Orcs and Oulipo – TLS piece by Peter Hoskin on Fighting Fantasy

There’s an affectionate piece on Fighting Fantasy books on the TLS website by Peter Hoskin (I am not sure if “TLS Online” means it will not appear in the print edition)

Some highlights:

The Fighting Fantasy books, which began with Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, are categorized as gamebooks. In each, the reader makes decisions about how the story will proceed. Do you want to go down the foul-smelling tunnel to the left, or up the rickety ladder to the right? Would you like to fight that monster, or run away in terror? Discovering the outcome of your choice, and making another choice, involves turning to a particular numbered section of the book. If you’re fortunate, you may eventually succeed in your quest. If you’re unfortunate, death awaits.

There is a brilliant cruelty to Fighting Fantasy, which is demonstrated by the treasure map in The Port of Peril. It took about half an hour of forking paths, monster encounters and dice rolls before I discovered that there was no treasure, and the real story was only just beginning. Half an hour in which I had been toyed with. “It’s like sprinkling petals towards quicksand”, is how Livingstone described the process when I spoke with him recently. “I really enjoy that”.

However, this isn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake – at least not always. It encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the details of the story. My first death in The Port of Peril came when I decided to avoid a half-orc by hiding in a cellar. If only I’d remembered that I had moved an iron stove from a trapdoor to access the cellar, and the stove could just as easily be moved back by anyone who wanted to keep me down there. Heedlessness, in these books, is the quickest route to failure.

Some notes on the history of FF books:

The whole series began when Geraldine Cooke, then an editor at Penguin, asked Livingstone and Jackson to write a book about the craze that, through their company Games Workshop, they had imported into Britain – Dungeons & Dragons. They proposed, instead, a book that might allow people to experience the craze for themselves. This was D&D, but without the complex latticework of rules and equations, nor the need to corral several people around a table for a hard night’s play. This was a slimmer, solo experience.

Not everyone at Penguin was as broad-minded as Cooke. In Jonathan Green’s excellent book about Fighting Fantasy, You Are the Hero, Cooke reveals that one member of senior management was so unimpressed with the idea that he “la[id] his head on the table and howled with laughter”. His view, presumably expressed between guffaws, was that these interactive books would never catch on

I do wonder if Hoskin slightly overstates the influence of interactive fiction in this piece. We read:

Nowadays, many other writers are applying similar constraints to their work. The app version of Iain Pears’s novel Arcadia (2015) presents its readers with a sort of map that they can press their fingers to, allowing movement between different branches of the story. These branches were written to work alongside each other, but also with the software and within the dimensions of an iPad.

One novel does not a trend, or a school make… and there remains a gimmickiness to much interactive fiction. I say that as someone whose later childhood was fairly dominated by the “five fingered bookmark” Livingstone mentions in the last paragraph:

Perhaps we’ll see a widespread return of what Livingstone calls the “five-fingered bookmark”, used by adventurers who want to retrace their steps as soon as something goes wrong. This is cheating, really, although it’s also in keeping with the greatest lesson that Fighting Fantasy can teach. Every page is a precipice from which you can return. Die and try again.

Hoskin invokes B F Skinner and Oulipo in a brief survey of the precursors of the gamebooks, but misses one, earlier, precursor: William Gerhardie and Prince Rupert Lowenstein. I’ve written about this before:

One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

Harry Mathews, “My Life in CIA”, nthposition, 2005

I am sorry to hear that Harry Mathews has died. Mathews in many ways relived the expatriate American writer story previously incarnated by Hemingway, Pound, Gertrude Stein and so many others. Mathews’ obituaries focus on his status as “the American Oulipian”, a member of the literary group whose most famous member was Georges Perec. I alluded to Oulipo in my review of The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel as part of a continuity of avant garde (if that isn’t an inherent contradiction):

Over time, the Latrourexians embarked on somewhat more interesting adventures – developing the various games featured inThe Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. They are perfectly aware that they are not really innovators – acknowledging their debt to the Surrealists, Situationists, Fluxus, and Oulipo, amongst other–ists and groups sounding like laxatives. The Oulipo author Harry Mathews, in his recent My Life in CIA, describes something very similar to the Latourex concept.

Now I’m usually a sucker for these kind of things. There’s something attractive about the Latourex concept, something of the Chesterton of The Club of Queer Trades and his other, sunny fictions touched more by buoyancy than nightmare. And who has not spent some time playing Exquisite Cadavers, the Surrealist game which involves writing a sentence or paragraph, folding the page to hide all but the final words, passing it to a companion who does the same and passing the paper on, thus ultimately creating a jolly little tale?

Surrealism is an oddly unproductive set of techniques. The initial rush of novelty and amusement at the odd combinations thrown up by Exquisite Cadavers fairly quickly gives way to boredom. The avant-garde, ironically, has barely changed throughout the last century. There is simultaneously something very dated and very timeless about experiments in automatic writing, group writing, and the rest. On the one hand, nothing is as dated as yesterday’s cutting-edge, as a quick look at any Sixties “experimental” movie will confirm.

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The rather lofty dismissive tone of the above is, I think, a form of reaction formation.  I have always been drawn to literary games and writing-about-writing, and alternate between a sort of shame about this (seeing it, I think, as a rather cheap way out of Proper Writing) and an exhiliration.  I wrote a rather facetious review of his 2005 novel “My Life In CIA” for nthposition – attempting to play a little literary game of my own:

 

What a coup! Agent Harry Mathews has, for a long time, had the perfect cover. An expatriate author, specialising in fiction that experiments with the boundaries of form, Mathews had the ideal cover job. People will forgive any amount of eccentric behaviour in an author, the more so if he is an “experimental” one. His work as a CIA agent in France from the early Sixties to late Seventies was nearly terminated by the events described in this book. Half formed rumour has continued to dog him since, and he has here hit on an elegant, ingenious solution; write an “autobiographical novel” claiming to be a work of fiction whose point of departure is a real situation. The action of the novel, I can exclusively reveal for nthposition, is all true (well, I cannot entirely vouch for some of the more spectacular sexual encounters). Only the pretence that Mathews was and is an innocent abroad who was never remotely connected with the Company is false.

The germ of this book is the supposed misconception in Paris in the late Sixties and early Seventies that Matthews was CIA. (A character in the novel tells him, and us, that “the first thing to remember is that nobody connected with the Agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.”) Mathews tells us that there were similar false rumours that he was homosexual, and that he was a millionaire. Thus he presents the rumours that swept Paris that he was CIA as just-one-of-those-things, one of those persistent rumours that are entirely false but nevertheless acquire the patina of truth. Most readers will have experienced something similar, discovering rumours have spread about themselves that are as hard to eradicate as they are false.

Having won the readers’ trust, what follows is a dazzling psychological gambit. We expect Mathews to blur the distinction between fact and fiction. The uninformed reader might assume that this is what he is doing. We are told of his early consternation at being told by well-informed Parisians that, bien sûr, he is of the CIA, and why is he denying it? A potential lover and some Chilean exiles encourage him to play the part, to live it up, to “make the role your very own. It’s a winner. Believe me, respectable men will flatter and pursue you for information you haven’t got” and think of all the women who are dying to get into bed with a real spy!”

Mathews, in the novel, begins to arrange “drops” and to behave as if he is being tailed. He acquires a friend who, working in the private intelligence-gathering sector, teaches him the tradecraft of espionage. His role is so convincing that the Soviets haul him into their embassy for a grilling. He is denounced as a decadent literary gadfly at Communist Party meetings and is sucked into the orbit of fascist groupuscles such as Nouveau Orde and the nascent Front Nationale. Finally he is forced to flee Paris and events take a shocking, bloody turn.

Mathews may seem an unlikely author of a page-turning thriller. Agent Mathews is the only American member of Oulipo, “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”, the French literary circle that included Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino and which explored the interface between literature and mathematics, imposing constraints on the writer that would lead to unexpected results. The paradigmatic Oulipo work is Perec’s novel “A Void” (La Disparition), which is entirely free of the letter e.

Of course, as Mathews says to another character in his “autobiographical novel”, Oulipo had and has no specific politics, although most members are probably broadly leftish. Aside from the obvious observation that, for someone working for the Company, an interest in cryptograms and the sort of cryptic crossword intelligence that informs the Oulipo spirit is essential, the benign, larky nature of Oulipo means that no one would suspect this memoir of being anything other than an ingenious literary game, rather than the blend of confession and apologia it really is. Of course, it is a false confession, a double bluff, a minor truth used to pass a big lie.

Aside from the technical and mathematical interest of his work, Mathews is also a writer of engaging, witty prose. He possesses that “literary vitamin” which George Orwell diagnosed as being missing from Wyndham Lewis’ novels, on which “enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured” but nevertheless “it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through.” Mathews’ prose, even at its most “experimental” and opaque in terms of theme, somehow retains a certain readability. Novels like The Sinking of the Odarek Stadium and Cigarettes might confuse and baffle at times, but also have a clarity and sense of narrative purpose that carries the reader along. Perhaps Agent Mathews is not such an unlikely figure to write a thriller as gripping as a Jack Higgins or Frederick Forsyth.

In a neat example of life imitating art, few could read this novel without thinking of Our Man in Havana. Again, this is Agent Mathews’ genius at work – for this helps reinforce the sense that this is merely a rhetorical device, that therefore the more spectacular events are fictional. Echoes of real events are one thing, echoes of literary events are another – so the reader is seduced into assuming that the whole is a work of fiction.

So there is not a trace of falsehood or its cousin, fiction, in this “autobiographical novel.” Agent Mathews has not merely learnt from CIA – he has much to teach it. In times like these, the Agency needs men like Mathews.

“L’imagination au pouvoir” Edo – giant cardboard bricks

“L’imagination au pouvoir” Edo – giant cardboard bricks

Recently, via Kickstarter, I acquired no less than 50 giant cardboard bricks. These are the work of Simon Marussi of Edo, an Italian startup.

The blocks came just before Christmas but for various reasons I could only get them in the New Year. A pleasant evening – or two – of block assembly ensued. Initially my children played with the box the Edo bricks came in, while I tried to work our the (initially slightly confusing) instructions. Once up and running, assembly was straightforward and in its own way mindful, and the children could join in some of the tasks,

There are basically two bricks – a single “stud” (to use the Lego terminology) one:

and a double “stud” one:

There is also a junction piece to connect up blocks.

With these, an awful lot can be built. Edo bricks lend themselves to the building of forts very well:

And also to small prisons useful for holding captured toy dogs. In the top left hand corner of this photo we see the bricks in their pre-assembly state. 

Edo blocks have proved a hit with my own brood, although they are often the target of demolition work as much as they are used for construction work. I also have found by experience the importance of proper assembly, especially bending down small cardboard bits as per the instructions, and trying to ensure that the folds are as smooth as possible (fortunately, it is much easier than origami!) Edo bricks obviously evoke Lego, but also the creative spirit of Caine’s arcade (if you don’t know what that is, please follow the link or watch the below:

Josef Pieper on silence and leisure

I came across this on the ever wonderful First Known When Lost blog:

“Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality:  only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.  Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean ‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness’; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed.  For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru) (Ignatius Press 2009), pages 46-47.  The text of the book is based upon a lecture delivered by Pieper in Bonn in 1947

Pieper was not a thinker I was familiar with before reading the blog. His work has  been featured in Brain Pickings. Here, the focus is on Pieper as a prophet contra workaholism:

Pieper traces the origin of the paradigm of the “worker” to the Greek Cynic philosopher Antisthenes, a friend of Plato’s and a disciple of Socrates. Being the first to equate effort with goodness and virtue, Pieper argues, he became the original “workaholic”:

As an ethicist of independence, this Antisthenes had no feeling for cultic celebration, which he preferred attacking with “enlightened” wit; he was “a-musical” (a foe of the Muses: poetry only interested him for its moral content); he felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he “would like to kill Aphrodite”); as a flat Realist, he had no belief in immortality (what really matters, he said, was to live rightly “on this earth”). This collection of character traits appears almost purposely designed to illustrate the very “type” of the modern “workaholic.”

I’d be interested to find if the concept of hesuchia is explicitly discussed in Pieper’s book. To recap (from Alastair MacIntyre’s After Virtue):

Hésuchia appears in Pindar (Pythian Odes 8.1) as the name of a goddess; she represents that peacefulness of spirit to which the victor in a contest in entitled when he is at rest afterwards. Respect for her is bound up with the notion that we strive in order to be at rest, rather than in order to struggle ceaselessly from goal to goal, from desire to desire.

 

Tristan Gooley, observation and cognitive bias

Recently my brother gave me a present of Tristan Gooley‘s The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Tracks and Signs. I have read various Gooley books over the years, and to some I have given the signal honour of losing or getting ruined by rain. I have also found they are books which work much much better in physical form that as eBooks.

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Tristan Gooley (source – his twitter page @NaturalNav)

Gooley’s books are deceptively digressive – there is a firm structure within which a vast array of knowledge from eclectic sources are displayed. This leads to learning an awful lot of what, in other hands, could be off-puttingly didactic material in an entertainingly brief time.

As well as this, just-one-more-bit quality, there is a generosity to Gooley’s prose which the following passage exemplifies:

Everybody will have seen treasure hunters on the beach at some point: solitary figures with headphones who march silently up and down the beach swinging their metal detectors. These hunters get an unfair press generally, because most people fail to appreciate that in every activity that seizes a person’s interest there must lie an artistry. The metal-detecting part of treasure hunting is far from the whole process.

Gooley seems very far from the kind of moral one-upmanship which is so prevalent these days, facilitated greatly by social media.

The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs considers, in turn, various outdoor settings interspersed with narrative pieces that describe a particular walk or experience of Gooley. For instance, the very first section is on “Ground” – getting a sense of how terrain and observable geology can give clues to direction. This is followed by sections on trees, general plants and mosses/algae/fungi/lichens. Then we have “A Walk with Rocks and Wildflowers” which unobtrusively helps synthesise this information.

Gooley is not just focused on what we usually think of when we think of “the outdoors”, but on urban environments too. Here he is astute in observing the ways in which towns and cities are shaped by the same forces of geology, wind, rain and light that apply in rural settings.

Gooley’s work has got me thinking again on bias. Writers such as Daniel Kahneman have greatly popularised the concept of cognitive bias, and the many ways we humans can Get Things Wrong – especially when we Know We Are Right. Time to re-embed this tweet:

 

As may be clear from the blog post I linked to above, I have some sense that the hunt for bias has rendered us all too suspicious of our amazing ability to observe the world, and make generalisations from those observations that may not be perfect, but are incredibly useful in navigating the world – literarlly so in Tristan Gooley’s work. Gooley’s books are, as well as everything else, something of a corrective to over-suspicion of human observation.

Montmorillon, Musée Robert Tatin, and the blindness of the Anglophone internet

Recently in France I visited two highly recommended tourist sites (I have no issue describing myself by the word “tourist”).

One, Montmorillon, is described by English language wikipedia (more of which anon) as “a commune in the Vienne department, in the Poitou-Charentes region, in western France.” Indeed it is. The English language wikipedia page does have a few more details. It was where Montmorillonite was discovered (in passing, I wonder how geologists pronounce this mineral with a straight face) It is famous for its macarons and for various educational posters.

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Via Wikipedia (the English language one) a bit of Montmorillonite

It omits, however, Montmorillon’s self description as Citie d’écrit et Les Métiers Du Livre and its wide range of specialist bookshops and shops devoted to, well, les métiers du livre. Of course, this is not all that rare now, with Hay-On-Wye being the most prominent example in these islands of book-focused tourism. Montmorillon was a particularly charming example of the genre, with its steep streets and striking architecture. I didn’t pick up that much; a a French language edition of Ballard short stories with some interesting comments from the man himself) from Les Chants du Maldoror, and a Korean personal organiser sporting the name “Buffoon Schedule” from Utopiarts. My children picked up lovely items from Fantine’s Creations and origami/calligraphy shop Au Coeur Du Papier.

 

 

We had limited time to explore unfortunately but I must mention the kindness of the man in motorsport/aviation/all-things-internal-combustion themed bookshop  Numero 10 who gave some obviously somewhat heated (in every sense) children free sudukos.

numero10.jpg

 

 

 

Anyway, the point it also that this extremely charming destination is unheralded on the English language internet, pretty much – we had discovered it via a leaflet in another site. The point was reinforced a few days later driving from Craon towards Cossé-le-Vivien. On the map I spied the Musée Robert Tatin. The reader can of course follow the link to the museum site and also the link to the blog post that immediately follows: but I would advise that if you are anywhere near the area just visit as much of the impact comes from the sheer unexpectedness of the site (for the same reason I am resisting posting photos)  The inevitable Google search I performed on seeing the museum on the  map revealed nothing much in English except this interesting post on a site devoted to “outsider art environments”

The impact of Musée Robert Tatin partly comes from its unexpectedness.It is something like a sort of Angkor Wat in the Mayenne countryside, in terms of visual impact. It is also a wonderful place to bring children (though the staff did politely warn us to ensure they didn’t touch the fragile artworks) as it has, amongst other things, a playground, a hedge maze, a fountain, a pond, and lots of space to run around in. Part of me wonders how the art work would fare taken out of its context (though that what site-specific means, obviously), and much of Tatin’s painting seemed to be rather Kandinsky-lite to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating and refreshing detour.
Anyhow the point of all this touristic blather on my part is that neither site was one which those depending on English-language web resources or searches would have encountered (though I guess they may have visited Montmorillon for macarons) In an age when boosterism often tries to persuade us that all the information in the world is easily accessible, and that English is the global language, it is salutary to be reminded that you can still stumble across things (of course, in both these examples I found internet resources – but afterwards, and not [primarily] in English)

LEGO DC Comics Superheroes: Justice League – Gotham City Breakout

LEGO DC Comics Superheroes: Justice League – Gotham City Breakout

 

 

justiceleague. I was somewhat surprised and confused in late 2013 to discover that a “Lego Movie” was imminent. This was because there were, already, more than a few Lego Movies already – at first I thought this was perhaps a belated big screen release of Clutch Powers

Cue nostalgia-wallow: when I was young, Lego was sturdily educational. For parents of a certain age, Lego retains both a nostalgic patina but also an air of worthy educational value.  It is now a matter of academic record that Lego has become more violent since then, but a subtler change is the enmeshment of Lego with pop culture from The Big Bang Theory to Frozen. It is a rather sad commentary on the reality of the promise of liberation from the hegemony of corporate mass culture, often made in the early years of the mass popularity of the internet, that Lego Ideas (Lego’s platform for user-generated ideas) is dominated by proposed sets based on the self same mass culture.

Lego’s status as an educational toy is perhaps somewhat overstated ( it is sometimes claimed  it cannot compare to Meccano for teaching proto-engineering skills) and, while it gets some bad press, not nearly as much as you would expect for a company of its size and reach. For instance, Lego became  the world’s largest tyre manufacturer a few years back.

I laughed like a drain at the cinema watching the Lego Movie. I laughed more than my children. I didn’t laugh quite so much the next few times, though oddly enough it seemed to grow on my children fairly considerably. It is clear that much contemporary children’s entertainment is slanted subtly to parents as much as children. This is a fine line which Toy Story, for instance, treads very well. Whereas the likes of Madagascar and Ice Age are, to my taste, a little too slanted towards adult-friendly winks. Of course, as with so many things with children’s culture, this says more about me than about them

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the imminent Lego Batman Movie, with Will Arnett voicing Batman and a fairly starry cast (Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galafinakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson) . I feel rather sorry for the voice actors displaced, such as the wonderful Troy Baker, the voice of the straight-to-video Lego Batman. Baker, and the rest of the Lego movie voice cast, do a wonderful job in bringing the various personalities to life.

Anyway, onto LEGO DC Comics Superheroes: Justice League – Gotham City Breakout, the rather cumbersomely titled latest installment of Lego movies set in the world of DC Superheroes. Lego’s superhero movies have, so far, been a satisfying blend of action and wit, and a particular strength is the characterisation of the heroes. Batman is a serious, grim obsessive, entertainingly contrasted with the rather childlike antics of the other superheroes.Of course, Lego Batman in his own way is a rather childlike figure; the serious, intense child with a sense of mission.

batmanparty Over the course of the movies, the characters have developed, with Cyborg evolving from a rather anonymous superhero to a rather star-struck figure anxious to impress the legendary superheroes around him (especially Batman) Superman is a perpetually naive alien who is baffled by high-fives.

Gotham City Breakout starts with a surprise party for Batman (which he naturally is not surprised by) marking his Bat-anniversary. Robin, Batgirl and Nightwing insist on his taking a vacation, a word which Batman has trouble even pronouncing. Batman’s reluctance to leave Gotham – “crime doesn’t take a holiday” – is finally broken down by Superman’s staying on as a kind of locum, with Robin left behind to advise. Superman entirely underrates Gotham’s “non-powered” criminals and sees Robin as purely a child to be babysat rather than a source of advice. When the Joker, with the help of a spoon, breaks out of Arkham Asylum, Superman’s hubris has near-disastrous results.  Meanwhile, Batman (along with Batgirl and Nightwing) find what was meant to be a nostalgic trip to a former mentor become a subterranean adventure.

Gotham City Breakout is an enjoyable film that had held my children’s attention repeatedly.I found it ever so slightly too knowing – although “knowingness” and self-reflexivity about the superhero universe has been a feature of the Lego superhero movies from the start, in this installment these features are played up a little too strongly for my liking. But just a little. In a way, this feels like a recapitulation of previous tropes and themes. In the Lego superhero movies so far, we have seen the usually solitary Batman embrace team work and indeed team leadership. Here we have the same theme replayed, except with Superman shown as learning to regret his hubris. There is also a nice theme in the subterranean plot about bravery and courage.

Overall Gotham City Breakout is a solid film in the Lego superhero series, which is certainly entertaining – but has a slight sense of treading water, perhaps until the big screen version comes along.