelligence. I’m glad I discovered Delafield, and I look forward to reading more.

(A version of this appeared in TSG here etc)

**********************************************

There’s a particular form of criticism of some writers (like Jane Austen, horrifyingly enough) which suggests that their work isn’t worth much because it’s so limited in scope. They only write about domestic issues, relationships, day-to-day household life. Trivial subjects all.

But in the hands of some writers triviality is not such a bad thing. No one who isn’t completely joyless complains that P. G. Wodehouse restricts himself to a bunch of mentally deficient upper-class English twits, when what he does with these characters is so good. And in E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a few months in the life of an upper-middle-class, harried mother of two is the stuff of genius.

Delafield’s “Provincial Lady” lives in a village with her two children, the mademoiselle who acts as governess to her daughter, and Robert, her husband. Robert works as a land agent for a Lady Boxe (Lady B) who frequently pops in to patronise our heroine. Robert is always grumpy about something, their daughter Vicky has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, and their son Robin spreads chaos and destruction whenever he is home from school. The house is never tidy, the cook is always upset about something, and nothing ever seems to go quite right. The Vicar’s wife visits and refuses to leave, and a local suffragette is trying to raise political awareness.

Our unnamed provincial lady worries frequently about money. This seems ridiculous – the family has a governess, a domestic staff of at least three people, and a son who goes to what seems quite a fancy boarding school. There’s plenty of classism here, as you’d expect. And yet it’s not as offensive as it might have been in other circumstances, and the narrator has everything to do with it.

In part it is the tone of the book. Diaries are usually intended only to be read by the person writing them*, and Delafield’s fictional diary is therefore written as if to assume that the reader can follow the supposed writer’s thoughts – jumping from topic to topic without any particularly obvious logical connection. It’s a surprisingly intimate style and it works.

She’s also accessible because she isn’t perfect. A recurring theme in the book is her failure throughout the year to successfully grow hyacinths indoors from bulbs, with cats, husbands, children and incomprehensible instruction booklets all getting in the way. She’s also never quite dressed right for the occasion. She catches measles as an adult in the most undignified possible manner. She’s never quite at ease in social or cultural situations. She worries about being wrong about literature (“Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it”) and about how people will see her (“feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting–which indeed I should be–so better forget about it”).

Yet all of this is done with a sense of rueful self-awareness. She knows very well that the social circles into which she aspires to fit are pretentious. (“Americans, we say, undoubtedly hospitable–but what about the War Debt? What about Prohibition? What about Sinclair Lewis? Aimée MacPherson, and Co-education? By the time we have done with them, it transpires that none of us have ever been to America, but all hold definite views, which fortunately coincide with the views of everybody else.”) She knows the class system is silly. She knows that her various failures are funny – her diary suggests that she’s laughing at herself throughout.

If this seems heartless, it isn’t. There are flashes throughout of genuine feeling; but feeling filtered through a well-developed sense of irony. The result is familiar and hilarious.

**********************************************

 

*Unless you are a character in an Oscar Wilde play. Doesn’t Cecily Cardew say somewhere that her diary is totally private and consequently meant for publication?

August 2, 2011

A Flann O’Brien project

This year is also Flann O’Brien’s birth centenary (he was born 5 October, 1911). I’ve read only a couple of O’Brien’s major works and I loved them. So to celebrate him and to educate myself I’m now planning to work my way through everything by him I can get my hands on. I’d originally planned a novel a week throughout August – I’m not sure that’s likely to happen, but I’ll be starting my reread of The Third Policeman tomorrow. Please do feel free to join in – he’s a brilliant writer and should be read more.