Snakes, T. Hardy, flâneuses and disobedience – recent reading

Work and other commitments have kept me from posting much lately. Time to start catching up on recent reading – and some other things that have interested me lately.

First, before the books, a word that popped up in my OED word of the day email a while back:

OPHIOLATRY: the worship or reverence of snakes. From the Greek ophios – serpent, plus the usual suffix meaning, well, worship. I consulted the OED online (as always, thanks to them for allowing free access via library card number): the first citation is from Cotton Mather in 1723.

Other dictionary sites provide related words, including ophiolite – serpentine, but sadly that’s obsolete. I don’t suppose we use ‘serpentine’ too often, either – apart from the name of the lake in a London park. Also ophidian – having the nature or character of snakes. Ophidiophobia dates from 1914, and seems a much more sensible word: why would anyone want to worship snakes? Much more likely, surely, to fear them.

There are so many examples in the English language of two different words denoting the same thing, often deriving from Latin (considered the elegant variant) and Old English (less prestigious). Isn’t it great that we can refer to snakes or serpents? Both have that wonderful hissing sibilant, appropriately. Serpent was originally used for any ‘creeping thing’; OED says it’s from the Latin, and had that meaning (examples include ‘louse’). Snake comes from earthier Old English, and therefore has a longer history. OED’s first citations are from the 11C. But the two seem to have been used interchangeably. Then there’s this 15C quotation from Lydgate: Whos vertu is al venym to distroye,..Of dragoun, serpent, adder & of snake. He seems to consider these as different kinds of dangerous crawling reptiles (or ‘limbless vertebrates’ as the OED calls them) – or it’s just the typical ‘elegant variation’ that was popular with contemporary authors.

Now for the books.

Elizabeth Lowry: The Chosen. Riverrun, 296 pp. Published 2022. A competent fictional account of Thomas Hardy’s explosion of grief when his wife of over thirty years, Emma (Gifford), died in 1912. They were both in their seventies. They’d been estranged for twenty years, living mostly in different parts of the ugly house that Hardy designed himself (Max Gate, Dorchester – that was Emma’s view, anyway; I’ve seen it, and it’s not handsome), and hardly talking to each other.

Lowry evokes well the chilly atmosphere of this forbidding house, and the marriage that atrophied inside it. When TH discovers Emma’s diaries and reads what she’d been going through, married to a man totally preoccupied with his writing, he’s horrified and stricken with guilt at how cruel and cold he’d been. Remorse overwhelms him. This prepares the scene for the outpouring of the great elegiac poems he then wrote about her. In them he restored her to life, reimagined as the young girl she was when they met at St Juliot in north Cornwall.

I can’t say I was deeply moved by this novel, despite the interesting story. It was overwritten, the style too mannered. Colm Toibin does a much better job with his novels about the writers Henry James (I read The Master pre-blog) and Thomas Mann (link to my recent post on this HERE). Paula McLain’s boisterous novel about Hemingway’s life with his first wife Hadley in Paris in the 1920s is undemanding but good fun. I wrote one of my earliest posts about it (link HERE). This reminds me: that was in 2013, so my tenth blogging anniversary will be in April this year!

Lauren Elkin: Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (Vintage, 2017; 20161). The title says it all: this is a scholarly, lucidly written study and history of the literature of women who haunted the streets of those cities and wrote about their experience of them. Of course, it’s a deliberate challenge to the well-known 19C literary figure, the flâneur (usual examples include Baudelaire, Poe and Dickens) – almost always male and middle-class. The sections on Paris and London are the best: Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys figure largely here.

But this book is partly an irritatingly self-regarding autobiography. There’s too much intrusive gush about the author’s love life. This is a shame, because there’s some really interesting, well-researched stuff in here, good literary analysis and author profiles. I could have done without all the navel-gazing, though.

There’s a link HERE to some of my previous posts on the subject (Walter Benjamin, Iain Sinclair, etc.)

Naomi Alderman, Disobedience (Penguin, 2018; 20161). This was an early example of what has become something of a literary (and filmed) genre: the woman who flees an ultra-orthodox Jewish community and struggles to find herself in the outside, secular world. It raises interesting and tricky questions about female rebellion against a male-dominated culture, and what it really takes to be…disobedient.

Still got a few more titles. More on them next time.