Thursday, February 23, 2012

this is country music

Some songs are just gendered. This one can't be anything but a reflection on those trad gender roles. Or take Patsy Cline's cool weepie, "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" - that looks like you should be able to just switch the genders, but it doesn't work, because the symbol of the cigarette is gendered and the solitary cigarette has a completely different meaning depending on who's smoking it. Or Willie Nelson's classic "Blame it on the Times" - can't be anything but a man running away and blaming a woman according to traditional stereotype. It looks like it ought to reverse very neatly (though obviously the line about "I'm acting like a man" would present a problem) - but no. The singer's unkind mockery only works when the target is a bossy, self-centered woman. If the target were a bossy, self-centered man then the attack would be of a different kind; because in that case the target would be merely a pig and not a woman who encroaches on man's preserve, thus exposing herself to the traditional artillery of patronizing belittlement that we find in the song.

Thanks to the recent influx of country LPs (anothwer Xmas gift, THANKS LAILA!) I also have Lynn Anderson singing "Stand by your man" very beautifully. But nothing matches the drama and passion of Tammy's original studio recording - plus she also wrote the song, with Billy Sherrill.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

specimens of the literature of Spain - Don Alvaro

DON ÁLVARO. Es indispensable, vamos. (Golpea fuertemente la puerta)
DOÑA LEONOR.(Dentro, tocando la campanilla). ¡Socorro! ¡Socorro!


Los MISMOS y DOÑA LEONOR, vestida con un saco, y esparcidos
los cabellos, pálida y desfigurada, aparece a la puerta de la gruta, y
se oye repicar a lo lejos las campanas del convento

DOÑA LEONOR.Huid, temerario; temed la ira del cielo.
DON ÁLVARO. (Retrocediendo horrorizado por la montaña abajo.)
¡Una mujer!... ¡Cielos!... ¡Qué acento!... ¡Es un
espectro!... Imagen adorada... ¡Leonor! ¡Leonor!
DON ALFONSO. (Como queriéndose incorporar.) ¡Leonor!... ¿Qué
escucho? ¡Mi hermana!
DOÑA LEONOR.(Corriendo detrás de don Álvaro.) ¡Dios mío! ¿Es don
Álvaro?... Conozco su voz... Él es... ¡Don Álvaro!
DON ALFONSO. ¡O furia! Ella es... ¡Estaba aquí con su seductor!...
¡Hipócritas!... ¡Leonor!!!
DOÑA LEONOR.¡Cielos!... ¡Otra voz conocida!... ¿Mas qué veo?...

This is the climactic triple recognition scene, a couple of pages from the end of Don Alvaro o la fuerza del sino, by Ángel de Saavedra, Duque de Rivas.

I once had a poetry book rejected because it had too many exclamation marks. No such reserve in this epic Romantic tragedy of 1835.

It was later the basis for Verdi's opera La Forza del Destino (1862).

Here's a loose translation by Google and me. Explaining what's going on would involve summarizing nearly the whole story, but it may help to know that Leonor is pretending to be a (male) hermit. The bell is Leonor's alarm call to the nearby monastery.

DON ALVARO. It's a matter of life and death, come on. (Pounds the door)
LEONOR. (Inside, ringing the bell). Help! Help!


The SAME, plus LEONOR, who, dressed in sackcloth, with disordered hair, her face pale and distorted, appears at the door of the grotto; in the distance the bells of the monastery are heard ringing.

DONA LEONOR. Fly, unholy one, fear the wrath of heaven.
DON ALVARO. (Recoiling in horror towards the mountains below.)
A woman! ...Heaven! ...those tones! ... It's a ghost! ... Adored image ...Leonor! Leonor!
DON ALFONSO. (Attempting to rise.) Leonor! ... What am
I hearing? My sister!
LEONOR. (Running behind Don Alvaro.) God! Is it Don Alvaro? ... I know his voice ... It is ...Don Alvaro!
DON ALFONSO. O fury! It is she! ... She was here with her ​​seducer! ...
Hypocrites! ...Leonor!!!
LEONOR. Heaven! ...Another familiar voice! ... Do I see more? ...

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Monday, February 20, 2012

specimens of the literature of Spain - Turrón de Jijona

... I got this for Xmas from Miranda, now a resident of Valencia.

Turrón is supposed to have originated in the town of Jijona (Valencian: Xixona). This was around 500 years ago. Jijona is about 12 km north of Alicante, on the Alcoy road. The EU recognizes Jijona as an Indicación Geográfica Protegida, and you can see the Jijona seal of quality (in gold) on the front of the packaging.

In fact there are similar confections throughout the Mediterranean region, under various different names. The immediate source might have been Iberian Islamic cuisine; something like it is mentioned in records from Roman times (cupedia, cupeto); cupedia also meant gourmandism, fondness for dainties. I don't know whether there is any etymological connection with cupiditas (avarice, ambition, party spirit, eager desire).

In Spain, as in Italy, turrón is something you have during the Christmas season. [Another year I ate "torrone mandorlato alla vaniglia" made in Ancona by Giampaoli.]

This packet contained the soft variety (blando), which is the kind I like best. The basic ingredients of turrón are honey, egg-white, sugar, and toasted almonds; in the soft kind the almonds are pasted. You don't eat it straight from the packet unless you don't care about making a mess (when the almonds are pulverized, a lot of oil is released). Instead, you cut it up in the kitchen and then serve it on a plate.

"El Romero" (The Pilgrim) is a well-known brand. This one contains toasted almonds (64%), sugar, honey (12%), emulsifier (E-471) and egg-white.

Turrón is also a popular ice-cream flavour.

Another brand from Jijona...


Meanwhile, tomorrow being Ash Wednesday, it's time for the Entierro de la Sardina; there's a significant one at Murcia.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

on downland

It nedeth no coarse sea of heaven
to brist on sunder barres of light;
we can do it ourselves.

The rabbit charnel and "bone inspector"
squatted on my Indian throw last night:
I like your scarf, it's the colour of Nectar.

"Much-scoured" here on the downs at least
where friable rabbit-hole turf
breaks up into chalk-pans; now, in the mist, receding scurf
exposes slippery sores
on flank, on crested bulwark and chubby shoulder.

Another drink. What's wrong with me?
Is the rain, the salt on a windscreen.. disturbed digestive elation..?
Your scarf is the colour of Cadbury's Bubbly
balloon animation...

Do you know I want to be scraped and tested
(turn away darling, for that would be sin)
to follow the water within
to those chill motley springs in the side of the hill;
set fire to a lorryload of gin,
a bucketful in the wind and a rag leaf waving;
Your scarf is the colour of Premier Inn.


Monday, February 13, 2012

improvisation in piano and paint

John Law and Barry Cooper - Space Time Film 2, Feb 2011 at Great Elm.

Space Time Film 2 from Barry Cooper on Vimeo.

John Law is an improvising jazz pianist. Barry Cooper is a painter and sculptor based in Frome, which is how I know him.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Sir Walter Scott, The Bridal of Triermain (1813)


[As read for by Nathan (, who happily has an insatiable taste for what he terms English epic (Longfellow, Macaulay, Scott, etc).]


The poem consists of simple and familiar stories bolted together to make a less familiar structure - three pairs of lovers, centuries apart from each other, are involved. Not strictly true, I recall: Gyneth (2nd pair) does meet her father King Arthur (1st Pair) - but thereafter she's been in a Beauty Sleep for 600 years before the manly Sir Roland gets to her. The Cumberland locations - Gilsland (Triermain Castle), Threlkeld (St John's in the Vale) - are carefully established. (Perhaps relevantly, Scott met and courted Charlotte Carpentier when he visited the Lake District in September 1797; he married her at Carlisle on Christmas Eve.)


Yet shadows of constraint were there,
And oft cast down her large dark eye,
held back a soft voluptuous sigh
            that heav'd her bosom's pride.
the wily lover
shepherds know
how hot the mid-day sun shall glow
            from early- morning sky;
beakers rang
   one tyrant passion draws,
            Till, mastering all within,
Where lives the man that has not tried
How mirth


reserve thy boon recall thine oath

Gone, too, were fence and fair array,
but desperate strength
made lunge at random through the bloody fray,
or slashed with whirring steel spray
on jerkin hauberk hand or helm
of whom no heed, or where it fell,


woodst some demon

came mounted on that car of fire,
            to do his errand.

Far on the sloping valley's course,
on thicket, rock, and torrent hoarse,
Shingle and Scrae, and Fell and Force,
            A dusky light arose:
Display'd, yet alter'd was the scene;
Dark rock, and brook of silver sheen,
even the gay thicket's summer green,
            In bloody tincture glows.


Erskine's preface

Scott had a lifelong relish for publishing things under invented or borrowed names - he'd be one of today's masked commenters and have 20 blogs. A poetical fragment he published anonymously in 1809 had been misattributed to his friend William Erskine. So in 1813, when Scott had worked the fragment up into the  full-length Bridal and was again planning anonymous publication, he decided to encourage the former mistake by persuading Erskine to write the preface. When the preface talks about the poem being written in friendly imitation of a  well-known Romantic poet,  it means Scott himself. In other words Erskine is saying to us: "If this poem strikes you as a bit Scott-like, don't jump to the conclusion that it's by Scott,  oh no, the true explanation is that I'm deliberately aping his manner." Later editions have often retained the preface but under Scott's own name,  which of course is extremely confusing!

The Bridal of Triermain and Christabel

"Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine" is mentioned in Coleridge's Christabel, line 395, as the imputed father of Geraldine.

Christabel eventually appeared in 1816, but Coleridge in his preface tells us that Christabel was composed in 1797-1800. Which is certainly the truth, or nearly the truth.

The dates are mentioned for the exclusive purpose of precluding charges of plagiarism or servile imitation from myself....

I am confident however, that as far as the present poem is concerned, the celebrated poets whose writings I might be suspected of having imitated, either in particular passages, or in the tone and the spirit of the whole, would be among the first to vindicate me from the charge, and who, on any striking coincidence, would permit me to address them in this doggerel verse of two monkish Latin hexameters:

'Tis mine and it is likewise your's,
But an if this will not do;
Let it be mine, good friend! for I
Am the poorer of the two."
Presumably this Roland de Vaux is a prime example of the "particular passages" and  "striking coincidence(s)" that Coleridge refers to.

Not everyone has believed Coleridge. Henry A. Beers seems to say that Coleridge took Roland from Scott's 1813 poem. "The wheels of his Christabel had got hopelessly mired, and he now borrowed a horse from Sir Walter and hitched it to his own wagon. He took over Sir Roland de Vaux of Triermain and made him the putative father of his Geraldine, although in compliance with Scott's romance, the embassy that goes over the mountains to Sir Roland's castle can find no trace of it." (A History of English Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century, 1901, p. 11). Well, but there is no such report of the embassy failing in Christabel. Nor in Tupper's sequel, Geraldine - on the contrary, Bracy brings back Sir Roland. Besides, in Scott it is not  Sir Roland's own castle that keeps disappearing, but Merlin's castle in the Vale of St John.

It's possible Beers is right, but it isn't very likely. For all I know to the contrary, Christabel as published could be substantially a poem of 1797-1800 but still incorporate a handful of last-minute changes. And it's credible that those last-minute changes might prepare for the continuation that Coleridge vainly hoped he would soon write. But why would you borrow something from a popular poet you don't like - see Coleridge's 1810 letter to Wordsworth, in which he rips The Lady of the Lake to shreds - , and then write a preface implying the opposite?

[Henry Augustin Beers was a Yale Professor.  His books are available online and they are very good reading.  Paul H. Fry's  History of the Yale English Department notes: "An eclectic and a sometime poet, Beers was known at the time for an Outline of English Literature (1886), but his lasting contribution was the first important delineation of “preromanticism” in English, History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century (1899)—which is arguably the earliest ancestor of the “Yale School” of romanticism." ]

In Christabel, the main relevance of mentioning Geraldine's parentage is Sir Leoline's now-embittered former friendship with Sir Roland. But if Coleridge had really had the Bridal in mind, he would also be claiming that Geraldine was the daughter of Gyneth and, more significantly, the grand-daughter of Guendolen. (Incidentally, some readers of Christabel believe that the claimed parentage is meant to be a falsehood, anyway.)

So far as Sir Roland de Vaux is concerned, it doesn't really matter much who borrowed from whom, if either did. What isn't in doubt is that back in 1802 Christabel had been a crucial inspiration in kickstarting Scott's career as an original poet.

Scott recounts this "secret history" in his April 1830 Introduction to The Lay of the Last Minstrel (revised in the autumn of 1831).

The subject of Gilpin Horner (the goblin of the poem) had been merrily imposed on him by the Countess of Dalkeith.  While staying at his leased cottage at Lasswade, Scott was visited by John Stoddart, then engaged in his own local history researches*. Stoddart had a strong memory and he was able to recite some passages of the unpublished Christabel by heart.  Scott immediately saw that the freedom of Coleridge's 4-stress line-without-fixed-syllable-count could be just the thing for the narrative poem he was meditating. A year later he began to write the poem, and he even varied a line of Christabel in the very first stanza of his story: "Jesu Maria, shield us well!" (LLM Canto 1 St 1) -- compare Coleridge's "Jesu Maria, shield her well!", line 55-ish. "Varied" is a word for "stole", and Scott owns the impeachment unblushingly:

In this specimen I had, in the phrase of the Highland servant, packed all that was my own at least, for I had also included a line of invocation, a little softened, from Coleridge —
“Mary, mother, shield us well.” 

(This may conceivably have been true of the specimen, which Scott afterwards threw in the fire. But in the published editions the line is "Jesu Maria, shield us well", a far more direct quotation.)

As it happens, Scott's use of the Christabel music sharply declines after the first few stanzas.  Later in Canto 2, Margaret's visit to the wood somewhat recalls the narrative of Coleridge's opening.

So, Scott might have remembered the name Roland of Triermain from Christabel, though it seems unlikely that Stoddart would have chosen that passage for recital, and Scott's
own note on BT Canto I implies that the name came from Burns' Antiquities of Westmoreland and Cumberland .

Rossetti (Letter to Hall Caine, 1/4/1880) says of the second part of Christabel, so inferior to the first, that apart from one or two passages "The rest seems to have reached a fatal facility of jingling,  at the heels whereof followed Scott." He agreed with Charles Lamb (and later Camille Paglia)  that Coleridge should have stuck with Part I. (Incidentally he points out the source of the name "Christabel" in Percy's Reliques - contrary to those who, apparently, think Coleridge coined it from a combination of "Christ" and "Abel".)

The general tone of Coleridge's various comments suggests some ongoing resentment of Scott.

Before publication, he resented Scott for being successful and for having based this success, in some degree, on his own poem. Of course it wasn't the theft of one minor line that bothered him, but the feeling that Christabel had supplied the master-key to Scott's whole approach and the golden success that it met with. [The fresh-faced appeal of his preface almost submerges the charge, whose implication is nevertheless hard to avoid, that celebrated poets had plagiarized and servilely imitated him.]

And after publication, he complained that those people who had admired Christabel so much in the past appeared strangely silent now. Lord Byron, who did speak out in its praise, was evidently quite embarrassed when Coleridge pointedly contrasted Byron's generosity with his friend Scott's niggardliness.

Scott's 1830 Introduction to The Lay of the Last Minstrel shows that he was well aware of the kind of things Coleridge had been saying.

As applied to comic and humorous poetry, this mescolanza of measures had been already used by Anthony Hall, Anstey, Dr. Wolcott, and others; but it was in Christabel that I first found it used in serious poetry, and it is to Mr. Coleridge that I am bound to make the acknowledgment due from the pupil to the master. I observe that Lord Byron, in noticing my obligations to Mr. Coleridge, which I have been always most ready to acknowledge, expressed, or was understood to expres, that I did not write an unfriendly review on Mr. Coleridge’s productions. On this subject I have only to say, that I do not even know the review which is alluded to; and were I ever to take the unbecoming freedom of censuring a man of Mr. Coleridge’s extraordinary talents, it would be on account of the caprice and indolence with which he has thrown from him, as if in mere wantonness, those unfinished scraps of poetry, which, like the Torso of antiquity, defy the skill of his poetical brethren to complete them. The charming fragments which the author abandons to their fate, are surely too valuable to be treated like the proofs of careless engravers, the sweepings of whose studios often make the fortune of some painstaking collector.

Those last comments are modest, elegant, and just.  But justice is what a temperament like Coleridge's wasn't likely to relish. Indeed, Scott's implication is hard to resist: if Coleridge didn't have due public recognition, then it wasn't because it had been stolen from him but because of his own chronic incapacity when it came to delivering a finished work.

It was presumably after Scott's death in 1832 that Coleridge delivered the mellower though still mischievous remarks recorded in his Table Talk (1835):

Dear Sir Walter Scott and myself were exact, but harmonious, opposites in this; that every old ruin, hill, river, or tree called up in his mind a host of historical or biographical associations, just as a bright pan of brass, when beaten, is said to attract the swarming bees; whereas for myself, notwithstanding Dr. Johnson, I believe I should walk over the plain of Marathon without taking more interest in it than any other plain of similar features. Yet I receive as much pleasure from Herodotus as any one can. ... When I am very ill indeed, I can read Scott's novels, and they are almost the only books I can then read. I cannot at such times read the Bible; my mind reflects on it, but I cannot bear the open page.

Coleridge alas has an even worse Wikipedia page than Scott's. The problem seems to be that someone has borrowed large chunks of it from a 1907 encyclopaedia. Though this material does not meet Wikipedia's standard (e.g. for references), it is substantial and so far has deterred anyone from starting all over again. But its view of Coleridge is completely out of date, reflecting the taste of 1900 and entirely without awareness of any modern studies or of the influence of Coleridge on later thinkers and writers.

Surely this is an aberration. Or must Coleridge be added to the list of classic authors whose reputation has crashed in my own lifetime (a list that would include Arnold and Fielding)?

*John Stoddart, a lawyer, was afterwards appointed the king's advocate at the admiralty court in Malta (1803-07).  Coleridge visited him for a short time and was appointed public secretary to the government. Stoddart's Toryism was so fierce that in 1816 he was dismissed from the job of Times leader-writer!

The Bridal of Triermain: Historical, Legendary and Topographical

Caliburn. =Excalibur. In this poem Scott preferred Geoffrey of Monmouth-era names if possible (as opposed to e.g. Malory).

Carodac. = Caradoc Briefbras? His story is told in the first continuation of Chretien's Perceval. In the original it is Caradoc's wife, not Caradoc, who has to undergo a chastity test (which involves being able to drink from a magic drinking horn).

Castle Rock [of Triermain]. The longer name alludes to Scott's poem. An impressive crag on the western flank of Watson's Dodd. A recent ominous crack in the north buttress, against which climbers are warned, suggests that Merlin's Castle may be about to break forth again.

Cumberland. A historic border County, called Carliol in the Middle Ages, comprising more or less the northern/northwestern half of modern Cumbria. To the south-east it was bordered by Westmoreland, and to the South-west by the isolated Furness area of Lancashire.

"And his who sleeps at Dunmailraise." i.e. King Dunmail, the last king of Cumbria; slain in a battle here against the united forces of Malcolm King of Scotland and Edmund, a Saxon King. A stone cairn is supposed to mark the spot where he fell.

Eamont vale. The Eamont runs from Ullswater to 3 miles E. of Penrith, where it joins the Eden.

Legbert, Legbert-head. Legburthwaite is a small village just north of Thirlmere.

The narrow valley of SAINT JOHN: Glaciated valley, connecting Threlkeld to the Thirlmere valley, and now known by the name of its village, St John's in the Vale.

Reged. = Rheged, an ancient north-western Brythonic kingdom, possibly centred on Cumbria.

Thirlmere. A reservoir created 1890-94, against fierce local opposition. In Scott's time the valley contained two smaller lakes, Leathes Water and Wythburn Water.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

bicentenary snack

I have a little aversion to these choreographed celebrations. Still, it's an excuse for sharing a mossel, the first thing I lit on.

'I think, young woman,' said Mrs Gamp to the assistant chambermaid, in a tone of expressive weakness, 'that I could pick a little bit of pickled salmon, with a nice little sprig of fennel, and a sprinkling of white pepper. I takes new bread, my dear, with jest a little pat of fresh butter, and a mossel of cheese. In case there should be such a thing as a cowcumber in the 'ouse, will you be so kind as to bring it, for I'm rather partial to 'em, and they does a world of good in a sick room. If they draws the Brighton Old Tipper here, I takes that ale at night, my love, it bein' considered wakeful by the doctors. And whatever you do, young woman, don't bring more than a shilling's-worth of gin and water-warm when I rings the bell a second time; for that is always my allowance, and I never takes a drop beyond!'


..The extent to which she availed herself of the vinegar, and supped up that refreshing fluid with the blade of her knife, can scarcely be expressed in narrative. ..

(Much more of me going on about Dickens here.)


Monday, February 06, 2012

mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, again.

For people who share my odd taste for out of fashion and nearly forgotten authors, is a treasure-house. The next thing I downloaded was Honoré de Balzac's Letters of Two Brides (Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, serialized 1841, published 1842) - this is wonderland! A Balzac book I didn't know anything about, in audio for my long commuter trip. If that appeals to you and you want to listen to it while you are as innocent of expectation as I was, then don't read on.

(To create a break, here's Balzac's Dedication to George Sand:



Ceci, cher Georges, ne saurait rien ajouter à l’éclat de votre nom, qui jettera son magique reflet sur ce livre ; mais il n’y a là de ma part ni calcul, ni modestie. Je désire attester ainsi l’amitié vraie qui s’est continuée entre nous à travers nos voyages et nos absences, malgré nos travaux et les méchancetés du monde. Ce sentiment ne s’altérera sans doute jamais. Le cortège de noms amis qui accompagnera mes compositions mêle un plaisir aux peines que me cause leur nombre, car elles ne vont point sans douleurs, à ne parler que des reproches encourus par ma menaçante fécondité, comme si le monde qui pose devant moi n’était pas plus fécond encore ? Ne sera-ce pas beau, Georges, si quelque jour l’antiquaire des littératures détruites ne retrouve dans ce cortège que de grands noms, de nobles cœurs, de saintes et pures amitiés, et les gloires de ce siècle ? Ne puis-je me montrer plus fier de ce bonheur certain que de succès toujours contestables ? Pour qui vous connaît bien, n’est-ce pas un bonheur que de pouvoir se dire, comme je le fais ici,
Votre ami,

Paris, juin 1840.

[(Free translation based on my limited French:) - This, dear George, won't add anything to the lustre of your name, which will certainly cast its magic reflection on my book; but this is not calculation or modesty on my part. For I wish thus to testify to the true friendship that has persisted between us through all our travels and absences, in spite of our labours and in spite of the wickedness of the world. These warm feelings, I am certain, can never alter.  The procession of friends' names that accompanies my compositions brings me one pleasure in compensation for all the pain that those numerous compositions has caused me. For they are not without pain:  to give but one example,  the reproaches incurred by my disturbing fecundity... As if the world that stands in front of me were not so much more fecund! But George,  isn't it pleasant to suppose that, one day in the far-distant future, some antiquarian of destroyed literatures is sure to single out from this cavalcade just those great names, those noble hearts, those holy and pure friendships, the shining lights of our era? Can't I be just as proud of that definite prospect as of a literary fame that remains always doubtful? For anyone acquainted with you, what a happiness it is just to be able to style himself, as I do here,
Your friend,

I don't for a moment think that Balzac's dedication has anything sly about it -- that doesn't fit my idea of his character -- but there are undeniable resemblances between Sand and the character Louise, who is a great and unconventional lover, and (in passing) the cultivator of a Paris salon.

This is a bit of a Librivox blockbuster. Kara Shallenberg and Michelle Crandall take the two leads (Louise and Renée, respectively), supported by a quartet of others for the male characters - Peter Yearsley with a faint Hispanic accent for the sombrely incandescent Hénarez, and David Barnes again, this time cast against type as the fervent 23-year-old-poet Gaston. But this is Kara's and Michelle's book; the former is brilliant as the initially lovable, eventually rather appalling, mocking, hurtful, forgiveable, Louise -- the only challenge she doesn't quite rise to is the total despair of Louise's second calamity; but perhaps Balzac doesn't either... Michelle is (like Renée) at first strictly secondary, then grows in power and authority to the desolating cry of the closing lines.

Balzac is really the most astonishing of novelists -- (yes, even more than Dickens) -- I've read a dozen of Balzac's other books, but I'd never have foreseen that he could also do what he does here. Perhaps this novel, more than most, deserves to be called a "study"; there is little or no intrigue, nothing at all gothic. The most astonishing things, to my eyes, are Renée's accounts of childbirth, infant convulsions (I suppose this is neonatal tetanus, now virtually extinct in the west because of innoculation), and the mother's ecstatic but painful sensations of breastfeeding.

That is, unless the most astonishing thing is Louise's paean to the joys of consummated sex in Letter 27. I am making an interpretation here. Louise says only that she is talking about love, and she spends some time emphasizing that the only true kind of male lover is a man of genius, who understands that love is spiritual more than it is sensual. But the way that the topic emerges, out of the banter about "Moorish perfidy" on their wedding night, implies that she means sexual abandon. At any rate, it is a highly erotic kind of love. Perhaps I'd concede that the over-developed spiritualization of Louise's experience is what in the end destroys her, as she foresees in this very letter. Certainly it's on this plane that she accounts for her enslaving tendencies and her uncompromising jealousy.

As always with Balzac, the ending of the book suddenly steeples and induces a crash of reorientation. The epistolary novel was then a venerable, even outmoded form, but Balzac did new things with it. He did it, in a way, by NOT doing old things. The epistolary novel had tended to involve intrigue in which the characters are always criss-crossing each other and the letters themselves ingeniously become stage-properties, in which much depends on who heard what from whom. But Balzac's two principal correspondents rarely meet and to an apparently large extent get on with their separate lives -- as I said, there's no intrigue, except for a perfunctory little top-knot in the final chapters. Yet this very separation of the correspondents, the long time-gaps, Balzac's resistance to using the letters as plot-devices: all these work together to expose something more interesting about the correspondence.

Contrasted heroines was another cliché of novel-writing (think Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, Rose Bradwardine and Flora MacIvor...). In those earlier novels character contrasts had been merely a piquant fact of life. In Balzac's book we see the contrast coming into existence. The two "sisters" begin to drift down separate paths; each muses on and regrets that contrast repeatedly; each compares herself constantly with the other: envying, sympathising, defending, condemning. At first it seems to them a contrast of circumstance; then it is understood as a contrast of character; but perhaps it is really willed. The more Renée becomes Renée, the more Louise becomes Louise. When the correspondence ends, only then do we realize how much each depended on the other, how each one's conception of herself depended on her conception of her friend, and on her friend's conception of her. In one sense they had drifted apart. In another sense neither can be understood without the other; nor indeed, without the correspondence itself; in those days, letter-writing was the cyborg extension of a literate person's brain.

Louise (Letter 39, the Rome letter): "Rome is the city of love; it is there that passion should celebrate its feast, with art and religion as confederates. "

"Rome est la ville où l’on aime. Quand on a une passion,
c’est là qu’il faut aller en jouir : on a les arts et Dieu pour complices."

Renée (the infant convulsions letter): "My God! by what tortures do you bind a mother to her child! To fasten him to our heart, need the nails be driven into the very quick? Was I not mother enough before? I, who wept tears of joy over his broken syllables and tottering steps..."

"Ô mon Dieu ! par quelles douleurs attachez-vous
l’enfant à sa mère ? quels clous vous nous enfoncez au
coeur pour qu’il y tienne! N’étais-je donc pas assez mère encore,
moi que les bégaiements et les premiers pas de cet enfant ont
fait pleurer de joie!"

As you can see from these quotations, R.S. Scott (who translated the novel back in the 1890s for Saintsbury's 40-volume edition) is a very bold and easy translator: the Librivox readers make the translation sound like a much more modern one; I haven't yet fathomed exactly why that is.

The heroines are not treated quite equally. We are apt to agree with the soundness of Renée's judgments on Louise, but not vice versa. Nothing seriously goes wrong for Renée, she has some of the stillness of a typical figure, representing motherhood (it's when listening to her letters that I tend to think of the novel as a "study"). But is this right? Should we really, for instance, accept Renée's accusation that Louise caused her first husband's death? (That Louise accepts it is neither here nor there.) Was the marriage really so unhealthy? It's true that Hénarez dwindles from a heroic champion of Spanish liberty to a mere society butterfly, but he is happy and highly respected. Isn't the issue partly an economic and political one; that rich exiled nobles don't really have anything significant to do with themselves? As for Renée herself, I would love to know if her behaviour as a mother was typical for the time. She seems unexpectedly modern in her beliefs about bringing up children (which of course I warm to), yet also perhaps a little too cossetingly absorbed in them. And she is frankly materialistic, to the point of being unprincipled, in her pursuit of her family's interests. Balzac does not make these judgments; but his naturalism certainly permits them to come into view.

[This novel is being rediscovered in the Anglophone world. See Morris Dickstein's essay in the NYRB, January 2018:

... One of the things I learnt is that Henry James wrote a Preface to a 1902 edition of the novel.]

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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Berrow Gold: Rarities

[Going through my old posts putting in the labels, I ran across this, a forgotten draft from a sunny 1st September 2009:]

past, the resemblance, the fluttering face of my life
B7 B7 B7 trouble and strife

The man in the ten-gallon hat and the crossed cartridge belts.
Was striding the streets of Laredo or was it Brean Vill. [(-age.)]

Two deaf old ladies in the corner, talking about him. One goes up to the bar. She comes back and says: Apparently it's just some cunt from Weston.

Epic Soundtracks and Nikki Sudden, the Godfrey brothers, are gone. Biggie Tembo, David Mankaba, Shakespeare Kangwena, Shepherd Munyama... I can't remember how many Beatles are still left. There are gaps in my teeth.

The flag of St George is at its very best near the coast, defying the Welsh. And hey! Remember Dunkirk. Gibraltar. Midget Submarines. Dresden Style.

That whippy creation of mere air, Agrostis, and tender, nibbled banks - F. ovina...

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Charlotte Brontë's supposed sense-of-humour-failure.

Stevie Davies' excellent introduction to her selection of the Brontë poems begins with "First, their names have become a kind of sentimental public property, and interest in their nature as opposed to their work takes on the character of an assault"; and she goes on to evoke the crowds tramping through Haworth parsonage. But, she then goes on to demonstrate rather convincingly how commentary on the work benefits from thinking about the nature.

Take, for instance, Charlotte's mislaid sense of humour, the one she had as a child but which goes missing in her novels.

It's an additional burden for people with singularly unhappy lives that they end up being accused of being humourless as well. But we have the materials, Charlotte being a writer and all, to look into this a bit more deeply.

First, let's point out that the transformation - because there certainly is a transformation - is gradual. The Angrian books, and notably late ones like Stancliffe's Hotel, are often pretty funny. The Professor has humour too, especially in the person of the hero's sarcastic friend (I'm sorry, I've mislaid my copy), but now this is pushed to the edges of the novel. "I was glad of it": there's still a pertness in the young Jane Eyre. Compare this with the deep personal misery manifested in her poems around 1845, when things went wrong with M. Heger. By the time of Villette, Charlotte had suffered a trio of bereavements that together had torn out the heart of her home, certainly all its gaiety. Yes, it's the gaiety that goes, not the humour. Stevie Davies shows that this transformation is also the upsurge of a terribly restraining Reason.

But even in Villette she could still portray the lively give-and-take between Lucy and Ginevra (that vitally leavening presence). Lucy Snowe is as cold as her name, in many ways; the book is largely in her control, she possesses the author because in large part she is the author. But she isn't one-dimensional, and moreover she doesn't have absolute control. "Leave sunny imaginations hope" - isn't there, even in those last lines, a certain humour of contrariety, though it is coloured black?


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