Cees Nooteboom, The Foxes Come at Night. A review.

Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke: Maclehose Press, Quercus, London 2013; first published 2009

Work on the house continues, and we’ve had to travel extensively with work and for social commitments lately, so this will be a hastily-written piece.

I’ve admired the reviews of Jonathan Gibbs for some time, and his debut novel, Randall, was published last month by Galley Beggar Press and was well received. He’s quoted as saying, among the puffs for this book in the preliminary pages, that Nooteboom’s short novels ‘are exquisite toys for the broken-hearted’ – a phrase so impressive the publishers also stuck it on the front cover – ‘erudite tales that revolve around themes of loss and despair but are nevertheless playful.’ Critics have also described the Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn as hilariously funny; both are views I find it hard to share.

These are bleak little sketches about memory, yes, and lost love, but playful they’re surely not. That’s not to say that they aren’t sometimes witty and amusing, but mostly I found them moodily reflective, sad and nostalgic, with that tang of wistful ennui and anomie that’s so prevalent in the bleak fiction that traces its origins in the works of Hamsun and Kafka, continued through Beckett and most commonly found in continental European writers: Bernhard, Sebald, Krasznahorkai…

I bought this slim volume of eight stories in a curious bookshop at the foot of some medieval steps in Exeter; called Book Cycle, it claims to be Britain’s only ‘free bookshop’. You can select up to three books a day and pay what you think is fair. It’s a charity which distributes books in Africa.

I took my purchase to a pub on the Quays overlooking the swan-haunted river. As I ate lunch in bright sunshine I read the opening story, ‘Gondolas’. It’s typical of the collection: a middle-aged narrator, an Amsterdam art journalist, retraces his time in Venice forty years earlier. He finds the very pier where a passer-by took a photo of him and his much younger, teenage American girlfriend – a hippy with home-made tattoos and a penchant for astrology and the occult – the narrator dismissively calls this ‘childish babble’. The melancholy narrative is as much about the man himself now, however, as it is about the woman:

What that snapshot really conveyed, he reflected, more as a statement of fact than out of a sense of tragedy or self-pity, was that it was time he started thinking about his own exit.


Nooteboom in 2011: Wikimedia Commons

Nooteboom in 2011: Wikimedia Commons

Memory, mutability and mortality and related feelings of mourning or despair then are the central themes in these stories, usually sparked off by a picture: they are I suppose examples of a kind of ecphrasis, they are about observed life and its usually impenetrable significance, and our efforts to make sense of what are possibly meaningless events, but those events create absences for us which are troublesome when we recollect what they once represented. The idea of our ‘making our exit’ underpins most of the stories, while ‘trying to feel her absence’, as the narrator does here, running his fingers over the stones on the Venetian pier. The slow meditative voice and haunted tone are complemented by a tendency towards aphorism and poetic philosophising; usually this works well, but sometimes it can seem pretentious:

He was aware that every thought entering the mind under these circumstances would be a cliché, but these riddles had never been solved. By reality and perfection I mean the same thing…Death was a natural given, but it was accompanied by such abysmal sorrow at times that you were almost ready to descend into the abyss yourself, and thereby surrender to the perfect reality of the riddle.

That ‘abyss’ – the mystery at the heart of each individual’s life, and our inability to truly know each other – leads the narrators to ponder, and usually reject, the possibility of making sense of our stories. In ‘Paula’ and ‘Paula II’, for example, the first story about a group of bohemian gamblers is told from the point of view of Paula’s temporary lover; the second, strangely, is from her perspective in a sort of limbo beyond the grave. And it’s clear he knew almost nothing about her.

The ‘arsenal’ of memories begins in ‘Gondolas’, as in many of the stories, in the Mediterranean – the island of Hydra. The narrator doesn’t, on reflection, seem to have much liked this young woman with her banal taste in ‘sorcery’, her kitsch artistic sense (his own is more portentous: Piero della Francesca is mentioned) and dabbling in puerile versions of Buddhism. But his own sombre feelings are clearly very important: ‘Love was the need for love, that much at least he had understood.’

She left that summer to resume her life in the USA and he went on to become important in the world of art journalism. They corresponded, however, and when years later she told him she was very ill he went to visit her in California. The trip was not a success. Now that she’s died he has come on a kind of pilgrimage to the place where he first accosted her and began their affair. At the story’s end when he casts her letters into the water, it’s more with a sense of ridding himself of the memory of this unedifying part of his erotic-artistic life, than as a Keatsian elegy to a doomed lost love.

010Other stories are little more than vignettes or snapshots of revealing moments in a person’s life. A mismatched couple go to a cafe in Menorca (where they live) and see a man walk out on his wife after they quarrel and get fried by a lightning bolt in a thunderstorm. The symbolism in this story is a little heavy-handed.

‘Heinz’ is the longest story, and is another sparked off by contemplation of a picture. This is perhaps the most interesting in the collection: the alcoholic Dutch honorary vice consul on the Ligurian coast is richly drawn. It’s another story about the incipherability of a person’s life, yet we feel impelled to try to find out about it. The epigraph by Ivy Compton-Burnett is revealing of Nooteboom’s intentions:

We will not pretend that something has happened when nothing has.

The narrative is again melancholy and elegiac, muted and detached. The theme of drama is expounded upon here and elsewhere in the collection:

Drama in novels or films exists thanks to the denial of duration since it can be compressed into a few evenings of reading or an hour or two of viewing. Things happen in the real world which you can call dramas, and yet, if you want to turn them into art you have no choice but to converge and compress…Our chaos makes for stories lacking in form and clarity.

The stories are about more than nostalgia, then: they’re about the attempt to create art out of the apparently meaningless events we have witnessed and participated in. By narrating these events we perhaps mute the pain. Even though the narrator self-deprecatingly warns his reader not to expect the ‘unities’ or drama in this story; it is artless, with ‘no culmination, no dénouement’. Instead it’s about the incapacity of language to convey meaning or reality; we employ images, as films do, but we can’t shake the wish to

Take [y]our paltry little secrets with you when you depart this life and close the door behind you.

I suppose the stories sound, summarised like this, rather bleak and depressing – they’re not. The language is hypnotic and engaging, and the playfulness mentioned by Gibbs is apparent, now I think of it, in the Beckettian sense of feeling impelled to go on with the telling of the story even when it is hopeless to try to make anything meaningful out of it. Or so the narrators believe; as readers we are required to mistrust this pessimism, see the play beneath the stone surface. Thus in ‘Paula II’ the eponymous woman narrator (who is dead, she died in a hotel fire) observes her erstwhile lover’s ascetic, Zen monastic existence and remarks:

for someone still among the living you make a rather dead impression, as though you have taken an advance on your mortality.



My previous post was about Italo Calvino, and in particular his essay on the ‘literature machine’. If all writing is ‘simply a process of combination among given elements…merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions’, then it should be possible for a program or machine to play with the permutations and transformations in language in a kind of ‘combinatorial play’, and thus generate new texts.

Since writing that piece I’ve come across the concept of VOLVELLES.

A good detailed scholarly account of them and their historical evolution, with illustrated examples up to Led Zeppelin’s 1970 album cover artwork, is at Archbook: Architectures of the Book, by Michelle Gravelle, Anah Mustapha, and Coralee Leroux; here’s a more concise account from Wikipedia (hyperlinks and footnotes removed):

A volvelle or wheel chart is a type of slide chart, a paper construction with rotating parts. It is considered an early example of a paper analog computer. Volvelles have been produced to accommodate organization and calculation in many diverse subjects. Early examples of volvelles are found in the pages of [books on astronomy and astrology]. They can be traced back to ‘certain Arabic treatises on humoral medicine’ and to the Persian astronomer, Abu Rayhan Biruni (c. 1000)… The most ancient example of a simple volvelle was the pentagram from Hammurabi’s day that has become the symbol of witchcraft [the Venus volvelle].

Badische LandesBibliothek, Codex St Peter perg. 92, f. 11v

Badische LandesBibliothek, Codex St Peter perg. 92, f. 11v; Lull/Llull on the left

The father of Western ‘combinatory text generation’ is often said to be the Majorcan writer-philosopher and Franciscan, Ramon Llull (c. 1232-c. 1315; his name is usually anglicised to Lull), who is said to have used Arabic astrological lore – and the related device called a zairja – in forming his Ars combinatoria. An academic account of Lull’s Art and related arcane systems is given by Janet Zweig in her paper: ‘Ars combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art and the Computer’. She explains that Lull used letters of the alphabet as ‘symbolic notation for the Divine attributes; the letters are placed on revolving wheels and can then be mechanically combined with other data’ in order to ‘prove systematically the reality of universal Christian truths’. It is thus a ‘prototype of an expert system’ that requires ‘a user or “artista”, who can mobilize the structure to apply it to scientific questions’.

The 8vo website cites an essay on Lull’s ‘Thinking Machine’ by Borges, who featured in my last post on Calvino; he says that Lull’s terms are in need of updating, and 8vo adds:

In a sense that had already happened by the end of the 16th century: by Agrippa’s time, Lull’s combinatory art had already blended with poetic practices dating back the 4th century – centos comprised of cut and pasted fragments from poems and chance operations as with bibliomancy – and updating it to suit the latest tastes. Poetic ‘machines’ were used to piece together syllables into words, words into verse, proving that computer-generated poetry isn’t just a child of the 20th century.

On an ingenious site which is itself a kind of e-volvelle, requiring the reader to click squares on a grid to access the e-folios of text, Whitney Trettien (‘Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: an Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms’) has some arcane and fascinating additional data:

Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897), [can be] imagined as a metonym for his multivolume, combinatorial Book, Le Livre. A radical experiment in design and typography, Un coup de dés privileges form over content — or rather, form as content, such that blank spaces, typography and the material folds of the book, rather than semantics, generate what Mallarmé calls “prismatic subdivisions” of meaning on the page. This unusual use of the book’s architecture leaves the reader, rather than the writer, to cull and combine these scattered fragments of text through multimodal acts of association; thus the reader — Mallarmé prefers the word “operator,” etymologically linked to “work,” oeuvre, from the Latin opus — becomes an (inter)active participant in the poem’s construction. (Footnote omitted.) …Like the four hands floating around Harsdörffer’s Denckring — like manicules — like the reader’s hand spinning the discs — like the finger that points and clicks — the hand will cut up the hand that recombines. The coherent abstraction of a textual icon, dismembered from its body, reconnects through the process of an embodied hand that moves, spinning a web of combinations.

As William Burroughs wrote, cut-ups are “experimental in the sense of being something to do.”

This site has extensive and erudite sections on Permutational Poetry, like Mallarmé’s (or one could add the Fluxus artist Emmet Williams, cited by Zweig). Raymond Queneau, founder of Oulipo, as noted in my previous post, in 1961 published Cent mille milliards de poèmes; each page contained a rhymed sonnet. The separate lines of the pages could be peeled back and recombined into an almost infinite number of new poems, as the title indicates (online versions can easily be found). Members of Oulipo (and Alamo, which arose from it) used artificial constraints and generating systems to produce literary works – Zweig gives other more recent examples, such as Charles O. Hartman, who distinguishes between text generators which start with a corpus of vocabulary with no source text, and those which rearrange vocabulary from an existing text; she also cites manipulators of hypertext and the French group LAIRE and other ‘new media poets’.

From Lull's Ars magna

From Lull’s Ars magna

Leibniz’s Alphabet of Human Thoughts incorporates ‘his notion of a mathesis universalis — a method of generating, with mathematical certainty, the answer to any philosophical question’ (Trettien). In 1666, at the age of twenty, Leibniz defended his Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, in which he explores Ramon Llull’s ars magna, or his combinatorial art — a subject tackled by many thinkers of the period, including Johann Heinrich Alsted and Athanasius Kircher. Like Lull himself, Leibniz ‘explores the art of combination not simply as mechanical means for permuting discrete elements, but as system for logical discovery…Both poetry and philosophy become not product but process — a system, mechanized in a set of nesting paper wheels, whose very existence instantiates its combinatory possibilities (Trettien)’. In 1694 he produced the Stepped Reckoner: an early paper form of calculator.

Trettien’s section on Materiality of Letters provides a linguistic-historical perspective on the likes of Comenius, Kircher (especially his Polygraphia, 1663) up to the present day (Chomsky and co.)

From here it’s a short step to the Kabbalah, the symmetrical strings of DNA, carbon atoms, Big Bang cosmology and mathematical  Set Theory.

From the 18C on volvelles tended to be used less for mystical or universalist purposes, and more as systems for ‘symbolic logic, semantic invention or pure process and play’ (Zweig), as in musical dice games, or the ballet dancers with cards referred to by Trettien. ‘Music, with its abstract notation, lends itself directly to recombinancy’ ; John Cage in recent years produced recombined musical elements and computer-generated recombined written texts (Zweig again).

I Ching (Taopage website)

I Ching (Taopage website)

Zweig also points out that the I Ching is a divination system based on ‘a binary system and chance operations, developed in the first millennium BC.’

Zweig also cites the parody of such systematic engines in Gulliver’s Travels (pt 3, ch. 5), in which Gulliver visits the Academy at Lagado. Some 500 ‘projectors’ engage in all kinds of crackpot schemes, among which is an imaginary ‘permutational machine’ for improving ‘speculative knowledge’, whose inventor is possibly a caricature of Leibniz or Lull. The device consists of a frame holding blocks:

The Lagado Machine in the Grandville 1838 text of 'Gulliver's Travels' (from VoyagesMecaniques website)

The Lagado Machine in the Grandville 1838 text of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (from VoyagesMecaniques website)

It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”  (From website of LiteratureProject.com)

An online Lagado Engine based on Markov models (whatever they are) can be found here; it can be used to generate new text from old, just like the one Gulliver witnessed in 1726. The 8vo website points out that the ‘random babbling’ generated by such an engine is an early example of what came to be known as the Infinite Monkey theorem: “that a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce the works of Shakespeare” – traced by Borges in his essay “The Total Library”. This website gives a clear and informative account of volvelles and the development of ‘paper computing’, with some excellent illustrations.

Search Twitter with #volvelle and plenty more examples pop up, like this from a 1490 astronomical calendar, probably made in London:

BL MS Egerton 848, f. 22 (from BL website)
BL MS Egerton 848, f. 22 (from BL website)








Finally, among the many early printed examples readily found online, came this image (fortuitously, just now) from Lambeth Palace Library’s twitter feed (@lambpallib; website lambethpalacelibrary.org; this is the library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury/Church of England Record Centre): a volvelle from an edition of Cosmographicus (Antwerp, 1529), once owned by Abp Thomas Cranmer:

Lambeth Palace Library volvelle from 'Cosmographicus'

Lambeth Palace Library volvelle from ‘Cosmographicus’

Cosmographicus Liber (Cosmographia) by Petrus Apianus was first published in 1524. Apianus (1495-1552), a mathematician, printer and instrument maker, studied cosmography and mathematics in Leipzig and Vienna. This book, a layman’s introduction to the science of the time, had little original content and was based largely on Ptolemy. Among other subjects, it describes planetary motion and terrestrial geography, techniques for celestial navigation with mathematical instruments, telling time, and measuring distances. It contains many woodcut illustrations, including moveable stacked illustration plates called volvelles, which could be manipulated to make calculations. (The History and Future of the Book website has several more splendid colour illustrations from the book, including volvelles.) A first edition at the Smithsonian Institution Library can be consulted online at Archive.org here; it too has (monochrome) illustrations, eg at col. 63.

Humans have always yearned to create a systematic engine to facilitate our access to all knowledge; George Eliot’s desiccated scholar, Casaubon, is a salutary reminder that a Key to all Mythologies is a delusion; but that doesn’t stop us striving to produce a Literature Machine. As Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi story has it, when Tibetan monks compute the last of the 9 billion permutations of the names of God, the universe ends.

And there I’d better stop, for the permutational possibilities of this topic are surely infinite: we’ve gone from witchcraft, mystical-arcane computing and astrology to Led Zeppelin. Sometime soon I’d like to turn to another Calvino-related topic: the French group of avant-garde writers called Oulipo.

Unless stated otherwise, all images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Italo Calvino and the Literature Machine

Italo Calvino: 1923-1985

In my last post I mentioned taking down from my much-reduced bookshelf space (builders at work) Italo Calvino’s collection of essays The Literature Machine (Vintage, 1997), translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh. In the first Part he writes about literature in general, especially in relation to narratology, structural(ist) linguistics/semantics/semiology, the ‘intellectual scorn’ of the Collège de Pataphysique and its offshoot of mathematical/mechanic literati the Oulipo, founded by Raymond Queneau – an avant garde group which he was invited to join when he was in Paris in 1968. His own work had veered dramatically away from the realist tradition of fiction to which he adhered in his earlier works. I hope to write in more detail about Calvino’s literary achievement in a later post.

Calvino interviewed by L. Salori for RAI, 1958

Calvino interviewed by L. Salori for RAI, 1958

He also writes here on literature and philosophy, as a projection of desire, on comedy, eroticism and fantasy, on the putative audience for whom authors write, on ‘levels of reality’ and on politics (having fought against the fascists in Italy during WWII and joined the CP, he left it in 1957 in a reaction against the Soviet invasion of Hungary the previous year, and the revelations of Stalin’s excesses).

Part Two opens with the famous essay ‘Why Read the Classics?’, in which he defines a classic as ‘a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’, which is rather more pertinent than Mark Twain’s (admittedly funnier )‘a book that everyone wants to have read, but no-one wants to read’. He ends with this fine quotation from the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-95) to illustrate his point that classics shouldn’t serve any particular ‘purpose’:

While they were preparing the hemlock, Socrates was learning a tune on the flute. ‘What good will it do you,’ they asked, ‘to know this tune before you die?’


(Interesting that ex-communist Calvino should cite this former admirer of Hitler – although Cioran did after the war recant his pro-fascist views). The rest of Part Two deals mostly with individual authors and texts: The Odyssey, Ovid, Candide, Balzac and the city, Stendhal, etc.


Labyrinth at Tintagel, Cornwall

Labyrinth at Tintagel, Cornwall

But I should like to return to the opening essay, ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’. After discussing the evolutionary development of literary critical theory, he considers the ways in which groups such as the anarcho-literary Oulipo artists (mentioned above) utilise mathematical patterns and self-imposed constraints when generating literary texts. I intend posting about this in more detail in a later piece.

The next logical step, he suggests, is to create computer programs that are capable of literary production. Not random text generators (there are plenty of these around online now) which work on the principle of ‘destructuralization of form’; what he posits is a need for ‘the production of disorder’, a program that reacts against its ‘preceding production of order’. Such programs would reject traditionalism and ‘propose new ways of writing’ – the Romantic notion of ‘inspiration’, the individual poet’s Coleridgean ‘afflatus’, the intuitive impulse arising from … where? The unconscious? Who knows. We need for the figure of the author (‘that spoilt child of ignorance’, Calvino calls him) to disappear, and to privilege that of the reader, who will know ‘that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works’.

If his reader, he continues, is suspicious of his motives in consigning the inspirational poet-author to the bin, he’d respond that all writing is ‘simply a process of combination among given elements’. If it’s ‘merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions’ isn’t this too restrictive? Literature constantly tries ‘to say something it cannot say, something it does not know, and that no one could ever know’. Such statements have never been arranged with the words in that particular order before. So the struggle of literature is ‘a struggle to escape from the confines of language’- the ‘call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary’.

Lit Machine coverThis takes us into the territory of myth and ritual, and taboos, the ‘ban on mentioning something’ – certain names or prohibitions. Literature constantly pushes against these boundaries of what can’t be said, ‘to an invention that is a reinvention of words and stories that have been banished from the individual or collective memory’.

Literature redeems these forbidden territories, giving voice to what’s remained unexpressed in ‘the social or individual unconscious…The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts’. The Surrealists found a means of using word and image association to find an opposing rationale to intellectual logic.

This leads Calvino to an exploration of Ernst Kris’s development of Freud’s study of word-play as a ‘possible aesthetics of psychoanalysis’. Puns and  jokes derive from playing with permutations and transformations in language, from ‘combinatorial play’. By way of such combinatorial mechanisms a new combination is arrived at with ‘an unexpected meaning or unforeseen effect which the conscious mind would not have arrived at deliberately’. This is ‘an unconscious meaning, or at least the premonition of an unconscious meaning’. This shock of novel meaning ‘occurs only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and society’; the outcome should be ‘a terrible revelation: a myth’, to be recited in secret, and stumbled upon only by ‘playing around with narrative functions’.

Borges (left) with fellow Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato in 1975

Borges (left) with fellow Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato in 1975

From here it’s a short step to the labyrinthine narratives that Borges inherited from ancient sources, such as the Chinese-box narrative-within-a-narrative. Such literature does not enlighten the reader: we are disorientated by it, our world is defamiliarised. By experiencing bewilderment we are able to liberate ourselves from it. A labyrinth is designed to be entered into with a view to becoming lost. By reconstructing its plan we destroy it. Literature thereby becomes a means of demonstrating that ‘the world is essentially impenetrable, that any communication is impossible.’ The labyrinth becomes ‘a facsimile of the world and of society’ (Enzenberger).

The combinatorial mathematical game acts as ‘a challenge to understand the world or as a dissuasion from understanding it’. The reader’s role is therefore decisive: ‘It is up to the reader to see to it that literature exerts its critical force, and this can occur independently of the author’s intentions’. Elsewhere, I suppose, this is what is known as the Intentionalist Fallacy.

There is a manic elegance in this surreal or labyrinthine logic. It’s found in so much of the fiction of the later 20C, from Kafka to Beckett, Borges to the stories of Barthelme and Coover, and ultimately in Pynchon and, perhaps, DeLillo.

In a later post I shall examine more closely this notion of mechanical constraints as a mechanism for aiding (by constraining) the author in generating texts; after all, what could be more artificially limiting than composing a traditional Shakespearean sonnet, with its strict metre, rhyme scheme and stanzaic pattern? On the other hand, is omitting from your novel all words containing the letter ‘e’ a particularly sound idea? All literary texts involve some element of willed omission and selection…

Endnote: The New York Times started a column in 2011 called ‘The Mechanic Muse’, which focuses on issues related to those raised by Calvino and Oulipo; the inaugural essay in the series by Kathryn Schulz (24.06.11) profiled the ‘distant reading’ project (a deliberate reversal of Leavisite ‘close reading’ discussed in my previous post) of Franco Moretti at his Stanford Literary Lab. Link here.)

(Images in the public domain via WikiCommons)

The function of criticism: to be ‘a trifle temperamental’.

This has been a rather disruptive few weeks as building and repairs were carried out on the house. As a consequence a couple of pieces I’ve been pondering for blogposts have had to be put on ice, including one on a volume of stories by Cees Nooteboom which I recently finished reading. So here are a few literary morsels which I hope will whet the appetite for more substantial fare in the near future…

With the painters and plasterers working indoors I had to stash most of my books away in boxes, limiting what was accessible to me to a few random texts. The other day, having finished the Nooteboom, I could find nothing that took my fancy from the few titles still on my last available little shelf, except for an old paperback Peregrine copy of F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, and Italo Calvino’s essays in a collection called The Literature Machine, first published in Italian in the early 80s, and published by Vintage in paperback in 1997.

N Curry Jul 14 025My literary training in the 70s, first at A level then as an undergraduate, was very much in the Leavisite ‘close reading’ tradition – those who’ve read any of these posts may well recognise the approach. I know it’s no longer fashionable, but it’s the one I’m comfortable with. When I carried out postgrad research into medieval hagiography at Leavis’s old college, Emmanuel, in Cambridge in the 80s the structuralists were in the ascendancy, and I found some aspects of their work of interest, as we shall see when I turn to Calvino in a future post.

This battered old Peregrine book was first published by Penguin in 1962 (but the essays in it first appeared in Leavis’s review, Scrutiny, a decade or so earlier; this edition is dated 1969). I first encountered it at Bristol University in the early 70s, when required to read the seminal essays on Milton, Swift, Pope and Shakespeare (among others scrutinised in the volume).

What caught my attention as I started re-reading it last week, not having looked into this text for several years, was the preface, where Leavis explains the source of its title: it’s taken from T.S. Eliot, The Function of Criticism, and his passage about the ‘quiet corroborative labour’ which the serious and objective critic should strive for in debate with colleagues and ‘fellows’ in ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’. Unfashionable, maybe, but those words still resonate for me.

The other passages I’d like to reproduce here remind me that FRL’s reputation as being a humourless curmudgeon is unmerited. His epigraphs include this from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye to All That:

At the end of my first term’s work I attended the usual college board to give an account of myself. The spokesman coughed and said a little stiffly: ‘I understand, Mr Graves, that the essays that you write for your English tutor are, shall I say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.’


In one of two epigraphs Leavis includes from the letters of Henry James there’s this, to WD Howells:

From the website of The Leavis Society

From the website of The Leavis Society

They are, in general, a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines – as against the so almost universal Anglo-Saxon absence of these things; which tends so, in our general trade, it seems to me, to break the heart.

If ‘our general trade’ – those of us who have the temerity to offer our critical judgements in places like this blog, and those who read and comment on them – is Discrimination and Appreciation applied to our careful readings of literary texts, then gods stand up for bastards, as Edmund so succinctly puts it in King Lear. Why shouldn’t lit crit be ‘practical’? What’s so terrible about being discriminating, provided it’s done in a spirit of probing, honest scrutinising corroboration with one’s fellow critics and readers?