Books, news, politics, the arts, and other stuff
By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Case for Chuck Hagel

Charlie Pierce makes it: 

Ever since that thoroughgoing, bean-counting, soulless bastard Robert McNamara was in charge of it, the Defense Department steadily has moved away from the notion that its primary constituency is the men and women in uniform. Certainly, to name one recent example, Donald Rumsfeld proved to be far more in love with his own brilliant theories on defense policies than he cared about the fact that we weren't sending enough poor sods in inadequate body-armor to carry them out. This is a problem that Chuck Hagel never will have.
Hagel is a grunt. He always has been. He always will be. He's one of the people who has to kick in the doors. He's one of the people who has to look gingerly around the corner. He's one of the people who had to live at war 24-7, and who walked through Indian country and nearly died there.

Read more: Chuck Hagel Defense Nomination - The Hagel Nomination - Esquire

Separated at Birth?

Friday, January 4, 2013

"To Be Publicly Mean and Stupid"

The reason I value Charlie Pierce's blog so much is the way he has of getting at the essence of things:

One of the last actions of the last useless majority of the House Of Representatives was to allow the Violence Against Women Act to wither and die ....  One of the first actions of the new useless majority of the House Of Representatives was to continue to fund legal actions in defense of the Defense Of Marriage Act. There is no reason to waste money on this kind of thing — The question of same-sex marriage is currently before the Supreme Court — except to be publicly mean and stupid.... This is the kind of thing to keep in mind whenever a member of the new useless majority goes on your electric teevee set to talk about The Deficit. They won't spend money to ease the lives of the old and the sick. But they'll spend it to be mean and stupid. The ignorance subsidy is untouchable.

I mean, has anyone since H.L. Mencken been so skilled at reducing a political stance to such a withering epigram? "They won't spend money to ease the lives of the old and sick. But they'll spend it to be mean and stupid."  

Thursday, January 3, 2013


When I first saw this famous faceoff of the Thomases, More and Cromwell, in the Frick Museum, I was very much on More's side, probably because of A Man for All Seasons. But now, having read Hilary Mantel's two novels about Cromwell, I'm beginning to think he was the more agreeable of the two. Still, Holbein seems to have liked More better than Cromwell. In any case, are there two more revealing portraits than these? 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

You Lie!

When it comes to language, I side with the descriptivists -- those who acknowledge that the English language is constantly in a process of change -- rather than with the prescriptivists -- those who believe that there are certain rules that must be followed even though hoi polloi have abandoned them. (Notice that I didn't say "the hoi polloi," which I have been taught is equivalent to saying "the the people." There are, after all, a few rules that I cling to, perhaps because knowing them gives me a slight ego boost. Like, I also know that "kudos" means "praise" and is therefore singular, and that there's no such thing as "a kudo." Except that the descriptivist in me recognizes that eventually there will be.)

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that word usage is a slippery thing, and that really it all comes down to what sort of audience you're addressing. For example, I fully accept the use of "hopefully" as a sentence modifier, as in "Hopefully, he will be here soon." But because I also know that there are a lot of people who insist that it's slovenly usage, I tend to avoid it, and write "We hope that ..." or "I hope that ..." instead.

I know, too, that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole, so I'll never write "John, Mary, and Edgardo comprise the rules committee" -- or worse, "The rules committee is comprised of John, Mary, and Edgardo" -- even though most people don't make the distinction.

I even avoid writing "He was disinterested in the conversation" when what is meant is that he was bored by or indifferent to it. I was taught that "disinterested" meant "impartial" or "unbiased," and not, as is probably meant here, "uninterested." (In fact, "disinterested" used to mean "uninterested," but then the prescriptivists got hold of it and decided the usage was improper.)

So I'm not such a stickler that when I run across a sentence modified by a "hopefully," or a composing "comprise," or a bored "disinterested," or even a "the hoi polloi" or a "kudo," I shudder and flinch. (Well, maybe inwardly, at least on the last one.) But there's one usage change that still grates: the disappearing intransitive "lie," as in, "I am going to lie down." Maybe it comes from having to chant in English class what used to be called the principal parts: "Lie, lay, lain, lying" and "Lay, laid, laid, laying." And from hearing the supercilious question, "Are you a chicken?" asked of anyone foolish enough to say, "I am going to lay down."  

The distinction between "lie" and "lay" is vanishing, and an intransitive "lay" is winning. I was reading a Lee Child Jack Reacher novel today, and read:
Reacher laid down again. 
And later,
Reacher laid back, stayed relaxed, stayed casual.
But oddly, quite a few pages later, a character says,
I've lain awake a hundred nights going over it.

"Lee Child" is actually a Brit named Jim Grant, so apparently the confusion over "lie" and "lay" isn't confined to this side of the Atlantic. And the confusion seems to be so great that the traditional intransitive "lain"  can coexist with the emerging intransitive "laid" within the same author's mind. (I once encountered an otherwise highly literate writer who was so confused on the "lie, lay" issue that he wrote, "I lied down for a nap.")

I wish the confusion didn't exist, and that we could just accept intransitive "lay, laid, laid, laying" at least on an equal footing with "lie, lay, lain, lying." On the other hand, the confusion once led to my employment, in the job that turned me from a failed academic to a moderately successful journalist. After not receiving tenure at the university where I was teaching, I applied to a local magazine for a copy-editing position. What got me the job was finding the sentence, "There is garbage laying in the alleys," and pointing out that it was incorrect. The sentence was in a column written by the magazine's publisher.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What I'm Reading

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I read Barnes's short novel in almost one sitting, not because it's a particularly compelling narrative, but almost because it isn't. British novels that begin with recollections of school days and early loves gone wrong are so common that I was impelled by a suspicion that "there must be more to it than this."

There is, of course, or the Booker people wouldn't have given it their prize. But whether there is quite enough to overcome the nagging sense that here is yet another work of fiction undermined by its narrative trickery is still an open question for me. Fairly early in the book, a character quotes a definition that he ascribes to a French historian named Patrick Lagrange (who is fictitious): "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." If you aren't alerted then that the novel is going to center on the distortions and omissions of memory, you haven't been reading enough contemporary fiction.

The crux of the novel is a letter that the narrator, Tony Webster, has forgotten ever writing: one to a friend who had taken up with a girl that Tony had been seeing. The letter, when Tony sees it again, 40-some years later, long after he has been married to and divorced from another woman and has settled into a quiet retirement, is a vicious denunciation of both the friend and his former girlfriend. The letter has had bitter consequences, of which Tony has spent his life unaware.
I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I did not recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception. 
He tries to divorce himself from the consequences of the letter -- as he says, he "was not its author now" -- but they have been so devastating that even though he has lived a quiet and satisfactory life, believing himself to be a good man, the letter serves as a bridge between his present self and his earlier one. He reflects,
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does; otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration.
The letter and its consequences cause him to try to view his life as a whole, but the disjunction between the self who wrote the letter and the self he perceives himself to be now remains. (At the same time, Barnes is playing a bit of a game by having a character in a novel reflect on the difference between character in a novel and character in life. As the professor would say: Discuss.)

The moral crux of the novel is evident. Tony tries to escape from one aspect of it, the supernatural:
Of course I don't -- I didn't -- believe in curses. That is to say, in words producing events. But the very action of naming something that subsequently happens -- of wishing specific evil, and that evil coming to pass -- this still has a shiver of the otherworldly about it. The fact that the young me who cursed and the old me who witnessed the curse's outcome had quite different feelings -- this was monstrously irrelevant. 
But on the other hand, he has to admit, "If life did reward merit, then I deserved shunning."

I value The Sense of an Ending for Barnes's willingness to pose a moral question: How much guilt should we assume for things we never intended to bring about and of which we were unaware? At the same time, I question whether it is less a novel than a fable crafted to serve as a case study in an ethics class.  

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Better Than Shakespeare?

I told a friend recently that I had no interest in seeing the film Life of Pi because I admired the book so much. But tonight, watching a recording of the San Francisco Opera production of Otello, I realized it's possible to admire both an original and its copy in another medium. In fact, I'm not sure that I don't think Verdi's Otello is even better than Shakespeare's Othello. The SFO production is not ideal -- Johan Botha is neither physically nor vocally what one would want in the title role -- but even a flawed production brings back memories of less-flawed performances, such as Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo in the role, or of the old recording with Giovanni Martinelli as Otello and Ramon Vinay as Iago. And the score itself carries so much of the glory of the opera.

So is Verdi's (and Boito's) version really better than Shakespeare's? No, something is inevitably lost in translation: "Abbasso le spade!" is certainly not a patch on "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them," when it comes to beauty and wit. And Shakespeare's Desdemona has more depth of characterization than Boito's. But there is nothing in the play that has the impact of the great operatic scene in which Iago goads Otello into an oath of vengeance, especially when performed by two stellar singing actors like Piero Cappuccili and Domingo in this 1976 La Scala production:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Be Good, Sweet Novelist, and Let Who Will Be Clever

Lately I've read two novels by distinguished contemporary writers that left me wondering if it's possible to be too clever for a novelist's own good.

The other day I posted about one of the novels, Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, which has lately established itself firmly on the bestseller lists and on some of the ubiquitous "best novels of 2012" lists compiled by various critics. I observed that although the novel seems to be heading in the conventional direction of first-person narratives with an ironically self-deprecating voice characteristic of some British fiction, McEwan was also using his narrator to score a few points about the recent and contemporary British novel.

It turns out that McEwan is doing precisely that and more. His narrator -- or rather let us say, without giving too much away, his ostensible narrator is Serena Frome ("rhymes with plume," as she remind us and others from time to time), a young woman who, fresh out of Cambridge with a not-very-distinguished degree in mathematics, goes to work for British intelligence." Eventually she is asked to perform a "secret mission," to inform a young writer named Tom Haley that he is the recipient of a lucrative grant from a foundation that supports up-and-coming writers. In fact, the grant is funded by MI5, which has set up a program to support anticommunist artists, in a rather lame and half-hearted attempt at tilting the propaganda war against left-wing Brits. If you remember the scandal in which the British literary magazine Encounter was revealed in 1967 to have been funded by the CIA, leading to the resignation of its editor, the poet Stephen Spender, you know what's at work here.

Haley accepts the grant, and he and Serena fall in love. Since she's a very junior staff member in MI5, usually tasked with typing and filing, she's eager for advancement. But she really is in love with Haley, and is tormented by the fact that she's forced to lie to him not only about the source of the money he's receiving but also about her role in selecting him to receive it.

Now, there are some very obvious ways a novel with a plot like this can go. She can risk losing him and/or her job by telling him the truth. She can keep lying and get found out. And once he learns the truth, he can either break up with her in anger and disillusionment, or he can forgive her and they can live happily with the deception. But although there are plenty of novels that would resort to either the happy lie ending or the painful truth ending, both endings have something phony about them. They're characteristic of popular fiction, not of the kind of keen-edged literary fiction McEwan is known for.

I won't tell you how McEwan resolves his plot, except to say that it's extremely clever. And that it seems like a cheat anyway. He has set up a romantic dilemma and resolved it with a metafictional gimmick. Yes, it's thought-provoking, and when you look back through the novel you can see how carefully McEwan has set it up. At one point, a character tells Serena,
In this work the line between what people imagine and what's actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big gray space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things -- and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real.
The "work" being referred to is Serena's work for MI5. But it can also be taken to refer to the "work" that is McEwan's novel. Double-meanings of this sort abound in Sweet Tooth.

Don't get me wrong: I was entertained and intrigued by the novel. It's a pleasure to see fiction stand itself on its head. But at the same time, I don't read novels to solve puzzles, and something of the heart went out of the book when I discovered what McEwan is doing.

Which brings me to another terribly clever book, Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, also ensconced on bestseller and best-of lists. Here the cleverness is not in the plotting, although Chabon is certainly skillful in that regard. It's a story set in contemporary Oakland and Berkeley, and its major virtue is that, unlike McEwan, Chabon introduces us to a set of vivid characters that we've never met before. It deals with the owners of a used-record store in Oakland whose livelihood is threatened by the arrival of a chain megastore -- the Walmart of used records plus electronics and other goodies -- and with their families and customers and competitors and so on. This is a novel teeming with colorful characters.

But it's also a bit like a party at which there are all sorts of interesting people to meet and talk to, except that it's being thrown by a host who just won't shut up and let you meet them. He (i.e., Chabon) is interesting and fiercely witty himself, but every time you start getting to know one of his guests, he pops in with his own comments and asides. He is also a master of what McEwan's Serena referred to as "a form of naive realism." In Sweet Tooth she says of the novels she reads,"I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car." And Telegraph Avenue is rife with that kind of mentioning: places, people, events, trivia all centered on the Oakland-Berkeley area, particularly the parts adjoining the titular avenue. 

Some of this is gratifying to a Bay Area resident like me, and I was amused when Chabon alluded to the old station breaks on a local TV station, which featured dogs who turned their heads toward someone off-camera when the words "Channel 20" were spoken. It's the sort of in-joke you feel oddly, somewhat smugly pleased at sharing with the author. But it's also irrelevant. It's local color for the sake of being locally colorful. 

There's way too much of that sort of thing in Telegraph Avenue, whose stylistic cleverness is as provoking and distracting as McEwan's cleverness in upending his narrative. 

Friday, December 28, 2012


Tonight I watched an American opera company's production of a German opera based on a play written in French by an Irishman who then translated it into English. It was Richard Strauss's Salome, of course, a production of the San Francisco Opera that I recorded several months ago and just now got around to watching. The title role was played by Nadja Michael, a German soprano who's a better actress and dancer than singer -- she stirred up some real intensity playing around with Jokanaan (Greer Grimsley) both alive and decapitated. It was certainly a more, uh, vivid performance than the only live Salome I've seen, a Dallas Opera performance with Roberta Knie, a rather large young woman but a much better singer than Michael. It must have been in the mid-1970s, because Knie made her American debut in Tristan and Isolde in Dallas in 1975; the Tristan was Jon Vickers.

Here's the final scene from the 1974 film of the opera with Teresa Stratas as Salome, Hans Beirer as Herod, and the great Astrid Varnay as Herodias. The conductor is Karl Böhm.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What I'm Reading

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

The narrator of McEwan's latest novel is a young woman (in my mind's eye she's played by Romola Garai) who goes to work for British intelligence in the 1970s. I was feeling quite smug about having identified her voice as that familiar one of ironic self-deprecation so characteristic of British first-person narratives.

But then I realized that McEwan is smarter than me, when he homed in on how typical his narrator's voice is, and how his own novel both exemplifies and transcends a particular type of British fiction. His protagonist reads Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, and Iris Murdoch in search of herself, but finds the women in them "too educated or too clever, or not quite lonely enough in the world to be me."
I suppose I would not have been satisfied until I had in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man. 
I craved a form of naive realism. I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car. Then, I thought, I had a measure, I could gauge the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with my own impressions, or improved upon them. I was fortunate that most English writing of the time was in the form of undemanding social documentary. I wasn't impressed by those writers (they were spread between South and North America) who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or, to the contrary, to insist that life was a fiction anyway. Only writers, I thought, were ever in danger of confusing the two. I was a born empiricist. I believed that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they had made up. So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent. That year I tried and discarded the authors that sophisticated friends in Cambridge had pressed on me -- Borges and Barth, Pynchon and Cortázar and Gaddis. Not an Englishman among them, I noted, and no women of any race. I was rather like people of my parents' generation who not only disliked the taste and smell of garlic, but distrusted all those who consumed it.