John Locke on reading

Readings: John Locke (1632-1704), ‘Reading’

Those who have read of everything are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment…The memory may be stored, but the judgement is little better, and the stock of knowledge not increased, by being able to repeat what others have said or produce the arguments we have found in them. Such a knowledge as this is but knowledge by hearsay, and the ostentation of it is at best but talking by rote, and very often upon weak and wrong principles.

From Of the Conduct of Understanding, in William Peacock, ed., English Prose, vol. 2 (OWP, 1949; 1st edn 1921), pp. 183-84

Locke portrait

Kit-cat portrait of Locke by Godrey Kneller, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Salutary thoughts.

I hope from time to time to introduce short ‘readings’ of this kind to supplement the usual reviews, Asides, etc. I hope it might prove of interest.

This particular example reminds us that simply cramming our heads with more and more, well, ‘words, words, words’, we aren’t necessarily making ourselves more knowledgeable, intelligent or judicious. If we don’t ‘ruminate’ on what we read, we simply risk becoming pedants and parrots.

Here’s to more rumination, and less parroting.

Portrait of Locke attribution: By Stephencdickson – Own work, Public Domain

I didn’t know what a ‘Kit-cat portrait’ was, so here’s the (edited) Wikipedia entry on it:

A kit-cat portrait or kit-kat portrait is a particular size of portrait, less than half-length, but including the hands. The name originates from a famous series of portraits which were commissioned from Godfrey Kneller for members of the Kit-Cat Club, a Whig dining club, to be hung in their meeting place at Barn Elms. They are now mostly in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London…Each canvas is thirty-six inches long, and twenty-eight wide. The special Kit-cat portrait size is said to have been determined because the dining-room ceiling of the Kit-cat Club was too low for half-length portraits of the members.

And this explains the name of the club (same source):

The first meetings were held at a tavern in Shire Lane (parallel with Bell Yard and now covered by the Royal Courts of Justice) run by an innkeeper called Christopher Catt. He gave his name to the mutton pies known as “Kit Cats” from which the name of the club is derived.

Fairly disastrous individuals: Javier Marías, Written Lives

Javier Marías, Written Lives. Penguin Modern Classics, 2016. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spain as Vidas escritas, 2000; US, New Directions, 2006

‘Writers are monsters’, said Hilary Mantel in her introduction to Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (the VMC edition) – which I made the title of my post about that novel. Many of the 26 writers that Javier Marías includes in this idiosyncratic collection would readily fall into that category.

Mostly it’s best to read Written Lives as a collection of short stories – as the author hints we should in his characteristically witty Prologue to this PMC edition (and his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deserves immense credit for her deft, elegant translation):

The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, singling out interesting ‘snippets’ from their lives; this may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.

All of his subjects, he points out, were ‘fairly disastrous individuals’. His brief portraits – most are about five pages long – are a willed rejection, that is, of the usual solemn ‘hagiography’ usually found in full-length biographies, he suggests. He approaches his subjects with ‘a mixture of affection and humour.’

Marías Written Lives

Isak Dinesen subsisted on oysters and champagne, as this cover photo shows 

And that’s the key to reading this collection. Marías warns us of the ‘lack of seriousness’ in his texts. This is not intended to be an objective work of scholarship.

For example, that Henry James never forgave Flaubert for receiving the Master and Turgenev in his dressing gown – an outrage for which James never forgave him – is probably taken from Ford Madox Ford’s unreliable testimony, as Philip Hensher pointed out in his review of the 2006 edition of this book (see the end of this post).

Nothing in these sketches has been ‘invented’, Marías disingenuously claims in the Prologue, but it’s in ‘what is included and what omitted that the possible accuracy or inaccuracy of these pieces partly lies.’ And although nothing is ‘fictitious’, some ‘episodes and anecdotes’ have been ‘embellished’.

In case we miss the sly wink behind these words, he goes on to advise the ‘suspicous reader who wants to check some fact’ that he appends an impressively lengthy bibliography as a (surely ironic) attempt to provide an aura of academic authenticity to the portraits – that are transparently cobbled together from a range of such sources, but with more of an eye for entertaining anecdotes than for factual veracity. It’s really a work of fiction – and as such, hugely entertaining.

Largely because of the sly humour. To Malcolm Lowry Marías awards the dubious accolade of

the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

Animals don’t fare too well. The paranoid drunk Lowry, we’re told, once took exception to a horse pulling a cart as he passed by because it gave what he took to be a ‘derisive snort’ – even the beasts were conspiring against him. His response was ‘to punch the horse so hard below the ear that the horse quivered and sank to its knees’ – the horse recovered, but Lowry suffered acute remorse for weeks afterwards.

As he did when, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men (is that where he got the story?), he inadvertently broke the neck of a pet rabbit that he was stroking on his lap, watched by the owner and owner’s mother. Like all the best comic writers, Marías is able to risk an outrageous step further after such a moment; he adds

For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing, until…the waiter in a bar agreed to provide what promised to be a funeral as ordained by the God of all animals.

There are countless such moments of deliciously nasty insights into these…well, semi-fictitious portraits. Like Conrad, who ‘lived in a permanent state of extreme tension’; such was his uncontrollable ‘irritability’ that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of simply picking it up and carrying on writing,

he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred.

Conan Doyle, when he was about to become a practising doctor, once thrashed a bully who’d kicked a woman – he was an accomplished boxer, and prone to getting into brawls. The next day the man showed up at his surgery, his first patient. Fortunately he didn’t recognise his doctor.

This is what Marías says about Rilke:

It is not known what he liked, as regards food or other things, apart from the letter “y” – which he wrote whenever he could – as well, of course, as travelling and women.

This post is already becoming too long, but I must mention a trait of Marías’ inimitable style and approach that I’ve discussed in previous posts about his novels, and is also present to comic effect in Written Lives: his habit of judiciously, wryly moving from a detailed particular into a generalising aphorism of spurious portentousness: of Isak Dinesen he says that her philandering husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood,

and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break.

RL Stevenson was

undoubtedly chivalrous, but not excessively so, or rather, he was simply chivalrous enough, for every true gentleman has behaved like a scoundrel at least once in his life.

This volume includes a section of even briefer accounts of notable women (not all of them writers). Like Lowry, the quick-tempered Emily Bronte is said to have punched an animal that had caused her disgruntlement, with similarly dolorous effect (for the dog).

A final section gives Marías’ interpration of photo portraits of writers. These again are surely not intended to be read as serious, but are prompts for some good jokes – for example, he says that in his picture, Nietzsche wears an overcoat ‘that looks as if it had been lent to him by some much burlier relative.’

Philip Hensher’s review of the 2006 edition finds the book inaccurate, rather pointless and embarrassing; he’s also po-facedly critical of the wayward observations Marías offers in that final section, and offers this one of his own about the dustjacket photo of Marías in that edition; it’s just as good as those by the King of Redonda:

Given all of this, it is almost more than you could ask of a reviewer not to comment on the portrait of Marías himself on the dustjacket. Well, he has narrowed his eyes in a way which conventionally indicates sceptical intelligence; his hair could do with some attention (impossible genius); he is holding a burnt-down cigarette like a prop or a trophy, like a non-smoking actress in a revival of Hay Fever. He looks, slightly appallingly, like an author having his photograph taken.

 

Plymouth Pilgrim 2

Tamar bridge

View from my train as it crosses the Tamar bridge into Devon

On July 14, 2016 I wrote this post about my visit to Plymouth in memory of my oldest friend, Mike Flay, who’d died earlier that year. As I wrote then, we used to meet there often, usually ending up at the same couple of watering holes as we talked endlessly about books, football, family.

Yesterday I repeated the pilgrimage. So in a departure from my usual bookish posts, here’s a photographic record of my day there. A commemorative dérive…

I always relish the word ‘wharf’, which derives either from OE hwearf: bank, shore, or from Old Dutch. Typical of the English language, it can be spelt ‘wharfs’ or ‘wharves’ in the plural. Like hoofs. But not rooves.

Barbican

Barbican wharves and marina

We didn’t often wander to this old part of town, but I thought I’d approach our usual lunchtime haunt from the Barbican.

My first stop was the old bookshop by the marina. Over three floors are spread thousands of second-hand books. The fiction section seemed to follow a loose sort of plan – orange Penguins, green ones, hardbacks – but there was little discernible use of alphabetical order.


Bookshop

I resisted the temptation to buy anything.

The Scots proprietor told me he had far more stock in his warehouse.

 

 

Barbican sculpture

This strange creature stands on the Barbican marina

Barbican

Barbican marina

Cannon

This 19C cannon probably saw action in a warship in the Crimean campaign

This is one of two cannon that loom over the bay from the hilltop by the Hoe. Plymouth is still very much a maritime town.

 

 

Plymouth sound

Plymouth sound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lido

Art deco Tinside Lido, recently restored. That’s sea water in it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jail ale

This is the terrace of the Waterfront bar where Mike and I usually had lunch. He always had a burger.

It was warm enough yesterday to sit outside. Pigeons and gulls tried to persuade diners to part with some food.

That’s not St Austell brewery Tribute in the glass: it’s a Dartmoor brew called, appropriately, Jail Ale. Not bad at all.

 

Right on cue, as last year, the Brittany Ferries ship Armorique steamed by, just a few metres from the terrace.

Ferry

Armorique ferry passing the Waterfront bar

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I headed back towards the town centre I passed this game of bowls in progress. Not exactly Francis Drake…

Bowls

Bowls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragonfly

Dragonfly sculpture in a rather murky pond by the town centre

Colonial hotel

Colonial hotel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made one final stop, before taking the train back to Cornwall, in the place Mike always called the Colonial Hotel – not its real name. It’s a bleak sort of place, but strangely conducive to conversation, we always found – perhaps because there’s nothing much else to engage the attention.

Rather a sad trip home, but the day was good.

 

An ebon stick: Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson. Penguin Modern Classics paperback, 1961 (before they started the grey covers; this one has a cover design by George Him). First published 1911

Beerbohm (1872-1956) wrote in a preliminary Note to this edition, with characteristically arch indignation, that responses to the novel on first publication wrongly took it to be:

intended as a satire on such things as the herd instinct, as feminine coquetry, as snobbishness, even as legerdemain; whereas I myself had supposed it was just a fantasy; and as such, I think, it should be regarded by others.

It’s never safe to trust such authorial protestations, especially from ‘the incomparable Max’ (as Shaw called him; ‘Compare me, compare me’, Max responded – one of his better witticisms). And he goes on to say that all fantasy should ‘have a solid basis in reality’. Zuleika Dobson portrays Edwardian Oxford University life with what I take to be an accurate eye (Beerbohm was at Merton, but never completed his degree: he’s not a great completer, which is maybe why he never produced the great full-length literary work his contemporaries expected and longed for from him).

Zuleika DobsonAlthough published in 1911, this novel was several years in the writing, and reflects Max’s early period obsessions: the Aesthetic Movement – he wrote for the Yellow Book, working with the likes of Wilde and Beardsley. – and the Classics; the novel is full of portentous quotations from and allusions to Greek and Latin literature and myth. This gives it part of the ostentatious, pompous tone that I found, frankly, repellent (and I won’t get started on the mass suicide plot). A recurring choral note referring to the ‘grim busts of the Roman Emperors’ staring down on the drama unfolding below them is another jarring note for me.

Here’s an example of that florid, overwritten ‘poetic’ style, which starts on page 1, and carries on relentlessly throughout; this is from the second paragraph of the novel. The scene is Oxford railway station, where the train bearing the eponymous heroine is just arriving:

At the door of the first-class waiting-room, aloof and venerable, stood the Warden of Judas [ie Merton]. An ebon pillar of tradition seemed he, in his garb of old-fashioned cleric.

I’ll stop there; the prose is so purple I can only take it in small doses. Max, in this narrative dandy persona, adores inverted syntactical structures, preferring to use fronted adverbials, delayed verbs, and miniature inversions embedded in these larger ones (‘stood he’; why not ‘he stood’?!).

Then there’s the overwrought vocabulary, that arcane, aureate diction; Max is striving too hard for comic-poetic exuberance: ‘an ebon pillar’. OK, it’s meant to be funny. It isn’t. ‘Garb’ isn’t funnier or cleverer than the plainer alternative.

The paragraph goes on in similar inflated style:

Aloft, between the wide brim of his silk hat and the white extent of his shirt-front, appeared those eyes which hawks, that nose which eagles, had often envied.

This is the tortuous, self-consciously rhetorical style suitable for a Roman orator, not a comic novel – that it was published in 1911 doesn’t excuse it. This is the style that was to influence early Evelyn Waugh, probably Wodehouse, maybe others (early Huxley, perhaps). So he has a lot to answer for. At least they saw the light and went on to better things (perhaps not PGW, who found his niche and stuck in it, sensibly).

The description goes on:

He supported his years on an ebon stick. He alone was worthy of the background.

Ah, that’s why he’s an ‘ebon pillar’. Still not funny. But that last sentence is good – and funny. But even then it manages to turn the scene into a painting. It’s intended to be ironic, this juxtaposition of the foppish ‘aesthetic’ with the mundane reality of an old man on a station platform, meeting his granddaughter. I don’t see the point.

And that’s Max. Ninety per cent overblown, aesthetic posturing, then a killer line in demotic, plain, brilliant English.

The next paragraph carries on in the same style:

Came a whistle from the distance.

What’s wrong with S-V-O?

Then comes the first of dozens of uses of the poetic-archaic ‘ere’ (not ‘before’), sometimes preceded by dud effulgences like ‘insomuch that’. Paragraph four includes ‘cynosure’ (well, here it is appropriate), and ‘Him espying, the nymph darted in his direction’. That is, Zuleika walks towards her grandfather.

Robert McCrum placed this novel at no. 40 in his list of 100 Best Novels in the Guardian in 2014. He gives a summary of the plot there, saying that it is

a brilliant Edwardian satire on Oxford life by one of English literature’s most glittering wits that now reads as something much darker and more compelling. Readers new to Max Beerbohm’s masterpiece, which is subtitled An Oxford Love Story, will find a diaphanous novel possessed of a delayed explosive charge that detonates today with surprising power.

Yes, Max writes what reviewers tend to call ‘lapidary’ prose, but as I hope my brief examination demonstrates, it’s not to my taste, over embellished. I read in another review, I forget where, that readers tend to either love or hate Max’s work. I’m in the latter group.

Oh, yes, and he’s beastly about the Americans.

One very funny passage, just to redress the balance. This Edwardian Kardashian, Zuleika, is passing the Front Quadrangle of the college, where there are some chained-up dogs:

Zuleika, of course, did not care for dogs. One has never known a good man to whom dogs were not dear; but many of the best women have no such fondness. You will find that the woman who is really kind to dogs is always one who has failed to inspire sympathy in men. For the attractive woman, dogs are mere dumb and restless brutes – possibly dangerous, certainly soulless.

She stoops down to pet this unfortunate dog as an act of coquetry, not genuine affection, to awaken envy in her male companion:

Alas, her pretty act was a failure. The bulldog cowered away from her, horrifically grimacing. This was strange. Like the majority of his breed, Corker…had been wistful to be noticed by anyone…No beggar, burglar, had ever been rebuffed by this catholic beast. But he drew the line at Zuleika.

See what Max can do when he stops the posturing? This is genuinely funny, and the first part of my quotation has an aphoristic quality worthy of Oscar. But he still can’t resist calling the dog a ‘catholic beast’; old habits die hard. That’s the kind of 18C grandiloquence that Wordsworth (at least in his younger days) tried to reform, a century before Max.

As I was in Portugal when reading this, and it was the last book I had with me, I was stuck with it. Mass suicide played for laughs, written mostly (there are a few worthy exceptions, as I’ve indicated) in a style that makes Pater look like Hemingway – no. Fortunately, there were Chekhov’s stories on my Kindle.

Let’s end with a few more pictures of the Fuzeta scenery of E. Algarve. At least it’s natural – which is impossible to say of Zuleika Dobson.

Fish market at Olhão

Fish market at Olhão

I didn’t choose my holiday reading at all successfully.

Apologies for another negative post.

 

 

 

 

Armona island

Armona island

Fuzeta lagoon, sunset

Fuzeta lagoon, sunset

Rapture and cowardice: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer. Atlantic Books paperback, 2015; first published, 2014. 352 pp.

 South African writer Damon Galgut uses this title for several reasons: first, it’s the title of a novel that E.M. Forster – of whom this is a novelised biography – started in 1911, tinkered with for the next years, but left unfinished. He said this about it:

‘I had got my antithesis all right, the antithesis between the civilized man, who hopes for an Arctic Summer, and the heroic man who rides into the sea. But I had not settled what was going to happen, and that is why the novel remains a fragment. The novelist should I think always settle when he starts what is going to happen, what his major event is to be.’ (From Nicola Beauman’s biography, Morgan, pp. 248-49)

What does he mean by that? Well, I think it’s to do with a long, empty, bright space of time in which things could but maybe don’t get done.

So that’s perhaps the second reason for the title of Galgut’s novel: it deals mostly with the writer’s block Forster experienced between about this time, around 1912, when he embarked on his first passage to India, and 1924, when he finally published his ‘Indian novel’ – A Passage to India [APTI]; it had taken him some eleven years. It was only towards the end of that period that he was able to pick up the MS and finish it – largely, according to Galgut’s version, at the instigation of his Indian friend, Masood, to whom A Passage to India was dedicated, and of Leonard Woolf.

Galgut Arctic SummerThe other possible significance is in the emotional blankness of Forster’s life for much of this period. Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals in meticulous detail (sometimes I felt a little too much detail) with the conflicting impulses he was feeling sexually and emotionally. He longed to lose his virginity, but felt ashamed of his lustful thoughts and impulses; he also longed for intimacy, romance – love.

Galgut excels in his depiction of the ‘hateful self-righteousness’ and hypocrisy of the English middle classes; as early as page 3 Morgan (Forster was always known by his middle name) is fuming (silently) at the behaviour of his fellow passengers on board the ship that was taking them in 1912 to India – their intolerance of anyone who didn’t conform to their narrow, smug circle’s mores, which he likens to the suburban snobberies of Tunbridge Wells:

But it was the casual vilenesses, flung out in airy asides at the dining table, that upset him most…On one occasion a matronly woman, who had been a nurse in the Bhopal Purdahs, had lectured him between courses on how deplorable Mohammedan home life was. And if English children stopped in India, they learned to speak like half-castes, which was such a stigma. “And this young Indian man who’s on board,” she added in a low voice. “Well, he’s a Mohammedan, isn’t he? He has been to public school in England, but has it improved him? He thinks he’s one of us, but of course he never will be.”

Anyone familiar with APTI will have fun recognising these references from the Indian novel – that malicious racism, laced with complacency, homophobia and suspicion.

It was only 17 years before this voyage that Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for homosexual activity, and much of this narrative deals with the ways in which gay men at that time had to act with extreme caution. Morgan is shocked when a fellow passenger, a young English officer named Searight, talks openly about his sexual conquests, mostly of boys or young men, in India, and shows him the long, explicit epic poem he’d written about them:

To have spoken in that way to a near-stranger, to have exposed oneself so recklessly! It hadn’t been a confession – there was no shame behind it.

Shame is something with which Morgan is intimately acquainted, and his ambivalence about his sexual inclinations conflicts with his sense of decorum and…well, constrained Englishness:

…he was not nearly so afraid of the State as he was of his mother. He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term: he spoke of it obliquely, as being in a minority. He himself was a solitary. At Cambridge, among his own circle, the question was discussed, though from an angle, and safely abstracted. One could be forgiven for believing it was a matter of talking, not doing. As long as it remained in the realm of words, no crime had been committed. But even words could be dangerous.

‘English attitudes felt foreign to him’, he feels when he hears exponents of Empire and colonialism holding forth, jingoistically.

This ambivalence, a sort of splitting of the self into a public and a private persona, is a central theme of the novel. Morgan observes Searight, for example, and sees ‘his life was broken in two: the ‘vigorous and masculine’, back-slapping hearty, ‘popular and well respected’; ‘that was one half of him – but of course there was another secret side, which Morgan had already seen.’

Later, when he’s serving with the Red Cross in Cavafy’s Alexandria during World War I, he sees a similar duality in men: ‘Night selves and day selves’: an Egyptian acquaintance who takes him to a hashish den does so as ‘a private gentleman in the evening’, but then as ‘a member of the administration by day’ he reports the proprietor to the authorities and he is deported, the ‘haunt of vice’ closed down.

Morgan spends much of the novel struggling to bridge such gaps, and to find true connection across gulfs of class, race and sexual orientation, embodied most brutally in bigoted outposts of Empire like India and Egypt.

He almost succeeds with the two loves of his life: the Indian Masood, and the young Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. He’s doomed, however, to fall for men who don’t fully reciprocate his feelings.

There are frequent references in such relationships to ‘the distance’ between them being ‘closed’, but usually it’s never completely realised, and Morgan spends (rather too much time) frustrated at his inability to find requited love, satisfy his sexual urges, and quell the feelings of shame and guilt:

To touch, to hold. To be touched. The yearning was so strong sometimes that it hurt. The more so because it could not be spoken. Not even – not really – to Hom.

(Hom is a Cambridge friend with whom he experienced his first kiss and intimacy – but not sex. As Hom says, they can flirt with ‘the unspeakable vice of the Greeks’, but had stopped short of anything ‘carnal’ or, at that time, illegal.)

It’s a well-wrought novel, but the long sections in India and Egypt I found became repetitive and turgid, though there are some fine passages of description of place: palaces and cities, rivers and forest, and there are some colour characters and lively incident. There’s not enough humour, though, which is a shame, because Galgut shows he can be very funny (as could Forster). Here are my favourite such moments.

The first is when, shortly after that homoerotic romp, his friend Hom ‘casually’ tells Morgan he had become engaged. “To a woman?” Morgan asked stupidly.

On his first visit to India Morgan watches a Miracle Play performed by a Maharajah’s acting troupe, portraying scenes from the life of Krishna. Another friend with whom he’s travelling, Goldie (Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a Cambridge don whose biography Forster would later write), is unimpressed:

“You see,” he told Morgan. “It’s as I said. Everything comes down to religion, and it’s dull, dull, dull.”

“Religion is perhaps not the only element at work here.”

“What do you mean? Oh, yes, I see…but even that part of it is dull. A mixture of rapture and cowardice. No action, but all that quivering!

This comic scene has a sharp edge: this is Morgan’s central dilemma in the novel; like the poor cat i’ the adage in Macbeth, he spends much of his life aching to act upon his impulses and live life fully (as DH Lawrence imperiously urges him to, in another fine comic scene), but ‘he didn’t dare’, and lacked the confidence to do so. And when he does finally screw up the courage to make a sexual advance, he’s usually humiliated and rejected. Hom, Masood and Mohammed all married (that ignoble, ‘silly business’, as the hypocritical Hom bitterly calls it after some years of it) and settled into marital conformity, leaving him feeling bereft, solitary, marginalised. His life is largely one of emotional torment.

His life, and his writing by the end of this period of his life, is largely ‘sterile’, he’s a Prufrockian figure; near the end he overhears two women who recognise the now famous novelist in a teashop in London discussing him: ‘”His trousers are a few inches too short,”’ says one of them (‘I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled’). She goes on: ‘”He is a timid soul. They say he hasn’t really lived at all, except in his mind.”’

At this point he catches sight of his reflection in a mirror:

The angle of the light wiped out the surrounding room, so that he seemed to be standing alone in the middle of an immense whiteness. A snowy, frozen landscape, on which the sun was nevertheless pouring down. Arctic summer: nothing moving, nothing alive, and yet the sky was open.

He contemplates several cutting ripostes, but ends, with a characteristically ‘small’ voice:

“I have loved,” he told them. “That is, I mean to say, lived. In my own way.”

The most interesting aspect of this novel is when he finds the answer to the mystery at the heart of the plot of his Indian novel, just when despair of doing so had almost crushed him:

The moment he thought it he knew that the lack of an answer was, in fact, the answer. He had circled the question for nine years, while all along the solution was almost underfoot…Dry, earnest Adela [Quested, in APTI]. All this time, she’d been in love, longing to be touched, and her longing had transmuted into violence. Imaginary or real or ghostly: let it remain mysterious. He wouldn’t explain what had happened, because he didn’t know what had happened. As a writer, he’d felt he had to provide answers, but India had reminded him that no answer would suffice.

Like Flaubert’s Mme Bovary, Adela is Morgan in his ‘driest, most sticklike’ persona.

Let me finish what has turned out, I’m afraid, to be a rather long post, with a couple more pictures of Portugal, where I read Arctic Summer. After five days Mrs TD and I caught the train down to the Algarve, and stayed ten days near Tavira, by the Ria Formosa national park, a haven for wildlife, especially birds – including flamingos.

Fuseta

The disused lifeboat station at Fuzeta, opposite our apartment, in the lagoon at low tide.

Flamingos

They were a bit far away, but those are flamingos, feeding and honking on the salt pans near Fuzeta

 

 

 

 

 

 

A picaresque Basque: Pío Baroja, The Restlessness of Shanti Andía

Back from my summer break in Portugal – that’s why there have been no posts for a few weeks.

The books I took with me turned out not to be a judicious choice. I’ll post about them anyway; although they weren’t to my taste, they have merits worth sharing.

Last spring when I visited Portugal for the first time – a short break in beautiful, shabby Lisbon – I read fiction with a Lusitanian connection: Pereira Maintains , by Antonio Tabucchi, and the pseudonymous Fernando Pessoa’s (the word in Portuguese just means ‘person’), The Book of Disquiet (I posted about both HERE; again, my response wasn’t entirely positive).

 

The Restlessness of Shanti Andía cover

The cover of my 1962 Signet Classics paperback, bought years ago

First: The Restlessness of Shanti Andía by Pío Baroja. I struggled through the first hundred pages, skimmed some more, then, I’m sorry to say, gave up on it.

Baroja had first interested me because he was born in San Sebastián (aka Donostia) in the Basque province of Guipuzkoa – I taught English there for a year some decades ago, and was interested to see what one of its most famous literary figures had written (one of the others is the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, 1864-1936, born in Bilbao, just along the coast from Donostia).

Between 1900 and his death aged 83 in 1956 Baroja published nearly 100 novels, and numerous volumes of autobiography, essays and other writings. This prolific output perhaps accounts for the looseness in structure and general aimlessness of Shanti Andía. Balzac was also sometimes prolix (but also capable of great characterisation, a quality I found missing in this novel).

First published in 1911, it’s a sort of picaresque fictional memoir of a dashing Basque seafarer – it formed part of a loose trilogy called ‘El Mar’, the Sea. Its title in Spanish, Las inquietudes de SA is difficult to translate; ‘restlessness’ suggests a sort of pique; ‘inquietud’ connotes unease, worry; restless as in desire to be on the move, a rejection of tranquillity. That’s Shanti: he can’t bear mundane life ashore, and longs for action, to see the world.

There’s no plot to speak of, then, just a sequence of episodes reflecting those ‘inquietudes’. The first section of the novel recounts the developmental experiences Shanti had as a boy and young man growing up in the Basque fishing village of Lúzaro, such as ‘borrowing’ a boat to explore caves said to be haunted, or trying to board a wrecked ship (an exploit that ends in near disaster). In this sense the novel reminded me of Stevenson’s yarns like Treasure Island (published 1883; indeed, RLS died in 1894, when Baroja was only 23, so he could have read him, though I have no idea if he did; RLS is a much more accomplished writer).

There’s a unifying principle, however, to the narrative: Shanti hero-worships his uncle Juan de Aquirre, who, like his father, was a sailor. The family is told the uncle has died, but Shanti in adult life discovers this is untrue; gradually the old mariner’s exploits are revealed (partly via a ‘found MS’ device beloved of gothic romance) – many of them unedifying, such as his stint serving on a slave ship. I admit I’d stopped reading attentively by then, so can’t say for sure if Baroja shows any sense of immorality in such activities.

Porto tram

My picture from inside the tram to Foz from Porto

Maybe reading this salty yarn in the urban environment of Porto was a mistake. The Atlantic is only a short ride away by charming antique tram from the picturesque city centre, but the riparian environment of the city didn’t harmonise with this book.

Porto, of course, is noted for its port wine, and I loved visiting producers’ vaults and seeing the replica rabelos – the flat-bottomed boats (with curved prows like an Arabian slipper) that plied the dangerous waters of the Douro, bringing the produce of the vineyards far upstream down to the city to be vatted and bottled by the likes of Taylor, Sandeman and Cálem.

Regua

Old photo of rabelos displayed on the wall of a port producer in the upstream Douro town of Regua

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But — back to Baroja.

During Shanti’s apprenticeship to a Cádiz sea captain and his first voyages on the Philippines run, he becomes romantically (and disastrously) involved with their employer’s imperious daughter. Even more clichéd adventures and entanglements follow, with similarly implausible coincidences and complications that could have come straight out of medieval romance.

Shanti Andia title page

Title page of the Signet edition

I don’t think it was the fault of the translators, whose prose reads fairly lucidly, for the most part. It’s the boy’s-own content that I couldn’t get on with.

Maybe I should go back to Bernardo Atxaga.

 

 

 

Taylor's port caves

Inside the Taylor’s port wine caves

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, Carol

Patricia Highsmith, Carol. Bloomsbury pb, 2014. First published in the USA as The Price of Salt in 1952

Squeezing this last post in this month before I go on my travels, so there’ll be a hiatus here at TD for a while.

I’ve not read Patricia Highsmith before, but had read some very positive reviews of her psychological thrillers, and have seen films like Strangers on a Train (directed by Hitchcock in 1951) and The Talented Mr Ripley. Carol is very different.

The author explains in an Afterword that the inspiration for the novel came in 1948, soon after she’d finished Strangers, and was living in New York. Being short of cash she took a temporary job in a department store as a sales assistant in the toy department. Like Therese in the novel, she was assigned to the doll section:

One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat.

Patricia Highsmith, CarolShe went home and wrote up an 8-page story outline in her notebook. This was one of those germs of an idea that Henry James has written about; they simmer in the author’s mind for a while and then emerge as works of fiction.

Here’s how the scene plays out in the novel:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

The 19-year-old Therese, an aspiring stage set designer, has had a coup de foudre. What follows is a compelling account of a passion that turns out to be mutual, but beset by the hostility and prejudice against lesbian relationships that were prevalent at the time – and still are, sadly, in some places.

Carol is a wealthy housewife in her thirties, married but soon to be divorced. Her husband uses the situation to ensure he is awarded custody of their little girl.

Therese and Carol go on a road trip out west. They are being followed by a detective hired by the husband. He’s as cynical and unsympathetic as the man who hired him, and the society that spawned them both. The cat and mouse pursuit and suspense that follows is heart-stopping and makes for a compelling read.

Carol was played beautifully by Cate Blanchett in the 2015 film (directed by Todd Haynes).

Not surprisingly, Highsmith published the novel in 1952 under an assumed name; her usual publisher wouldn’t touch it because of its lesbian theme. Big mistake: it sold over a million copies when it came out in paperback.

There’s an excellent introduction in this Bloomsbury edition, by Val McDermid. As she says, it’s ‘a polished and accomplished work’. I recommend it.

 

Writers are monsters: Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel. First published 1957; my edition: Virago Modern Classics, 2013.

‘Writers are monsters’, Hilary Mantel concludes in her introduction to this VMC edition. The gloriously inappropriately named protagonist of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel is a bestselling writer (born in 1885) of terrible romantic fiction. She’s the antithesis of her creator: Taylor writes her meticulously acute observation of ordinary lives, usually in unexciting suburban bourgeois settings, able through her sensitive writer’s antennae to pick up the tiniest signals of emotion and strangeness; her style is crisp, clear, restrained. Angel writes outrageously romantic, borderline salacious period melodramas with two-dimensional characters, dredged up from the shallow pool of her limited sensibility in luridly clichéd, overwritten prose. She’s opinionated and ignorant, and hates books and reading almost as much as she dislikes real people and life:

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her…

When asked by her publisher when they first meet what authors she’s read and liked, she’s at a loss:

“I quite liked Shakespeare,” she admitted. “Except when he is trying to be funny.”

Angel escapes from and triumphs over reality in her daydreams; ‘she was menaced by intimations of the truth’. Henry James aspired to write ‘the real thing’; Angel

had removed herself, romantically, from the evidence of her senses: the reality of what she could learn by touching, tasting, was banished as a trivial annoyance, scored out as irrelevant.

These adolescent fantasies develop into her badly written stories as antidote to her drab, squalid life above a grocer’s shop in a dismal slum in a bleak industrial city.

It’s a novel that’s as bitter about the dreadful taste of a reading public that makes Angel a fortune from her scribbling as it is about the awful, exposed solitude of the writer’s life.

Elizabeth Taylor, cover of 'Angel'Perhaps that sounds a bit grim – but it’s a very funny, beautifully written book. From the opening words, when we’re treated to the only direct quotation in the novel of Angel’s execrable, purple prose style – an extract from a story written for her teacher (though it’s a style imitated viciously by one of her subsequent publishers) – it’s clear that Taylor has created a deliciously outrageous monster.

There are telling glimpses of the mediocrity of the adults around her that inspire Angel’s venomous animosity from the outset, such as that dull, narrow-minded teacher at a pretentious but useless private school:

She doesn’t believe I wrote it, she thought, glancing with contempt at the flustered little woman with the slipping pince-nez and bird’s-nest hair. Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could? What a way to spend your life – fussing about with school lessons, getting chalk all over your skirt, going home to lodgings at night to work out the next day’s Shakespeare – cut to page this, line that, so that we don’t have to read the word ‘womb’.

The narrative voice has the wit, insight and sharp eye for detail that is all Taylor; Angel would never be capable of that selective kind of descriptive detail. But it’s a voice that also accurately expresses the viciousness and arrogance of the schoolgirl who so despises this harmless, commonplace teacher. It foreshadows the sheer nastiness, narcissism and intolerant cruelty that Angel displays throughout her life whenever someone criticises her work (which is clearly terrible), or has the temerity to challenge her fiery, rude and obstinate behaviour.

It’s perhaps this aspect of the novel that’s so brilliant. Anyone who’s ever aspired to write has to deal with the conflicting emotions brought about by the critical comments of those who read their work.  Angel has such a wilfully inflated, delusional view of her own brilliance that she’s incapable of accepting criticism gracefully, or of learning from it. She believes she’s perfect, so improvement is a logical impossibility in her view.

Maybe there’s something in this mixture of ‘great vanity’ and self-belief that all aspiring writers experience, but rarely admit to.

Here’s a typically astute piece of humour that also serves to draw attention to the egregious lack of self-awareness in Angel’s character; she receives fanmail, but also letters from clergymen complaining that she’s corrupting the morals of the young:

…these letters gave her a sense of power and she enjoyed reading them…she did not write for children. Letters which merely made carping criticisms, about flowers coming out in the wrong season, Orion appearing in the night sky in August, or some confusions with Greek deities, she put down as the work of literary critics, a part of their general scheme against her.

Typical of Angel, to make the expression ‘literary critics’ into an expletive (as ‘do-gooders’ or ‘anti-fascists’ are for extreme right-wingers). And notice that it’s ‘confusions’ and ‘deities’, plural! That hint of paranoia, too. Wonderful.

Then she picks up another reader’s letter:

“Dear Madam,” she read, “Since you can only describe what you write of from your own experiences, we must deduce from this fact that you are nothing but a common whore. Please keep your excesses to yourself and spare yours in disgust, Lover of Literature.”

When her husband roared with laughter on reading this, Angel ‘looked at him in amazement which changed to cold disdain.’ She can’t understand why he finds it – and her – hilarious, and then she feels sickened and angry; ‘he must be mad’, she concludes. The London EC4 postmark ‘meant nothing to her’; her vanity exceeds her boundless ignorance, for it is, of course, that of Fleet Street and the heart of English publishing.

I wrote in February about Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories and about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

The wolf and the lamb: a fable for our times

I was going to post about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel, which I recently finished reading, but was diverted by an entry in an old notebook of mine about this fable of the wolf and the lamb. It resonates even more today, given recent events in the world.

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The wolf and the lamb is the last one

The beast fables of Aesop (620-c 560 BCE), themselves often derived from more ancient oriental sources such as the Buddhist Dipi Jatakas, were adapted by the Roman poet Phaedrus (15 BCE-50). The text that follows is from a prose translation by H.T. Riley, published in London, 1887, available at Project Gutenberg; I’ve made minor adjustments in line with the original Latin text.

THE WOLF AND THE LAMB.

Driven by thirst, a Wolf and a Lamb had come to the same stream; the Wolf stood above, and the Lamb at a distance below. Then, the villain (thief or brigand, lit.), prompted by hunger (or ‘wicked throat’), trumped up a pretext for a quarrel. “Why,” said he, “have you made the water muddy for me while I am drinking?” The wool-bearer, trembling, answered: “Please, Wolf, how can I do what you complain of? The water is flowing downwards from you to where I am drinking.” The other, disconcerted by the force of truth, exclaimed: “Six months ago, you slandered me.” “Indeed,” answered the Lamb, “I was not born then.” “By Hercules,” said the Wolf, “then ’twas your father slandered me;” and so, snatching him up, he tore him to pieces, killing him unjustly.

This Fable is applicable to those men who, under false pretences, oppress the innocent.

More pertinent is the alternative version by Christopher Smart (1722-71), which ends :

Abash’d by facts, says he, “I know

’Tis now exact six months ago

You strove my honest fame to blot”—

“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”

“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,

And so he tore him, till he died.

To those this fable I address

Who are determined to oppress,

And trump up any false pretence,

But they will injure innocence

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry - artsy.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48311782

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1686-1755 – artsy.net, Public Domain

The fable was adapted many times subsequently; La Fontaine (published 1668-94) of course, but also by the Scots makar, Robert Henryson (fl. 1460-1500). Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his version (adapted slightly):

It’s about widespread social breakdown. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to Scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered by the Wolf with perversions of all these. Then Henryson in his own person comments that there are three kinds of contemporary wolves who oppress the poor: dishonest lawyers; real estate tycoons intent on extending their estates; and landowners who exploit their tenants.

To this could be added, in our day, the power-crazed in all walks of life, including politics.

I shall be going on holiday soon, so may not post much for a while; meantime I hope to post the Angel piece before I go.

Leopardi on life: Zibaldone revisited

In August 2015 I wrote about Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and his enormous collection of reflections and thoughts, the Zibaldone. A critical study published yesterday by Peter Lang, Oxford, A System that Excludes all Systems: Giacomo di Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri, by Emanuela Cervato, has this summary on the publisher’s website:

For many decades Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri has been seen as a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali). The conceptual consistency of the work was thereby denied, privileging Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker.

This book shows that such a perceived lack of coherence is merely illusory. The Zibaldone is drawn together by an intricate web of references centring around topics such as the ambivalent concept of nature; the Heraclitean «union of opposites» (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination); and the tension between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization. Largely unknown to the English-speaking world until its translation in 2013, the Zibaldone is Leopardi’s intellectual diary, the place where dialogue with the ancient classical traditions evolves into modern encyclopaedism and what has been described as «thought in movement». It establishes Leopardi as one of the most original and radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.

Zibaldone

My copy

My 2013 Penguin hardback copy, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco d’Intino, was translated by a principal team of seven scholars, with additional material by others.

That 2015 post of mine suggested that Leopardi had influenced writers including Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett. It’s not a book for reading in sequence from page 1; it lends itself better to dipping in. Here’s an example of the sort of material such a strategy brings out.

I found I had highlighted this passage, on p. 183, entry numbered by the editors as 273:

The majority of people live according to habit, without pleasure or real hopes, without sufficient reason for continuing to live or doing what is necessary to stay alive. If they thought about it, apart from religion they would find no reason for living and, though unnatural, it would be rational to conclude that their life was absurd, because although having begun life is, according to nature, justification for continuing it, according to reason it is not.

Now this also sounds to me a bit (if you strip out that reference to religion, from which Leopardi was struggling to detach himself, it seems) like Camus.

This took me to the entry ‘life’ in the topic index. The quotation above is the first citation; this is the second, which also has a Camus/Sartre element:

The question of whether suicide helps man or not (which is what knowing if it is reasonable or not, and can be chosen or not, comes down to), can be reduced to these simple terms. Which of the two is better, suffering or not suffering? …[he mulls these options over for several lines, then…] And we conclude that since not suffering is more helpful to man than suffering, and since he cannot live without suffering, it is mathematically true and certain that absolute not being is more beneficial and more fitting to man than being. And that being is, precisely, harmful to man. And therefore anyone who lives (if you take away religion) lives because of a pure formal error of calculation: I mean the calculation of utility (p. 1069, entry 2549)

Other entries in the index extend the term to ‘[Life] is not necessary’; ‘What is life?’; ‘Why are we born?’…’Life is an evil in itself’, and so on.

I’m not qualified to examine Leopardi’s philosophy with any rigour; I can only dabble like this and make facile connections and observations. The editors in their introduction explain that he lived at a time after the first generation of Romantics known in Italy as an age of ‘discontent, frustration, melancholy’; Leopardi was grappling with ‘the existential choice between life and death’ (p. xii).

He was born in the Papal States, in Recanati in the Marche. His provincial, ultra-conservative family gave him a strict Catholic education, and expected him to become a priest. His deep study of philology and  the classics and then of contemporary literature, however, lured him in a different direction.

Benjamin Arcades coverHe paved the way in his writing, it would appear then, for Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, the existentialists and post-structuralists. His Zibaldone, like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, can be read as hypertext.

I need to look at the poetry, in which he also found release.