Hemingway and The Truth

I found myself reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast only last week and remembered again why I find what he writes about so juvenile. I say what he writes about rather than his writing because, while I concede that appreciating someone’s writing style can be largely subjective after a certain point, what someone writes about — the topics, the themes — can be discussed profitably and even perhaps be sprinkled with nuggets of that much dreamed-of gold of El Dorado, objectivity, if done carefully.

Now, Hemingway and juvenilia are inextricably linked in my imaginings because of the author’s clear-eyed view of stunning vistas of truth, a quasi-mystical vision that pervades his literature and excites the blessed pure of heart. In one’s youth, these stunning vista are revealed almost daily and knowledge and truth do seem declarative — carbon has six protons, chien is French for dog; the truth is mine, ye evil deniers of wisdom! Soon, the unchecked fire of the gonads engulfs the brain and moral indignation runs wild: here be change, a new world order, the overthrow of the wicked and the righting of countless wrongs via the embracing of what’s certain, what’s true: carbon has six protons and chien is French for dog, ye blackguards of untruth, and the light of the good guides us in our reshaping of the world!

There is indeed something noble in such an attitude. The austere clarity of the unspoiled truth is alluring and inspiring, the kind of thing that gets people on soapboxes spouting glib wisdom. Of course, a bout with quantum mechanics — protons are spin-½ fermions composed of three quarks!? — and the discovery that languages have histories, fuzzy bounds and uncharted byways — chien might mean dog in certain respects, but a dog of a day and un chien d’un jour shows that’s certainly not in all respects — puts paid to the old notions of what’s true.  The messiness of reality rears its sullying head, and those who can bear to look turn from youthful, simplifying idealism towards a mature, do-as-best-as-one-can pragmatism. Others, however, remain oblivious to reality and cling to the adolescent’s truths.

Bono professes to write songs containing no more than “three chords and the truth”, and it’s that naivete that makes Bono so downright embarrassing as he struts about attempting to right the world’s ills, no matter how noble his intentions might be. In Hemingway and his offspring, those ever so earnest Beats, we find that same attitude, that same superficial certainty masquerading as mystical profundity that excites simplicity’s yearners and sticks in the side of complexity’s acolytes. And in Moveable Feast we find Hemingway’s awkwardly juvenile paean to his muse, Austere Truth, who sheds her glib grace on her patient, obeisant faithful:

But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was a good and severe discipline.

Poshlost and Nabokov

Nabokov reproduced his “interview” (Nabokov generally replied in writing to interview questions — he claimed that he couldn’t speak well off the cuff) for the Paris Review in October, 1967, in his Strong Opinions. In the interview, he explained poshlost, the art of the charlatan and the mountebank, in that humorously withering way of his:

What is most characteristic of poshlust in contemporary writing? Are there temptations for you in the sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen?

“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishnest pseudo-literature — these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma”, “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet, and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost’s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannon balls, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wallpatterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots — all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Moms” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple — she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.

A Chat with Bebel Gilberto

This decade is set to be Brazil’s. Brazil’s economy is going gangbusters, the country will probably win the World Cup this year before holding the next one in 2014, and the Olympics will be Rio de Janeiro’s in 2016. Now’s the time to get to speed on the South American powerhouse — particularly so on the musical front, as the sound of samba and bossa nova becomes the soundtrack of the coming years.

Of the current crop of Brazilian musicians, Bebel Gilberto best represents the past and the future of what is referred to as MPB, or Musica Popular Brasileira, the catch-all term for any popular music from Brazil that draws primarily from the country’s own musical traditions. Embedded in Bebel’s bloodlines are the particular melodies and rhythms of Brazil — her father, João Gilberto, practically invented bossa nova through his whispered vocals and the sway of his percussive acoustic guitar, while her mother and uncle, Miúcha and Chico Buarque, were key songwriters and performers who shaped the sound of MPB.

Not surprisingly, then, the acoustic guitar that has been the foundation of her father’s music and so much of MPB is Bebel’s most important songwriting tool. “Songs always begin on the acoustic guitar. Sometimes there’s some back and forth with a flute, but first of all it’s the acoustic guitar — always,” says Bebel proudly from her home in New York. Almost invariably, the person playing that acoustic guitar is Masa Shimizu, her long-standing musical collaborator.  “I’m a very dear friend of Masa’s and we’ve travelled the world together making and playing music since 2000. Because of my father’s influence, I work best with the guitar, and I have been lucky enough to find Masa, who I work with so well.”

While Bebel draws assuredly from the musical legacies of her parents and MPB, it’s her ability to so freely interweave these elements with contemporary sounds from all over the world so freely that has made her music her own. “I’ve always travelled a lot and the sounds I hear naturally come to influence my music. My home for the most part over the last seventeen years has been New York, and here, you are always exposed to musical ideas from everywhere, so the rest of the world just seeps into my music.” Such openness to whatever comes her way saw her accepting an unexpected offer to work on the Peeping Tom project with Mike Patton, a musician more well known for his experimentation on the louder end of the musical spectrum. “Faith No More were very big in Brazil when I was living there, so I knew who Mike Patton was when he contacted me about the Peeping Tom project, and I had no reason not to do it. Just because he was a rock musician was no reason to say no. Maybe I might make a rock record too — who knows?”

It’s not rock, though, that can be heard amidst the more traditional Brazilian sounds of her latest album, All in One, but reggae. “I wrote my latest album in Port Antonio, in Jamaica. It was like a vacation — there was a studio where I stayed surrounded by palm trees and with beautiful views of the beach. So when I was developing ideas there, Jamaica was a big influence, and that’s how I came to cover Bob Marley — who is so great — and his song Sun is Shining.”

That Jamaican influence will accompany her to Australia in April as Bebel Gilberto plays a date in Melbourne and another in Sydney after performing as part of the Byron Bay Blues Festival. “I’ll be singing songs mainly from All in One, but I also like to mix things up and sing songs from my earlier albums.” Happily too, for as long as she’s in Australia, we have the special privilege of being able to claim such a charming, talented performer as one of our own. “I travel so much, I’ve learnt to be comfortable wherever my bed is and to consider that home, so yes, while I’m in Australia and sleeping there, Australia will be my home.”

Surely someone can arrange for her a citizenship ceremony?

The Case for a More Distinctive Vocative or Imperative in the English Language

I had never been able to wrap my head around the title of Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory. My problem: I was reading it as a list. I had it in my head that if Nabokov were to release an expanded version of his autobiography, it could well have been titled Speak, Memory, Nose, Throw, Panhandle.

I got my hands onto Speak, Memory recently (St Kilda public library system, how I do love thee), and upon reading the introduction, a moment akin to the breaking of day brightened up my benighted existence: Nabokov is enjoining his memory to speak! In the absence of something more distinctive morphologically to signal the vocative noun or the imperative verb, I scrambled in vain for a meaning and was bemused for years.

You could rightly accuse me of thickheadedness. There is a difference in the imperative and present tenses of the verb to signify what Nabokov was getting at in English — Speak, Memory and Speaks, Memory are clearly distinguishable. Nevertheless, I didn’t twig. Doubly nevertheless, I blame English, not my own failings.

English is more predisposed to marking a verb’s tense than it is a noun’s case, so avoiding ambiguity by marking the imperative definitively seems the option most apt. And if one were kind enough to assume I am no ament, between you and they speak; everyone should, would, could, will and did speak; and I beseech thee “Speak!”, it really is little wonder I could confuse myself so wondrously. English needs the imperative to be marked by a less promiscuous form, and in honour of Nabokov’s native tongue, I propose that new marking to be tchaya.

Spreadtchaya the word!

Nabokov vs. Forster

On a long trip to Brazil, that most lusophone of places, I had scant English reading material to amuse myself with, so I persisted in reading EM Forster’s A Passage to India right to the mock shocking end — the natives aren’t so bad after all! — rather than stare vaguely out into the distance. And my, hasn’t that persistence finally paid off handsomely: had I not read the damn thing, I would never have felt the frisson flitter through me upon finding myself face-to-face with the following fine Nabokovian verbal barb directed towards that most beastly of novels:

EM Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathises with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 @ The Corner Hotel, 31st March, 2010

3 out of 10: A flat outing for the king of the swamp

The globe is getting warmer, the days sultrier. It’s only a matter of time before the world is one giant Louisiana swamp, and in that sweaty future, we’ll all be listening on repeat to the mad gumbo stylings of Dr. John, New Orleans’ voodoo master.

Melbourne is a long way from New Orleans, but this Wednesday night is abnormally balmy for March in the Antipodes, the unexpected heat the perfect setting for musical concoctions from the Cajun country. Dr. John will clock seventy years on this mortal coil come November, yet no matter how far removed he might be from the latest trends and his revered home town, he still exudes a timeless cool that any style-conscious youth would die for.

The guitar, bass and drums of the Lower 9-11 Band are Dr. John’s foils, and it wouldn’t be too far fetched to assume that there’s 911 years of musical experience on stage together. Everyone of them knows every nook, every cranny of the rhythms and the melodies of the swamp, and perhaps that’s what’s the problem: Dr. John and the band seem bored, on autopilot, barely even there.

The show starts with One 2am Too Many, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Dr. John will be in bed by midnight at the latest. Compounding the musicians’ lack of energy is the low volume — a rudimentary stereo system could blast out something louder — and the microphones on stage that are bedevilled by technical hitches which repeatedly refuse to amplify Dr. John’s delightfully gnarled knot of a voice.

All that’s not to say there aren’t highlights: Reynard Poché’s slide guitar on St. James Infirmary is ridiculously slinky and adds something new to the standard, while Dr. John remains the consummate professional, the sound of Louisiana emanating effortlessly from the keys any time his hands touch them.

Nevertheless, Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 Band showcase tonight the pitfalls of an experienced hand. They’ve been around the block perhaps too many times, and the energy of a band on the make is keenly missed. The likes of the Dap-Kings and the Bamboos still celebrate the sounds of the past with vigour, and, unfortunately, the old stagers tonight are no match for the bands they’ve inspired, no matter how much more accomplished their veteran chops might be.

The Unexpected Properties of Circles

Let’s say a tennis ball has a diameter of 6 cms and a basketball a diameter of 46 cms.

Let’s also say a car tyre has a diameter of 60 cms and a monster truck tyre a diameter of 100 cms.

Now, the unexpected bit:

If we were to wrap a piece of string exactly once around the tennis ball, how much more string would we need to do the same thing around the basketball?

In the same way, if we were to wrap a piece of string exactly once around the car tyre, how much more string would we need to do the same thing around the monster truck tyre?

Believe it or not, in both cases it’s 40π cms, or approximately 126 cms!

Our intuition doesn’t like it, but even if you were to wrap a string around the Earth and then a second string around the Earth 20 cms higher than ground level (which  would increases the diameter of the circle formed by 40 cms), the difference in string length would still be 40π cms!

It feels deep in our bones like the increase in string length would be a whole lot more pronounced for the Earth-circling situation than the tyre-circling situation, yet it’s exactly the same, and here’s the maths that proves it:

Because c (circumference) = πd (diameter), whenever the radius increases by a length of x metres, the circumference will always be c = π(d + x) = πd + πx.

This means that when the diameter of a circle increases by a length of x centrimetres, the circumference is increased by πx centimetres — which is completely independent of the original circumference or radius of the circle in question!

And when we fill in the formula for the situations cited above, we’ve always got a πx cms = 40π cms ≈ 126 cms difference in circumference.