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bookish pharmacists

...Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

- Roberto Bolaño, from '2666'

As in 'The Savage Detectives', Bolaño slyly lets one of his characters describe the book itself, which definitely ranks as a "great, imperfect, torrential work". '2666' was Bolaño's last work, a sprawling novel clocking in at almost 900 pages, of which only the first draft was completed before his death in 2004. It is a novel like a hurricane, violently revolving around an empty center, a deliberately unspecified linking pin - except that it is "something, that something that terrifies us all..."

Another interesting link with 'The Savage Detectives' is provided in the book's afterword by Ignacio Echevarría, who writes:

Among Bolaño's notes for 2666 there appears the single line: "The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano."

shopping astronaut

Shopping Astronaut

Almost forgot to post this stencil graffiti from Stokes Croft, Bristol, which seems to be by an artist called SPQR. (Actually a better photo is this one.)

Meanwhile that other Bristolian graffiti artist and elusive culture jammer, Banksy, is having a big show in Bristol Museum this summer. The exhibition was prepared in great secrecy but is now attracting audiences in droves.

This is the first show I've ever done where taxpayers' money is being used to hang my pictures up rather than scrape them off.

For those not familiar with his work, lots of images of Banksy works in Bristol, London, Palestine and the US. And while museums really aren't the place for his work, his prehistoric shopper-hunter in the British Museum made for a good prank.

the beach of falesá

Besides poetry Dylan Thomas wrote prose classics like 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog' and 'Adventures in the Skin Trade'. In the 1940's he also developed several film scripts, including an adaptation of a 1892 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, 'The Beach of Falesá'. The film was never produced and the script was published as a novel in 1964.

A dark vision of Europeans in the copra trade corrupting a Pacific Island, Stevenson's story predated Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' in exploring the theme of the evil side of the 'civilization' the white man brought to the 'savages'. Thomas followed Stevenson's plot faithfully, but replaced its adventurous tough-talking style with a more sinister, brooding atmosphere.

As in all his work, the sea plays an important role, but instead of the Welsh sea this is a tropical, chimerical sea. Falesá has the languid, sundrenched feel of a Gauguin painting, where, inland, strange terrors lurk at night.

He goes on, soft-footed, wary now, spying around him. On all sides are to be heard faint and stealthy scurries; the newly unwoken warnings of little, unseen animals; the prying fingering of gusts of wind from the sea, in ferns, leaves, flowers, and shadows. The lantern and the moonlight make the bush all turning shadows that weave to meet him and then spin off, that hover above his head and fly away, huge, birdlike, into deeper inextricable dark.

The story centers around the Liverputlian trader Wiltshire, arriving in Falesá to replace his predecessor who died under mysterious circumstances. The only other Europeans on the island are two hostile traders, Case and Randall, who maintain their monopoly by cynically exploiting the superstitious fears of the local population. Cunningly engineered by Case, Wiltshire gets involved with Uma, a half-blood girl who has been tabooed by the community. As a result no one on the island wants to trade with him.

Paul Gauguin - What, are you jealous?

The character of Uma tragically symbolizes the evil inflicted by the vice-bringing colonial white man. At one point Wiltshire sums up her story:

Your father, Faavo, your mother, and you. A white man from England, a dark woman from the island, and Uma, my love, who wasn't white or dark - and all the time he gambles and he drinks and he looks for easy money and it never comes. I know, I know. There's hundreds like him, beachcombers, castaways, drunks and gentlemen, gentlemen drunks who never go back - old-timers, landlopers, birds of passage, bums and remittance men, sons of parsons, dodging the police, peddling drugs on the waterfronts - lazy fellers boozing in the sun. I know, I know. And he trails his wife and half-caste kid behind him through all the flash towns and the lost islands. And then he dies, and he's buried Lord know where, and there's nothing left of him but his name which isn't his own. There's life in a coconut shell for you. It happened like that?

When 'The Beach of Falesá' was published, a Time review commented on the fact that the script "ignores the close-shot, long-shot lingo of the camera's eye, implicitly mistrusts the camera's capacity to discern, and with a natural if unnecessary eloquence offers its own scene-setting visions of South Pacific backgrounds." In fact, the published text is technically not a screenplay at all but more like a lengthy and detailed treatment.

One film rule it does follow is to describe only outwardly visible or audible actions and emotions, and avoid subjectivity or internal processes - though it does so in Thomas' typical poetic style ("the fly-loud, flyblown, bottle-strewn bedded room") which most film producers would have itched to eliminate. Of course, he would later perfect this both flowery and scriptlike style in his famous radio play, 'Under Milk Wood'.

Meanwhile, the story of 'The Beach of Falesá' is still waiting to be adapted for the screen, but apparently some New Zealand filmmakers are making a new attempt.

silent monologue

Not I - 1

Not I - 2

Strange sight, 'Not I' playing soundlessly on a large screen / billboard at Amsterdam Zuid-WTC station. As reviewed before, the film, starring Julianne Moore, is part of the Beckett on Film project.

Beckett wrote 'Not I' as a theatre monologue designed to show only a mouth talking. But as the piece is really a monologue intérieur dramatically visualized, playing it without sound seems to somehow emphasize even more the woman's hermetic suffering...

...so disconnected...never got the message...or powerless to respond...like numbed...couldn't make the sound...not any sound...no sound of any kind....no screaming for help for example...should she feel so inclined...

For a disquieting reading experience, try the complete text.

where once the waters of your face

Where once the waters of your face
Spun to my screws, your dry ghost blows,
The dead turns up its eye;
Where once the mermen through your ice
Pushed up their hair, the dry wind steers
Through salt and root and roe.

Where once your green knots sank their splice
Into the tided cord, there goes
The green unraveller,
His scissors oiled, his knife hung loose
To cut the channels at their source
And lay the wet fruits low.

Invisible, your clocking tides
Break on the lovebeds of the weeds;
The weed of love's left dry;
There round about your stones the shades
Of children go who, from their voids,
Cry to the dolphined sea.

Dry as a tomb, your coloured lids
Shall not be latched while magic glides
Sage on the earth and sky;
There shall be corals in your beds
There shall be serpents in your tides,
Till all our sea-faiths die.

In the work of ' most famous writer, Dylan Thomas, the sea is never far off, whether it's the "dolphined sea" above or the "sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea" of 'Under Milk Wood'. In his poetry, written on "spindrift pages" ('In my craft or sullen art'), it's actually hard to find a poem that doesn't mention the sea at least once.

It is part of the dense fabric of two of his most famous poems, 'And death shall have no dominion' and 'Do not go gentle into that good night'. (Incidentally, the former was used to great effect in Steven Soderbergh's 'Solaris', where it resonates with the mysterious ocean planet that makes unconscious desires come to life.)

A complex symbol of life, death and time, which seems to stem from some ancient Celtic mythology, the sea also reflects Thomas' unique musical style with its rhythm like beating waves of fiercely romantic imagery.

'Where once the waters of your face' is particularly ambiguous, almost surreal, in its evocation of the sea. Is the poem an elaborate image of lost love as a dried-up sea, or is it a lament for the sea itself? And what about the "green unraveller", who could be some primeval monster lurking in the dark depths of the sea, or a watery personification of death, killing the sea?

But then the poem seems to suggest that the archetype of the sea is too strong to be killed - unless "all our sea-faiths die". It provides a fitting metaphor for Dylan Thomas' poetry: keeping the sea-faith alive. As he wrote in 'Fern Hill':

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

PoemHunter has Thomas' complete poems. And for fans and completists, Salon has the entire Caedmon Collection for download, eleven CD's worth of Thomas reading poetry and prose.

go forth

What to think of Levi's using Walt Whitman as a spokesman in its new Go Forth campaign? The commercial is certainly daring, featuring a rare recording of Whitman reading his poem 'America' (1888).

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair'd in the adamant of Time.

(To be precise, the audio is a "wax cylinder recording of what is thought to be Whitman's voice reading four lines from the poem". The recording is available at the Walt Whitman Archive.)

Visually the commercial is a strange, exhilirating mixture of grainy darkness and adolescent energy. As the New York Times put it, "the campaign demonstrates the growing interest among marketers in presenting their products to hard-pressed consumers as genuine enough to merit purchasing during a recession."

In a kind of ultimate hyperbole, 21st century consumerism has repackaged its own humble roots of self-relying, hopeful pioneers. It probably has Uncle Walt chuckling in his grave.

Update: For a harsh critique of this ad, see the Tegenlicht documentary 'Metamorphosis of a Crisis' (mostly in English).