Wednesday, 3 April 2002

The shadow line

Listening to:

Neilsen, symphony no. 5.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The Shadow Line.

The book I read is actually the combination of two works previously published separately. In addition to The Shadow Line, a short novel, it includes the short story collection Within the Tides.

The Shadow Line gets off to a slow start, with the narrator, a young man, waiting for passage back to Britain from Singapore. He is there after having given up his position as first mate on a ship for no reason other than general boredom and lassitude. After getting himself into an immature huff over minor irritations with the people at the hostel where he is staying, he is suddenly and unexpectedly given the chance to command a sailing ship that has lost its captain in Bangkok. This is his first command, and as if in a dream, he takes the opportunity, and is taken to Bangkok on a steam-ship. The rest of the novel describes how he gets the boat from Bangkok to Singapore, and in overcoming various crises, grows up as well. (He thereby crosses “the shadow line” that separates immaturity from a more seasoned youthfulness.)

The novel is autobiographical, echoing an episode of Conrad's life, and although not much really happens, it’s conveyed very intensely, getting the reader quite caught up in the young captain’s emotions and fears. It’s quite similar in tone and scale to Conrad's other sea voyage stories, such as The Nigger of the Narcissus, Youth and Typhoon; I enjoyed it.

There are four stories in Within the tides. The first and longest is The planter of Malata. This is an unlikely melodrama featuring the planter of the title suddenly falling in love with a woman who has come out to the unidentified colony where the novel is set to find her long lost love (not the planter). It features a heart-felt conversation on the top of an island, just as in Victory, and I didn't really like it that much. I appreciated the plot twists that got us to the island and the awful conversation though.

Next was The Partner which was a good, though somewhat uninvolving, story about an attempted insurance scam and a shipwreck. Then, The Inn of the Two Witches, which was an odd attempt at gothic horror, with a slightly silly twist. Finally was the story I liked best, A handful of dollars, about an honourable captain who is caught up in an attempted robbery in an obscure Indonesian backwater. This story has a good mix of character, plot and incident, and a final, and perhaps slightly out-of-place, poignancy.

Now reading:

More Conrad, Chance.

I missed two web-log entries through Easter slacking. Four day weekends should happen more often.

Friday, 5 April 2002

Link smorgasbord

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven, Willie the Weeper. Did I say how good Armstrong is?

Today’s links:

Tuesday, 9 April 2002


Listening to:

Shostakovich, Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok for Soprano and Piano Trio, Op. 127.

Above me the sky lowers
A dark dream weighs down on my breast.
My fated end is near
And war and fire are at hand

Cheerful stuff.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, Chance.

This novel has a postively happy ending by Conrad’s standards, and the whole is pretty engaging too. It’s no wonder that this was his first commercial success. My edition came with an Author's Note in which Conrad sounds almost pathetically grateful for the popularity. All he had to do was write a novel about a mysterious young woman, who is much put upon and maligned but who eventually finds happiness. Surely this, rather than novels about foreigners coming to bad ends (Nostromo, The secret agent, and Under Western eyes), is the route to popular success.

That’s the basic gist of the story, but you get it in typically oblique fashion. Most of the story is told by the character Marlow, who has filled this role in a number of Conrad’s other stories (e.g., Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim). He’s a bit of an opinionated git, particularly on the subject of women. It's just as well that the “top-level I” of the novel (who is quite anonymous) occasionally interjects with comments along the lines of You don’t expect me to believe that, do you? These reassure the reader that Marlow isn’t necessarily the privileged voice of the author.

The narration moves around in time quite a bit, and also features various levels of “nested narrators” within the account of events. For example, the first chapter is actually told by a character Powell “at the top level” (not within Marlow’s story). Powell later appears, continuing the narration of his story, but inside Marlow’s own telling of the later parts of the story. Conrad seems to have been quite careful to set things up so that the various narrators only tell us about things they could reasonably know themselves, and it all hangs together quite well.

It'd be fair to say that there's a lot more talk than action in the novel, but it’s still quite compelling. The various characters are all well described, the initial set-up of the story is clever and interesting, and the final chapters at sea are tense and exciting. I liked it, and wore a satisfied smile when it ended. (A bit less Marlow and I’d really rate it.)

To read next:

Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum.

Thursday, 11 April 2002

The man who wasn’t there

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano concerto no. 1, op. 35. This piece features an amazing trumpet solo part in the final movement. (The CD traversal continues.)

A recent movie:

The man who wasn’t there. This is an amazingly stylish film, with a slightly creepy tone, and a delicious black humour. It’s brilliantly shot, all in black and white: from the opening credits featuring a striped barber's pole, endlessly spiralling to the strains of Beethoven; to the very last scene which is done in an incredibly clinical and bleached white.

If forced to attempt a “deep analysis” of its theme, I’d say that this film is all about the allure of the American Dream, and how difficult its realisation can be, and the disillusionment of failed hopes. But, it’s probably not worth trying to sum it up in short sentences. Probably the best film I saw in 2001.

Talking of movies, a reaction to the theory that Star Wars was carefully constructed to embody mythic archetypes, as identified by guru, Joseph Campbell. Makes all the obvious points.

Finally, a creepy, and thought-provoking essay from the LRB, all about a woman and her relationship with World War One.

Tuesday, 16 April 2002

Carpe Jugulum

Listening to:

Bach, concerto for flute, violin, harpsichord, strings and basso continuo, BWV 1044 Triple Concerto.

Just read:

Terry Pratchett, Carpe jugulum.

This is an enjoyable addition to the DiscWorld series of comic novels. Though it features Granny Weatherwax, about whom I have complained in the past, she isn’t the all-conquering hero that she was in earlier novels, and her eventual victory over the bad guys (vampires) is cleverly done. The vampires are really the stars of this novel, and they’re very amusing. The main villains are what you might call “nouveaux vampires” (they prefer the spelling vampyre, for example), and this gives Pratchett the opportunity to poke fun at all of the clichés associated with vampire stories.

Now reading:

Granta 73: unnecessary journeys.

Let's just pretend that I wrote this yesterday, OK?

Thursday, 18 April 2002

On being a TV sports producer

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 9.

A while ago I promised that I’d have to explain my desire to be a sports TV producer. It’s not going to happen, but in an alternative reality I could see myself liking the job. It seems neat because at something like a cricket match, you’d be coordinating a large number of resources. As well as the cameras (at least four of these, I should think: one at each end of the wicket, and two or more on the ground level around the periphery of the field), you also have to coordinate the audio resources. For example, Channel 4’s recent coverage, had not only ball-by-ball commentators, but also occasional “analysis interludes” featuring a whole other body, complete with his own camera. Occasionally, you also have a voice down on the ground level as well. I don’t know if I’ve seen this with cricket, but I certainly have with rugby. In addition to these “live feeds”, you also need to coordinate replays and ad-breaks.

Having all these strands in one’s hands and composing them into one coherent and compelling whole for the audience must be quite a challenging and satisfying job. It would perhaps be a little same-y from day to day, so maybe one would get a little blasé about it, as professional musicians must get about their jobs, but it would still be a neat creative job to have. That’s what I reckon anyway.

I have put a W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) box over in my left margin. Click on this and it should tell you that my web-page is valid HTML 4.01. It’s always nice to know that one is standards compliant.

Finally, evidence that the truly clueless still live and walk amongst us.

P.S.: Today’s really Wednesday, honest; but tomorrow will be Friday.

Friday, 19 April 2002

Hollywood is taking over the world

Listening to:

Shostakovich, concerto no. 2 for violin and orchestra in C sharp minor, Op. 129.

The recent film Iris is based on biographical memoirs written by Iris Murdoch's husband, John Bayley. I recently saw one or other of the two books in a bookshop, and saw that the cover photo was of Judi Dench, playing the rôle of Iris in the film. This has to be one of the most cringe-inducing marketing tricks ever. It might be reasonable to have film actors’ realisations of fictional characters on the covers of novels (Harry Potter novels with the kid who played the part in the film on the cover, say), but to replace a photo of a real person with a photo of the film star is awful.

On the weird technology front, why not cover your computer in polyurethane foam?

Tuesday, 23 April 2002

Granta 73 & The BFG

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra, Some of these days. Another from 19 July, 1929.

Just read:

Granta 73: necessary journeys (contents).

This was a good issue, possibly because there was only one piece of fiction, and that was very good. This was an extract from Ian McEwen’s latest novel, Atonement, which describes part of the retreat to Dunkirk, from the perspective of an English soldier. From the various reviews I’ve read of Atonement, this section is not very typical of the whole novel, but it's an impressive “sub-story”.

Ian Jack’s essay about the engineering and maintenance of railway rails is very interesting. It’s a pertinent piece because the poor state of a particular rail led to a famous derailment at Hatfield, and the death of four passengers. It turned out that the Railtrack company hadn’t been spending enough on rail maintenance, and that the whole nature of the rail establishment meant that this was practically inevitable. The essay describes how the privatization of the rail system in the early 90s was botched and makes quite a compelling case.

Decca Aitkenhead on Westerners holidaying in Thailand was also very good. Her description of back-packers behaving badly at a resort is clear-eyed, and something of a revelation. I also enjoyed the two essays about China, and the piece about Diego Garcia.

Roald Dahl, The BFG.

This is a children’s book that I had read before as a child, and which I've just re-read. It’s a very amusing and enjoyable story. It’s simply written, and would probably take an adult about half an hour to read in one sitting. The idea of a giant that blows dreams into children’s bedrooms is very appealing, and the character, the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) who does it is very funny. Most of this humour comes from his wacky use of English. The illustrations by Quentin Blake add a lot to the story, as is so often the case.

Now reading:

Roald Dahl, Complete Tales of the Unexpected. Not children's literature.

Thursday, 25 April 2002

Strange mental effects

Listening to:

Sarah Vaughan's album ¡Viva! Vaughan.

Today is ANZAC Day, which commemorates the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli Bay in 1917.

The web is a great way to keep an eye on the nutcases of the world. Here's a description of one. Unfortunately, you might have take The Register's word for it, because their link to the original documents seems not to work at the moment.

Failing that, try some of these experiments to produce weird and wacky effects in your own head, without needing mind-altering drugs or an excessively Christian education either.