Thursday, March 26, 2015

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

Prosper Mérimée iPhone Case

Mérimée is one of my compensations for not being able to read French well enough to manage Balzac or Proust. His most productive period came early and did not last very long; in 1834 he was appointed Inspector of Historic Monuments and thereafter his brilliant career as a hard-working public servant meant that the literary output became fitful. But when the stories did emerge, like Carmen (1845), they were as casual and wily as ever.

Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829)

One of the first works to show how fertile Scott's influence would prove in Europe: the effect, as usual, very different from Scott and playing on a wholly different register of ironic subtleties. A wonderfully readable book.

Mateo Falcone (1829)

The "ravins" of the topographical opening paragraph return with changed effect at the end; Mateo tells his wife that Fortunato's body lies in the ravine. The comedy of "Si vous avez tué un homme" is also changed, into the harshness concealing tenderness of "Elle est bien longue, n'importe". In the key central scene, the soldier turns the child's inherited pride this way and that until he finds a way to get what he wants. This is a perfect short story - the challenge for later writers was to achieve that perfection without resorting to such soon-exhausted extremes as filicide.

La Partie de trictrac (1830)

One of the great gambling stories. Roger's moment of dishonesty proves to have appalling consequences that he is unable to avert or undo, though he tries to give half the money back. In fact it's the Dutchman's principles, as well as his own lack of them, that destroys them both.

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Xenophon: Anabasis

Old Khndzoresk, Armenia (Photo by Mher Ishkhanyan). Xenophon mentions seeing troglodytic villages like this.

[Image source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/70883746]

Xenophon wrote the Anabasis some time around 370 BCE. The narrative covers spring 401 - spring 399.

The book I read was a Penguin Classic (The Persian Expedition) containing Rex Warner's translation of 1949 along with George Cawkwell's 1972 introduction.

Some readers have found George Cawkwell's introduction to The Persian Expedition too captious, because it's primarily concerned with weighing the accuracy of Xenophon's account; but after all that's the proper thing for a historian to do, rather than spend time eulogising the lucid prose. We do like, I know, a eulogistic introduction; it reassures us we are reading something great, and are spending our time wisely. (Just as, so I've heard, the main audience for car adverts on the TV is people who have just bought the model being advertised.)

Not everything Cawkwell says has the weight of consensus behind it, for instance his account of the battle of Cunaxa. He asks the right question, though: how on earth did Cyrus expect to win it? Once asked, Xenophon's account is plainly unsatisfying. And Cawkwell's scepticism about the young Xenophon keeping a travel-journal is persuasive.

I don't think it's a firm conclusion, either, that the Anabasis has a Panhellenic agenda. Still, few works of canonical literature are as straightforwardly militaristic. The book's former prominence in the education of our male elite is something to ponder.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoré de Balzac, daguerréotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson, 1842 (Maison de Balzac)





In the 1970s if you went to the shelves of a professional but not too literary British person you found novels in the Penguin Classics series. For instance Balzac, Zola, Turgenev and Tolstoy. (You also found Solzhenitsyn and probably Isaac Bashevis Singer.) There might be some Hardy and some Jane Austen, too, but the foreign-language novels, being translated into 1970s English, seemed more contemporary.

A few years later, these same persons “raved about” the French film Manon des Sources.

I mention this odd footnote of history (it’s in rather a Balzacian spirit, I think) because although the Penguin Classics list still exists, indeed is more numerous than ever, it has largely – and Balzac almost entirely – disappeared from the shelves of High Street bookshops. I suspect the main reason was the dramatically improved marketing of moderately substantial contemporary novels, which began in the 1980s and is indissolubly associated with the rise of Waterstones. Old Goriot and Lost Illusions didn’t have quite the same razzmatazz, and besides everyone was growing younger, especially middle-aged professionals. Channel 4 had something to do with it, and probably Thatcherism too, in a back-handed kind of way.

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Anon. The History of Poland (1831)


This is a volume of “The Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Conducted by the Rev. Dionysius Lardner, LL.D etc, assisted by Eminent Literary and Scientific Men.”

I enjoy reading nineteenth-century historians. I have read most of Motley (The Dutch Republic and the United Netherlands) and thousands of pages of Lecky and Milman. This is not so good as those, but the author’s voice is one we are disposed to trust. In those days the historian made no secret of his beliefs, and judged accordingly. This historian is Protestant and enlightened, and so writes in a spirit of mordant condemnation about much of Poland’s history, especially the centuries of decline that made its demise as an independent nation seem (with hindsight, for now it was gone) inevitable. The other, apparently less partisan, value that has appealed to all historians since Thucydides is political savvy, the successful maintenance of power. Where religious difference is allowed for, the criterion of a supposedly common standard of morality is exercised. Thus, of the Catholic establishment yielding on an issue of clerical marriage: “This was a cowardly, we may add, a highly criminal subterfuge. Whether celibacy was right or wrong, they had sworn to enforce it.”  

But the reason for this note is the last six pages of the book: “to omit all mention of the Jews, a people more numerous here than in any other country of the same extent under heaven, and bearing so great a proportion to the whole population, would be unpardonable.”

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Jane Austen: Emma (1816)

Jane Austen, pencil-and-watercolour sketch by Cassandra Austen, currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery

[Image source: http://austenblog.com/2010/05/09/a-closer-look-at-images-of-jane-austen/ . This is the only fully authenticated portrait of Jane Austen that shows her face; there is a painting by Cassandra that shows Jane, but from the back.]

Emma is an epic of class distinction, or what might be better named class definition. The class being defined is the upper-middle class gentry, not quite titled. The same class that Scott in Ivanhoe five years later would call the Franklins of Merry England.

Knightley, the novel's most skilful operator, is relaxed in his nuances. He behaves well to the lower orders, he does not imagine what is not the case. When he discusses class distinction he is talking about classes or sub-classes that are lower than his own: we don't hear Knightley on the nobility. He uses the terms "line" and "set", apparently interchangeably, to talk about the place that Harriet Smith inhabits: Mrs Goddard's. But his definitions are also nuanced by "situation" - Miss Bates is in a situation which is economically straitened. Though her "line" is comparatively high, she ought not to be made the butt of Emma's thoughtless wit. Knightley praises Robert Martin, though he does not pretend that the friendship is an equal one. The exact wording is: "He knows I have a thorough regard for him and all his family, and, I believe, considers me as one of his best friends." It is not this: "I have a thorough regard for him, and he is one of my best friends." The phrase "and all his family" qualifies the thorough regard: what he registers is not quite a personal affection, it is a regard for retainers. And the second half of the sentence is like an ethologist talking about a chimp. Emma is an imaginer, that is the source of her errors, but Knightley speaks up for sense. Yet he is not (his term for Harriet) artless, except that comically both he and Emma turn out to have their humanly artless sides too, when it comes to making love. 

*

Harriet is a little embarrassing: I mean, for Jane Austen. In a book that so relishes its expansive accounts of discussions, there's a significance to its suppressions, to the things that are not given to us. They include (in I, XVII) the painful interview between Emma and Harriet at Mrs Goddard's, in which the error over Mr Elton is revealed; this is reported to us, not word by word, but summarized into Harriet's tears and good behaviour. 

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Monday, March 23, 2015

amazon reviewers

This is a stub list of interesting Amazon reviewers I've happened across. - reviewers that make you want to press the button that says "Read all my reviews". I'll update it as and when.

*


Steampunk "JS" Northern Ireland. 44 pages of reviews. 

His interests include razors and luxury eau de colognes and shaving creams, computer gaming, Christianity, painting and art history, Hebrew and classical Greek. He also does decent Vine reviews (these are solicited reviews where the reviewer gets the product for free).

There's pretty well no end to his talents: he paints, plays classical guitar, and runs Linux on his PC. He is 60ish and retired and in effect Amazon.co.uk is his blog - he's written lots and lots of reviews. He appears to be an Evangelical (believes John's Revelation to be a true account) but this leaves little trace on his reviews in general. He's theologically learned, yet enthusiastic about Transcendental Meditation and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 


http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A2BJAW5KECUBBM/ref=pdp_new

jacr100 (UK). 13 pages of reviews.

Reviews global modern novels, - Latin American, Polish, Armenian and anywhere else. Also books about private investing. Visits Africa. The approach is unacademic, impatient of any avant-gardism or obscurity. Opinions are unpredictable and mostly acute, though sometimes bizarre. (I came across jacr100 while writing about L'Etranger).

Seems now to have stopped publishing reviews. A pity.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

holiday reading


I should begin, I suppose, with two books that I didn't take.

In the checklist of things I had to do before leaving, I wrote "Buy Flora of Western Australia"; partly by way of comic relief. This was my facetious term for a beginner's guide that would help me identify a few of the plants I might see as I walked about in this new continent. It seemed like a good idea, but I never found the leisure to pursue it any further. If I had, I might be able to tell you the names of the plants in these photos.

The second book I didn't take was John Wilkinson's  book of essays The Lyric Touch. (I bought it primarily to read the piece about Andrea Brady; the one about Prynne is downloadable in the preview that you can find on Salt's website.) It arrived a few hours before we left, and after skim-reading a few pages of Wilkinson's profoundly-considered but disputable prose I felt tempted to bring it along with me (I also remembered reading his Lake Shore Drive while in Spain about ten years ago).  But I also knew that the kind of prolonged focus that Wilkinson's text demands just isn't what I do while I'm on holiday. I need an emptier head than that.


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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Oliver Strange: The Marshal of Lawless (1933)



This is the third novel in Oliver Strange's great series of westerns about James Green, also known as Sudden. I'm talking about the reading sequence, which is different from the dates of composition and publication *NOTE 1. 

The Marshal of Lawless finds Sudden in the south of Arizona, near to the border with Mexico. Race plays quite an important role in the plot; in romances of this era, it is an irresistible ingredient, colourful in every sense; behind the racist story-lines, both author and readers are secretly attracted to what repels them. One of the villains is a Mexican (Moraga, the self-styled El Diablo), and the other - the principal one - is half-Commanche (Seth Raven, popularly known as The Vulture). On the other hand, the “injun” Black Feather, whom Sudden recues from being tortured by El Diablo, is devoted and honourable. El Diablo is naturally humiliated when Sudden invites Black Feather to give the Mexican a whipping in return. That overturns the natural order of things, from El Diablo's point of view. From Sudden's point of view Mexicans are far worse than Red Indians, inasmuch as they have pretensions to be white men. Worst of all, however, is miscegenation. Meeting Raven for the first time, Sudden runs an expert eye over his features:

"Injun an' Mex or bad white, like Durley said, reg'lar devil's brew," was Green's unvoiced criticism.

The book, naturally, supports the hero's view. We instantly scent villainous qualities in "the hooked nose, small, close-set eyes, thin lips, and lank, black hair". Yet though Sudden's race analysis is skilled, he is too honorable a man to condemn on racist grounds alone. Several chapters later, Seth Raven still puzzles him;

Apparently a public-spirited citizen..... With an innate feeling that the man was crooked, he had to admit that so far he was not justified in that belief.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)

In a Lonely Place, jacket of first edition

[Image source: http://www.lwcurrey.com/pages/books/81975/dorothy-b-hughes/in-a-lonely-place]


* Spoilers for this noir masterpiece will shortly come thick and fast. In contrast to what I wrote recently about Fielding's Tom Jones, there is no double narrative in this novel; it's supremely a book that delivers all of its payload in a single intense reading experience. But the upshot is the same: your first reading is important and you don't want to be knowing too much in advance.

*

Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray in the film In a Lonely Place (1950)
[Image source: http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/2011/3/20/take-three-gloria-grahame.html]

Nicholas Ray's 1950 film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, is a noir masterpiece too. It uses the names and some of the situations from Hughes' novel, but the screenwriters built a radically different story on this foundation. (You could put it this way: the film focuses on one idea within the novel and then explores a kind of variation on it.)

OK, enough messing about, here we go.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

magical moments in literature

This essay is in build. It'll go on Intercapillary Space when it's finished.



 *



 OK, it's my mission to dash something off for Intercapillary Space, but what about? Let's check out what's in my backpack.

Edward Thomas, Werner Aspenström, William Shakespeare... hmm, it's not quite what I'm looking for.

Try another pocket. Tim Allen's Default Soul. Well that's more like it, but people are going to be fed up with me writing about Tim Allen. Anyhow, that's where we'll begin.

*

Default Soul (Red Ceilings Press, 2014) contains 44 poems that are all in the same format (three four-line stanzas). "Stanzas" is quite a misleading term here, but at least you'll understand what the poems look like.

The end-paper says that it's the first of a trilogy of such books, and I hope that turns out to be true, because of all the various Tim Allen books I've read I think this is the most imaginatively intense.

It's a small pamphlet and a very good thing to carry around in a pocket because you don't need to read much to get a hit off it. Each poem consists of 12 sort-of-jokes. They interact in a mainly subliminal way.  If I claimed that I'd laughed out loud a few times, you'd think that I'm lying, but anyway I've definitely chuckled. I think one of the lines was

chilly on the terrace even in the cubby hole


When something's a limited edition of 35 copies it seems ridiculous to call it popular poetry, but it kind of is. If you can imagine one of those comic compilations of amusing or wacky newspaper headlines, then that's not too far away from what you've got here,

physicist's life is in ruins he insists

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

stack o' tracks

I'm listening my way through a stack of CDs on one of those black plastic spindles (left with me by Kyli when she went abroad for a while and seized the moment to abandon old technologies).

None have their own sleeves and most have only a few hand-scrawled details.

To contextualize these comments, you should understand that I stepped off the pop carousel in about 1990 so like a Dantean soul have very little awareness of the recent past.


1. aardvarch.

Electronic music, probably European, and pretty good.


2. masters at work.

This must be the NY mixing duo who were pals of Todd Terry. Not sure when this CD dates from, but the general joyousness of it reminds me of what made Todd's music so great.  Lots of great extended dance tracks, mostly jazzy instrumentals, plus one or two with singers. Great piece of salsa to finish.


3. jimi hendrix.

One of the bad things that happened back in the day if a big artist died young was that it triggered a mountainous shit-pile of terrible recordings flooding the budget market.   A budget Marvin Gaye album is almost certainly going to be live concert tracks, badly played, badly sung, hammily performed and badly recorded. Hearing soul masterpieces like Inner City Blues and Let's Get It On in this context is weirdly fascinating. It makes you realize how much the icon of greatness has to be sculpted out of the murk of reality. In Hendrix's case, the hundreds of indistinguishable budget records consisted mainly of sludgy blues jams. Occasionally they're lit up by some brilliant flash of guitar lightning; then, half a second later, it's back to the sludge. I suppose these were the scrapings of that period in every pop musician's career that is usually covered off in one forgettable sentence of the biog ("after playing in local bands such as Butterfudge, Luke Bumble's Strangers, and the Featherlites, he came to the attention of ..."). This pre-dawm in a musician's career ought to be nearly forgotten, cloaked in mystery, the lure of a few diehard collectors. But Jimi's pre-dawn wasn't forgotten. In most of these recordings the musicians are just messing about; they have no discernible audience in view so they aren't really trying to communicate anything.


4. Putumayo Presents Africa 1999. This is fun. Zimbabwean Jit, Congolese soukous, S. African township plus Togo and a few other places - no Nigerian or N. African. In the 1980s I eagerly collected African LPs from Sterns. 30 years later, my astonishment at the rhythms and guitar-playing has only grown stronger.


5. Coral. This turns out to be The Coral's splendid first album (2002), except that some of the tracks skip rather badly. The question of which one was better, this or its companion "Magic and Medicine", continues to resonate around the campfires of this land. Whatever, it was an amazing double-opening-gambit. What WAS it about The Coral that made them compulsive when so many of their musical ingredients suggested just another lightweight derivative good-time band? In the end I think it might come down to James Skelly's voice. Not only that, but especially that. Whatever ridiculous thing he's singing, he connects with us. It was the misfortune of the Coral that they were basically retro and late-arrivals to a music form (rock) that was already dead. hence they never received the kind of critical attention that, say, "Crocodiles" did; instead, the critical commentary amounts to little more than "Merseyside Mayhem Ahoy"! And that's harmful to the artists.


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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Victor Alexander Sederbach (fl. 1755-56)

Lacock Abbey, outside the Great Hall


Yesterday I spent a few sunny January hours with pals walking around Lacock. Sunny, but chilly, so the promise of a log fire in the Great Hall of the Abbey was quite inviting.


Lacock Abbey, Great Hall interior


This quasi-Gothic Great Hall was remodelled for John Talbot in 1753, so it's four years later than Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill. 

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

manchester airport



someone I knew
drew in her nest breath

by fiber repose

beyond the full hotel
like a covered annexe
the empty airport

inter lube steel

gull

viaduct travellators,
under its engineered roof
slung bottle-bin

night-lit, nearly empty,  clear my head

of its hall of trolleys



I took a snowy breath; I paused

and glanced out to the terminals;

taxi-ing craft, becalmed so late;

upward, as if to a belfry:

the southern night sky
and its distance; a pucker of the folds:
vegetation, fire, or birds?

something happened to dismay us




you looked via cool
                mile-long ringway return

came ads for greenspace
               back-lit caffeine hit

New Scientist rail and a rhythm of taxi phones
               Swissair: continuous, background resonance

   of something.
Mile of ring-pull warmth

gull of the hood jogging breeze
a shoe-in scarf

cabin-crew heels, claret lipstick
      if you switched to E-lites

panes flashed as I passed:
             the constant chuckle in the vents

          faster by the glass, postcard
serving Broughton Cliff Kersal Moor




I lay and smoked... around me, the night thickened.

in the lake mist, in a clearing

the spiral of a buzzard

spread fan, wisp of a dawn fire,

as if the momentum of the ringway

drew up into the dark

a pilgrim's spiral

I rested in the hugeness of triliphons

celestial board-meetings

flecked wingbeats


Is it summer, mamma?


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Monday, December 29, 2014

specimens of the literature of Sweden - tea and glögg



Swedes are notoriously heavy coffee drinkers (according to stereotype anyway) but tea does play quite a big part in Swedish culture too; and not only in the form of Lipton's Yellow Label, the brand that owns all of mainland Europe.

Particularly noticeable are the various tea mixtures that appear on sale in markets, with more or less persuasive claims to local provenance. These teas, often spicy, come into their own in winter.

1. On the left, glögg-style tea from the heaving Christmas market at Sigtuna near Stockholm. For glögg, see below!

(Sigtuna, on a branch of Mälaren, is Sweden's oldest town (from 980), and is much visited for its picturesque medieval streets. Overtaken by the rise of Stockholm and Uppsala (around the year 1300), its population had dwindled to 600 by the end of the 19th c. but has subsequently risen to >8,000, due mainly to the proximity of Arlanda airport.)

Manufacturer: Johan & Nyström (coffee- and tea- merchants), based in Tullinge, an outer suburb of south-west Stockholm (on the way to Södertälje).

Ingredienser / Ingredients: Svart te (black tea), kanel (cinnamon), apelsinskal (orange-peel), ingefära (ginger), kryddnejlika (cloves), peppar (pepper), kardemumma (cardamom), arom (flavour).

The pepper is a bit of a surprise. I wonder if the Swedish biscuits called "pepparkakor", though marketed elsewhere as "ginger thins" etc, originally contained some pepper? Our family recipe certainly doesn't.


2. The Christmas tea mixture in the centre of the photo was is by Kaffehuset i Karlstad AB, a subsidiary of the Löfbergs Lila group. (Sunny Karlstad, on the shores of Vänern, is the capital of Värmland.)

I don't need to go into Swedish here because this is an export pack. The ingredients are: Black leaf tea 79%, Fruit pieces 12% (Orange peel, Apple, Rosehip), Spices 7% (Coriander, Clove, Cinnamon), Flavour.


3. If you are looking for something a bit less big-business-ish, then that can be found too. My sister lives in Kallhäll, a suburb of Stockholm at the eastern end of Mälaren, and the third tea-packet is a product of, or rather for, that very specific place: it's "Mari and Laila's Red Kallhäll-est". In fact what Mari and Laila have done is employ the services of a company called Aftek (based in Arbrå in Hälsingland), who will mix tea to the buyer's specification and assist with its preparation for a local market (bagging, labels, etc).

This is the mixture that Mari and Laila chose to represent the essence of Kallhäll:

Rooibos te smaksatt med smultron, svartvinbär, grädde och limearom samt rosor, jordgubbsbitar och svartvinbärsblad

Rooibos tea flavoured with wild strawberries, blackcurrants, cream and lime-flavour, together with rose (-petals? -hips?), strawberry pieces  and blackcurrant leaves. 

I'm touched by something personal in this local concoction (and even more so by the fact that Miranda thought of me when she came across it). Though it's the produce of more than one country. Locality that can be preserved is a feat of commerce and imagination; a "souvenir" is an idea that belongs to the age of oil.

In June, you could easily go out behind the houses and pick a bowlful of wild strawberries that come from Kallhäll itself. But those strawberries wouldn't taste of represented essence; they'd have a different meaning.  



*






Anyway, let's get on to glögg, which is basically mulled wine. Of course it is fun to mix this up yourself at a party, getting half-cut from the fumes sloshing in vodka fishing out the bag of spices sloshing in more vodka and giving yourself metal poisoning from the aluminium pan.

But you can also get it ready-mixed, like the bottle on the left; this is fortified with brandy and, at an impressive 21%, is a sipping drink best enjoyed out of a dinky little glögg-glass (sort of like a shot-glass, but with a bell-rim to cradle the heat and spicy scent).

You can also get non-alcoholic glögg, like the spicy hjortron (cloudberry) mix on the right.You can either enjoy this on its own, as we Good Templars will, or beef it up with a bit of brandy, as suggested on the label.






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Friday, December 12, 2014

Byron: The Corsair (1814)

Episode from The Corsair, watercolour by Eugène Delacroix (c. 1831)

[Image Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum]


The exotic location of The Corsair is clearly important, just as the location of Scott’s narrative poems is important. Byron, we are persuaded, knew the Mediterranean

            Flash’d the dipt oars, and sparkling with the stroke,
            Around the waves’ phosphoric brightness broke;
            They gain the vessel – on the deck he stands. (I, XVII)

The author annotates: “By night, particularly in a warm latitude, every stroke of the oar, every motion of the boat or ship, is followed by a slight flash like sheet lightning from the water.”

[We don’t know much more about it now. The effect is due to the bioluminescence of certain protozoa, mainly flagellates. It is produced only when the water is disturbed. Its function, if there is one, has not been conclusively explained.]

When Scott wrote of Scotland, he immersed us in details of myth and tradition; in his prose he would also give us a distinct local speech. Being a kind of English, it was more or less comprehensible to those south of the border, but it was also revelatory; for here was a different culture in full operation. Byron had no such interests as Scott’s, and besides, his chosen locale would have meant foreign tongues. Byron’s Mediterranean was more like a psychological state; a heady feeling (at least in the Northern European mind) that comprised freedom and energy, open space, and escape - from prudence, from strait-laced moral codes, from families, even from self-interest and self-preservation.  Probably the lack of linguistic community, the sense of uninvolvement, is one of the constituent factors in why this familiar dream persists. (Corsair, like Capri, Ibiza, Sirocco, etc, would eventually become the name of a car.) The waves of the Mediterranean still whisper: miss the plane home

Byron’s poem intends to be a Mediterranean structure (that’s why Canto III begins with a Mediterranean scene pilfered from an earlier poem, whose irrelevance Byron takes care to highlight). Perhaps he succeeds, though there are elements of chivalry and lachrymosity that we recognize as Northern European. The story has something of the stiff gestures of Scott’s poor attempt at exoticism, The Talisman – think of the scene where Conrad appears before the Pacha, disguised as a pious Dervise. Yet a “scene” is just what this isn’t. Byron’s poem is best approached as a kind of process without beginning or end; a humming machine, details of whose operation can be glimpsed only by looking quickly aside; in short, as a modern poem. Because of the swirls and eddies of the undisciplined verse, The Corsair is a formidable and exciting plunge into uncharted territory.

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

John Keats: Endymion (1817)





[ John Keats (1795-1821) ]

Endymion (1817), written at speed and completed when the author was just 22, is a difficult poem to read. Keats himself observed (in his introduction) that there was something wrong with it; the Blackwoods reviewer agreed; and nothing is easier. But if, instead, we want to read it, we have to read hard.

                        No, I will once more raise
   My voice upon the mountain-heights; once more
   Make my horn parley from their foreheads hoar;
   Again my trooping hounds their tongues shall loll
   Around the breathèd boar... (I, 477-481)

Thus Endymion promises his sister, and one part of our attention is quickened, because what’s promised is the kind of stirring material from which narrative poems are usually made. That tolling of the word “Again”, however, is enough to warn us that these promises are vain. We have learnt that, in art if not always in life, “you can’t go back”.

                           the maid was very loth
   To answer; feeling well that breathèd words
   Would all be lost, unheard, and vain as swords
   Against the enchasèd crocodile, or leaps
   Of grasshoppers against the sun.     (I, 711-715)

I remember once writing a critique of this passage. I complained that “swords” leapt out of the page with excessive force, unsuitable as a comparison to the softness of “breathèd words”, and basically in conflict with what Keats is saying about how useless they are. However, there is a certain point to the contradiction. In Endymion the intention is to tell a story that passes rapidly beyond the tackle of swords and trooping hounds. We have to learn to give up their concreteness, and this is not made easier by Keats’ power of brief evocation; what he wants us to relinquish is (as not in Shelley) something that is well represented in the text itself, though always as images never as the material of the story. Indeed, there must be few poems so heavily loaded. 

The reader’s difficulties, I’m suggesting, arise from Keats’ commitment to a story that intrinsically turns its back on the solidest things; on ploughshares, trade, cottages and fishing-nets. (Crabbe’s Tales, and Scott’s The Antiquary, are nearly contemporary.)



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Saturday, December 06, 2014

Elizabeth Hervey: The Mourtray Family (1800)


I only have the third colume (of four); its original owner was a certain Lord Torrington (*see NOTE), but I found it in a charity shop. This volume begins with the family discovering the horrendous mess that young Henry has got himself into; he has fought a duel (without seconds) over a gaming debt, and fled leaving his opponent at death's door. Mr Mourtray and his daughter Emma are gravely distressed; the comic Mrs Mourtray is also distressed but insensible to the moral gravity of the situation, she is only concerned for her son's welfare. If you can read the blurry scan above, you'll enjoy the irrepressible Chowles adding fuel to everyone's distress. In Hervey's book this is just funny: compare it with the scene in Mansfield Park when Sir Thomas Bertram discovers the theatricals, and when Yates keeps on talking to him about the theatre while everyone else is desperate to change the subject; the painful topic is a much less serious matter in itself, but Austen makes us feel the scene as excruciating, because we are so much more deeply aware of the betrayal and shame.

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Friday, December 05, 2014

two hectic spots burned on his pallid cheeks

Acer platanifolium - red on autumn leaves


I can't expect many people to be interested in this, but it interested me. These are fallen leaves from Norway Maple (Acer platanifolium). Usually the autumn colours are golden yellow, but occasionally you find a leaf or three with dramatic bright-red splodges, usually towards the edge of the leaf.

If you know what causes this, please get in touch!


Acer platanifolium - autumn leaf with red colour


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Thursday, November 27, 2014

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


This post is mostly about The Excursion, the massive poem that Wordsworth wrote in middle age, but I've given it a little prelude (ha, ha) about a much better-known poem from fifteen years earlier.


Strange Fits of Passion (1799)

Upon the moon I fixed my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reached the orchard plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near, and nearer still.

Wordsworth wrote the Lucy poems while in Germany. This one, more than the others, is anecdotal. (Since then we've become so browbeaten by first-person anecdote in poetry that we take the form for granted.)

Portrait of Wordsworth by William Shuter, 1798

[Image source: Cornell University Library, where the portrait now resides. The likeness was taken on 26 April 1798, at Nether Stowey (according to Dorothy's Alfoxden Journal). William Shuter, a Bristol artist, was staying there; Coleridge must have organized the sitting. Five months later Wordsworth set off for Germany.]


The moon sets every day, but we don’t often see it do so. Canonical literature, though it's always going on about sunsets, virtually ignores the existence of moonsets, except in this poem.

We usually notice the moon when it’s full, and the big (or apparently big) moonrise that occurs soon after sunset is often remarked on. But a moonset near the full would occur near dawn, the coldest part of the night when (at least in temperate climes) we tend to sleep on, and even if we’re out and about the spectacle is usually lost in the mist. The little white ghost of a waning moon is hardly ever noticed when it sets during the hours of daylight. The most impressive moonset I've seen was a lazy moon on a cold winter night which became yellower and bigger, and finally just after midnight a smoky red as it dropped into the west. So rarely have I noticed a moonset in my fifty years that it hadn't really occurred to me that the setting moon must often go through the same colour changes as the setting sun.

If the moon is going to set earlier in the evening, not too many hours after sunset, it must be a brand-new sliver of a moon, which is probably not what most readers envisage while they're reading this poem.

However, the hill makes a difference. After crossing the “wide lea” westwards, with the moon spreading its light, Wordsworth’s lover starts to ascend rather sharply, and “Lucy’s cot” is on a ridge. Thus the moon could seem to “set” when still comparatively high in the sky. Wordsworth had often noticed the sharpness of Lakeland’s high night-horizons, and e.g. famously written of how “the stars moved along the edges of the hills”.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopped:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropped.

To realize the emotional charge of this, it’s worth going out on a suitable clear evening and making it happen. The roof should be quite close, perhaps less than a hundred meters away; it happens just as the lover arrives. The moon falls “at once” because it is the lover’s relatively rapid approach, not the moon’s own descent, that causes it to drop out of sight. In those nights without any streetlights, the instantaneous change in the light would have been dramatic. If you are suitably sensitized, it still can cause a shiver.   

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

happy christmas

Abies nordmanniana

Christmas trees for sale in Asda. Someone had torn off a branchlet, which I eagerly salvaged.

When I was a child the Christmas tree both in Sweden and England was invariably Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and what people of my generation will fondly remember is pricking their fingers on the sharp needles, the difficulty of preventing the heavier baubles from slipping off the rather thin glossy foliage, and later sweeping up all those needles, which tend to fall off in the dessicated air of modern houses. Of course the Norway Spruce is also a much-loved component of the Nordic forest.

Anyway, the luxury Xmas tree of today, as seen here, is Caucasian Fir (Abies nordmanniana, sometimes called Nordmann Fir); the needles are stouter, pleasant to handle, and usually don't fall off. The labels say that you can plant the tree out when Christmas is over. I'm a bit sceptical about that, since most silver firs dislike town air, but apparently on basic soils it does better than Norway Spruce.


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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)


Tom (Albert Finney) and Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) in the 1963 film of Tom Jones

Tom Jones (1749) was the most admired of eighteenth-century novels, at least by the English novelists of the nineteenth-century "great tradition", and it is still admired today (for example, by Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography). Yet it has not always proved easy to write about. This piece picks up from one of the classic essays, by William Empson in 1958 (it's on JStor).

In what I'm going to say there are spoilers from the outset, and I seriously urge you not to look at this if you're just embarking on a reading of Tom Jones. To prevent accidental contamination, there now follows a short advertising break!

*

RENEWABLE IS SERIOUS.

On that afternoon [in May 2014] Germany generated 74 percent of its electric needs from renewable sources. (Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books)

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jul/10/climate-will-we-lose-endgame/


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Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Coxwold-Gilling Gap



The view towards Kilburn White Horse. The Hambleton Hills in the distance, and the Howardians at our back.

This was on a walk from Kilburn to Byland Abbey on 9th August.

The Coxwold-Gilling Gap is a rift valley formed at the end of the Cretaceous period. The land fell 500-1000ft between the two parallel faults where the Hambleton and Howardian escarpments now face each other, about a mile and a quarter apart.
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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Hester Lynch Piozzi: Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)

Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1785-86, by an unknown Italian artist


[Image source: National Portrait Gallery]

Chronology

1709  Samuel Johnson born
1735  Marries Elizabeth (Tetty) Jervis
1740/41 Hester Lynch Salusbury born
1746-55 Johnson’s Dictionary
1749   The Vanity of Human Wishes
1750-60 The Rambler, The Adventurer, The Idler
1752  Tetty Johnson dies
1759  Johnson’s mother dies. Rasselas
1763  Johnson meets James Boswell
1763  Hester marries Henry Thrale.
1765  Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare.
         Johnson meets the Thrales. A year later, he moves in with them.
1775  Journey to the Western Islands
1777-81 Lives of the Poets
1781  Henry Thrale dies
1783  Hester moves to Bath. Last meeting with Johnson (April).
1784  Hester marries Gabriel Piozzi (July). Death of Johnson (December).
1785  Hester writes Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson in Italy (Summer).
          Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.
1786  Anecdotes published.
1791  Boswell’s Life of Johnson
1809  Gabriel Piozzi dies
1821  Hester Piozzi dies

The main points arising from this chronology are as follows. Johnson was in his mid-fifties when he met the two young friends who did so much for him and who would become his chief biographers (Boswell and Hester Thrale disliked each other, by the way). His wife had died more than a decade earlier. The literary achievements that had established him were in the past; he was semi-retired. In another sense, his life may be said to have begun again. During the remaining twenty years of his life he lodged most of the time with the Thrales, in fact for most of each week throughout their marriage. Hester was usually pregnant; the Thrales had twelve children. Henry Thrale’s death, the burden of supporting an increasingly difficult Johnson, and his disapproval of the liaison with Piozzi, brought all this to an end. Hester’s life, in turn, began again. She was about 24 when she first met Johnson, and about 42 when they last saw each other.

She revered Johnson; he was always her friend; and she had nursed him through serious depressions. Still, her book is quite candid; there was something monstrous about him. At first his presence in the house (she calls it her confinement) was “terrifying”, towards the end “irksome”. Boswell tries to canonize him, portraying his prejudiced, bullying and often unintelligent conversation as if it was a dialogue in heaven.

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Alexander Pope (1688-1744):An Essay on Man

Alexander Pope in 1716, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

[Image source: Philip Mould Historical Portraits, which describes how portraits of Pope concealed his bowed and crippled appearance.]

An Essay on Man in Four Epistles

[The epistles were published separately in 1733-34. Apparently written in 1730-31, but perhaps Pope deliberately gave them a Horatian three years to mature.]

The madness of superfluous health, says Pope in one of the chiding moments in the Essay on Man. There are rather too many chiding moments. The balance feels wrong. One did chide in such expository poems, Hesiod had done it, so had Lucretius, but Pope's lessons have not a sufficiently copious enthusiasm to excuse his lofty reproofs.  Go, wiser thou... Go wondrous creature... Fools! (he proceeds) thou fools ... Blind to truth... Cease then... - and much more in the same vein. This is not so much about enlightening the insanely healthy questioners as about telling them to shut their noise: Whatever is, is RIGHT. His paean to Order involves too much ordering people about.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

John Gay: The Birth of the Squire (1720)





"Gay has all the gifts of a great poet except the highest intensity of passion and imagination", I read in one of those multi-volume paperback surveys of EngLit that were so popular thirty years ago. The writer (Charles Peake) seems to be inadvertently recalling Matthew Arnold on Chaucer, and indeed it's Chaucer who is bound to come to mind - not so much Chaucer's manner as, what is yet more unusual, some kinship in the vistas opened up by the poetry - when we read such lines as the following:

Beagles and spaniels round his cradle stand,
Kiss his moist lip and gently lick his hand;
He joys to hear the shrill horn's ecchoing sounds,
And learns to lisp the names of all the hounds.
With frothy ale to make his cup o-'er-flow,
Barley shall in paternal acres grow:
The bee shall sip the fragrant dew from the flow'rs,
To give metheglin for his morning hours;
For him the clustring hop shall climb the poles,
And his own orchard sparkle in his bowles.

This is early in the poem, when Gay is still, just about, doing what his subtitle claims: imitating the Pollio of Virgil (i.e. the fourth Eclogue). Hence the sentence beginning "With frothy ale" runs parallel with Virgil's prophecy of a golden age. Nor can the beauty of such a harvest be denied. [*see Note 2] Surely Pope learnt from here the prophetic music beginning "Another age shall see the golden Ear", that would end the Epistle to Burlington? Yet Pope's  "His father's acres who enjoys in peace" is as it were ironized in advance by Gay's vision, written ten years earlier, of a golden age requiring heroic capacities for all-day drinking on the part of its chief consumer. 

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Albert Camus: L'Étranger (1942)

Le Livre De Poche edition, jacket design by Lucien Fontanarosa 


[Image source: Alexis Orloff, https://www.flickr.com/photos/aorloff/6072937176/]


A book that (as The Outsider, in Stuart Gilbert's translation) was on all our male youthful minds and bookshelves in the 1970s. In other words a classic Peng-gie Modern Classic, along with Gormenghast, The Glass Bead Game, etc.

(I think I studied it for French A-Level, along with Racine's Britannicus , Voltaire's Candide and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.)

 L'Étranger being so short and easy to read, is a good study-text for schools; you can still find out all about it in Shmoop and places like that. And it still gets plenty of discussion, though I've a feeling its moment has passed, that the urgency of the issues Camus intended to raise is less clear-cut than it was, and that on the other hand time has only tended to underline the glaring issue of the book's quite primitive attitudes to women and to colonized "natives". In particular our awareness of and contacts with the Arab world have been completely overhauled since 9/11; westerners can no longer regard the Arab world as something separate. But as recently as 1980, when The Cure released an admired single called "Killing an Arab" (based on  L'Étranger), I was probably typical of British 21-year-olds in having only the smallest sense that this could possibly offend someone. I don't necessarily claim that modern sensitivities in the west are all 100% positive or well-directed, but I do think they mostly are and they've certainly changed how we think and feel. In the study, especially. (Meanwhile in the real world, it remains unclear when the number of Arabs being killed by Westerners is going to stop accelerating.)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Alain-René Le Sage (1668-1747): Gil Blas de Santillane



.... I therefore went in search of Doctor Sangrado, and brought him to the house. He was a tall, meagre, pale man, who had kept the shears of Clotho employed during forty years at least. This learned physician had a very solemn appearance, weighed his discourse, and gave an emphasis to his expressions: his reasoning was geometrical, and his opinions extremely singular.

After having observed the symptoms of my master’s disease, he said to him with a very physical air: “The business here is to supply the defect of perspiration, which is obstructed: others, in my place, would doubtless prescribe saline draughts, diuretics, diaphoretics, and such medicines as abound with mercury and sulphur; but cathartics and sudorifics are pernicious drugs, and all the preparations of chymistry are only calculated to do mischief: for my own part I practice a method more simple, and more sure. Pray, what is your ordinary diet?” – “My usual food,” replied the canon, “is broth and juicy meat.” –“Broth and juicy meat!” cried the doctor, surprised, “truly, I do not wonder to find you sick: such delicious victuals are poisoned pleasures and snares, which luxury spreads for mankind in order to ruin them the more effectually. You must renounce all palateable food: the most salutary is that which is most insipid: for as the blood is insipid, it requires such victuals as partake the most of its own nature. And do you drink wine?” added he. “Yes,” said the licentiate, “wine diluted.” –“O! diluted as much as you please,” replied the physician, “what an irregularity is here! what a frightful regimen! you ought to have been dead long ago. How old are you, pray?” –“I am going in my sixty-ninth year,” replied the canon. “Right,” said the physician, “an early old age is always the fruit of intemperance. If you had drunk nothing else than pure water all your life, and had been satisfied with simple nourishment, such as boiled apples, for example, you would not now be tormented with the gout, and all your limbs would perform their functions with ease. I do not despair, however, of setting you to rights again, provided you be wholly resigned to my directions.”


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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)

William Congreve, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller



William Congreve (1670-1729) threw over his career as a dramatist at the age of thirty. The Epilogue to The Way of the World ends:

So poets oft, do in one piece expose
Whole belles assemblées of cocquets and beaux.

It was not so true of other poets as it was of him. The Way of the World soars above the details of its ingenious plot-line and even the real passion of its lovers - it creates an edifice of wit that none could match, and you feel this came easily to him, easily enough to cast aside after a disappointment.  

What single model, indeed, could deserve the honour of inspiring such a flight as Lady Wishfort's ever-more-salacious propriety?

But as I am a person, Sir Rowland, you must not attribute my yielding to any sinister appetite, or indigestion of widow-hood; nor impute my complacency to any lethargy of continence– I hope you do not think me prone to any iteration of nuptials––
Wait. Far be it from me––
Lady. If you do, I protest I must recede– or think that I have made a prostitution of decorums, but in the vehemence of compassion, and to save the life of a person of so much importance––
Wait. I esteem it so––
Lady. Or else you wrong my condescension––
Wait. I do not, I do not––
Lady. Indeed you do.
Wait. I do not, fair shrine of virtue.
Lady. If you think the least scruple of carnality was an ingredient––

The scene can only end by being interrupted. What coarse stuff "Malapropisms" must seem to be, after this.


(2008)


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John Dryden (1631 - 1700)


John Dryden (portrait by John Michael Wright, c. 1668)
[This recently identified painting was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2009 (Image from ArtFund)]

Scattered notes written in 2001 and 2004...

Dryden’s Poems

January 2001. For the last four months or so I’ve been reading Dryden. It began with an accidental dip into the Auden/Pearson anthology of English poetry - a book my father acquired from a brief dalliance with Heron Books, a sort of classic book club. He passed it on to me when I began university twenty-five years ago. I’ve always used it, and it survived the purge of my library in 1996 - by choice not accident; I wanted to keep the canon by me.

So, I dipped in Volume III, my least-loved period in English verse. Then I wanted to read Absalom and Achitophel in full, so I went to Waterstone’s. There was no Dryden at all - I was astonished, and then of course hooked on the quest. A second-hand bookshop in Bath supplied further inadequate selections, eagerly devoured. Then came the Arthos selection, found in St Leonards on Sea; like all in the Signet series, generous and attractive. Finally the Oxford Poems, borrowed from Frome library, and - ordered from bookshop - the cheap Wordsworth volume - £2.99, and as complete as any.

[This curious hiatus of Drydens didn’t last; there are now, it seems, a mass of Selected Drydens in the shops (2002).]

Dryden is a poet who can’t quite be made to fit into a single volume. But after many years I can more or less claim that I have read another “complete” English poet, to add to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton and Keats; but that was all a long time ago. It means more now; there’s less time. And I have really immersed: I feel like saying (as biographers do) “Dryden has been a good companion”. Indeed, I don’t want it to end. I have an eighteenth-century volume of Plutarch with an introductory Life by Dryden; his prose too is a fine thing – though somehow a bewilderingly different thing.

None of the books mentioned is really complete because there’s no Aeneid - though I have since discovered that this has an unexpectedly vigorous life on the Internet, since it’s invariably the translation used by those benefactors who have made Virgil available on their websites. I was at first misled into thinking that the bulky Oxford volume was complete but it’s a selection, pointedly excluding The Hind and the Panther. I appreciate the polemical gesture, but don’t really condone it; a poet’s original work, however unsatisfactory, must always supply a fuller idea of the writer than translations. And whether Hazlitt is right to say this, it is certainly a higly defensible claim, that  “it has more genius, vehemence, and strength of description that any other of Dryden’s works, not excepting the Absolom and Achitophel. It also contains the finest examples of varied and sounding versification...” You need The Hind and the Panther to sign off Dryden.  

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

another note on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights - Naturalism


Penguin English Library jacket (1970s style) - turning a detail of Branwell's bad picture into an iconic image


[Branwell's painting of 1833-34, commonly referred to as the Gun portrait, showed himself and his three sisters. Emily was 15 or 16 at the time. Arthur Bell Nichols thought the painting so poor (or so unflattering to his late wife Charlotte) that he destroyed it, retaining only the part showing Emily, who definitely came out best. Even so, the portrait is markedly improved by the cracks (which, for instance, make her nose look interestingly snub instead of characterlessly straight). But what above all transformed the effect is the Penguin jacket-designer's crop.  This, by eliminating the back of Emily's head, conceals the Victorian sloping shoulder-line and the languid hair, and creates an altogether more forceful image. Here is a woman, we're convinced, who already has Wuthering Heights in her sights.]

This note is about David Daiches' 1965 Introduction to the Penguin English Library edition of Wuthering Heights.

And first some trivia.


DAVID DAICHES

1.  Professor Daiches was an interesting man - read his 2005 obituary in The Scotsman:

http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/professor-david-daiches-1-720657

His surname (Jewish/Yiddish rather than Scottish) is pronounced  "day chiz"  or "die chiz". That's probably how you pronounced it already, but it's good to know..!


NOVELETTISH

2.  Daiches (referring to an article by Thomas Moser, in which Heathcliff is identified with the Id) says:

This view involves an admission that the latter part of the book - Heathcliff's revenge and its final abandonment, the growth of love between the younger Catherine and a now-civilized Hareton - is inferior and indeed novelettish, the grafting on to the real novel of a conventional moral pattern ... etc etc. 

OED novelette, n. :

1. A story of moderate length having the characteristics of a novel. Now: a short, light, romantic, or sentimental novel (freq. depreciative).

These days the unusual word "novelette" is apparently still used in the world of writing competitions to refer to a fiction longer than a short story but shorter than a novella, i.e. 7,500 - 18,000 words, approximately.

But generally the meaning of "novelette" over the past two centuries has been derogatory. Classically it evoked books that were typified by sentimentality, triviality, and trite morality. They might be chauvinistically dismissed as reading material for young ladies or uneducated persons.  The novelette might be regarded as namby-pamby.  A typical example is A.A. Milne's send-up "The Seaside Novelette".

http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/37693/

"Penny-novelettes" were, I suspect, the direct forebears of what my own generation called "Mills and Boon romances". Economics plays a big part in this. The novelette was cheap. Hence it tended to be short and written without much care. Appealing to connoisseurs was out of the question. Originality was out of the question. The skill was to hit off broad effects for a popular audience.

(The word novelette could also be used to mean trashy genre fiction, e.g. a "pornographic novelette").

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

in the business park



I once wrote a post in which I extolled the botanical virtues of my local scruffy industrial estate. And maybe the message of today's post should be, Don't neglect the business park!

The business park environment can be characterized by ample, but highly manicured, green space; many trees and shrubs, often exotic, for reasons of privacy and low maintenance; often some freshwater features (artificial ponds); extensive tarmacked and paved areas. Sometimes the business park may include a "nature reserve" (there's one in mine) but that's a separate topic. In this post I am talking about the business park proper.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Metambesen - Robert Kelly etc


[This note, about a new US poetry PDF site, has now been moved to Intercapillary Space:

http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/greetings-to-metambesen-robert-kelly-etc.html

]


Random bonus Metambesen quote:

Refusing to define it. What comes against these other magics. That I do is
enough. From this center I react, train crawling north still above ground,
fog and rain trails, umbrella hat and rain-jacket soaked through. Rain from
the ground up.   (Tamas Panitz)

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer - Leyendas


The striking portrait of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer painted by his brother, Valeriano Domínguez Bécquer. An iconic image formerly used on 100-peseta notes.

This was my holiday reading, bought at a beachside bookstall on the Playa del Cura in Torrevieja (Alicante). My book contained only seven of the twenty-eight legends; I imagine from the attractively minimal apparatus that it was a booklet supplied free with some newspaper or other.

Leyendas (1860-65) is a well-known book in Spain, and a regular on the school curriculum; Becquer's stories have also been adapted for children.  It is a collection of romantic tales in the tradition of Hoffmann and Heine. Most of the stories feature the supernatural. Another implication of the title is that the author doesn't consider any of the stories to be true. This creates a fertile arena for literary artistry; in effect, these are early exercise in the use of an unreliable narrator, because the author's commitment to the material is always uncertain. The artistry co-exists happily with a healthy simplicity for the most part, but sometimes the ironies become more restive. Bécquer is also, of course, an important poet, his poems speaking with a kind of direct freshness that was then new in Spanish literature.

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