Monday, February 28, 2011

BEETHOVEN'S LAST WORDS (and Voltaire's, and Hugo's, and Dickinson's, el al)

"Friends applaud, the comedy is finished."
           - last words of Ludwig van Beethoven, died 1827

“I am dying. I haven't drunk champagne for a long time.”

                - last words of author Anton Chekhov, died 1904

“All my possessions for a moment of time.”

          - last words of Queen Elizabeth I of England, died 1603

 "The flames already?"

- the last words of Voltaire, 1778,

            after noticing a candle burning by his bedside

“Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms.”
  - last words of author Alexander Pope, died 1744

 “Did I not tell you I was writing this for myself?”

         - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of his Requiem. Died 1791  

“If you will send for a doctor I will see him now.”
              - last words of author Emily Bronte, died 1848

 “Get my swan costume ready.”
             - last words of ballerina Anna Pavlova, died 1931

 “I wish I could pass away like this.”
             - last words of artist Vincent van Gogh, died 1890

 “I see black light.”

   - last words of author Victor Hugo, 1885

“I must go in, the fog is rising.”
- last words of poet Emily Dickinson, died 1886

“Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”
- last words of author Oscar Wilde, 1900

“It is very beautiful over there. God bless... God damn. Go away, I'm all right.”

- last words of author H. G. Wells, died 1946 

“I knew it. I knew it! Born in a hotel room - and God damn it - died in a hotel room!”
          - last words of playwright Eugene O'Neill, died 1953

  “I’m afraid I’m being an awful nuisance.”

               - last words of poet Edith Sitwell, died 1964

 “Let's cool it brothers.”
          - last words of black rights leader Malcolm X, died 1966

 “Why not? Yeah.”
               - last words of Harvard psychologist and 
LSD “acid guru” Timothy Leary, died 1996

“Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius. Will you remember to pay the debt.”
- last words of Socrates, died 399 BCE

“I am quite happy. Unaccountably happy.”
      - last words of poet Allen Ginsberg, died 1997

  “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.

- last words of actor Humphrey Bogart, died 1957

“That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted.”
- last words of comedian Lou Costello, died 1959

“I want you to tell me the truth. Did Ernest really like me?”
  - author and wit Dorothy Parker a few days before her death

“Excuse my dust.”
- epitaph of Dorothy Parker, died 1967

“Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
         - last words of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, died 1923

“Go on, get out - last words are for fools who haven't said enough.”
                       - last words of Karl Marx, died 1883

"For three days after death hair and fingernails continue to grow but phone calls taper off."
                         - television show host Johnny Carson

(With some) their death is a stroke of cleverness: it makes the world more enigmatic, more difficult to understand than it was when they were alive, which is the true task of thought.
                                    - Jean Baudrillard, died, 2007.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Living at a time when the Roman Empire had been weakened by natural disasters and plagues as well as military setbacks and chronic economic woes, Valerian (190-259 CE) became one of a lineage of emperors not destined to rule for long.
Having wrested the title in battle in 252, he promptly initiated a new persecution of Rome’s Christians, before turning his attention to the east, where he faced the Persians. He advanced through Syria into Mesopotamia, where he encountered the army of the Persian king Shapur I, in 259. Although the Roman forces enjoyed significant numerical superiority, they were soundly beaten, and in suing for peace Valerian found himself betrayed, and Shapur’s prisoner.
Fourth century author Lucius Lactantius records that Shapur used Valerian as a foot-stool for a while, but bored with this, had him skinned and stuffed with excrement and hung in his temple as a symbol of Roman submission to Persia. Or, just possibly, an early instance of ecumenicalism.

*From my book Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths.

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Monday, February 14, 2011


With some hours of plane and train travel home ahead, I browsed through the airport bookshop, finding not much more than sporting bios, crime, and chickoporn, or as a writer of women's erotica once memorably put it, "female rodiga". 

Fortunately there was a stand of Popular Penguins, those orange toned generic paperbacks, through which Penguin is reviving its early heady days of quality writing at an affordable price. Back before the 1960s and 70s, when new imprints with fancy covers, like Paladin, Abacus and Picador started to appear, these generic Penguins were the source. Later, of course, they joined the new, flashier imprints, and we all paid more for, well, flashier covers.

Flicking through the stand of books, I encountered those I had read, and those that for some reason or another, some foolish ingrained prejudice no doubt, I had always declined to read. But then I came across one I thought would surely get me to the far side of my civil aviation footprint, The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler.

I don't as a rule go for crime, police and detective stories, and such. There's more than enough of that on the nightly news, and, in case you missed them, in shows on almost every channel after the news too, including the locally produced Underbelly shows, a "franchise" that glorifies criminals and glamourises violence. But what else is new? After all, television is the brown paper bag of the media, the one with the bottle of cheap port snuggled inside it. But then, there are crime stories and crime stories. Crime and Punishment is a, well, crime story. So for that matter is The Brothers Karamazov.

Like a lot of readers, I had read Chandler in the past, notably The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. But despite its intriguing title, I had not read The Lady in the Lake, and so could look forward to an afternoon during which Chandler's inimitable voice (many have tried, none succeeded) would take me away from the airline seat where I sat wedged between a pair of transfatties, or on the train seat beside the bloke in trakky dacks loudly running his multinational corporation, house-hunting and sex life from his mobile phone. 

The Lady in the Lake did get me there with ease.  Chandler is renowned for his "hard-boiled", dry, droll tone, witticisms and epigrams, and here he was in fine form, with "All the expression went out of his face. There hadn't been much to go", and "The self-operating elevator was carpeted in red plush. It had an elderly perfume in it, like three widows drinking tea." But what was interesting reading him this time, was how ultimately unimportant were all the interminable twists and turns in a plot that felt like a ball of wool pawed at by a kitten. There were of course the murders, all equally macabre, lots of women with loose curls and smooth elbows, and a switchboard of stories so intricate the author is compelled to have his private dick hero, Philip Marlowe, update it to other characters, and so the reader, every so many pages. 

In the end, though, I felt he barely needed to have bothered, because this book is not about the lady who ended up in the lake - the big non-surprise he felt compelled in all authorial honesty to hint at early on - and around whom the entire multi-level plot hinges. This is because Chandler is not telling us a story about characters so much as about the Los Angeles of the 1940s, and the America of the 1940s, in which the merest scratch of the surface, to wit, a matrimonial enquiry, may readily expose the seething innards of a rotten world, of hypocrisy and brutality top to bottom,  of cops for hire and routine political corruption. Marlowe's cool acceptance that this is the way things are, is part of his "hard-boiled" quality throughout Chandler's works - but it is also about Chandler telling us what we might find if we delve a quarter inch below the sunny surface of California of the 1940s and 1950s.

The same might be said of the film I happened to catch the night after I got home, Polanski's classic Chinatown. Here again, as with so much in the pulp and noir genres, the story begins with a matrimonial job for a private eye. Again there are the sticky fingertips of wanton women and the fists of hard men, and a plot so complicated you need a magnifying glass to follow each spidery thread to its inevitably linked-in conclusion. Along the way you encounter murder, incest, brutality, and theft of the grandest kind. But in the end, this too is a work which is far more than a whodunnit, one which scrapes away the surface layer of American capitalism and exposes the workings of a system which rewards greed and theft, and punishes honesty and diligence. It is a system where even the water supply of an entire state is little more than a chip in a poker game, a hood ornament for an old prick. As with The Lady in the Lake, it's not so much where the story ends, which in each case is the outskirts of Nowhereville, but in what is glimpsed, often in one's peripheral vision, on the nasty ride down there.

Recently Penguin's plain covered books have been joined on the stands by a new outfit also publishing in generic covers, but in this case new Australian works. Press On has raised subscriptions from readers to publish, a scheme in which the subscriber pre-buys three books, at a discount rate. Their latest publication is Leaving Home with Henry, by Phillip Edmonds. 

Edmonds, who is an accomplished short story writer as well as publisher of Wet Ink literary magazine, has literally breathed new life into the Australian literary icon Henry Lawson in this book. His central character, whom we know only as Trevor, and about whom we know intriguingly little, sets off on a driving trip which takes him to Canberra, where after a visit to the National Library to read some of Lawson's letters, finds he has the real Henry stowed away in his back seat. Together then they take off on a road trip that skirts the Outback, as well as to Nimbin and the Gold Coast, where Henry comes face to face with modern Australia - warts, Pauline Hanson and all. 

Edmonds' superbly crafted novella is by turns funny, beguiling and thought-provoking, and running to a total of 89 neat pages, ideal for modern attention spans too.  He succeeds in bringing Lawson back to life in all his dimensions. After all, the man who wrote of "Red Revolution" in The Faces in the Street also wrote the poignant classic The Drover's Wife, the hilarious yarn The Loaded Dog, and the iconic urban poem The Bastard From the Bush. But as in the best works of the shorter forms, it's what isn't said, about Trevor, or about Henry, that gives this book the space for the reader to breathe, and to think. And as with the works mentioned above, again it is not ultimately about the plot, but about the land Lawson loved, and from which we casually avert our gaze each day, in favour of our laptops and our TV sets, and the shows we see upon them, almost inevitably, about people shooting people,  on the news, and in the crime shows that follow.

Unlike chickoporn rogida, which comes in lurid shades of pink and violet, usually with a scantily clad female form recumbent across the cover like a freshly shucked oyster, these plain-covered books give nothing away, tell not too much, nor protest too much. Yet quietly, Chandler and Edmonds both peel away the shiny outer layer to reveal the uncomfortable truths beneath. And is that not what books should do, and leave the pap and pulp to TV, that does it so very happily?

Leaving Home with Henry:

Sunday, February 6, 2011


My selection from Flaubert's Dictionary Of Received Ideas, his satirical poke at foolish attitudes among the French bourgeoisie of the 1870s - though, it might be agreed, some possess a sly truth of their own.

ALABASTER - Serves to describe the loveliest parts of the woman's body.

ARCHITECTS - All imbeciles. Always forget to include the household staircase.

ARMY IRREGULAR - More terrifying than the enemy.

ART - Leads to the poorhouse. What's the use of it, since we're replacing it with machines that do it better and work faster?

BASILICA - Pompous synonym for church. Is always imposing.

BATHING COSTUME - Very exciting.

BLONDES - Looser than brunettes (See BRUNETTES)

BOOK - Whatever it is, always too long.

BRUNETTES - Looser than blondes (See BLONDES)

BUTCHERS - Are terrible in times of revolution.

CATHOLICISM - Has had a most favourable influence on the arts.

CELEBRITIES - Concern oneself with every detail of their private lives, in order to be able to denigrate them.

CENSORSHIP - Has its uses, say what you will.

CLARINET - Playing one causes blindness. Example: all blind people play the clarinet.

CLOAK - Always the same colour as the wall for gallant escapes.

CLOGS - A wealthy man of humble origins always came to Paris in a pair of clogs.


CONVICTS - Always have a ruffian look. All of them very clever with their hands. In the prison colonies they are men of genius.

CRUCIFIX - Looks good in an alcove or beside the guillotine.

CRUSADES - Were beneficial to Venetian trade.

CURLS - Do not suit men.

DESERT - Produces dates.

EMIGRANTS - Earned their living giving guitar lessons and making salads.

ENGLISH WOMEN - Express surprise that they should produce attractive children.

EPISTOLARY - Literary style exclusively reserved to women.

ETRUSCAN - All ancient vases are Etruscan.

GAME PIE - Always made of cat meat.

GARRET - How happily one lives at twenty!

GENIUS - No need to admire it, it's a "neurosis".

GERMANY - Always preceded by blonde, dreaming. But what military organization!

GORDIAN KNOT - Something to do with Antiquity. (Ancient people's way of tying their cravat.)

HERRING - The wealth of Holland.

HIDES - All animal hides come from Russia.

HORIZONS - Find them beautiful in nature and dim in politics.

HUNCHBACKS - Possess great wit. Much sought after by lascivious women.

HYDROTHERAPY - Cures and causes all diseases.

ILLUSIONS - Pretend to have many, complain about having lost them.

IMBROGLIO - What all pieces of theatre are really about.

IMPERIALISTS - All honest, polite, distinguished people.

INDIA RUBBER - Is made from a horse's scrotum.

INDOLENCE - Consequence of living in hot countries.

INFINITESIMAL - One does not know what it is, but it is connected to homeopathy.

ITALIANS - All musicians. All traitors.

JAPAN - Everything there is made of porcelain.

JESUITS - Have a hand in all revolutions. Nobody realises how numerous they are.

LACONISM - A language that is no longer spoken.

LAURELS - Prevent one from sleeping.

LITERATURE - Occupation of the idle.

MACKINTOSH - Scottish philosopher. Inventor of rubber.

MALDOLIN - Indispensable in the seduction of Spanish women.

MARTYRS - All early Christians were martyrs.

MEDICAL STUDENTS - Sleep next to corpses. Some even eat them.

MERCURY - Kills the disease and the patient.

METALLURGY - Very fashionable.

METAPHORS - There are always too many in an author's style.

MILK -Dissolves oysters. Attracts snakes. Whitens the skin; some ladies in Paris take a milk bath every morning.

MINUTE - One has no idea how long a minute can last.

MISSIONARIES - Are all eaten or crucified.

OBSCENITY - All scientific words derived from Greek or Latin conceal an obscenity.

PHOENIX - Good name for a fire insurance company.

POLITICAL ECONOMY - Gutless science.

PUBLICITY - Source of wealth.

PYRAMID - Useless undertaking.

QUESTION - To ask it is to answer it.

RELATIVES - Always unpleasant. Conceal those who are not rich.

RHYME - Never accords with reason.

RUINS - Make one dream and lend poetry to a landscape.

SABRE - The French want to be governed by a sabre.

SNEEZING: It is a witticism to say: Russian and Polish are not spoken, they are sneezed.

STUDENT: All wear a red beret, baggy trousers, smoke a pipe in the street, and do not work.

SUMMER: Always exceptional (see WINTER).

SYPHILIS - To some extent or other, everyone has it.

TOILETTE (of ladies) - Troubles the imagination.

TOYS - Should all be scientific.

TROUBADOUR - Fine motif for an ornamental clock.

WINDMILL - Looks good in a landscape.

WINTER: Always exceptional (See SUMMER).