My recent posts here have been mostly reviews or critiques of books. I felt a change was needed today. What else should I write about? I’d begun drafting a piece about Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, Secrecy, that I’d heard discussed with the author on Eleanor Wachtel’s podcast for Canadian radio. It sounded good, and I read it over Christmas. As I drafted the post, though, I became disenchanted with the task: I hadn’t enjoyed the book much, and the piece tailed off. Maybe I’ll incorporate the material in a roundup of 2014 reading later in the year. (I meant to take a picture of the cover to include here, but have put the book away on some less-frequented bookshelf and can’t find it now.)
This morning, having some time to devote to this post after a busy period at work, I sat at my desk waiting for inspiration. My interest in medieval literature persists, even after spending years on postgraduate research into medieval hagiography. I love clicking through the beautiful images of British Library digitised illuminated MSS, and found myself making notes on Gerald of Wales. The project became too complicated for today’s post – it’s easy to see why it took so many years to finish my PhD, I’m so often side-tracked – so that piece is on ice.
Instead I thought I’d search for the Penguin Classics copy of his The History and Topography of Ireland that I thought I had on my shelves somewhere. True to form I became distracted. I couldn’t find the book, but what I did find is what I want to write about today. As I made these happy discoveries I started reshelving the books into themed clusters – a task I always find strangely (worryingly) satisfying. Many of these books I’ve still to read, so I must stop buying new ones.
I found my Penguin Classics copy of A Celtic Miscellany: Translations from the Celtic Literatures (odd plural), edited by Kenneth Hurlstone (splendid name) Jackson. A student of the legendary medievalist Chadwicks at Cambridge, he went on to teach at Harvard and Edinburgh. This anthology was first published by RKP in 1951; a revised edition in Penguin was published in 1971; this is the reprint from 1976. I must have bought this secondhand in Cambridge, for pencilled inside the front cover is the price paid: 40p. The retail price printed on the back cover is 95p, so if I bought it in the early eighties that’s not exactly a great deal. Among the sections in the anthology are ‘Hero Tales and Adventures’, ‘Love’ and ‘Religion’, which includes an extract (from the Cornish-language miracle play of about 1505) dramatising the arrival in Cornwall (where I live) of the sixth-century (?) Breton St Meriasek (or Meriadoc) and his miraculous creation of a spring of fresh water. This spring, near his oratory outside Camborne, was reputed to have healing powers. He later returned to Brittany, founded monasteries and became a bishop. Can’t say I’ve ever seen this spring. My wife once bought me a wonderful book about the sacred wells of Cornwall; I must look again to see if Meriasek’s spring is mentioned.
Some years ago I taught at a college some miles from where I now live. Because of a change of site the old college library was culling much of its stock of books; staff were invited to salvage what they wanted, and I acquired a pile which I rediscovered while searching for Gerald of Wales:
Hardback: a Chatto and Windus copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, from the 1970 Collected Edition. Had I known I possessed this I wouldn’t have used the tatty paperback Penguin for my blog piece on this superb novel a few months ago.
There’s a rather fine 3-volume edition of Coleridge’s extraordinary anthology of essays, Biographia Literaria; not surprisingly I could only find vols 1 and 2 for this picture (in which I’ve included the fine anthology of English Prose published in the now sadly defunct Pelican imprint – though I believe it’s about to be revived.)
Paperback: two rather interesting DH Lawrence volumes – Selected Literary Criticism (first published 1956; this is the 1969 reprint) edited by Anthony Beal; I have looked into this from time to time; and DH Lawrence: A Selection (also Heinemann, 1970), edited by R.H. Poole and P.J. Shepherd. The title page tells us the disarming news that Poole was a Senior Lecturer at Wolverhampton Teachers’ College for Day Students, while Shepherd was SL at Eastbourne College of Education. As a teacher in Further Education myself I’m intrigued, and wonder how many of my colleagues today would be commissioned to edit such prestigious academic tomes…
Two volumes of literary essays now sit together: Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow and the one that inspired one of my earliest blog posts, T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood . I like the symmetry of their austere covers. All of these books still have the old library shelf-mark taped to their spines.
I still haven’t read the Penguin MC edition of e.e. cummings, The Enormous Room, or Edward Upward’s The Railway Accident and other stories. An anti-fascist in the thirties and member of the Isherwood, Auden and Spender set, he’s now largely derided or forgotten. Must get round to reading this book. I like the surrealist cover.
Also rather obscure now is Gamel Woolsey’s Death’s Other Kingdom, in the distinctive green covers of the early Virago Travellers series (this one dates from 1988). An American by birth, and perhaps better known as a poet, she moved to the UK to be near her lover Llewellyn Powys, and later (1930) married the writer and Spanish scholar Gerald Brenan; Bertrand Russell had also wanted to marry her. This book is an account of her experience, with Brenan, of living through the Spanish Civil War; it was first published in 1939.
There are two fine hardback Everyman novels: Moby-Dick, and the now neglected Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey (he featured recently in Robert McCrum’s weekly list of great novels in the Observer newspaper).
There are several elderly Penguin Classics editions, in the distinctive black livery with fine colour pictures on the front cover, of Balzac’s novels, including The Chouans and The Black Sheep. I’ve read neither, but have fond memories of Goriot – a set text for A Level French.
Let me finish with some happily random rediscoveries – all from the one bookcase in my front porch (I didn’t get as far as the living room, or the boxes relegated to the cellar by my spring-cleaning wife, who found the double-stacked cases, with the inner layers hidden from view by the horizontal second layer, just too untidy to countenance; no doubt I’ll have more serendipitous discoveries when I look properly at these).
There’s one of the first books I recall owning: a purloined library copy of Scholes and Kellogg’s The Nature of Narrative (OUP, 1966; this is the paperback reprint of 1971). I was an A Level student (English, French and Spanish; today my students are required to study four subjects, poor things), and this was one of the first works of lit crit I ever encountered; I was mesmerised by the authors’ erudition and by their fascinating thesis; I still look into this book occasionally, and always find gems in there.
Finally, also as yet unread, is a paperback copy of a novel by M.J. Hyland, Carry Me Down. It’s a nice clean copy with an attractive cover. Somebody left it on a train a few years ago, and as I’m a bibliophile magpie I rescued it and brought it home.
Maybe on my next free day I’ll go to the cellar and search the boxes for Gerald of Wales. The nearest I’ve come up with from the one bookshelf so far is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of the kings of Britain…