Thursday, November 08, 2012

cluttered desk literary ephemera


To be honest, I don't often do a huge amount of reading at my Desk.

My favourite places for reading, in no particular order, are beds, toilets, bus-stops, trains, cafes, floor-cushions, dining-tables, park benches and beaches. Though I  stop short of Wordsworth's famous marmalade-smeared knife (which he used for cutting the pages of Burke's Works) , my reading-matter of the moment does to tend to become dog-eared and defaced.

I have a desk at home, certainly, but it's used for Facebook, email, on-line banking, Spider Solitaire and that kind of thing. (Sometimes for writing.) I also have a desk at work but this is for being an IT engineer.

Of course, I DO read things at my desks, such as other people's blogs and things that I turn up on Google, and poetry that I find on-line. It can be intense for a page or two, but it's not deep-water reading. For example, I've still got a bookmarked link from last year to Aphra Behn's The Rover Part II. This is a play that, as it happens, I am highly motivated to read. If I'd had it in printed form I'd have read it ages ago. But since all I've got is the on-line text, I've read the opening scenes a couple of times, scanned and rescanned a few other passages, and my impression of the play is all fragmentary and broken. If this is true of a play (plays, after all, only take a couple of hours to read), it applies even more strongly to something like a novel.

If I added up all the literature that I've read on-line, it wouldn't amount to much more than a paltry, haphazard collection of momentarily diverting titbits. Literature minced into blog-posts, as it were.


Elliott Carter died a couple of days ago, aged 103. I found this out by catching "Wind Rose" on Radio 3. There's an amazing amount of great Carter music, it's a world. Good excuse for a link, anyway.

Matribute (2007); I'm not sure who the performer is, maybe it's James Levine himself (for whom the piece was written).


[Here formerly appeared a review of Paul Brown's, A Cabin In the Mountains (Reality Street, 2012), now complete and moved to Intercapillary Space...]


E. M. Forster, Howard's End, via Librivox and Elizabeth Klett, who lets us into the novel as through a doorway. After I had heard it and enjoyed it, I went off browsing the internet for commentary, and the commentary closed the door on me again.

I  have side-stepped Forster for more than thirty years, since "doing" A Passage To India at university. I was apt to go off books that I did at university. Perhaps I also took exception to something - a lack of appreciation for Scott, was it? - in his Aspects of the Novel. Well, I consider it's high time to get over that.

The trouble with commentary on novels, especially novels, is that it tends to be commentary on the book remembered after reading, not commentary on the book as you experience it while you're reading it. Often it is not even that; it becomes commentary on the topics that are in effect pre-selected by previous commentary. Soon we are dealing with wearily familiar tropes: Forster's ideas of cross-cultural connection, or of connection across class barriers; their strengths and weaknesses. I know these discussions air important issues. Forster seems to have been especially prone to attract this kind of commentary because he devotes so much of his book to ideas, to a sort of philosophizing. And he was a humane and liberal man. Forster seems to be easily recognized as well-meaning, yet easily vulnerable to attack for having failed to go far enough; to be praised for having shone a light in darkness, and damned for his light's faintness. See how tempting it is? Now I too have slipped away from Howard's End to "the debate around Howard's End", I too am taking part in this abstracted Forster-conversation.

One has, often, to get through this thicket to arrive at the coal-face. I'm determined to say something about Howard's End, though, so how about this? As everyone knows, one of its more unexpectedly prominent themes is moving house. And I just want to point out that Howard's End was published in 1910 and, the year before, Jerome K. Jerome's They and I dealt with the same theme. (In both books, men talk of building a kitchen, or knocking the hall into the parlour, as if they were doing it themselves; when they really mean, paying someone else to do it.) And this theme also plays a part in Galsworthy's The Man of Property (1906).

[I suppose I should add something more about They and I, not a book (I'd imagine) that finds its way to many modern readers; though, of course, it is on Gutenberg (text) and indeed Librivox (audio) - I urge you to take a listen to the first chapter. It follows the pattern of more celebrated Jerome books in presenting most of the author's best comic routines early on; the later part of the book tending more towards wistful philosophizing (distant comparison with Forster is in that respect, too). They and I ( like Three men in a Boat) is a fiction that looks autobiographical, partly because there is no attempt to develop a story beyond the incidents of a week or two - during which a father and his three children rent a country cottage, while superintending the aforementioned house-building - and partly because the narrator is a literary man just like Jerome or J. Nevertheless, They and I is not autobiographical, this family is invented.]

Second listen (Spoilers imminent...):

A book like Howard's End is pretty well always worth reading (or listening to) twice, because our experience is so different the second time around.

For example: Aunt Julie's lift in the car with the Wilcox who she supposes is Paul, but is Charles. The first time through, we share her error, for at least a few miles. Even before we discover this error (since we already know of Helen's telegram) the sense of approaching ruin is dominant; the damage that Julie is unintentionally doing to people whom we already sympathise with, even though we haven't met them. And the fact, when it emerges, of her speaking to the wrong Wilcox just sets the seal on it. The scene is too absorbingly upsetting for us to quite appreciate the comedy.

The second time around, this is all different. Now we enjoy it as a comic prelude, because nothing of consequence followed. But other things come into view; we know now how Julie dies (or almost does), we know now that Charles will go to prison; we experience a new curiosity about them, a deeper curiosity than when they were more or less blank canvasses.

The loss of anxiety about "what's going to happen" has other surprising effects. In the first scene with Leonard Bast, the one where he has to come and collect his umbrella, I now have less fellow-feeling with him, I am no longer anxious on his behalf, my attitude is colder. A little of that surplus sympathy is now put to new use, it attends to Helen and Margaret.

Howard's End is an incredibly highly wrought novel, one of those books that expects the reader to hold in her mind everything that has been said in it. The goblins of the Beethoven concert are still in Leonard Bast's last rail journey. The discreet anti-naturalistic veins of symbolism: Evie's wedding is on Bast's birthday, or his premonitory fear of swords.  These ornamentations tend to cluster around Bast, perhaps to compensate for Forster's failure to completely realise him as a character. Anyhow, the second listening allows these details to emerge a little further into consciousness.


A line from Federico García Lorca´s "El Rey de Harlem":

bajo las pinzas y las retamas de la celeste luna de Cáncer.
Greg Simon and Steven F. White translate:

under the pincers and Scotch broom of Cancer's heavenly moon.
This was puzzling to me, because I didn't know that "Scotch broom" is what Americans call the plant that we call broom, i.e. Cytisus scoparius. In fact "retama" refers to a similar Mediterranean plant, perhaps Retama de Olor (Spartium junceum). Since Lorca uses it in the plural, I think he means sprigs of that plant, which could distantly resemble the moon in being curvy and yellow with flowers. However, Lorca's metaphors are often not about close physical resemblance.


(Image from Gillmark Gallery, Hertford)

I am also reading 2 Henry IV, very slowly. This falls into the "toilet category". It's a tiny book, 2 inches by 1.5,  that can be carried in a back pocket or the palm of my hand, thus avoiding the workplace embarrassment of being seen carrying a book down the corridor. These mini-Shakespeares were published by Allied Newspapers Ltd, apparently in 1932. When I was a child I inherited  - I'm not quite sure who from - a miniature oak desk containing about half of them (the full set is shown above). I guess it was one of a pair.  I've since lost a few volumes and ruined some others - this one hasn't benefitted from getting  too close to an uncapped tube of Rescue Cream. Anyhow. Of greater interest to bibliophiles, this edition manages to omit the climactic "I know thee not, old man" by accidentally printing a page from 2 Henry VI instead.)

2 Henry IV  is one of those rather rare works that is unashamedly a sequel and proceeds to discover peculiar kinds of excellence that only a sequel can have - like The Godfather Part II. These works are absolutely not freestanding, each is totally dependent on its predecessor.And in each there's a sense of fragmentation, glorious but diminishing returns, nostalgia for the first part, of a structure miraculously holding together as it becomes increasingly atomized.

An essay I found useful for the play, interesting for its own sake, and attractive to read (what more can you ask?) is Paul A. Jorgensen's 'The "Dastardly Treachery" Of Prince John Of Lancaster', PMLA 76 No 5 (1961).   [What?? I'm giving you a link to JSTOR?? Yes, I sure am. Because (if you don't know), there is now a Beta program called MyJStor and anyone can register, which  I strongly urge you to do. It gives you free access across all JStor's resources, the only restriction is that it's throttled down to three articles per fortnight. A big step in the right direction!].  The gist of Jorgensen's essay is that he identifies a new trend in the 1590s towards accepting the practice of dealing treacherously with the enemy, and he connects this new attitude with Elizabeth's miserable Irish wars. Jorgensen also emphasizes that the distasteful scene in which Prince John captures the rebel leaders by breaking a truce (IV.2)  is incurred deliberately by Shakespeare - he found its germ in the histories, but he transferred the agency from a general to a prince; and the historic event wasn't even decisive, so it could easily have been missed out. Clearly it was Shakespeare's intention to raise the treachery issue starkly (though drawing back from making Hal the agent) - to let it sit alongside the cold rejection of Falstaff.

This is another work about which it's difficult to say anything new, its character and tone have been so persuasively delineated by others. I just want to emphasize - nothing excitingly new about this -  the prominence of a "nothing actually happens" motif in the play. Examples:

Northumberland plans to revolt. He changes his mind. 
Mistress Quickly tries to get Falstaff to pay up. He isn't made to.
Prince Hal plans a big night out with Falstaff. Business calls them away after a few minutes.
The rebels and the royal forces expect to fight each other. They aren't required to.
Henry IV is dead. No, he isn't.
Falstaff plans to take advantage of Shallow and Silence. Business calls him away before he gets started.

Well, and so on. Drama in its primary key portrays action, but 2 Henry IV interests itself in what happens while waiting for actions that don't materialize.

Remember Henry IV, waiting for sleep?

Shakespeare always keeps the king's personality a little in shadow and there are possibilities that arise from this. Because Henry is neither a notably bad nor notably good king, because he is a bit troubled,, a bit guilty about vaguely sharp behaviour that is not really spelled out, but still a father, still kind of a businessman, he can articulate things about kingship.

This soliloquy is a difficult challenge for an actor. The speech is driven by personal troubles, but Henry does not tell us anything about them. I am sure the impression made on us needs to be a sympathetic one, yet it does not sit particularly well with kingship (especially a kingship that was eagerly seized on) to be moaning "it's so unfair". The speech must convey, simultaneously, contradictory emotions: a sensitive pity for the sufferings of the labouring poor and envy for their snoring oblivion.

It so happens that we have just left a sluttish inn as it begins to settle down for the night. II.4 is a disappointing scene (to us Falstaff and Hal) in that it is meant to climax in another magical celebration of the pair's unlikely driendship, but it doesn't work out, both have to leave suddenly. Perhaps it wasn't working out quite perfectly anyway. But if at the heart of the scene is an intentional sense of loss, the outworks are wonderful: Mrs Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, who start and end the scene, and the troublesome incursion of Ancient Pistol. 


Scott, The Antiquary, Guy Mannering.
Galdos, Fortunata and Jacinta
Richard Makin, Dwelling
Ammianus Marcellinus
The Roman Wall
Bodil Malmsten
Selma Lagerlof (finishing up the Further Adventures of Nils)
Lorca, Poeta en Nueva York
Freud, Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis
Lisa Robertson, The Weather
Hans Christian Andersen
Forster Passage to India, Hoaward's End
Adrian Clarke, Eurochants
Chris Goode, History of Airports
George Sand, Indiana
Le Festin D'Esope (Charles-Valentin Alkan, Op 39, 12) "Attempting this variation (XX) with improper technique is likely to cause injury to the wrist". Another pal of George Sand, by the way.

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At 9:42 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

I don't do any serious reading at my desk either, so when I see a blog post like yours, I send it to my kindle by clicking on a bookmark reduced to an icon, which activates a free function provided by then I go to bed and read it, which is what I shall do with your piece now, with thanks to its author!

At 11:36 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, to be quite honest, having seen you in-situ, you don't do an awful lot of anything at your desk... apart from update your blog :-)


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