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Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. Viking, 2018

Mrs TD bought me this stimulating collection of four essays (she also got me a lovely Japanese Namiki fountain pen – maybe more on that another time). In an interview with Colm Tóibín by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book in August (it begins around 8 mins 20 secs, link HERE) the author explains its origins and his intentions. I draw upon that interview in my general comments here.

Toibin Mad Bad coverInvited to deliver a series of lectures at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Richard Ellmann, who’d written biographies of Wilde and Joyce and ‘a very good book on Yeats’, Colm Tóibín concluded that there was no point in expounding directly on these Irish authors, because Ellman had done that. The mothers, he goes on, were ‘a problem’ in two of the instances, because they ‘left no record’. But the fathers, in all three cases, were ‘very lively, interesting characters’ who’d left a legacy, in letters or other forms, and in the various other influences they’d had on the writings of their famous sons.

While I was reading this book during my Norway trip a couple of weeks ago I was troubled by the scarcity of reference to the three mothers. The author explains in this interview that not only, as stated above, was there a paucity of documentation about them, but also he’d already written a book (published in 2006) on Mothers and Sons; the explanation seems a little flimsy, but I suppose it’ll do.

It’s a lively and entertaining book, as you would expect from such a fine writer. The opening chapter is an impressionistic essay in which Tóibín recreates a walk through the familiar streets of Dublin, some of which are filled with a ‘peculiar intensity’ of ‘memories and associations’. He reflects on the buildings and places, including the General Post Office, HQ for the 1916 rebellion, Finn’s Hotel, or St Stephen’s Green, ‘the heart of the city’, full of ‘a secret energy’, and ‘Yeats territory’ – though it features importantly of course in Joyce’s work; Stephen Dedalus refers to it as ‘my Green’. His walk takes him past sites redolent of Dublin’s and Ireland’s turbulent history and rich culture, and their key personalities, from Cuchulain to Hopkins and Newman, to these three writers. He’s drawn particularly to those buildings that housed the families of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. It’s the close proximity of all these places that’s so apparent in this essay: Dublin is in that sense a small city. Tóibín’s narrator is haunted by these presences.

All three ‘prodigal fathers’ were deeply flawed. Sir William Wilde was a polymath: travel writer, historian, biographer, antiquarian and statistician with an expert knowledge of the history and language of Ireland. He was also an internationally renowned eye and ear doctor. The most interesting aspect of the essay about him and his son is the way that Tóibín brings out the strange congruence between the notorious libel case about a sex scandal Sir William was involved in (he had an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable young woman he’d treated: Mary Travers) and the libel trial which was the ruin of his son decades later involving the Marquess of Queensbury.

Despite his caveat mentioned above, I’d have liked to hear Tóibín’s views on Wilde’s extraordinary, dramatic mother, ‘Speranza’. He quotes Yeats as saying that any understanding of who Oscar Wilde became had to take into account

the mixture of formidable intelligence and unmoored strangeness exuded by his parents.

Unlike poor Oscar, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, which ruined his health, shortened his life and destroyed his reputation, Sir William wasn’t ostracised from society and the scandal didn’t have too detrimental an effect on his family’s life. On the contrary, Tóibín speculates that the glittering soirées in the Wilde’s house in Merrion Square where he was raised exposed him to the brilliant conversation and unconventional morality that flourished there. This may well have ‘nourished’ his later dramatical work —

but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence.

The essay on John B. Yeats, the one who Tóibín says he probably admires most out of the three fathers, reveals a feckless man who showed scant interest in providing for his family materially, and spent many of his later years alone in New York. Tóibín makes a powerful case, however, for the profound influence he exerted on his children, especially the sons Jack, one of the most gifted Irish artists of his generation, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet William. Through his talk when he lived with them, and later when he wrote them scintillating letters, he instilled in them his views on the salience of the spiritual, non-material world, and of the perils of beliefs that are too dogmatically, inflexibly held. Interesting parallels are drawn in this essay with the relationship between Henry James and his brother William with their father.

The deficiencies of John Stanislaus Joyce are too well known to repeat here. Tóibín is most interested in the literary representations James made of him throughout his fiction. He traces with enthusiastic precision, especially in Ulysses, the generosity of forgiveness with which the son portrays his indigent, drunken, violent, volatile father. I’m not entirely convinced that his being a fine tenor and bar-room raconteur altogether redeems him (he was, after all, ‘a bully and a monster’), but that’s not the point. We learn a great deal about the making of James Joyce as an artist and how he used this unpromising upbringing to fertilise his prose fiction. Tóibín concludes, in characteristically elegant style:

Because Joyce found the space between what he knew about John Stanislaus and what he felt about him so haunting and captivating, he forged a style that was capable of evoking its shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fullness, and indeed its pain and misery.

 

Norway 2: Bergen and the coastal ferry

Following on from yesterday’s post about Oslo, I started drafting a piece for today on the complexities of the languages spoken and written in Norway, but it started to become too academic, so I’ll just stick to more pictures. As the comment from ireadthatinabook pointed out last time, there are two main variants: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive account.

Bergen harbour

Bergen harbour in the rarity of a sunny day

After three days in Oslo we took the long train ride to Bergen. It’s a pretty harbour town and ferry port surrounded by hills, but less vibrant than the capital – though my son, who’s in the music business, tells me it has a buzzing music scene.

Bergen view from hill

Bergen view from hill

There’s a funicular up to the top of one of them. Great views from the top, and some friendly goats. Friends on social media suggested they’re descended from central Asian cashmere goats.

Bergen goat

At Bergen we boarded the Hurtigruten ferry which was to take us over seven days right up the western coast of Norway, stopping numerous times – often during the night when we were sleeping. This was not a cruise ship, but a working ferry, used by locals as a more convenient way of travelling north when the roads have to avoid long fjords and wind around mountains.

It had more in common with a night sleeper train than a pleasure cruiser. Such a good way to see the harbours, cliffs and crags of this beautiful west coast.

Sadly the northern lights didn’t show up.

Arctic circle marker

Arctic circle marker

Once we crossed the Arctic Circle the scenery started to become bleaker and more brooding, with skies to match.

Here’s some of the pictures I took; I hope they convey some of the magnificence and atmosphere of this nordic world.

 

Ferry wake 2Ferry weather skyTrondheim Cathedral was built in the middle ages by British masons, which probably explains why its front and design generally look so familiar.

I liked the detail of the Norse monster decorating the edge of the romanesque arch over a doorway. A nice pagan touch on a Christian building, typical of the medieval northern sensibility.

The statue of a whaler in Tromsø is an unfortunate reminder of Norway’s history as a whaling nation. Sadly there was often whale steak on the menus of restaurants.

We did get to see some sea eagles at Honningsvåg on another sunny day.

Honningsvag sun

Evidence that it doesn’t always rain in Norway: this is Honningsvåg harbour, with out ferry in the background, with the orange hull.

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral front

Trondheim cathedral front

Ferry wake

Norway trip: Oslo

I wanted to relate some of my enthusiasm for my recent two-week visit with Mrs TD to Norway. Although this and any subsequent posts about it won’t be the usual bookish stuff entirely, there will be a literary-cultural aspect, so please don’t look away.

Many Norwegian houses are made from one of the country’s most abundant resources: wood. Not surprisingly, many of its towns and cities have therefore been damaged by fires. After over a dozen such conflagrations, Oslo was effectively destroyed in 1624 in one of its biggest. It was rebuilt and the new town named Christiania, after the then king Christian IV. After a spelling reform in 1877 it became Kristiania. It reverted to Oslo in 1925.

A whole post could be devoted to the Norwegian language. Maybe next time.

Perhaps the best-known novel set in Oslo is Hunger (1890) by proto-modernist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). I wrote briefly about it in one of my earliest posts here. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 – a choice that became increasingly controversial because of his support for the Nazi cause during the German occupation of his country before and during WWII. Everywhere we went in Norway there were stories of the ruthless scorched earth policy adopted by the retreating German troops near the end of the war. Whole towns were burnt down and anything that could be used or eaten by the approaching allied forces was destroyed. I hope to say more about the occupation in another post.

The city today bears little resemblance to the one his troubled protagonist roamed through. The area round the Oslofjord harbour is now all steel and concrete high-rises.

The most striking is the Opera House, which I mentioned briefly in my previous post. It’s supposed to resemble a glacier, and it’s fun to walk up its sloping sides to admire the view from the top.

Oslo new Munch museum

The new Munch museum is scheduled to open in spring next year

Behind it is the almost finished new Munch Museum. It’s one of the largest and most striking-looking buildings on the waterfront. I’m not sure what it reminds me of most: a racecourse grandstand, perhaps. It’s a rectangular block, but its top few floors lean forwards as if trying to look at the floor. The architects call it ‘Lambda’, but I can’t see the similarity to that Greek letter.

We visited the existing Munch Museum, housed in a less dramatic modern block just off the city centre. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was born forty miles from Oslo, and moved there in 1864.

Although it doesn’t hold more than a few dozen of his paintings, the most famous are there, and many of the tens of thousands of prints and drawings he donated to the state in his will. His two most famous – The Scream (‘Skrik’ in Norwegian; I think ‘The Shriek’ doesn’t quite convey the existential horror the picture conveys) and The Madonna – were stolen in an armed raid on the museum in 2004.

Munch Scream

This is I think the 1910 version of The Scream, done in oils; there are also two versions in pastels, and several versions in lithograph

Both were recovered, slightly damaged, two years later. His obsession with these works is reflected in the numbers of versions he produced in oils and prints. Like most of his work, they reflect his lifelong acquaintance with illness, bereavement, love, loss, terror and loneliness.

Munch Madonna

Much has been written about this Madonna (also titled Loving Woman). The pose is ambivalent: erotic, pained, strong, submissive, a victim? The facial ecstatic/pained expression reminds me of the marble Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rådhus Oslo

Rådhus Oslo [Public Domain photo: By Ranveig – Own work, CC SA 1.0]

The other most prominent waterfront building is the Rådhus, home of the city council.

This is where, since 1990, the Peace Prize ceremony is held annually. Alfred Nobel (1833-96) is perhaps most famous for inventing dynamite, but he patented over 350 other inventions, including gelignite. At his death he owned ninety armaments factories (including Bofors).

When his brother died in 1888 a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary for Alfred. So appalled was Alfred to read its condemnation of him as ‘marchand de la mort’ that he made a will donating most of his huge wealth to the foundation of the five prizes named after him, so that his legacy would not be that of a merchant of death. It’s not known why this Swedish industrialist stipulated that the Peace Prize should be decided by a Norwegian committee; the other four are determined by the Swedish academy.

It’s an ugly brutalist building (constructed 1931-50). The mud-brown brick it’s made of has given rise to its unflattering nickname with locals: Brunost, a Norwegian brown cheese that tastes as bad as it looks. But it has some interesting decorative features. My favourite is the frieze of multi-coloured scenes by Werenskiold from the Norse legends related in the Poetic Edda .

Swan maidens

Three valkyries, half spiritual, half earthly, come flying as swans and change into three beautiful maidens. Three brothers discover them, carry them off and marry them. Seven years later they left. Volund remains at home waiting for his wife’s return; his brothers leave to search for theirs [adapted from the caption to this relief in the frieze]

Oslo deer frieze

Four deer grazing on the world tree Yggdrasil’s green shoots. Three of them in this relief are depicted as symbols of ‘peace, cautiousness and timidity’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other most notable literary figure associated with Norway is of course Henrik Ibsen (1822-1906). Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the museum located at the house where he lived for his last eleven years in Oslo, after spending most of his life in exile abroad – he found the people and atmosphere of Norway stultifying, as much of his drama shows. He wrote in Danish; as I said earlier, so much could be said about the significance of Norway’s relationship to language.

Munch sick child

Munch, The Sick Child. One of his earliest departures from his earlier Impressionist style in favour of the effort to depict his inner soul and emotions expressionistically or symbolically. This is one of six paintings and numerous prints on this theme done 1885-1926; it probably depicts his sister Sopie’s deathbed. She gazes into the abyss – or her aunt’s face. She died of tuberculosis when he was 14; his mother died of the same illness when he was five. Mental illness also ran in the family, the awareness of which haunted him as much as his morbid fear of the precariousness of existence.

Another time I intend to post on the rest of our experience of Norway: by train to Bergen, then the working ferry to Kirkenes…

Norway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius

Oslo opera house

Oslo opera house with the almost finished new Edvard Munch museum to its right

This is my first post since returning from a break in Norway. Three days in Oslo, a lovely city, with floating saunas in the harbour opposite the dramatic sloping roof of the Opera House – designed to look like a glacier. You can walk to the top and get a great view from the top.

Long train trip to Bergen, which at first we found a letdown after Oslo, but it grew on us. Then the Hurtigruten ferry (the name means ‘rapid route’) up the coast, over the northernmost tip of the country and back down yet another fjord into Kirkenes (‘church on a promontory’) just a few kilometres from the Russian and Finnish borders to the south and east. It was one of the most bombed cities in WWII, and has suffered greatly over the years from invasions and occupations by hostile forces.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius coverI read the two books I took with me. First was Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius. Picador paperback, 2015, 339pp. 19651. This was the first in a bundle I bought for a ridiculously low price from the Book People, a budget UK online bookseller. Jacqui Wine recommended this at her blog as the best one to start with.

I enjoyed the crisp, intelligent writing style, and the observations of characters were astute. In this respect EJH reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor: both writers are good at depicting lonely, unfulfilled, thwarted women. Esme is particularly well drawn: at 58 she’s spent the past twenty years as a widow, her eponymous husband Julius having sacrificed his life by sailing single-handed to assist at the Dunkirk evacuation, with no previous maritime experience. It’s an act of suicide, for he’d discovered Esme was having an affair.

Esme’s lover Felix is fourteen years her junior, the love of her life, and she’d hoped when her husband died that they’d at last be able to be together. She’s disappointed. Now, twenty years on, he’s invited himself to a weekend at her country house in Sussex. Her two daughters are there, both also unhappy in love.

The narrative is structured with poise and skill: the three parts deal with the three days of the weekend, with frequent glimpses into the past lives of the main characters that gradually explain how they’ve become the people they are. Five of the chapters in each part take the restricted viewpoint in turn of each of these main characters, with the sixth being a culminating set group piece, usually ending in disaster or farce. Events become complicated, enlightening or humiliating for all of these five characters, as revelations are made that transform their views of themselves and each other. There’s some dark humour to leaven the rather melodramatic plot, and a particularly poignant section in which, in flashback, the fate of Julius is recounted.

It’s a novel of set pieces, such as country house meals and rural walks. Descriptions of interiors and the outdoors are delicately done, integral to the unfolding of character and relationships. The housekeeper’s cat is a fine feline portrait.

Like Jacqui, however (link to her post here) I had grave reservations about some of the sexual relations. Howard is astute about the dawning sexual liberation of the early sixties, with some frank and touching insights into its consequences. It wasn’t the outspokenness that disturbed me; it was her portrayal of abusive and controlling treatment of women by some of the male characters without any apparent sense that this was reprehensible. Unfortunately this ruined for me what had otherwise been an entertaining and well written novel.

The men are weakly done, too. Esme’s anxious and vulnerable younger daughter Emma has brought home an uncouth, working-class boor called Dan Brick (apt name) who we are intended to believe is a poet. She works at the family publishing firm, and he’s supposed to be a literary genius. Yet he shows no sensitivity to or interest in language, culture or people. He’s an inverted snob, scorning the privileged lives of these wealthy people from a world so different from his. He’s a character who doesn’t ring true at all, and this seriously weakens the novel. I found it impossible to believe that a young woman like Emma would be attracted to such a brute.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Esme’s former lover, Felix, either. Like some of the other characters he attempts to reconcile conflicting moral impulses (Dan wouldn’t even begin to understand such a concept), but ultimately he too behaves like a cad.

I was left at the end thinking that Howard wanted in some way to punish these lonely, desperate women. She shares some of the acerbic wit of Elizabeth Taylor’s narrators, but little of their generosity.

There’s another review of After Julius by Caroline here

I enjoyed the second book much more: Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know will be the subject of another post. There may be more on Norway, too.

 

Sennen, Geevor, a tin miner and DH Lawrence

A week ago I drove with Mrs TD down to my favourite part of Cornwall, west Penwith, for one of our regular visits to these remote and beautiful moors and coasts. There’s a point on the A30 when the road crests a rise and a couple of miles below you see the magnificent sweep of Mount’s Bay, with the dark turrets of St Michael’s Mount in front, and the graceful crescent of the bay curving round to Penzance and beyond (I’ve posted about this, and St Mary of Egypt, here.)

Sennen Cove harbour

We headed further on this road, past Penzance, to Sennen Cove. We wanted to see again another lovely Cornish bay – not as spectacular as Mount’s Bay, but still lovely. It’s a popular destination for summer holidaymakers, and on a lovely August day the beach was busy with surfers, swimmers and watchful lifeguards (but not, sadly, the famous Newfoundland surf lifesaver dog, whose name I forget; there’s a book about him.)

The cliffs loom above the cream-coloured sand of the beach, giving the bay a sense of being protected by a tremendous elemental force: furrowed and fissured black granite.

We wandered through the village, heading for the art gallery: the Capstan and Round House. It’s a wonderful old building, with an ancient capstan wheel in the basement; there’s just room to walk around its perimeter and admire the artworks on the walls and surfaces.

Geevor entrance flags

Entrance to the Geevor Mine site

The owner was charming: Colin Caffell (his partner runs the gallery upstairs). He told us about his commission a few years ago to make a memorial statue to Cornish miners. He started with the clay model, then handed it on to the people who specialise in casting. He also told us about the garden in which the statue stands, at the entrance to Geevor Mine, a few miles along the coast road just outside Pendeen, which of course we had to drive on and visit (it’s only been there since 2015, and we’ve somehow never been in before).

This north Cornish coastline is spectacularly beautiful: more rugged and forbidding than the south, just a few miles across the moors of this narrowest part of the peninsula. I’ve posted before about Cape Cornwall, nearby, with its dangerous offshore rocks and iconic community of red-legged, red-billed choughs. Also nearby is the surprisingly large town of St Just, home of the gallery of one of my favourite artists: Kurt Jackson.

 On his website the sculptor Colin explains his intentions: he wanted to position the seven-foot bronze resin statue in a garden containing grasses and plants from all of the continents to which the intrepid Cornish hard rock miners took their skills: the Americas, Australasia, Africa and Asia. The colour scheme he was aiming for, the blues, oranges and reds, were intended to evoke the sunset over the Atlantic. He wanted this garden to become a ‘place for quiet reflection.’ It is.

Of course the plants had to be hardy enough to survive the salty winds blowing off the ocean. He goes on to say that the plants do better than one might expect; the artist Patrick Heron managed to create his own exotic garden where he lived not far along the coast.

The plaque beneath the statue reads:

Hard rock breeds hard men

Who slip between earth’s cracks for a living,

The dark chasm which closes around you,

Tight like a fist, draws you down

Into the mine’s gullet, the belly of the beast

Hewn out of granite, the ledger of tin,

The ingot of tradition, a labyrinth of strong voices

That still chisel the dark, the rich seam,

A stream that runs through each generation,

A lode that anchors a man’s life

From ‘The Wheal of Hope’ by James Crowden.

The memorial was ‘raised and funded by the community of the St Just Mining District in honour of the courageous men who worked the narrow lodes in hazardous conditions far below the land and sea in the mines of this district; and the women and children who toiled on the surface crushing and dressing ore. As pioneers, many of these Cornish families took this skill and expertise to the far corners of the world as new mining opportunities emerged.’ [from the same plaque]

That last point is perhaps a little romanticised. The diaspora of Cornish miners – the hard rock specialists who’d learned to extract every kind of valuable mineral from the granite under the moors of west Penwith and the rest of the county (or duchy) – had to emigrate when the mines became less competitive than their counterparts in other ‘far corners of the world.’ They had little choice, in other words.

In 2016 I wrote some posts on the Man Engine (here, and here) the massive mechanical puppet that toured the county and beyond, commemorating these hardy miners – many of whom died or suffered terrible injuries, working in dangerous, unpleasant conditions. The Levant disaster was just one such terrible event.

View from the moors above Zennor

View from the moors above Zennor

We drove on for lunch at the Tinners Arms, Zennor. I usually aim to have a pint of Tinners Ale here, the inn where DH Lawrence stayed briefly while searching for a place to rent in what he optimistically considered his ‘promised land’. He eventually found the small, basic cottage complex at Higher Tregerthen just outside the village. I’ve posted several times before about his stay in west Cornwall, trying to create a utopian community, Rananim, starting with John Middleton Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield – but they disappointed him by moving to the ‘softer’ part of the county, to less basic accommodation.

A comment on a related post last August, about the sale of this remote cottage by a local estate agent, elicited a comment today from Julie Warries (thanks, Julie), who said she’s particularly interested in Lawrence’s time in Cornwall and the letters he wrote there. She added a charming aside: when she visited the Tinners Arms she asked a barman for directions to Higher Tregerthen. He didn’t know, but added that she wasn’t the first person to ask that!

Mrs TD thinks I should start a ‘DH Lawrence tours in Cornwall’ agency…Who knows.

Virginia Woolf’s libraries

John Passmore Edwards

Earlier this month there was an interesting comment by Anthea Arnold on my post from July last year about Virginia Woolf’s essay collection The Common Reader, vol. 1, and in particular her essay ‘Lives of the Obscure’. Anthea pointed out that when picturing herself reading obscure books in an ‘out-of-date, obsolete library’, Woolf seemed to be conflating three different ones.

Passmore Edwards library facade

Inscription reads: Passmore Edwards Free…The library underwent major renovations in 2010

Anthea went on to give outline histories of all three. One of them particularly caught my attention. She said that St Ives Library in Cornwall was opened by John Passmore Edwards in 1897. This reminded me of the library in my own city of Truro. I’ve seen his name emblazoned on its side countless times, without paying it much attention. I decided to research him a bit more.

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911) was born in Blackwater, near Truro in Cornwall. After making his fortune as a journalist and writer, he dedicated his life and wealth to charitable and philanthropic causes. Between 1889 and 1903 he donated over 250,000 pounds to various such causes and established over seventy institutions all over the country, many of them in London, including libraries, cottage hospitals, convalescent homes, schools and art galleries – and even drinking fountains, so that the working classes would be able to drink uncontaminated water.

Edwards supported the abolition of capital punishment, the suppression of the opium trade and the abolition of flogging in the services. He also helped direct the Political Reform Association, and published and edited various magazines, promoting among other things peace and temperance.

He was offered a knighthood twice, but declined the honour.

Edwards facade Library

Inscription: Library

The Passmore Edwards library in Truro was built by local firm Clemens and Battershill to a design by Silvanus Trevail (see below) of Plymouth limestone with Bath stone dressings on a granite base. The foundation stone was laid on May 24th, 1895, and the building was opened with a great ceremony on April 30th, 1896: ‘thousands of people thronged the gaily decorated streets’. It was described as ‘a gift of Mr Passmore Edwards to the citizens of Truro without distinction as to creed or financial status’. In a speech he stated that he was planning to open nineteen institutions in Cornwall, as there were nineteen letters in his name. The three-storey Central Technical Schools for Cornwall were built on to the library in 1899.

Edwards foundation stone

The library foundation stone commemorates Passmore Edwards

Edwards was a delegate for the London Peace Society to various Peace Conferences, 1848 -1850, and stood unsuccessfully as an Independent parliamentary candidate for Truro in 1868. In 1880 he was elected Liberal Party MP for Salisbury, an office he held for five years.

Some of his major beneficiaries were the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the London School of Economics. I remember friends from my undergraduate days who lived in an LSE student hall of residence named in his honour.

Silvanus Trevail (1851-1903), the Truro library architect, was born in the parish of Luxulyan, just outside St Austell in Cornwall. After training as an architect in London he returned to his native county, where he went on to design some fifty of the new ‘board schools’ as a result of the 1872 Education Act, which broadened the need for compulsory education for children. He also designed the St Lawrence Hospital in Bodmin and some of the most prestigious hotels in Cornwall, including the magnificent terracotta-coloured Headland in Newquay, and the Carbis Bay Hotel just outside St Ives. He designed many of the Passmore Edwards buildings in Cornwall and London, for he shared that philanthropist’s passion for improving the living conditions and welfare of the working classes.

He participated actively in Cornish local politics as a councillor, and became Mayor of Truro. He was elected Fellow of the RIBA, Vice President of the Society of Architects in 1896 and President in 1901 – a position he still held when he died.

He apparently suffered from depression, and shot himself on a train as it approached Bodmin Road station in 1903.

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman #WITMonth

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Granta Books, 2019. First Japanese edition 2016

I’ve said here before that Mrs TD believes I read too many ‘morose’ books. I should read something more cheerful.

I emailed David McKay, the translator of Multatuli and J. Slauerhof, whose novels I posted on here recently, to tell him my posts had been published at T. Days. I said I was hoping to read another of his translations, War and Turpentine (by Flemish Belgian author Stefan Hertmans), but was needing something ‘more cheerful’. He recommended this short novel by Sayaka Murata, ‘which has moments of dark humour and sinister overtones but is a very funny, charming character sketch on the whole,’ he wrote.

He was right.

Murata Convenience Store Woman cover Keiko Furukura is 36 and has worked in the same convenience store since it opened in a railway station mall eighteen years earlier. She seems to be on the autistic spectrum; we’re told of some disturbing incidents in her childhood where her tendency to fail to interpret people’s implied meanings, but to take their words horribly literally, gets her into trouble and causes her mother deep consternation.

She feels people don’t think she’s normal, so tries hard to imitate the intonations and conversational gambits of women around her, even the way they dress; that way she almost goes unnoticed.

Only at the convenience store does she feel at peace. She’s in tune with its sounds and rituals. She likes the predictable, unchanging routine. True, the staff and customers come and go, but the pulse of the store is reassuringly repetitive, predictable.

#WITMonth logoKeeping herself fit and alert enough to work there each day gives her life purpose; otherwise she’d be just an animal, and carnal urges slightly disgust her. At the store she can tune in to its mechanistic hum, merge and forget trying to be human.

When an equally strange young man joins the workforce and enters her life, she’s in danger of having to start behaving like a human, not a ‘foreign body’. The store reclaims her.

It’s not what I’d call a particularly cheerful novel. It does have a bizarrely humorous air: that deadpan narrative voice with its lack of affect, the narrator’s baffled fluster at the mysterious ways of humans, places her in the world of AI ‘characters’ in recent sci-fi fiction. She tries to interpret the world, but ultimately prefers the regularity of stock control and parroting the scripted greetings her team are drilled in every morning before they start work.

It’s a satire, I suppose, on the regimented world of Japanese corporate and commercial enterprise, and the strict requirements of a hierarchical culture – especially for women. Keiko is repeatedly reminded that she’s a freak largely because she conforms neither to the economic stereotype that makes other people comfortable: career progression, acquire more consumables (why drudge at a dead-end part-time job in a store, friends and family wonder), nor to the gender stereotype: get married, reproduce, spread her and genes.

She flirts with this last idea, repellent as she finds its animality, but is easily dissuaded from getting pregnant, in one of the funniest scenes in the novel.

Despite the dark humour I found I was most frequently reminded by this novel’s tone and effect of Kafka, and in particular of ‘Metamorphosis’. Keiko’s vague awareness that she’s not like everyone else around her causes her to want to transform and conform, but ultimately she’s only happy to be who she knows she really is – not ‘one of us’.

I enjoyed the book, and zoomed through it in a couple of hours. The translation is deftly done, and reads rapidly and smoothly. It was amusing and diverting to read, and not morose, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

Any other suggestions for something cheerful? Not Angela Thirkell, please.

 

 

 

 

Sylvie Chaput, Isabelle’s Notebooks. #WITMonth

Sylvie Chaput, Isabelle’s Notebooks. Translated from the French by Peter Vranckx and Daniel Sloate. Guernica Editions, Canada, 2002; 1996

#WITMonth logo I came across this novel, by an author and in an imprint I’d not heard of, in a charity bookshop last week. As I’ve enjoyed the output of titles by QC Fiction of French Canadian/Québec literature, and I saw from the blurb of its dustjacket that Isabelle’s Notebooks was by a writer based in Québec – I bought it. (I see from their website that Guernica have a highly varied and interesting-looking catalogue.)

I also needed something new for Women In Translation Month; my previous post was my first in August’s #WITMonth initiative hosted at Bibliobio blog: Continents, by the Finnish novelist Anja Snellman.

Set in the troubled British colony of Canada mostly in the 1830s, and ending in 1845, the novel consists of the fictional notebooks of Isabelle Forest, an aspiring artist. Orphaned at a young age she’s brought up by a distinguished professional artist and collector, her uncle Joseph Légaré. As the author’s note informs us at the end of the book, most of the characters and events narrated are based on real life. Chaput uses these fictional notebooks as an entry into a vividly imagined recreation of that turbulent period in the history of Canada, a ‘new country’ struggling for independence, and of Canadian women, engaged in their own struggle against the patriarchy.

Chaput Isabelle's Notebooks coverThere’s a journalistic edge to the style and content that reminded me of Defoe; like his Journal of a Plague Year this novel graphically and memorably conveys the devastation of the city of Québec in 1832 by a cholera epidemic, and later by two terrible fires that take their toll on the narrator’s own household.

I found myself skimming the long central sections, which gave an over-detailed account of the numerous contending political factions, their multitude of key players, and frequent broiling protests of the radical Patriotes and others in their fight for autonomy from their European rulers. These sections showed signs of the meticulous historical research too overtly.

As a British reader I felt ashamed of the brutal repression of the Canadians by my countrymen, and reprisals meted out to these early fighters for freedom from tyranny. The current events in Hong Kong are a reminder of what’s at stake for such people.

More interesting was the representation of Isabelle’s rite of passage into selfhood and her own kind of autonomy: as a girl she becomes interested in drawing and her uncle is pleased to take her on as a pupil. But she quickly concedes that for ‘the fairer sex’ to which she belongs ‘painting remains purely a leisure activity.’

But I strenuously objected to the notion of my serving as a mere ornament. And yet that is precisely what I risked becoming if I simply stopped painting. I had to continue my efforts, even if they were on a modest scale.

Her quest for independent identity is paralleled in her intensifying love for young firebrand patriot Philippe. She falls in love in a romantic impulse of admiration for his heroic, quixotic rebellion. At first his protest is political but it rapidly becomes personal and literary when he defends his first novel against what he sees as ill-informed criticism. Isabelle is intrigued and troubled by his strange novel: a disturbing account of a brutal murder, with a background of alchemy.

William Blake's Death on a Pale Horse

Blake’s ‘Death on a Pale Horse’, from illustrations to the Book of Revelation. Currently in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons

And alchemy becomes a key theme in this novel, along with art and painting; a watercolour of Death riding a pale horse by William Blake plays a significant part. It’s one of many striking, enigmatic symbols and images that punctuate and illuminate the narrative.

As Isabelle learns to love and live through Philippe, she’s too soon introduced to the pain and anguish of separation and loss.

There’s a striking image in the final pages involving an artwork and its ability to outlive attempts at erasure. It’s worth persevering with this sometimes ponderous novel for the high points and flashes of originality that depict this love affair’s tempestuous progress and the awakening of the spirited young woman protagonist as a consequence of it, and for images like that closing one. The alchemy I found less compelling.

Sylvie Chaput is an essayist, novelist and translator specialising in literature, art and philosophy; she has translated works by Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller (from the Guernica Editions website).

 

 

Anja Snellman, Continents. #WITMonth

Anja Snellman, Continents: A Love Story. New Terrain Press, 2018. Translated from the Finnish by Timo Luhtanen. 20051 #WITMonth

#WITMonth logoI was sent this novel via fellow blogger Liz Dexter’s site ‘Adventures in reading, running and working from home’ as a giveaway from the publisher for responding to her review: my thanks to Liz and New Terrain for introducing me to this author. It’s also my first contribution to #WomenInTranslation Month (aka #WITMonth), curated annually by Meytal Radzinski at the Bibliobio blog.

According to Anja Snellman’s website she’s been a writer for nearly forty years, and has published 25 novels which have been translated into twenty languages. Her first novel, Sonia O. Was Here, remains the highest-selling Finnish debut so far.

The basic theme of Continents is simple; Oona and Alex are at first passionately in love; they’ve started their map life together, as Oona sees it, on the continent of Asia:

Their Asia was pure enchantment – it lasted for their first summer and the following one, if not longer. That first summer, they were busy making their first child on the smooth cliff by his grandmother’s villa.

Snellman Continents coverOona sees yellow for days afterwards, a sort of poetic afterburn from the sunshine in those idyllic times. That perhaps gives a flavour of Snellman’s method: a generic portrait in geographical images, locations, sensations, of the stages of a relationship (‘every couple has their Asia’ – usually but not necessarily at the start of their relationship), with highly personal details and poetic analogies and images from the daily lives and experience of this particular couple to animate it.

Here’s a typically sensuous account of life in steamy ‘Asia’:

Touches set off tremors of excitement and pleasure, and skin glows and smells of water lilies…In Asia, couples burn candles and incense, and write random lists about things they have in common. …They keep misplacing their keys and watches, forget the pizza box on the roof of the car, and accidentally lock the cat in the wardrobe.

I enjoy the way Anja Snellman conveys the delirious excitement of this erotically charged, blissful and intimate stage of a marriage, while showing it grounded in the humdrum and everyday. Their passionate intensity and mutual absorption is even slightly comical when described from the outside like that. That’s well observed.

Oona is very like the protagonist of her cartoon strips (she’s an artist-illustrator), a ‘quirky hippy girl’ called Rainbow. Alex, a journalist in ‘real’ life, is represented by her cartoon boyfriend, Scoop – also a writer.

Ominous signs are apparent even from the start. When Alex asks why Rainbow holds a daisy while Scoop has a pen behind his ear, and whether this brings them together or drives them apart, Oona answers honestly that she doesn’t know:

She thought he might not yet understand the combination of uninhibited and sad, bold and ambiguous, and blatant and shy, but he would learn.

Would he really? Alex is representative of a certain common type of man (I’m allowed to say that, being male): kind, generous but lacking in insight into himself and others, short of empathy. He’s quick to get jealous when Oona’s ex-boyfriends are discussed. He doesn’t share Oona’s generous, intuitive abandon, her untidy joie de vivre:

She lights up his life. When they get to the continent of Africa, Alex begins to wonder if her light is too bright.

Australia is remembered by Oona as ‘remote, with a peculiar outline and long distances, and not particularly attractive at first.’ But it was also a time of happiness, even though ‘the scent of a man was often replaced by that of a baby, and she had trouble sleeping for different reasons than before.’ More warning signs appear starkly: ‘isolation looms in Australia, so couples need to find ways to connect with the rest of the world.’

There’s that portentous, omniscient narrative voice, anatomising the situation while presenting the particulars: they think about making love, ‘with abandon, for hours’, but then they ‘yawned and shrugged, and the idea was left hibernating, or perhaps smoldering.’

Another good, salutary joke.

Anyone who’s been in a long relationship will recognise with a frisson this occasionally comical, deadly serious way of charting the stages of a relationship, in this case a marriage. Can passion survive parenthood, domesticity, promotions and pressures of work and career, rivalries and tensions in the dynamic between the two partners? It’s an ancient question, and Snellman doesn’t shirk exploring their resolutions, as this couple ‘slip, slide and slither’ through the continents to the icy wastes of Greenland and Antarctica.

Thanks again to Liz and New Terrain Press – an imprint that specialises in translations of Nordic works of literature – for introducing me to this bright literary voice. I agree with Liz, who says in her review that it’s ‘impeccably translated’, and skewers the achingly cool social circle of this couple unerringly. They just don’t do emotion and love too well. Still, who does?

Turns out, Oona does.

I hope to post a French-Canadian #WITMonth contribution next. Thanks again to Liz and Bibliobio for the nudge into – no, inspiration for – reading more women writers in translation, and my first ever Finnish novel.

 

 

 

J. Slauerhoff, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom

J. Slauerhoff, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay. Handheld Press (Bath, England), 2019: Handheld Classic, 9. Introduction by Arie Pos and Wendy Gan. 19341

I posted on another Dutch classic, Max Havelaar, by Multatuli, back in May. Its co-translator, David McKay, offered review copies of his newest translation – today’s subject – via the GoodReads/NYRB Classics online group discussion, and he kindly arranged for this small westcountry imprint to send me a copy.

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936) served as a ship’s doctor in south-east Asia, experience on which he drew for Adrift in the Middle Kingdom. This is its first English translation. The narrator is an Ulsterman called Cameron, a radio operator on cargo ships plying between Indonesia and other Asian ports and China. The cargo often includes contraband, including opium, which brings him and his ship into abrasive, dangerous contact with criminal smugglers and dealers.

They also transport exhausted migrant workers, their health shattered by working in slave-like conditions in the plantations of Java, returning home for whatever short time remains of their lives. They’ve hoarded what little capital they might have scraped together in the long years of toil.

Slauerhoff Adrift in the Middle Kingdom coverUnlike some other novels by westerners at this period, the picture given of the inhabitants of these oriental countries is not patronisingly exotic and romanticised. This is largely the sinister, darker side of the far east, a place of seedy opium dens and sordid dockside brothels and bars catering for the sailors and merchants intent on indulging their sensual appetites after long suffering and voyages, or lucrative deals (‘whooping and shouting to drown out your own despair, your shame and your transgressions, for the sake of mere survival’, as Cameron wearily characterises it).

But most of the indigenous inhabitants endure a life of hardship and deprivation. The treatment they receive from westerners as well as their own people is often heartless and exploitative.

Here is Cameron’s sardonic view of Taihai, China’s ‘largest port’:

where out of three million people at least two don’t know if tomorrow they’ll eat or die.

We also see the unnaturally opulent side, especially the French concession, occupied by the western entrepreneurs and colonialists, and also some wealthy Chinese who are essentially gangsters or drug lords and gun-runners. It was a zone notorious for its hedonism and criminality, according to the writers of the useful Introductions to this edition.

At that decadent, multinational port of Taihai (a thinly disguised version of Shanghai) Cameron jumps ship, intent on losing himself in the ‘middle kingdom’, a literal translation of the ancient Chinese name for their country. His quest can be seen as an oriental equivalent of Marlow’s journey into the Congo’s heart of darkness, but Cameron resembles not so much stolid, judgemental European Marlow as a less demonic Kurtz figure, attracted by this alternative culture as superior to or more enlightened than the atrophied, stultifying version offered by the west.

Cameron is an intriguing figure. He’s Melville’s Ishmael in reverse. He’s grown to hate the life of a seaman, and seems to be suffering from a Sartrean identity crisis. In this sense the novel is a strange amalgam of Buddhist fantasy-allegory – a quest for spiritual enlightenment – and an existential quest for some kind of authenticity in a meaningless world, an escape from ennui and terror.

The quest takes Cameron, after a relatively fulfilling time with a simple but starving watchmaker’s family, on a long trip across the forbidding hinterland of China at the bidding of an obese, amoral boss of a crime syndicate. Their cargo is modern European guns and munitions, carried in a bizarre camel train to the distant city of Chungking. Along the way Cameron had fallen in (and out) with a range of marginal, corrupt characters, symbolically representative of Russian, French and other decadent European cultures.

At Chungking, a traditional Chinese city whose rulers detest and resist modern western influence, the clash between western industrial capitalism and militarism with Zen Buddhism comes to its climax. It’s expressed in terms of a modernist European alienation narrative, and comes to its hallucinatory, mystical conclusion in a kind of Chinese-Elysian poppyfield of earthly-heavenly delights. Cameron desperately seeks to join the enigmatic, alluring figure of Buddhist Tibetan monk Wan Chen, beckoning him from a shifting, distant mountain peak.

This possibly sounds a bit of a dog’s dinner, but it somehow works. The novel’s tone and style reminded me weirdly of the prose and poetry of the 19C French Symbolists and decadents, and the Beats – who discovered the attractions of drug-enhanced mystical escape a couple of decades later. But the tendency towards self-indulgent egotism by the likes of Kerouac is tempered by a moral seriousness more reminiscent of Kafka and Camus.