Monday 21 February 2011

A Missing Book

I've lost another book. I've lost my biography of Jacques Tati by David Bellos. I bought the DVD of The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet, which is a new animated adaptation of an unproduced Tati screenplay. Though I am no cinenthusiast, I thought was the most beautiful film I'd seen in ages when it came out last year. (And anyone who found it depressing wasn't paying enough attention.) I saw it twice at the cinema, and again tonight on DVD. And now I want to remind myself of the story behind Tati's original project, but I can't find that book.

Where is it? Is it simply by-passing my eye muscles or is something more ghastly going on? Is it behind something? Has it been left behind somewhere? My greatest fear: it is among a number of books that I have been careless enough to leave in a box somewhere, lost forever. Without a full inventory of what books I own, I won't be able to confirm or refute the 'missing box of books' theory. I have three bookcases in the living room, shelves running around the ceiling in the hallway, and more shelves in my bedroom.

There are of course numerous ways to go about organizing your books, and the best list of these was compiled by Georges Perec for his essay 'Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books', which was published in 1978. I once belived I had my system perfected. When we were living in Seven Sisters, I finally, after spending many hours, got every volume I owned in what I considered at the time to be the perfect order, according to a system was a hybrid of alphabetization, thematic association and biographical sensitivity. (Authors who hated each other in life should not be placed side by side on the shelf; Cocteau and Radiguet are inseparable, and not even the alphabet can come between them.) On those Seven Sisters shelves, they formed a spectrum of authors, flowing seemlessly from one to the next, making finding a particular book more intuitive than logical. But this system broke down when we moved house. For the purposes of putting them into boxes, I grouped small books with small books and big ones with big. By the time we'd moved another two times, my library was chaos again.

Where the hell is that Tati biography? Is it possible I lent it to someone? Did I lend it to you? Whoever has it, can I have it back? The same goes to anyone else who's got one of my books. You know who you are. You're all making me miserable.

Changing addresses is obviously the enemy of book order. I moved out and lived in a series of strange warehouses last year, taking with me one box of what I considered to be the twenty or so books I really felt I couldn't face being without: my 'Desert Island books', if you like. They included: The Great Fire of London (Roubaud), Gargantua and Pantagruel (Rabelais), Locus Solus (Roussel), the complete letters of Erik Satie, I Am A Beautiful Monster (a collection of writings by Picabia) and The People's Almanac # 2. These books thus got separated from my main library and still sit separately from their natural companions.


I ought really to get into the habit of arranging my books, and rearranging them, of fussing over them, moving them about, bringing them together and separating them, as an ongoing project of book ordering without a particular end goal in mind. Keeping a library should be like keeping a garden, with constant maintenance, perpetual change and lively symbiosis.

Where is it? I expected to find it next to that weird little badly translated book The Films of Jacques Tati by Michael Chion (Guernica, 2003), but it's not. That's going to bug me.

David Bellos also wrote that fat biography of Georges Perec, which I'd had for years and finally got round to reading while on holiday in Thailand a couple of years ago. It's an impressive piece of research, and well told, but it lacked any Perecqian mischief. Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, I'm a big fan of biographies. The story is always the same: how the 'x' (lower case), whom we don't know, became the 'X' (capital), whom we recognize and love. A good biography will make this transformation seem surprising and fresh. A dull biography will make it seem inevitable. It is as if there are two levels of that 'how': a 'technical how' and a 'deep how', akin to a 'why'. Let's try to explore the 'deep how'. How did I lose that book? How? I left it in a pub? Really? How did I do that? How?

Deep how.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Imploded Metaphors

Recently, I haven't updated my blog, Diary or London Bulletin as frequently as I would like to. This is due to a chronic shortage of time. The expression 'chronic shortage of time' is stolen from a letter from Alfred Wainwright to one of his fans, apologizing for not replying sooner. I am editing a volume of Wainwright Letters at the moment. When I stumbled on 'a chronic shortage of time', my red-pen finger twitched instinctively, but then I remembered that the letters have to be reproduced exactly as he wrote them.

But what is wrong with 'a chronic shortage of time'? Answer: nothing. Correcting things that are 'wrong' constitutes only one part of an editor's job. There are also the little wrinkles, dissonances and peculiarities that sometimes grab my attention. I edit non-fiction, so for a large part, I aim to make texts seem almost invisible. I pursue the phantom of 'style-free' prose, which conveys information with the transparency of glass. But there are plenty of occasions when authors, while attempting to be crystal clear, absentmindedly employ devices that backfire, and cause the reader to stop (even unconsciously) and go 'Huh?'. They break the non-fiction illusion – the textual equivalent of a visible mic boom on TV.

In one episode of Blackadder the Third, Edmund exclaims: 'Disease and deprivation stalk our land like... two giant stalking things.' In rhetorical terms, this is called an 'imploded simile', in which the thing being used as a comparison is the same as what's being compared. That's an extreme example, done for comedy. In reality, authors are far more likely to fall foul of what I call an 'imploded metaphor', in which a metaphor is applied to the same realm as the one from which it is derived. Here are some examples, some of which stray into tautology:

'She had an unbridled enthusiasm for horses.'
'The heat was on for them to create an original soup.'
'We're over the moon about NASA's successful launch.'
'In the monastery, the monks lived a cloistered existence.'
'Don't go overboard with your detailed lifejacket instructions.'
'The zoo's gorillas have begun to ape human behaviour.'

Mixing images that are conceptually indistinct from each other causes a weird dissonance. Applying metaphors can be like matching colours, and juxtaposing contrasting ideas often works better. Have fun thinking up other horrific imploded metaphors, and I will award a prize to the worst example. ('Award a prize' is pure tautology.)

What about 'a chronic shortage of time'? The word 'chronic' (from the Greek word χρόνος, meaning 'time' – hence, chronicle, chronometer, etc.) denotes a persistent condition, or one that has evolved slowly over time. What this this medical metaphor does is to describe a shortage of time in terms of a protracted stretch of time – and that's a little bit odd. Can time's length cause its own shortfall? Is this expression ugly? Not really; we understand exactly what he means. I wouldn't change it, but unintended  paradoxes like that give me a tickle of enjoyment that briefly distracts me from the point he's making. There is always a lot more going on at the surface level of a text than we normally notice.

The ideal of perfect clarity is an impossible one, of course. And it is not always desirable. For example, Charles Jencks, several of whose books I've edited, has a very distinctive way of writing. He places things in apposition that strictly ought not to be linked. That is his style, and it is worth preserving, because the surface of his text is where we want to be. It is itself a landscape of meaning, which he invites his readers to explore, and it is in the smashing together of big unwieldy metaphors that his arguments are born. I only change his words when he makes a syntactic leap too far, and the reader will be left behind, thinking 'What the...?'

In poetry, almost all the words, thanks to their skillful arrangement, will cause the reader to pause, query, squirm, groan, or be tickled, spooked, psyched or seduced. A poem's underlying 'meaning' is irrelevant compared with the play of images, meanings and associations on the surface of the text.

Monday 7 February 2011


G. 'Bertram Anderson'
On Sunday we visited the Chelsea Physic Garden, a delightful anachronism founded in 1675 and kept alive artificially by its wealthy benefactors, like a rare specimen being shipped from its point of origin across the oceans of time in a wardian case. They were celebrating a Snowdrop Day, and so we were invited to explore their collection and experience the world of the galanthophile (or galanthomane, or galanthologist). Nearly 100 different species, varieties and cultivars of snowdrop were scattered through the gardens. Armed with a little explanatory leaflet, we hunted them down and examined them.

G. 'Alison Hilary'
Galanthus is, of course, only one plant genus among thousands. (There were a handful of Leucojum species on display as well, but only to illustrate the vast difference between snowdrops and snowflakes.) The flowers emerge briefly in winter, and rely more on scent than on bright colours to attract pollinating insects. Yet this unremarkable, delicate little thing has its passionate followers, who eschew the gaudy, obvious attractions of all other plants. The standard work for these people is Matt Bishop's book Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus (Griffin Press, 2006), which has 364 pages and describes more than 500 different cultivars down to the tiniest detail. Five hundred!

G. 'Eliot Hodgkin'
The distinctions between different snowdrops are indeed subtle. The shape and colour of the leaves vary somewhat, as do are the distribution of the tepals, their markings, and the shade of the ovary. Among the highlights we were shown, we found a few favourites, among them 'Mrs Thompson', but it was clear we'd stumbled upon a subset of a subset of specialization that would take many years to master.

There is something terrifying about studying the very small in great detail. In order to appreciate the minuscule differences between snowdrops, you have to become very small yourself, observe them on their own terms, and reduce yourself, in your mind, to their size. Something like nausea accompanies the disparities of scale that become apparent when you do this. If the broad plane representing the possibilities of human knowledge weren't already intimidatingly vast, imagine how much bigger it all must seem from a snowdrop's perspective. The 500 cultivars of snowdrop, each with its own name, its own characteristics and its own beauty, give an idea of the dizzying wealth of detail to be found below most people's perspective. Zoom in on one tiny facet of human knowledge, and we find a fractal universe of equal complexity buried inside it, confounding any bold hope of gaining a comprehensive grasp of even a small part of the world around us. Even our most celebrated polymaths seem ignorant fools when viewed against this backdrop.

G. plicatus 'Sophie North'
To reassure and bolster myself against the agoraphobia of the knowable, my strategy has always been to take sweeping strides across the factual terrain, contenting myself to know a little bit about science (the dramatic stuff mainly), a very broad outline of history, an idea or two about music, a smattering of geography, etc. I am able only to generalize and summarize, and to make fleeting observations, lazy assumptions and crass judgments.

But I cannot help but admire the enthusiast who has the patience and humility to submit to one specialism. Even the self-absorbed geek, whose encyclopedic knowledge of a fictional universe robs them of social skills in the real one, has an integrity about the way they acquire knowledge, which I lack. Short-sightedness is a natural human characteristic. So is arrogance.

At the exit, the Chelsea Physic Garden were selling individual snowdrops in pots for prices ranging from £3 to £30 for the rarer specimens. We learned that a single bulb had last year changed hands for £350. But over the river, for free in Battersea Park, we saw hundreds of them growing in swathes.

G. 'Mrs Thompson'