Thursday, 30 March 2006

John McGahern

John McGahern passed away in the Mater Hospital in Dublin today.

manibus date lilia plenis

Read this

Wednesday, 22 March 2006

Arthur Miller, Resurrection Blues dir. Altman (The Old Vic, London)

Arthur Miller's penultimate play, Resurrection Blues, is having its European premiere at the Old Vic in London. The stars have been assembled (James Fox, Neve Campbell, Matthew Modine...) and Robert Altman directs. It's a recipe not only for a hit but also for some great theatre. And yet one is left with a curious feeling of having fallen victim to a huge hoax. This play is so awful that I cannot believe that a) Miller (whom I love) wrote it, b) Altman (whom I love) directed it, or c) that any of the actors have ever stood on stage before. The whole thing really is that bad. It's clear that Miller is angry (Corporate America blah blah blah) but the anger has been diffused throughout all the characters so that it becomes a malaise; the humour is so misguided that there are moments in the play when one would think a panto was being performed.
The military dictator/leader of an unnamed South American country has sold the rights to broadcast the execution (a crucifixion) of a revolutionary by an American media corporation. The broadcast's director has scruples about what's being done and try to persuade the dictator not to go through with it. Meanwhile, the dictator's brother has returned from study exile (he was a pharmaceutical mogul) to plead for this revolutionary's case. The people of this country begin to believe this revolutionary is God. So the play is about how people are oppressed, how they believe, how Corporate America doesn't understand such things and only understands money, how people need faith, and lots more.
In a way that's exactly the problem. There are far too many strands in the play for it to gel together. The cast is so lacklustre (I cannot remember one single line from the play) and the direction so flawed that I shall wait some time before I go back to the Old Vic. The whole thing is such a pity.

Saturday, 18 March 2006

Olivia Holmes, Assembling the Lyric Self (U Minnesota Press, 2000)

Olivia Holmes makes a powerful argument that some early French and Italian manuscripts display highly wrought self-conscious impulses to arrange and gather verse into authorial cycles, an impulse we more often associate with much later traditions, such as Dante's Vita Nova and more famously Petrarch's Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. In this she is largely successful, and makes for a very enjoyable read (I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Nicolò de' Rossi).

My criticism should not really detract from what has been achieved in the book. The novelty of Holmes' approach is that the texts under discussion do not come from critical editions but from manuscripts, which has the effect of creating a peculiar alterityabout some familiar texts. This is much to be praised. She discusses some rather well-known manuscripts, such as Modena, Biblioteca Estense e Universitaria α. R. 4. 4., and Chigiano L. VIII. 305, to name but two. The reason for a paucity of descriptive accounts of the manuscript's construction and planning is that these MSS have been described elsewhere, and indeed exist in facsimile (such as Chig. L. V. 176, Boccaccio's autograph no less). However, I feel that since she relies so heavily on the particularity of these examples, the best way to reinforce her observations is by making her reader very very aware of its physical format. We need to know things like collation, ink, parchment, scripts: has the manuscript been put together over a period of time or does it look like it was produced in one coherent block? What evidence is there of ownership? How many scribes worked on it? Do they look professional? How formal is the manuscript? What does its format suggest about the book's use? In sum, it is not enough just to cite from manuscripts, but you've got to give a voice to the physical manuscript itself to really appreciate all that manuscripts have to offer.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Sunday, 12 March 2006

Cormac Millar, The Grounds (Penguin, 2006)

First of all, I feel it is only fair to say that I know Cormac Millar. He teaches Italian, as Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, at Trinity College Dublin, where, for his sins, he taught me. He is a man of uncommon erudition, of intellectual humanism, and wicked generous wit. I say this because these are attributes that glitter and coruscate throughout The Grounds, his second novel. Millar has certainly raised his game from the first - very enjoyable - novel, An Irish Solution (Penguin, 2005), and the prose has levelled off at a cruising altitude that is both satisfying and challenging. The book just sparkles, it really does; this short review can not do justice to this complex and exciting work.

Séamus Joyce returns to his alma mater, King's College Dublin, to report back to an American university consortium on its suitability for investment. The academics, for a host of different reasons, all look on Joyce with suspicion and alarm. Things get sticky when the college president is found murdered and it looks like he himself is being framed for the delitto. What does it have to do with the painful and seemingly pointless changes being proposed for the venerable institution? And what has happened to a senior historian, whose research assistant's body was found washed up? Can all these deaths be related? But how? We meet a host of academic types who all expend vast energy sniping at each other in a wildy enjoyable manner. There is a property developer who has virtually bought the campus and is busily building apartments everywhere, and there is Séamus's ex-girlfriend, now a junior academic at King's, who is behaving oddly and doesn't have a permanent job! All is not as it appears, even at second glance, at King's College.

Cormac Millar's mother was the distinguished Irish writer Eilís Dillon, and the mise-en-scène of The Grounds is drawn from her 1956 novel Death in the Quadrangle (Faber). As such we are dealing with no ordinary crime novel, but rather a complex, intertextual and extratextual, literary work. This dimension only adds to the internal literary complexity of the book. And of course while the author assures us in a note at the end of the novel that this is not a roman à clef, one cannot resist wondering just how resonant it is with current business plans to keep Trinity College floating with its head just above water. Humanism does not fit well into business plans, it doesn't have a heading of its own, it cannot be poked and prodded, and it cannot be patented. It just won't do.

Sit back and enjoy this funny and clever novel from a powerful new voice in Irish crime fiction. You won't regret it.

Saturday, 11 March 2006

Caitríona O'Reilly, The Nowhere Birds (Bloodaxe, 2001)

The Nowhere Birds is O'Reilly's début collection of poetry and is very impressive. Since I have a small pint glass of daffodils on my desk right now, I'm going to reproduce her poem from this collection called 'Daffodils', which I think will give you a sense of these sensual, and unsettling, poems:

They bring this hint of something startled in them -
the dreadful earliness of their petals
against dead earth, the extremity of their faces
suggesting a violent start -
dumb skulls opening, overnight, to vehemence.
Their lives are quicker than vision,
their voices evade us. And as
water tightens its surface in vases
and sharpens its glass, slicing their sticks
in half, these funnels clatter on their bent necks,
like bells for the already dead.

Tuesday, 7 March 2006


Good films don't get watched. I suppose it is just that simple. But apparently the Oscars are to be considered a flop this year, with one of the lowest ratings in 20 years. Sigh. The films, pundits say, were too highbrow, and nobody had seen them.

Too highbrow. Sigh. Why is everybody so stupid? Or rather, why are most people so stupid? I am disgusted and nauseated by this.

Sunday, 5 March 2006

Astell on Job, reviewed by Lerer

It is a commonplace that academics are embittered jealous failed creative types who eventually succumb to drink or some other such self-destructive behaviour, and who rarely have anything positive to say about fellow academics. Reading reviews can often give one a glimpse of these tendencies, side swipes here and there, footnotes that are less composed to convey information but are meant as a glove used to smack one on the face.
But it was with joy that I read Seth Lerer's review of Ann Astell's book Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth (Cornell UP, 1994) published in Speculum 70 (1995), 869-871. The review opens: 'This is a book of literary criticism; but it is, as well, a testament of faith.' He goes on to look at Astell's treatment of the medieval reception of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, pointing out the very stimulating aspects of the study; pointing out too, its deficiencies, where it elides certain problems of textual transmission. He ends the review with an extraordinary, generous, and magnanimous recommendation that could only be produced by a mind capable of breadth, embrace, and art:
'In spite of these criticism, or perhaps because of them, this is a book that I have come to admire with each rereading. It is a rarity in academic criticism: a study of great learning and great belief, whose arguments are voiced without the slightest tinge of pedantry or condescension. It illustrates a way of reading literature as a spiritual humanist; and if its deep faith in a higher truth seems out of step with current institutional uncertainty, then at the very least it should refresh the reader with the courage of its critical convictions.'

Thursday, 2 March 2006

World Book Day 2006

Today is World Book Day. Go out and buy someone your favourite book.

It makes a difference.

Wednesday, 1 March 2006

Capote, dir. Bennett Miller (2005)

Capote is the story of the circumstances of Truman Capote's writing of In Cold Blood. Capote reads a short column in the New York Timesof the mysterious killing of a family in Kansas and becomes fascinated. He goes with his friend and research assistant, Harper Lee, to the town of Halcomb and and is profoundly moved by the experience. He follows the trial and befriends the killers, especially one, Perry Smith. The book Capote wants to write is a new kind of book, a fictional work based on true events, the non-fiction novel.

The killers' resistance of the death penalty and Truman Capote's desire to finish the book are represented in the film as opposing each other, and the tension that arises from that is very interesting. He wants to help them, finding them a lawyer for appeals etc, but he wants to write the end of his book. This end that he desires must result in their execution, and when it does happen it shocks him deeply. His self-obsession is clear at the beginning of the film, but the book grows into a destructive obsession that almost transcends his own enormous ego. He confronts questions of honesty and truth, and how the process of creating must incorporate these. It's a challenging film, in many ways.

While the direction is not always as artistically assured as it could be, Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives nothing short of a masterclass in acting in this film. He is just extraordinary. You are utterly convinced and moved by his remarkable performance and for it alone this film is a must see.


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