More Things That Aren’t Films

Breaking Bad continues good. Rounding out season 3 now, slowly catching up — but an episode a night is cutting into my movie-watching. There’s a magnificent episode directed by Rian Johnson of BRICK and LOOPER fame, a tour-de-force set almost entirely in one room, taking the very old idea of an attempt at killing a single housefly that escalates out of all proportion — superb writing, direction and playing transcend the basic premise and generate spine-jangling tension.

The most gifted of the regular directors involved is Michelle McLaren, late of The X Files, who manages to serve up at least one stunningly eloquent set-up per ep. Check this framing out — the couple, their estrangement, and the space between them occupied both by the bag of ill-gotten gains and the exit from the family home, spells D-I-V-O-R-C-E without a word needing to be spoken. Of course there are words, and they deepen and elaborate the emotions…

***

Dipping into G.K. Chesterton again. I like his absurdity and surreal menace, never quite dispelled by the rational endings, as Gilbert Adair notes in his intro to The Club of Queer Trades. He also praises Chesterton’s ability, or compulsion, to romanticize everyday London. Chesterton’s essay on detective fiction includes the following example straight off the bat ~

Men lived among might mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain peaks, and find the lampposts as old and natural as the trees.

Chesterton already does this: he’s speaking of himself when he imagines such descendants. Although his philosophy, which he shoehorns in crassly whenever he can manage it, is frequently little more than a defense of prejudice, he gussies it up nicely in melodrama and fancy ~

‘In God’s name, look at his face,’ cried out Basil in a voice that startled the driver. ‘Look at the eyebrows. They mean that infernal pride which made Satan so proud that he sneered even at heaven when he was one of the first angels in it. Look at his moustaches, they are so grown as to insult humanity. In the name of the sacred heavens, look at his hair. In the name of God and the stars, look at his hat.’

Also, Chesterton begins The Napoleon of Notting Hill with ~

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong –

I like that so much I’m not sure I want to go on reading it, it’s too perfect on its own.

***

As an adjunct of sorts to my protracted and oft-interrupted reading of Ulysses, which currently looks designed to last the rest of my life, I delved into Dead as Doornails, a memoir by Anthony Cronin on the writers he knew in Dublin. Of particular interest is the first real celebration of Bloomsday, June the 16th, the day detailed in Joyce’s book. Cronin took part in a tour retracing Leopold Bloom’s steps, on the fiftieth anniversary of the original date, along with Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan), Patrick Kavanaugh and others. The whole thing nearly degenerated into violence at once, with O’Brien and Kavanaugh trying to kick each other off a steep hillside, but turned into something “that would have pleased Joyce”  ~

June 16th, 1954 was not only the fiftieth anniversary of the day Joyce had picked on as the day of his great fiction, but it was also one of the comparatively rare occasions when the date coincides with the Thursday of the Ascot Week and the running of the Ascot Gold Cup, as it does in the book. Naturally, with Kavanaugh, Con Leventhal — also a racing man — and myself in the party, some attention was given to this. Our progress, what with stops at pubs and places of interest such as Sandymount Strand, was so slow that the race was actually run while we were still in transit, in fact while we were still traversing the route of the funeral; and, at the insistence of the racing men, we stopped at a bookmaker’s in Irishtown to have a bet and hear the broadcast. There was a very strong French favourite, owned by M. Marcel Boussac, reputedly a great stayer. As is often thought advisable, in the Gold Cup, the stayer had a running mate who was meant to act as a pace-maker and ensure a good gallop for him, so that the stamina limitations of the other horses in the race would be exposed. The pace-maker’s name was Elpenor and he proceeded to make the running to such effect that not even his own stable-companion, who was supposed to win, could catch him, and he perforce went on to win the race himself at fifty to one, a record price for a Gold Cup winner in this century, though Throwaway in the book starts at forty to one.

Now Elpenor is a character in the Odyssey. He is a companion of Ulysses who falls off a height during some fighting, as some of our party had so nearly done, cracks his skull and dies. Although Ulysses remarks that it didn’t much matter, ‘since he wasn’t much of a fighting man, nor ever very strong in the head,’ he nevertheless goes down into the underworld after him to see what he can do. This descent is paralleled in the book by the scene in Glasnevin cemetery for in Joyce’s Ulysses, Elpenor is represented by the deceased Paddy Dignam; and it was the route of Paddy Dignam’s funeral that we were following; indeed the whole idea of a commemoration which would involve horse-cabs grew out of the Dignam funeral sequence.

Unfortunately, Cronin only noticed this remarkable coincidence when it was too late to place a bet, provoking his companions to fury when he told them of it. They could have made a fortune.

What made the result the more remarkable was that Joyce always believed his book to have strange prophetic powers of which he himself only became aware after the event.

***

I also read Get Real, the last of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books. I was afraid it might be a melancholy affair, but Westlake keeps it funny. He may have had some intimation that he wouldn’t be writing any more books, though: and this itself becomes occasion for some sly wit, when Dortmunder speculates that at last his luck may be beginning to change. Without Westlake to arrange the stumbling blocks that litter Dortmunder’s destiny, I guess he’s right.

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10 Responses to “More Things That Aren’t Films”

  1. Very glad you’re enjoying Dead As Doornails, after I forced it upon you on my last visit. It’s one of the best books about Irish literature ever written, clearly depicting some of its best works as founded on vast reserves of bitterness, floating atop seas of alcohol. I don’t know if you’ve reached the Patrick Kavanagh libel trial yet – that’s a savagely funny, tragic and awful tale that I’ve always felt would make a good play (or film) in itself. Cronin is still going, pretty much the last link with the days of Behan, Flann O’Brien and Kavanagh, and still as acerbic as ever.

  2. Hadn’t got that far, as teaching intervened and I’ve been dipping into a 1960 collection of sf stories at bedtime. All I can handle after the shock of paid work. But you inspire me to delve in again. It’s a depressive, unhealthy yet very funny world.

  3. Cronin’s hometown of Enniscorthy, birthplace of another of my favourite Irish writers (Colm Tóibín), gets a brief mention in Ulysses — as the “best place in the world” (or words to that effect), only the book locates the town, in a presumably deliberate bit of messing, in neighboring Wicklow rather than its actual location of Wexford.

    I love Kavanagh’s work, but every glimpse I have of his life is profoundly depressing; while it’s tempting to imagine him enjoying the bucolic banks of the canal, in reality there’s a good chance he was sleeping off the last round of whiskey.

  4. Well, the banks of a canal are a fine place to do that, if it’s not raining too heavily…

  5. I do wonder if his own preferred seat — as opposed to the commemorative bench — was under a nice big tree, the better to deal with the niceties of the local weather.

  6. …the great artist not only laughs at his own jokes; he laughs at his own jokes before he has made them.

    -Chesterton

  7. Very good! Although, I wonder, how does he know, unless he’s declaring himself to be a great artist? I think it’s true that any good joke you come up with must make you actually laugh when you think of it, otherwise it’s not really any good. Trying to surprise yourself enough to generate a laugh can be hard work…

  8. Also, there are jokes you make that make you laugh alone. The great artist knows this, too.

  9. “Only the other day I was just going to tell my niece that there are two types of men who can laugh when they are alone. One might almost say the man who does it is either very good or very bad. You see, he is either confiding the joke to God or confiding it to the Devil. But anyhow he has an inner life. Well, there really is a kind of man who confides the joke to the Devil. He does not mind if nobody sees the joke; if nobody can safely be allowed even to know the joke. The joke is enough in itself, if it is sufficiently sinister and malignant.”

    “The Worst Crime in the World”, The Innocence of Father Brown

  10. Ah-hah!

    The trouble with Chesterton (apart from his anti-semitism) is his tendency to proselytize. Of course, Father Brown is all about that, and you have to accept it to enjoy the stories. That’s why I prefer other stuff like The Man Who Was Thursday, even though there’s plenty mysticism in it.

    But if Borges’ character sketch is right (and I have no idea if it is), all that trumpeting of Catholicism, and the over-eating, was to suppress his sexual obsessions…

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