Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

war-of-the-worlds-by-h-g-wellsThe War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

You don’t read some books: you live them. Treasure Island (1883) is like that; so is The War of the Worlds. Both books appeared before true cinema, but they have the vividness of films and more besides, because cinema can’t evoke scent, smell, taste and sensation as language can. Words create worlds in your head and the best writers, like Wells and Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. I first read both books as a child and both have stayed with me, so that every time I re-read them I can remember how it felt to read them that first time.

Or rather: I can remember how it felt to live them. I had heard the rustling feathers of Long John Silver’s parrot in Treasure Island; I had tasted the bitterness of the red Martian weed that smothers large parts of London in War of the Worlds. Both books are written in the first person and they’re both full of twists and surprises. That first person – the constant “I, Me, Mine”, as George Harrison put – helps explain why they’re so vivid, but it took much more than that. Stevenson and Wells were literary geniuses, masters of creating worlds from pure imagination.

After all, Stevenson had never lived in the eighteenth century and gone sailing on a treasure-hunt. Wells had never experienced an invasion by Martians. But you will if you read War of the Worlds. Wells captures the way it might have been with great skill and subtlety, from the mysterious lights and flashes seen by astronomers on Mars to the landing of the first cylinder containing Martians. Every time I re-read I know exactly what’s coming, but the narrator never does and I experience the story through him, so that it never fails to seem fresh and exciting.

Or horrifying. The Martians are like red octopuses, but they seem harmless and even pitiful at first, struggling to cope with the stronger gravity of Earth. Then suddenly they turn into death-dealing monsters, with a military technology far in advance of Victorian England’s and the will to use it without mercy. Or does “mercy” apply to creatures from another world? That’s one of the questions faced by the narrator when he sees the Martians at work, whether they’re slaughtering humans with their heat-rays and poison gas or capturing humans for food. The Martians aren’t men and our standards don’t apply. We matter to us, but why should we matter to them?

Because I’m living through the narrator, the ending of the story still seems surprising. Man was helpless, but Mother Nature wasn’t, as the narrator suddenly learns. Wells is good at shifts of perspective that make you see human beings and the world in a new way. Arthur C. Clarke learned that from him, but Wells was a greater and more grown-up writer. Today we know that Mars isn’t likely to invade, but The War of the Worlds remains an excellent adventure story and a continued warning about the “infinite complacency” with which men go “to and fro over this globe with their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (“The Coming of the Martians”).

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call-of-the-wild-and-white-fang-by-jack-londonThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.

Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.

The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. (The Call of the Wild)

And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:

The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)

Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.

But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.

The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).

I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):

The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.

Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.

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Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

I’d prefer to have met Strachey’s work first in this book rather than in Eminent Victorians (1918). Then the best would have been still to come. As it was, I first read Eminent Victorians, then sought out more of his work and was disappointed. Victoria (1921) is dull, Elizabeth and Essex (1928) duller.

The Shorter Strachey is much better than those two. Indeed, one short essay on Lodowick Muggleton is worthy to stand beside the long essay on Cardinal Manning that opens Eminent Victorians. This is very good writing:

Never did the human mind attain such a magnificent height of self-assertiveness as in England about the year 1650. Then it was that the disintegration of religious authority which had begun with Luther reached its culminating point. The Bible, containing the absolute truth as to the nature and the workings of the Universe, lay open to all; it was only necessary to interpret its assertions; and to do so all that was wanted was the decision of the individual conscience. In those days the individual conscience decided with extraordinary facility. Prophets and prophetesses ranged in crowds through the streets of London, proclaiming, with complete certainty, the explanation of everything. The explanations were extremely varied: so much the better — one could pick and choose. One could become a Behmenist, a Bidellian, a Coppinist, a Salmonist, a Dipper, a Traskite, a Tryonist, a Philadelphian, a Christadelphian, or a Seventh Day Baptist, just as one pleased. Samuel Butler might fleer and flout at

petulant, capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts;

but he, too, was deciding according to the light of his individual conscience. By what rule could men determine whether a text was corrupted, or what it meant? The rule of the Catholic Church was gone, and henceforward Eternal Truth might with perfect reason be expected to speak through the mouth of any fish-wife in Billingsgate. (“Muggleton”, in Portraits in Miniature, 1931)

Elsewhere, Strachey writes well but not exceptionally on subjects as varied as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, the acting of Sarah Bernhardt, the humour of Dostoevsky, and his own life. He’s witty, perceptive, and, in the autobiographical pieces at least, unblushingly candid. His day-description “Monday June 26th 1916”, in which he longs for a flyweight boxer in the Daily Mirror and tries to realize a daydream of seducing “that young postman with the fair hair and lovely country complexion who had smiled at me and said ‘Good evening, sir’, as he passed on his bicycle”, couldn’t have been published in his lifetime.

Which didn’t last long. It began in 1880 and ended in 1932. There were big changes in those five decades and Strachey was at the heart of some of them. Eminent Victorians was an important book, part of the revolt against the old order provoked by the slaughter and futility of the First World War, but it wouldn’t have been so successful if it hadn’t been so well-written.

You’ll see here that Strachey was rebelling against part of himself: there’s Victorian stodginess in some of the essays and reviews, even if they were written after Eminent Victorians. But “Muggleton” is as light as a soufflé. It’s also affectionate rather than acid. It would have been a foretaste of literary bliss, if I’d read this book first.

I’d didn’t, but you should if you don’t know Strachey. If you do, you’ll learn a lot more about him here. There are also glimpses of others in the Bloomsbury Set, like Ottoline Morrell and Dora Carrington. And The Shorter Strachey closes with four essays on French literature and culture, which were both very important to Strachey. The French writer Jean Giradoux supplies his epitaph: « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur. » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” Strachey wasn’t mediocre and wasn’t always at his best. But he got there in “Muggleton” and got close elsewhere in this book.

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Note: Post the appalling news from America, we in the close-knit Papyrocentric community feel this is a highly appropriate moment to re-publish this searing indictment of racism, hate and Other-phobia first issued in 2005 by the literary activist Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum (who is, of course, the life-partner of longstanding Papyrocentric favorite Dr Miriam B. Stimbers).

Faut-il Brûler Smith? (Con)futing the Hate Speech of Klarkash-Ton

by Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum

The Other is a liminal mirror in which we see reflected nothing other than the faces, distorted with rage, fear, and doubt, of the sentries patrolling the ambiguous and disputed frontiers of the Self. — Michel Foucault.

In terms of key issues maximally impacting committed members of the equality-activist community in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, there can be little doubt that the keyest is the confrontation with hatred of the Other. Be it in the form of antisemitism, racism, xeno-, gyno-, homo-, and/or lesbophobia, Other-directed prejudice and bigotry is a feral cancer whose seething tentacles cement a visceral shadow as much over the future of western societies as over their past. Yet members of the literary-scholarship community find that their field of critical and theoretic focus, one of the principal means of leveraging progressive ideas/attitudes in terms of the body (socio-)politic, often proves a double-edged discourse.

In short, and to be blunt, many past writers/authors were vicious bigots and/or racists. Nor are participants in “fringe” genres such as Weird fiction, themselves marginalized by mainstream literary discourse, innocent of an identical charge. Members of the Internet community, whether knowingly or unknowingly, can access the following on the Eldritch Dark, the premier web-resource devoted to maximalizing engagement with the literary legacy of Clark Ashton Smith, a core member of the seminal 1920s/1930s Weird Tales literary community:

The vermin is a very Jew, and will have his last ounce of brain and marrow.1

I return the Ullman-Knopf communication herewith. Knopf should remove the Borzoi from his imprint, and substitute either the Golden Calf or a jackass with brazen posteriors. I wish Herr Hitler had him, along with Gernsback.2

Antisemitism, arguably the most feral of all Other-phobic discourses, is a pivotal strand in the fluidic œuvre of Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), a California poet/author now arguably most famous for his association with New England author/poet H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Texas writer/author Robert E. Howard (1906-36). Lovecraft’s and Howard’s own and more obvious Other-phobia has been the epicenter of an unswerving critical dissection for a not inconsiderable time-period post the Civil Rights era/epoch, and I would suggest that Smith’s less obvious but arguably, for that very reason, even more pernicious Other-phobia has fallen into the penumbra cast by the brickbats rightly focused around Lovecraft and Howard. The present essay is an attempt, however tentative, inchoate, and embryonic, to corrective this situation and foreground the urgent need for unacceptable components/elements of Smith’s literary/epistolary output to be engaged on multiple levels by committed members of the anti-racist community.

Accordingly, I shall interrogate the conte fantastique by which arguably more than any other the feral parameters of Smith’s visceral Other-phobia can be mapped and/or charted: “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” (1936). Experienced literary exegetists need engage with no more than the title of this fictive discourse prior to commencing a deconstruction of its probable Other-phobic narrative strategies. We confront not ‘simply’ a chromatically unmarked “The Abbot of Puthuum,” nor a chromatically ‘neutral’ “The Red/Yellow/Blue Abbot of Puthuum,” but “The Black Abbot of Puthuum,” and the title immediately and explicitly conjuncts the racial Other of socially constructed Blackness with the textual Other of fictively constructed “Puthuum,” a factitious confection of visceral vocables nevertheless harboring feral echoes of “putridity-putrescence-putrefaction.”

Who could doubt, prior to embarking around a full engagement with Smith’s core narrative structure, that “The Black Abbot” will prove ‘Black’ by both socially constructed race but also by ideologically constructed nature, reinforcing/buttressing traditional Other-phobic discourses whereby Blackness is insolubly conjuncted with notions around soi disant ‘deviance’ and ‘criminality’? It comes as no surprise, then, for the attentive lectrice/lecteur, post reading-commencement, to confront the following literary tropes within the central core segment of the narrative proper:

The black man grinned capaciously, showing rows of discolored teeth whose incisors were like those of a wild dog. His enormous unctuous jowls were creased by the grin into folds of amazing number and volume; and his eyes, deeply slanted and close together, seemed to wink perpetually in pouches that shook like ebon jellies. His nostrils flared prodigiously; his purple, rubbery lips drooled and quivered, and he licked them with a fat, red, salacious tongue before replying to Cushara’s question.3 (Emphases mine.)

We see here an ‘optimal’ conflation of feral Other-phobic narratives of race whose visceral impaction on the reader is rather increased than lessened by the formalism of Smith’s conflicted, eurocentric prose. Indeed, we note that the Abbot becomes not merely the racial Other but the mammalian Other: his dentition is that of a “wild dog,” not that of a human being, and the sexual components of the ‘discourse of deviance’ long woven by white Other-phobes around members of the Black community are signalized in the “fat, red, salacious tongue” with which the Abbot animalistically “licks” his “purple, rubbery lips.” Soon post this passage, the Abbot’s unbridled Other-sexuality is further emphasized/foregrounded as he becomes not merely the mammalian but the vertebral Other:

Neither he nor Zobal was reassured by the look of lust in the abbot’s obscenely twinkling eyes as he peered at Rubalsa. Moreover, they had now noted the excessive and disagreeable length of the dark nails on his huge hands and bare, splayed feet: nails that were curving, three-inch talons, sharp as those of some beast or bird of prey. (Emphases mine.)

His visceral Otherness has become too ferally impactive to be confined within the anatomic/behavioral parameters of the class Mammalia (mammals) and is transferred even further, to those of the class Aves (birds). The Abbot’s subsequent attempts to both rape Rubalsa, the “queenly maiden” around whose non-consensual purchase and sex-trafficking the narrative centers, but also to murder and devour her ‘protectors’ are further cementings of Other-phobic racist discourses of Black promiscuity, violence, and cannibalism.

The multiply-stranded question that is begged by even a cursory interrogation of the soi disant “Black Abbot” is identical, mutatis mutandis, to that raised by French philosophe / critic / cultural commentatrice Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) in a key mid-twentieth-century text of theoretic and societo-literary engagement: the essay «Faut-il Brûler Sade?» (1951), or “Must We Burn de Sade?”. Here I ask «Faut-il Brûler Smith?» (2005), or “Must We Burn Smith?”. That is, is our objective of a progressive, egalitarian society in which the optimally-diverse value and contributions of all are of equal worth and standing maximally advanced by a visceral suppression of such feral tropes in the work of such writers/authors as Clark Ashton Smith?

Or must we seek another — and indeed anOther — means of transitioning key societal components to our desired post-racist, post-white-hegemonic end(s)? Attractive though the strategy of suppression must appear to those members of the progressive community who fully recognize the dangers of such hate speech, it is nevertheless incumbent on us to engage with issues around pragmatism and acknowledge the impossibility, at the present stage of societal evolution, of successfully fruitioning such a strategy.

Instead, we must adopt the strategy of confrontation and confutation, theorizing/triangulating Smith within the poly-dimensional temporal, societal, and ideological co-ordinates/parameters of his fluidic, polymorphic fictive and meta-cultural identities/personae and explicating, if by no means excusing, his profoundly regrettable co-optioning of Other-phobic discourses of antisemitism and racism.


The following CAS texts and letter can be found online at The Eldritch Dark.

1. “The Corpse and the Skeleton.”
2. Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, c. mid-October 1933.
3. “The Black Abbot of Puthuum.”

© 2005 Nigel M. Goldbaum

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The Collected Stories of Arthur C. ClarkeThe Collected Stories, Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz 2000)

Do you want to know the difference between ingenuity and imagination? Between literary competence and literary genius? Then compare Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories with J.G. Ballard’s short stories. Reading Ballard is like exploring a jungle; reading Clarke is like touring a greenhouse. Ballard is haunting and head-expanding in a way that Clarke isn’t, much as he might have wanted to be.

You could say that the difference between them is like the difference between wizardry and engineering or poetry and prose or madness and sanity. Clark Ashton Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien are different in the same way. Ballard and Smith could conjure dreams on paper; Clarke and Tolkien could create realistic worlds. I like all four writers, but I don’t place them at the same level. There is a great gulf fixed between the wizards and the engineers. I’m reminded of it every time I read Clarke and Tolkien, so part of the value of their work is that it teaches me to appreciate Ballard and Smith more. Or to marvel more.

All the same, the engineers could do things that the wizards couldn’t. Clarke and Tolkien were better educated than Ballard and Smith, and Clarke knew more about hard science than Ballard. There are some ideas and images in this book that take realism to its limits. The life-form that Clarke invented for “Castaway” (1947) has stayed with me ever since I read the story as a child. It was thrown off its home-world by a storm – or rather, thrown out of its home-world. That’s because it was a plasma-creature living inside the sun until it was ejected by a solar storm and blown on the solar wind to the Earth:

The tenuous outer fringes of the atmosphere checked his speed, and he fell slowly towards the invisible planet. Twice he felt a strange, tearing wrench as he passed through the ionosphere; then, no faster than a falling snowflake, he was drifting down the cold, dense gas of the lower air. The descent took many hours and his strength was waning when he came to rest on a surface hard beyond anything he had ever imagined.

The unimaginably hard surface is actually the Atlantic Ocean, where the plasma-creature is detected by the radar of an overflying jet-liner. It looks like a giant amoeba to the wondering humans who are watching the radar, but they can’t see anything at all when they look at the water. The story is a very clever exercise in shifts of perspective and Clarke returned to these ideas in “Out of the Sun” (1958), in which the same kind of creature is thrown out of the sun and lands on Mercury, where it freezes to death in “seas of molten metal”. More wondering humans have watched it fly through space on radar from a solar-observation base. As it dies, the humans feel a “soundless cry of anguish, a death pang that seeped into our minds without passing through the gateways of the senses.”

There’s also alien life and clever invention in “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971), which is about a solo expedition to Jupiter that discovers giants in the clouds: browsing herbivores that defend themselves from swooping predators with electrical discharges. The explorer is called Falcon and is part-robot after an air-ship crash on earth. That enables him to survive “peaks of thirty g’s” as his air-ship, called Kon-Tiki, descends to the “upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere” and collects gas so that it can float there and observe. The story takes you to Jupiter and teaches you a lot about Jovian physics, chemistry and meteorology: it’s realism, not reverie, and Falcon’s discovery of life is entirely plausible.

The story was probably influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights” (1913), a proto-Lovecraftian story in which an early aviator discovers similar predators high in the air above Wiltshire. Doyle’s contemporary H.G. Wells was certainly an influence on Clarke: there’s even a piece here (not a proper story) called “Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells, Esq.” (1967). Clarke also knew Lovecraft and wrote a short parody of At the Mountains of Madness (1931) called At the Mountains of Murkiness, but the parody isn’t collected here and Lovecraft’s influence isn’t very obvious. Clarke had a sunny and optimistic personality and wrote few dark or depressing stories. There is a definite Lovecraftian touch, however, in one of the mini-stories collected under the title “The Other Side of the Sky” (1957). In “Passer-By”, an astronaut describes seeing something as he travels between space-stations on a rocket scooter. First he spots it on radar, then watches as it flies past:

I suppose I had a clear view of it for perhaps half a second, and that half-second has haunted me all my life. […] Of course, it could have been a very large and oddly shaped meteor; I can never be sure that my eyes, straining to grasp the details of so swiftly moving an object, were not hopeless deceived. I may have imagined that I saw that broken, crumpled prow, and the cluster of dark spots like the sightless sockets of a skull. Of one thing only was I certain, even in that brief and fragmentary vision. If it was a ship, it was not one of ours. Its shape was utterly alien, and it was very, very old.

It’s Lovecraftian to compare the portholes of a space-ship to the eye-sockets of a skull. So is the idea of a “very, very old” wreck flying between the stars. The uncertainty and doubt are Lovecraftian too, but you could also say that they’re scientific. Clarke often emphasizes the fallibility of the senses and the uncertainty of inferences based on them. Science is a way of overcoming those sensory limitations. In Lovecraft, science is dangerous: that uncertainty would slowly give way to horror as the truth is revealed. Clarke’s protagonist experiences no horror and though he’s haunted for life by what he might have seen, he feels that way because he didn’t learn enough, not because he learnt too much.

That story may have been the seed for Rendezvous with Rama (1976), which could be seen as a more optimistic re-working of At the Mountains of Madness. Puny humans explore a titanic alien artefact in both stories, but Clarke’s humans aren’t punished for their curiosity and at the end of the novel they look forward to indulging more of it. Clarke is good at grandeur and invoking the hugeness of the universe. He wrote about galaxy-spanning empires, giant scientific discoveries and struggles to save the universe.

He wrote about the multiverse too and there’s a story that makes the multiverse seem big by portraying a very confined part of it. This is the opening paragraph of “The Wall of Darkness” (1949):

Many and strange are the universes that drift like bubbles in the foam upon the river of Time. Some – a very few – move against or athwart its current; and fewer still are those that lie forever beyond its reach, knowing nothing of the future or past. Shervane’s tiny cosmos was not one of these: its strangeness was of a different order. It held one world only – the planet of Shervane’s race – and a single star, the great sun Trilorne that brought it life and light.

Shervane is a young man who makes a very strange discovery when he tries to cross a giant wall that circles his home planet. What is on the other side? In a way, everything is. This is another story that has stayed with me from my first reading of it as a child. And it could almost have been written by Ballard: like Ballard’s “The Concentration City” (1957) or “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), it’s about trying to escape from confinement and making an unexpected or ironic discovery about the true nature of things. Unlike Ballard, Clarke didn’t spend the Second World War locked in a prison camp, but he could get big ideas from a wall and the limit it imposed.

Neither he nor Ballard always wrote about big and serious ideas, however. Many stories here are deliberately small and silly, or big in a ludicrous way. P.G. Wodehouse seems to be an influence on the stories that come under the heading of Tales from the White Hart, in which Harry Purvis spins fanciful yarns for an audience of scientists and science-fiction writers in a pub in London. One story has an exploding moonshine still, another a giant squid that’s angry about its brain being manipulated, another a fall of twenty feet during which an unfortunate scientist doesn’t merely break the sound-barrier, but travels so fast that he’s burnt alive by air-friction.

It’s a horizontal fall too, although the story is called “What Goes Up” (1956). Clarke was playing with science there; elsewhere, in stories like “Green Fingers”, part of “Venture to the Moon” (1956), he’s making serious suggestions. The story is about a botanist on the moon who is killed by his own ingenuity, but it’s not a gloomy, Lovecraftian doom. Risks are part of exploration and adventure and Clarke presented space-travel as a new form of sea-faring. He loved both the sea and the sky and his love shines brightly here. So do “The Shining Ones” (1962), the intelligent cephalopods who end the life of another of his protagonists.

The premature death of adventurous young men is a theme he shared with A.E. Housman, whose poetry he greatly admired, but Clarke could also write about the rescue of adventurous young men, as in “Hide-and-Seek” (1949), “Summertime on Icarus” (1960) and “Take a Deep Breath” (1957). And deaths in his work aren’t futile or proof that man is always ultimately defeated. If Clarke had written pessimistically like that, he wouldn’t have been so popular among working scientists or inspired so many children to enter science. But he could appeal to children partly because he never properly grew up himself. Unlike Ballard, he never married or had any children of his own and his decision to live on Sri Lanka was probably inspired in part by paederasty, not just by his interest in scuba-diving.

My final judgment would be that he was an important writer, not a great one. I’ve enjoyed re-reading the stories here – even the numerous typos were fun – but that’s partly because they’ve sharpened my appreciation of J.G. Ballard. Clarke had no spark of divine madness: he was Voltaire to Ballard’s Nietzsche. His work does sparkle with intellect and ideas, but he made more out of science than he ever did out of fiction.

Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Clarke’s Arks – reviews of Imperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972)

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Malory: Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford University Press 1977)

I can remember starting to read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Members of the Vulnerable Black Community (1939) and being exhilarated by the simplicity and clarity of her prose. Reading was so easy that it was pleasurable, like taking off a pair of heavy boots on a hot day and walking barefoot on cool grass. But the exhilaration quickly wore off and in the end I felt bored instead. The simplicity became monotonous. I think I finished the book, but I almost gave up.

It was an interesting experience in the power of contrast and I was reminded of it when I came across this edition of the works of Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1410-71). Malory’s prose is also exhilaratingly simple: clear, cold and refreshing as a mountain stream. But unlike Christie’s, the exhilaration of his prose isn’t wearing off, perhaps because there’s something complex in it too:

Soo at Candalmasme many moo grete lordes came thyder for to have wonne the swerd, but there myght none prevaille. And right as Arthur dyd at Christmasse, he dyd at Candelmasse, and pulled oute the swerd easely, wherof the barons were sore agreved and put it of in delay till the hyghe fest of Eester. And as Arthur sped afore so dyd he at Eester. Yet there were some of the grete lordes had indignacion that Arthur shold be kynge, and put it of in a delay till the feest of Pentecoste. Then the Archebisshop of Caunterbury by Merlyns provydence let purveye thenne of the best knyghtes that they myghte gete, and suche knyghtes as Uther Pendragon loved best and moost trusted in his dayes. […] And at the fest of Pentecost alle manner of men assayed to pulle at the swerde that wold assay, but none myght prevaille but Arthur, and he pulled it oute afore all the lordes and comyns that were there. Wherefore alle the comyns cryed at ones, “We wille have Arthur unto our kyng! We wille put hym no more in delay, for we all see that it is Goddes wille that he shalle be our kynge, and who that holdeth ageynst it, we wille slee hym.” And therwithall they knelyd at ones, both ryche and poure, and cryed Arthur mercy bycause they had delayed hym so longe. And Arthur foryaf hem, and took the swerd bitwene both his handes, and offred it upon the aulter where the Archebisshop was, and so was he made knyghte of the best man that was there. And so anon was the coronacyon made, and ther was he sworne unto his lordes and the comyns for to be a true kyng, to stand with true justyce fro thens forth the dayes of this lyf. (The Tale of King Arthur, Book I, “Merlin”, pg. 10)

The prose is very simple and clear, but you have to concentrate to understand it. This is early modern English, with different and variable spellings, older grammar and meanings, and occasional words that are now lost or obsolete, like horse-mete, iwys, raynke, shafftemonde, and sodde, meaning respectively “food for horses”, “indeed”, “man”, “handsbreadth”, and “boiled”. But Malory is easier to understand than you might expect if you’ve ever tried Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), who died almost as Malory was born. The Canterbury Tales (late 1300s) has to be translated for modern readers; Le Morte d’Arthur has merely to be updated. Here’s something from Chaucer:

This Absolon gan wipe his mouth full drye.
Derk was the night as pitch or as the cole;
And at the window out she put hir hole.
And Absolon, him fill no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kissed her naked ers ––
Full savourly –– ere he was aware of this.
Aback he stert, and thought it was amiss,
For well he wist that a woman hath no beerd.
He felt a thing all rough and long y-herd,
And saide, “Fy, alas! What have I to do?”

(“The Miller’s Tale, lines 544-553)

Chaucer and Malory are separated by very little in time, but a lot in language, at least on the printed page. Print can be misleading: Malory’s pronunciation would sound odder to us than his spelling looks. But Chaucer’s humour and earthiness are another big difference between the two. Malory writes about high chivalry and tragic love, not practical jokes and pubic hair. And where Chaucer has stories, Malory has a story: King Arthur and his knights. Few people know Chaucer’s stories any more, but Malory’s story is one of the most famous in the world.

Do the simplicity and clarity of his prose help explain that? I think so. Like the New Testament, Malory’s work had powerful stories that could appeal to everyone. It also had a powerful piece of technology on its side: the printing press. This book has “Caxton’s Preface” to the first printed edition, although “the basis of the text is still the manuscript discovered in 1934 by Dr. W.F. Oakeshott in the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College” (introduction, pg. ix). Caxton explained why Malory would still be read six centuries later:

Thenne, to procede forth in thys sayd book, whyche I dyrecte unto alle noble princys, lordes and ladyes, gentylmen or gentylwymmen, that desyre to rede or here redde of the noble and joyous hystorye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, Kyng Arthur, sometyme kyng of this noble royalme thenne called Bretaygne, I, William Caxton, symple persone, present thys book folowying whych I have enprysed t’enprynte: and treateth of the noble actes, feates of armes of chyvalrye, prowesse, hardynesse, humanyté, love, curtosye, and veray gentylnesse, wyth many wonderful hystoryes and adventures. (“Caxton’s Preface”, pg. xv)

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Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

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Plankton Wonders of the Drifting World by Christian SardetPlankton: Wonders of the Drifting World, Christian Sardet (The University of Chicago Press 2015)

Originally published in French as Plancton, aux origines du vivant, this is a big book on a tiny subject. A microscopic subject, in fact. Or mostly so:

It is not easy to collect and study a drifting ecosystem consisting of a vast multitude of organisms ranging in size from less than 1 micron to tens of meters, over 10-million-fold difference. The smallest beings are viruses, and then bacteria and archaea. The largest are threadlike colonial cnidarians (siphonophores such as Praya dubia) that can reach more than 50 meters when extending their fishing filaments. (Introduction, pg. 16)

Nothing unites these organisms except the way they drift on the ocean’s currents: “plankton” is from the same Greek root as “planet”, which is literally a wandering star. And if there is life on another planet or one of its moons, it may be no stranger than some of the organisms here. And may be less so. The faintly dizzying smell of ink that rose from the pages of the copy I looked at went well with the phantasmagoric colours and shapes on those pages. Some are beautiful, some are grotesque, all remind me of a line from Aquinas: Unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis – “One philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness that he might know the nature of a bee” (Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, 1273).

The philosopher at work here is the French marine biologist and planktonologist Christian Sardet, creator of the Plankton Chronicles project and a worthy heir to Jacques Cousteau, who sailed around the world to capture images of macroscopic life like whales, dolphins and squid. Sardet sails around the world to capture the microscopic.

In this, he’s also a worthy heir to Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who first popularized the beauty of microscopic marine life in books like Kunstformen der Natur (1904), or “Artforms of Nature”. His books truly were art, because he illustrated rather than photographed his subjects, like the “siliceous skeletons of polycystine radiolarians” on page 85, which are reproduced from Kunstformen.

Something is lost in a photograph, but the door of technology can’t be closed now and some images could only be captured by a photograph, like the instant in which a misleadingly named predator meets its next meal on page 166:

The naked pteropod Clione limacia, or “sea-angel”, is a torpedo-like creature a few centimeters long. Furiously flapping its fins, it speeds through the water hunting its favorite prey, the coil-shelled thecosome pteropod Limacia helicina (lower left corner). On contact, Clione immediately ejects six buccal cones, grabs the prey, then eats it slowly with its raspy tongue. Clione roam the cold polar waters where they can reach high densities comparable to the tiny shrimp that constitute krill. Sea angels are themselves a major food for marine animals.

The photograph, “taken by Alexander Semanov in the White Sea” (off Russia), looks like a Lovecraftian deity descending on a Lovecraftian demon. Velella, a beautiful blue cnidarian that floats on the surface, propelled by the wind, is more like something from Clark Ashton Smith. There’s a photograph of a specimen of Velella about to be eaten, with gourmet-like delicacy, by a giant sun-fish.

Lovecraft and Smith would have enjoyed not just the images in this book, but the language too. The colours and shapes are phantasmagoric and so are the scientific names: from Asterionellopsis to Xystonella, from Phaeodactylum to Meganictyphanes. But the terminology is complex because it has to be and this is actually very clear writing:

These three spumellarian polycystines measure between 50 and 100 microns. To capture microscopic prey, they use membranous and cytoplasmic extensions, a peduncle called an axopode, and shorter extensions called rhizopodes that cover their entire surface. (pg. 79)

Christian Sardet translated this book himself from French with Dana Sardet and I’d like to sample it in the original. But Georgian would be even better: plankton should be written about in a strange language and beautiful alphabet. Of course, French and English are strange from the perspective of Georgian, but I don’t think the Roman alphabet could ever look beautiful to a Georgian. It’s functional and perhaps it’s good to have that contrast with the phantasmagoric.

If it is a contrast. Everything here is functional, no matter how strange or beautiful it seems:

Ctenophores owe their name to the Greek word ctene, referring to the minuscule combs comprised of thousands of fused cilia, arranged in eight rows on the gelatinous surface. The cilia of these comb plates are made of the same microtubular elements as those present in human cells. A simple nervous system controls the pulsating movement of the comb plates that act like tiny prisms, diffracting light in rainbow colors. (pg. 98)

No matter how remote ctenophores, diatoms, cephalopods, nudibranchs, tintinnids, chaetognaths and doliolids seem from humans, we have a common ancestor with them. And vertebrates are part of the plankton: larval fish drift there, so we were once part of it too. We mirror the world and the world mirrors us. But some parts of the mirror are more beautiful to look at than others and the world of plankton is certainly one of them.

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Rok 1984 by George OrwellRok 1984, George Orwell (MUZA SA, Warszawa 2001)

It’s an odd experience to pick up a famous book in an unfamiliar language. I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-Four many times in English and also tried it in French, Spanish and Italian. Reading it in English is like picking up a perfectly ripe apple and biting into it. I don’t have to think, I just have to experience.

It isn’t like that in French, Spanish and Italian. The book isn’t a ripe apple any more: it’s an exotic fruit with a tough skin that has to be peeled and cooked. I have to think about what I’m doing and it takes much longer to eat much less.

In Polish, Nineteen Eighty-Four becomes a coconut with an exceptionally tough and hairy shell. And I don’t have any way of getting inside. All I can do is pick it up and shake it, hearing the swish of the milk inside and feeling its solidity. I know there’s good eating in there, but I can’t get at it.

Of course, to a literate Pole Rok 1984 is a ripe apple, ready to be experienced without conscious effort. Languages aren’t like ordinary phenomena. A knife is a knife. A bird is a bird. A cloud is a cloud. Billions of human beings for thousands of years have perceived those things in more or less the same way. But human beings haven’t named them or talked about them in more or less the same way. Language both defines humans and divides us. No-one can be familiar with all languages, so everyone can have the experience of picking up something familiar that is suddenly encased in something impenetrable.

Here’s the opening line of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English:

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

And here it is in some other languages:

• Era un día luminoso y frío de abril y los relojes daban las trece.
• C’était une journée d’avril froide et claire. Les horloges sonnaient treize heures.
• Era una luminosa e fredda giornata d’aprile, e gli orologi battevano tredici colpi.
• Był jasny, zimny dzień kwietniowy i zegary biły trzynastą.
• Был холодный ясный апрельский день, и часы пробили тринадцать.

English suddenly looks anomalous: “and” in all the other languages is represented by a simple vowel and “thirteen” starts with “tr-”. You see English differently when you look at other languages and you realize that English doesn’t have a fixed form. It changes when you look at from the perspective of another language.

So does every other language. To a speaker of Russian, Polish is partly familiar. To a speaker of English, Polish seems almost wholly unfamiliar, although English and Polish have a fairly recent common ancestor and have a lot of words in common, beneath the disguise of orthography and historic change.

One of those shared words is readily apparent in the opening chapter of Rok 1984 (which I assume means “Year 1984”):

Była tak namalowana, że oczy mężczyzny zdawały się śledzić każdy ruch przechodzącego. WIELKI BRAT PRATZY, głosił napis u dołu plakatu.

Most readers of the English version will remember that Winston sees a poster and a slogan at the beginning, so the meaning of WIELKI BRAT PRATZY isn’t hard to guess. Wielki Brat must mean “Big Brother” and pratzy must be “is watching” or some equivalent. Brat is closer to “brother” than French frère, from Latin frater.

But brat behaves like the Latin word. A little further into the book, you’ll see this:


Which must the part where Winston repeatedly writes “Down with Big Brother” in his new diary. Wielki Brat has become Wielkim Bratem. So Polish inflects like Latin. And the last line of the book (before the “Aneks”, or Appendix) is: Kochał Wielkiego Brata – He loved Big Brother.

Then there are phrases like Policja Myśli, Dwóch Minut Nienawiści and Ministerstwie Miłości, where Winston is asked what he thinks of Wielki Brat and replies “Nienawidzę go” – “I hate him.” “Nienawidzisz go,” O’Brien says. “You hate him.”

So you could gradually work out a lot of Polish vocabulary and grammar using simply your memories of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English. With an actual copy of the English version, you could compare and contrast line by line, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. In short, you could learn Polish from Rok 1984.

There’s a much simpler way to do that, of course, but I can imagine a story about a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in an unknown language falling into this universe from a parallel one. Then linguists would have to use the Rosetta stone technique.

But what if the book from a parallel universe were in a wholly unfamiliar script too and didn’t have any images? This Polish copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is instantly recognizable as such. It’s called Rok 1984, names the author as “George Orwell”, and one edition has the face of Stalin on it. In Russian, “George Orwell” becomes Джордж Оруэлл. It’s stepped away from English. What if it stepped a lot further? What if an unknown version of Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t use an alphabet but an ideography like Chinese or Japanese?

I still think it would be identifiable, given sufficient computing power. In fact, I wonder whether any sufficiently long text in any conceivable human language might be comprehensible to a sufficiently powerful computer, based simply on the relationship of the patterns within it. I don’t mean that the computer could identify it as related to a known text in a known language: I mean that any text at all might be comprehensible, because there are only a limited number of things one can say about the world, even if there are an infinite number of ways of saying those things.

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You've Had Your Time by Anthony Burgess
You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (Heinemann 1990)

After the excellent Little Wilson and Big God, this was a big disappointment. Burgess’s life before fame seems to have been much more interesting than his life after it. This is partly because of his wife before fame: the alcoholic Welshwoman Lynne Burgess, née Llewela Isherwood Jones, is much more memorable than the scholarly Italian Liana Burgess. He ended Little Wilson thinking that he had a year to live and a year to create a pension for Lynne.

That was in 1959, but he was still alive in 1968 when Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver. Before that, again and again, “she drank deep” and “became fierce-eyed and lively, ready for argument, anecdote, fist-fights.” (Part 2, pg. 111) As Burgess says: “She was, God help her, never dull.” Nor was he. But his life became less interesting as his fame increased. Or perhaps he simply grew less interested in it. He evoked pre-war Manchester and post-war Malaya vividly in Little Wilson, but Italy, Malta, America and Monaco don’t live on the page here. This is a rare flash of memorability:

We were in brutal country [in Sicily], the land of the Mafia. Taking coffee in a side-street, we heard a young man, swarthy as an Arab, tell his friend of his forthcoming marriage. He was going to paint his penis purple, he said, and if his bride evinced surprise he was going to cut her throat. (Part 3, pg. 182)

I wonder if that was a joke when the young man noticed them eavesdropping. Elsewhere, Burgess encountered folk who were swarthier still. This is about his time as a “Distinguished Professor” at “New York City College”, where he gave a course on Shakespeare:

The sessions were held in a large lecture hall on Convent Avenue, and outside this lecture hall was a cashier’s office complete with guichet before which black students waited to receive a weekly subsistence allowance. Whether they were more than merely nominal students I never discovered; I know only that they waited with competing cassette recorders of the kind called ghetto blasters, and that their noise prevented me from making a start on my lecture. I rebuked them and received coarse threats in return, as well as scatological abuse which was unseemly in any circumstances but monstrous when directed at even an undistinguished professor. (Part Four, pp. 274-5)

If you are shocked and disgusted by such uncouth and uncivilized behaviour, imagine how the poor Black students must have felt. That was in 1973 and it’s sad to see that, nearly half-a-century later, the fetid stench of white supremacism hangs as heavy as ever on the air of American colleges.

Burgess plainly was – and plainly is – one of the white males responsible for this sorry situation. As both volumes of his autobiography reveal, he was much more concerned with literature, music and art than with social justice. Time and again he attempts to defend his white privilege and male privilege with appeals to universalism and the supremacy of the imagination. That defence isn’t good enough and perhaps, as his long day waned, he recognized his failure to fight for equality and was enervated by it. That would also explain why You’ve Had Your Time is so much duller than Little Wilson and Big God.

Encroaching senility is another explanation. In the introduction to this book, Burgess says one of the most fatuous things I have ever read: “I was in the Catholic church long enough to know that anyone may confess and, indeed, has to.” How long does one have to be in the Catholic church to know that? Or out of it? That’s writing on auto-pilot, like much of what follows. If you’re interested in Burgess, you should definitely read this book, but I’m certain that it doesn’t receive as many second and third readings as Little Wilson.

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