Thursday, September 17, 2020

Comments on Edward St. Aubin's Patrick Melrose Novels

This work is painful, thought provoking, often wonderfully written, and very funny.  The plot is the life the protagonist. On the surface it is his struggle with various addictions, to find the capacity for love, and to be a better parent than his parents were. More inwardly is his struggle with himself, not in the sense of his self as an opponent but in the sense that you might struggle to contain and transport things escaping from a damp, torn, shopping bag. 

It has five parts published variously separately and together.

NEVER MIND, recounts a single day at Patrick's parent’s estate in France. Several characters are fully drawn as they work their way toward an evening dinner party. Flashbacks portray how Patrick’s parents married, and inform us about their upbringing, Patrick’s vicious father, David Melrose, and his relations with his important friend Nicholas. Bright and imaginative, five-year-old Patrick struggles to endure the searing cruelty of his father and the detachment of his mother drained of empathy by resignation. His father rapes him, but the party goes on.

BAD NEWS is a sort of combination of William Boroughs and Oscar Wild.
It recounts one day in New York where Patrick, 22, has gone to pick up the ashes of his newly dead father. Ensconced in the St. Regis money flows out of his credit card like water. Patrick is addicted to heroin in partnership with several other drugs. He spends much of his time trying to score, and much of the rest in drifting in and out of vivid hallucinations. He has lived in New York and stumbles from one social situation that begins in obligation and ends in flight to another including both poor dealers and rich socialites. He skirts an overdose.  Wonderful writing

SOME HOPE Patrick has rehabbed off stage from his addiction to hard drugs but drinks too much. He has become a barrister, with little attention by the author to his career, training, or work. The novel recounts the run up to a weekend house party, a little like those in various society novels such as Edith Wharton and the party itself. Before the party he takes a step by telling his friend Tony what his father had done to him. People feel good and bad, but mostly catty about who is going to bed with whom. The English upper crust sucks up to Princess Margaret (The Queen’s sister) who is vain, arrogant, and shallow.

MOTHER'S MILK Patrick is married. There is no explicit account of how they married or why he or his wife choose one another, but, because these characters are fully drawn, we understand. The novel begins from the point of view of his son Robert at the moment of his birth. In a way this paragraph sums up the series.  

He was an inconsolable wreck.  He couldn't live with so much doubt and so much intensity.  He vomited colostrum over his mother and then in the hazy moment of emptiness that followed he caught sight of the curtains bulging with light.  They held his attention.  That's how it worked here.  They fascinated you with things to make you forget about the separation. 

His younger brother, born later, is equally precocious, but more emotionally than intellectually.

MOTHERS MILK is in the painful tradition of heirs struggling over an inheritance. Patrick's mother has had a stroke and is miserable and semi-articulate.  A new-age guru is trying to con her estate. Patrick at once hates his mother, wants to respect her autonomy, and hates the con man. In the generation below Patrick we meet and see the world through his young sons. At his own level his wife has emotionally and physically deserted him in her desperate desire to be more real for her children than her mother was for her, and Patrick begins an affair with an old girlfriend.  His mother asks him to kill her.
AT LAST begins with Patrick rehabbing from alcohol, leads up to and culminates in his mother’s funeral. Patrick has a moment of self-control when he does not slip off to shack up with a self-destructive woman in his rehab group. As friends, relatives and foes trickle in to pay their final respects to his mother, the last figure in his father’s generation, Nicholas, dies.  In the end Patrick has a twinge of productive self-regard and decides to dine with his ex-wife and his children.

The characters particularly of the protagonist, but also other major characters: his father, his mother, his wife, his two young children, are widely and deeply, inwardly and outwardly richly portrayed. Several major secondary characters including particularly his friend Tony and his father's friend Nicholas, the philosopher Victor Moore and his wife Anne and others are fully explored characters although not inwardly portrayed.

It is also a society novel; the major characters are very well-connected. Their money comes from US capitalists as in Wharton’s The Buccaneers and Patrick’s aunt chas up her perennial project of writing a memoir, which she declares will be better than those things like Henry James and Wharton because it is true.

It is also a novel about how the adult arises from his or her parenting. The theme of Patrick's life is a struggle to deal with the extraordinary sadism of his father and the frozen empathy of his mother. Presentation of other characters, most of all his wife, dwell on how their parents have shaped them and their struggles to deal with it. Finally, we see in action Patrick and his wife as they deliberately or inadvertently shape their children.  

It is novel which takes childhood more seriously and explores it more ingeniously than almost any I can think of. What Maisie Knew comes to mind, but she is one child and these novels contain full portraits of three very different children. It is written first in from the perspective of Patrick as a child and then from the perspective of his two children, each precociously perceptive in different ways.

The perspective of psychodynamic therapy percolates everywhere. More than anything else it means that people's feelings about things draw their significance from the process of development of that person.

Drawing on the exploration of the perspective of children, Patrick's struggle to contain himself, and on its analytic perspective, this novel is preoccupied with consciousness.  So much so that there are not one but two major secondary characters who are professional philosophers writing academic works on consciousness, one in Patrick’s generation and one in his fathers. Consciousness is portrayed as, among other things: the perception of what goes on in a person's own mind, his/her awareness or empathy with what's going on in the mind of another, self, guilt, and as that something that ceases with death.

Partly in the precariousness of consciousness, death informs the novel. The events in the second and last novel are occasioned by the deaths of his father and then his mother. The approaching death of his mother over hangs the events of the third and fourth novel. The implication that Melrose may bet trying to kill himself by his drug use, and consideration of what killing the self means, permeates the second novel.


Thursday, April 16, 2020

Comments on Slaughterhouse-Five,

This novel is a blunt arrow thudding the chest of US culture. It recounts the life of an American guy who served in World War II in roles mostly detached from battle, was captured and imprisoned, and became a successful optometrist. He's a gently satiric Caucasian American middle class guy resembling characters Sinclair Lewis so often portrayed.  The story is rendered in flashbacks scattered in time, not merely for the author’s discretion, but because the main character travels in time to important moments in his life, or his consciousness does. He also travels in space, abducted by little green men who keep him for a while and part of that while display him in the zoo on their planet.

The allies' monstrous firebombing of Dresden near the end of the Second World War lies at the heart of this novel. The city was largely untouched until then, like Hiroshima, and was filled with refugees fleeing the Russian Army. It was mostly destroyed. A number of people, uncertain because of the throng of refugees, but in the low hundred thousands were killed, many incinerated. The protagonist, like the author, was sequestered in the basement of a slaughterhouse during the bombing.

Trauma is a principle subject, and we see how various characters respond to the trauma of this event and sometimes to other events.  Indeed, the protagonist's lapses are described as time travel, but are consonant with dissociative mental processes victims of trauma often resort to.  In this sense the form of the novel harmonizes with the psychology of its protagonist. And with the psychology of the Allied Nations as a group, which tended to ignore this vast war crime, as they ignored the similar firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities.

The characterization of the protagonist is full but not deep. Vonnegut is very clear about what kind of man he is and the effective the trauma but his inner life is muted.

Indeed the novel in general is emotionally muted.  The prose is solid, quietly crafted with occasional telling images, but irate moments in this book are subdued compared to say The Naked and The Dead. Horrendous events are portrayed but with the figured base of the phrase, "So it goes," which occurs any time death is mentioned and in some other situations.

The benumbed emotional range that often accompanies fatalism reflects the epistemological position of the little green men. They "see in the fourth dimension" meaning they see all events past and future from a timeless perspective, much as St. Augustine describes the perspective of God.  Their planet has/will be destroyed in an accident some time in what is from our perspective the future but from there perspective the ever present. Their response is 'and so it goes'. This perspective questions the meaningfulness of free will, which the book recognizes but rather dances around. The protagonist, influenced by what he learned from little green men, does not believe in free will. Well, Western culture has been dancing around this issue since at least the Pre-Socratics.

Vonnegut treats many American institutions with a kind of distant mild irony that amounts to distaste. Again, it is similar but subtler than Sinclair Lewis's treatment of similar institutions. One of those institutions is the American military.

As part of the gun crew, he had helped to fire one shot in anger — from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch thirty feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

The first two sentences are vivid and emotional writing. The third mocks the competence of the military. The last mutes the whole effect.

Another is Christianity. A striking example is a cute, crude drawing, one of two illustrations in the book, of a prayer amulet hanging between the naked breasts of a secondary character. The simplicity of the drawing defeats the sincerity of the wearer.

This is an extremely popular book.  It was on the New York Times bestseller list 16 weeks when it was first published. But it is also unpopular. It was banned from numerous school libraries and the like as recently as 2011. 
A judge in affirming a school board's decision to ban it described it as,  "depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian." It's true the seven words banned by the FCC are sprinkled through it, as are uncritical references to pornography.  Vonnegut once commented,"I’ve seen letters to small-town newspapers that put Slaughterhouse-Five in the same class with Deep Throat and Hustler magazine. How could anybody masturbate to Slaughterhouse-Five?"

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Comments on The Door by Magda Szabó

This is an odd book. It recounts the growth and end of an intense relationship between a wishy-washy writer and her traumatized and autocratic cleaning lady. It was was first published in Hungary in 1987 and arose in an atmosphere of intermittent but ever-present government oppression. Szabó, like the writer in the novel, endured a career fluctuating among prizes, forced appearances, and banned books -; on one occasion a prize and the book banned on the same day.
The cleaning lady, whose name is Emerence, is a fully drawn and haunting character.  Her path to working for the writer began and continued in a series of traumas, such as her two siblings dying before her eyes as young adolescent and her traumatic self-sacrifice in presenting an abandoned Jewish baby to her conservative village as her own.  Her life suggests the essential life of citizens under an arbitrary and autocratic regime.
 In the book, the author slowly doles out knowledge of Emerence's traumatic past step by step as it is discovered by the writer, who fails to be inquisitive in the face of Emerence's perennial proud silence.  Their relationship, as they finally acknowledge, is like mother and daughter and a model of autocratic parenting. At one point Emerence says that if someone is to love her, she must love her alone, although she tolerates the writer's husband, as he tolerates her. Finally Emerence's becomes ill and wants the world to allow her to die, which the writer at first prevents and then implements. Pages after Emerence's death provide a satisfying, adagio coda.
The prose suffices but is not striking.
Whereas the development of Emerence is full and vivid, the account of the writer is tenuous —: for example we don't know what she writes, nor do we know what if anything in her history allows her to submit to this relationship. A community of secondary characters is well drawn as far as they revolve around Emerence and are illuminated by her attitude toward them. 
These unpleasant characters with an ugly, quasi-parental relationship limited my enjoyment of this novel but set me thinking of other works with similar situations that I like. What's the difference?  Take St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Emerence is empathetic, selfless, and cuddly compared to protagonists parents. Yet I enjoy and respect the book. One reason is St. Aubyn’s page after page of exquisite prose. Another may be Patrick carves out a sort of mental health.  I wondered if the tone of the part of The Door after Emerence’s death is somehow equivalent to Melrose' eventual recovery? In some way it allows us to recover.
Patrick has suffered from trauma and like many victims of trauma his bundle of self constantly threatens to disintegrate, whereas Emerence holds herself stiff and tight. In a long scene in the second novel when he is heavily laden with assorted drugs, Patrick's bundle of himself unravels into myriad voices rather like Leopold Bloom's trial in Ulysses and the issue of coherence of self continues through the books.  Is Patrick's shaky self-cohesion more sympathetic for the reader than Emerence’s almost heroically stiff self-control?
Or take King Lear. Lear is an unpleasant character who has terrible relations with his children, but I love and admire the play.  In the course of the play Lear changes his perspective on things. It seems integral to Emerence that she does not change her perspective; she would attack anyone who suggested she might. It is part of her holding herself together tightly. But what kind of book would we have she did?
Or Dorothy Sayers' Peter Whimsy mystery novels.  Lord Peter comes from the same social world is Patrick Melrose and likewise suffers from a history of trauma, in his case from the First World War.  His gentleman’s gentleman, Bunter, plays a role in most of the novels and stories, sometimes a dominant one.  Of, Bunter, Whimsy's mother says, "It's that wonderful man of his who keeps him in intelligent...a perfect autocrat." Yet the novels are engaging. Lord Peter is more attractive than the writer in The Door, the plotting is more intriguing, and Bunter has subtlety in how he controls Lord Peter. Maybe most important, Bunter has Whimsy's best interests at heart whereas Emerence is uncompromisingly self-centered. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Comments on Circe by Madeline Miller

Odysseus Vase Odysseus and the Sorceress Circe. Greek vase, c.700BC

 We regularly see novels these days where someone grows up in a dysfunctional family, is the unpopular girl in high school, discovers a vocation that gives her confidence and identity, has some experiences with men, good and bad, which stretch her emotional range and boost both her apprehension and her confidence, finds the right guy, and settles down to a satisfying life.  This is such a novel dressed up in Greek classic paraphernalia.  In archetypal terms, it is the ugly duckling story grafted onto the little mermaid story.  

Although incidents have plots, the main narrative is the story of her life.  She is born as a minor goddess to another minor goddess married to the sun god, Helios. She lives in a family compound with related gods where she is considered less attractive and is not given much of chance for a good marriage. She discovers she can work magic based on herbs and her own powers and, among other things, turns a fisherman (Glaucos) she befriends into a god and turns her obnoxious older sister Scylla into a monster that lurks on a rock and eats passing sailors.  For using magic, which is generally taboo to the gods, her father exiles her to a pleasant island. Several adventures involving love affairs with figures from Greek mythology mortal and immortal and her difficult relations with her sister and brother garnish her exile. Finally Odysseus arrives and stays for a year with her as stated in the Odyssey. But it is told from her point of view and she provides a lot of realistic details about what interests him and how his feelings run. In the end he goes on his adventures and she is pregnant. Alone on her island she has a difficult pregnancy and a hard time raising a child. As a young adult her son leaves to seek his father. He returns with his father’s wife, Penelope, and his half brother, Telemachus in tow. He recounts how he accidently killed Odysseus, then goes off to Italy to become a king; Circe turns her self into a mortal and forms a couple with Odysseus’ son by Penelope-; Penelope stays on the island.

The prose is smooth and clear if not exciting except for a sprinkling of poetic metaphors and phrases.

The characterization is mostly like the prose, effective but not exciting.  In one respect it is particularly effective.  That is its attention to how a few characters change over time. Time for the immortals differs from our time and it is a little vague. The period from her birth until Circe meets Odysseus is vaguely hundreds of years long. Of immortals, Circe alone changes. Miller constructs a convincing arc of character from an empathetic but petulant "teenager" to an enterprising and rebellious young adult, to a jaded thirty-something, to a harried mother, to a wise and capable woman. The progression of Odysseus is more of a crash, off stage, from arrogant hero to traumatized insecure monarch. The progress from infancy to young adulthood of their son is also carefully constructed and drawn. 

But a changing Odysseus brings us to an issue about this novel.

Let me emphasize that I am no Greek scholar in pointing these matters. I don't read Greek, but I’ve read lots of translations and secondary sources and am a knowledgeable amature.

The novel departs from the body of Greek mythology in various ways. Note, there is no bible of Greek mythology. Instead, a variety of often-conflicting sources spread over centuries, so it is sometimes complicated or even ambiguous whether something is a departure. Miller seems to have mainly used three sources. First the Odyssey, usually considered to have been created around 800 BC.  Second is the Theogony (The Genealogy of the Gods) from about the same time. The third is the Telegony (the story of Odysseus son by Circe, Telegonus) ( The text of the Telegony is lost but it survives as a summary, as an adaptation in Latin from the 1st century BC, and other fragmentary sources. Miller has evidently studied this Latin version.  There are other fragmentary and late sources, for example Ovid's Metamorphosis written in Latin shortly before the end of the BC's, that is about 800 years after Homer in a very different culture.

Anachronisms:  There are various minor anachronisms in the presentation.  For example at one point Circe describes Odysseus as being like a lawyer. There were no lawyers in Greek mythology and, indeed, the society was without a judiciary apparatus.

Choices:Miller necessarily makes some choices about which versions of Greek legends she uses. One is about which God's to describe. Versions very, but roughly speaking Greek gods fall into three groups: the Olympians, Zeus and his siblings and their dysfunctional spouses and children; the Titans who are the siblings and relatives of Zeus's father; finally the Chthonic deities who are associated with the underworld and whose ceremonies were often at night (

In the Iliad, Homer limits himself to the Olympians and mainly so in the Odyssey. Miller recalls the war between the Titans and the Olympians, draws on their rivalry for motivation, but chooses to ignore the chthonic deities, which were important in the everyday life of Greek people.  What is relevant here is that Circë is sometimes described as the child of Perse, a Titan ocean nymph, and sometimes described as the child of Hecatë a chthonic moon goddess, witch, and, like Legba, deity of crossroads.  In either case her father is Helios a Titan sun god. It always seemed to make more sense to me that Circe should be descended from Hecatë because she is a witch and witchcraft is not a common trop in Greek mythology.

Another change is the story of Glaucos. In European literature the image of Glaucos comes mostly from the version in the Metamorphosis by Ovid. Other classical references are scattered and brief. Ovid describes Glaucos as an immortal who was accidentally turned into a God by exposure to a magical something or other. He then falls in love with the nymph Scylla who rejects him. He goes to Circe, a competent witch in Ovid's version, seeking a love potion, which leads to various ill consequences. Miller has changed the story. In her version a naïve Circe falls in love with the mortal Glaucos and turns him into a God because she wants him to live forever with her. As a sea God he falls in love with Scylla, not Circe, which leads to various ill consequences. Miller's treatment of Glaucos artfully presages her account of Circe's later love for Telemachus where she wisely, in Miller's view, resolves their difference in mortality by becoming mortal herself.

To take another significant choice, Odysseus’ death is not recounted in the Odyssey, but there is a clear prediction by the highly reputable seer Tiresias that he will die of peaceful old age. In the Telegony he is killed by Telegonus and Miller chooses that version.

Creations: Occasionally Miller makes up legends, at least as far as I understand them. For example, the origin of the poison spine that kills Odysseus. It is in the Telegony that he is killed with a spear tipped with a spine from a ray, but there is no story about Circe marching under sea to confront a ray god, there is no ray god.

Violations of the classic culture: The most important ways Miller departs from the spirit Greek mythology have to do with the importance for her of change. In Greek mythology there is no notion of gods changing. A god's stage in life is as immutable a characteristic as her domain of power, her sacred animal, her weapon, etc. A minor example occurs in a conversation between Circe and Glaucos (before his deification). They have been hanging out together. In the first place, in classical mythology gods and mortals don't hang out. They meet during dramatic or significant moments. The closest thing to hanging out is the relation between Athena and Odysseus in the Odyssey, but even there the goddess only shows up when Odysseus is particularly in need. Circe mentions in chatting that she met Prometheus. Then-mortal Glaucos is startled because Prometheus' crime and punishment occurred hundreds of years ago in time as he figures it. 

"His eyes were fixed on me. 'But you are my age.' My face had tricked him. It looked as young as his."

But mortals in Greek mythological times, thought of gods as "ageless." That is, age did not pertain to them.

Less casual is her account of Odysseus as a figure of change. A central point in the Odyssey is that despite his adventures, misadventures, frequent deceit of others about himself, and frequent changes of appearance and body, implemented by Athena, from ragged, aged beggar to buff warrior, despite these things he remains essentially unchanged. This is unlike, say, Gilgamesh, the protagonist of the roughly contemporary near eastern epic, who through complex adventures and self-reflection accepts his mortality and becomes a better king. In the end, Miller crashes Odysseus into an frightened, desperate figure, something deeply contrary to Homer's image of the hero.

Another departure from the classical conception of immortals is Circë’s unhappy childhood and adolescence as the slighted girl/goddess. Gods may embody emotions, and frequently bicker like the members of a dysfunctional family, but these conflicts manifest in traumatic scenes like Hephaestus discovering his wife Aphrodite in bed with her brother Ares, but they lack protracted identity sieges. This is the stuff of current young adult novels, not Greek mythology. 

So what? Miller has modified and departed from the letter and the spirit of her sources in various ways to implement a typical 21st century story. Why should that matter? The lengthy and thorough Wikipedia article on Circe documents how her story has been recounted and her image represented in disparate ways over the centuries. ( She may be a symbol of gluttony, of lustfulness, of the evils of witchcraft, as an embodiment of evil female wiles or a feminist figure as in Miller’s novel, etc. Her story maybe a homily against drunkenness or on occasion to question whether living without reason like a beast is better than being rationally human. It varies as the interest of individual times and writers demand.  Why should we expect anything else in the 21st-century?

For me the issue lies in whether we 21st-century Americans want to regard ourselves, even enriching versions of our own preoccupations, or do we want to reach out for human culture and caring.

It is interesting to compare Circe with two other recent novels set in Greek mythic times. One is: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, which retells the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon from the viewpoint of the captive slave girl whom they fought over.  The gods are almost absent from Barker’s book, which is about mortals save for the sea nymph Thetis who is a background character shadowing Achilles.  Barker's book sticks very close the events of the Iliad and makes us feel the emotions of an ordinary upper-class girl of those times responding with a modern psychology to the mostly terrible events she witnesses.  Barker is searching the meaning of war by cross-fertilizing its ancient action with modern understanding of trauma.

Another is Colm Toibín's House of Names, which tells a story of Orestes’ vengeance on his mother.  Toibín invents an entirely different story hardly related to the Orestes portrayed by Aeschylus in the Oresteia. Gods are present merely in the images and feelings that human characters have of them. He projects feelings and reactions of someone in Orestes position following a modern, dynamic psychology, and the events of the story develop from the difference between Toibín’s premises in the premises of a classic Greek.  He makes us consider what it would mean, universally, in human culture, to kill your mother, by casting his made up story against the shadow of the mythic version.

Barker’s novel amplifies and Toibín’s novel almost abandons what is handed down from antiquity.  Barker’s Brieseis and Toibín’s Orestes are no more like the corresponding classical figures than is the Circe in an 18thcentury French rationalism version.  But they tell us something by reaching out of our own perspective.

Another interesting comparison is with Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Shakespeare followed closely his principal source, the Greek writer Plutarch, who worked shortly after the events in a time when Rome first dominated the Mediterranean politically and was itself much influenced by Greek culture. He was a keen observer of men and mores. He was a Greek diplomat and had lived in Rome, so he knew both cultures well.  Shakespeare carefully preserves his perspective in many ways, for example in presenting the suicide of four central characters. For Christians of Shakespeare’s England suicide was a mortal sin, your soul went to hell, as Hamlet considers in his famous soliloquy. For Romans of the republican period it was an appropriate, indeed praiseworthy act in the event of catastrophic defeat and when we watch those scenes, the perspective has passed from Plutarch, through a translator, to Shakespeare, to us. Consider the scenes in which Brutus and others fall upon their swords, and also the scenes when other characters like Anthony react to the news. Consider Anthony’s praise for Brutus against his own later suicide. Here we feel deeply what character means in other cultures.  It is this meaningfulness that the novel Circe fails to provide.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Comments on the 2018 Kaua'i Writers Conference

From November 5th - 11th I attended the Kaua'i Writers Conference ( It had two aspects, first four days of master classes, and then three days of the conference more broadly.

Kaua'i ( is a genuine tropical paradise, a relatively small Hawaiian island with a population of about 60,000. It happens my son teaches high school there, which is one reason I attended.  The picture is one I took of closing ceremonies on the beech.

The master classes seemed to have up to about 30 students each and met for three hours a day with one or sometimes two teachers. ( In the conference there were a variety of talks on various aspects of writing and publication. (

It took place in a grandiose, slightly worn resort with the largest swinging pool in Hawaii half-ringed with hot tubs and an island in the middle.  All overlooked a beach on an inlet. ( Our room was nice but not fancy, the food was good by conference standards. Things generally ran smoothly.

Demographics: My perspective may have limited my count, but I'd guess there were about 200 people in Master classes and about 300 attendees to the conference as a whole. There was a range of age and nationality, but the prominent group was middle-aged Caucasian women. My impression was that about half of the attendees were from the Hawaiian Islands.  There were a scattering of Asians and two blacks (one from Nigeria).  A few places had been allocated to students from a local college. I was sitting for lunch one day with a Brit. Conversation turned to how people stood in line for busses in different cultures. (I. E. a lone Brit is visibly in a queue whereas in Greece any group is a mob.) A young Asian woman sitting next to me had been rather quiet, so I asked her where she was from. She said Saipan; she was one of the local college group. I asked about bus queues. She said there are no busses in Saipan.

My impression was that the most popular genre was memoirs by people who believed they had led interesting lives or, more often, had had interesting jobs or professions.

I attended the master class given by Nicholas Delbanco ( on voice. It had some virtues and some faults. The faults were size and the room. Some fell away, but at the beginning there were 30 people. The room, which could have held 60 people, had narrow tables arranged in ranks as for hearing a lecture; it should have been is some sort of round-table arraignment. The virtues were the writers and the teacher. There were too many of them, but the writers were almost universally smart, experienced, and serious. Typically they were people who had written in some other field (I.e. the author of several history books, a lawyer who had written books on law etc.) and now wanted to write fiction. 
Delbanco has immense experience and resources as a teacher of contemporary writing and did marvelously considering the number of participants and the inappropriate room.

The version of the conference I attended two years ago ( was dominated by people form the traditional publishing world to the degree that, with a couple of exceptions in panels, it was as if hardcover books were the only game going on in publication, a strange illusion.  In 2018 that was no longer the case. Talks included discussion of electronic publishing, self-publishing, how to manipulate Amazon, and something new to me, "hybrid publishing", a sort of cross between self and traditional publishing, where a publisher selects a book submitted by an agent or author and they then share the cost and allocate any profits in varying proportions depending on what each contributed.

Never the less agents and prominent writers set a lot of the tone.  Characteristically the prominent writers urged people in the audience to be true to themselves, write what they inwardly wanted and the like, whereas the agents delivered strong guidelines about what the publishing industry wants and expects. Jayne Smiley, who always intended to and does write different sorts of books, commented that winning the Pulitzer Prize helped in arguing with her publisher. Her agent, however, told a story that elicited some sympathy for publishers. There used to be a mystery writer named Sue Grafton who wrote a series of rigidly similar mystery novels. Her publisher wanted her to write them as fast as twice a year whereas she wanted to slow down to one every two years, or something like that. The agent pointed out that at that time Grafton’s novels accounted for about half the publisher's income.

A couple of writers who had a calling to speak for their minority group were prominent in the conference two years ago and that was a live topic of discussion. Not this time.

Of the many talks ( the one I attended and enjoyed most was Smiley. I've read only one of her books (A Thousand Acres) and was only moderately impressed, but she's fun and smart and has had an interesting career.  The one I liked least was billed as on the Jungian notion of the hero’s journey. I thought, good, I can get ideas about plot structure. It turns out she was interested in only on step, (the second, "Refusing the Call"). She gave us brief writing assignments related to evocative phrases. One was "The stakes were high." Feeling irritable, I wrote about an enclosure walled by stakes so high they made the garden shady.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Demo at 50

I spent Sunday at a symposium on the 50th anniversary of a demo of the Online System (NLS) by Doug Engelbart and his group in 1968. The demo is famous in computer history.  

I joined the group in 1970, about two years after the demo and stayed till 1980.  The first two talks in the morning were about the demo and how it had been achieved.  Computer processing necessary for the demo took place at SRI in Menlo Park and was connected to Engelbart controlling the computer and dwarfed by a giant display screen in what is now Bill Graham Civic Auditorium by a two-step microwave link.  The whole process was intricate, fragile and something of a miracle in terms of both software and hardware.  Of course, I'd heard about it, but never in such detail with excellent slides created by some of the people who did the work.  I found the morning very interesting.

By my guesstimate there were about 250 people gathered at the Computer Museum in Mountain View, roughly one tenth of the people who saw the demo.  The audience was dominated by old, white men, as were the presenters.  About half of it was younger, down to teenagers, but again predominantly white men.

Engelbart's work is conceptually separate from the Internet, but historically it has been much entwined with it.  His lab at SRI was the second node on what became the ARPANET and eventually the Internet.  The notion of linking documents came from Doug and/or a philosopher named Ted Nelson (see below), but the implementation, as we know it in the Internet today, came later from other sources.

All of the speakers credited Doug's person and his thinking as important influences in their lives.

Later morning sessions discussed the immediate impact of the demo on computer research and development.

The sixteen presenters, including several computer luminaries, expressed many interests and viewpoints, but the afternoon sessions tended to focus on whether Engelbart "vision" was being fulfilled by the contemporary computer world.  Engelbart set out his vision in a paper in 1962.   Basically it is not a vision about hardware or software, but about building tools to aid the process of solving problems: "By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems." Speakers were in general highly aware of the distinction.

Speakers tended to say that the computer world has sadly failed to implement the vision, mostly because it has been diverted into getting rich.  There was some criticism, for instance of Google, even though Google was one of several sponsors of the meeting.  One speaker recalled the first time an advertisement appeared on the Internet and his moral disgust at seeing it there, which was shared by his colleagues.  Facebook took several hits from speakers, although I notice more than one person sitting in the audience sneaking a look as they listened.  Wikipedia was several times praised.  This was a group of smart, collegial,  bland, and well-off guys, and a few gals, beating themselves up for not having done more for the world in the manner Doug envisioned and suggesting ways, none of them very likely in my perspective, of doing better.

In the foyer of the auditorium, there were demos of software influenced by Doug’s thought or practice.  Dean Meyers showed a version of NLS running on Windows.  I was most impressed by a small teaching tool based on links running on an Apple II.  It's been a while since I saw a running Apple II.

The problem from my perspective is that forces like capitalism and the human propensity to divide into groups and squabble tend to subsume whether people communicate with the aid of computers.  For instance, climate change was mentioned several times.  Undoubtedly, computer-based exchange and examination of knowledge can help with scientific and technical problems having to do with climate change.  But the coal companies have computers too.  At a high level, everybody knows what to do about climate change: eliminate fossil fuels and cultivate forests and other absorbers of greenhouse gases.  This is not a technical problem -;  it is a political problem.  Again, Internet computer communication has had diverse and profound effects on politics; whether they have reduced conflict or mismanagement remains to be seen.  The methodical use of the Internet by the Russians and others to confuse people was not motioned in my hearing and efforts by China to mold social identity was mentioned only once.

The overall moderator was Paul Saffo  who describes his occupation as "futurist." That and chatting with old friends and acquaintances, some of whom I would not have recognized without nametags, recalled to me how strange it was when I first began working in what is now called Silicon Valley that people's identity seem to center on what they hoped or planned to do rather than what they had done or where they had come from.  I have not yet become comfortable with it.  After all, the past has happened and shaped us as it has.  The future is at best a plan and for sure uncertain.

The last speaker was Ted Nelson.  He is extraordinarily eloquent.  He described his personal and intellectual relationship with Doug over a lifetime.  I cannot describe what he said, only admire it.