The Hive

Gill Hornby has chosen a goldmine of a topic: playground politics in The Hive. Theoretically there is so much leverage to be had: most everyone is a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt or relative who has had to circumnavigate this minefield. But Hornby misuses a wonderful opportunity. She introduces a bevy of characters who rarely rise above the stereotype, and whose interactions are frankly bizarre. A woman who has lost her husband inexplicably falls into a rage when her well meaning friends try and bring prepared suppers, a fourteen year old boy is able to ‘magically’ deduce
his father is cheating in his mother from a ‘guilty, shifty’ look in his eye
whilst hes eating pork chops, another woman is deeply insulted when shes asked
to go on a spa day, as if though that’s worse than trench warfare. These
unnatural reactions are baffling: does Hornby live in a fishbowl and glean her
human interaction experiences from third hand anecdotes? That this might be
closer to home than not is evident in her acknowledgements, where she cites
thanks to a Rosalind Wiseman for her insights into female social behaviour (and
parallels with the beehive).

But if the characters roam about groundlessly, the structure of the novel is more
promising. Centered around the main events (social, funraising, communal) of a
primary school, there is definitely a feeling of St Ambrose school being ‘the
hive’ from which all activity and meaning originates, circles around and leads
back to. Centre stage are the women, although a case can be made that their
lives seem a little too preoccupied with the school to the exclusion of
everything else.

Overall a promising debut, but there is scope for this author to grow into her subject.


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl probably qualifies as a Sothern Gothic despite a
considerable amount of the action taking place in New York at the beginning of
the novel. During these opening scenes Flynn uses multiple narrative voices to
create a tense, fraught scenario of domestic angst between husband and wife.
The action subsequently moves to the American South where the opening mystery
traverses along several tangents: the twists and turns take on a sinister,
macabre tone as the protagonists, neither of whom is particularly ‘pure of
heart’ or likeable, become engaged in a sort of ‘War of the Roses’
psychological battle, preying on each other’s weaknesses and secret desires in
order to gain supremacy. The final denouement sees Nick and Amy entangled in
a bleak, hopeless attachment from which neither can take emotional succor but nor
can they break. Gripping for the most part, this is revenge noir which
sometimes begs the question: ‘why all the drama, after all?’ Jesse Kornbluth has an interesting take on this.


Capturing the Light by Roger Watson & Helen Rappaport: review by Bella Bathhurst in Telegraph below captures the innovative ways camera work has evolved, love it.

The making of images is as old as mankind, but the fixing of those images by
mechanical means remained elusive until the mid-19th century. The issue wasn’t
so much producing a copy of reality – camera obscuras had been around since
Aristotle – but of ensuring that those realities remained stuck to the page.

Still, the ambition remained. So it wasn’t that surprising that, some time in
the 1830s, two men should find themselves working separately towards the same
goal. Louis Daguerre was a showman who had progressed from an architectural
background in Paris to “dioramas” – huge painted screens rolled out before the
public gaze. By 1837, his pictorial experiments had led him to producing an
image on glass sensitised with iodine, developed with mercury and fixed with
hyposulphite of soda.

At the same time, Englishman Henry Fox Talbot was thinking about photography
from a different direction. Talbot used ordinary table salt mixed with silver
nitrate, painted onto paper and exposed to light. Crucially, the resulting image
stayed where it was. It wasn’t until news came through from France of Daguerre’s
new invention that Talbot even realised that he had a competitor, and a further
year before he was able to see for himself the differences between the English
process and the French.

The French government bought Daguerre’s process and declared it free to
everywhere but England. Talbot, caught on the hop and unable to patent his own
process, moved on to the calotype – a negative made with silver nitrate,
potassium iodide and gallic acid, and fixed with hypo. The resulting images were
clearer and sharper than his first attempts, and, unlike the daguerreotype,
could be reproduced many times.

Talbot patented his invention but once the secret of alchemising light was
out, it was only really a question of how far photography spread and how fast.
Within a few years, the amphitype, the catalystotype, the energiatype and the
fluorotype had come and gone, and by 1855 Roger Fenton was using the
wet collodion process to take photography directly into war.

new autobiography

Sam Leith in the Guardian has an amazing review of Alistair Mcgraths’s CS Lewis autobiography, which I’ve reposted below. Its a great take on this fine book:

‘Why, you might well ask, do we need another biography of CS Lewis? We aren’t exactly undersupplied. Alister McGrath, a theology professor at King’s College London, acknowledges as much. In the face of the “vast amount of biographical and scholarly material now available concerning Lewis and his circle”, he says, he is offering “an attempt to identify” the life’s “deeper themes and concern, and assess its significance … not a work of synopsis, but of analysis”.



    So it is, sort of. McGrath’s first interest is not in Lewis’s life, but in the shape and development of his thought – specifically, his religious thought. This book appears at the same time as he also publishes The Intellectual World of CS Lewis, a collection of eight scholarly essays on aspects of Lewis’s theology. It’s natural to suppose that the latter is his main concern, and that the notion of a full-length biographical study for the popular market was a side-project pegged to the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death this year.

    For many readers, though, the events of his life will be the main interest. And I’m afraid the biographical material is pretty poor stuff. It is prone to asinine generalities (“People have long memories in Belfast”) and mealy-mouthed judgments. McGrath incessantly gives us formulations such as “some might say” or “what many would see as”, and spurts out great runs of rhetorical questions: “Might there be a deeper meaning to Lewis’s imagery … ? Might there be a hint at Lewis’s desire … ? Was Mrs Moore both the ‘mother’ that Lewis had lost and the ‘maid’ for whom he yearned?”

    Above all it is wretched with cliche. Sentence after sentence is inflated with meaningless intensifiers such as ”deep”, “powerful”, “magnificent”, “famous” and “prestigious”. “Landmark” is a favourite adjective (as in “landmark book”), and the landmarks of McGrath’s own text are “crushing personal blows”, “tectonic plates”, “shattered dreams”, “dark shadows”, sealed fates and “forces over which he had no control”.

    Lewis goes to war, for instance. We meet, in the space of two and a half pages, “violence, destruction and horrors”, “war, trauma and loss”, “horrors”,  “devastation”, “violence, trauma and horror”, “traumatic experiences”, “horrors” (again), “devastation” (again), and “trauma” (again). A single paragraph sees damage “wreaked” twice on the poor Tommies at the front. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Lewis didn’t apparently think so, suggesting in his memoir, Surprised By Joy, that his experiences at English boarding schools were worse than anything he went through in France. McGrath thinks that he’s only pretending so – that he’s in denial, effectively – but asserts this more than evidences it, apparently on the a priori basis of the horridness of war.

    That said, all the familiar points are dutifully rehearsed: the loss of his mother (“traumatic” … “traumatic”); the long romantic cohabitation with the mother of one of his friends; the up-and-down friendship with JR Tolkien; the conversion from atheism to philosophical theism and then to “mere Christianity”; the meetings of the Inklings in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford; celebrity as a religious broadcaster; academic snubs; marriage in late life to the on-the-make American Joy Davidson (“a ticking time bomb” … “a Trojan horse”); her death (“emotional firestorm” … “emotional battering ram”).

    He does have one big scoop, though – or semi-big. McGrath argues that Lewis’s religious conversion did not take place, as Lewis claimed in the sometimes muddled Surprised By Joy, in Trinity term of 1929, but about a year later. Close reading of Lewis’s correspondence at the time – as well as some Poirot-like work on the question of when bluebells flower at Whipsnade Zoo – leads our man to the later date. This is smart and plausible. He seems to be right. I’m less persuaded of what he calls “the importance of this question”, however. Whether he found God in the early summer of 1929 or 1930 doesn’t bear materially on Lewis’s work – and as McGrath himself writes: “In the end, it is not so much the precise date of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, as its implications for his future writings that is of ultimate importance.” It may also be a sign of the outstanding boringness of the outward facts of Lewis’s religious conversion that, of the dozens of scholars who have crawled through Lewis’s life and works like carpet-beetles, none has previously noticed the error.

    Still, good to have it corrected. And McGrath’s work on Lewis’s theology in this volume is much the best of it. There are good, clear explanations of Lewis’s ideas about myth, the distinctions he made between the “imaginary” and the “imaginative”, or ”allegory” and “supposal”. McGrath – no objection in itself, but a clue as to the weighting of his book – reads Lewis’s fiction primarily through its importance as a work of “imaginative narrative apologetics” (as opposed to rational apologetics – a distinction that he handles well) rather than as literary artefacts.

    The cloth ear returns when it comes to literary history. That matters: Lewis’s chair was in literature, not theology. I love The Lord of the Rings, too, but calling it “one of the great works of 20th-century literature” seems a bit much. To say that the Narnia stories “captivated the imagination of a generation”, to earnestly affirm that The Waste Land is “still widely acknowledged as one of the finest and most discussed poems of the 20th century” or that Ulysses showed “radical literary innovation” is not exactly high-wattage stuff. A final chapter on Lewis’s reputational afterlife gives more detailed attention to his popularity in the US as a cross-denomination Christian apologist, and to his being taken up by the evangelical movement that once spurned him as a heretic, than it does to his literary or scholarly legacy.

    More culpably, even when on home turf McGrath seldom takes Lewis to task. He gives a lucid account of Lewis’s line on “chronological snobbery”, for instance – the idea that it’s arrogant to read the past as an imperfect version of the present, rather than realising that every stage of the past was once the present, and that present orthodoxies will in due course seem just as muddled as those of the past do to us. But he gives the idea a free pass (clearly it’s less true of some aspects of intellectual life – such as medicine or mathematics – than others), and he raises no flags in this context over Lewis’s blatantly whiggish notion of Christianity: not as one myth among others, but as the encompassing expression of a truth partially and imperfectly grasped in other systems of religious ideas.

    In The Intellectual World of CS Lewis, McGrath doesn’t write noticeably better, but you do get a fuller sense, essay by essay, of Lewis’s intellectual and spiritual genealogy – of the influences, say, of GK Chesterton and Augustine in Surprised by Joy, or of Max Müller on Lewis’s theories of myth. McGrath’s Intellectual World, too, suffers from Lewis-reverence – “He was right on all four counts,” is the unqualified assertion in the conclusion to one essay – but it adds to what we know, and is clear enough for the interested generalist to follow.

    CS Lewis wrote in a way that has made sense to very many people, with faith and without it, about what it feels like to make the intellectual and spiritual move from atheism to belief. McGrath has a fine apprehension of how he did so, and admires him for it with little qualification. But in answer to the question with which I opened this review, I’d have to say: I don’t know if we do need another biography of CS Lewis, and if we do, it isn’t this one.’

    Tessa Hadley’s The London Train reviewed by Ivona Poyntz

    Tessa Hadley’s
    ‘The London Train’ is a hodgepodge  of disparate characters whose connections
    are ill drawn and unsubstantiated. Paul, a father of three living in Wales,
    steps into a full blown midlife crisis for no discernible reason whatsoever:
    one day he’s whistling Dixie, happy go lucky, the next he’s ‘emigrated’ to his
    daughter’s London squat where he spends days on end just…wallowing,
    basically, and lusting after his daughter’s friend Anna. Meanwhile, he’s left
    his wife and rather young daughters to fend as best as they can back ‘at the
    ranch’.  A little reprehensible, no? His
    wife, Elise, knows Paul is a philanderer, but how do you walk away from half a
    financial proposition when you’re raising a young family? Exasperated ,
    desperate and lonely, she clutches on to anything at hand which is ‘half
    serviceable’, for comfort: in this case a neighbour, Gerald, whos a certified
    schizophrenic and in the throes of severe mental ups and downs. In her quest
    for ‘support’ Elise seems to add just one more child to the family.  Meanwhile, a bevy of support characters flesh
    out this parade of highly unlikeable individuals. Paul’s daughter Pia is
    portrayed as a dull waste of space, whom Paul barely tolerates, and his ex
    lover Carol is a clingy, desperate woman: just one of many Paul will undoubtedly
    have. Frankly, not a sympathetic character in sight.

    Multimodal Discourse

    Published in 2001, this textbook surfaces around the same time as LeVine and Scollon’s Discourse and Technology and O’Hallaran’s multimodal Discourse Analysis, perhaps pioneers in the field of multimodality. Back in the olden days, I should say. Of note is how no one is in agreement of what mode actually is, given it’s the building block of discourse and design. Kress and Leeuwen take the middle road: modes are semiotic resources which allow the simultaneous realisation of discourses and types of (inter)action. I say middle road because previously (in 1999 publications) they took a stance that modes are constantly changing ‘units’. I wonder if they linked it to discourse, which of course is a moving feast as well.

    In any event. The usual high falutin’ fare ensues: complicated linguistic constructs and deconstructs ad infinitum, until we get to the most important issue for me: the one which makes this book worthwhile. Colour. K&L specifically point out that colour is a signifier and not a sign.
    Its been 12 years since publication, and a cursory look at development of semiotics theories since then has not dispelled this notion: and I am frankly puzzled as to how this can be. A sound and a smell are indisputably signs, yet colour is not. If we accept colour as a signifier, in fact, a floating signifier, perhaps traditionally from a cultural perspective it might be deemed to have the potential for disparate meanings. My question is: so what? In as much as there is no such thing as a meaningless signifier, everything by default becomes a sign anyway.

    Further, there is debate going on as to whether universality of understanding is a prerequisite for defining a sign: e.g. do we all have to agree on the meaning of a sign in order for it to be one? This then makes me think that perhaps an overhaul of semiotics terminology, particularly in view of multimodality, may in fact be due. Going back to colour, I’m not sure the G&L example of pink representing different signs necessarily stacks up. They attribute it once to the cultural norm that ‘pink is for girls’ (and maybe a pink baby chair?) and subsequently quote an example of pink furniture in a minimalist house where it represents the sign of minimalism. This then is their explanation of why colour can’t be a sign but rather a signifier. Well, but first, while the signifier is different, I’m not so sure the ‘signified’ is. (an opposing example, well documented, is say the word as a sign ‘open’, which has the same signifier but the signified is different if it is applied to the open jaws of an alligator vs. A store open for business). True, the latter has the distinction of having an identical signifier, but why should that make it more acceptable as a sign than the previous example, where the signifier differs but the signified is the same. I am pretty sure (although don’t have time to research this now), that the so called ‘grammar of colour’ (love that expression) is well categorised in our minds in terms of classes of objects or emotions or experiences, providing a similar signified for each colour. For example, no one would deem flaming orange either as a minimalist expression nor as a ‘baby colour’. This is not even so much predicated on cultural preconceptions but rather on what I think are ingrained interpretations of spacio-physical constraints. We all know dark colours make a room appear smaller and light colours make it appear larger, and that sort of thing.

    George Szirtes Poetry

    George Szirtes is an excellent poet, and translator, and here are a number of his poems, all vavailable online, which I really enjoy.

     Prologue When he had gathered all the books When he had indexed, catalogued, cross-referred and annotated them When the little princelings and mighty emperors of China Were dancing on the pinhead of his own estimable head And the bile of the world was swimming in the gutters And the fists of the janitor were beating street girls black and blue And the oleaginous salesman had lubricated the hinges of the cassone For the delectation of the housekeeper A tiny gale started blowing Down the alleyways and through the portals Through the flightless windows Through the wainscoted corridors of the rathaus And the Groszbeggars stirred and shook a leg And the Dixwounded rattled their small change of limbs And acrobats stood on their heads like stars And there were murders Murders and conspiracies For the intellect to catalogue and classify For the mind to annotate and the fingers to cross-refer For a superior consciousness to make sense of In the hallways and beer cellars In the prisons and surgeries In lavatories and libraries Where the books were gathered. 12. Madhouse The point about the madhouse is that it’s virile. The point about the madhouse is that it sticks by its beliefs. The point about the madhouse is that sanity is bourgeois. The point about the madhouse is that no one is acting. The point about the madhouse is that no one gets in by simply being nice. The point about the madhouse is that it liberates the spirit. The point about the madhouse is that you can think just what you like there. The point about the madhouse is that anyone can enter. There’s nothing special about the madhouse, people come and go all the time. There’s nothing threatening about the madhouse, we are all of us dying. There’s nothing terminal about the madhouse: you go along for the ride. There’s nothing sad about the madhouse: weeping and gnashing of teeth, that’s nothing. There’s nothing mad about the madhouse, it is sanity by default. We are sane by default, we are mad by design, but the mad are more admirable. Admirable is the ape, the bulbul, the mitochondrion, the swelling of the larynx, Admirable the orchid, the garlic, the fire inside the shut book, Admirable the cry of the tortured, the lost voice of the nightingale, the laughter in everything ostensibly sane but tending towards madness such as sunlight, the slow rain, each pendulous drop, the wide road, the brimming eye, shadows, picnics, public conveyances, thunder. Nature is a madness with a method and all the madder for that. Culture is a madness everyone inherits. Science is a madness in love with numbers, the perfect amour fou. Health is a madness that shifts from minute to minute, gesundheit! Money is madness that fills your pockets and leaves a silver slugtrail in the garden. The point about the madhouse is not to describe it. The point about the madhouse is not to change it. The point about the madhouse is to live there to accustom yourself to its immaculate manners to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever with the prophet, the poet, the dwarf, the scholar, the fire. ANDRÉ KERTÉSZ: LATRINE 1. Four poilus in a wood austerely shitting. Death watches them, laughing, its sides splitting. Life is a cry followed by laughter. The body before, the waste after. 2. Could one hear in that wood the gentle click of the shutter like the breaking of a stick or the safety catch on its climacteric? 3. Like the four winds. Like a low fart that rips clean air in two, like urine that drips. Four squatting footsoldiers of the Apocalypse. 4. Kiss them lightly, faint breeze in the small leaves, be the mop on the brow, the sigh that relieves. Let them dump and move on into the dark plate of the unexposed future, too little and too late. Henryk Ross: Yellow Star The eye is drawn to that single yellow star that no wise man will follow. The hunched men in caps, the grimacing woman her eyes screwed up, cheeks hollow. We look and look again until we burn a hole in the paper. We strive to learn from their resignation but it is beyond us. We let them burn.

    marguerite yourcenar and the Memoirs of Hadrian

    The worldview Marguerite Yourcenar pays encomium to, lauded in Memoirs of Hadrian,  tempered with subdued pragmatism: is one in which, as Flaubert wrote to La Sylphide, ‘Just when the Gods had ceased to be and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone’.  Hadrian’s ’existenz’ is nothing if not temporal suffering extrapolated through the measured cadence of a concentrated study of human actions and their consequences, a teological affirmation of causality. 

    One of the ‘Five Good Emperors’, (Machiavelli, 1503, who noted all five succeeded as ‘adopted’ sons and seemed to rule more wisely and judiciously than those of ‘royal blood’), Hadrian was a ‘humanist’ and philhellene, interested more in art, architecture, public governance and jurisprudence rather than war, despite his formidable military campaigning. Of his twenty years as emperor, he barely engaged in military battle, and spent scarcely five in Rome: the rest were travelling throughout the empire, mostly overseeing construction and consolidation projects, collecting art and writing poetry.

    This is the era of consolidation where Yourcenar indomitably quests to search out the humanist-philosopher, the Emperor who refines and consolidates the qualia of Rome’s greatest cultural achievements to pinnacled Greco-Roman heights as a man cum deity. 

    ‘Rome….was needed for the full realisation of what was for Greece only an admirable idea. Plato had written the Republic and glorified the Just, but we were the ones who were striving to make the State a machine fit to serve man….The word philanthropy was Greek,but we are the ones who are working to change the wretched conditions of the slave’.

    A beautiful acclamation of Rome significant as ‘doer’ whereas Greece was Rodin’s ‘thinker’: and if Hadrian did not serve in terms of philosophical originality and advancement, surely his contribution, of making concrete the ‘ideal’, was no less an achievement. For what is a strategist without his tactician?

    Who doesn’t know of his eromenos Antinous, a youth who effectively becomes Hadrian’s consort . His (debated) suicide at nineteen at the river Nile sparks Hadrian into occult and grief stricken endeavours to deify the youth, thus breaching some unspoken protocol about keeping the personal ‘private’ when you are emperor. Yourcenar handles this episode magnificently. At a moment in between Gods, when Hadrian conceptualises he is divine himself, as any other man might be, the issues of personal responsibility become acute and forefrontal. If human qualia takes on divine proportion, and if that qualia is underpinned by reveration of youth specifically, then its understandable if at nineteen Atinous conceives his currency as spent: by sacrificing himself in full bloom of youth he thus ensures his perpetuality ad infinitum: and perhaps it was this notion which spurred Hadrian into ‘conceptually’ immortalising him.

    Yourcenar’s other books are worthy of mention too. Her fascinating biography points to a writer adroit at interpreting history.


    The Crab Nebula by Chevillard

    Chevillard is a visionary; or he has visions, or at the very least something more than
    your standard 20/20 vision. In 52 separate and standalone vignettes, he takes
    up this Crab person, and rearranges him juxtaposed to reality in all kinds of
    non linear perspective, popping in and out of all known dimensions and into
    some that have yet to be discovered.

    The thought narrative bends and twists at an accelerated rate: layers are added, stripped off, reshaped, repurposed, re-applied, remoulded yet again: the whole thing reads like a writhing, elusive, dada generator-ed code sequence of word bursts. The
    world is compressed through a diaphragm of some sort of sorites paradox, and
    origami-ed into plausible nonsensity.

    Is Crab real? Alive? Dead? Who or what is he?

    Ultimately left to the reader’s own decision.

    The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

    Owls, particularly screech owls, which is what the Blind Owl refers to, are harbingers of death the world over: no less so in Persian folklore. Considering the morose obsession with death within the novel, following which Hedayat committed suicide, it reads like a last will and testament with hindsight.

    In its entirety, this is one spectacular hallucogenic trip triggered by opium, tempered with brief moments of withdrawal when the nameless narrator (none of the characters within are named, btw) experiences physical malaise (bodily decomposition, maggots, dismorphia, confusion, …the lot).  All of it predicated, I think, on serious mental health issues which generated the cycle to begin with.

    How to explain this ride? Its an exquisite, labyrinthian unfolding of mental maps which double back  in a concertina of repetitions, splinter outwards with a cornocupia of symbols which, themselves, take on new imprints so that homogeneity of substance is constantly morphed into a verisimilitude of form.

    Heavily laden with metaphor, symbolism, existential angst and mental self-torture, this languid  journey never becomes too abstract to follow: and opens up a dazzling kaleidoscope of the colour, emotion and visions of an addict.

    Magical realism which is truly magical. A favourite.