Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: childhood (page 1 of 5)

My Secret Science Fiction Past

Perhaps not so secret, but I was raised on the stuff and so I’ve read far more of it than I might have had I been born into a different environment. This list of Gollancz “classics” is going around, and modulo its omissions and overinclusions due to rights issues and the like, it’s got a fair amount of good stuff on it. And some less good stuff. (It overlaps a great deal with David Pringle’s list, and gives similar overweighting to British writers…which is probably not a bad thing.) But if I’m a fan of any genre (that’s not literary modernism, that is), it would have to be sf. So I figure I should engage in an exercise like this from time to time.

I bold it if I’ve read it. I italicize it if I liked it and still like it today. I could go more deeply into degrees of liking vs. respecting vs. enjoying, but I’ll leave it at this.

I – Dune – Frank Herbert
II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven
IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish
4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith

11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick

14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick
21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon

22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
25 – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford
28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish

31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick

33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick

37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear

41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore
43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper
49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke
50 – Eon – Greg Bear

51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
54 – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven

61 – The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman
62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick
64 – Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard
67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

71 – Dune – Frank Herbert
72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
74 – Inverted World – Christopher Priest
75 – Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
76 – H.G. Wells – The Island of Dr. Moreau

77 – Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End
78 – H.G. Wells – The Time Machine
79 – Samuel R. Delany – Dhalgren (July 2010)
80 – Brian Aldiss – Helliconia (August 2010)

81 – H.G. Wells – Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010)
82 – Jack Finney – The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010)
83 – Joanna Russ – The Female Man (Nov. 2010)
84 – M.J. Engh – Arslan (Dec. 2010)

I’m only torn over Hal Clement, who is brilliant at what he does, but what he does well is not “fiction” per se. Ballard and Gene Wolfe (yes, really!) deserve more entries, probably in lieu of the excess of Dick.

A few more genre authors who really should be on the list: Thomas Disch, Richard McKenna, R.A. Lafferty, Russell Hoban (for Riddley Walker, of course), Stanislaw Lem, Mark Geston, Michael Swanwick, James Tiptree, Carol Emshwiller, Iain Banks, John Crowley, Octavia Butler, Robert Charles Wilson (Spin was the best genre-SF novel I’d read in ages). There are other big names missing, but, offhand, no one comes to mind that I would want to read again.

Bill Douglas: My Ain Folk

This is the second part of Douglas’s three-part trilogy about his childhood, and generally the best known, though the whole thing has now been released on DVD. It’s black and white, stark, restrained, and depressing. I get the sense that there is a particularly Scottish brand of melancholy that Douglas’s film represents, but since my familiarity with Scotland encompasses Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Postcard Records, and the Dog-Faced Hermans, I find it hard to draw any serious conclusions. But I can’t believe that Lynne Ramsay didn’t have it in mind 25 years later when making her own excursion into dark Scottish childhood, Ratcatcher, a movie so dour I remembered it being in black and white even though it’s not.

But though the experiences chronicled in My Ain Folk are ghastly and grotesque, the style is more remarkable than the content. Though our boy hero is oppressed, abused, and abandoned, there’s not much to distinguish his adventures from those of the young children of Pialat, Bresson, and Truffaut. But I don’t know of any English-language movie of the time with a style like Douglas’s.

My Ain Folk

Though there’s some visual spillover from the Angry Young Men movies of John Schlesinger (Billy Liar and its run-down, dead village especially), Douglas goes for a much chillier and detached continental tone, and he’s remarkably successful. With next to no camera movement, he tends to shoot static tableaux from high and oblique angles. There’s minimal action, quite literally. Even when people are speaking, they do so holding themselves very still. So the movie reminds me of Bresson, of course, but also of Antonioni and Pasolini, even though the base material is drastically different. Bresson never shot such a filthy, working-class film. And Douglas adjusts his style to bring out the most of the cramped quarters he shoots in. The 4:3 ratio really helps this; this film and its visuals would not have worked in 16:9 at all, so I greatly credit Douglas’s eye.

Freeze, Die, Rise Again!

Its closest sibling might be the Vitali Kanevsky’s amazing Freeze, Die, Rise Again, which creates a similar claustrophobia around its wretched Siberian mining town. But Douglas shies away from the direct empathy that Kanevsky provokes, and so removes all catharsis and a great deal of apparent realism. I think this is an achievement, but it makes for a cold movie that resists easy empathy…which I assume was Douglas’s point. It shouldn’t be too easy to identify with or love the unfortunate–or else they wouldn’t be unfortunate. These characters are far harder to love than Mouchette or any of the Dardennes’ protagonists. I’m surprised the “slow film” aficionados haven’t picked up on Douglas yet (hi Lars! hi Steve!), because I think Douglas deserves a place right up there with Tarr (there’s an uncanny similarity, in fact) and the rest.

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

We have been here before, albeit in different forms. Almost without exception, Coetzee’s work from Elizabeth Costello on has been concerned with the role of authors and authorship, not only of fiction but of memoirs and essays. He has repeatedly presented fictional characters giving speeches, opinions, or recollections that have repeatedly been confused as the opinions of the real Coetzee. Richard Crary’s piece on Diary of a Bad Year is one of the best attempts to read these polemics and opinions with respect to their fictional context, but most critics seem to still be taking Coetzee’s books at face value.

Summertime is in many ways the culmination of this project of Coetzee’s, and the most explicit depiction of the ambiguities and metafictional techniques he is using. It also makes clear that the series extends back before Elizabeth Costello to the two “memoirs” preceding it. In light of that, there is an apparent progression (links are to my earlier reviews):

  1. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997): Third-person “memoir” of a child with history similar to Coetzee’s, filed as “Coetzee biography” by the Library of Congress.
  2. Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002): Third-person “memoir” of a young adult with history similar to Coetzee’s, not classified as any sort of biography.
  3. Elizabeth Costello (2003): Fictional writer Costello presents opinions that share some similarity to what is known of Coetzee (e.g., both are vegetarians).
  4. Slow Man (2005): Costello invades life of injured photographer Paul Rayment, who shares some characteristics with Coetzee (e.g., biker, Australian resident). Costello claims she is his author.
  5. Diary of a Bad Year (2007): Coetzee doppelganger “J.C.” writes many political opinions while involved in a soap operaish plot with his amanuensis.
  6. Summertime (2009): Biographer interviews five people for a book he is writing about the recently deceased John Coetzee, who has written all the books of the real Coetzee up until his death.

[I am withholding judgment on whether Disgrace (1999) fits into this sequence. It is problematic. I will say that I prefer Summertime to it, evidently putting me into a small minority, though I suspect that many, many others will enjoy Summertime more, as I did.]

Coetzee does not append any description to the first two books (my US copy of Boyhood has “A Memoir” on the cover but nowhere else, so I am not taking it as canon), while he explicitly declares the subsequent books to be “Fiction.” The first hint of something wrong occurs in Youth, which omits all mention of the real Coetzee’s marriage during the time it covers. From there on, no double for Coetzee appears until Diary, but the host of variations from the real Coetzee (different birth year, never married, no children) made the distinction apparent. Likewise in Summertime: unmarried, childless. There is little to suggest that any of the people in Summertime are real or, in the case of his family, that they correlate to their real-life counterparts.

So the Coetzee of Summertime matches up with J.C. in Bad Year, and his childhood bears some resemblance to that described in the first two “memoirs,” but with small, notable differences, the most obvious being that cousin Agnes in Youth has become Margot in Summertime, though both have the Coetzee-surrogate falling in love with her as a child. Coetzee would never make such a name-change spuriously, and so I must assume that there is no strict continuity here between the Coetzee surrogate across books.

Here the distinctions are even more explicit, as during the 1970s, the fictional Coetzee is unmarried and has several love affairs recounted by the interviewees. And he’s now dead. So at once we have the most evident coincidence with Coetzee’s public life with the greatest variation from his private life. Call him “Bizarro Coetzee.” And we have five people talking about this Bizarro Coetzee to our unnamed biographer, bookended by oblique fragments from Bizarro Coetzee’s notebooks that date (mostly, at least) from the 1970s (though annotated by Bizarro Coetzee at some later date). The opening fragments are in the possession of the biographer, as he references them; the ending fragments, possibly not.

The biographer is looking for the man behind the books. None of the five people are particularly interested in how the Bizarro Coetzee (from here on out, just “Coetzee”) they knew relates to his books, and they express varying degrees of irritation at what they perceive to be the irrelevance of the biographer’s intentions. Each of them has their own agenda:

  1. Julia: A rather self-centered and self-willed free spirit who cheated on her husband with the hapless and dispassionate Coetzee in the early 70s when she was still a naive housewife, and since then has thought little of Coetzee (in both senses of the word).
  2. Margot: The aforementioned cousin who had a very close relationship with Coetzee while growing up, maybe enough to call love.
  3. Adriana: A Brazilian immigrant and dance instructor whose daughter was taught by Coetzee in high school the mid-70s. Coetzee falls in love with her and does not let go. Awkwardness ensues. Adriana detests him.
  4. Martin: A supercilious and trite colleague of Coetzee’s from his university teaching days.
  5. Sophie: An archetypal self-righteous postcolonial academic who co-taught and had a brief affair with Coetzee at the university and thinks him not radical enough.

With the exception of Margot, none of the subjects come off particularly well (there are hints that some of them, especially Adriana, are not telling the whole truth), but neither does Coetzee, who is ridiculed by them as a bore, a nerd, a pervert, and a prig at various times. Yet the most ridiculous figure in all of the sections is the biographer himself (for it must be a man). He is manipulative and ignorant. He gets simple facts about South African history wrong, misquotes Beckett, puts words into the mouths of his interviewees, and is indifferent to anything outside of the quarry he is chasing. That quarry is the romantic image he has of Coetzee as a solitary pedant more interested in books than in people. It is not that there is no truth to this image or that it is not compelling, but it is a wild distortion, and the biographer is rather bad at his job.

The keystone is the section with Coetzee’s cousin Margot, which is not a straight interview, but a transcript of the biographer reading his draft back to Margot with Margot’s interruptions. Margot’s reaction is one of horror as she hears what the biographer has embellished, invented, and distorted of what she told him earlier; it’s no wonder she wants to go back over it again at the end of the transcript. And the draft itself is the most sustained piece of intentionally bad writing Coetzee has ever done. His account of Margot’s story is filled with cliched eroticism (see page 137 for a cringeworthy example), purple passages clumsily reaching to the sublime, and tacky interpolations of native Afrikaans words to give a sense of local color. For example, this passage about Margot and her lover:

Skat: an endearment she disliked until the day she heard it from his lips. Now, when he whispers the word, she melts. This man’s treasure, into which he may dip whenever it pleases him.

They lie in each other’s arms. The bed creaks, but she could not care less, they are at home, they can make the bed creak as much as they like.

Excruciating. Other cheap biographical tropes are present by the dozen, and by the end the biographer has replaced the selfish, would-be bohemian Julia as the most loathsome character in the book. The link between the two is their single-minded exploitation of others. Julia uses Coetzee in her story of finding herself just as cravenly as the biographer is using his subjects to “find” the Coetzee he already has decided exists.

There are some recurrent themes, however, the dominant one of Coetzee being ill at ease and repressed around most everyone. Julia is too narcissistic to link this repression to Apartheid, while Sophie is too eager to do so, but the fictional Coetzee is no doubt as uncomfortable revealing himself as our real Coetzee appears to be in writing these books, though obviously for different reasons (only one is a famous writer who has won the Nobel prize). And he does show himself in his solitary studies: Schubert, Plato, the Hottentot language. In the unreliable words of the biographer, he claims to have learned Hottentot to “speak with the dead. Who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence.” This is, of course, exactly what the biographer is not doing; the voices of the living, including his own, drown out those of the dead throughout the book.

So we are left only with the notebooks at the beginning and end. They do not bolster the biographer’s image of Coetzee. They show engagement: with history, with politics, with his family and particularly his father. (These are subjects the biographer has mostly avoided in favor of more tawdry gossip and neat conclusions.) Coetzee in the notebooks is far more aware than the interviewees have depicted him, though no less tentative. The last entry is an agonizing depiction of Coetzee’s father and his cancerous illness, and it ends with a question mark, a moment of decision that cuts off before the decision is made. Since this notebook is still buried in layers of fictionality, there is no truth as to what happened next, only a fragment. The way I read it, Coetzee speaks to the living as one might try to speak to the dead, or perhaps to an alien species: assuming nothing, drawing no unwarranted conclusions.

(And even in the notebooks, the elisions and distortions are obvious, particularly in the latter notebooks, where the high-minded prose sits uneasily next to the meek and clumsy Coetzee of the interviews, and the events recounted by the subjects are only alluded to.)

This is not a charitable interpretation, for the whole book has shown the pitfalls of his way, and he deserves no credit for an approach that seems to have been instilled in him long before he had a choice in the matter. But the mixture of raw (albeit untrustworthy) emotion with delicate confusion and indeterminacy has an accumulating impact, as you’re challenged to pull the tatters of Real Life from the mess of disingenuous versions proffered by the book’s characters, you fail to do so, and you are left with a shifting moire of relationships and human weaknesses that resists authentication. And yet there is great feeling in this ambiguous moire, even if it can’t be determined how valid or real any of it is. Unlike so much of Coetzee’s controlled work, Summertime exudes passion and warmth even when the characters themselves do not. It is his sunniest book, as though the layers of uncertainty have set free an expressive emotive power that would have been too manipulative to use in his earlier fiction.

The worth of Summertime is in portraying that moire of partial voices without the typically clinical, scientific condescension that accompanies it in, for instance, the myriad works of relativism and anti-foundationalism that wave away all certainties with a flourish and discount any meaning to them. Instead there is great feeling, albeit feeling which must be questioned and which is neither definitely true nor definitely false. Summertime leaves the door open.

Christmas Cheer from Carl Barks and Donald Duck

A few happy memories from childhood, courtesy of the most fatalistic comic books ever written for children. First a bit from a censored story, “Silent Night,” written in 1945 but never published until 1981:

The story culminates in Donald being forced to sing carols at the top of his lungs while being electrocuted by a cattle prod.

Next, a Christmas tale of dueling steam shovels, “A Letter to Santa.” I love Scrooge’s quip to the judge.

Jean Eustache: Mes petites amoureuses

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny-rabbits or at the hearthside absorbed in a storybook. It is a vision of childhood utterly alien to him. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.

J.M. Coetzee, Boyhood

There have been many movies portraying various childhood hells with different degrees of sentimentality and relief, but I can’t think of one that competes with Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses in portraying childhood as so sheerly joyless, so gray and unappealing. The world is not as brutal to Daniel, its young teen protagonist, as it is to anyone in a Dardenne film or Francois in Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance Nue, nor is Daniel a delinquent on the order of Francois. But nor does Daniel experience much of the momentary fun that those characters get. So the movie is of a piece with Eustache’s earlier work, The Mother and the Whore, in its portrayal of the denial of pleasure in what for most people might be called the pursuit of happiness. Not torment, just jadedness.

Daniel leaves the countryside to move in with his mother and her rather lame lover. They treat him with indifference and contempt, though not quite outright abuse. He hangs out with locals, eventually learns how to pick up girls, gets a lousy job at a bike shop where he watches his employer rip off the customers. He provides suitably numbed voiceovers to some of his experiences, flatly detailing his feelings (“I was scared”). In contrast to Jean-Pierre Leaud’s charisma in The Mother and the Whore, the actor playing Daniel is reticent and a bit stiff; you can’t really get close to him, not that anyone in the movie ever tries. His most animated moments are when he is learning to pretend, as when simulating a circus sword-swallower’s act by lying on (carefully placed) broken glass, or when he is feeling up a girl in the movie theater by dutifully imitating a boy a few rows down.

There is one exceptional moment, and I don’t know whether to call it a slip on Eustache’s part or the final nail in the coffin of Daniel’s dreams. Daniel speaks to the only student he knows, in one single close-up, in his only extended monologue in the whole movie:

DANIEL: I read a book about this guy’s high school years. He said his French professor really made him sick when he lectured about passion in the works of Racine and Corneille. He said the same things year after year. Finally the words had no sense, no heart. That professor had no business talking about passion. He knew the plays inside-out, but he’d never lived them. Whereas the student felt he would live those passions later on…. Any opinion?

STUDENT: That you run off at the mouth. Coming to the cafe?

And that’s that. He goes off with some boys to make out with girls and gives up on school. When a girl says she can’t sleep with a boy until they get married, he thinks, “It seemed to me I’d heard it all, that I knew the whole thing by heart.” Eustache committed suicide seven years after this film.

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