Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Hisses, treadlings, clunks and saw-edged whines"

Some clippings from Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, while I wait for the dryer downstairs to free up. (My Kindle and my computer are rarely in the same place at the same time.) First, an overall note: it starts off wonderfully but runs out of steam, mimetically I guess. The book is about Russia between Stalin and Brezhnev; Spufford is interested in fairy tales, and wants to think of the Khrushchev era in terms of the Russian fairytale trope of the "self-victualling tablecloth"; the shoe doesn't quite fit, but comes close enough that the book isn't entirely silly. It is arranged in groups of vignettes that are each supposed to illustrate daily life in some part of this era; each group is introduced by a brief historical overview. The social range extends from low-level party workers to Khrushchev. Because the fairy tale was supposed to be powered by science, there is a lot of writing about mathematical economics and genetics and the like. I thought this was variable in quality and generally suffered from Spufford's preference for metaphors over explanations. A chapter about a scientist dying of lung cancer, in particular, narrates the progress of cancer through one's genes cells at inordinate length and with a hideous overreliance on the word "gloop." It is probably the worst science writing I have ever read -- esp. because, as I hope the clippings here and in prev. posts indicate, it's written by a remarkable prose stylist -- and deserves an award of some kind.

Nevertheless, here are the clippings:
a discordant symphony of hisses, treadlings, clunks and saw-edged whines

(about a plywood factory)
The train passed through Baltimore, Philadelphia and Jersey City, America turning its back view to him as the carriages slid athwart streets and behind rows of red-brick buildings. He gazed and speculated. It was like looking at a man facing away from you, and trying to guess what was in his pockets. He saw rusted fire-escapes clamped to the back of buildings and bundles of electrical wires in fat festoons looping from wall to wall. He saw oil storage tanks, he saw rubber tyres burning on a wasteland in a black smeech of smoke, he saw billboards advertising trinkets and cigarettes. The Americans seemed keen on neon signs, not just for important or official purposes, but everywhere they could be fitted in, violet and green and red, in humming sputtering anarchy. Troyanovsky translated some for him: MOTEL, CRAZY GOLF, JACK’S VALUE AUTO. Sometimes the view turned disconcertingly to blank virgin forest, as if America had tendrils of Siberia reaching right up into its metropolises.
(Re fire escapes, cf.)
Outside, the late summer day had become one of those evenings where the sky has the pure, clear colour of darkening water, moving to black through deeper and deeper blues.

an expression of bafflement on a face like a sweating cheese

Ask the computer and it would obey, as ready as a genie in a bottle – and as intolerant of badly-framed wishes.

What has come over me? thought Sasha. He remembered a joke. What is a question mark? An exclamation mark in middle age.

The closer a science was to practicality, the more it was co-opted into serving the practical needs of power. The closer it was to the dangerous ground of social science, on the other hand, the more distorted by ideology it tended to become. And the more abstract it was, the more intellectually uncorrupted it was likely to remain. The result was a landscape of intellectual lives laid out very differently from its counterparts abroad. Where the United States (for example) was a society ruled by lawyers, with a deep well of campus idealism among literature professors and sociologists, the Soviet Union was a society ruled by engineers, with a well of idealism among mathematicians and physicists. Law, economics, history were sterile, insignificant fiefdoms, ruled by ‘little Stalins’

The car was not in good shape. The muffler banged and the gears stridulated as it lurched off the snowbank and away. Also, someone had been sick in the back and the mess had been incompletely cleaned up. Chekuskin pulled the tails of his overcoat up and sat as far as he could from it.

Alexei Nikolaevich Kosygin was a neat old, solid old, dry old pol, with deep lines running from his nose to the outside corners of his upper lip, which lifted his cheeks, when he smiled, into little sardonic bunches of muscle as round as billiard balls.

And, amid the wreckage of the lung cancer chapter:
True, it is a disgusting noise he makes. It begins as a commonplace wheeze in his throat, but tumbles down into his chest where it hacks and rattles and audibly moves clots of viscous wet stuff around, till the wet stuff has been dragged up into his airway, and he’s in a gasping, gargling struggle to get it off his epiglottis, and out, so that he can breathe again. He spits into his handkerchief, clean this morning, now stiff and crusty, stained with nameless emulsions. He’s been bringing up the traditional jade mayonnaise of bronchitis every winter for as long as he can remember, but this is something different, something thicker and redder and meatier, like liquescent liver. He folds the handkerchief away, and tries to muster his persuasive powers.

1 comment:

Jenny Davidson said...

The lung passage is amazing - "the traditional jade mayonnaise of bronchitis" (!)....