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Alex Carnevale
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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in alex carnevale (164)

Thursday
May302013

In Which We Are Still Abandoned On Alphanor

Lurulu

by ALEX CARNEVALE

We think of Milton blindly dictating his version of familiar events. Or Helen Keller, feeling through the pages of an autobiography she could never truly experience except through touch. It must have been more difficult for Jack Vance, the man who invented the genre of fantasy as we know it, to lose his own sight.

Vance is no longer among us. Before his passing this week, he was nearly completely blind. When he began his writing career, he could see. Vance served and saw the world as a member of the Merchant Marines, and his early works betray that sensibility, although the locations and places they describe resemble those of Earth only in their underlying approach.

 His first efforts in the genre were straightforward science fiction with an urbane, heroic protagonist and usually a romance along the way. Today writing a story that deals with any element of the fantastic merely involves rehashing some old theme and giving it a new twist. There is little true originality in the field. When Vance began his career, there existed no Dungeons & Dragons (much of what became the franchise was essentially taken from Vance's series The Dying Earth), there existed no Tolkien-esque template derived from an academic background in mythology. Fantasy writing had no hold or status even as part of a niche.

Science fiction too was merely in its infancy, still trodding through the now stale stories of Asimov and his predictable peers. For Vance to write such fantastic tales took a mind of almost unlimited imagination. His early books like The Five Gold Bands are mere imitations of the pages of such traditional science fiction magazines. To be successful as a writer (and you could survive writing for the magazines alone during this period) making your work saleable was the prime concern. Editors were steeped in a certain iteration of the genre not because they could not recognize good writing, but because they knew their audience.

Reading Vance's first efforts today shows only an inkling of what was to come. It was with his novella The Dragon Masters that Vance first showed his command of dialogue and setting, the two aspects of genre writing where he not only exceeded the work of his peers, but went beyond any of the fiction of the period. Finding a good satirist in a morbid and depressing time is incredibly difficult, but that is what makes it so essential.

Reading the massively entertaining tribute volume to Vance released in 2009, Songs of the Dying Earth, you can get a decent enough sense of the man's style. Vance is great fun to imitate. Many of our finest writers can boast of a prose style that approaches poetry, but Vance's vocabulary was almost unlimited in scope. It is only one of the ways in which he outdoes his spiritual progenitor, Jonathan Swift.

If Vance could not find the right word for something in English, he merely redefined it or invented it. Many of his most memorable concepts were both new to the world of science fiction and new to the universe at large. Yet is Vance's places which are the most sublime. Vance is better than an anthropologist; he describes cultures that never existed as if they were surviving and thriving. And the food! Who could ever forget chatowsies, ahagaree or pourrain?

Jack's characters were sometimes criticized for being too stale or formulaic. If that is true than I can't think of a reason why I remember them all individually, even think of some of their decisions or sayings whenever I close my own eyes. For Vance, character was all about what you did, but that also included what you said and whether you actually lived up to it. Plenty of people in Vance's worlds spoke of certain positive things, like ending poverty or disease, or freeing the enslaved, but he left serious redoubt as to whether or not these individuals (1) were telling the truth or (2) had the same idea of enslavement as you or me.

In what follows I will explain the importance of each of Vance's varied novels, but these past years I kept returning to his last novels, the two-book collection consisting of the masterful Ports of Call and Lurulu. Ostensibly comic novels set in space, like almost all of Vance's work they picaresque jaunts into a familiar universe.

It seemed crucial that Vance explore it one final time, in the guise of interplanetary traders looking for the coda containing their own peace and happiness, called lurulu. It was essential to the story that this kind of lifelong achievement was completely reflective of the individual, and all of the protagonists were allowed their own kind of happiness, in their own way.

I could not help but think of Vance himself then, as I am sure he intended. His novels are wholly unautobiographical, taking place as they do in worlds so unlike our own, but the idea of him finding his own bliss had never occurred to me, since I was only concerned about how his novels brought me closer to mine. We are all selfish, Vance tells us, but that's all right.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. His Reader's Guide to the Novels of Jack Vance appears below. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about James Agee.


Reader's Guide to the Novels of Jack Vance (Don't Argue)

The Dying Earth

The early volumes of The Dying Earth are old now, and the style is quite ancient, even for Vance. Still, his typical humor is on display, particularly in the wizard novella Rhialto the Marvellous, the type of conventional fantasy subject matter he rarely focused on. For our modern purposes, he did not really get going until his classic Don Quixote sendup in three short novels: The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel the Clever and Cugel's Saga. Although decades elapsed before his last story with his comic fop, Cugel's tales are not just comedies, because around the humor lives a merciless and unforgivingly familiar world. Gotta read these every year.

Maske: Thaery

It took me some time to warm up to this story, but once I was able to see it for what it really was - that is, one of the best secret agent novels in a field crammed with mediocre ones - I was able to enjoy it. Horrendous title though.

The Demon Princes

Penned in the mid-60s, The Demon Princes is basically a proto-Kill Bill that involves protagonist Kirth Gersen hunting the men who killed his family. The single-mindedness of the five short novels that comprise the series is what gives them their charm. Gersen's methods and travails are both funny and moving, and the consideration of karmic revenge at hand actually turns this kind of behavior into a genuinely interesting intellectual topic instead of simply a vacuum for explosions and violence. The best of the books, with its extended musings on one of Vance's favorite topics, social class, is clearly The Face, and anyone who argues is mad. Collected together, this is the most fun you can have without a vibrator.

The Cadwal Chronicles

Possibly my favorite of Vance's books, the Cadwal Chronicles — Araminta Station, Ecce and Old Earth, and Throy are definitely not for beginners either. They are quite pedantic and overlong in parts, but this is simply another aspect of their charm. Vance made a habit of taking up subjects that other authors would not touch. Here he considers the topic of preserving a planet's natural environment, and the complications that ensue when well-meaning people stifle the tide of progress. To turn that into a hilarious comedy is quite the feat indeed. The motivations at play are quite mature for Vance, and the love story is his very best.

The Languages of Pao

Vance obviously loved playing around with language, and he was deeply interested in how changing what something was called affected the surrounding culture. At first I was a little cold on this dystopic story, but I later appreciated the ideas in it a lot more. Unlike most of Vance's work, it has little to no romance in it, and a limited set of characters and situations. Still, it's a fascinating treatise.

Alastor

Vance's three novels set in the Alastor universe don't really connect in any obvious way. The second, Marune, is one of Vance's least compelling narratives, taking up as it does the familiar cliche of a character who does not remember his past. Trullion in contrast is regarded as one of Vance's most famous works. It is a brilliant mystery with many exciting revelations, and the culture it presents is both behind and ahead of its time. It is the source of Vance's famous fictional sport hussade, which I still need to play. The last novel in the series, Wyst, is basically Vance dabbling in the idea of a monoculture and it's a great adventure novel too.

Durdane

Vance's Durdane trilogy (The Anome, The Brave Free Men,  and The Asutra) is often overlooked. I don't want to say it is for good reason, since they are very good, but something was missing here. I think the problem is in the characters. It's hard to really identify with the heroes' struggle, and the surrounding world-building is a bit confusing at times. The aliens themselves are also not Vance's best. Still I've probably reread these books as much as anything except for The Eyes of the Overworld.

The Gray Prince

Vance disdained ideology. His attack on identity politics is contained in this slim novel, which concerns a world in which the status of a group of autochthons is very much in doubt. The Gray Prince was also his comment on the significance of national borders (and by extension the plight of Israel), and as such, deserves to be made a part of every single international relations course offered. It's also a thriller of sorts that considers ideas like racism and poverty in a way accessible to those who might not normally be intrigued by them.

Showboat World

Vance's comic novel of a world in which the only true life consists of stage shows traveling up and down rivers is a bit slight compared to his other works, but it's great fun nonetheless. His love for the theater pops up all over his oeuvre.

Planet of Adventure  

Very misunderstood. In the guise of an adventure novel Vance placed the story of Adam Reith, a strange from Earth who crash lands on a savage planet called Tschai, where four different alien races conflict with humans in various way. Planet of Adventure is first and foremost Vance's funniest novel, but within that comic stricture are overarching themes not really approached by other authors. The best of the four sections is of course, The Dirdir, which finds Reith and his compatriots murdering the lion-men Dirdir in their own hunting grounds in order to collect sequins from their evil victims. Not all of Vance's work is so clearly conducive to cinematic adaptation, but given all the other junk that is being adapted into film and television, you would have to think someone would take a serious look at this eventually. A masterpiece.

Lyonesse

Vance clearly labored on this extremely long fantasy saga, and the only text available contains a number of contradictions and errors. The three books — Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc — are sort of all over the place at times. They contain, however, the best of Vance's serious writing, and the unexpected shock death in the first novel basically ensured Ned Stark would die much much later on. The female characters here simply shine. Lyonnesse is definitely flawed and not for those new to Vance; however, its depiction of war, slavery and politics in the Elder Isles is so impressively detailed, with the characters so remarkably themselves, that is is worth coming back to once you get the hang of JV.

To Live Forever

One of Vance's early novels, the very idea of a character named Gavin Waylock is enough to recommend it. A dystopian novel that asks whether or not life extension is maybe not the best idea for a free society.

The Blue World

I guess they just stole Waterworld from this? Not sure how that works. The idea of a planet without land and what the people would do who lived on it is here not simply fodder for Dennis Hopper's coke-fueled monologues. A great adventure novel with a relentless and scintillating atmosphere that really deserves more attention.

Big Planet

It is seriously astonishing that this was written in the 1950s, because at this time nothing on its scope or theme had ever been accomplished in fiction. The atmosphere that surrounds the characters here is arguably more important the events or people themselves. In this way Vance posited one possible direction for fiction, in which the real events to take notice of occurred in the minds of the reader long after those described in the novel had finished. In short, a perpetual process of world-building.

Night Lamp

Vance's later novels were clearly hampered by the fact that they had to be dictated. At times, some of them seem a little distracted, and have trouble correctly revisiting themes or places in the same manner as the old Vance. Night Lamp suffers from this kind of inconsistency in character and plot, and its world is maybe not as impressively detailed as some of Vance's other novels in that vein. Still, no one ever gets tired of the war against slavery, and the cultural notes at play here generate an amazing travelogue.

The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph

The ideal introduction to Vance's satire comes in this slim volume of detective stories. In some ways, Ridolph's ungainly form is a loathsome sight for both his friends and adversaries; in others he is a conveyer of justice unlike any other. Here Vance is reduced to the simple mysteries he found in everything, and the work shines.

Thursday
May092013

In Which We Pretend To Take James Agee Seriously

All Sides

by ALEX CARNEVALE

James Agee read Ulysses in the summer of 1933. He almost immediately abandoned a writing project that had consumed him for the previous three years. "Joyce I think sees all sides and present them more consistently, clearly, and simultaneously than even Shakespeare," he cooed in wonderment.

with Alma and Delmore Schwartz

In the wake of Ulysses, a humbled Agee focused on his journalism.

He had failed at putting together an epic poem titled John Carter, so he immediately went to Tennessee on assignment, interviewed some poor people, and began writing a story about them. This was routine in those days, it was basically one of the twelve steps. After the story appeared his boss, Fortune editor Henry Luce, told him to go to Harvard Business School.

Alma

Agee did not go, but Joyce was still left behind. He read Ulysses again and then once more before never touching it again, holding it at bay like someone staring at the sun. He described his work at Fortune like this: "It varies with me from a sort of hard masochistic liking to direct nausea at the sight of this symbol $, and this % and this biggest and this some blank - billion...But in the long run, I suspect the fault, dear Fortune, is in me: that I hate any job on earth, as a job and hindrance and semi-suicide."

He did consider taking his own life, sometimes standing on the sill of a skyscraper, looking over at whatever it was that lay below. The temptation was there, how could it not be?

Agee then began Proust, for he felt it was now time. It did not take. "He is very clearly one of the greatest people I've read any of," he wrote his friend. "But I shan't read him now. Even the little I've read convinces me that once you got going in him he wd absorb your mind and thinking for months or even a few years. Which is not at all good when you feel somewhere near ready to write." Instead he read Interpretation of Dreams and some Dashiell Hammett mysteries to pass the time.

The Fortune article that would begin his work on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was suggested by editor Ralph Ingersoll. Agee accepted the time away from New York gratefully. He could not decide between two women, so went on with both, or wandered Greenwich Village's jazz clubs.

The manuscript he began writing, when I first read it in college, seemed appropriately serious. Poverty is the one subject about which it is useless to joke, but Agee seemed to turn that notion itself on his head. Rereading the book now, I realize I was entirely mistaken - Agee was completely serious as he waxed poetic about rural life. It is disappointing how much he misunderstood Ulysses.


Agee's writing at the time remained too lyrical for his subjects. They could not live up to his ideas about them. The writing pretended not to take itself entirely seriously, but the reality was that the author was never constance of the distance between himself and his subjects. This was his interpretation of Joyce, a way of asking how to be. His idol/peer called out in anguish, and Agee only heard part of the cry.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about Jane Campion's Top of the Lake.

"Let It Be Me (live)" - Nina Simone (mp3)

"Single Woman" - Nina Simone (mp3)

Thursday
Apr182013

In Which We Cure Something Wrong With Us

Marie and her daughters

Desolation and Despair

by ALEX CARNEVALE

My courage fails me and I think I ought to stop working, live in the country and devote myself to gardening. But I am held by a thousand bonds. Nor do I know whether, even by writing scientific books, I could live without the laboratory.

In her fifth month of pregnancy, at the end of 1903's hot and long summer, Marie Sklodowska Curie had a miscarriage. She was devastated. She wrote to her friend, "I am in such consternation over this accident that I have not the courage to write to anybody. I had grown so accustomed to the idea of the child that I am absolutely desperate and cannot be controlled." She assigned her dedication to her work as the cause; she worried she had exposed herself to too much radiation in the lab.

In mid-November she, along with her husband Pierre, won the Nobel Prize. Though the work had been shared equally between them, the media tended to paint Marie as the inspirer, and Pierre as the man of accomplishment in the matter. Another interpretation of their discoveries involved them falling in love and copulating somewhere among their experiments. Cetainly both were happy at the financial and academic gains that accompanied such an award, but the attention that came with it was not at all to either's liking.

Pierre and Marie

By May of the following year, Marie was pregnant again. To ensure nothing would complicate the birth, Pierre and Marie selected a farm a short train ride from Paris in St.-Remy-les-Chevreuse. Their daughter Eve was born at the beginning of December, pleasing her mother, who wrote to her friend, "Don't you find it delicious to have a little tiny being to love?"

The assistance of Pierre's father, as well as a nanny, a maid and occasionally a cook helped her return to her scientific endeavors. Pierre was frustrated in his work, and St. Remy represented a welcome retreat. The family loved the beach, where Pierre pocketed all the seashells his daughters collected for him there. Just as they were beginning to find a new equilibrium, and Pierre had begun to recover from his many illnesses, his skull was crushed by a wagon wheel in a freak accident when two horses panicked on a Paris avenue. He had never paid much attention to where he walked. Pierre Curie was just 46.

Marie wrote in her journal:

I enter the room. Someone says: 'He is dead.' Can one comprehend such words? Pierre is dead, he who I had seen leave looking fine this morning, he who I expected to press in my arms this evening. I will only see him dead and it's over forever. I repeat your name again and always, 'Pierre, Pierre, Pierre, my Pierre,' alas that doesn't make him come back, he is gone forever, leaving me nothing but desolation and despair.

Much later in life, she would write, that on April 19, 1906, "I lost my beloved Pierre, and with him all hope and all support for the rest of my life." Returning to their laboratory was difficult. At work she was named Pierre's replacement in his teaching position at the Sorbonne. She wrote, "There are some imbeciles who have even congratulated me." She was the first woman ever to teach there.

young MC

A year later, she wrote, "It has been a year. I live, for your children, for your old father. The grief is mute but still there. The burden is heavy on my shoulders. How sweet it would be to go to sleep and not wake up. How young my dear ones are. How tired I feel!" She could never bring herself to say his name again.

+

Paul Langevin was a scientist in a deeply unhappy marriage. His wife Jeanne was four years his junior, and interference from her family complicated their arrangement from the very first. His mother-in-law and sister-in-law kept letters he had written to his own mother that expressed doubts about the relationship. This was in order to blackmail him in case of divorce. Her closest family members also stole from him and would even strike him when angry. Because of their young children, he did not go through with the idea of divorcing Jeanne.

Langevin and his wife

Langevin had been a student of Pierre Curie, and it was to his widow and friend that he confided his life's troubles. It was when Jeanne Langevin struck her husband with a glass bottle that Marie Curie's consolation turned intimate. They rented an apartment near the Sorbonne for their liasions. When Jeanne found out, she told Marie Curie to leave France and threatened to kill her for fucking her husband.

Still, Marie was hopeful. She wrote to Paul, saying,

It would be so good to gain the freedom to see each other as much as our various occupations permit, to work together, to walk or to travel together, when conditions lend themselves. There are very deep affinities between us which only need a favorable life situation to develop. We had some presentiment of it in the past, but it didn't come into full consciousness until we found ourselves face to face, me in mourning for the beautiful life I had made for myself and which collapsed in such a disaster, you with your feeling that, in spite of your good will and your efforts, you had completely missed out on this family life which you had wished to be so abundant in joy.

Marie went on to even specify the various methods by which Paul Langevin could extricate himself from his marriage, which we can all now view as very generous indeed. Her letter describing these possibilities is more properly described as a lab report.

It took another year before the situation with the Langevins yielded to its inevitable conclusion. Paul left his home with his sons, and his wife filed an injunction declaring he had abandoned her. In the trial that followed, the relationship between Marie and Paul Langevin became abruptly public. As this unfolded, Marie won her second Nobel Prize, in 1911.

at a chemical company in Pittsburgh

French tabloids savaged her, and excerpts from her letters to Paul even appeared in newspapers. Friends in the academic community came to her defense. Albert Einstein wrote to her, saying, "I feel the need to tell you how much I have come to admire your spirit, your energy and your honesty... I will always be grateful that we have among us people like you  as well as Langevin  genuine human beings, in whose company one can rejoice. If the rabble continues to be occupied with you, simply stop reading that drivel. Leave it to the vipers it was fabricated for."

She would never have the kind of relationship she desired with Langevin. He felt so guilty about dragging her into the matter that he left money in his will for her daughters. Eventually he even reconciled with his wife, taking a more acceptable woman for his mistress  a secretary. For her part, Marie's disappointment with all that had transpired was inevitable, but she had already lost far more precious things.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about Jane Campion's Top of the Lake.

"Another Me" - Tinashe (mp3)

"Reverie" - Tinashe (mp3)