Weekly Writing Challenge: A Pinch of You

28 Jul

Makes 1 Fagelmouse

Serves everyone (unintentionally)

You will need an electric whisk, a spatula and round, loose-bottomed cake tin.

The Fagelmouse is a sweetbitter dish, great for entertaining or to have all to yourself with a movie. Though suitable for any season, it tends to work best in early summer, when you could serve it alongside strawberries and raspberries to really bring out its flavours.


For the base:

1 pair ripe Converse, preferably green

Animal or cake – patterned socks

50g butter, melted

For the filling:

4 eggs, separated

400g cream cheese

100ml full-fat milk

Vanilla essence


1 Woolly jumper (stripy)

1 -2 shelf-fuls of classic literature, shredded

2 generous tbsp. each of Latin and Greek

Pinch each French, Russian

For the insecure centre:

200g self-doubt

100g very dark chocolate

Dash of liqueur (of your choice)

For the topping:

100g Blanched hazelnuts

25g sugar

Feminism, to taste

Cocoa powder for dusting

(chocolate) curls

Preheat your oven to 130C (any hotter and the Fagelmouse will burn, no matter how much suncream you put on). Grease and base-line your cake tin.

To make the base, crumble the Converse and socks together (size 5 pieces) and pour over the melted butter. Stir to combine, then press firmly into the cake tin. Don’t worry if the bottom looks a bit uneven. Genes, eh? Set aside to chill as much as possible.

For the filling, beat together the egg yolks, cream cheese, milk, vanilla, naivete and woolly jumper. In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until holding stiff peaks. Then, a spoonful at a time, whisk in the classic literature (Edwardian and Victorian are best for this, although you could use anything you have to hand) and the languages, until you have a reasonably firm meringue. Remember the attributes of a good meringue – pale, sweet and soft in the middle. Overcooking them can turn them bitter.

Next, beat 1/3 of the meringue mixture into the cream-cheese mixture to loosen it slightly. Fold in the remaining 2/3 with your trusty spatula.

Place a cup in the centre of your biscuit-base and distribute the cream cheese mixture in a ring around it.

To make the insecure, dark, verging on bitter filling, break the chocolate into a bowl, then heat the self-doubt in a small pan until just boiling. Pour the self-doubt over the chocolate and add the liqueur. Leave to stand for at least 2 minutes and then stir together until fully combined.

With the self-doubt mix ready, lift the cup out of the centre of the sweet cheese mix and quickly pour the filling in its place. Use a palette knife to distribute some of the cheese mix over the self-doubt, but don’t panic if you can’t cover it all up – this will create an interesting visual effect.

Bake the Fagelmouse for 45 minutes. It won’t go brown.

While the Fagelmouse is cooking, make the topping. Toss the hazelnuts, sugar and feminism together on a baking tray and roast for ten minutes until crunchy. Some bits may be slightly unpalatable, though they’re good for you so don’t complain!

You can tell when the Fagelmouse is cooked as it will have that lovely inner-thigh wobble that all good cheesecakes and – er – inner thighs – have. Set aside to cool before removing from the tin.

Sprinkle the feminism/hazelnut topping over the Fagelmouse and dust with cocoa powder. Strew the top liberally with curls. Let them do their own thing – messiness is part of the look.

Serve with lots and lots of tea and a healthy dollop of wit on the side – unless you’d rather wallow in the chocolatey centre, in which case, omit the wit and take your tea with tears.

For what inspired this: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/weekly-writing-challenge-recipe/

Gender and authorship

21 Jul

ALL: this is a revised, edited version of the blog post I wrote on holiday about gender and authorship. It’s a bit more coherent now. And it’s got some Virginia Woolf references in it. Don’t say I never give you anything. X

Hey kids. How’s it going? I’m writing this on my iPad while on the family holiday so you’ll have to forgive me if the typing goes a bit crazy at points; one cannae trust these machines to accurately convey all the words one would like them to.

Anyhoo. I am writing due to a conglomeration of events. The first is the fairly well-known (by now) revelation that the crime writer Robert Galbraith is actually celebrated Harry Potter author JK Rowling. The second is that I have not long finished Jeanette Winterson’s book Written on the Body. How are these related, I hear you cry? Well, allow me to explain.

A lot of the news articles written in the wake of the JK story were about the ‘tell-tale’ signs that Galbraith wasn’t actually a man. That the women were meticulously described; that the main (male) character noticed the pungent smell of some urinals; that a famous Galbraith also uses the initials JK. How did we not see it? How could we be blind? One can’t help but feel there is some clutching at straws going on here. Robert Galbraith’s book did receive excellent reviews and various people expressed incredulity that it was indeed his first novel.

No-one, however, questioned the gender verity of either protagonist or author when it was originally published. Why search for them now? Some people actively avoid reading literature by female authors (you may scoff, but this was a genuine comment on a Guardian article). If the cheeky buggers will use pseudonyms, we obviously have to identify the ‘female’ features that prove when something’s been written by a woman. Right? *shakes head sadly*. Imagine how great it would be (such people must think) if one could identify ‘female language features’ that always occurred in books written by women, no matter what gender their assumed identity had. There have been plenty of studies of speech which look for the same thing. Last I heard, they decided it was not so much a feature of gender as a feature of power, which has traditionally been divided along gender lines. This doesn’t seem to have got round to some of the literary critics and wannabes yet, though, who still cling on to this belief like the last half-barrel of rum from a shipwreck.

‘Female language features’, if these chimaeras exist, will surely depend on the author’s voice. Virginia Woolf writes about finding one’s own voice in literature, and about how many female novelists have struggled to achieve critical acclaim in A Room of One’s Own. She notes this is partly due to the male-dominated literary sphere – both in writing and in criticism. Perhaps this is something you’d think we would have addressed by now, but no – while there are many more female critics than there used to be, the ‘serious’ novels are still almost unanimously reviewed by men. Heard of the recent furore over the TLS’ inability to find female authors? Yep, 21st century, home of progress. Not. Obviously, fewer writers and fewer critics who are women mean that there are fewer books and fewer reviews produced that are of high merit. That’s just statistics, amirite? Anyway, she also suggests there’s another reason for the scarcity of works of female genius, and that is the difficulty for women of freely and confidently writing in their own voice.

At first, perhaps, you will scoff. ‘Own voice? Surely everyone’s got their own voice. How hard can it be?’, etc. Well, yes and no. Woolf points out that even Charlotte Bronte – someone she explicitly points out as a great female writer – didn’t quite nail her own voice in Jane Eyre. There are times when her dissatisfaction with her straitened existence and the limitations imposed on her by the era’s social mores comes through over and above the narrator’s voice. Austen gets it – her sinuous irony and light touch are so delicately placed they are often misunderstood or overlooked altogether (witness basically any complaint ever that she only writes about money or about romantic love or – well, any one thing, really). One’s voice is a unified sentiment which can ride the waves of the story as well as direct them. It’s the manager and captain of the football team, responsible for tactics on and off the pitch and covering the game as well as the season. It’s a tough one to pull off. And it’s especially tough if – as very many women were, and nearly as many women still are – one is sufficiently under the oppression of society to be denied a voice in one’s day to day life, let alone in one’s written existence.

So many writers take a long time to find their voice, their style, their modus operandi. Hilary Mantel’s voice is very different to Caitlin Moran’s. Jack Kerouac’s voice is very different to Allen Ginsberg’s – contemporaries and friends and members of the same literary movement though they were. Betty Friedan’s voice is not the same as Germaine Greer’s. Etc. It’s a personal journey of development and growth. In a world where there are so many ‘voices’ shouting to be heard (online especially), the development of one’s own literary voice is what makes one person publishable instead of another. JK Rowling’s voice is not the voice of the narrator of Harry Potter, or the voice of the narrator of The Casual Vacancy or of The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s the voice which allows her to write all three. It’s an undercurrent. It’s probably discernible only to her, or only if one knows exactly what one is looking for. It’s not a ‘woman’s voice’.

On to my next point. Written on the Body is a book about a love affair, written in the first person by a narrator who is never named and is also never explicitly gendered. The narrator describes their previous girlfriends and boyfriends. If there is ever a reference to their clothes, they are gender neutral. The narrrator’s profession is fairly ambiguous, although it becomes clearer as the book progresses that it involves translations, mostly in and out of Russian. So words and physical nature are (as you can guess from the title) fairly central to the book. The constructed neutrality of the narrator adds an interesting edge.

However. The author – Jeanette Winterson – makes no attempt to hide her authorship. I read the main character as a woman, but that’s all part of the beauty of reception. You bring your own understanding to the table and you take away something new. Fine. I looked up a review of the book when it came out – the Independent have clearly digitised their back catalogue of book reviews for just such a purpose – and I couldn’t really believe what I was reading.

The reviewer didn’t approve of the gender-ambiguous narrator. Not at all. He said it was contrived and required serious ducking and diving around words to keep up the illusion. I thought this was unfair – I hadn’t noticed it. I was aware of the ambivalence towards the explicit, but it hadn’t seemed as pronounced as that.

No, what was ridiculous to me was that the principal beef the reviewer had with this was that translators of the book who were working with gendered languages wouldn’t know what to do about it. Erm, sorry, what? For a start, if you’re writing a novel so that translators can translate it, you’re writing it for the wrong reasons. Secondly, as a translator herself, I reckon JW knew what she was doing. Thirdly, translation theory! Reception! The translator will make what they will of it. In a way, the more ambiguous you are, the more opportunity you give to the translator to find their own voice in your work. That’s not really the done thing in Anglo-American literature (see Laurence Venuti on this) but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Ezra Pound didn’t speak a word of Chinese but his Cathay poems are revered. Yeats was no Gaelic scholar but his translations are not criticised as such. And it is ludicrous, utterly ludicrous, to judge an original on the basis of its future translation. I mean, really. Come on.

For what it’s worth, I reckon this review betrays a sense of unease in the difficulty of the reviewer to identify gendered language. I think the reviewer feels off-kilter because the ambiguity means he has to dance on the edge of a precipice of understanding, constantly questioning the gender and therefore also the sexuality of the narrator. The explicit(ly) romantic plot means this question is fairly difficult to avoid. It’s meant to be. That’s the point. When we ask ‘is this book about a woman who falls in love with another woman?’ we are supposed to catch ourselves doing so and wonder why it matters.

It seems as though the gender of the author and the gender of the narrator are intrinsically bound up in how we approach books. Yet it also seems to be the case (I was going to write ‘increasingly’ but then I remembered all the novelists who have published as men) that we’re not very good at definitively saying what a book written by a man looks like compared to a book written by a woman. And for some reason, although I can name at least five women who have published as men off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single example of the other way around. We think we know what women write about and how they write it, and yet, barring atrocious chick-lit suitable only for the beach and for giving away free with trashy magazines, women resolutely refuse to be pigeonholed. Men have always been grudgingly allowed to be daring, movement-founding, ground-breaking. Women don’t seem to have that unquestionable right to freedom of expression. That’s why women assume pseudonyms, or write out gender altogether. Because a woman’s voice is still hampered by the fact it’s come out of a human being with a vagina. No other reason.

Maybe instead of telling people not to judge a book by its cover, we should say not to judge a book by its author. We make much more interesting analyses when this point of non-contention is allowed to lie undisturbed.

June’s (belated) books

8 Jul

This month has been another fairly quiet one on the book front but I feel beholden to point out that I have read 2 non-fiction titles and they definitely take longer. So. Here we go.

First up – Screenplay, by Syd Field. This is basically a manual for writing a screenplay that has bankability, structure, character and plot. It also tells you how to get it to Hollywood, find agents, secure copyright etc. I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s aimed at an American audience. My parents bought it for me when they were in New York, possibly because they believe I’m the next *insert famous scriptwriter here* but mostly because they are pandering to my great desire to Write Stuff.

It was very illuminating, if extremely repetitious – people talk about three act structures and plot points but until you have had the diagram shoved under your nose a few times, you don’t necessarily think in that structure. It’s actually very easy to develop a story when you have such clear building blocks (writing it is, of course, another matter; I’m not that presumptuous!). And it’s quite fun to invent a character and then spend a few days mentally writing his or her life story, just for your own pleasure. If absolutely nothing else, I now have a list of films I really, really have to get on and see because they were referenced so many times as being great examples of X. So I feel culturally, future-ly empowered for reading it. Thanks, Syd.

Feeling a bit lacking on the ol’ novel front, I next picked up The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve developed a bit of a love affair with her (inspired by the excellent E) so this isn’t the last mention you’ll see. After the last two books I read, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; her style is quite mutable according to her subject and she likes to hop between narratives, genders, timeframes; the lot, really. Trying to describe when The Passion is set is a tricky one; it’s written from the perspective of one reflecting in a (recently) post-Napoleonic world, but the timeframes jump according to the character and the Venice sequence about halfway through seems quite timeless. This is possibly something especially interesting given that in Sexing the Cherry there really is a time leap between 17th century London and the present (whenever that is); in Venice, it’s just the behaviour which is atemporal; it soon becomes enmeshed within the time of the story’s plot and, indeed, history.

I really enjoyed The Passion. I think it was possibly less reflection-inducing, less questioning, than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Sexing the Cherry; I can’t decide if that’s because it did those things but on a subtler level, or if it’s because it didn’t really do those things. Nevertheless, it was a supremely satisfying story, without being one of those ‘boy meets girl’ tropes. It was emotionally complete, though not necessarily with the expected emotion. Basically, JW FTW.

Right. The last book I completed in June was a biggie. I nearly wrote a blog post dedicated to it because it was so interesting. It was one of those books which you read and think ‘Oh em gee, I can’t believe how relevant this is. When was it written? THEN? *amazed face*. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you that often. Anyway. I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. This was written in the late 1950s and very early 1960s which is, when you think about it, kind of a while ago now. My parents weren’t even born when BF started writing. I mean, wowzers.

So. The premise of The Feminine Mystique is that there existed in this era in the households of white, middle-class America, a ‘problem which has no name’. Countless housewives up and down the country were being referred to therapists and/or self-medicating with alcohol, comfort food and consumerism. The cause? Intelligent women were being actively encouraged not to use their brains. Popular anthropological and psychological ideas were being (mis)applied to a world in which the observations of Freud no longer had any purchase within the cultural setup. Women were talked into believing that their naturally-ordained role was that of wife and mother. Does this sound familiar? Yeah, I know.

Despite a heavy reliance on certain studies (like the Kinsey study), some slightly questionable survey selection techniques and some highly outdated attitudes to homosexuality (as well as an outright avowal that she is dealing only with the problems of white, middle-class America), Friedan’s case is well made. She writes passionately and with great force. She presents coherent arguments, models and examples and argues her points more clearly than someone like Greer, who tends to get swept up in moralising and political ideology. Friedan not only identifies the problem, she points historically to the way it has been allowed (and encouraged) to evolve and the sociological factors that have permitted this.

The Feminine Mystique is a phenomenon that can still be observed today. It’s tied to the religious hangover of the female ‘role’ and perpetrated at an almost-subliminal level by consumerism. What Friedan advocates is emphatically not bra-burning, non-shaving, ‘scary’ feminism. She says women need to be allowed the freedom to tax themselves as far as they want, and to grow and exist as people, not as mother-robots. Some women will be perfectly content to stay at home and rely on their husbands. But many who think this about themselves have been tricked into doing so. They may find fulfilment for a little while through their children (although their children will suffer for this later), but they will come to be part of a trend of miserable, middle-aged women suffering serious empty-nest syndrome. Having been encouraged into education, these girls should continue to want to stay there – not be subject to opinions that suggest over-educated women are unattractive or unfeminine or less likely to be good mothers. They should be pushed to be as good as they can be – not told to stop before they scare men off.

This book sparked a revolution. Read it and you’ll see why.

On the list for July – I’m reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve also got a LOT of Angela Carter to read. Happily, I’m going on holiday soon, so I’ll have lots of time to get through it all!

The Lucretia Paradigm

20 Jun

If you’ve not been living in a cave, you may have come across the recent furore over some supremely ill-judged comments by Serena Williams about the Steubenville rape case. It’s the classic victim-blaming trap that so many fall into (like Joanna Lumley, or basically every police force ever). It’s saying ‘don’t get raped’ rather than ‘don’t rape’. It’s suggesting the victim is somehow responsible for being physically attacked by another person.

Now, while I’m a thoroughly modern Millie, I’m also a Classical Camilla. And this whole scenario got me thinking about Lucretia.

If you’re familiar with the Roman historian Livy and his work ‘Ab Urbe Condita’ – the immense history chronicling the entire story of the city and Empire of Rome – you’ll know who I’m talking about.

For those of you who want filling in, or reminding – Lucretia appears in Book 1, chs 57-58. She is the wife of one Collatinus, back in the age when Rome still had kings (ie a very long time ago). Lucretia is the ultimate wife. She’s pretty and smart and honourable and she loves her husband. She fulfils her civic and religious duties zealously and all that jazz. She’s a great Roman lady. Romans used to call married ladies ‘matronae’, carrying all the respectability and weight that used to be associated, until all the Carry On films, with the English word ‘matron’.

Unfortunately for Lucretia, her existence is simply too much for this one guy. He’s called Sextus, as it happens. Sextus Tarquinius. Anyway, he decides he wants Lucretia and no social mores like ‘she’s totally already married to someone else, dude’ are going to get in his way. So he breaks into her bedroom where she’s sleeping (her hubby’s away) and threatens to kill her if she calls for help. Then he pleads with her to let him into bed. She refuses even though he’s got a dagger. He’s well miffed, so he tells her he’ll kill her and a slave and that he’ll leave his naked corpse outside the bedroom, so it looks like the two of them have been murdered in revenge for adultery. Lucretia is so horrified at the potentially enormous affront to her honour (no thought for the slave, but I’m afraid that’s ancient Rome for you) that Sextus Tarquinius gets his way and scarpers.

Lucretia calls her husband and her father back from their travels to tell them what has happened. She vows to commit suicide because it is the only honourable course of action, and she begs that her relatives will exact vengeance on Tarquinius.

Her father + husband are horrified. Not with the vengeance bit – they’re pretty down with that. Romans are basically always up for some killing and maiming. No, they’re horrified at Lucretia’s insistence that the victim should assume the punishment for the perpetrator’s crimes. Livy says: ‘they tried to console the distracted woman, by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt’ (1.58.9). But Lucretia insists that though she acquits herself of the sin, she does not free herself of the penalty. She declares that no unchaste woman shall live and plead Lucretia’s example, takes out a hitherto-concealed knife and dies.

Heavy stuff. And extremely interesting, too.

Note, for instance, the attitude of the Roman men to the so-called guilt of the victim. You’ll notice they attach no guilt to her. None at all. It’s the mind that sins, not the body. Maybe this can be construed as them trying to say anything that will save this woman’s life, but even so, would we see that these days? Lucretia was in bed, sleeping – hardly behaving provocatively – but according to this logic, even if (for example) she’d had her tits out at dinner because of the heat – if she had no intention of sleeping with someone, she’s not guilty. You hear that? Unless a woman is actually asking for it, she’s not asking for it. Bear in mind this is the opinion expressed by two men well over 2000 years ago and recorded by a third man nearly that long ago. The victim bears no blame. Kay? Good. So, like, an unconscious young woman is not responsible for the behaviour of a rapist. Can you see where I’m going with this?

This fairly crucial bit often gets neglected in favour of Lucretia’s subsequent behaviour. You know, the bit where she decides to take the blame anyway, in order to set a ‘good example’ to future Roman women. She’s (totally inadvertently and blamelessly) committed adultery, so she determines that all adulterous women deserve the death penalty. This is the Lucretia Paradigm, and it’s invoked time and again throughout literature and history.

It’s based on the Roman sense of honour. If you do anything a bit rubbish in Rome, the best way to extricate yourself is by suicide – witness Mark Antony who, you guessed it, committed suicide after losing a battle to the future emperor Augustus (Cleopatra also committed suicide, but not because she lost – she didn’t want to be a famous captive in Rome and be paraded through the streets in chains). Whatever sort of shit goes down, you can always salvage something by dying honourably.

This goes back further, to Greece as well – in the famous play Hippolytus, by Euripides, Phaedra (Hippolytus’ stepmother, who has been made to fall in love with him as a punishment – on Hippolytus! – from the goddess Aphrodite) commits suicide after her passion is revealed by her old nurse. She leaves a note saying she did it because Hippolytus tried to molest her and she felt so violated she decided to kill herself to protect her and her family’s honour. This is a big fat lie, but the point is, she believes it’s the only way. Like Lucretia, it doesn’t matter that she’s not to blame; she still suffers the penalty.

The Lucretia Paradigm is, unbelievably, still being applied today. So many women are made to feel like they are somehow responsible for sexual assault and that they have to take on the chin whatever punishment society deems is appropriate. And yet, incredibly, we can’t even seem to agree on something that a violent, patriarchal and generally fairly rape-y society took for granted – that the guilt is not on the victim. No, we’re prepared to say ‘she must have been asking for it’. We express sorrow for the perpetrator as well as the victim, and the victim is expected – and probably, resignedly, expects – to take a portion of the blame, too. We apply one half of the paradigm and forget the other.

Seriously, kids, next time someone asks you ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’ please counter with “they told us that ‘where there has been no consent, there is no guilt’. And also that society encourages women to take responsibility for actions of which they are the victim, and that this is not necessarily a good thing”. It’s a bit of a mouthful, I grant you, but worth saying.

Time for some more writing

8 Jun

The other week I wrote about the troubling concept of Time.

There was a lot of stuff I didn’t put in to it (partly for length reasons, partly for relevance reasons and partly because I forgot) but I was going to leave it be, since, in the words of E from The Incredibles, ‘I never look back, darling, it distracts from the ‘now’’.

However, I was just casually browsing the interwebz, as one does (my browsing tends to focus on news websites of various provenance) when I came across this Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/06/time-reborn-lee-smolin-review

It’s a review of a book by the popular physicist Lee Smolin. The book is called ‘Time Reborn’ and in it, so it would seem, he argues against the accepted orthodoxy in the physics world that time is simply an invention of the human mind. Time is real, he claims. It has real consequences and real effects. The argument put forward in the book (and therefore, the review) is that physicists have become bewitched by mathematical timelessness. In a mathematical model, there is no reason for time to exist (it only distorts results, after all). 2 + 2 = 4 is a timeless truth. A square is always a square. These words are a bit clunky (what does ‘always’ mean when there is no time?) but you get the idea, I hope. Time isn’t relevant in a world of numbers, curves and models.

But this model world is not the real world. Physics is the study of what is real. Brief etymology lesson here: mathematics comes from the Greek ‘mathemata’ (μαθηματα), or ‘things which are knowable’. Physics comes from the Greek ‘physis/phusis’ (φυσις) or ‘things which are naturally’. It’s easy to apply the mathematical models that are increasingly being found for ‘natural’ phenomena and to forget that these natural phenomena do not exist in a vacuum. To quote from the article: ‘in reality, in the domain of things that do exist, time is inescapable’. Mathematical rules carry ‘the trace of the metaphysical fantasy of transcendence from our earthly world’. We’re so busy thinking about numbers we forget that we’ve grown old doing so.

In my last post I was talking about the concept of Time because as far as I could see, a ‘timeline’ was (/is?) a self-imposed restriction designed to allow for reminiscence in one direction and forward planning in the other. I hadn’t realised I’d gone all ‘mathematical’ about it. I was deriving most of my arguments from Plato, if I’m honest, with all his chat about Forms and timeless constants and stuff. There’s probably an extremely interesting point to be made there about the influence of Platonic philosophy on all further schools of Western learning, but that’s not really my field, so I’ll leave it to others.

Anyway. I concluded that Time is itself timeless, but our passage through it is what ages and ruins us. Sort of like walking through a barren desert which seems to stretch on and on forever, on all sides. Which is, I suppose, a sort of curious half-way house between this mathematical ‘timeless’ scenario and the physical ‘reality of time’ one. I don’t quite know how I managed that, but there you go.

This timeless/not timeless fandango is a bit of a headache. But here I’m going to wave my Herodotus at you again, because actually, this is a good example of how time interacts with theoretical space and proves how damn real it really is.

So. Herodotus. A Persian deserter has come to the Lydian king with information about the Persian palace and the immense wealth contained inside. The Lydian king is, natch, quite excited about the prospect of raiding this. He asks where the Persian palace is located and how long it will take him and his army to get there. The Persian deserter draws a map.

Using the map, the Persian explains that it will take X many days to get the army from point A (current location) to point B (treasure).

This is a massive deal. A map, remember, is a timeless constant, because it shows a fixed space. But a map which you can use to indicate a potential passage of time – whoah, man. Hold the skutale[1]. That is one crazy idea. You can work out a timeframe from a picture? What kind of oracular fumes have you been inhaling, dude? Etc. Time isn’t just a thing, here. Time is a reality as demonstrated by a physical (that word again) model. This is basically the exact antithesis of all those pesky mathematical models later put forward by Newton et al, which take time back out of the equation and make space exist on its own.

Anyway, I think I’m creeping towards the conclusion that space can’t exist on its own for us to have any real understanding of it. Time makes sense of things, on a theoretical as well as a physical level. So while I’m still a big fan of the idea that Time is an entity that exists to move through us, rather than the other way around, I’m also pretty convinced that we wouldn’t get far without it.

[1] Spartan cipher stick. You’re welcome.

The Darling Books of May

4 Jun

I know, I know. Where have all the blogs gone? Where’s the monthly book review? Why is there nothing to read?!

I hear you and I answer. Here is the blog. It has not gone anywhere, I’ve just been… distracted. I’ve been writing other things, for other people and other events. None of those have been finished or replied to or progressed yet, so you can’t see them, I’m afraid. And as for the monthly book list – here it is! Woop woop! So now you can chill out and read about what I’ve been reading. Yeah.

All right. First up – Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). I was looking forward to this, as I mentioned to the wonderful E a little while ago that I had bought it and she raved enthusiastically about how wonderful it was. I generally trust E’s opinions on life in any case, but I’m particularly susceptible to her book-loving, so I permitted myself a small rubbing-of-hands-plus-gleeful-chuckle when I got down to opening the book itself.

It’s a great story. I wish I hadn’t read the blurb on the back of my copy, because the first chapter is so integral and yet so disconnected that a blurb which tells you about the story is a bit of a problem. Anyway, I devoured the book. I read it in my lunch breaks and on the bus home and in the evenings after work. I loved it. It was funny and poignant and moving. I had read a Marquez before – One Hundred Years of Solitude – and I was aware that, although I had really enjoyed that, I’d also got quite lost with the seemingly never-ending repeating names and lengthy time span. Happily, the story has a much more compact character base in LitToC, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the pale outlines you meet at the beginning to be fully coloured in as the story progresses. I heartily recommend it to anyone. Especially anyone who thinks that old people shouldn’t fall in love.

I was totally in the zone with my reading one lunchtime when I ran out of book. I had finished the Marquez but I had nothing else with me except my iPad. Happily, I have a kindle app and on that particular day, I even had the wireless connection required to access my books. So there I was, browsing through Aphra Behn, George Eliot, William Thackeray, etc, wondering what to read next. I decided to read Game of Thrones. Sometimes you just need to kick back and read something crazy, y’know?

I couldn’t remember where I’d left off, only that I’d read an awful lot of it back in January (remember that post? Read it here: https://natashasfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/januarys-books-a-rundown/ ). I decided just to crack on. I figured that I’d work out pretty quickly whether I had messed up.

Alas for my presumption! 60% of the way into book 5 I realised to my horror that I had omitted to read book 4. I had been pleasantly enjoying quite a heavy bias of the story towards Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow, all of whose stories followed on from where I had left off at the end of book 3, part 2. I hadn’t really twigged that there was a large chunk of story about Sansa, Arya, Theon, Margaery, Cersei, Jaime, Brienne, etc, etc, etc that I was missing. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve never read a book by George R. R Martin.

That said, I did enormously enjoy the book, as ever. Yes, I was missing a fair bit of backstory but I didn’t really notice this until a fair way along. Wikipedia provided me with enough snippets to fill in the major plot holes I was missing and I continued onwards, since I hate not finishing books and I couldn’t face leaving one book halfway through to tackle another that was set partly concurrently, partly earlier (no, seriously). I am going to have to go back and read book 4, if only for the Arya storyline (she’s so goddam kickass), but a whole book without Tyrion is a pretty hefty ask. He is, after all, the best character.

Book 5 is the latest one to come out, so the ending is actually quite a cliffhanger. There are the usual graphic descriptions of bodily functions (less sex in this one, I think, though a lot more wee) and brutal fighting, with some good turns from Asha Greyjoy and Daenerys especially, waving the flag for the girls. There was also an exceedingly clear framing of the unfair societal restrictions on women – a whole paragraph of internal monologue by one of the female characters mentally decrying her status and power. I don’t know if this is something Martin had in mind all along but he’s certainly bringing it to the fore in the later stuff and also, very much so, in the television series. It’s great. Anyway. Some absolutely classic lines from Tyrion, as ever, and some fascinating plot developments re Young Griff (I’ll say no more, except, in an annoying River Song voice, ‘spoilers!’). But there you have it. Game of Thrones.

Hoping to atone a little for my foray into the world of the ridiculous, I decided the time was ripe for some Jeanette Winterson. I bought some of the books a little while ago on the recommendation, once again, of the fabulous E, and I had been sitting on a little stash of them, Smaug-esque, ready to consume at any moment. Then my sister wandered in to pinch a different book off me one afternoon and said ‘Oh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit! I’ve read that – it’s really good’. So I had to read it, even if only to catch up with the sis. And it was good. It was very good. Funny and interesting and a tiny bit heartbreakingly sad. And when I’d finished it, I read Sexing the Cherry, which was also funny and interesting and not so sad but very structurally engaging. Now that I think about it, it had a lot in common with Cloud Atlas – but if Cloud Atlas is a series of vanilla sponge layers with interesting fillings, Sexing the Cherry is a chiffon cake, with fewer segments but an infinitely more complex and interesting texture. Edible analogies aside, though, both Jeanette Winterson books were delicious reads, perfect for reminding me why I enjoy books and words and stuff. Yeah.

And on that note, I leave you with news that I’m currently reading a book about how to write a screenplay, and then I have two books in French lined up. And another Jeanette Winterson, in case I somehow manage all of that.

Time for some writing

29 May

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking rather hard about time.

I don’t mean linear time. I try not to be worried by time’s passing. Last week was the past; next week is the future. In three years I’ll have more freckles and different glasses, probably, but aside from vague generalisations and glib aphorisms, I can’t really predict what time will do to me.

I do occasionally stop and wonder how I got to be nearly twenty three; apparently irremediably single, still living at home, lacking a strong sense of direction, few meaningful accolades to my name. I had a conversation with my dad recently during which I bemoaned my complete lack of progression along what some might call the path of adulthood. It went like this:

Me: I can’t believe I’m nearly 23. I haven’t done anything with my life!

My dad: Well, let’s see now. When I was your age – I’d met your mum. Oh, and I had a house, and a mortgage. The house only cost about six grand, but I still needed one. And I think – had I started that company? Yes – I think I’d started that one, and then the other one. Oh, and I had a car.

Me: Waaaaaugh!

So, as I said, I try not to think about linear time. My beef here is with the concept of time generally and how weird it is. This is partly inspired by the book I’m reading at the moment (Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson, if you’re interested) and by my own understanding of time according to Greeks and Romans. Specifically I’m talking about (sort-of) Golden Age Latin literature (especially Catullus, Propertius, Horace and Ovid) and Herodotus. Oh, and Doctor Who. Obviously.

This timey-wimey stuff, then, is kind of crazy. Say you describe Time as a sphere. You can divide it with a straight line between two points and get a plane surface. This is linear time – time between points. Isolate any spot along that line and you have a second, a minute, an hour, a day – you get the picture. Taken in isolation, what does that mean? It isn’t the passage of time anymore. It’s just a moment. All lines are made up of moments like this. What is it that turns a dot into a trajectory? Where’s the motion that propels us from one moment to the next? What if there is no motion, only friction? What if the only energy that drives us forward is the sparks we create as Time brushes against us?

Say, like Winterson does, that Time is only something we experience. We don’t move through time, it moves through us, aging us and breaking us. We crumble from the pressure that Time exerts on our perishable frames, like rocks eroded away by a constant stream of water. Think of Shakespeare – rosy lips and cheeks/within Time’s bending sickle’s compass come [Sonnet 116].  Love’s not Time’s fool, because Love and Time are two abstracts that run through us and destroy us, not the other way round.

Say, like Herodotus, in his intro to his Histories: I will tell you about cities that were once great but are now nothing, and about cities that rose from nothing to become great. I will speak equally about both, he adds, because I know that human happiness never stays in the same place (1.5). Time affects all the trappings of humanity as well as humanity itself – our physical existence and the extensions of it into houses, temples, cities and even art and poetry. Horace says ‘exegi monumentum aere perennius’ – I have built a monument in everlasting bronze – but if his works had been lost like so many others, what then? Time crushes everything eventually. Except, for Time, there is no ‘eventually’. Time just *is*.

Say you describe Time as the air, and the linear trajectory of a person’s life (or a city’s life, or a poem’s life, or a mouse’s life) is a sunbeam. When that sunbeam shines through a window, it picks up all the motes of dust and pollen and everything-else-ness that are in all of the air – but of course, we can only see the illuminated section. And we say that the sunbeam has a starting point and an ending point, and that the bit in between is a line or a trajectory that can be measured and fitted into a scale. We can only see Time through the guiding light of the sunbeam, so that’s how we explain Time to ourselves and to others, even though we know the sunbeam isn’t everything.

Say, then, that we only experience one moment at any point along our ‘timeline’. Say that Time goes through us; we do not go through time, and that the same goes for all perishable things, from bacteria to buffalo to Beowulf. Finally, say that we choose to understand Time as linear because that is what we see when we look back, and we are curiously reluctant as a species to believe in disjointed events. Say all these things. What do they, in turn, say?

I think they say that Time either is – everywhen, if phrases like that float your boat – or is not. Time must be all or nothing. Timelines are just mappable flightpaths or well-worn ruts in the mud. If we can get away from the idea that Time is a line, a series of events, a whole host of interesting possibilities open up before us. There are so many ‘now’s to be lived. There are no closed doors. There are no ends. There is only an infinite number of moments, dancing in the light cast by our attention. Whichever way we turn, we will see them.

Time can be troubling conceptually, but it’s also beautiful.

The Inaudibility of the Translator – originally submitted to the BFI Women in Film Reporting Competition.

9 May

Aren’t you a lucky bunch! This is an article I wrote for a reporting competition run by the BFI. Unfortunately, it didn’t cut the mustard (boo) because it’s an ‘essay’ rather than a piece of investigative journalism. Never mind. I’ll know for next time. Anyway, I put quite a lot of thought in to it so I figured I’d rather put it somewhere than let it go to waste.. so here it is, for your delectation and delight.

(Here we go)

There’s no doubt amongst critics, audiences and creators that film is art; a celluloid tapestry of complex interwoven threads. There’s no less doubt that film is also invariably a commercial product, and a covetable one at that. To the varying chagrin of some, worth is measured not only by artistic merit but also by revenue.

Given that films are often produced to be successful on a global scale, they must be relevant – or at least available – to a global audience. Just as a book or poetry collection would be translated were it to venture beyond its home borders, the same is true of films.

However, just as literature has been subjected to a maelstrom of debate about what constitutes a ‘good translation’, it seems only fair to ask if cinema has been spared this, and why, and whether this is justified.

Considerable scholarship has been produced in about the last 40 years when it comes to translated literature. Translation theory argues, these days – though not all critics agree – that translation is ‘generative’ – it creates an entirely new work, in and of itself – and that the process of translation ought to make the translator ‘visible’. The author of the translation should be just as eligible for stylistic accolades as the author of the source text. The rest of the world is only slowly getting to grips with this.

When a film script is translated, what is it the translator must keep? What can they lose? How do they balance a fixed visual setting with a fluid linguistic one? Are some films written with subtitles in mind, or do they jar uncomfortably with the viewing experience?

Consider the two versions of the adaptation to film of Stieg Larsson’s crime thriller, known in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

Some were mightily dismayed by Hollywood obtaining the film rights for what they considered an already excellently-made movie. The original won awards and praise on a global scale for its Swedish-with-subtitles presentation of the book. Why oh why, then, did it need remaking? There’s a short (and cynical) answer here: Hollywood wanted a film that they owned and they wanted it to appeal to a big audience. That meant a) casting Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomqvist and b) producing it in English. Subtitles, clearly, do not cut the mustard.

Subtitles create a certain atmosphere to a film that it isn’t easy to disregard. That said, they can be an incredibly effective and clever manipulation of generic conventions. The 2010 Norwegian film Trollhunter, shot in a documentary style, is prefaced at the start with a screen declaring the footage to have been anonymously sent to the Norwegian authorities. The subtitling of the film adds to the sensation that the material may be incendiary; that it is important that every word is caught and understood for reasons of national and possibly international security. Documentaries frequently subtitle speech uttered too low to be easily heard, even if spoken in the language intended for transmission. Subtitles make sense; they don’t just render this film intelligible, they add another level to it.

So in this context, dubbing the film into English seems somewhat unnecessary. Why would three English-speaking, Norwegian college students be tracking trolls in Norway and submitting their material to Norwegian authorities?

One may similarly ask why a Swedish journalist would suddenly find himself investigating a case where everyone involved, including the people who aren’t supposed to be, speaks English.

Asking these questions can help us understand what exactly translating a film does. What we want from film is an integration of the audible and visual experiences, so closely interwoven that they speak to a level beyond what can be conveyed simply by ‘language’.

If you can create a world on film which is realistic, it doesn’t matter, in the end, what language the characters speak. Nobody really quibbles about Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy not speaking in Homeric Greek, after all. It’s as if the directors have slipped a Babel fish in your ear. You can understand because the visual experience is so seamless that you can’t not understand. Location-specific films, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, can be tackled in this way – again, you’re not supposed to notice that they’re not speaking Swedish. They’re just speaking, and you’re understanding. Trollhunter could have been done in this way – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility – but, as described, why waste such a great opportunity to play on some generic conventions? It’s a lot cheaper and deliciously effective.

If there’s such a covetable prize for the audible experience, we ought still to ask why there isn’t more credit given for the translated script. Is a script-translator expected to assume the same ‘invisibility’ as a translator of literature? They may not have come up with the concept, but that doesn’t make them any less creatively important.

On the continent, there is far more recognition for the voice actors who help turn English-language films into French or Italian or German critical successes. Surely it should not stop there? No translator’s name appears on the credits for the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yet somebody must have written the subtitles. Were they so wholly divorced from the film creation process that they deserve no acknowledgement at all? And even if they were – what they have done is still part of the viewer’s experience. We should at least be offered their name. We have Steven Zaillian’s.

It’s a small point, perhaps, but it applies more widely, too – not just to translation, but to totally reworking a film, or a book or play or symphony or poem. Every reinterpretation has value in and of itself. Instead of bemoaning ‘another’ adaptation or version, take a step back and think about it from the point of view of the translator. Since every film is an exercise in adaptation, maybe it’s time to give some more credit to the ones most obviously engaged in it.

Sometimes I go to places and think things: Tate, Liverpool

7 May

I spent this delectable, sunny Bank Holiday weekend oop nooorth visiting my dearly beloved E. Our activities included (but were not limited to) babysitting a tiny curly-haired tot, cooking, drinking, wearing silly clothes, playing Carcassone, walking through woods and watching Doctor Who. We cracked open a box that had been rusted shut for some time and discovered the family dressing up box, containing a pair of leggings so fierce they actually made eyes water. Drinking necessitated wearing said leggings and frankly, I came away inspired. I will be acquiring my own pair of paisley leopard print leg coverings very soon, make no mistake.

Anyway, our mutual interests are slightly broader than just getting wazzed and dressing up so on Sunday we went into Liverpool, narrowly avoiding the derby match. We spent a thoughtful hour or two in the Tate at the Albert Dock and it got me thinking. Here are some of the blossoms (I wouldn’t say they’re sufficiently developed to call them ‘fruits’) of my musings on the subject.

The first exhibition was about sculpture. So far, so reasonable. The breadth of medium, styles and influences was vast – two buckets welded together to look like they were undergoing mitosis; three basketballs suspended in a tank of saline solution; a standing iron tripod ‘mobile’ – the whole gamut. Each piece was interesting as a standalone, though after the eternal Orwellian rule, some were more interesting than others. I was intrigued by the blurbs describing how various pieces had been at other exhibitions and had been moved, or lost (the infamous urinal-piece being one of them) or intended to look different. What does this add to or take from the piece as it stands? Do we need to know the context from which it was taken in order to understand the piece in its new context, or does this cloud our understanding of what it means ‘now’ at the moment of our first interaction with it?

I suppose if the gallery wants to explain why the three basketballs that you may have seen neatly spaced out in a picture don’t look quite the same now because the piece has been moved, that’s fair enough. On the other hand, perhaps decline and decay is fundamental to the process of art and doesn’t need to be ‘explained’. Perhaps explaining that this has happened makes it part of the art in a way that was never intended. Perhaps the intentions of the artist don’t matter once the work is finished and let loose into the public domain. Or perhaps the decline does need to be acknowledged (although whether it’s ‘acknowledgement’ or ‘unnecessary pointing out’ is another question again).

Anyway. At the time, I was quite happy to just look at the stuff, read the blurbs where I wanted to and ignore the ones where I didn’t. Some of the art didn’t catch my attention and some of it held on with considerable tenacity. I’m no art critic and I don’t have an informed understanding from which to draw conclusions that others in that field would find meaningful. But. Bear with me.

The next series of exhibition rooms was called ‘Constellations’. Here’s a link so you can check it out for yourself if you so wish: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/display/dla-piper-series-constellations. The idea behind the collection as I understood it was to display works by different artists that complemented and set off each other in illuminating ways, to create a sort of constellation – a series of links and branches that can be defined by one name even though they are light years apart in real space and time. Some of the links were more obvious from the pieces than others – some were pretty difficult for my untrained eyes to make out. Crucially, though, I took away these thoughts.

  • Outwardly acknowledging and actively promoting the juxtaposition of particular artworks to demonstrate linking features is a new and interesting thing – it encourages the reception of these artworks in a certain way. Instead of seeing them as individual pieces, the viewer sees them in the context of ‘the gallery’ or ‘the exhibition’ rather than ‘the frame’.

That’s all well and good, for starters, although as was pointed out to me when I suggested this was interesting – all galleries and exhibits encourage a particular reception of materials.

  • The point of the curator is to select pieces that create chemistry between each other as well as on an individual basis. While the explicit self-awareness of this Tate collection is a new (to me, at least) and interesting thing, it is not new per se.

If all space in which we experience art defines or helps define how we respond to it, this says an awful lot about how we ought to treat reception theory and reception studies. Physical space and proximate objects can affect our reactions just as much as our cultural background, our political ideals, our gender, our age, our education and/or our language.

Well. I haven’t decided whether the self-awareness of the Constellations collection and its directive nature is something with which I am comfortable, yet. I am aware that so many other receptions – of literature, film, music and the rest – are heavily dictated by the ways in which we experience them and these ways are all manipulated by those who manage said media. Explicit acknowledgment of that manipulation is a step in a thought-provoking direction, if nothing else.

April’s books

1 May

Hullo my lovelies. Those of you among the faithful will be familiar with the monthly book review. As it is now the end of April (with all the attendant Joys of Spring etc that this brings) it is time to look back and consider what I have read.

I’ll be honest, I don’t have a list as lengthy as – well, any of my previous ones. I don’t know if I just burned out after March or if it was something to do with getting off to a bad start, but I’ve only read three books this month, and they aren’t even big ones. Nevertheless, ours not to reason why, so I will give you the (dubious) benefit of my thoughts on them notwithstanding.

I got part of the way through the Mill on the Floss, but after two weeks I realised that I just wasn’t going to finish it. If there is one problem with reading books on a Kindle, it is this: you can’t tell – physically – how far through you are. Now, with something that’s not terribly verbose or is highly character/plot driven (eg Game of Thrones), this isn’t really a problem. But with a Victorian novelist it’s a bloody nightmare. I’ve had the same problem with Vanity Fair. I still haven’t finished the damn thing. And I haven’t finished Mill on the Floss, either. So I’m not counting that as one of my ‘completed’ books, but I thought you should at least receive some explanation for the lack of other titles…

I did, however, read Flatland, by the excellently named Edwin Abbott Abbott. Flatland is a late Victorian novel which was recommended to me by my mathematician friend Michael. I am pretty average at maths and fairly awful at spatial awareness, so even though this is a very short work, it took me a few days to read it – properly – and assimilate what on earth was going on.

Basically, Flatland is a 2-dimensional world inhabited by shapes; the more sides the shapes have, the higher their social prestige and mental capacity (the two are inextricable). The story is narrated by a self-described ‘respectable square’. He lays out the principles and features of Flatland, then goes on to describe a dream he has where he visits a 1-dimensional world. Stepping down the dimensions prepares the reader – though not the poor square – for a visitation by a denizen of Spaceland, who arrives in the square’s home on the evening of the millennium to announce that the concept of three dimensions is  possible. The square takes some convincing but eventually considers himself enlightened; however, he cannot remain in Spaceland and his knowledge of it makes him a traitor in Flatland. He is consigned to a prison and there he ends.

It’s an effective story about the limits of our perceptions and the way that our understanding about how we live reduces our capacity to think in a different way. It’s also an interesting example of analogy and its various powers. And it’s a social study, too – hierarchy, education, upbringing, social mobility, intelligence, the position of women – all are presented in such a way as to seem perfectly congruous with (perhaps not our own experiences, but certainly) those of a late Victorian – yet also ridiculous.

I can’t say the plot was necessarily ‘gripping’, nor could it be described along generic lines – but it was provoking, engaging and enlightening. A curious read, and not in a bad way.

Well. Empowered by my new understanding of planes and solids, I cracked my literary knuckles and picked up another Virginia Woolf – this time, Mrs Dalloway. My previous experiences with Woolf – detailed in March’s Books, if you’re looking – did not prepare me for this. Woolf the essayist is not the same as Woolf the novelist. Or rather, the core is very much the same, but you are looking in through another window altogether. The Voyage Out is such an early work that it can barely be held up as an exemplary piece of her writing, so that didn’t help me much either, except to make me wonder why the names of some of the characters seemed so familiar (yes, she does reuse them; Richard and Clarissa Dalloway feature in The Voyage Out too).

Anyway. It was – difficult. Stream of consciousness writing is immersive; you have to be able to commit to every line, every sentence, every paragraph, one after the other, unwinding your thread of understanding so you can follow it all the way back through the labyrinthine text and see the point from which you started. Close the book and the skein is cut – you won’t find it again unless you go back to the last place where you tied it to something solid; a chapter heading or new section. So that meant it took me a little while, even though it is, again, only a very short book.

It is short, but it is intricate. There are phrases in it that made me laugh out loud and ones that made me murmur them again to myself, just to feel the buzz of the words on my lips. “The word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches over him…” – it’s a lexical aneurysm, a sentence you can’t understand when it first hits you but leaves you reeling with the effects. I could wax lyrical about the words, the characters, the truth, the folly, the compassion, the levity, the painful relevance – but others have said it better. Read it, then decide for yourself if you want to read anyone else.

Finally – finally! I read Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. I struggled with this one, too.   I don’t know why. It’s not a particularly difficult book; it’s certainly not a long one. It is, however, dense and dark and it clings to you like a viscous, poisonous mud. There are moments where it feels incredibly current and true and cruel – and others which are anachronistic and jarring. I haven’t quite decided where I stand on it yet. I am glad to have read it. That’s about as much as I can tell you today.

That’s your lot, I’m afraid. That’s really all I’ve read. I dabbled a bit with some Hippolytus because I don’t like to feel I’m forgetting all my Greek, and I did the same with the opening of the Aeneid, too, but those aside – that’s April.

I can’t promise great things for May, on this basis, although I have got some good novels lurking around my room, bought in great eagerness earlier in the month. The best I can say is ‘wait and see’.