Wednesday, 9 January 2002

Under western eyes

Listening to:

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, Under western eyes.

This impressive novel is set in Russia and Switzerland, and tells the story of a young Russian student, Razumov, who is caught up in revolutionary politics in the early years of the 20th century (i.e., before the actual Russian Revolution). He ends up having to leave Russia after a high-ranking government official is assassinated, and goes to Geneva. There he mixes with an emigré community of revolutionaries, who have quite the wrong impression of his true nature.

There’s not a lot of “action” in this novel; much of what happens is simply dialogue and characters meeting other characters. Nonetheless, I found it decidedly compelling. The characters are well-drawn, and the situations they find themselves in are full of tension and interest.

I read quite a few books over the holiday break, and I’m now quite busy with work, so my next few entries will be short, and mainly concerned with my book review back-log.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, 22 January 2002

Granta 69

Listening to:

Bach, flute sonata in B minor, BWV 1030.

Just read:

Granta 69: the assassin (contents page).

The assassin of the title is Demeitrios Tsafendas, who killed the South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966. The piece is by Henk van Woerden, and is a miniature biography of Tsafendas. Tsafendas was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and manic-depressive as well, and it’s pretty clear that his crime wasn’t motivated by any particularly deep political consciousness. He died in a South African mental hospital. His life involved an eye-opening amount of travelling: he was born in Mozambique, spent early childhood in Egypt, was a seaman on American transport ships during WW2, and also spent time in Portugal, Germany, Greece and the Middle East. He also lived in South Africa, of course. The main motivation for all this roaming seemed to be a desire to find a country that would accept him and which he could also be at home in.

There are other good things in this issue too. I particularly liked the short story by Hanif Kureishi, and the article by Diana Athill about being editor to V. S. Naipaul. The photo essay has Romanian AIDS orphans as its subject.

I was away last week at the POPL computer science conference. I definitely liked what I saw of Portland. The famous Powells book-store was very impressive.

Friday, 25 January 2002

Entry #247

Listening to:
Bach, Well-tempered clavier, book I.
Just read:
Kazuo Ishiguro, An artist of the floating world. This is a great novel, written in a wonderful style. It bears definite resemblences to Ishiguro's The remains of the day (which was made into a film). Both novels tell the story of a man reminiscing on a period of his life about which he is becoming unsure. In both novels, the earlier period is the 1930s, and in both, the men have to reassess the way they behaved then in the light of the changed post-war world.

Ishiguro writes beautifully. The course of the novel is an extended narration of events by the artist of the title, Masuji Ono. His voice is distinctive, being very measured and precise. The beauty of the book is that through this slow, careful narration of events, one that is superficially dry and emotionless, you can pick up the self-justifications that Ono is telling himself. You can perceive his growing realisation that his behaviour was probably suspect, and that his past is also liable to prejudice his family's future. Highly recommended.

A neat selection of short essays by the linguist Geoff Nunberg, covering a range of topics, from American newspapers and the word "Jew", to how interjections are the grammatical part of speech where 90s slang has focussed most of its attention.

Thursday, 31 January 2002

Entry #248

Listening to:
Shostakovich, 24 preludes, op 34. Played by Tatiana Nikolayeva, for whom Shostakovich wrote his later 24 preludes and fugues.
Just read:
Granta 70: Australia, the new New World (contents page). This issue of Granta has a good sub-title. I'm sure I get onto this with most people I know at one stage or another (and bore them to death, no doubt). Australia and New Zealand are a lot "newer" than the Americas: their colonisation by Europeans happened much more recently (post 1840 in the case of New Zealand). Of course, all of these New World countries had existing inhabitants, but on acknowledging this, I can also say that New Zealand was the last major piece of land to be inhabited by anyone. The Maori only arrived in New Zealand 800-1000 years ago. Maori oral history includes the story of their arrival, and names the great navigator who discovered the country, Kupe. Contrast this with oral history in Australia and the Americas; in both places the first inhabitants arrived on the order of 20000 years ago. Unsurprisingly their oral histories don't tell the story of their arrival, they assume that they've been there forever.

Anyway, this special, bigger-than-normal issue of the magazine is full of good writing. I don't think much of the editor's excuse for not including any Aboriginal writing, but what's there is mainly excellent. There's an extract from Peter Kelly's True history of the Kelly gang, which recently won the Booker prize, and quite a bit of other fiction. There are also interesting non-fiction pieces, individuals reflecting on some aspect of their interaction with Australia. I found the account of a Darwin-based journalist tracking down an Aboriginal artist who lives in a very isolated camp in the tropical jungle particularly good.

Finally, it's clearly worth mentioning Peter Conrad's piece, just so I can deny its relevance to my personal situation. He left Tasmania in the 1960s, confident that he would never return, to go to university in England. He's now an Oxford academic. He's interesting about Tasmania and how restricted and stultifying he thought it. He's probably absolutely right, but it still comes across as rather patronising.

I've been playing quite a bit of the game Stronghold recently. It definitely appeals to the sand-castle builder in me. The various scenarios that I've had to progress through have also been very artfully designed to make me want to keep playing as more and more neat capabilities are gradually opened up. I've recently been able to build crossbowmen as well as archers, and I'm now in the middle of a scenario where I get to build my own catapults to try and take out another castle on the same map. (Hitherto, the focus of the scenarios has been defensive.) Some other reviews: