Author Archives: Sam Cooney

About Sam Cooney

Distributor of cordless microwave ovens. Manic leg-crosser. Harbinger of the future. Has Batman complex, will travel.

mirror, mirror (neurons) on the wall

Below is an excerpt from the introduction chapter in Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley:

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Representation of models in the brain

In 1996 a group of researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti made a discovery that set the world of neuroscience abuzz. It was of neurons that fired either when a monkey saw a particular intended action – picking up a small piece of food – or when the monkey itself performed the same action. The researchers called these mirror neurons. They provided evidence for a principle that had long been considered in the psychology of perception, called analysis by synthesis. The idea was that when we perceive some human – produced action, we do so by being able to synthesize the same action ourselves. The importance for reading and understanding of stories is that, perhaps, when we understand an action as we read about it in a novel, our understanding depends on making a version of the action ourselves, inwardly.

One cannot directly record the activity of mirror neurons in human participants; it would be totally inappropriate to implant electrodes in people’s brains. So, to study this possibility in humans, researchers have created what computer people call work-arounds. One work-around is to use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), with which it has been found that when participants observed or read phrases relating to foot, hand, or mouth actions, there was activation of the regions of the brain that are used in making these same actions: A different kind of work-around has been to use a method called transcranial magnetic stimulation. Here, parts of the brain known to be directly responsible for initiating actions are stimulated briefly and gently (from outside the skulls of humans). For instance, the researchers stimulated the part of the brain responsible for making hand movements and when they did so they could record electrical activity of the muscles of the hand. They did the same for foot movements. What would happen now, the researchers asked, if the human participants were stimulated in this way and at the same time were asked to listen to a brief sentence that concerned making either a movement of the hand such as “He played the piano” or of the foot such as “He kicked the ball?” They found that when participants listened to sentences concerning hand movements, the electrical activity recorded in the hand muscles in response to the transcranial stimulation was reduced. This reduction did not occur when participants listened to sentences about foot movements or sentences that did not indicate movement. Similarly, when listening to sentences about foot movements, the stimulation-elicited electrical activity in the foot muscles was reduced as compared to the activity that occurred when listening to sentences about the hand or to sentences that were not about movement. The explanation of the reduction of electrical activity in the hand or foot muscles in response to the stimulation was that the parts of the brain concerned with initiating hand or foot movements were already occupied with understanding the sentences that concerned those movements.

Putting this another way, what these researchers found was that when we understand a sentence, as well as activation of the areas of the brain concerned with hearing and language there is also activation in the areas concerned with making the same actions ourselves.

The researchers interpret their findings in terms of mirror neurons. Recognition of an action in the imagination when we hear or read about it involves brain systems responsible for initiating that action.

In recent experiments, Nicole Speer and her colleagues had participants read whole short stories while they were in an fMRI scanner. When readers were engaged in a story, the researchers found that, at the points in which the story said a protagonist undertook an action, activation of the brain occurred in the part which the reader himself or herself would use to undertake the action. So, when the story-protagonist pulled a light cord, a region in the frontal lobes of the reader’s brain associated with grasping things was activated. When the protagonist “went through the front door into the kitchen, ”there was increased activity in a region that is activated when the reader views spatial scenes. The writer gives the cues, and the reader imagines a door, or imagines entering a room and seeing what it might be like. As I do, in this book, the researchers in this study describe reading as a process of simulation, based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures. These experiments indicate that, based on their experience, readers construct an active mental model of what is going on in the story, and can also imagine what might happen next.

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Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction

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wha tdoe si tfee llik et ofl yove rplane teart h?

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sentences

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An artist and musician named Amy Winehouse died a few weeks ago.

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Since then there has been quite a bit of noise about it. These are the words that seem to crop up most often: drugs, music, alcohol, death, cure, habit, shame, pity, talent, genius, addict, clean, rehab, therapy, media, pain, attention, scrutiny, suicide.

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Winehouse created songs and performed them, songs that really struck at people. She also had a penchant for addictive substances, and struggled to achieve an inner mental balance.

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One of Winehouse’s most lionised tunes is called ‘Rehab’. For all intents and purposes this song has been deemed and actually seems to be markedly autobiographical with its references to drugs, dependence and death.

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They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go

I’d rather be at home with ray
I ain’t got seventy days
Cause there’s nothing
There’s nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Mr Hathaway

I didn’t get a lot in class
But I know it don’t come in a shot glass

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go

The man said ‘why do you think you here’
I said ‘I got no idea
I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby
so I always keep a bottle near’
He said ‘I just think you’re depressed,
this me, yeah baby, and the rest’

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know

I don’t ever wanna drink again
I just ooh I just need a friend
I’m not gonna spend ten weeks
have everyone think I’m on the mend

It’s not just my pride
It’s just ’til these tears have dried

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go 

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Winehouse passed away by herself, in her apartment, in her bed.

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An artist and musician named Elliott Smith died in October 2003.

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In the years since the same words that have been used to sketch Winehouse, mentioned above, have been used in just about any dialogue about Smith. Drugs, music, alcohol, death, cure, habit, shame, pity, talent, genius, addict, clean, rehab, therapy, media, pain, attention, scrutiny, suicide.

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Smith created songs and performed them, songs that really struck at people. He also had a penchant for addictive substances, and struggled to achieve an inner mental balance.

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My favourite Smith tune is called ‘King’s Crossing’. For all intents and purposes this song has been deemed and actually seems to be markedly autobiographical with its references to drugs, dependence and death.

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The king’s crossing was the main attraction
Dominoes falling in a chain reaction
A scraping subject ruled by fear
Told me whiskey works better than beer
The judge is on vinyl, decisions are final
And nobody gets a reprieve
And every wave is tidal – if you hang around
You’re going to get wet
I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have
All you can do now is watch the shells
The game looks easy, that’s why it sells
Frustrated fireworks inside your head
Are going to stand and deliver talk instead
The method acting that pays my bills
Keeps a fat man feeding in Beverly Hills
I got a heavy metal mouth that hurls obscenity
And I get my check in from the trash treasury
Because I took my own insides out
It don’t matter ‘cos I have no sex life
And all I want to do now is inject my ex-wife
I’ve seen the movie and I know what happens
It’s Christmas time, and the needles on the tree
A skinny Santa is bringing something to me
His voice is overwhelming, but his speech is slurred
And I only understand every other word
Open your parachute and grab your gun
Fall down like an omen, a setting sun
Read the part and return at five
It’s a hell of a role if you can keep it alive
But I don’t care if I fuck up
I’m going on a date with a rich white lady
Ain’t life great?
Give me one good reason not to do it
(Because I love you)
So do it
This is the place where time reverses
Dead men talk to all the pretty nurses
Instruments shine on a silver tray
Don’t let me get carried away
Don’t let me get carried away
Don’t let me be carried away

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Smith passed away by himself, in his house, by stabbing himself in the chest with a kitchen knife. His girlfriend was in the shower.

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In probably his most well-known work, a book titled Suicide, Émile Durkheim wrote, “Not every suicide can therefore be considered insane, without doing violence to language.”

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Language is, for want of a better phrase, the best thing in this world. It is the bridge, the river, and the space in between. Both Winehouse and Smith were fluent in the language of music. Smith was also gifted in the language of words – evidence of this can be seen in the lyrics above, with its layers and its phrasing and its stark naked vernacular.

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It might be possible to do violence to language, but language cannot ever be entirely killed, and this fact is an affirmation of everything quotidian.

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a tale of clothes swapping and more (ft. David Foster Wallace)

click to engorge

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neurasthenics are always underdoing sad and arduous calisthenics of the brain, but they shouldn’t worry!

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“If in fact, as we have shown, neurasthenia may predispose to suicide, it has no such necessary result. To be sure, the neurasthenic is almost inevitably destined to suffer if he is thrust overmuch into active life; but it is not impossible for him to withdraw from it in order to lead a more contemplative existence. If then the conflicts of interests and passions are too tumultuous and violent for such a delicate organism, he nevertheless has the capacity to taste fully the rarest pleasures of thought. Both his muscular weakness and his excessive sensitivity, though they disqualify him for action, qualify him for intellectual functions, which themselves demand appropriate organs. Likewise, if too rigid a social environment can only irritate his natural instincts, he has a useful role to play to the extent that society itself is mobile and can persist only through progress; for he is superlatively the instrument of progress. Precisely because he rebels against tradition and the yoke of custom, he is a highly fertile source of innovation. And as the most cultivated societies are also those where representative functions are the most necessary and most developed, and since, at the same time, because of their very great complexity, their existence is conditional upon almost constant change, neurasthenics have most reason for existence precisely when they are the most numerous. They are therefore not essentially a-social types, self-eliminating because not born to live in the environment in which they are put down.”

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—from Émile Durkheim’s Suicide: A study in sociology

(Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson)

…illegally download an illegal torrent of some Durkheim’s books here, if you want to be illegal.

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Werner Herzog is such a smart aleck!

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The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.

—Blaise Pascal

“The words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better.

This falsified and yet, as I will later demonstrate, not falsified quotation should serve as a first hint of what I am trying to deal with in this discourse. Anyway, to acknowledge a fake as fake contributes only to the triumph of accountants.

Why am I doing this, you might ask? The reason is simple and comes not from theoretical, but rather from practical, considerations. With this quotation as a prefix I elevate [erheben] the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.”

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—The rest is here.

 

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a poem by John Forbes intittled ‘Antipodean Heads’

I wish we could be nicer
like the Americans

instead we are caught
halfway between

a European sense of style
you can always be at home in

& the Aborigines’ knack
of passing the time—they know

that nothing matters too much
between now & forever, unlike

the industrious American
who looks around & sees

that Fate applies her chisel
to his own particular face

so when he stares back at Her
he’s warm & essential

not reaching for a quip or a flagon
because he knows these things
are part of what he is

the way a mountain
is carved with the heads
of his Presidents

& we are left to wonder
what shape another 200 years

will leave Ayers Rock in.

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lyrics from The Raveonettes song ‘New York Was Great’

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And New York Was Great And We Loved It All
And New York Was Great And We Loved It All
But Time Was Riding Fast Upon My Shoulders
What A Shame
What A Shame
What A Shame

The Nighttime Was Painted Black With Fun
The Nighttime Was Painted Black With Fun
But All The Time The Light Shone It Through It All
What A Drag
What A Drag
What A Drag

And In Bars Drunk We Knew It All
And In Bars Drunk We Knew It All
And Promises We Spilled Out In The Night
What A Trip
What A Trip
What A Trip

And The Stars We Plucked From Great Black Skies
And The Stars We Plucked From New York Skies
We Placed Them All In Front Of Us And Laughed
What A Trip
What A Trip
What A Trip

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An extract from ‘The Cellar: An Escape’, part of Thomas Bernhard’s autobiography, Gathering Evidence (Translated by David McLintock):

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“From my grandfather I had acquired the habit of rising early, almost always before five. It is a ritual I still preserve. Despite the unremitting force of inertia and in full consciousness of the pointlessness of everything we do, the seasons are met with the same unchanging discipline every day. For long periods I live in isolation, isolated both in mind and in body. I am able to cope with myself by subjecting myself completely and unswervingly to my needs. Periods of absolute productivity alternate with others in which I am utterly unproductive. Subject to every vagary of my own nature and of the universe – whatever it is – I can get through life only with the help of a precise daily routine. I am able to exist only by dint of standing up to myself – in fact, of consistently opposing myself. When I am writing I read nothing, and when I am reading I write nothing. For long periods I read and write nothing, finding both equally repugnant. There are long periods when I detest both reading and writing, and then I fall prey to inactivity, which means brooding obsessively on my extremely personal plight, both as an object of curiosity and as a confirmation of everything I am today, of what I have become over the years in circumstances which are as routine as they are unnatural, artificial, and indeed perverse.”

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excerpts from intro to ‘Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction’ by Keith Oatley

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People often think the word “fiction” means untrue, but this is not true. The word derives from the Latin fingere, which means “to make.” In the same way the word “poetry” comes from the Greek word poesis, which also means “to make.” Fiction and poetry are constructed in the imagination, and are different from something discovered as in physics, or from something that happened as in the news. Fiction and poetry are not false; they are about what could happen. (p. 7)

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In 1996 a group of researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti made a discovery that set the world of neuroscience abuzz. It was of neurons that fired either when a monkey saw a particular intended action—picking up a small piece of food—or when the monkey itself performed the same action. The researchers called these mirror neurons. They provided evidence for a principle that had long been considered in the psychology of perception, called analysis by synthesis. The idea was that when we perceive some human-produced action, we do so by being able to synthesize the same action ourselves. The importance for reading and understanding of stories is that, perhaps, when we understand an action as we read about it in a novel, our understanding depends on making a version of the action ourselves, inwardly. (p. 19)

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In recent experiments, Nicole Speer and her colleagues had participants read whole short stories while they were in an fMRI scanner. When readers were engaged in a story, the researchers found that, at the points in which the story said a protagonist undertook an action, activation of the brain occurred in the part which the reader himself or herself would use to undertake the action. So, when the story – protagonist pulled a light cord, a region in the frontal lobes of the reader’s brain associated with grasping things was activated. When the protagonist “went through the front door into the kitchen,” there was increased activity in a region that is activated when the reader views spatial scenes. The writer gives the cues, and the reader imagines a door, or imagines entering a room and seeing what it might be like. As I do, in this book, the researchers in this study describe reading as a process of simulation, based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures. These experiments indicate that, based on their experience, readers construct an active mental model of what is going on in the story, and can also imagine what might happen next. (p. 20)

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Top ten most anthologised American poems:

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T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”

Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”

Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow”

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”

Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife”

Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”

William Carlos Williams’s “The Dance.”

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choice, bro

“Machines always do just what you tell them to do / As long as you do what they say.”

- T Bone Burnett in ‘Zombieland’ on album The True False Identity

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GRH: “One of the things not being on social media promotes is not spending a lot of time thinking about yourself as someone who has a career. I think of myself more as like someone who has to go to a therapist six mornings a week in order to be able to do all the other things that are expected of one during the day, such as groceries, laundry, speaking to other people, etc. It’s just that my therapist happens to be a desk.

I’m actually planning to at some point to do a 180, for the purposes of research. I’m going to get all up on the Internet and really allow myself to become a person who can’t think for more than three seconds in a straight line. I want the narrator of the next next novel, the one after the one I’m working on, to be afflicted with that problem. But I can’t write that way now. I can’t afford to emerge from a day of work, spending many hours finding myself, and then after fifteen minutes of Internetting feel like I’ve lost myself in some way again. Which is a constant struggle. It’s an unfortunately big and kind of silly theme in my life.

TFT: I remember talking to you at one point and you sort of saying you had gone through an obsessive period of Internet addiction and you had to cut yourself off entirely.

GRH: Well, the story of all my addictions is that I sort of get just far enough down the road to see where I’m going and that if I take about two more steps, I’m never coming back. And then I manage to…my super-ego is powerful enough to step in. But it really is sort of like having someone lock up the liquor cabinet. My wife logs her computer out of the Internet when she leaves for work and, I mean, I can’t get to it. I can go to the library if there’s some full-on cyber-emergency. But after about three days of not looking at it, I find that even in the evening, when I could ask her to let me on, then suddenly I realize that nothing I would be looking at is as worth my time as reading a book would be. Or just being would be. There’s a kind of modification of consciousness for me that happens online that doesn’t feel the same as just being.

[...]

It’s like, when I choose to talk, I would hope the reason that I’m talking is that I actually care about the subject of my talking rather than what my talking says about me. And that, therefore, what I say when I choose to speak maybe gets taken a little more seriously. Whereas I think there are people – and I won’t name names, but I don’t think I have to – who actually have very serious things to say, but who also, if there is such a thing as self-promotional genius, have it. And who, therefore, might say things that get written off as mere self-promotion when they’re actually trying instead to say something that matters. It can get very hard to tell, if you’re not careful.”

- interview with Garth Risk Hallberg at The Faster Times

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get worried

My last blog post at Southerly is now up. (And already a certain ‘Charles’ is set against me, nemesis-stylez. It’s funny, he’s so angry, like I murdered his entire family using only blunt nail files. NAIL FILES, CHARLES.)

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What, me worry?

I have a friend in Melbourne who is a paste-up artist. Under the guise of the moniker ‘Drab’ he creates small and large scale pieces of art, prints them onto jumbo sheets of paper and—normally in the quiet post-midnight hours—sticks them onto surfaces in and around the city and its suburbs. For as long as I have known him and followed his work (we used to live in an old weatherboard together with a few other sharehouse denizens and so I was able to watch him from go to whoa) I have been jealous. Not because I want to be a paste-up artist (mixing the glue is labourious enough, let alone doing the actual pasting up, which requires considerable measures of dexterity, mettle and stealth), not because I wish I had a smeck of talent for visual arts (although I do wish it; I can’t draw; I’m one of those people who when asked to draw a cat or dog or horse will end up with something on the page resembling a mutant platypus) and not because I harbour secret guerilla-ish urges to skulk about at night doing things naughty (again, I do, but that’s irrelevant, for here anyway). I’m jealous of Drab because his creative toils, along with all paste-up’s elements of artistry and inventiveness, is so tangible, so perceptible, so hands-on. In the space of a day—or a few days for a larger/more elaborate piece—he is able to devise and produce something in the shelter of home or studio, on his computer or by hand, in silence, channeling his imaginative energies into image-on-paper, and then go out into the world and literally place it there, in that wider world, under the cover of a greater silence, knowing that people are very soon going to see his work and react to it. He can even go back there and watch people as they interact with his paste-ups. It’s so seeable, his work is, and corporeal, and finite. And the best bit: his paste-ups never last. They are pulled off or covered over or simply peel away over time, and then it is finished. What a lark, creating something whilst already having its death in sight.

Writing and publishing a novel is just about the opposite experience (or at least it has been for hundreds of years, but it might be morphing now). It’s not something you can fashion with your hands and then go out into public and stick it up and then it’s done. It can’t be assembled in a day or two or even a week (although of course there are exceptions to that rule, but they are exceptional exceptions, like Oliver Sacks, who wrote his first book Migraine in nine days, but only because he’d vowed to himself that if he didn’t finish it in ten days he would kill himself, and anyway, this was after a protracted period of trying to write the book, so the nine days was really a whole lot longer) and it’s not going to disappear completely within a few weeks at most. Writing and publishing a novel is a commitment to something, and it’s scary and long and shit a lot of the time.

Read the rest of this post over at Southerly.

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Hans Fallada and writerly outsiderness

I have another post up at Southerly. This one’s a bit higgledy-piggledy:

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Hans Fallada and being outside when everyone else is inside

It was my birthday recently—it’s okay, you weren’t to know—and as a gift my girlfriend’s parents sent me a copy of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. I had never heard of Fallada before reading this novel, and I found it quite a curious read in every meaning of the word curious (intriguing, strange, etc.). Published in 1947, the story opens in 1940s Berlin, in a Germany in the throes of National Socialism. Revolving around a couple’s humble resistance to the Nazis as they write and drop anti-Nazi postcards around the city, the narrative quickly spirals—either up or down, depending how you look at it—so that a myriad of characters are involved. It’s a little bit Dickensian (or for a more ‘now’ cultural reference, it’s like David Simon’s couple of TV series, The Wire and Treme) in that characters come and go, and you never know who is going to be central and who will fade away. And as such the most interesting element of the book is the realistic depth of these characters, in that not one of them is painted entirely white (good) or black (evil). Instead everyone is a slightly different shade of grey, and prone to change as the years progress, meaning that the maelstrom of grey people mixes and merges to create the hostile, jittery city that was the city of Berlin, then.

Despite my enjoyment of it, I’m not here to tell you whether or not you should read the book. You can figure that out for yourself. What I am here to share is the exceptional biography of the author. It is remarkable, and I only stumbled across it because following the end of the story is an afterword that gives some background on Fallada (birth name Rudolf Ditzen) and also a detailed overview of historical circumstances of the writing and publication of Alone in Berlin, as well as the rest of his previous ten or so novels. It is in this afterword that the novel is lifted another notch as we learn of just how the book came to be.

Early on the morning of 17 October 1911, eighteen-year-old Rudolf Ditzen and his friend Hanns Dietrich von Necker armed themselves with pistols, walked out into the countryside and fired on each other in the manner of duellists. Like many other young men in imperial Germany, Ditzen and von Decker had struggled to reconcile their developing sexuality with the prevailing social conventions, and were seeking escape in a suicide pact, but they staged it as a duel to uphold the honour of a young woman and to protect the reputations of their families. Von Necker missed with his shots, but he was fatally wounded by Ditzen, who then used his dead friend’s revolver to shoot himself in the chest. Remarkably, Ditzen survived, and he was charged with von Necker’s murder. However, Ditzen was declared unfit for trial on psychological grounds, and committed to a private sanatorium for the mentally ill.

Read the rest at Southerly’s website.

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GNTM Zwei Tausend Elf

I have a new piece up at The Channelling, an online lit mag about television that was created and produced in a week.

I wrote about this:

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 Germany’s Next Top Model Final Episode Zwei Tausend Elf; or The Heidi Klum Show; or Skinny Deutsch Girls Try to Walk Good; or Ze Germans Spend a Pretty Pfennig On a Whole Lot of Not Much

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Okay, so I’m pretty sort of sure that I am writing this here piece for a website literary magazine gambit that I think will be called The Channelling. Actually, that’s all I know. I’m not sure why I have been asked to do this, but I think ‘why’ was expunged from the global lexicon in like 1995 or maybe 2001 or something, so I’m not worried. I think when N’Sync sung ‘bye bye bye bye (bye bye)’ so many times in that killer song of theirs, it was saying bye to why. I don’t know where I just came up with that. If this was the New Yorker I’d have a phalanx of researchers and fact-checkers, but this is not the New Yorker, it’s a fusty corner of the internet.

A friend of mine involved in this project emailed me a comprehensive briefing of exactly what he wanted me to do. Here it is, in its entirety:

watch an hour of German TV and review for it for me… or at least write about the experience of watching foreign TV…

Read the rest of this piece over at The Channelling.

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yeah

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male and female and masculine and feminine

When I was young and getting really stuck in to reading, I thought Enid Blyton was a man. I’m not sure why, I just did. Sure, now I know Enid is a girl’s name, but to eight-or-nine-year-old me it wasn’t. I just never bore it in mind; it wasn’t important in relation to the enjoyment of the words. It’s not like the child me ever thought to take his nose out of the pages in order to dissect characters like Moon-Face and The Saucepan Man in respect of the accuracy of the representations of their sex, nor did I ruminate on whether the topography of the Faraway Tree or of Greatheart was in any way even slightly gendered, and I didn’t contemplate whether the language was masculine or feminine, as it was just words telling me about worlds that weren’t mine. Enid Blyton was simply Enid Blyton, the creator of wondrous stories that I liked to read. Indeed, it wasn’t until my late teens when in one of those unforgettably cringeworthy moments that are as indelible in memory as tattoos are on skin—I think we were having a nouveau-nostalgic and no doubt overly earnest discussion of childhood literary loves—that I used the pronoun ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ to wax lyrical about Blyton, and found myself the focus of smirking incredulity. Embarrassing!

Of course, a young kid today who isn’t sure what he or she is reading has all the information of the world at their fingertips; mysteries are disappearing. A young reader of Blyton now can just open their browser and type and point and click, and any unknowns quickly become knowns. If they want to break it down even further they can then take their e-reader and copy and paste a section of a Secret Seven or Famous Five book into one of the myriad gender tests available on the internet, like The Gender Genie, and, already knowing that Enid Blyton is a woman of such-and-such disposition born in this place with this-and-that awards, see if Blyton also writes in a feminine way. This particular test, inspired by a 2003 article in The New York Times Magazine, uses an algorithm developed by a university in Israel to predict the gender of an author:

‘…what the gender-identifying algorithm picks up on is that women are apparently far more likely than men to use personal pronouns — ”I,” ”you” and ”she” especially. Men, on the other hand, prefer so-called determiners — ”a,” ”the,” ”that,” ”these” — along with numbers and quantifiers like ”more” and ”some.” What this suggests, according to Moshe Koppel, an author of the Israeli project, is that women are more comfortable talking or thinking about people and relationships, while men prefer to contemplate things.’ (quote from here)

Now, I’m inclined to think that ‘tests’ such as this just add to the cacophony and confusion, especially when they want to separate female and male writers simply by the pronouns and determiners they employ. I think it widens the divisions and shines the spotlight onto writers, when it should really be focused on where the problems are: with publishers and the media.

Read the rest of this post over at Southerly.

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south for winter

All of a sudden, without warning, I’ve started blogging at Southerly. How frightening! For everyone!

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My first post looks like this:

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Freunde und Liebhaber, ich bin (k)ein Berliner

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Chances are the wizardry of your web browser automatically deciphered into English the title of this blog post, but in case not, it translates roughly as Friends and lovers, I am (not) a Berliner.

I’m a Melbourne lad, a writer and editor of sorts, born and raised by windy Bayside beaches, and right now I live in Berlin, Germany. There are several explanations I give to people who ask me why, and some of them are even true some of the time. But this here Southerly blog is not the place to muck about, so I’ll tell you the real reason: I am here in hiding.

No, I didn’t commit big crimes in Australia that required me to go all Christopher Skase-y or Tony Mokbel-ish. And no, I’m not like Lara Bingle or Naomi Robson or anyone else who is basically unemployable in Australia and scraping the bottom of the respect bucket to boot. I left Melbourne because I was having an increasingly hard time writing good words there, and writing good words is my favourite and chosen thing. So instead of confronting and defeating those demons of mine, I ran ran ran, and ended up in Berlin, one of the most famous cities of the past century.

There’s a David Sedaris essay that appeared in the New Yorker in August 2009, called ‘Laugh, Kookaburra’, in which during a visit to Australia he delves a little into his own personal history. It’s good. Towards the beginning of the essay he tells of a friend who asks him to imagine a four-burner stove:

“ ‘One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.’ The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

This is something I’ve thought about from time to time: whether a writer should sacrifice certain whole slices of the life pie in order to focus enough on writing. Maybe only for a few years? Perhaps for life? Or I could be wrong: for all I know doing so might turn out more detrimental than beneficial? I don’t know. Right now I have definitely cut off my family; we still touch base via email and Skype, but distance is distance. And to a certain extent I have secluded myself from my friends too, although I have great email relationships with many of them, and nothing makes you feel more epistolary than being on the other side of the world. But yes, I definitely feel refreshingly unencumbered here, and (perhaps) consequently my writing is going okay, too.

Read the rest over there.

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david simon on the end of the american empire

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William Gaddis knows how to research, he does.

I’ve been getting into William Gaddis recently, and so of course it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his pretty-famous one-off interview with The Paris Review.

The whole interview is great (as Paris Review interviews usually are), although it’s better if you’ve read his books first.

There’s one bit, towards the end, when the the interviewer asks him about how he went about incorporating the Hungarian-language phrases into his (best) book, The Recgonitions, and Gaddis responds like this:

Well, I had written those scenes in English because I try to get things right, and so if they are in Hungary, if they’re in a Hungarian hospital, obviously they are speaking Hungarian. So I took these passages to a bar in the Upper East Side of New York, where there is a large Hungarian community, had a drink, and approached the bartender. I told him I had a problem, that I wanted these passages in Hungarian. He called someone over. Finally there must have been ten people around me arguing about exactly the correct accent, the nuance of the phrase. When I had written it all down, he said, “Now, the man who was the leading figure in this conversation, whom everyone else bowed to, as it were, is a great Hungarian actor. If he said you got it right, you know you have it right.” And, of course, as it all turned out, when I’d gone up there ready to buy a drink for anyone who would help me, it was they who bought mine.

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That’s how a massive and massively important novel gets written, folks.


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