September 29, 2009

Bukowski's Christmas present

A 'Report from the Bibliographic Bunker' on this month begins: “On Christmas Day, 1990, Charles Bukowski received a Macintosh IIsi computer and a laser printer from his wife, Linda. The computer utilized the 6.0.7 operating system and was installed with the MacWrite II word processing program. By January 18 of the next year, the computer was up and running and so, after a brief period of fumbling and stumbling, was Bukowski.”

How amazing is that! Two hours away down the California coast, I too was receiving a Mac for Christmas! Well, maybe two years and two hours away, I’m not really sure, it might have been 1988, but what are a couple of years in the cosmic scheme of things? I had it up and running the same day. It wasn’t hard, you just read the little book – what was it called again, oh yes, the manual - which came with it, and then you could put the manual on your rug and use it as a mouse pad for your one-click mouse.

The old Macs were so cool. I don't think anything else as cool was ever invented during my lifetime, or at least that portion of my lifetime since I've known about cool. I can think of handy things like suitcases with wheels or cell phones, even notably crazy things like the Concorde, but nothing as cool as the Mac. The two major coolnesses were 1) the way they looked and 2) they were absolutely incompatible with Windows which, having just been purchased by IBM, was pretty clearly going to be the industry standard, so if you chose the Mac you were happy to be completely cut off from mainstream America. I’m sure Linda was on to that.

Despite the fact - a bit mysterious - that it took 24 days to get Bukowski’s Mac up and running, it appears that he took happily to the new technology, writing a poem to the Intel chip (it’s reprinted in the Report) and musing that “There is something about seeing your words on a screen before you that makes you send the word with a better bite, sighted in closer to the target. I know a computer can’t make a writer but I think it makes a writer better. Simplicity in writing and simplicity in getting it down, hot and real.”

This is just the opposite of what I’d always assumed, which was that computers were to blame for the way some authors of the last 20 years have driven me crazy recently by including in their books what appears to be every single thing that passes through their heads. That would be Rick Moody (everything after The Ice Storm, a very good book rife with exhiliration and pain), Dave Eggers (everything), and Jonathan Franzen (I only ever tried The Corrections and when the daughter’s second or third long story started up I had to fast forward to the end, which made me cry -- the ending, not the fast-forwarding). Maybe I’m wrong, and this lack of discrimination is about temperament, and not operational at all.

The 'Report from the BB' goes on to contrast Bukowski’s interest in new technology with William S. Burroughs’s point of view, expressed in an interview in 1987, that you know, it just didn’t seem worth the trouble to figure out how to use a computer, although apparently he had one in the house. This inspired someone named Egil (a real name?) to comment that in his old age Burroughs may have preferred “something reliable like a gun.” I mentally shrieked. Egil, are you sure that “reliable” is the right choice of word? You mean like that thing made of steel which if you’re not careful you can kill someone with? What, he did?

Now, for a genius take on the problems of adjusting to new technology, watch this gem from the show "Øystein og jeg" on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), "The Medieval Help Desk". Don't worry, it's subtitled!

September 25, 2009

Library Quiz

"For the winter's rains and ruins are over
And all the season of snow and sins..."
 -- Swinburne

Yes, it's Spring, and with Spring comes the Library Quiz. My team picked “Authors” for its double-points round. This had seemed a good choice for our group of inveterate readers, but we hadn’t reckoned with just how much information is contained in the fine mind of Iain Sharp, esteemed man of letters and composer of the Authors round questions, and furthermore, we carelessly neglected to consider the factor of the Gaelic impishness. We managed half. See how you do:

1. This woman was Sir Edmund Hillary’s favourite author. She is also mentioned in Maurice Gee’s new novel, Access Road. Who is she?

2. The cousin of which renowned novelist was among the victims of English serial killers Fred and Rose West?

3. The soundtrack for the Wim Wenders film “The Million Dollar Hotel” features a song by U2 with lyrics credited to which Booker Prize-winning author?

4. There’s no prize for knowing that Pride and Prejudice was written by Jane Austen, but which renowned novelist helped write the script for the 1940 movie version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier?

 5. This oil painting by William Frith is part of Auckland Art Gallery’s permanent collection. The little man anxiously biting his nails is 18th-century poet Alexander Pope. Who is the woman – herself a distinguished travel writer – laughing heartily at his marriage proposal?

6. Which three early 19th-century authors did Douglas Walton, Elsa Lanchester and Gavin Gordon portray in a 1935 film classic?

1. Georgette Heyer
2. Martin Amis
3. Salman Rushdie
4.  Aldous Huxley
5.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
6.  Respectively, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. The film was James Whale’s camp classic The Bride of Frankenstein.

September 16, 2009

Strange language

From our guest blogger, Nick:

This from the New York Times, via Ed Park’s blog, via Jenny Davidson’s blog, via probably someone else: 

“It’s hard to say why I like walking backwards,” said Yang De Fu, 60, who does it for an hour in the morning and again in the evening. “It can exercise muscles you don’t use when you walk forward. And it just makes me comfortable. I’ve been doing it 20 years.”  He explained that walking backward forces the tummy in and the back straight. Then he walked away, backward. He did not have to turn around to wave. 

This scenario is a concrete example of the concept I always heard at art school of “making the familiar unfamiliar”. Experiencing something you think you know in an unexpected way is something that art, literature, physical activity, funnily allows. It sometimes happens when English is used by people for whom it is not their first language, like when Javier Bardem likens John Malkovich to a big Pizza Hut (favourably). 

In an article about quitting a habit, David Sedaris has written this:  

When it came to verb conjugation, she was beyond reproach, but every so often she’d get a word wrong. The effect was not a loss of meaning but a heightening of it. I once asked if her neighbor smoked, and she thought for a moment before saying, “Karl has . . . finished with his smoking.” 

And here is a story by Lydia Davis, from her collection Samuel Johnson is indignant

Happiest Moment 

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.

September 01, 2009

Naked Lunch's anniversary

I’ve been carrying Naked Lunch around with me for at least a month and I think it’s time to realise that I am just not going to read more than the approximately 50 scattered pages I read during the first 36 hrs after I picked it up: about 25% of it, more or less the same amount as I read the first time I encountered it. That was in the guise of Il pasto nudo, in Italy, at some point in my twenties, at the house of a friend who had once seen William S. Burroughs at JFK Airport, I seem to recall. Or maybe he had made a pilgrimage to Burroughs’s house, and it was Cousin Joe (also very old and very cool, but a bluesman) that he stood in line behind at JFK?

Never mind. I think it’s right in the spirit of Burroughs to just read bits and pieces, my own personal cut-up, you might say. The official caretaker of the Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas cheerfully admits to never having gotten through Naked Lunch either. In fact, I could even have read less of it, and still appreciated it just as much. These lines alone, just at the start, when he has run into the subway fleeing from a narc and is racing for the train, would have sufficed for me to unreservedly call it a great book:

"Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character. You know the type: comes on with bartenders and cab drivers, talking about right hooks and the Dodgers, calls the counterman in Nedick’s by his first name. A real asshole."

How do I know the track record of the official caretaker of the Burroughs house? Because it’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of Naked Lunch this year, and that intrigues me, so I've been reading up. Of the many, the one I liked the best was the one Duncan Fallowell wrote in the New Statesman in July. He had some interesting things to say about Naked Lunch. First he amazed me by calling it the last of the landmark modern novels. What? It’s revolutionary. How can it be the last of something?

So I asked myself, well, what does Fallowell probably think the first modern novel is? And I realised it would probably be Ulysses. And then it made sense. I had a sudden vision of all these grand old men of modernity, in those black and white photos we see of them, aged, ravaged, intense: Joyce, Beckett, Orwell. W.H. Auden. Ezra Pound. Burroughs. It’s like The Wild Bunch, and he is definitely one of them, and yeah, probably the last.

At the end, this stabbing observation: 'His essential message – escape the machine – could well be more relevant, and difficult to emulate, than ever.'

You can read the article online.

When Burroughs died in 1997, phoned J.G.Ballard and asked him what Burroughs had meant to him. Absolute honesty, he said:

"Burroughs called his greatest novel "Naked Lunch," by which he meant it's what you see on the end of a fork. Telling the truth. It's very difficult to do that in fiction because the whole process of writing fiction is a process of sidestepping the truth. I think he got very close to it, in his way, and I hope I've done the same in mine."

You can read all the interview on It's good to remember J.G. Ballard, who departed from this world he believed so strongly in seeing and writing about from "both sides of my retina", as he used to say, earlier this year.

Some other things I found:
A website with the covers of all of Burroughs’s novels, and their translations, through the years. Really fun to look at. Syringes of all shapes and sizes of course, but also serious attempts to depict a hallucinating eye, and even a naked… woman for the Yugoslavs. I see that the French translator, rather than Dejeuner Nu, which would have seemed the obvious choice, with its echo of Dejeuner sur l’herbe -- what more naked lunch than that? some say it was Burroughs’s inspiration -- chose Festin Nu, or Naked Banquet, as in Cezanne’s great painting Le Festin, the Banquet, quite energetically Nu itself.

On you can read about the anniversary celebrations around the world. I quote from the Parisian symposium programme “The session before lunch makes connections between Burroughs, French culture, and traditions of drug-taking through three very different approaches". No mention of what happens at lunch. Aperitif hour, however, offers “Fiona Paton focuses on the spiritual dimension in Naked Lunch by focusing on recurrent imagery of ectoplasm”.

Lawrence Kansas was the one I liked the most, for the photo of Burroughs they chose, for having a show of WSB’s art called “Naked leftovers”, for putting on the program (have to spell it this way) an accordion serenade and “some of the Old Man’s favorite songs on the iPod”.

Lawrence Kansas reminds me of a good book: Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti – it’s actually Albert Einstein’s brain which he is driving across the US (it's a true story), together with the pathologist who had kept it after the autopsy. This pathologist happened to have lived next door to WSB in Lawrence and they stop in to visit him. I drove through Kansas once and I am sure we stopped in Lawrence for either the world’s deepest well, or the world’s best catfish. Unfortunately it wasn’t when Burroughs was living there. I checked. What do I remember about Kansas? The wind, the cowboy boots, and the way the natives threw around names like "Dodge City", as in "There's a great shopping mall up in Dodge City."

Other things that 1959 brought the world besides Naked Lunch:
1. Picasso was working on the sketches for his "Dejeuner sur l’herbe". He didn’t actually put his brush to the canvas until 1960 but I had to put this in anyway. The Musee d’Orsay had an exhibition this year on the Picasso- Manet Dejeuners.
2. Asterix
3. The first Barbie doll
4. The first Mini
5. The first Aluminum Beer Can
6. The Historic Monkey flight, ie the first time a living being (actually 2) went into space and came back alive. You just know this had to have influenced Burroughs.

Two recommended online reads

William Burroughs Interview by Paris Review, 1965 Beats In Kansas: The Beat Generation in the Heartland

And a book to get from the library:
Last words : the final journals of William S. Burroughs

Best books about boxing

When I was growing up I always thought of my father as someone who looked down on sports, but later I realised that it was just team sports he didn’t like. He loved top performers. He watched Wimbledon. He watched the Olympic divers and sprinters and skiers. And he watched boxing. He saw Sonny Liston lose the heavyweight championship of the world to Cassius Clay, and I remember overhearing him say that Sonny Liston had thrown the fight. I wanted to know what it meant, and I guess once I knew that I asked why. Never one to underestimate children, he would not only have mentioned organised crime, but probably attempted an exposition of the Faustian bargain as well.

Well, it was a fascinating riddle to me and it must have lodged itself inside my brain, so that last week, when I was looking up a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis by Nick Tosches on the library catalogue and discovered that he had written a book about Sonny Liston, I found myself rushing upstairs to grab it off the shelf, like the brainwashed agents in that old Charles Bronson spy movie who twenty years later are reawakened by a line of poetry and compelled to go and blow up missile sites.

Nick Tosches is a writer I’ve always liked. In the first photo I saw of him he looked a bit like John Cassavetes (though he doesn’t really) and the first book of his I picked up had a great dedication, with lines like “to those who broke and entered with me / into the cathedral of the heart, / to those who took my back / in right and in wrong.” That’s what his prose is like, Little Italy tough-guy with moments of sentiment but not sentimentalism, and an echo of Dante, except that Dante was never brutal, and he rhymed.

The book is called Night train, after the song Liston liked to work out to, and I read it in two nights. I would have read it in one if I hadn't had to go to work the next day. It’s dark and disturbing, like Sonny Liston, who turns out to have been the archetype of “bad”. I didn't know. The book quotes Liston comparing boxing to a cowboy movie, with the good guys and the bad guys. “’The bad guys are supposed to lose. I change that,’ he had said. ‘I win’.” But Tosches's take is, “He rode a fast dark train from nowhere, and it dumped him at that falling-off place at the end of the line.”

On the lighter side, this book was directly responsible for me watching the DVD of Fight Club last night. I had never wanted to see it because I had imagined it as something World Wrestling Federation types watched, not to mention the problem of pretentious Brad Pitt, but it was proposed to me, and after Night train, men beating each other up didn't sound so shallow after all, so I watched it. Once I would have cried “foul” about the scene where the narrator pounds the guy’s face into pulp, but not any more. Now I’m looking forward to the book, my first Chuck Palahniuk novel ever. I see a whole new world opening up here.

Vice versa, here’s a book I've read which everyone should read: The fight, the book Norman Mailer wrote about the Rumble in the Jungle -- the famous match held in Zaire with which Muhammad Ali won his world championship back from George Foreman. Boxing fans have deemed it the best book ever about boxing, but I just love it for how convulsively funny it is, not to mention exceedingly sharp, and, just often enough, from-the-heart eloquent. It's Mailer totally in command. Here he is on George Foreman:

syndetics-lc"He came out from the elevator dressed in embroidered bib overalls and dungaree jacket and entered the lobby of the Inter-Continental flanked by a Black on either side. He did not look like a man so much as a lion standing just as erectly as a man. He appeared sleepy but in the way of a lion digesting a carcass."

And lastly, there's Hemingway’s classic, great story about the shadowy world of boxing and the mob, “The killers”, which you can now read online -- hard to believe, if you are acquainted with the Hemingway family’s possessiveness with regard to their precious “brand”, including their attempt to stop the Hemingway look-alike contest in Key West from proceeding as not being respectful enough (or not having paid them enough).

This from the family that had the bad taste to bring us the Ernest Hemingway line of rifles! I saw the advertisement in an U.S. magazine with my own eyes.

Read "The Killers"

And get from the library

Night train by Nick Tosches

Fight club (DVD)

Fight club (the novel)

The fight by Norman Mailer

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