December 19, 2004

Idle thoughts

Time for one of those occasional posts by people who are not Ed:

My semester is over, and I'm in Louisville for a while (also planning to go to Chicago in the next few weeks). I still have work I want to try to finish, but I've been taking a bit of a break from thinking about physics.

I've been mulling over what I could write about a couple of things I've read or seen lately, and it occurs to me that my inclination seems to be to start from what I expected of the work in question, and describe what surprised me. But this could perhaps give a false impression of what I really think; my inclination of things I like, but less than expected, is to write what sound like negative reviews. But enough of the meta-writing.

Recently I read E. M. Forster's novel Howards End. Some time ago I read A Room with a View and enjoyed it. And I had read one passage from this novel before, in a music course: Forster describes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as heard by the character Helen Schlegel. Here's the scherzo: the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right.

Forster makes nice observations about the way people listen to music -- a little essay on the subject is included in the Norton Critical Edition of the novel. And generally this is where his writing is strong: he's sensitive to how people think and feel about things. Or is he? Maybe he's only sensitive to how his sort of people think and feel about things. And this is where the novel surprised me: in some ways it seems incredibly shallow. The Schlegels are the sort of people Forster likes: cultured, intelligent, sensitive, sympathetic. The Wilcoxes are the sort of people he doesn't like: all business, concerned with progress and wealth but not with art and culture, insensitive, rigid. Forster writes the Schlegels in a way that really makes them come alive. Helen and Margaret are people I would like to know, people I would like. But what of the Wilcoxes? It's not really that he doesn't develop their characters much, but by comparison they are flat. And I can't argue that such people don't exist. But the Schlegel/Wilcox dichotomy really overstates what happens in society. People don't tend to divide neatly into these groups. There's some of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes in most of us. The character of Leonard Bast also fails to really come alive. Forster makes use of him as a device to illustrate the difference in social strata, but ultimately doesn't seem to have any more regard for him than Mr. Wilcox does.

I can't say Howards End is not a good novel: it's quite good, and I enjoyed it. But it is overly simplistic in some ways, and this took me by surprise. So, for all its "goblin footfalls," and the interesting way Mrs. Wilcox (the first, that is) and Miss Avery (and the house Howards End itself) glue the story together, and the charm of the Schlegel sisters, there's still something a little disappointing about the book. Its epigraph, the injunction to "only connect" that runs through the book, seems a little silly, in the end. But here's the problem I mentioned above: I really do think this is a very good novel, and I don't want to discourage you from reading it. It was good without living up to my expectations.

Now, to further exemplify what I mean about how my reviewing is influenced by my expectations: today among the hundreds of cable channels available to me here I stumbled upon Amélie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I had heard a lot about it when it came out a few years ago, but I had never bothered to see it. I think I heard mostly good things about the film, but still the way it was praised led me to expect very little from it. I had the impression, from the glowing reviews I heard from some people, that it was winning people over with empty charm, a cute actress (Audrey Tautou), and a saccharine story. All of which are true, at least to some extent. But nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised, in the end. There were a lot of pleasing little details, and the movie was visually appealing. The story was more fun than I was expecting, and the movie was unpretentious.

Well, there you have it -- disappointed by Howards End, pleasantly surprised by Amélie. But guess which one I liked more? Probably the former, although not by orders of magnitude. (Hard to compare books to movies anyway.) Anyway, you see why I seem to have trouble with reviews that accurately convey how I feel about things.

Well, my internet connection here is getting incredibly sluggish (at 3:30 AM? I can't imagine why, but even google is taking forever to load), so I had better post now.

P.S. Any thoughts on the best album of 2004? I'm actually inclined to say Destroyer's Your Blues, despite thinking for a while that it wasn't nearly as good as their previous two albums. It's grown on me, and I can't say I'm too excited by any other album this year. The Interpol album is OK, but I can't work up any enthusiasm for it. As I've noted, the new Clinic album is also not to great.

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