Review of China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris

The Last Days of New Paris

China Miéville

London: Picador, 2017

ISBN: 9-781509-841882

207 pp.

“Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations (Breton, 1934).”

By juxtaposing images in a way that bypasses normal thought processes, for example the man with an apple for a face, surrealism exposes the hypocrisy and contradictions of the bourgeois world. This has, clearly, revolutionary potential and Trotsky took an interest in the movement as part of a deeper commitment to art. Surrealists may have lacked engagement with the byproduct of colonialism that was the First World War but they clearly recognised the threat of Fascism and its apologists wherever they were to be found. Control of the present and the future, of course, involves control of the past. As Jameson (2014:25) explains: “Nor is surrealist agency – the unconscious – at stake here: but rather the repression or occultation of agency as such (we will see later on that the very temporality of capitalist production, along with market exchange, consists in the obliteration of the past.”

The role of the artist, therefore, incorporates the need to help other people understand the purpose and value of change and to promote, as Gramsci had it, the optimism of the will that improvements to the world can be made. Generally speaking, this is attempted through production and dissemination of various works of art but there are occasions on which the artist is called upon to become a person of action and a protagonist in the struggle. One such occasion was the defence of Paris against the approaching Nazi forces. Fighting in the streets might be all that was possible in our history but what if other possibilities existed What if, for example, a scientific-occult experiment were to occur that brought about a transformation of surrealism into a real life phenomenon that conjures up physical likenesses of manifs – manifestations of the conceptual made real. Great warriors arise, such as the exquisite corpse, which strike at the fascists and undermine their morale through demonstrating the failures of their ideology.

This is the basis of China Miéville’s new novella, which is set in the Paris of 1941 and the New Paris of 1950, in which the creatures of the S-Force continue to battle for control of the streets. They are faced by antithetical forces conjured by the Nazis, which consumer the manifs to bring forth hell-flesh monstrosities. They are joined in this by the manifestations of a certain Austrian water colourist’s vapid creatures, whose emptiness poses a threat to the city as a whole. Desperate measures are required to control both the past and the present so as to be able to hope for the future.

The text is presented as a representation of interviews given by a mysterious figure who may have been one of the central figures in the struggle and now wishes the truth – or at least his version of the truth – to be known to all. As the tale is told, a profusion of notable surrealist images come into play as part of the wider battle. These are tied into our normal understanding of the world by a series of endnotes, which have a scholarly quality to them. Miéville is a scholarly person and has demonstrated this elsewhere, not least with his retelling of the Russian revolution, October. Occult themes and the transformative powers of human emotions and actions have been present in much of his work, including masterpieces such as Perdido Street Station and The Scar. He continues that tradition here in a very readable tale that zips along at a rapid pace, despite the oddity of the surroundings:

“Here, the Palais Garnier, its stairs dinosaur bones. He squints. Le Chabanais, the walls of the great building dissolved, light glimmering through the resin that has set around suspended women and men and the opulence and billowing cloths and gilded fittings within. A vegetal puppet, stringy, composite floral thing with fleeting human face ooze-growing up boulevard Edgar Quintet (p.56).”

This is a terrific and fascinating work and one which, despite the slenderness of the text, nevertheless plays an important part in Miéville’s oeuvre. Readers who do not know his work but enjoy this book have a great deal of pleasure in front of them discovering the other books he has written.

References

Breton, Andre, “What Is Surrealism?” 1934, available at: www.generation-online.org/c/fcsurrealism2.htm.

Jameson, Fredric, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (London and New York, NY: Verso, 2014).

 

 

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Review of Mark E. Smith’s Renegade

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Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith

Mark E. Smith with Austin Collings

London: Penguin Books, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-141-02866-8

X + 240 pp.

“To certain people you’ve got yo be a bit poetic, or a bit aggressive. They have their image of you – and I play up to it. But it’s a protection, a screen. I can pull it out when I need it, because with some people you do need it (p.71).”

I avoided reading this book for some years, at least in part because I didn’t want to get too close to the City Hobgoblin persona that Smith was fond of portraying and, also, because I rather drifted away from The Fall and from most music for a number of years. When I returned to it, all the musicians were different and there was not the same sense of connection – no Steve Hanley? Where is Karl Burns? Craig Scanlon? Not even a Brix?

However, with the illness and death of the great man earlier this year, I realised it was time for me to get to grips with The Fall overall and not just my relationship to the group (of almost 40 years). I started with Hanley’s The Big Midweek (which is reviewed elsewhere on this site) and others will follow (I have three to hand as I write this). The front cover of Renegade is also slightly off-putting – there is Smith, stagily pouring beer from a bottle into a glass and looking rather haggard. We now know, of course, that he had been struggling with cancer for some years but it is also true that the later years marked a quite rapid decline both in his writing and also, apparently, in his behaviour: he ended up after all in prison in the USA and could have been banged up for quite some time had events fallen out differently. This episode is not fully explained here (in fact, almost nothing of a factual nature is explained satisfactorily throughout the whole book) but there is evidence from elsewhere that sheds some more light on the issue. Smith claims that he was on the verge of being shipped off to Rikers Island, perhaps never to return (despite protesting his mostly innocence) but there is no independent verification of this.

It is not just his writing that went downhill – where once his writing had been dense, difficult, infuriatingly hard to make out but always enjoyable when it could be interpreted, later it degenerated in sophistication and content, with a number of songs seemingly taking revenge on band members or past lovers. The music itself became less interesting as Smith’s stature and endurance increased in relation to newer band members (and this relationship was reinforced structurally by the judicious choice of credits when it came to being paid) and he insisted on simplicity and control of the sound. This was made evident during gigs when he would wander around the stage, turning down amplifiers and dismantling the equipment. In part, this behaviour seemed to result from questionable lifestyle choices:

“At least you know where you are with booze. You drink two bottles of whisky and wake up in the morning, you know you’ve done something wrong, you know you won’t be doing it again. But experience tells you it’ll lift soon. And with liquor, if you drink any more, you’ll be dead. You can’t move. But with E you start seeing chickens on the road – I know I was (p.178).”

I was not a fan of the interference with the music – in the early period of his career when I was listening to The Fall quite intensively (Dragnet was my first LP), the voice and the lyrics were integral parts of a much bigger whole. Smith announced that if it were just him and ‘your granny on bongos,’ then it would still be The Fall. He then set out to prove this, often by sacking musicians when on tour and leaving them stranded in remote parts of the rural areas of other countries. It would only be when he contemplated performing on an otherwise empty stage that he would be obliged to reconsider.

All of these issues are extraneous to the merits of the book, of course, although they do indicate the reasons why I cannot approach the text in an objective and non-judgmental manner. So what is the text like? Well, it contains an extraordinary series of rants, with truth proving less attractive than a good line of invective. It is quite difficult to quote examples of this because of the relentless use of expletives, which I don’t particularly mind myself but do not want to include on this site. There are chapters about football (gone to hell in a handcart), other music (pretty much all rubbish) and various relationships (nearly everyone in the world is deficient in some way and has probably done him wrong behind his back at some stage). It is all very funny and plays well, as I said at the beginning, to his City Hobgoblin persona. Some of it may even be true. It was noticeable when the obituaries and discussion of his life was in full flight how fulsome in praise his various women were (brix, Elena, his sisters) about his chivalrous manners, his kindness and gentility. He had, I suppose, many sides to his character.

 

Review of Andy Weir’s Artemis

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Artemis

Andy Weir

New York, NY: Crown, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-525-57266-4

307 pp.

Andy Weir shot to fame as the result of his first book, The Martian, which became a best-seller as well as a prominent feature film. That book told the story of an unfortunate astronaut stranded on Mars when his colleagues were oblige to leave without him. The astronaut possesses reservoirs of scientific and technological knowledge and the ability to put this into useful practice through dexterity and clever innovation. The majority of the books as the man himself and his usually time-aspected rush to solve what appear to be impossibly difficult problems.

In Artemis, Weir attempts, not always successfully, to open the action to a small cast of characters, who revolve around the central character Jasmine or Jazz. Jazz is the daughter of a Saudi Arabian welder who has migrated to the eponymous city that is located on the moon. Artemis has reached the level of a modest-sized town, governed by a mayor and a man who is effectively the sheriff. Since it is very difficult to produce much in the way of consumer goods on the Moon, the citizens of Artemis are going to be reliant on imports from the Earth for the foreseeable future while being dependent on the tourism industry. It is clear from this that there is going to be a great deal of inequality in a society such as this and the signs of inequality will be evident in the possession of space and the items that be used to fill it. Jazz, of course, has very little space for herself and has also accumulated some unfortunate debts. Her answer to this predicament is to organize a modest but potentially lucrative smuggling ring. Alas, she is successful enough to reach the attention of people who can see a bigger picture and insert her into a scam which then drives the rest of the plot.

What is both the best and one of the worst things in the book is the relentless obsession with the science and engineering of living on the moon. No sentence is too short that three facts cannot be shoehorned into it and no conversation so inconsequential that it cannot be used as the vehicle for important technological knowledge:

“We reached the shelter hatch and I knocked on the small, round window. A face appeared – a man with watering eyes and ash-covered face. Most likely the foreman, who would have entered the shelter last. He gave me a thumbs-up and I returned the gesture (p.30).”

Not everyone will enjoy this style especially when it is combined with Jazz’s endless gag cracking (rather like Spiderman, whom one can imagine the author following) and the grotesquely simplistic characterisation of the remaining cast. To be honest, I am glad that I do not oblige myself to give a book marks out of ten on this site because I would have had to give quite a low one here – the dialogue is dreadful, the plot is ludicrous, the characters are irritatingly superficial and Jazz herself is the least credible female character I can remember encountering (and there have been quite a few unbelievable women in science fiction). However, the underlying nature of the book, which is an extended tour of how it would be possible to build and live in a moonbase, remains fascinating. The book would be better as a piece of fiction if it could have just involved an impersonal Jazz making a tour of Artemis while interacting with a computer but I imagine the publisher would not have been keen on such a thing. Instead, we are obliged to go along with the concept that technical competence is really the only characteristic that matters in valuing an individual and it is the principal means by which relationships may be maintained, damaged or repaired. Well, readers familiar with The Martian should know what to expect and would have no one to blame but themselves.

It will be interesting to see how, if at all, Weir develops his career from here. We have had Mars and the Moon so what will be next? A spaceship? A submarine marooned on the floor of the ocean? An asteroid? Perhaps he might be better advised to form a writing partnership (perhaps with a ghost writer – it has been known) as a means of combining the undoubted technical fireworks he has with a mode of fiction it is possible to enjoy in its own right.

Review of The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell

The Archer’s Tale

Bernard Cornwell

London: Harper Collins, 2005

ISBN: 10-0-06-093576-6

374 pp

In this enjoyable romp through the Hundred Years’ War, we follow the adventures of the sponymous Thomas of Hookton, who travels through France with the English army aiming to make a fortune at the expense of the unfortunate local people. Thomas has the additional goal of seeking revenge against the unknown French raiders who destroyed his home village and, also, there are some unfinished issues relating to his heritage – his father was a priest of unknown provenance and, as readers, we expect there will be gradually revealed through the course of his novel and, since the front cover presents this as the first book of the Grail Quest series, over the course of other books as well (I am going to guess it will be three altogether).

Along the way, Thomas has various adventures and the strumpet fate pushes him down and pulls him back up again. Cornwell is a veteran of the historical genre and readers may be familiar with others of his works (e.g. the Sharpe series and The Last Kingdom) which have found their way into being adapted for the screen. The characters are vivid and deployed deftly so that the villains appear when needed and the heroes have to suffer enough for us to bond with them. The language and style do not really compromise with the needs for contemporary readers to be able to understand the text without thinking much about it and there is nothing to suggest the depth of consciousness that the medieval mind might enjoy and which has been portrayed so brilliantly by Dorothy Dunnett, among others. However, as the concluding historical note observes, nearly all of the principal incidents described did in fact happen in pretty much the way that was described. These were, indeed, grim events and although the nitty-gritty of the rape and pillage is kept off the page, it is certainly there in the background.

The main theme of the book is the role of the archer, specifically the English archer – there are some Welsh archers (Pat, for example) but they have the grace to wait in the background. It seems to have been true that archers were a particularly dangerous force on the battlefield but, assuming we are not guilty of exaggerating their importance, why did other countries not seek to replicate them? Cornwell himself has no answer other than that it must have been a very difficult skill to acquire and to require very time-consuming practice and people from other countries were not up for it. There have been archery specialists in Southern Britain since Neolithic times and perhaps the yew wood was particularly helpful. Other places specialised in other forms of warfare and there are various geographic, cultural and social issues that interact with each other to produce specific forms of military practice. For example, in this book we have the well-known Genoese crossbowmen, while the French are of course busy with the flower of their chivalry. Meanwhile, I remember going to school every day past St. Mary’s Butts in Reading, at which men came to practice archery under the orders of King Edmund IV (who is featured in this book, although for some reason his vital Reading links are overlooked). It is one of the few things for which Reading is known, together with Queen Victoria’s enmity, the statue of the lion which would fall over in real life and Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment (now that the biscuit factory has closed down).

As mentioned previously, this is an enjoyable romp through history – we end up at the Battle of Crecy (spoiler alert, we English won) and there is plenty more of the story to come. There is also the Holy Grail to be found and, one suspects, some heresy and persecution to come. Fun.

Review of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

London: Collins Classic, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-00-736860-0

XIV + 258 pp.

At the risk of suffering from the curse of Morris Zapp, I did not read Jane Austen while pursuing my undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature – it is necessary to choose which courses to take on the basis that one person cannot read everything and I preferred Old English, Medieval literature and so forth. I have tried to catch up with some of the things I missed over the years since but there are so many other books and, besides, I have to spend a fair amount of time reading things for work. Anyway, the point of this preamble is that Northanger Abbey was new to me and, one afternoon having popped I to Sanmin (sanmin.com.tw) I thought it was about time to change that situation and I am glad that I did.

The plot follows Catherine Morland, a young woman from a family at the lowest possible level of ‘quality’ and her adventures in exotic Bath and beyond. Her life appears to be a crushingly boring round of household chores and she has aimed to avoid the worst effects by allowing her mind to become filled with various notions. Her understanding of the world and the people who live in it is challenged after she gratefully accepts an invitation from the neighbouring Allen family to spend a fortnight in Bath, where people go to take the air or the cure or somesuch thing on an annual basis. She must then navigate the issues of what to wear, what to talk about with other people and, over and above all, how to get an introduction to someone else, almost anyone else. Without such an introduction, one must be passed over in silence even in the height of one of Bath’s notorious balls, so full of a violent press of people it seems like it might literally be dangerous.

Fortunately, such introductions are eventually secured and Catherine faces new challenges, including how to evaluate the intentions and impressions formed upon certain young men around whom she now orbits and is orbited. She finds on the one hand that opinions can differ (even in the case of profound issues such as preferences for novels and novelists) but that it is the nature of polite society that such differences might be managed without the need for unpleasantness. She is subsequently invited to spend time at the Tilney Estate, which is the eponymous Abbey and there, too, certain other of her notions are disabused, albeit that the essential and sturdy carapace of the emerging bourgeois social system must not be seriously threatened. Sinister events are shown to have perfectly respectable motivations and the need for heroic individual acts are, like Adam at the end of Paradise Lost, no longer required.

We have been living in the age of the veneration of Auntie Jane for some time now and her cultural footprint may now be found not just on the screen and the stage but also in the contemporary video game and the mash-up horror parody, among other places. In addition to the pleasure of reading her work, therefore, it is appropriate to note that she really was a very good writer. The critical eye most commonly focuses, of course, on the nature of the relationship within small households which may be considered in isolation, as if the rest of the world did not exist. However, although the proletariat does not raise its head, it does seem to be present, around the edges and the margins, keeping the whole thing going by virtue of slow accumulation and endless sacrifice. Her work needs no recommendation from me, of course but she may have one anyway.

Review of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Revenger

Alastair Reynolds

New York, NY: Orbit, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-316-55556-2

425 pp.

The evidence of alien life and successful human attempts to transcend planetary geography are all around the people in this swashbuckling new novel by leading science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds but, alas, our ability to take advantage of these resources has been drastically diminished by the impact of entropic ageing. Like our understanding of the people of Dark Ages Britain, who looked upon the works of the departed Romans as the products of the Age of Giants, so too does humanity consider alien artifacts with a wild surmise. Those brave pirates who are able to penetrate the artifacts (which act according to predictable although gnomic rhythms) and can bring back swag from the inside without meeting catastrophic failures might be able to live very well on the proceedings for years to come. Yet the proceeds will quickly be watered down if the crew size is too large and so the pirate captains have an incentive to minimise crew numbers by ensuring that those who are enlisted re appropriately skilled for their main function and, also, preferably with other strings to their bows. Some skills may be obtained through hard work and aptitude but others are arcane and difficult to find. Principal among these skills is bone reading. For some reason, aliens have left behind a series of extra-solar system skulls from which, given the right equipment and conditions, may be coaxed communications from across space. A good bone reader would be capable, therefore, of providing a significant competitive advantage for their captains and that leads to benefits all round.

Enter, then, our two heroines, Adrana and Fura Ness, who hail from a solid bourgeois background which they are obliged to leave and seek their fortunes among the stars. As natural bone readers, they are able to obtain employment and lodging with Captain Rockamore and his crew, where prospects seem initially bright. Alas, not all who dwell in space are well-intentioned and the Monetta’s Mourn becomes victim of a space-jacking and forced to suffer the none-too-tender ministrations of notorious pirate Bosa Sennen. This sets the course for the rest of the book and we await the eponymous ship to arrive on the scene and set things aright.

I have to admit that when I first heard of this book, my heart sank slightly. I am a fan of Reynolds and I have seen what can happen when otherwise sensible writers (e.g. China Mieville and Steven Erikson) dip into parody and would-be satire. However, Revenger does not suffer from these kinds of problems. The universe created is detailed and vivacious and the characters must take the consequences of their actions seriously. There is a pirate-like energy and roister to the action but this does not lead to childishness or superficiality. The characters provoke an emotional response and clearly change and mature as the result of their experiences. The conclusion of the novel suggests that a sequel (and perhaps more) would be possible and, if that is the case, I would be happy to read that too.

Review of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital

The Old Capital

Yasunari Kawabata

Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1988

ISBN: 978-4-8053-0972-8

VI + 164 pp.

Translated by J. Martin Holman

The title of this book refers to Kyoto, which is indeed a former capital of Japan and the site for the action of this quite (characteristically Japanese) slim novel. I am not sure whether, in the original language, this title could be taken to have a Bourdieuesque element in that it focuses so much on the cultural capital of Japanese society. Culture includes not just women’s clothes and food, although it is often thought to do so and these are both much in evidence here but, also, the social relations embedded in work and in the practices of production and the class structure and its dialectical relationship with language and forms of behaviour. These elements underlie a superficially simple story of a young woman who discovers she was a foundling and has a twin sister whom she is able to befriend. Yet it is the simplicity of the story and the language with which it is described that reveals why Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

The narrative is centred on dutiful Chieko, the daughter of a man with a modest business dealing in women’s clothes. Change is coming to Kyoto and her father is wrestling with ways to incorporate the bold new visions of Paul Klee into the traditional methods of making the obi and matching it to the kimono. Nevertheless, the pace of traditional life continues and is marked by the orderly arrival of the various celebrations and rituals of public life. However, the harmony and unity on which many such rituals are based seem to be breaking down:

“Large benches were lined up along a path in the cherry grove, and there was a great commotion of people drinking and singing in a boisterous crowd. Some old country women were dancing gaily, while the drunken men lay asleep, snoring. Some of the men even rolled off the benches (p.46).”

It is not necessary to say that it is the spread of transportation infrastructure that links agricultural places of production and urban centres of consumption to the benefit of both, that has brought about this sordid scene in which decent forms of behaviour have become imperilled. All the representations of the old capital remain in place but they are occasional punctured by some reminder that the world has been moving on and disruptions are emerging.

Chieko was given to believe that her parents had, in effect, kidnapped her from her natural parents but later it was revealed that she was left outside the shop one night. Further, it appears that she has a twin sister but this was problematic for everyone. I did not know what the issue is with twins but a brief article on the Time website (content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,770452,10.html) which includes the following: “… Japanese mothers believe that to bear more than one child at a time is a bestial act, frequently try to hide multiple births by separate registry of offspring, even by infanticide.” So, ashamed at having borne twins, Chieko’s parents abandoned her and kept with them Naeko, to live in the countryside in what it subsequently appears is rather difficult rural poverty. Of course, the action then goes on to focus on Chieko’s desire to meet and establish a relationship with her sister and the latter’s reluctance to cross the social and class barriers that have grown up between them. This is all managed with a simplicity of language that is characteristic of Japanese literature. The translator, J. Martin Holman, has done a good job in keeping out of the way of the text and not making it sound too American. He notes, in a brief foreword, that at least some of the text written in a Kyoto dialect that has not made it into this version of the text. To have done so would have required, presumably, footnotes or other interruptions which some readers dislike. Alas, therefore, some nuances of the original language may have been lost.

This is an engrossing work that repays careful attention to the small, ephemeral details of daily life and the ways in which they have an impact on people in different stations of life. The author himself is famous or infamous for his mysterious death – he was found in a gas-filled room in such a way as to suggest suicide or, less likely, having become the victim of an unusual accident. An ambiguous act conducted in silence is a very typical way of considering Japanese society as described by its best literature.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University