September 2016 Books


High-Rise, J.G. Ballard

I’ve definitely said something similar in discussing Evelyn Waugh, but yeah, with this sort of social satire—and I mean, I think that’s what you would classify this as? Goodreads says science fiction/dystopia, but how often outside of mediocre YA do you have a dystopian novel where the dystopia doesn’t specifically arise from a current societal fear and/or in some way hold up a mirror to society at the time of publication? And Wikipedia classifies it under postmodern novels, but the fuck does that even mean. (Apparently this is what that means.)

Okay, right, with this sort of social satire, there’s always that sense of “am I missing some Deeper Meaning by not having lived in the country/era that this is meant to be commenting on?” In this specific case, to what extent does J.G. Ballard expect his readers to have some ingrained familiarity with the UK class system in the 1970s and, like, the rise of Thatcherism or whatever? Would I gain any additional benefit from reading this and thinking, “ah, yes, this is clearly commentary on [whatever], how clever!” instead of ” hmm, this is probably commentary on [whatever] and I guess it is probably clever?” Or would it just seem too on-the-nose if I were actually familiar with the context? Who knows!

Still, a lot of High-Rise still feels relevant to the apartment-dweller today (see the below quote), so there’s that. Also interesting in contrast to the movie, which has Laing (Tom Hiddleston) positioned as the protagonist, more or less, whereas the book alternates between three different perspectives representing the different classes (and sections of the apartment building). And yet both the book and movie have a pretty detached approach to characterization, where the characters aren’t especially fleshed out as specific people with lives and desires beyond the apartment complex. Actually, that’s not even it. We do get a bit about their upbringing and formative moments, but there’s the sense that they used to be Real People and then they moved into the high-rise and reverted (or transcended, depending on your perspective) to these archetypes. Which is, I guess, kind of the point?

But yeah, it is stressful to read (and watch) knowing that the world outside the complex is still functioning as normal and all of the apartment-dwellers used to function in it and, like, seriously, all they have to do is call for help or just leave the fucking building Jesus Christ. Which is, I guess, also kind of the point.

Selected quote:

A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake.

Perhaps the recent incidents represented a last attempt by Wilder and the airline pilots to rebel against this unfolding logic? Sadly, they had little chance of success, precisely because their opponents were people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.

The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler

Yes, good. I had a lot of Feelings while reading this, but I can’t really describe them in a way that does the book any justice. But it is one of those books that one reads and semi considers reshaping one’s life around.

(God why can’t I just internalize this:)

“What a fool,” he said, “a man is to remember anything that happened more than a week ago unless it was pleasant, or unless he wants to make some use of it.
“Sensible people get the greater part of their own dying done during their own lifetime. A man at five and thirty should no more regret not having had a happier childhood than he should regret not having been born a prince of the blood. He might be happier if he had been more fortunate in childhood, but, for aught he knows, if he had, something else might have happened which might have killed him long ago. If I had to be born again I would be born at Battersby of the same father and mother as before, and I would not alter anything that has ever happened to me.”

Anyway, the narrative voice is great, and the use of a narrator character (who doesn’t even affect the plot until much later on) blurs the line between what are Samuel Butler’s actual opinions and what are just the narrator’s (and how biased the telling of events might be). And between this and Erewhon, I still can’t totally parse whether some of these beliefs are things that Butler actually believes or things that he’s mocking by having his narrators believe them.

(Does it matter? Probably, if you find yourself convinced by the characters’ arguments even when that’s the opposite of Butler’s intention. But why should Butler necessarily be more “right” than a fictional character? How much do we actually care about authorial intent? How much do we actually believe in anything?)

The Ernest Pontifex coming-of-age arc is just such a good coming-of-age arc and it temporary filled me with optimism about life, even though his problems are not quite my problems (nor are his privileges quite my privileges). But I guess it makes sense that E.M. Forster considered Butler one of his greatest influences, because you do get a similar sense from the end of The Way of All Flesh that you get from the end of The Longest Journey, Howards EndA Room with a View, Maurice–that the characters have finally found contentment by breaking free of social conventions without completely severing themselves from humanity. It’s not totally dissimilar from the super cliched ~Follow Your Dreams~, but I think the Butler/Forster versions show more awareness of the role money plays and the Dreams themselves may just be sort of quieter/less grandiose. I mean, that’s almost definitely an over-simplification, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.

Selected (other) quote:

How base, he would exclaim to himself, was such ingratitude! How especially hard upon himself, who had been such a model son, and always honoured and obeyed his parents though they had not spent one hundredth part of the money upon him which he had lavished upon his own children. “It is always the same story,” he would say to himself, “the more young people have the more they want, and the less thanks one gets; I have made a great mistake; I have been far too lenient with my children; never mind, I have done my duty by them, and more; if they fail in theirs to me it is a matter between God and them. I, at any rate, am guiltless. Why, I might have married again and become the father of a second and perhaps more affectionate family, etc., etc.” He pitied himself for the expensive education which he was giving his children; he did not see that the education cost the children far more than it cost him, inasmuch as it cost them the power of earning their living easily rather than helped them towards it, and ensured their being at the mercy of their father for years after they had come to an age when they should be independent. A public school education cuts off a boy’s retreat; he can no longer become a labourer or a mechanic, and these are the only people whose tenure of independence is not precarious—with the exception of course of those who are born inheritors of money or who are placed young in some safe and deep groove. Mr Pontifex saw nothing of this; all he saw was that he was spending much more money upon his children than the law would have compelled him to do, and what more could you have?

Screen Plays: How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You–for Better or Worse, David S. Cohen

Fluff that I passed by in the library and decided to pick up. But yeah, I have a weakness for oral histories and movie trivia, so, yes, a pleasant read.

(And also a “I bet I have a screenplay in me” read, but no, I totally, totally do not. Although someone will have to write the screenplays for all of the E.M. Forster biopics that have not yet been made but definitely need to exist.)

Selected quote:

“I would get notes very early on: ‘Your main character is unlikable.’ And literally, I would put in the action line, ‘Sam enters. Although abrasive, there’s something strangely likable about him.’ And then Sam’s dialogue would be, ‘You fat bastard, go fuck yourself.’ But it doesn’t matter. Because I’ve put that ‘strangely likable,’ they know that even though he says something awful, he’s a likable character. It’s obvious, but it works.”—Don Roos

Letters between Forster and Isherwood on Homosexuality and Literature

That title was super compelling, obviously, but turned out to be somewhat misleading, as this is just, like, normal correspondence between friends. Those friends are both gay authors, so of course some of the regular life updates will touch on homosexuality and literature but it’s not really the in-depth discourse on Homosexuality and Literature that the title would suggest. That said, there is this amusing exchange with Forster being like, “Huh, so apparently there’s a lot of gay subtext in my (non-Maurice) novels that I was totally unaware of when writing them?” and Isherwood being like, “Yeah, dude, I could have told you that.”

 Dr. Norman Haire has lettered to William [Plomer] that if my novels were analysed they would reveal a pretty mess, and that the works of H. Walpole and S. Maugham would be even prettier. So I thought I would set to myself, and began last night in a lockable book. There are things in my earlier stuff which are obvious enough to me now, though less so when I wrote them—e.g. the rescue of Eustace by Gennarro in the Story of a Panic, and Gino’s savaging of Philip in Where Angels–, and there is one curious episode: the sacrificial burning of a number of short stories in 1922 in order that a Passage to India might get finished. So I thought I would put all this down, but soon got tired and am unlocking myself to you instead.

Forster to Isherwood, 1/16/35

How like Dr. Haire to “titter” to William about the unconscious content of your novels. I met him once in Berlin. Really, these sexologists are hardly adult. As if all of us hadn’t made these momentous “discoveries” while still in school! However, it’s an amusing game. The Gino-Philip savaging is perhaps your classic instance, but I can think of two others: The death on the football field in “The Longest Journey” (very fishy) and the moment when Rikky (spelling, or am I mixing it up with the mongoose in Kipling?) faints on hearing he has an illegitimate brother (obviously because he was in love with the young man all the time and was horrified to discover his passion was incestuous). So, you see, Dr. Haire is not the only smut-hound on the beach.

Isherwood to Forster, 2/7/35

Delightful! Certainly worth the [insert stupid amount of money to pay for a <200 page book because academic publishing is a fucking racket] that I spent on it.

There’s a pretty noticeable imbalance in the number of letters from Forster to Isherwood vs the number of letters from Isherwood to Forster, and I can’t tell if that’s somehow indicative of the nature of their relationship or if it’s just a matter of whose estate was better at preserving these things. Probably the latter? It’s a shame, though, because the sheer difference in volume makes Forster seem needy and Isherwood seem indifferent, when that may not be the case at all. In fact, it could be that Isherwood treasured his correspondence with Forster so much that he made more of an effort to save Forster’s letters to him, while Forster was more careless about Isherwood’s letters to him. But, unless I just completely missed it, I don’t think the introduction to the collection even acknowledges this disparity, let alone its cause.

Still, it’s cool to be able to track the progression of Forster and Isherwood’s relationship, going from “Dear Isherwood–we do drop the ‘Mr,’ don’t we?–” in 1932 to “Dearest Christopher” in 1966 (as transcribed by Forster’s lover’s wife because Forster has just had a stroke and that was apparently the sort of relationship they had, which, yeah, biopic-worthy).

Selected quote:

Amusement or work can alone stop one from brooding on the coming smash. My particular impasse at the moment is: (i) Nothing can be done/ (ii) yet the people I admire most try to do something—and character is the thing I care about, both in myself and others,/ (iii) but if one has realised (i) then any attempt to avert disaster is only an attempt to show how admirable one is/ (iv) which isn’t admirable.

I think the explanation of this impasse is that the human race has never before been faced with a world wide dilemma, and the individual has the right to be staggered at it and to pity himself at having been born just now: a right he is still too shy to exercise.

Forster to Isherwood, 5/15/34

Erewhon, Samuel Butler

Not as affecting as The Way of All Flesh except for “The Book of the Machines,” which, like, fuck me.

For fun, here’s E.M. Forster on Erewhon in one of his BBC broadcasts:

I was woken up, I remember, by Samuel Butler’s fantastic novel Erewhon. I read Erewhon at the beginning of the century, and it started me thinking and feeling in every direction, just as if I had touched something alive – and of course my mind had touched something that was alive: it had touched Samuel Butler’s mind. I wonder whether Erewhon has the same effect on people now. I rather doubt it, because each generation wants waking up in a different way. Perhaps Aldous Huxley or Bernard Shaw are doing what Butler did then. -I got so excited, I remember, by the chapters in Erewhon when disease and crime change places. In that topsy-turvey country, you are punished if you are ill, whereas if you steal, your friends sympathise with you and call in a doctor. And that set me thinking. It was a brilliant provocative book, and if you haven’t read it you might have a try, in case it has the same exciting effect on you that it had on me. (Erewhon, by Samuel Butler). I don’t guarantee it’ll have the effect, mind, because different people and different generations have different needs. Still it’s worth looking into – and don’t miss the chapter on the Machines, when the Erewhonians destroy all their machines, even their watches, in case they are someday destroyed by them. That chapter is terribly to the point today!

September 24, 1937: “Talks for Sixth Forms: Introductory”

And speaking of that chapter:

“True, from a low materialistic point of view, it would seem that those thrive best who use machinery wherever its use is possible with profit; but this is the art of the machines—they serve that they may rule. They bear no malice towards man for destroying a whole race of them provided he creates a better instead; on the contrary, they reward him liberally for having hastened their development. It is for neglecting them that he incurs their wrath, or for using inferior machines, or for not making sufficient exertions to invent new ones, or for destroying them without replacing them; yet these are the very things we ought to do, and do quickly; for though our rebellion against their infant power will cause infinite suffering, what will not things come to, if that rebellion is delayed?

“They have preyed upon man’s grovelling preference for his material over his spiritual interests, and have betrayed him into supplying that element of struggle and warfare without which no race can advance. The lower animals progress because they struggle with one another; the weaker die, the stronger breed and transmit their strength. The machines being of themselves unable to struggle, have got man to do their struggling for them: as long as he fulfils this function duly, all goes well with him—at least he thinks so; but the moment he fails to do his best for the advancement of machinery by encouraging the good and destroying the bad, he is left behind in the race of competition; and this means that he will be made uncomfortable in a variety of ways, and perhaps die.

“So that even now the machines will only serve on condition of being served, and that too upon their own terms; the moment their terms are not complied with, they jib, and either smash both themselves and all whom they can reach, or turn churlish and refuse to work at all. How many men at this hour are living in a state of bondage to the machines? How many spend their whole lives, from the cradle to the grave, in tending them by night and day? Is it not plain that the machines are gaining ground upon us, when we reflect on the increasing number of those who are bound down to them as slaves, and of those who devote their whole souls to the advancement of the mechanical kingdom?”

Erewhon, “Chapter XXIII: The Book of Machines”


(Someone please free me from the Tyranny of the Screen)


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