Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2010
- Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live——Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
- Brooklyn—Colm Tóibín
- The Girls of Slender Means—Muriel Spark
- The Given Day—Dennis Lehane (half)
- Loitering With Intent—Muriel Spark (half)
- The Finishing School—Muriel Spark (half)
- Tinkers—Paul Harding (one third)
- Our Mutual Friend—Charles Dickens
- Brooklyn: Historically Speaking—John B. Manbeck
BOOKS DOWNLOADED FOR NOTHING:
- Our Mutual Friend—Charles Dickens
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain
- Babbitt—Sinclair Lewis
Four years ago to the very month, as I’m sure you will remember, this column daringly introduced a Scientist of the Month award. The first winner was Matthias Wittlinger, of the University of Ulm, in Germany, who had done remarkable things with, and to, ants. In an attempt to discover how it was that they were able to find their way home, Wittlinger had shortened the legs of one group and put another group on stilts, in order to alter their stride patterns. Shortening the legs of ants struck us, back in 2006, as an entirely admirable way to spend one’s time—but we were younger then, and it was a more innocent age. Despite the huge buzz surrounding the inaugural award, Wittlinger received nothing at all, and is unlikely even to know about his triumph, unless he subscribes to this magazine. And to add insult to injury, there was no subsequent winner, because the following month we forgot about the whole thing.
Anyway: it’s back! I am absurdly pleased to announce that this month’s recipient, Rolando Rodríguez-Muñoz, is employed at a university right here in England, the University of Exeter. Together with his colleague Tom Tregenza, Rodríguez-Muñoz has been studying the mating strategies of crickets; they discovered, according to the Economist, that “small males…. could overcome the handicap of their stature and win mates through prodigious chirping.” In other words, being the lead singer works for the nerdy and the disadvantaged in other species, too.
Rodríguez-Muñoz has shaded it over Tregenza because, after he and his colleagues had “captured, marked, released and tracked hundreds of crickets,” they filmed sixty-four different cricket burrows; Rodríguez-Muñoz watched and analyzed the results, two hundred and fifty thousand hours of footage. A quarter of a million hours! Just under three years of cricket porn! Presumably crickets, like the rest of us, spend much more time trying to get sex than actually having it, but even so, he must have seen some pretty racy stuff. Some of the sterner members of the judging panel tried to argue that because Rolando had watched the film on fast-forward, and on sixteen monitors at once, he had cut corners, but I’m not having that; as far as I’m concerned, watching crickets mate quickly is even harder than watching them mate in normal time. No, Rolando Rodríguez-Muñoz is a hero, and fully deserving of all the good things about to come his way.
There was a hurtful suggestion, four years ago, that the Scientist of the Month was somehow tangentially connected to the World Cup. He hasn’t read enough to fill up a whole column, because he’s spent the entire month watching TV, the argument went; so just because he stumbled upon an interesting article in a magazine between games, he’s invented this bullshit to get him out of a hole. I resent this deeply, not least because it devalues the brilliant work of these amazing scientists. And though it is true that, at the time of writing, we are approaching the end of another World Cup, and reading time has indeed been in shorter supply, I can assure you that the sudden reappearance of this prestigious honor is pure, though admittedly baffling, coincidence.
The effect of the World Cup on the books I intended to read has been even more damaging in 2010 than it was in 2006. In ’06, I simply didn’t pick any up, and though I was troubled by the ease with which a game between Turkey and Croatia could suppress my hunger for literature, at least literature itself emerged from the tournament unscathed. This time around, as you can see from the list above, my appetite was partially satisfied by grazing on the first few pages of several books, and as a consequence, there are half-chewed novels lying all over the place. At least, I’m presuming they’re lying all over the place; I seem to have temporarily lost most of them. When the World Cup is over, and we clear away the piles of betting slips and wall charts, some of them will, presumably, re-appear. I wrote in this column recently about Muriel Spark’s novels, their genius and their attractive brevity, but there is an obvious disadvantage to her concision: her books tend to get buried under things. I can put my hands on Denis Lehane’s historical novel ‘Any Given Day’ whenever I want, simply because it is seven hundred pages long. True, this hasn’t helped it to get itself read, but at least it’s visible. I didn’t lose ‘The Girls Of Slender Means’, and it was as eccentric and funny and sad as the bunch of Spark novels I read last month.
At the end of the last column, I vowed to have read ‘Our Mutual Friend’ on an e-reader, and that didn’t happen either. This was partly because of the football, and partly because the experience of reading Dickens in this way was unsatisfactory. It wasn’t just that a Victorian novelist clearly doesn’t belong on a sleek twenty-first century machine; I also took the cheapskate route, and downloaded the novel from a website that allows you to download out-of-copyright novels for no charge. – I helped myself to ‘Babbitt’ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ at the same time. The edition squirted down to me came without footnotes, however, and I rather like footnotes. More to the point, I need footnotes occasionally. (You may well work out for yourself eventually that the ‘dust’ so vital to the plot is household rubbish, rather than fine grains of dirt, but it saves a lot of confusion and doubt to have this explained clearly and plainly right at the beginning of the novel.) The advantage handed the e-reading business by copyright laws hadn’t really occurred to me before I helped myself, but it spells trouble for publishers, of course; Penguin and co make a lot of money from selling books by people who are long dead, and if we all take the free downloading route, then there will be less money for the living writers. In a spirit of self-chastisement, I bought a copy of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ immediately, even though I have one already somewhere. It won’t do any good, in the long run, because clearly books, publishers, readers and writers are all doomed. But maybe we should all do what we can to stave off impending disaster just that little bit longer.
I was attempting to read ‘Our Mutual Friend’ for professional reasons: I’m supposed to be writing an introduction for a forthcoming edition. I read Colm Toibin’s ‘Brooklyn’ for work, too: I was asked to consider taking on the job of adapting it for the cinema, and as about a million critics and several real people had told me how good it was, I took the offer seriously. It’s not the best circumstance in which to read a novel. Instead of admiring the writng, thinking about the characters, turning the page to discover what happens next, you’re thinking, “Oh, I dunno”, and, “Yay, I could chop that,” and “Miley Cyrus would be great for this,” and “Do I really want to spend the next few years of my life wrecking this guy’s prose?” It is a tribute to Toibin’s novel – its quiet, careful prose, its almost agonising empathy with its characters, its conviction in its own reality – that pretty soon I forgot why I was reading it, and just read it. And then, after I’d finished it, I decided that I wanted to adapt it – not just because I loved it, but because I could see it. Not the movie, necessarily, but the world of the novel: the third-class cabin in which his protagonist travels from Liverpool to New York in the early 1950s, the department store she works in, the dances she attends. They are portrayed with a director of photography’s relish for depth and light and detail.
The laziest, most irritating book-club criticism of a novel is that the reader “just didn’t care” about the characters or their predicament, a complaint usually made in a tone suggesting that this banality is the product of deep and original thought.. (It never seems to occur to these critics that the deficiency may well lie within themselves, rather than in the pages of the books. Perhaps they feel similarly about their friends, parents, children. “The trouble with my kid is that she doesn’t make me care enough about her. “ Are we all supposed to nod sagely at that?
It is not intended to be a back-handed compliment when I say that Toibin doesn’t care whether you care about Eilis, his heroine; it’s not that the book is chilly or neutral, or that Toibn is a disengaged writer. He’s not. But he’s patient, and nerveless, and unsentimental, and he trusts the story to deliver the emotional payoff, rather than the prose. And it does deliver, ‘Brooklyn’ chooses the narrative form of a much cheaper kind of book – “one woman, two countries, two men” – but that isn’t what it’s about; you’re not quite sure what it’s about until the last few pages, and then you can see quite how carefully the trap has been laid for you. I loved it. Will I wreck it? It’s perfectly possible, of course. It’s a very delicate piece, and Eilis is a watchful, still centre. I won’t have to hack away at its complicated architecture, though, because it doesn’t have one, so maybe I have half a chance. By the time you read this, I should have started in on it; if you have a ten-year-old daughter with ambitions to be an actor, then she might as well start trying to acquire an Irish accent. In my experience of the film business, we’ll be shooting some time in 2020, if it hasn’t all collapsed by then.
In a way, I read ‘Live From New York’, an oral history of Saturday Night Live because of work, too. Earlier in the year I got an American agent, a lovely, smart woman whose every idea, suggestion and request I’ve ignored, more or less since the moment we agreed she’d represent me. Anyway, she recommended Tom Shales’ and James Andrew Miller’s book, and my feeling was that if I’m not going to make her a penny, I could at least follow up on her book tips. And I’m pretty sure that if it had to be one or the other, money or successful recommendations, she’d go for the recommendations. That’s what makes her special.
I read the book despite never having seen a single minute of Saturday Night Live, at least prior to Tina Fey’s turn as Sarah Palin in 2008. The show was never shown in the UK, so I hadn’t a clue who any of these people were. Will Ferrell? Bill Murray? Adam Sandler? Eddie Murphy? John Belushi? Chris Rock? Dan Ackroyd? It’s sweet that you have your own TV stars over there. You’ve probably never heard of Pat Phoenix, either.
When it’s done well, as it is here, then the oral history, is pretty unbeatable as a non-fiction form – engrossing, light on its feet, the constant switching of voices a guarantee against dullness. ‘Please Kill Me’, George Plimpton’s Edie Sedgwick book, Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’… These are books that I hope to return to one day, when I’ve read everything else. “Live From New York” is probably just a little too long for someone unfamiliar with the show, but if you want to learn something about the crafts of writing and performing, then you’ll pick something up every few pages. I am still thinking about these words from Lorne Michaels:
“The amount of things that have to come together for something to be good is just staggering. And the fact that there’s anything good at all is just amazing. When you’re young, you assume that just knowing the difference between good and bad is enough: ‘I’ll just do good work, because I prefer it to bad work….’”
Michaels’ observation contains a terrible truth: you think, at a certain point in your life, that your impeccable taste will save you. As life goes on, you realise it’s a bit more complicated than that.
While I was reading ‘Live From New York’, I realised that G.E. Smith, the show’s musical director, was the same G.E.Smith who sat next to me on a plane from New York to London, some time in 1976 or 1977. I was just returning to college after visiting my dad; Smith was on tour with Daryl Hall and John Oates, who were up in first class. He was the first musician I’d ever met, and he was charming, and generous with his time. And he sold me on ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’, Hall and Oates’ heartstoppingly lovely folk-soul album, recorded well before the disco years (which were pretty good too, actually.) He wouldn’t remember a single second of them, but the conversations we had on that flight helped feed the idea, just sprouting then, that I didn’t want a proper job. It was a pretty seminal flight, now I come to think about it. I still love ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’.