I've been in Ireland for a couple of weeks, enjoying the world-famous (in Kerry) Puck Fair and watching a lot of Olympics. I shifted off the sofa for a couple of swims in the Atlantic but not very often. The RTE coverage of the Games was rather good: nowhere near as nationalistic as the BBC, wildly excited about the few medals and near-misses and hosted by a thoughtful and expert team, including Jerry Kiernan as The Grinch, a role you don't get on the Beeb:
It helped that the head of the Irish Olympic Committee, Pat Hickey, was arrested halfway through in a version of the FIFA hotel-raids with elements of French farce: nakedness and ridiculous lies from his wife. It added both gaiety and a degree of hard journalism to the coverage, and everyone I talked to enjoyed it enormously as this global equivalent of the gombeen man finally got what was coming to him.
You probably don't want to see my holiday snaps, but they're all here. Some of my favourites (click to enlarge):
|I'm ready for my close-up…|
|The cattle fair was cruelly re-branded.|
|R2D2 in the Fancy Dress competition|
I took a big pile of books with me to supplement my three-newspapers-a-day habit (Guardian, Irish Times, Irish Examiner): two Edwina Currie novels for research which I didn't get round to reading, and some others which I did. The first one was Sean Latham's Am I A Snob? Modernism and the Novel. I've had it on my shelves for a few years now and regret not reading it the moment I bought it. IT traces the changing definitions of snobbery from its early days (popularised by Thackeray in his Punch column 'Mr Snob', then analyses the tensions between aesthetic difficulty and democracy in the lives of three modernist novelists and their works: Virginia Woolf (particularly To the Lighthouse), James Joyce and Dorothy L. Sayers. Woolf in particular felt torn between fear and disdain for the lower orders and her cerebral socialism, hated being popular but liked the income. Latham traces the change in Sayers' Lord Peter from deliberate posh stereotype to subtle portrait of a damaged, complex character within a low-brow genre, and examines Ulysses in particular as a case-study of what's produced in the fusion of demotic and difficult. All three chapters are revelatory readings of these texts and suggest that the snob is an ideal character for examinations of the characteristics of modernism. I'm not sure Latham entirely grasped the erudition routinely expressed by ordinary Dubliners in conversation then and now, but it's a minor cavil. It's a wonderful book.
After that I read Christina Henry's Alice, an interesting horror-fantasy retelling of Carroll's novel. I don't habitually read horror or fantasy (though I read hundreds of the latter as a teen) but I'm interested in retellings in general, so I thought I'd give it a go. I liked it: it was disturbing but not gratuitous, and highly imaginative. On the down side, the plotting became a bit too intrusive and detracted from interesting character-driven explorations of madness and how women are written off: it was clear from fairly early on that a sequel and perhaps a series was being lined up. It would make an excellent film or even computer game, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm not sure I'll get Red Queen.
I then read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: I've read a lot of other Faulkner but never this one for some reason. It's the story of the decline of a formerly upper-class slave-owning white family in the American South and their black servants and neighbours, told in the first person by three family members and their principal servant. Astonishing: formally experimental, moving, sickening and compelling. Also brutally frank for 1929. Having read Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing and seen it as a response to Irish modernism, I'm wondering if it's also influenced by this novel.
Finally, I read William Gibson's Spook Country. I've been reading his work for a long time now but I'm getting less and less out of the experience. By this point I could pretty much write my own. All you have to do is name an awful lot of expensive-but-obscure brands then imply that they're worn/driven/fired by mysterious intellectual terrorists/spies/capitalists/illuminati with damned good taste and large budgets. For instance, the Cuban-Chinese Communist-santeria devotee all-purpose criminal facilitator wears an APC jacket, while Hubertus Bigend the Belgian taste-maker/corruption hunter doesn't just drive the plutocrat's vehicle of choice – a Maybach – but a version customised to be even more exclusive: a Brabus-Maybach. Somewhere amongst the thicket of signifiers I found myself wondering if Gibson any longer has anything meaningful to say. Unless his point is that there's no longer anything meaningful to say about the state of the world other than to urge us to dress well while we're promoting or fighting international conspiracies. I was quite hooked by one thing though: one character spends his downtime reading an unnamed book about medieval European millenarians. It's clearly Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium, which I read recently and found fascinating. Gibson's obvious parallel is that there's a global Elect in the post-Iraq settlement which is impervious to ordinary rules, laws and morality. It's certainly stylish and there's a political anger there, but it doesn't quite work on a literary level.
And now it's back to reading politicians' novels. Come on Edwina, show me what you've got…