Six Degrees of Separation – From Ellis to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

This month’s starting book is Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, this coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money– a place devoid of feeling or hope.

…which sounds remarkably like the only one of his books I have read…

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The blackest black comedy I have ever read, the author lays bare the shallow and self-obsessed world of ’80s yuppie culture and does so superbly. The violence is indeed graphic and gets progressively more extreme as the book goes on. However, given the theme of excess in all things that runs through the book, I felt it stayed in context. In fact, it eventually became so outrageous that, for me, it passed from being shocking to being, in a strange way, part of the humour of the book.

The office Halloween party was at the Royalton last week and I went as a mass murderer, complete with a sign painted on my back that read MASS MURDERER (which was decidedly lighter than the sandwich board I had constructed earlier that day that read DRILLER KILLER), and beneath those two words I had written in blood Yep, that’s me and the suit was also covered with blood, some of it fake, most of it real. In one fist I clenched a hank of Victoria Bell’s hair, and pinned next to my boutonniere (a small white rose) was a finger bone I’d boiled the flesh off of. As elaborate as my costume was, Craig McDermott still managed to win first place in the competition.

Less humour and less graphic gore, but just as much violence and horror for my next link to…

Psycho by Robert Bloch. When Mary Crane, driving through a downpour with the $40,000 she has just stolen, takes a wrong turning and finds herself lost, she makes a big mistake by deciding to spend the night at the Bates Motel. Norman Bates is pretty creepy, but not nearly as creepy as his mother… 😱The film is scarier, but the book has more psychological depth making it more substantial than a mere shocker. But all the famous scenes are still there…

The film of the book was of course directed by Hitchcock, which reminded me of…

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes – another terrifying tale that Hitch turned into an equally great film even if he changed the story pretty dramatically. When Mr and Mrs Bunting take in a new lodger, he seems a kindly, quiet gentleman, if a little eccentric. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. Gradually the Buntings begin to wonder if their lodger could possibly be the murderer, but with no proof, what should they do? What if they go to the police, and it turns out he’s innocent? He’ll leave, of course, and they desperately need the money he pays for rent. But what if he’s guilty and they do nothing – does that make them guilty too? It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically. And in the film, Ivor Novello might be scary, but he’s also yummy…

Lucky June Tripp as Daisy Bunting. He can’t be a murderer! Can he??

The Lodger is set in turn of the century London, and Marie Belloc Lowndes makes great use of the notorious London fogs, which leads me to my next book…

London Fog by Christine L Corton. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period. While I found the tale of trying to get Parliament to act to clean up the air somewhat tedious, I loved all the stuff about how writers and artists had used the fog. Of course, Dickens was one of the greatest writers to use it…

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

And Monet one of the greatest artists…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

One of the fascinating factlets in the book is that the term “pea-souper” to describe the thick London fog was coined by none other than the author of my old adversary…

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Proving conclusively that more is required to make a good book than an intriguing blurb. The book may have been tedious, but the film is great…

…and provides two links to my final book. Firstly, one of the ships the Pequod meets with on its journey is called the Rosebud, and secondly, Orson Welles appears in a cameo role as the preacher. All of which made me think of…

Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo. Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating…

Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated into various languages, with ‘real’ stories even though they mostly can’t be read except in stills…

 * * * * *

So Ellis to Lebo, via Bret Easton Ellis, psychos, Hitchcock, fog, pea-soupers and Orson Welles!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Film of the Book: Moby Dick

Directed by John Huston (1956)

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From the book review:

Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

Having slated the book of Moby-Dick, it took me some time to work up the enthusiasm to watch the film despite knowing that it had a pretty good reputation. After all, lots of people unaccountably seem to think the book’s good too! I was cheered by a couple of things – the running time is only 1 hour 50 minutes, so clearly a lot of the extraneous digressions must have been cut – hurrah! And Huston wrote the screenplay along with Ray Bradbury who, unlike Melville, knew a thing or two about how to tell a good story.

The film starts off much like the book, with our narrator Ishmael arriving in the town of New Bedford to join a whaling ship. There he meets Queequeg the cannibal, a South Sea Islander. Imagine my surprise on discovering that this “dark-complexioned” man is played by a white actor! I couldn’t decide whether it would have been better or worse if they’d at least tried to make him look black-ish. But scuttling quickly away from that thorny issue towards another, I couldn’t help but note that the film had also omitted the YA instalove between Ishmael and Queequeg that led to (implied… or possibly just inferred) gay sex romps in the book – I can’t begin to express how happy I was at that decision! Melville’s obsession with hands squeezing blubber while fantasizing about squeezing other things has left me with emotional scars…

Friedrich von Ledebur as the quaintly coloured Queequeg
Friedrich von Ledebur as the quaintly coloured Queequeg

So it was obvious from an early stage that there were going to be significant differences between book and film. Huston did indeed strip out pretty much all of the digressions and a good deal of the philosophising, though I felt he and Bradbury had managed to condense the main points so that the film doesn’t lose too much of the depth. We still see Ahab’s obsession with getting his revenge, and Bradbury (I assume) creates some fairly sharply focused dialogue between Ahab and Starbuck that I felt actually made the whole religion/blasphemy point much clearer than Melville managed in the book. Plus, to my joy, Ahab mostly speaks in standard English rather than the cod-Shakespearian horrors employed by Melville. There’s still a bit of ye-ing rather than you-ing, but nothing too out of place for its 19th century context. The major difference is that the movie keeps the action going – Ahab appears within the first few minutes and it’s not long before the Pequod sails – unlike in the book, where I had nearly died of boredom before we even saw the ship. Then, boom! Ahab persuades the crew to take an oath to kill the Great White Whale, and the hunt is on!

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Leo Genn as Starbuck
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Leo Genn as Starbuck

On the whole, the acting is good, rather than excellent, but the action and drama made up for any weaknesses in performance. Gregory Peck is not at all my idea of Ahab, but once I got used to him I thought he does a fine job, at points when he does his raging speeches reminding me of Orson Welles. Which is a coincidence since Welles himself appears in a great, if oddly superfluous, cameo as the preacher giving a sermon before the voyage, thundering away about Jonah and the whale.

Orson Welles thundering...
Orson Welles thundering…

Despite his unlikeliness for the role, Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg stands out, as does Harry Andrews as Stubb. But really the success of the film is all down to Huston’s direction in the end. Not just the big action scenes, but little touches like the women standing in silence as the ship sets sail – where did he find those amazing faces? (In a small town in Ireland apparently.) With no words at all, he manages to create a real sense of the dangers of the voyage just from the worn and fatalistic expressions of these women watching their men sail out, perhaps never to return.

The special effects are great for the time, and the way Huston films it gives a real sense of the power of the sea and the constant peril to the sailors leaping about the dizzyingly high rigging of the fragile-looking ship. The scenes with the whales work brilliantly, though they can get a little gory for modern tastes (mine, at least), and when Moby Dick finally appears (after only an hour and a half, unlike in the book when it took roughly six weeks 😉 ) he is terrifying! The storm is fantastic, with Ahab ordering his men up the rigging in defiance of howling wind and lashing rain; and the birds hovering over the hunting scenes create a real atmosphere of wild menace – man against nature. And I loved the St Elmo’s Fire scene (or, as Melville would incomprehensibly put it, the corpusants scene).

moby-dick-st-elmos-fire-2

I loved the way much of the film is in subdued tones of blue and grey and brown, almost as if it’s in black and white, giving extra dramatic effect to sudden flashes of bright colour – the blood of the whales, or the green of the St Elmo’s Fire. I’m going to admit that during the climactic finale, as Ahab and the whale fought their final battle to the death, the tears were pouring down my face as I frantically cheered Moby on!

In short, this is the story I hoped for when I read the book! No lack of narrative drive here! No long hours of tedium while Melville shows off his knowledge of whales, religion, Shakespeare and anything else he can think of. Extract the gem of the story from the dross, get a great scriptwriter to polish it, hire some decent actors, work a few miracles with effects, and hey presto! A magnificent film is born!

Thar she blows!
Thar she blows!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So without the slightest hesitation I say: chuck out the book and watch the film instead!
I hereby declare…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

moby-dick-dvd

THE FILM!

* * * * *

GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

Call me baffled…

😐 😐

moby dickOur narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…

My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.

Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…

moby-dick

Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.

There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.

I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)

moby_dick_final_chase

The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.

But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So, is it a Great American Novel?

No.

* * * * * * *

Book 3 of 90
Book 3 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Friday Frippery! A conversation regarding whales…

Call me FF…

moby-dick-john-barrymore

Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump! FF heard the unmistakeable sound of the captain crossing the deck.

“Ahoy, FF, thou lazy dog! Whyest dost thou lyeth there on that… thing… whilst Ahab practiceth his best cod Shakespearian?? Whatest is that thing, anyway, in the name of the gods above in Heaven, or perhaps the devils beneath in Hell! Or vice-versa. If Gods exist. Eth.”

FF raised her sunglasses and perched them on her golden curls. “It’s a sun-lounger, sir. Don’t you like it? I ordered it from Amazon and they had a drone drop it off an hour ago. It’s very comfortable.”

Ahab stuck his bone leg in the socket he had had specially made for it and, swivelling madly like Zebedee on his spring, cried out, “Thou liest here in the sun imbibing the devil’s grog…”

“It’s a margarita,” murmured FF, sipping.

“… when there is work to be (or not to be) done! Hast thou seen the great white whale?”

“No, and I’m at 92% now. Strange, isn’t it?”

Ahab ceased to swivel and fixed her with his mad eye. “Eh? 92%? Thou speakest in strange riddles as of one who has seen things not of nature!”

“Well, the book’s called Moby-Dick: or, the White Whale so you’d kinda think the whale would actually be in it, wouldn’t you?” FF waved her Kindle at the infuriated captain. “But no. We’ve sailed every sea in the entire world and not a blessed sign of him yet. A cheat, I call it! Plenty of other whales though – big ones, little ones, lots and lots of dead ones. And as for gory! Well, let’s just say I know more than I ever wanted to about how to skin them and squeeze the oil out of their blubber.” She shuddered, and sipped her margarita. “Sir.”

moby-dick-the_voyage_of_the_pequod

Ahab shook his fist at the cloudless sky. “Thou wasteth time reading stupid books on thy infernal device when thou shouldst be aloft the main mast searching for the monster whom thou hast sworn a great oath to destroyeth!”

“To be fair, though, sir, that was during the first night party and you’d been pretty generous with the old gin before you asked. I’m not sure that really counts as a proper oath.”

“Thy honour grovels on its lowly belly acrost the mud in the deeps where lie littered the bodies of great heroes and the monsters they pursued to their doom! Queequeg the cannibal shalt not fail me, he with his skin tattooed with marks that would scare the devils themselves. Nor even the poor, crazed savage, Pip, whose little black hand is nearly as soft as that of a decent white boy!”

“That reminds me, sir, an e-mail came in from Head Office. They want you to confirm you’ve completed the online training course in cultural sensitivity.”

“Aarghh! Get thee up to the lookout afore I call on the Heavens to strike thee with the unnatural fire of the corpusants!”

“No can do, I’m afraid, sir. Health and safety. You’ll just have to rely on the sonar equipment.”

“Gah! Art thou a yellow-bellied poltroon?? Thou wilt know real danger when Ahab sends thee in the little boat to stick harpoons in the monstrous Leviathan!”

FF shuddered. “I fear that won’t be possible, sir. Whaling has been outlawed by international convention. These days we use electricity to light our lamps.”

Ahab leapt up and down so hard his bone leg began to splinter. “Outlawed?! Never! For here, on the great ocean, Ahab is all – the captain, the King, the God! And the great white whale shall die, die horribly, because Ahab sayeth so! Look! What ist that strange vessel that approacheth?”

“It’s Greenpeace, sir. They’re here to protect the whale. I Skyped them when I realised you were insane, sir.”

Ahab turned purple with rage, and shook both fists at FF. “Thou hast ruined my revenge! Truly, verily, and yea, ’tis true what they say! To allow a woman aboardeth a ship is folly, for they are cursed, and curseth those who saileth with them!” Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump!

“Silly old misogynist!” murmured FF, as she lay back on her lounger and opened the new Ian Rankin.

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HAVE A GREAT FRIDAY! 😉