Sunday, December 28, 2008

extracts from the reading list

I have to toss a sop to coincidence when the phrase tout court shows up in two books that I picked up at the public library on Christmas Eve. I'm sure the phrase is not uncommon, but I have to confess that I haven't seen (or noticed) it before. As a tribute to the coincidence, here are some extracts from each book.

The first is the third book in Donald Spoto's series on Alfred Hitchcock. Spoto's name and work is known to any serious Hitchcock fan; A well-turned copy of The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, the second volume in the series, lies in my bookshelf (gathering some dust, I must regretfully add). Employing a pun, Spoto calls the new book Spellbound by Beauty and it covers, as is evident from the title, the Master's obsession with his leading ladies (and especially blondes). Spoto has been accused of starting to paint a rather uncomplimentary picture of Hitchcock as a person, starting with his second book. This third book, as the preface indicates, seems to promise more material that is bound to offend those that hold Hitchcock in high regard, as a creative genius without blemish. But, as Spoto also points out, genius has never been free of a life peppered with hurdles, sorrow, hardship and personality flaws:

Writing or speaking anything other than the highest praise or failing to promote the most affectionate encomia for so august an icon as Alfred Hitchcock has become, in the eyes of many, equivalent to cultural sacrilege. But the craft of biography requires that the shadow side of subjects be set forth and comprehended - otherwise, their humanity is diminished, their pain minimised, and those they hurt are ignored. Any appreciation of Hitchcock's art and life must take into account the enormity of his psychological, physical and social suffering, as well as that which he (perhaps unintentionally) caused others. From his suffering came the obsessively recurring themes and the constant sense of dread with which he continues to astonish, entertain and enlighten.

The other bit comes from the wonderful introduction by Anthony Burgess to the compilation The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard:

Ballard considers that the kind of limitation that most contemporary fiction accepts is immoral, a shameful consequence of the rise of the bourgeois novel. Language exists less to record the actual than to liberate the imagination. To go forward, as Ballard does, is also to go back -- scientific apocalypse and pre-scientific myth meet in the same creative region, where the great bourgeois novelists of tradition would not feel at home.

The complete text of the introduction is available in the Google Books preview of the book.

The final extract (did I say two? I lied) comes from Emmanuel Carrère's book I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey in the Mind of Philip K. Dick. It's a succinct description of what happens when a cult figure acquires mainstream acceptance and recognition:

Given the uniform Vintage editions of his complete works and the many articles about Dick that have appeared in both academic and popular journals, his fans must feel a little like the early Christians did when their faith was officially adopted by the Roman Empire: triumphant, of course, but also slightly nostalgic for the days when they lived in the catacombs. The Happy Few cease to be happy when they are no longer few. Dick has become part of the mainstream.

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