June 30, 2010

Beckett on Screen III

Following my post about Beckett's complete works I've decided to occasionally post filmed adaptations of Beckett's work available online, trying to find the best and most loyal adaptation for each work.
Play (2 parts)

From the Beckett on Film project;
performed Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Juliet Stevenson;
directed by Anthony Minghella

The second part, you may have noticed, is a repetition of the first. According to the play's notes the repeat may be an exact replica or present some element of variation in lighting, delivery, etc.

June 29, 2010

The News on Tues

I'm still in the UK, walking around Oxford and Bath (at least partially retracing the footsteps of the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austen) and buying far too many books. And now on with the news:
  • Jiayang Fan discusses the moral dilemmas of buying second hand books in shanghai.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird is celebrating 50 years and Harper Lee talks (barely) to a reporter. I think the real news here (for me, at least) is that Harper Lee is still alive.
  • The Washington D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose is looking for a buyer; Peter Osnos discusses this and 6 other independent U.S. bookstores that have mastered the art of hand-selling good books.
  • Rivka Galchen suggests that to understand Jorge Luis Borges we must read Robert Louis Stevenson. 
  • The transition of correspondence to the digital sphere means that in the future we might not see more books like Saul Bellow: Letters.
  • Alexander Waugh writes about Kingsley Amis's dipsomania.
  • Rick Moody's new The Four Fingers of Death, a massive metafictional sci-fi novel based on the B-movie The Crawling Hand and influenced by Kurt Vonnegut, receives a full analysis on io9.

    June 23, 2010

    Beckett on Screen II

    Following my post about Beckett's complete works I've decided to occasionally post filmed adaptations of Beckett's work available online, trying to find the best and most loyal adaptation for each work.
    Film (2 parts)

    Performed by Buster Keaton and directed by Alan Schneider (1964)

    Beckett originally wanted Charlie Chaplin for the part; though there are some slight differences from the original script, Beckett approved them as he was on set at all times. Gilles Deleuze has called it "The greatest Irish film."

    June 22, 2010

    The News on Tues

    Tomorrow morning I'm off to Oxford so don't be surprised if my posts are a little less frequent than usual for the next two weeks. You can always count on regular Tuesday updates, though.
    • Nobel laureate José Saramago died.
    • Joshua Cohen, author of Witz, lists 12 novels often considered to be the Ulysses of their respective countries, including Past Continuous, which I have discussed at length on this blog. Under the Volcano, however, is not on the list, probably because it is difficult to link it to a specific country (taking place in Mexico and providing a stunning image of the country, but written in English, with a British Consul as the protagonist, and written by a British writer that Canadians often like to claim as their own).
    • You should turn to this week's New Yorker if you wish to know what Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens discuss over dinner, or what some famous writers wrote in the margins of books they've read. Not included among them is Flannery O'Connor's scribble in the margins of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - "Awful. I wouldn't read this book." (Written when she was 12).
    • "Somewhere a dog barked" may be the most commonly used cliché in literature.
    • Authorities in Moscow are concerned that the recently opened Dostoyevskaya metro station might attract suicidal readers influenced with the great writer's works. The station is decorated with grey and black mosaics depicting scenes from Dostoevsky's best-known novels:
    One controversial mural re-enacts the moment when the main character in the novel Crime and Punishment murders an elderly pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. Another shows a suicide-obsessed character in Dostoevsky's novel The Demons holding a pistol to his temple. If that was not enough to darken the mood, shadowlike characters are shown flitting across the cavernous new station's walls and a giant mosaic of a depressed-looking Dostoevsky stares out at passengers.
    • Michael Levenson tries to rescue E. M. Forster from being viewed through the single lens of his homosexuality. 
    • Only Words to Play With has yet another wonderful essay on Russian literature, this time discussing Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls.

      June 20, 2010

      Unfamiliar Quotations - Harry Mathews

      - Tlooth, Harry Mathews, 1966

      June 18, 2010

      Beckett on Screen I

      Following my recent post about Beckett's complete works I've decided to occasionally post filmed adaptations of Beckett's work available online, trying to find the best and most loyal adaptation for each work.
      Ohio Impromptu
      From The Beckett on Film project; performed by Jeremy Irons and directed by Charles Sturridge

      In the notes to the original play Beckett instructs that the two characters be "as alike in appearance as possible," which is why this cinematic adaptation cast the same actor as both Reader and Listener. Nevertheless, and in spite of one of the characters' fading away at dawn in the adaptation (which does not occur in the play), the two characters are not explicitly intended to be two components of the same person.

      June 17, 2010

      Beckett Entire

      The list of recommended readings Donald Barthelme gave his writing students includes one particularly laconic entry - "Beckett Entire;" no other writer on his list was awarded this honor. Since Barthelme's death in 1989 (almost five months to the day before Beckett's death) the definition of "entire" has grown, with the 1992 publication of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Beckett's first novel, and the first volume of his letters, from 1929-1940, published in 2008.
      Unrelated to Barthelme's list, I also decided at some point that I wanted to read Beckett's entire oeuvre (probably sometime in 2004/5 after reading the Molloy and Waiting for Godot), though in my case there were other writers I wished to read everything by (Kafka and Borges, both mentioned in earlier posts, as well as Pinter, Coetzee, Raymond Carver, Nathanael West, and Nabokov, some of which I assume will come up in future posts). The following list is for people who wish to do the same and want to know which books they should get, or people who just want to know which of his books are worth reading (unlike Barthelme, though I aim to read Beckett's complete works, I wouldn't recommend all of it).
      You might assume that getting a hold of The Grove Centenary Editions of Samuel Beckett Four Volume Boxed Set is a simple, albeit expensive, way of getting all his works, but these editions do not include the posthumously published letters or first novel. Besides, what fun would that be? Wouldn't you rather discuss 17 books than 4?

      In the following table books marked V under Bloom were included in Harold Bloom's inescapable Western Canon; books marked V under Me were read by me and are discussed below.
      Books Bloom MeNotes
      Proust- -Essay
      Dream of Fair to Middling Women - - Novel
      More Pricks than Kicks- - Stories
      Mercier and Camier V Novel
      Three Novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) V V Also known as The Trilogy
      Waiting for Godot V Play
      Endgame V V Play
      Happy Days - - Play
      How It IsV - Novel
      Nohow On-V3 Novellas
      Disjecta - V Various writings and a dramatic fragment
      Complete Short Prose- V Stories and texts
      Collected Shorter Plays"Krapp's Last Tape"VShort plays and scripts
      Collected Poems in English and French-V Poetry
      Letters Volume 1 --Letters

      Molloy is my personal favorite, and though the other two (Malone Dies and The Unnameable) gradually become more solipsistic and repetitive, all three novels are definitely at the top of my recommended list. The writing is brilliant in all three, funny and at times poignant, though very little ever seems to happen (and if something does happen the narrators often focus on its minutest details).
      The other novels I've read are Murphy, which was enjoyable but didn't impress me as much as the others, and Mercier and Camier, which for some reason I found rather annoying and uninteresting (though written in 1946, Beckett withheld the novel from publication until 1970; perhaps he knew what he was doing).
      The three novellas collected in Nohow On (Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstward Ho) are often set up in relation to the "Three Novels," as a further exploration of the same themes with even less of a plot and context, which is perhaps why I found them to be too abstract. Though some of the passages exhibit wonderful prose, without any real characters or events it's very hard for each of these pieces to coalesce into a recognizable whole.

      Short Stories and Texts:
      The Complete Short Prose includes all of Beckett's short fiction - excluding the ten stories concerned with the character Belacqua Shuah that make up the collection More Pricks than Kicks - spanning his entire career, from 1929 to 1989, thus offering an interesting view of his development. The stories "First Love," "The End," "The Expelled," and "The Calmative" are among his best fiction and, being short, offer the best introduction to his non-dramatic work. Later works in the collection, as in the case of the novels, tend towards greater abstraction and could often not even be classified as "stories" in the traditional sense - they are texts, fragments, "fizzles." This collection reveals, all within the space of a single volume, Beckett's movement from Modernist stories to Postmodernist fragments, where stories are no longer required, as one of the texts explicitly states:
      ...once there is speech, no need of a story, a story is not cumpolsory, just a life, that's the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.
      Of these later writings the best are the 13 "Texts for Nothing," "Heard in the Dark" 1 & 2, and "Stirrings Still."

      I sincerely hope that I don't have to tell you how great Waiting for Godot is, or actually tell you anything about it. Even if I did need to acquaint you with this play I wouldn't say anything about it, I would just advise you to go read it. Or better yet, watch it (I was lucky enough to see it last summer at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Vladimir and Estragon). Endgame is also a masterpiece, though bleaker (I only fully appreciated it after seeing it on stage - at BAM in 2008, with John Turturro as Hamm).
      The Collected Shorter Plays includes all of Beckett's dramatic work excluding the two plays mentioned above and Happy Days. It also includes his radio and television plays, mimes, and the screenplay for Film (a 25 minute movie starring Buster Keaton, which you can find on YouTube). Some of these texts are barely readable - consisting of a series of instructions for actors, directors, or lighting technicians, making it difficult to visualize exactly what Beckett was going for, and at any rate having much less of an effect than one would probably get from the actual performance. Of the 29 pieces collected here "Krapp's Last Tape" stands out as the best; other works worth reading are "Rough for Theater" 1 & 2, "Rough for Radio" 1 & 2, "A Piece of Monologue," "Ohio Impromptu," and "Play" (In the UK Beckett's Complete Dramatic Works are available in a single volume published by Faber & Faber).
      All of Beckett's plays and playlets (a total of 19 works) were filmed as part of the Beckett on Film project (available as a DVD Box set) and videos of many of the other works can be found online (perhaps a separate Beckett YouTube post is in order).
      Scene from Krapp's Last Tape, part of the Beckett on Film project,
      directed by Atom Egoyan and starring John Hurt

      The Rest:
      Disjecta collects Beckett's miscellaneous writings, including "Dante ... Bruno . Vico ... Joyce" which he originally wrote for Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a 1929 volume of laudatory essays about James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (at the time published serially under the title Work in Progress). Other works include essays on writers, artists, his own work, and a single scene from an unfinished (or mostly unwritten) play about Dr. Samuel Johnson. It is well documented that Beckett himself didn't think much of these pieces and nor do I. Some critics claim that these texts, particularly "Three Dialogues," provide a sort of self-commentary on Beckett's struggle with expression, but I find them superfluous - that struggle is expressed clearly enough through his fictional works.
      I have not yet read Beckett's long essay Proust, perhaps because I was uninterested by the nonfiction pieces collected in Disjecta, perhaps because I have not yet read Proust (that's right, string me up!). Beckett's Collected Poems in English and French are decidedly minor, and the ones in French are not always translated, but a few are quite fun, such as the one with which I'll conclude my overlong brief survey, "gnome":
      Spend the years of learning squandering
      Courage for the years of wandering
      Through a world politely turning
      From the loutishness of learning

      June 15, 2010

      The News on Tues

      Is it Tuesday already?
      • Are we done talking about The New Yorker's 20 authors under 40? Nope, New York Times book review editor Sam Tanenhaus still has a few things to say.
      • John Feffer has made me feel better about the 300+ books I own but have not yet finished - he's still working on getting through the books he bought in his teens. However, if I run into Ralph Gardner, another bibliophile, at a used book store, there might be trouble - I can just see him reaching for that first edition Gide as I lunge at him from across the room in slo-mo.
      • Turns out J.G. Ballard, who claimed that he never held on to letters, reviews, or research materials, had a secret archive after all. His daughters donated it to the British Library - will we get to see online selections as in the case of David Foster Wallace's archives?
      • Want to read Tolstoy but worried about the length? The L.A. Times' Carolyn Kellogg has some suggestions.
      • With Bloomsday just around the corner, everyone in the lit media is trying to dig up some new Ulysses news, and so they all happily flocked to report that Apple had required Robert Berry, the artist behind the Ulysses Seen project, an online graphic adaptation of the novel, to censor all nude images, including nonsexual ones like Buck Mulligan taking a bath, from his iPad app. The story was covered by The New Yorker, The New York Times, Robot 6, and Slate, who nearly all referenced the landmark censorship case Ulysses won in 1933, when a federal judge ruled that it was not obscene, and allowed its publication in the United States. Though Mr. Berry said that he did not feel censored by Apple since “It’s their rules...We’re coming to their dinner party at their house,” Apple, perhaps fearing the wrath of English Department grad students (probably their loyalest customers), has invited him to resubmit the original images.
      • On Bookforum Alan Lucey recommends an antidote to the pervasive digital data encroaching on our lives - a dose of Dada;  since registration to the site is required (albeit free), here are the four books he recommends (minus his descriptions):
      1. The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess by Andrei Codrescu
      2. Pppppp: Poems Performances Pieces Proses Plays Poetics by Kurt Schwitters
      3. I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation by Francis Picabia
      4. Dada in Paris by Michel Sanouillet

        June 13, 2010

        Musical Interlude XI

        The Velvet Underground - "Sunday Morning," the final song recorded for their 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico.

        June 11, 2010

        What I've Been Reading - There's Got to be a Morning After (Hebrew Book Week)

        Sayed Kashua is an Arab-Israeli journalist and novelist whose third book, Second-Person Singular, came out recently, just in time for Hebrew Book Week. In this week's edition of his regular column, Kashua recounts his experiences at Tel Aviv's central book fair, taking the understandable albeit slightly hypercritical stance of "don't think of me as an Arab-Israel writer just because I'm an Arab-Israeli who writes about Arab-Israelis."
        Being almost compulsively anachronistic, I chose to purchase and read his second novel, Let it be Morning. Before I go on to discuss the book let me give you the obligatory spoiler alert, though I find it somewhat irrelevant when reviewing literary fiction (can you really spoil The Brothers Karamazov or Under the Volcano by revealing what happens in the end?), the following review will tell you exactly what goes on in the book, including that ever-crucial plot twist at the end, though in this book you could see it coming a mile away.
        The novel begins with the quasi-autobiographical story of a journalist returning with his wife and daughter to the Arab village where he grew up - this is an interesting touch since it roots the average contemporary reader, probably familiar with Kashua's biography through his personal column, in the very real world and leads him to expect the novel to be thinly-veiled autobiography, thus increasing the level of surprise when the events around the narrator/protagonist get gradually crazier. This approach, however, has its price since the story is written in a rather plain and colloquial style, which works fine for the breezy column and the mundane events of the earlier parts of the book, but falls short in the more dramatic scenes, and ultimately makes the whole book feel less like a carefully-considered and plotted work of fiction and more like a really fascinating idea executed almost haphazardly.
        The fascinating idea at the core of this work is that, shortly after the journalist's return, the whole village is closed off from the rest of Israel, surrounded by tanks, its power and water cut off, and anyone trying to escape is shot. The story then advances as the protagonist and his family try to survive in this new situation, all the while trying to figure out what exactly is going on around them, and dealing with the problems of food and water shortages, (graphically) overflowing sewage, and eruptions of violence by street gangs and neighbors. I thought this set up had a lot of potential, and consistently wanted for it to develop and expand, thinking of works like Albert Camus's The Plague and even Aharon Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939, but Kashua doesn't venture too far into speculative territory, settling for several days of discomfort and strain, culminating in a violent confrontation between the protagonist's family and their neighbors, which is diffused relatively quickly. 
        Then, just as the situation becomes untenable, it is resolved by the sudden restoration of water and electricity, which makes way for the surprising (but predictable) twist - the reason for the siege was secret negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, who have now signed a peace agreement under which the village is transferred, in exchange for some Jewish settlements, to the Palestinian authority. Lieberman's dream has come true. And then... that's it. The book ends. Except for a couple of mild hints and incredulous reactions, there's no exploration of life under Palestinian authority. I agree this is a totally different issue and calls for a totally different novel to be written (a sequel perhaps? Let it be Night?), but the desire for a continuation of the narrative tells me something else about the novel - all through reading it, I was waiting for it to start. The book did provide a brief glimpse of what happens when the social order collapses, but it didn't go far enough, halting the plot with a sudden deus ex machina before things got too extreme, and failing to deeply explore the issues it touched upon.

        So much for my general criticisms, now let me get a little more nitpicky and fanciful (which is always more fun). In the final scene the journalist talks with his editor at the Israeli paper he worked for, who wants him to write about the events of the last few days and become their regular correspondent in what is now Palestine. He promises him a regular job, but says: 
        "Listen, there might be a problem with the payment, because we're having crazy cutbacks. So it won't be as much as we used to pay you, but now the cost of living for you there is going to be much lower than here, no?"
        This line, which is the final line of the book, made it clear to me that Kashua is more of a columnist than a novelist, or that at least his columnist instincts have taken over and he couldn't resist an easy joke (or a jab at Israeli hypocrisy). There are many things that could have been done differently in the book, but looking at the book on its own terms this last scene could have easily been done better, with the final line serving as both a joke and a sly metafictional wink, and here's how:
        Since the book starts by presenting what we suspect is a thinly-veiled version of the author's life before gradually drawing us into the fictional world, I thought the best thing to do at the end would be to throw us back into the author's real world. Thus, when the editor asks the journalist if he could write a few words about what he'd been through, his response should be something like:
        "Buddy, I could write a book."
        The End.