Monday, June 18, 2012

French Tales, ed. and translated by Helen Constantine

This book and I have a lot of prior history.   My dad, after my suggestion, bought me Paris Tales, which preceded this collection.  In my French short story course for my BA, the last French course I ever took (sadly), we read several of the authors in this collection, including Colette and Maupassant, and even read the final story in this collection, Prosper Merimée’s “Mateo Falcone.”  I remembered having enjoyed Paris Tales a lot, but when I went back and read my review, it seemed I wasn’t so keen at the time, due to the tones having much the same tone and a sort of postmodern lack of “story” in the short story.  However, I found no such limitation with this collection of twenty-two short stories from twenty-two regions of France, chosen and translated by poet Constantine.  

There is a wide range here in tone, genre, and historical context, ranging from the 19th century to the contemporary.  There are quite a few humorous stories and travelogues, sometimes interweaving.  “Travel, as is often said, broadens the mind; when you travel you meet people, you observe, compare, make connections, you learn—and if you are writer, you may write a poem or a play, a story or a novel about it.” 
My favorite stories were Annie Saumont’s “You Should Have Changed at Dol” (Bretagne), Maupassant’s “A Mother’s Tale” (Auvergne), Anne-Marie Garat’s “We Can’t Go On Like This” (Aquitaine), and Alphonse Daudet’s “The Pope’s Mule” (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur).  (It was fun to discover that Daudet, of whom I’d heard but never read, was an amusing, charming author.)  Colette’s “Where Are the Children?” (Bourgogne) moved me as well, and I thought “Julie” by Jacques Chardonne (Poitou-Charentes) was very well-written.  “Rue d’Évangile” by Marcel Aymé was a haunting story set in a bygone Paris, following the fortunes of penniless Arab Abdel who lives in a greatcoat and sleeps on three steps.  Unfortunately, much of the power of the tale hinged on the misogynistic portrayal of the café owner’s wife; likewise, “Julie” was marred somewhat by its misogyny.  “The Pope’s Mule” was a very funny tale about the Avignon popes (also known as the period of Babylonian captivity).

Part of the enjoyment in reading this collection comes from recognizing places I’ve been; Maupassant’s description of Lake Pavin in the Auvergne reminded me of the lakes in Annecy. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Batman: Eye of the Beholder

Batman:  Eye of the Beholder is by Tony S. Daniel, who takes us further along into canon storyline to a time when Gotham has two Batmans, the original (ie, Bruce Wayne) and Dick Grayson, the original Robin, is a second Batman (why isn’t he Nightwing?), and now Robin is Damian Wayne, presumably Bruce’s son?  Anyway, to completely understand is not necessary.  It all goes down quite smoothly with the recent Catwoman volumes, where Selina has semi-retired.  However, it’s all about the second (or third?) generations in Eye of the Beholder, where there’s a Catgirl (complete with pink boots) and the Riddler’s daughter, codenamed Enigma.  Is it all a bit too much to take in?  Perhaps, but that doesn’t stop the art, by Tony S. Daniel, Sandu Florea, and Ryan Winn, from being spectacular.  A new disguised character named Peacock makes a brief appearance, along with her mute brother who takes a cue from L in Death Note.   
Pieces, also in this volume, is written by Daniel and inked by Steve Scott.  It’s a tale of Two Face returning to Gotham after an absence and the mysterious presence and motives of Gilda, who you may recall from titles such as Dark Victory.  It’s a twisty-turn-y mystery that doesn’t end well for anyone. 

The Android Invasion

8/6/12 “The Android Invasion”
Styggron: “It will be a most unpleasant death.” 
The Doctor:  “We shall see.”

I keep going over this in my head, trying to reconcile what I think are quite interesting fake-out ideas with the feeling of being underwhelmed which is foremost in my mind.  As a non-Dalek Terry Nation story, it’s a lot better than many of his Dalek stories.  However, following a general trend of the 1970s Doctor Who, it’s obsessed with robots (which to me are usually quite boring) and is saturated in Nation’s motif of radiation poisoning.  It’s not Sarah’s best story, either; she has her moments, but these are obliterated by a ridiculous amount of falling over (“a twisted ankle can be excruciating,” as Lord Rupert says in The 10th Kingdom).  Cut down into a three-parter, I might well have recommended this more highly.

The strength of the story is surely the location filming in the village of “Devesham,” which looks quite a bit like Rushden in Hertfordshire (then I imagine it looks like villages in many counties of England).  However, this is also a double-edged sword.  Another 1970s motif is one recognizable in “The Daemons” and horror films of the era:  namely, exchanging urban and alien sites of doom for the eerie, isolated, claustrophobic and atmospheric English village.  In short, though it’s done well, it also feels like it’s been done a million times before.  In its defense, however, it hadn’t been done quite like this before, and as I said, the fake-out at the bottom of the story is a considerable one.  The Doctor drinking “ginger pop” as he and Sarah Jane exit the TARDIS into what appears to be Earth (after a thundershower!) is an Important Plot Point.  We learn that “acorn tress don’t grow anywhere else in the galaxy.”  Sarah is wearing a rather cute, mostly practical pink outfit with sailor collar, baggy flares, and patterned, textured, chunky heels and striped socks!  They are stopped in their frolic by helmeted Autons (well, they have guns in their hands like Autons) who surely must have inspired the Slabs in “Smith and Jones.” 

Running around the village and its environs, Sarah takes the opportunity to fall down a gentle incline in an even more wince-inducing moment than in “The Five Doctors.”  (Perhaps Terrance Dicks wrote that fall with this one in mind?)  This hitch causes the Doctor and Sarah to see a UNIT soldier apparently acting very strangely and then falling off a cliff.  He is “dead,” and rather unusually, they go through his pockets.  Currency doesn’t often take center stage in Doctor Who, but the Doctor and Sarah notice that the soldier’s pockets are full of freshly minted coins (though of what year, we do not know; UNIT dating continues to elude us).  “Let’s try the pub,” the Doctor says after they find the village deserted.  Thus follows probably the most effective sequence in this story, as they explore the empty pub, which the Doctor compares to the Mary Celeste.  (Though not as “stuck in time” as the Dennis Severs House.)  Sarah has recognized where they are because she previously did a journalistic stint at Devesham due to its proximity to the Space Defence Station.  The Doctor and Sarah end up hiding as people (who we know are androids copies) file into the pub with apparent detachment.  As the clock strikes noon, they come to “life.”  (Though, to be honest, why would this array of people be in the pub at noon?  Unless drinking habits were quite different in 1975!)

When they are discovered, the Doctor and Sarah escape.  “I’m sure you shouldn’t be drinking so soon after breaking your neck,” the Doctor quips to the soldier who is, despite all appearances, alive and well and has joined them in the pub.  When Sarah puts the key in the lock, the TARDIS dematerializes.  I felt sure this would be an episode ending.  However, it wasn’t, and this whole development was never successfully explained to me.  The android “pods,” one of which is next to where the TARDIS was, are terrible props.  The Doctor makes his way toward the Space Defence Station, which is again a terrible example of 1970s architecture.  A surprising number of action sequences follow as the Doctor is rescued by Sarah from a detention cell.  Odd things are definitely going on, given that soldiers are unresponsive, the Brigadier is missing (“in Geneva”), an anorexic guy in an eyepatch is shouting around, and an alien face peers at Sarah, without her noticing.

The guy in the eyepatch is Guy Crayford, whom Sarah recognizes as a missing, presumed dead astronaut on the XK5 space mission, and it seems he is contact with some aliens (who resemble pigs or rhinos, and their base is very similar to the dank one of the Zygons).  He recognized the Doctor and determined that he and Sarah “are externals.”  This doesn’t seem to worry Crayford et al very much.  As the Doctor and Sarah, in ignorance of all us, run around the village, Sarah has another fall.  I didn’t realize John Levene and Ian Marter had cameos in this story, playing themselves and their android doubles.  Androids with dogs (!) pursue Sarah (who is told to “climb into a tree” by the Doctor!) and the Doctor, who strips down and jumps in the river.  Sarah gets captured, however, and taken into the base of the Kraals.  Her mind gets grilled, and I say “enough” to the disco lights.  The Doctor is back in the pub, investigating while under the wary eye of the deadpan landlord (who keeps giving the Doctor pints of ginger beer).  Who knew the Doctor is good at darts?  He also notices that the calendar gives the same day, July 6, into eternity.  “A village without a future.”   The Doctor receives a phone call from Sarah, who says she has managed to escape and to meet her in the village store.  While there, the Sarah-android makes the mistake of accepting ginger beer from the Doctor, when earlier the real Sarah says she doesn’t like it.  However, even her android is good at falling over.  In one of the more memorable episode endings of the Fourth Doctor’s era (supposedly), the android’s face falls off.  Yet, all this looks incredibly stylized and not likely to scare or surprise anyone.

The Doctor learns in the next episode that Crayford was rescued and reconstructed by the Kraals, and that their home planet will soon be uninhabitable, hence this grand scheme.  Styggron, the Kraal scientist whose brilliance has impressed Crayford, is answerable to General Chedaki. Styggron has the cold intellect of a scientist, however, and wants to kill the Doctor and Sarah before they take the scheme to Earth.  “Why, Styggron, there is no need,” says Crayford.  “You are squeamish.”  Styggron grants Crayford his whim, though in a Shakespearean aside, Styggron says that he will kill Crayford once his usefulness runs out.  Crayford, feeling a mighty need to explain himself to Sarah and the Doctor, visits them in their cell.  “Why should a race with such skills be allowed to die?” The Doctor agrees up to a point, but notes that Crayford has been in denial about whether the Kraals are really going to let humans live and share resources.  Crayford could be an interesting case; like Steven Taylor, he’s an astronaut who’s been separated from his own species for years.  Psychologically speaking, he should have some real issues.  Perhaps his big exposition-fest is an element of that, though if I’m honest, it feels more like a plot necessity.

The Doctor has given Sarah quick tutelage in how to electrocute a robot, and in doing so, has helped save her life twice over.  Styggron has put a deadly virus (apparently only so to humans, and apparently only by ingestion) into the water of the prisoners’ rations, and Sarah was going to drink it, until the Doctor reminded her that “water is an excellent conductor.”  She was then able to rig up a wiring explosion that allowed her to escape—quite a heroic effort.  Styggron did not realize that she had escaped, however, and had the Doctor placed in the hot seat, so to speak, so that his mind could be troweled.  The Doctor relies upon Sarah to rescue him, which she did.  The two are able to stow away on the ship as it heads for Earth, following in the wake of Crayford’s XK5 returning as the conquering hero.  To survive the “g-force” of re-entry, the Doctor puts Sarah into a pod and himself gets pushed to the floor—no more.  “I hate sarcasm, especially when I’m dying,” says Sarah.

The two land on Earth, but unfortunately they are not alone, their doubles have followed them.  The next episode is a somewhat tedious one, where the tiny control room for the UNIT base is a pale imitation of the ones we’ve come to expect in films like Apollo 13.  Nevertheless, I expect the BBC was doing their best.  The Doctor’s double almost succeeds, but the Doctor neutralizes him.  Styggron falls on top of his own virus which somehow turns into green pesto and kills him (?).  Crayford dies in disillusionment, and at the end, the Doctor and Sarah go on their merry and carefree way.           

As I alluded to before, the grand fake-out of this piece is quite good.  It isn’t often we get dropped into the “test run” for an alien invasion of Earth, and it makes a unique starting point, whose ending is the test put into practice.  It is a bit sad, really, that the Kraals’ obvious designing/scientific brilliance is wasted on such an elaborate scheme which, as the Doctor says, is doomed to failure. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012


I was reading Necropolis on the National Express,
counting the hours to Victoria and measuring success
by the bleeps of a phone.  Asked
and found in a shopping mall, awkward until
our hands touched, in rain-sheen, still,
on buses and the hill.  The public space
of the Tube lit up as if by fire or starlight;
furtive, beautiful kisses on a hot night.
A massive sheet of grass where glass faces
once stood, hiding in the bushes like adolescents,
frozen-armed and all-ablaze, lost in his scent;
Greenwich, TV, drunk with love, no privacy.
Museums, walks, bookstores, endless cups of tea.
Until it had to end, in hail, a rainbow—
where I would be, forgotten on the kerb:
this monster city, don’t disturb. 
You know?
Idealization in the pain:  it only goes to show. 

This poem was written almost four years ago, and the sentiments of bitterness and regret over a lost relationship no longer hold true.  Fortunately for me, the heartbreak in it turned to true love! 

But enough about me.  I’ve come back to this because I acquired the book Necropolis:  London and Its Dead from work as a giveaway and have since picked up where I left off, never having finished the book in 2008.  It happened that the book was quite topical, given that I visited Kensal Green Cemetery last weekend, with plans to see the other “big six” Victorian London cemeteries later in the summer. 

What can I say?  I like history, I like the macabre, and one reason I love living in London is that the history is thickly layered nearly everywhere.  As I remarked, there is almost nowhere in the urban center that was not a cemetery or burial ground at some point, including the very area in which we live.  It makes the London Walks on Halloween all the more fitting, yet somehow it comforts me, for if I haven’t been haunted yet, it seems unlikely that I will. 

Visiting graveyards as a touristic proposal has some struck some as weird; I would think it unpleasant myself if they had remained the boneyards of the early 19th century.  However, the classical London cemeteries we have today, if a little neglected, are nevertheless pleasant to stroll through in the same way Père Lachaise was designed to be a resting place for the dead and a green space for the living.  While you are not confronted with visceral death in the same way that you are in the catacombs of Paris, walking through them is a somewhat sobering experience, especially when you start to realize the vastness of the ever-expanding Kensal Green. 

London’s burial history in Necropolis begins with the “Celtic Golgotha” of the 70,000 Romans killed by Boudicca’s army in her spree of vengeance, buried around the Thames near Battersea.  Then we speed forward to the 4th century C.E., to the Spitalfields Woman, whose coffin revealed “the skeleton of a young woman, perfectly preserved, lying on a pillow of bay leaves and wrapped in an elaborate robe of Chinese silk, decorated with gold thread from Syria.”  And I have a personal connection to the Spitalfields Woman as well, as her coffin and reconstructed face, residing in the Museum of London, inspired me in 2007 to write,

It’s a stripping away:
of skin and flesh, sinew and artery, capillary,
nerve endings, knee cap and gland;
each a new way to keep you
from me.  Soon there will be bone
and nothing left to string
it together, not a tender tendon,
not a ligament of promise or hope.
Only magic and insanity
to keep the skeleton functioning,
carving out a semblance
of a human being, like a chalk
figure carved on a cave wall. 
By then there will be no lips
left to kiss, no fingernails,
no breasts, not even a heart
pumping blood.  Only sheer force
of will.  Only you
can bring back the bits,
mold me like an anatomist’s clay,
taking shape like the reconstructed
face of the prehistoric Spitalfields woman
in the museum. 
(I fudged a little when I called her prehistoric!)

In the chapter called “Danse Macabre,” our attitudes toward death and burial are contrasted with those of the medieval Londoner, whose response to the Plague was best described in Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund; I feel I’m covering similar ground to that described of medieval France in Metrostop Paris:  History from the City’s Heart.  For the people of the Middle Ages, being buried close to or within the church building was the ultimate[1].  “Builders demolishing the remains of the Blackfriars monastery after the Great Fire of London discovered four heads, in pewter pots, in a wall.  The heads, which were embalmed, had tonsured hair.”   

London survived another Plague, described in great detail by the likes of Daniel Defoe and Samuel Pepys, and the Great Fire of London, in the 17th century.  By the 18th century, Catharine Arnold argues, attitudes toward death and funerals had changed, in part due to a rising middle class (it’s always the rise of the middle class).  The craze for mausolea, “such as Vanbrugh’s for Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which made such a terrific impression on the gothic novelist Horace Walpole that he observed it ‘would tempt one to be buried alive!’” 

After this, things definitely went downhill.  No one seemed to want to make any burial fields outside of churches or, moreover, outside of London.  Conditions grew appalling in the inner city.  As reformer George Alfred Walker remarked, “The soil of this ground [Portugal Street] is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence . . . The living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated with the odor of the dead.”  Yet people seemed reluctant to act.  Arnold posits that the conditions of the living poor were so bad, the conditions of the dead were but an extension of their “miserable” lives.  This makes sense up to a point, as much of the underhand dealing, personified in the Enon Chapel scandal, was kept hidden from the “great and good.”  However, the whole phenomena just seems incredible from a modern perspective.  Enon Chapel, by the way, was a space measuring 59 feet x 12, where around 12,000 bodies were crammed at 15 shillings a time. (All of this in direct contrast to the city’s Jewish cemeteries, which were by Judaic law kept to a certain size and then “remaining undisturbed.”) “One explanation as to why families had permitted their dearly beloved to be consigned to such a hell-hole was the lingering fear of body snatchers.”  It took another epidemic, this time of cholera, whose effects were recently demonstrated to me during an exhibition at the Wellcome Centre, to shake people out of their complacency. 

It’s now the 1830s, and Kensal Green, that first great pioneer, has been designed and is about to become the fashionable burial ground.  Even today, its mixture of Gothic and Classical styles (as well as modern, which include blue and green glass from the 1960s, photo tombstones, and huge extravagances in black marble) is a quirky selling point.  There are impressive mausolea; weirdly beautiful Gothic spires; towering Egyptian obelisks and tombs; yet Arnold seems to prefer Highgate.  Most people do.  From the creation of much healthier cemeteries, there seemed to give rise to the elaborate Victorian funeral and the Good Death, not helped by Queen Victoria’s excessive response to Albert’s death.  A long battle was fought in England to allow the use of crematoria, though eventually people began to see how sensible this option could be; Arnold cites the example of the desecration by French revolutionaries to the Bourbon vaults as turning public opinion away from interment.  The public response to Diana, Princess of Wales’ death is seen as a throwback to a Victorian desire for pageantry. 

The final chapter focuses on the 20th century and how world wars have irrevocably changed our attitudes toward death and burial, particularly WWI and the invention of the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Though we get saturated in the discussion of such things, I still found descriptions of ordinary Londoners’ courage during the Blitz to be quite inspiring. 

Necropolis, with all its emphasis on the rotting physical body after death, is also a book about life.  It describes how the living must live with death and somehow provide a sanitary and hygienic way to do so.  Also, it is a celebration of a wide parade of people, from Radclyffe Hall to the Chevalier d’Eon, from the 5th Duke of Portland to visionary John Claudius Loudon, from Christina Davis to reforming writer Mrs Isabella Holmes, from Jeremy Bentham to Martin Van Butchell.  Passing St Pancras often, it is interesting to note that it was once known as “Catholic Pancras” because it was a particularly popular burial ground for Roman Catholics.  And so we come full circle, to where echoes of the past are always with us, whether we realize it or not. 

[1] Interestingly, I wrote a poem fragment, “Winchester Cathedral,” after watching a program about the cathedral on TV.  In the 19th century, excavations needed to be done in the submerged crypt, which had remained sealed since the 14th century, and real fears existed about catching Plague from the ancient contagion.  This was published in Handshake 78.