James Wood on character in fiction and Iris Murdoch

From the rather misnamed How Fiction Works by James Wood (in my opinion, “How Style Works” or “How Literary Prose Works” would have been more accurate titles), an extract about character.

I think there is a basic distinction to be made between novelists like Tolstoy or Trollope or Balzac or Dickens, or dramatists like Shakespeare, who are rich in ‘negative capability’, who seem to unselfconsciously create galleries of various people who are nothing like them, and those writers either less interested in, or perhaps less naturally gifted at, this faculty, but who nevertheless have a great interest in the self — James, Flaubert, Lawrence, Woolf perhaps, Musil, Bellow, Michel Houellebecq, Philip Roth. […] Iris Murdoch is the most poignant member of this second category, precisely because she spent her life trying to get into the first. […] She knew, it, too: ‘How soon one discovers that, however much one is in the ordinary sense “interested in other people”, this interest has left one far short of possessing the knowledge required to create a character who is not oneself. It is impossible, it seems to me, not to see one’s failure here as a sort of spiritual failure.’

143m pounds of beef recalled in the United States

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the largest beef recall in its history Sunday, calling for the destruction of 143 million pounds of raw and frozen beef from a slaughterhouse accused of slaughtering so-called “downer” cattle, or animals too weak to walk, in violation of federal food safety regulations. For us Europeans, 143 million pounds is 64,864 tons. That’s the entire production of the slaughterhouse for the past two years, the majority likely to have been already eaten, much of it in school lunches.

This is the type of news that makes you think twice about what you eat.  And feel like spending the extra buck for organic beef.

My Javier Bardem fetish

So, this is not a celebrity gossip blog, but let me indulge in a confession: I have a Javier Bardem fetish.

And that’s before I even get to see the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men.

I find the man exceedingly handsome. It must be no coincidence that, before acting professionally, Bardem was a member of the Spanish national rugby team. I have been known to show a weak spot for rugby players.

Some of Bardem’s filmography:

  • He has starred twice with Francesca Neri, one of the most beautiful women of the 1990s, in a supporting role in The Ages of Lulu and in a leading role in Carne Trémula (Live Flesh) by Pedro Almodovar – ah, the things paraplegics can do in bathtubs.
  • In Before Night Falls by Julian Schnabel, he portrayed Cuban dissident poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas.
  • In The Sea Inside, he was a tetraplegic, Ramon Sampedro, who fought a 28-year campaign in favor of euthanasia and his own right to die.

Confinement and constraint seem to be a recurring theme in his work: in jail, on a wheelchair, in bed. The more constrained he is, the more charisma he exudes. One wonders why the Coens ever decided to let him loose, and with a cattle gun.

More books by Lionel Shriver: Double Fault and The Post-Birthday World

I have been reading two more books by Lionel Shriver, whose We Need to Talk about Kevin is one of the best fiction works I read last year. It is not overly literary fiction, and it’s definitely not chick lit – I wonder if there is enough of a market in there, where as an author you don’t have your ego boosted by winning Pulitzers and you don’t have your bank account lifted by selling like Stephen King. But it is fiction I enjoy, and that’s why I recommend it to you.

Double Fault is a tennis drama. It starts out as your standard dual-career couple story, set in the world of pro tennis, and veers vertiginously into Greek tragedy. If you have a spouse in a field of work even remotely related to yours, and at times your career has stalled while your partner’s has taken off — even if you’ve been hell-bent on making it since you were five years old, while he seems to effortlessly glide into success while caring much less than you do — this book will make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It is a gloomy tale, and one that offers no solutions.

The Post-Birthday World starts out as your standard “sliding doors” comedy, with the protagonist, a children’s books illustrator, faced with a choice, and then her resulting two lives unfolding in parallel, chapter by chapter, each with its own surprises and its own delights (I particularly enjoyed the author’s subtlety in having her creative process influenced by events from life outside the studio). Yet, each of these two lives will run into bitterness and disappointment, as both the loving and dependable foreign policy expert in one life and the charming and sexy snooker pro in the other life ultimately let her down.

There is a thread running through the female characters in these books: Eva Khatchadourian in Kevin, Wilhemena “Willy” Novinsky in Double Fault, and Irina McGovern in The Post-Birthday World all tell us that, as a rule in life, no matter how hard you try, the best you can is not good enough. Shriver seems to have elevated to a worldview the famous comment by Enoch Powell in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs [emphasis mine].”

Any uplifting evidence to the contrary, dear readers, will be welcome.

Each time a language dies

A  whole world dies with it.

As the spoken language died, so did the stories of tricky Creator-Raven and the magical loon, of giant animals and tiny homunculi with fish-spears no bigger than a matchstick. People forgot why “hat” was the same word as “hammer”, or why the word for a leaf, kultahl, was also the word for a feather, as though deciduous trees and birds shared one organic life. They lost the sense that lumped apples, beads and pills together as round, foreign, possibly deceiving things. They neglected the taboo that kept fish and animals separate, and would not let fish-skin and animal hide be sewn in the same coat; and they could not remember exactly why they built little wooden huts over gravestones, as if to give more comfortable shelter to the dead.

From The Economist‘s obituary of an 89-year-old Alaskan, Marie Smith, the last speaker of the Eyak language. Smith was the last name she took from her Oregonian husband. As for her first name, originally it had not been Marie, but Udachkuqax*a’a’ch, “a sound that calls people from afar”.

From Michael to Megan: being transgendered in the workplace

Megan Wallent works in the management ranks at Microsoft. Until a few weeks ago, she was called Michael Wallent. She writes a blog chronicling her transformation. It tells you something about Microsoft culture, or indeed U.S. West Coast culture, that seeing her back to work as a woman wasn’t a big deal for any of her coworkers.

And yet. As beautiful and strong and amazing as women are, the workplace is not where they call the shots. Not even the U.S. West Coast workplace. Steve Ballmer is not a woman (and it would be real interesting news if he discovered his inner femininity). So, this is where I’m puzzled, and I know it’s not going to be politically correct of me to write this, but, as sympathetic and supportive I am of Megan, there’s also something I don’t understand.

It is: it’s hard for me to understand how, in a corporate environment, one would choose to put oneself in a position of lesser power.

It’s tough out there, as women know. Beauty can help somewhat, perhaps. Adam’s apples are ugly, and Michael’s had to go, and so it did. But notice. I don’t know if Michael was a tall guy, but Megan looks like she’s a tall woman. Michael didn’t go to the surgeon in San Francisco complaining about his height and asking “make me a petite”. (For the sake of clarification: I wouldn’t have expected him to.) So, no change in the height department. Tall with boobs is even more imposing than tall with no boobs.

Megan’s voice is also the same as Michael’s voice. That helps, for example on the phone, in conveying power. And I’m pretty sure Megan hasn’t started phrasing her statements with the questioning upward slant that makes so many young American women sound terminally indecisive. No, my guess is Megan has a remarkably decisive voice. I don’t thing she giggles.

So, it will be interesting to see if Megan’s new feminine features help or hinder her power in the organization. My bet is: it doesn’t help to look like a woman. It’s a burden and an excuse for men to treat you, unconsciously or not, worse than you deserve. (Just ask women at investment banks from Morgan Stanley to Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein; no wonder Morgan Stanley prefers to settle its women brokers’ class-action suits out of court). Megan made a conscious trade-off between corporate status and other things that were more important to her, and she hedged her strategy by retaining and using those masculine features and mannerisms that sustain her standing in the workplace. Smart choice, Megan.

For those if you less interested than I am in the dynamics of power and politics in the workplace, here’s something else. If you’re like me, you will recall from your childhood The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. It’s a classic, and even today Megan reads it to her son at bedtime.

Think about this: have you become the kind of butterfly you dreamt of in your caterpillar days?

Does anybody, ever, really?