Friday, June 28, 2019

Rough Hawk's-beard (Crepis biennis)

Crepis biennis in summer breeze. Swindon, 28th June 2019.


Crepis biennis (En: Rough Hawk's-beard, Sw: Skånefibbla)

A new one on me, but probably I just haven't been paying attention. It's a sturdy biennial, much taller than the more common Beaked Hawksbeard (Crepis vesicaria) -- the three plants on my daily walk are all over a meter -- and flowering several weeks later. (It also lacks the latter's red colouring on the back of the florets.)

It's native on chalk in a rather restricted region of SE England (Kent, Surrey, Hertfordshire), but is also an increasing introduction elsewhere, generally in man-made environments. Hence its appearance here, in Swindon.

It's more frequent in the south, rare and casual by the time you get to Scotland. (In Sweden it's common only in Skåne, casual elsewhere. Common throughout most of mainland Europe.)


Crepis biennis. Swindon, 28th June 2019.

Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019. 

This one is getting on for 1.5m tall.

Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019.

The buds and involucres have a neat attractive appearance, with short patent hairs and phyllaries in two rows, the outer row somewhat spreading.

Clive Stace, for some doubtless very good reason, doesn't employ the term "involucre" in his New Flora of the British Isles, but I can't seem to lose the habit of using it as a collective term for the phyllaries (green bits!) that surround the capitulum (composite flower-head; the yellow part!).


Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019.


Leaves and stem of Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019.

The plant is not as rough as the name led me to expect, but there are patent hairs on at least the leaf-edges and the midribs (above and below), and on the ridges of the stem.


Flower of Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019.



Developing seed-heads of Crepis biennis. Swindon, 2nd July 2019.



Developing seed-heads of Crepis biennis. Swindon, 2nd July 2019.

Labels:

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Helon Habila: Measuring Time (2007)


Helon Habila in 2006



[Image source: http://talatu-carmen.blogspot.com/2007/01/interview-with-helon-habila-at.html ]


SPOILER ALERT!
Habila is a brilliant storyteller. I've no intention of recounting the plot, but I'm unusually conscious that even the small revelations in these notes have the potential to spoil the delicate unfolding that a first-time reader experiences...


KETI...

Helon Habila's first novel, Waiting for an Angel (2003), was set in Lagos. Measuring Time, however, is a totally provincial novel. The book is mainly located in a village called Keti in northern Nigeria. Keti is a fictional location. The state capital is mentioned regularly, though never named. You can get a sense of the general locale from other places named in the book: e.g. Jos, Bauchi, Abuja, Kaduna, Kano, and at one point Keti is revealed to be in the Gombe area (p. 240). (Gombe is evidently the unnamed state capital.) Habila himself was born in Kaltungo in Gombe state. It would be a mistake to pin Keti down to a single place -- that would set limits on the novel's tremendous scope -- but it's interesting that the colonialist Mr Graves died "attempting one more conquest: to climb the highest peak in Keti, the Kilang Peak, described in the Reverend Drinkwater's Brief History as a 'mountainous contour like a lion couchant'" (p. 267). That's surely an allusion to Kaltungo's impressive Kilang Hill (see photo below).

Measuring Time takes us back into remoter times (the sickly Mamo, after all, becomes a historian) but it's chiefly a novel about the very recent past: mostly, the 1990s. Mamo's stifling life in Keti is its crucible, but the novel looks a long way beyond Keti. For example, it's book-ended by local violence: attacks on Keti Igbo residents in the mid-1960s, prior to the Biafran war, and agitation between the Keti Christians and Muslims, brutally suppressed by the police, in the mid-1990s. But in between, we've read LaMamo's sombre accounts of fighting across the African continent, most horrifically in Liberia. Even here, LaMamo in his letter manages to say that he is sometimes reminded of home. His twin brother Mamo isn't very emotionally intuitive and perhaps never fathoms why LaMamo writes this to him. (Does he ever really understand Zara's sufferings or her decisions?) Later, he asks Bintou, "Was your home in Liberia a bit like this?" Her darkened recoil from his insensitive question is a quiet reminder that Keti cannot represent everywhere else, it cannot feel like home to everyone.

And Keti, at least, has survived. It has done so by assimilating culture from everything that comes into its orbit, whether the gods of the ancient Komda that the Keti peoples displaced, or the village play, The Coming, that recounts the arrival of its first Christian missionary, the Reverend Drinkwater. Mamo has inadvertently contributed to the latter artefact: himself an exemplary absorber of influences from outside: beginning in childhood with Wilbur Smith or Mills & Boon, later encountering Thoreau*, Plutarch, Okigbo, semiotics, etc. Keti is a mixture of peoples, languages, and religions; there are also modern affiliations (such as professions and political parties) alongside older ones like the traditional village rulers (the Mais). Measuring Time has a mostly disenchanted view of life in Keti but it has no idealism about cultural purity.  

[ "To them the play was not about Drinkwater and his 'conquest' of their culture by his culture, it was about their own survival. They were celebrating because they had had the good sense to take whatever was good from another culture and add it to whatever was good in theirs..." (p. 381). Those are Mamo's thoughts, and the book maintains a distance from them -- Mamo is often naïve and mistaken -- but I don't feel it rejects them. Something that other readers might wish to debate.]


*

Sometimes Asabar came to keep the twins company, he and LaMamo would kick a ball back and forth, taking turns to play goalie, but increasingly Asabar would turn up drunk, staggering and talking loudly about how unhappy he was. He had discovered the pleasures of alcohol. Auntie Marina would shake her head in disgust and give him a long sermon on the evils of drinking, and how all drinkers would end up in hellfire.

"But this is hell, Auntie . . . Life in this village is hell . . . Tell her, Mamo . . . sorry, not you . . . you are sick . . . but LaMamo, tell her how terrible . . . I am tired of going to the farm . . . and school . . . and . . ." And he'd go on and on. To stop him, Auntie Marina would disappear into the kitchen to return with a bowl of rice, or tuwo, and hand it to him.

"Stop! Stop!" she'd scream as he began to dip his dirty hands into the bowl, and make him wash his hands before eating.

"See how scrawny you are?" she would mutter as he gobbled down the food. "See what sin does to you?"

Lamang didn't seem bothered by his nephew's drinking. He had always treated Asabar with more levity than he did his own children. "It is youth," he'd say, "he will grow out of it."

(p. 36)

["tuwo" = cooked cornmeal.]

*

Lamang's lazy optimism is proved wrong: Asabar never stops drinking. The lovable Auntie Marina's hellfire sermon is no more effective. But the food epitomizes her: she makes survival possible, though her own life was damaged so early.

But there's a lot of waste of life in this picture of survival: that doesn't necessarily mean death, though it often does. Asabar is only one of the wasted lives. One of the many understatedly powerful moments in the later chapters is the unexpected reminder of Saraya, Lamang's beautiful early love of the opening pages; still alive, but her memory gone for some thirty years: just living on. To Zara she's an angel. For Mamo, still, there's some frozen bitterness from childhood. The wonderfully balanced ending leaves us to speculate on the prospects for these and other characters.

*

Auntie Marina is a more significant character than might appear. Our final glimpse of her, hoeing -- "Mamo wondered what she might be thinking as she stood motionless, staring at the weed and obviously not seeing it" (pp. 370-71) -- starts Mamo pondering, at a crucial juncture, about the complexity of other lives and their expression in gesture.  It's one of the book's central concerns, given Mamo's desire to write the true lives of individuals: to what extent can he, or anyone, understand them, even those he has spent all his life with?

Expressions are dynamic and beneath them the emotions are complicated. "Mamo's anger and relief and frustration vied to dominate his face" (p. 348-49). Habila is giving new philosophical relevance to an ancient literary trope, a cliché in Scott (usually involving the word "mingled") and an entertainment in Dickens, e.g. "[W]ith an expression of face in which a great number of opposite ingredients, such as mischief, cunning, triumph, and patient expectation, were all mixed up together in a kind of physiognomical punch, Miss Miggs composed herself to wait and listen..." (Barnaby Rudge, Ch. 9).

*

LaMamo was sprawled out in the sofa, singing loudly along to a Bongos Ikwe song on the radio. His mouth fell open when he saw Zara, and he sat up, looking at Mamo questioningly.

"My brother, LaMamo," Mamo said.

(p. 109)

*

This would have been in the early 1980s. LaMamo is listening to Bongos Ikwue, a popular recording artist from the Benue region in central Nigeria (born in Otukpo in 1942, attended school in Zaria).

This is one of his songs, "Still Searching":




*

The radio and books sustained him at night. He'd lie in the dark and listen to the voices from faraway Lagos or London or America or Germany discussing art or politics or architecture. There were also the late request programs when insomniacs like him would phone in with their marital woes, their sexual angst, their clinical depressions, and their congenital diseases. As he listened to the voices, with the moonlight coming in through the window, the loneliness didn't bite that sharply; he'd feel as if the people on the radio were seated beside him, together forming a community of misfits, freaks, and solitaries, desperately reaching out to touch flesh, to form a circle of empathy. His bed was a time ship, the radio was a component of it, moving him forward and backward in time, visiting history and people and places, until finally the announcer's voice lulled him to sleep. Sometimes he'd jerk awake again, the light through the window in his eyes and Beethoven's Fifth on the radio -- but it was not morning yet, it was only the false dawn and it would grow dark again. The real dawn was still hours away. It was at times like this that he'd look across the room to his brother's empty bed, and his eyes would fill with tears.

(pp. 140-41)


*

I've never seen the false dawn (zodiacal light, caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust); in fact I had never even heard of it, except as a figurative expression. But then I live in a light-polluted town in the relatively far north. In rural areas near the equator it's a common phenomenon.

*

Measuring Time (2007) was Helon Habila's second novel. His fourth, Travellers, was published just a few days ago (June 2019). He has also written The Chibok Girls (2017), a non-fictional book about the Boko Haram kidnappings.

Some early reviews of Measuring Time:

Helen Oyeyemi (New Statesman):

https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2007/02/helon-habila-mamo-measuring

Giles Foden (Guardian):

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/feb/10/featuresreviews.guardianreview17

Hari Kunzru (New York Times):

https://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/books/review/Kunzru.t.html

*

Interview by Frank Bures:
https://www.pw.org/content/everything_follows_interview_helon_habila

(This is from 2003, when Habila had only just published his first book, but is fascinating for his vision of what a modern African novel might be.)



Kilang Hill, Kaltungo (Gombe State, Nigeria)

[Image source: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g312578-i92347823-Johannesburg_Greater_Johannesburg_Gauteng.html]


*

* Thoreau.

"You could finish writing your novel."

"Sometimes I feel like I have run out of things to say."

He stroked her head, then he quoted, "'The world is as new today as it was when first created, and what we have is not a shortage but a surfeit of things to say.'"

She sat up and looked at him.

"Herman Melville, or Thoreau, said that," Mamo said.

"It's so optimistic, so beautiful. I should write it down somewhere."

(p. 134)

Mamo is misquoting, if he's quoting at all.  It sounds like it could be Melville or Thoreau, or indeed lots of other people, but Google supplies nothing.

Labels:

Monday, June 24, 2019

some poems from Karin Boye's The Seven Deadly Sins




[Image source: https://www.svd.se/en-ny-dag-gryr-for-karin-boye ]


From The Seven Deadly Sins  and Other Posthumous Poems (1941)




The blossom Bitterness


Blossom blossom Bitterness,
how full you now appear
with ripe golden honey,
for all your bitter cheer.
How weighed down with your gifts,
which the almonds in the field,
so gentle and correctly dressed,
surely never yield.

Affliction and benediction:
each receives his own.
I cannot take life’s measure,
but I know that you were mine.
Your cup contained fire.
Your nectar was like gall.
Seven griefs you brewed for me,
and I drank them all.

Blossom blossom Bitterness,
how rich at last your freight
of warm golden honey,
which is like the sun’s light.
Faint with sweetness, here I stand
in all your gift’s brightness.
I will exult with Adam, and
with Job I’ll witness.



Blomman bitterhet


Blomma blomma Bitterhet,
hur står du nu så full
av guldmogen honung
för all din beskhets skull.
Hur dignar du av skänker,
som ängarnas mandelblomma
väl aldrig kunde bära,
den blidhyllta fromma.

Plåga och välsignelse --
var har väl sin.
Inte vet jag livets mått,
men vet att du blev min.
Din kalk var som eld.
Din saft var som galla.
Du bjöd sju bedrövelser,
och jag drack dem alla.

Blomma blomma Bitterhet,
hur blev du sist så rik
på varmgyllne honung,
som är solljuset lik.
Här står jag, matt av sötman
i din klarnade gåva.
Med Adam vill jag jubla.
Med Job vill jag lova.





To you


You my despairing and my strength,
you took away all my own life,
and since you had to have it all,
gave it me back a thousandfold.


Till dig


Du min förtvivlan och min kraft,
du tog allt eget liv jag haft,
och därför att du krävde allt
gav du tillbaka tusenfalt.





Never was the wood so joyful as now...


Never was the wood so joyful as now in the sun and the rain,
never so overflowing with wood-scents and wood-glitter,
never so free with the sweet solace I alone cannot obtain,
though I seek it and pray, but my grief is too bitter.

Drink in, my two eyes, the golden light that I myself don't see.
Breathe deeply in, my two lungs, the mist of wet moss.
I am a dead stone. Forget me and live for yourselves,
Pull in to your secret chambers everything, whatever you come across.

Inaccessible is the room where the day's crop gently ripens
from the shimmering, the scents and the breath of wind. When the moment arrives
a compacted splendour bursts its cell: rushes over me
keen and wild like a waterfall, the memory of my griefs.



Aldrig är skogen lycklig som nu...


Aldrig är skogen lycklig som nu i sol och regn,
aldrig så överflödande av fin lukt och glitter,
aldrig så lekfullt tröstande -- mig når den bara inte,
fast jag söker och ber.  Min smärta är för bitter.

Drick, mina ögon, guldljus som inte jag själv ser.
Andas djupt, mina lungor, den våta mossans ånga.
Jag är en död sten.  Glöm mig, lev för er,
samla i gömda kamrar allt ni lyckas fånga.

Oåtkomligt det rum, där dagens skörd ska mogna
mjuk av skimmer och doft och sus.  När stunden är inne
spränger en tätnad prakt sitt gömsle.  Över mig störtar
friskt och vilt som ett vattenfall ett smärtans minne.







Wild apple-tree


How is it possible?
How could it spring up, such lovely multiplicity,
such a fresh, fine and airy crown of flowers,
such a forest of wild, twisting branches,
such rugged bark, green with lichen,
the whole lot, all
from the same one little dark pip?
There it all lay –
stem, boughs, leaves and bark and bright flowers,
crowded together, within a heart-shape.

But we are the apple-tree’s reflection in the water.
From abundances without limit or bottom,
from our younger days’ airy, pale fruit-blossom,
from the hundred-ways forest of interwoven branches,
from the plain bark of an ordinary life,
we accumulate slowly,
till everything lies still, close, and sealed
within the heart’s core...
How is it possible?


Vildapel


Hur är det möjligt?
Hur spirade en sådan ljuvlig mångfald,
en sådan frisk och fin och luftig blomsky,
en sådan skog av vridna vilda grenar,
en sådan skrovlig bark med gröna lavar
alltsammans bara
ur en och samma lilla mörka kärna?
Där låg det, allt,
stam, grenar, blad och bark och lätta blommor,
hopträngt i hjärtgestalt.

Men vi är apelns spegelbild i vatten.
Ur rikedomar utan gräns och botten,
ur unga dagars lätta ljusa fruktblom,
ur hundra vägars skog av slingergrenar,
ur enkla barken av ett enkelt liv,
samlas vi långsamt,
tills allting ligger stilla, tätnat, slutet
inom en hjärtekärna...
Hur är det möjligt?







How can I tell...


How can I tell, if your voice is lovely.
I just know this, that it penetrates me
so deep it makes me tremble like a leaf
and rips me into shreds and detonates me.


What do I know about your skin, your limbs.
Just that it jolts me they belong to you,
so that for me there is no sleep and peace
till they are mine too.



Hur kan jag säga...


Hur kan jag säga om din röst är vacker.
Jag vet ju bara, att den genomtränger mig
och kommer mig att darra som ett löv
och trasar sönder mig och spränger mig.

Vad vet jag om din hud och dina lemmar.
Det bara skakar mig att de är dina,
så att för mig finns ingen sömn och vila,
tills de är mina.





Complete Swedish text of The Seven Deadly Sins (De sju dödssynderna):
http://www.karinboye.se/verk/dikter/diktsaml-de7dodssynd.shtml

[The Seven Deadly Sins was put together after Boye's death by Hjalmar Gullberg. The above link arranges the contents in a different sequence from the one normally seen, and there are a couple of extra poems too. I haven't yet found an explanation for this.]


English translations by me.


Karin Boye's memorial stone outside Alingsås

[Image source: https://www.vastsverige.com/alingsas/produkter/karin-boyes-minnessten/ ]

This is where Karin Boye's huddled body was discovered, by a local farmer, on 27th April 1941. She had walked out of her home in Alingsås, near Gothenburg, on 23rd April, carrying a lot of sleeping-pills and a bottle of water. The date of her death is usually given as 24th April.

Labels: ,

Friday, June 21, 2019

Audubon visits Scott

Whooping Crane eating baby alligators



In winter 1826-1827 John James Audubon was in Edinburgh, trying to drum up interest in the gargantuan publishing venture that would produce The Birds of America, by hugely expensive subscription. (The book still breaks records in the auction houses.)

He put on a successful exhibition, which Sir Walter Scott declined to attend, though he later regretted it. "I wish I had gone to see his drawings; but I had heard so much about them that I resolved not to see them..." I sympathise. Maybe Scott had sensed Audubon's questionable honesty at a distance; if so, he was soon re-deceived. (I'm taking this information from John Chancellor's 1978 biography of Audubon, which makes no bones about its subject's unsympathetic character traits; indeed reading it, you end up feeling that maybe Audubon wasn't so bad after all, which was perhaps the intention. Incidentally, Audubon's Wikipedia entries contain no hint of such critical views.)

Anyway, in January 1827 Audubon visited Scott.
My eyes feasted on his countenance. I watched his movements as I would those of a celestial being..... [H]e had been at work writing on the 'life of Napoleon'. He writes close lines, rather curved as they go from left to right, and puts an immense deal on very little paper....
Scott evidently succumbed to the Audubon myth. This man had studied ornithology, he wrote,

by many a long wandering in the American forests. He is an American by naturalization, a Frenchman by birth; but less of a Frenchman than I have ever seen -- no dash, or glimmer, or shine about him, but great simplicity of manners and behaviour; slight in person, and plainly dressed; wears long hair, which time has not yet tinged; his countenance acute, handsome and interesting, but still simplicity is the predominant characteristic!

After a second visit a couple of days later, Scott added:

This sojourner in the desert has been in the woods for months together. He preferred associating with the Indians to the company of the Black Settlers; very justly, I daresay, for a civilized man of the lower order -- that is, the dregs of civilization -- when thrust back on the savage state becomes worse than a savage...

(quotations taken from John Chancellor, Audubon: A Biography (1978), pp. 133-134.)

This is quite uncomfortable for me to quote: I would much rather be showing Scott in a more sympathetic light.

As to the truth, Audubon (keen to make Europeans believe he was a true pioneer, which he wasn't) naturally played up his contacts with Native Americans, such as they were. And with Scott's ignorant assent he evidently disparaged the "Black Settlers".

Both men, no doubt, were racists to some degree; it was impossible they should be anything else at the time. (In Scott's voluminous fictions I can only think of one black character, the dumb and devoted Nubian slave of Richard the Lionheart in The Talisman -- who turns out, naturally, to be Prince Kenneth of Scotland in black-face.)

What Scott says here is confused and probably incoherent. It might appear to have no racist aspect:  merely, that is, a generalization about civilized dregs, the ethnicity of the settlers being neither here nor there -- but I think that interpretation would be wrong. For would Scott say exactly this about, for example, the white convicts who were being shipped to Australia? -- I doubt it. I think he was disturbed by black people and wilderness coming together, and this provokes the inappropriate word "savage": for after all to be a settler is not at all the same thing as to be "thrust back on the savage state". The black settlers were part of Euro-American civilization, not savagery.

(Of course I'm leaving aside the question whether "savage" and "civilized" are coherent descriptions: I don't believe they are. I believe all cultures, and all individuals, try to get by in the circumstances they find themselves in.)

But then this brings in another anxiety alongside the racist one: a class anxiety. The settlers were a part of the lowest of civilisation's lower orders, the "dregs" (in Scott's view). As former slaves they had not so much been honoured with Euro-American civilization as consumed and spat out by it. (I should think that any good qualities they possessed they acquired rather in spite of than because of that civilization's doubtful mercies.)

Scott and his huge audience were imaginatively drawn to the "true" savage, the aboriginal, whether in the form of Native Americans or "unspoiled" Highlanders: because these exotics lie outside the class system of our civilization. A gentleman need not be ashamed of such company. In fact, the savages are a positive relief from the constant anxieties of playing the gentlemanly role.

But poor settlers, black or white, were the kind of person whom one wished to avoid. For class consciousness, the mutual consciousness of a structural injustice in which the gentleman profits at the expense of the dregs, makes such relations uncomfortable. It was, of course, a large part of Scott's mission as novelist to portray this relation in its least uncomfortable aspects (e.g. in mutually respectful master-servant relationships; or at least in disrespect that is strictly limited; in "irrepressible" commentary from the lower orders; in Jenny Dennison and Andrew Fairservice and Flibbertygibbet...).

Scott wasn't all wrong, far from it. He knew his society, and the variety of its relations, in quite a lot of depth; his legal experience (like Fielding's) was invaluable. He would also have seen plentiful criminality, and sometimes savagery, among the under-classes. He didn't account for it the way that I would probably do, i.e. as the issue being with civilization itself. He needed another concept: I suppose, an innate potential within the human breast that was a bit like original sin and against which civilization must be perpetually on its guard.





*

There was no other way: before photography, a book of accurate pictures of wild birds could only be made by killing wild birds. Audubon killed a huge number, all he could bag. Sometimes he drew them while still wounded but alive; he knew how quickly the colours faded after death. He used wiring to put his dead models into "life-like" postures: not infrequently the result betrays the ghastliness of the method. Audubon's great work was a commoditization of nature on a grand scale. (But even so, Audubon sometimes reflected presciently on the implications of such huge slaughters of his time as the American bison and the passenger pigeon.)

In Florida...(I'm quoting from Chancellor, pp. 178-179):

He set out at sunrise one morning with four Negro servants 'in search of birds and adventures'. He wanted to kill twenty-five brown pelicans in order to draw a single male bird. Why he should have needed so many birds for a single drawing is curious. It was partly the fun of killing them at a time when people's thoughts had not turned towards conservation and partly for the sake of giving accurate anatomical descriptions of the species and their individual variations. His friends in England, MacGillivray in particular, were clamouring for as many specimens as possible.

In a thick shrubbery of mangrove, Audubon came across several hundred pelicans,

seated in comfortable harmony, as near each other as the strength of the boughs would allow. . . . I waded to the shore under cover of the rushes along it, saw the pelicans fast asleep, examined their countenances and deportment well and leisurely, and after all, levelled, fired my piece, and dropped two of the finest specimens I ever saw. I really believe I would have shot one hundred of there reverend sirs, had not a mistake taken place in the reloading of my gun.

On another occasion the pelicans were less fortunate: 'A discharge of artillery seldom produced more effect; the dead, the dying and the wounded, fell from the trees upon the water, while those unscathed flew screaming through the air in terror and dismay.' For Audubon birds were few in number if he shot less than a hundred per day.

He was particularly fascinated by the alligators and blazed away at them from the deck of the schooner for want of anything much better to shoot at ....  the brains of one leaped out of its head and exploded in mid-air.




John James Audubon, and Great White Heron













Labels: ,

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Donna Stonecipher

Painting by Kyli John

[Image source: Collision at the Herrick Gallery, Piccadilly (April 2019). Artist: https://www.instagram.com/kyli.john/ .]  



Model City [1]

It was like slowly becoming aware one winter that there are new buildings going up all over your city, and then realizing that every single one of them is a hotel.

*

It was like thinking about all those empty rooms at night, all those empty rooms being built to hold an absence, as you lie in your bed at night, unable to sleep.

*

It was like the feeling of falling through the 'o' in 'hotel' as you almost fall asleep in your own bed, the bed that you own, caught at the last minute by ownership, the ownership of your wide-awake self.

*

It was like giving in to your ownership of yourself and going to the window, looking out at all the softly illuminated versions of the word 'hotel' announcing their shifting absences all over the city.



*


Donna Stonecipher is another poet I've discovered via the anthology women: poetry : migration, ed. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (2017). (DS: born in Seattle, lives in Berlin.)

I suppose it's OK to quote this poem in full, as it's already on the Internet at least twice. It's the first of the five in this anthology, and also the first in the Shearsman book Model Cities (2015): an elegant, romantic and comfortably sleepy prelude to a book in which "ownership of yourself" becomes questionable and in which the city comes to be seen as an accretion of commodities.  

There is plenty of Stonecipher's poetry on-line, and plenty of writing about her too. This is a detailed review, by Bonnie Costello, of her most recent book, Transaction Histories.

http://bostonreview.net/poetry/bonnie-costello-limits-cosmopolitanism

I particularly like the Berlin Lyrikline site, where you can read a number of Stonecipher's poems in English as well as in translations to other languages. (On the same site, she has also supplied some of the English translations of work by other poets.)

https://www.lyrikline.org/en/poems/transaction-history-3-13371

*

             1.
            He travelled to Japan but he didn’t see any geishas. He travelled to Kenya but he didn’t see any giraffes. When he opened the book, he was surprised to find inside it another book. After a bad night in room 536, the hotel pool swallowed him like a square blue mouth swallowing a sleeping pill.
  
            2.
            It is hard to rip up a photograph with a face in it. In the tiniest torn-up piece, the face is still intact. The face lies smiling up from the bottom of the wastebasket, and then smiles as it falls out of the garbage truck onto a lawn, and then smiles as it drifts slowly across the city back to your door.

             3.
            Young people from the less powerful country came over to study the language of the more powerful neighboring country. The questionnaire found that, within a small margin of error, such-and-such percentage of women prefer to be on their knees while performing such-and-such sexual acts.

              4.
            She felt like crying when she read in the paper that déjà vu was a chemical reaction in the body and not a magical window into existences previous and future at all. The oval mirror hanging by a black ribbon above the mantel reflected part of the dark sofa and the smile on the porcelain geisha lamp.



*

This comes from "Inlay 7 (Franz Kafka)", which later quotes that dedicated public servant in The Trial : "What you say sounds reasonable enough," said the man, "but I refuse to be bribed. I am here to whip people, and whip them I shall."

https://www.lyrikline.org/en/poems/inlay-7-franz-kafka-13372


the smile on the porcelain geisha lamp






Donna Stonecipher


[Image source: https://stadtsprachen.de/en/event/parataxe-presentation-the-dung-donna-stonecipher/ . At a reading with fellow Berlin poet Thế Dṻng in October 2018.]



Labels:

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Frank and Alexa's circle


This is another foray into the vacuums, tittle-tattle and misunderstood facts that constitutes family history (a topic I always listen to with fascination, but  never seem able to retain).

There was an intellectual circle in London in, let's say, around 1900. There were many such circles, of course, but I am interested in this one because it includes my great-grandparents: Edward (known as Frank) Plowright, a bank manager in Croydon, and his wife Alexandra (known as Alexa), née Porecky.

Alexa's father Alexander, born in 1814, had emigrated to England from Poland via Paris. He was variously recorded as "Médecin", umbrella-maker, "Inventor in Mechanics", "Commercial Agent in gold and silver leaf", "Trading in leaf gold"... We still have designs for paddle-wheels and umbrella-opening mechanisms.

In subsequent years family opinion was divided on whether Alexa was of Jewish extraction; Marjorie (her eldest daughter) always maintained it, but my grandmother Ruth always denied it. Most likely Marjorie was right. A record of Alexa's birth (6 December 1859, soon after her father moved to London) records her names as Sarah Sulamith. Doubtless Alexa was not a practising Jew by the time she married; she was perhaps a "free-thinker" more than anything. Ruth inherited Alexa's lovely jet-black hair, and in turn passed it down to my dad. (When I knew Ruth, she was a devout Christian, but I didn't realize that this was not an inheritance from her parents, but rather something she had inherited "upwards" from my father.)

The circle had two geographical centres: the Doughty Street area of Holborn (home of many writers, most famously Charles Dickens back in 1837-39), and Croydon, where Frank and Alexa gave at-homes. I have a vision of a house with a lovely large garden; my grandmother must have told me about it.

Its luminaries included the young composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (born in Holborn, lived in Croydon) and Ramsay MacDonald, co-founder of the Labour Party and subsequently Prime Minister. Chesterton and Shaw, among others, were said to be occasional passage migrants.

Alexa, an idealist and intellectual, corresponded with MacDonald about the Labour movement. She also received affectionate letters from the elderly Francis Espinasse, the "Nestor of Victorian journalism", author of Lancashire Worthies,  biographies of Voltaire and Renan, etc.

Frank and Alexa had six children:

Marjorie
Dickie (died in childhood)
Ruth (my grandmother)
Joan
Esther
Oliver (known as Bobby)

After six children Alexa didn't want any more. That might be one reason why Frank began a second family with a girl he met in a shoe-shop in Midhurst. Her name was Nell Azulay (a Sephardic Jewish surname, incidentally). Alexa, now needing her own income, began to work as a masseuse. A highly respectable kind of masseuse (probably best seen as kind of alternative health therapy); but in order to maintain the respectable air she needed to be safely married, so would not countenance a divorce. Hence Frank and Nell were unable to marry until Alexa's death.

All the girls were educated at home, except Esther, who was deemed "too much of a handful".

Ruth was musical. Like Coleridge-Taylor before her, she attended the Royal College of Music, as a violinist. As a child she knew Coleridge-Taylor well, and also remembered playing for Elgar and Delius.

Marjorie inherited her mother's intellectual passion. She was the only one of the siblings seriously interested in literature (accordingly, she was my dad's favourite aunt). She went from Catholicism to Unitarianism to Communism to atheism. She married "beneath her"; John Mantle, a Southampton working man and a Catholic, who already had two children by an earlier marriage (Pauline, who became a nun, and Jack, a posthumous VC -- he died, aged 23, heroically manning his anti-aircraft gun on HMS Foylebank in Portland Harbour on July 4, 1940).

Joan, who trained as a dancer, married a wealthy director of Woolworths, Howard Dear (Howard's brother was the film director Basil Dearden). Joan and Howard helped John Mantle in setting up his own shop, but he over-extended and went bankrupt. Later he was a cargo checker at Southampton docks.

Inevitably, I suppose, there was sometimes a perceptible distance between the better-off, smart, Londoners (Joan, Esther and Bobby) and the less well-off elder sisters they generously assisted, Marjorie and Ruth.  Ruth had married a fellow-musician, a cellist. They played in palm court orchestras. But the marriage broke down. Ruth raised her two boys as an impoverished single parent.

In later life Ruth was good friends with both Pauline the nun and "Auntie Nell" the former shoe-girl. In fact it was Nell who first invited Ruth and her young family to come and stay with her in Eastbourne.  Here Ruth settled, my dad grew up and, in due course, I was born.



Alexandra Porecky

Between the death of her father and her marriage to Frank, Alexa had a brief career as an actress. My only photo of her comes from this period. It shows her in a farce-comedy, Our Flat, which was played in Hastings in 1891. The critic of the Hastings and Bexhill Observer (August 22, 1891) observed that Miss Alexandra Porecky's role as Madame Volant "was especially well-sustained".

[Our Flat, written by Mrs H. Musgrave, was first performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, on 13 June 1889.]


Ramsay MacDonald (1866 - 1937), photo from the early 1900s


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramsay_MacDonald ]



Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 - 1912)


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Coleridge-Taylor ]




Around 1910. Frank and Alexa with (L-R) baby Esther, Ruth, Joan, Marjorie.


Around 1917. L-R: Ruth, a nanny (?), Esther, Marjorie, Frank, Alexa, Bobby, Joan.


A young Ruth Plowright (my grandmother)




Recital given by Ruth and her future husband at Croydon on 20 May 1922.  On the programme, in addition to Tchaikovsky, Franck, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc, there was naturally some Coleridge-Taylor. Ruth ended the concert with his African Dance No IV (Op. 58). Prior to that, Roy had performed a piece called Réverie by "G. Coleridge-Taylor", with piano accompaniment by the composer. This was  the late Samuel's daughter, Gwendolyn Coleridge-Taylor, now nineteen. As "Gwen", she was a close friend of Ruth and Roy. (She had been composing since the age of 12. Later she preferred to use her second name, Avril.)


Gwendolyn Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903 - 1998)

[Image source: https://musictheoryexamplesbywomen.com/composers/avril-coleridge-taylor-1903-1998/ ]



Frank in later life (c. 1930).


Leading Seaman Jack Mantle (1917 - 1940)


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Mantle ]


Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: African Dance No. 4 in D minor:

https://youtu.be/rGINItWQf0o


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

from my notebook





Some scraps of poetry and undefined text, from my most recent notebook. If I've posted any of this before, I apologise! I think these are all my own compositions, though there is a tiny risk that I copied out something by someone else.


*

The mountaineers parted. One
mountaineer went to the
mountain, and the other
went home. He went
to the bigger mountain of
his life, without maps
and without
appropriate skills.






*

This border country of what we don't understand but have felt exposed to. And back of it, the vast hinterland of what we don't see at all. In the not understood, as on that other membrane the earth's surface, lives almost everything of our discourse and our preoccupation.

*

"Fine," I snapped, extremely unimpressed
by something so transparently unjust
as was this fine; but fight or pay I must,
and fighting meant prolonging my unrest,
while sixty English pounds would clear my mind
for future poems, if I felt inclined
to write them, or the flowers we find
even in autumn, the aged yet the best.
I would not think of them if I were stressed...

*

Thistle range passes, so easy to lose the thread.
Dimensions of unknown shape bolt into the bay's blue waters;
fleeing fish ripple brown fronds. A seepage
of chains concealing drastic cavities,
but in the warehouse is a glade streaked with pasture.
One returns, so we'll have been bowling lights
in the lakeside gantries. It's growing brighter,
the woman notices, tired of fighting sleeplessness.
The child, small in her bed, sleeps with a frown,
as if the dream is a dilemma, and peace contains an anxiety
that's lost on waking. She begins to feel
the tintinnabuli are ringtones. She doesn't
want to switch on the colours -- the crowns of bushes
show in the kitchen window as a completed statement.
"I believe none of it," he says, tidying the cubby holes
with the boxes of teabags. "They said we'd all be
dead in twenty-twelve." "Underground cities,
all under the White House ... there's underground
tunnels everywhere ... It's concentrated on the moon.
It ripples across the surface, like a hologram,
it doesn't look real... The whole thing shudders ... You're
a hive of activity tonight. I think I'll go home and put my feet up."






*

                                    grey sky
   Looking out at the car-scape from Starbucks
the trees are sweeping out of the earth today
   molehills sprouting
       grass
I'm excited with green tea
   Arsenal v. Watford
   tracked on the smartphone
  but these are only catalysts
  The feeling is contact
  of earth with earth
 our unity
the good wooden floorboard
          under my shoe
the regular weave of
       my friend's denim
but we can't stay in the
             golden unity represented by this list
indeed we're never in it     because
   to feel is to feel
something else.
  The miniscule dents in the floorboard
 I'm imagining my fingertips
on the waxed wood
I'm not actually touching it now
after all I am writing
But at some point in my youth
 I did     where the words
                stood at a distance, taking their colour from
                                                          the thing itself





*


     pre horizon
  we were in the
 midford valley
   valley play of
             scattered
light oh
    chooks train
would have
     anticipated
       are you
          hardly see
          in this hood
        hand
              waves
 dog was barking
               again
       BOUGH! BOUGH!


*


Sometimes pence fall from the clouds
how they glint as the evening catches them
and the trenches of the field all gleam with
                                        the leftover coin
but it's never enough to pay.
And sometimes pence stream upward from the fields
                and from the yearning boughs of the forest
Sometimes a person is desperate to give
though it's never enough.
but sometimes
the gleam pools in the happy eyes
  of a family, or someone,
riding high on a wagon of hay
who makes a silhouette
against the vast coin that is rising in the sky





*


                 in    the   sun-

shine    I    would

have     laid    in    the

                   birches

and    the    lakes



my    own    white    knees

in    the    rocks        the    lakes

moss






feel    on    the    point   of    return

after    a    long    journey



lay    down    for    a   moment ...    in    the    trees ...





*

[the back country in Portugal]


1.
From silence
a shoot and tender leaves sprout
through hot soil.
There was no sun in ancient Greece.
The gods' magnificence,
  understood from a city
Only tendrils of the wind
       around brute rocks
and the thickened trunks of low trees,
  who are thinking in that level way of theirs
and the passions of solar air.

2.
Night sky: Venus, Mars
                           red & bright,
the constellations mothed
        with other stars,
the Milky Way
       a daze
like a fossil layer.







*


Jag börjar inte --
Finns bara tråd som skäras



*


Even the daisy
    resists your project.
      That resistance is its life.
The only thing you can do to it
      is take its life.


*


I've slain many daisies, forced with greenstained fingers into the iron soil, to get my nails around the nub of root that is the daisy's being. I would extirpate them. But never entirely, and after a year or two the lawn is once more dotted with sprightly daisies. And furred with their colonies of low-lying leaf.







*


night     outcrop    reproach    4
whelm    then        arose      cliff
              hull         shake    wrack
            entrap     tendrils,   weeps
   hall          the  arm       stretched
         we   cried          we  kissed
             tempest          autumn
          farewell



      

Labels:

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

August Strindberg: Gustav Vasa (1899)


Måns Nilsson and his wife, polishing silver (opening of Act I)

[Image source: https://www.malmostadsteater.se/arkiv/storan-48-49/gustav-vasa . From a 1948-49 production at Malmö Stadsteater.]


A dark, wintry afternoon: four o'clock. The dalesmen gather at Måns Nilsson's house at Kopparberg. The king is coming to Kopparberg, but no-one knows why. The dalesmen supported him in the struggle against Kristian and the Danes; some of them are his personal friends. But they are an independent lot and haven't appreciated the heavy exactions (such as church bells) needed to satisfy the king's Lübeck paymasters. Some say (though this is quickly shushed) that perhaps they picked the wrong side; Kristian certainly made the Swedish nobles suffer, but Gustav makes the Swedish people suffer.

A knock at the door. It isn't the king, but his acting secretary, the reformer Olaus Petri. With him comes Herman Israel the Lübecker, who takes a keen interest in the silver on display. Olaus engages the dalesmen in small talk: How's the mining, how did you cope during the famine? One of the dalesmen is summoned to an interview with the king; then another. The atmosphere becomes increasingly tense. What's happening to our friends? And it becomes ever clearer that Olaus's unruffled chat is leading the dalesmen into making foolish concessions. Then a third summons...

OLAUS (goes to meet the MESSENGER, who whispers to him). Master Stig Larsson [the pastor]  is ordered to go to the King at once!
STIG. Ordered? Who gives orders here?
OLAUS. The King.
MÅNS (springing to his feet). Treachery!
OLAUS. Precisely, treachery and traitors! -- Go, Master, at once, or you'll have to ride bareback!
STIG. Hell!
OLAUS. To Hell! -- Begone!
(MÅNS NILSSON and ANDERS PERSSON rise and make for the door.)
MÅNS. Do you know who I am? that I am a free miner, a friend of the King?
OLAUS. Sit down, then, and be peaceable; if you are the King's friend there's been some mistake! Anders Persson and Måns Nilsson, sit down! No harm shall come to you, nor to anyone else who is innocent! Let the Master go, and don't get excited! What hint has there been of violence here, except from your own bad conscience?
STIG. True! We've done nothing wrong, and no-one has threatened us. -- Calm yourselves, good friends; I shall soon be back! (Goes out.)
MÅNS. You're right!
OLAUS. Throw a stick at the pack and . . .
ANDERS (to MÅNS). We made fools of ourselves! Just keep calm! (Aloud.) You see, Master, one grows suspicious as one gets older, especially when one has seen faith and promises broken one after the other. . . .
OLAUS. I think I see. In times like these, when people change masters as snakes change their skins, a kind of mental unsteadiness may easily arise, pardonable perhaps in the young, but unpardonable in the old and experienced!
MÅNS. One can't talk of old age in connection with the King. He's in the prime of life . . .
OLAUS. And therefore pardonable. . . .
MÅNS (to ANDERS PERSSON). It must be the devil himself!
ANDERS (to MASTER OLAUS). How long have we got to sit here waiting? And what are we waiting for?
OLAUS. For the King's orders, as you know.

A few minutes later, the messenger comes back. He throws three blood-stained coats onto the table.

(text from Gustav Vasa Act I, in C. D. Locock's translation)


*

It's a stunning opening scene, an extraordinary way to begin a play about, as Strindberg claimed,  the only Swedish monarch he unreservedly admired (perhaps he was still in his Nietzsche phase). Not the least of its shocks is the presentation of Olaus Petri, transformed -- and yet not entirely transformed -- from the zealous youth of Strindberg's early play Master Olof. This Olaus (in defiance of historical chronology*) is perceptibly older, a hard-bitten servant of government with the cold eyes of a snake. But not without humanity, nor self-disgust at his own compromises. Strindberg's characters are convincingly many-sided, impossible to reduce to a label.

[*Olaus Petri's recantation and pardon (the basis of Act V of Master Olof) took place in 1540. The Bell rebellion in Dalarna (the basis of Act I of Gustav Vasa) took place seven years earlier, in 1533.]


*

The next scene is the Lübeckers' office in Stockholm.

JAKOB [Jakob Israel, Herman's son] (coldly and slyly). I -- will -- come.
ERIK [Prince Erik, Gustav Vasa's son]. Thanks, friend! (Getting up.) This place really looks like a pawnbroker's!
JAKOB (sharply). Just what I meant before!
ERIK. Then we're agreed on that point at any rate! -- All right: this evening! Do you know Agda?
JAKOB (shortly). No!
ERIK (superciliously giving him two fingers to shake: JAKOB pretends not to notice it). Good-bye! -- Which way did the little pawnbrokers go? (JAKOB does not answer. Haughtily.) Good-bye, Baruch! -- Have you read the book of Baruch? (Goes towards the background, jingling the church vessels as he passes them.)

(from Act II Scene 1)

Erik is a bit unhinged, unfortunate, alienated: the kind of person who is often offensive and aggressive, yet gets forgiven because he's vulnerable and in a confused way intelligent. His sardonic reference to Baruch is typically overdetermined. It might refer to the Lübeckers' collecting of money and silver vessels (cf. Baruch 1:6-8) or perhaps to his "friend"'s name: "He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it to Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved" (Baruch 3:36 (KJV)).

In a later scene outside the office:

ERIK. ... Well, Agda or Magda; where's your pawnbroker to-day? (AGDA does not answer.) Do you know the Hansa people are in the habit of butchering little boys in there, and sending them to the Turkish swine?
AGDA. Is that true?
ERIK. Partly, I expect.

(from Act IV, Scene 1)

In Erik's typical scatter-gun offensive way, he seems to be invoking the "blood libel" stories that were a familiar component of medieval (and later) anti-Semitism. Well, the Lübeckers were unpopular foreigners in the Swedish capital, and their business was lending money. (When Jakob first appears, his head is bandaged, the result of an encounter with a street thug.) But Herman Israel (= Harmen Israhel on Wikipedia) was not a Jew: Lübeck, like other free cities in the Hanseatic League, had banned Jews centuries before.

*

The surprising thing is that, after that grisly opening -- and further revelations about, e.g. Gustav's violence to Erik's late mother --, Strindberg does succeed in winning us to some empathy with the king.  One more extract:


(The KING has come in, reading a document. The QUEEN [Gustav's second wife, mother of Johan and Karl] goes towards him with a supplicating gesture.)
KING (hotly).Margareta, if you have any faith in me, cease trying to be a judge in this matter of State. I have investigated it for two years and have not yet come to any conclusion; how then could you understand the matter? -- Go in to the children! I have a word to say to Erik! (The QUEEN goes out.) If you could see yourself now, Erik, you would loathe yourself!
ERIK. I do that, anyhow!
KING. Mere bragging; if you loathed yourself as you are, you would change your ways.
ERIK. I can't remake myself.
KING. Have you tried?
ERIK. I have tried!
KING. Then it's the bad company you keep that works against your good intentions.
ERIK. Göran is no worse than his fellows; but he has the merit of seeing he's no better.
KING. Do you ever consider the fact that you will be King some day?
ERIK. If I do become King all the old bad habits will be forgotten.
KING. There you are wrong again. I have still to go about tidying up what I have spilt. However, if you're unwilling to obey your father as a son, you must do so as a subordinate.
ERIK. The heir to the throne is not a subject!
KING. That is why I said subordinate. All are subordinate to the King.
ERIK. Must one obey blindly?
KING. Yes, so long as you are blind, you mst obey blindly; when your eyes are opened you will obey with open eyes; but obey you shall! -- Wait till it's yours some day to command, and you'll see how much harder that is, and how full of responsibility!
ERIK (mockingly). Aha!
KING (angrily). Idiot! -- Go and wash the dirt off yourself and have your hair combed. Above all, wash that filthy mug of yours and don't go about making my rooms stink. Go! or you shall have a week in the tower to sleep off your debauch; and if that isn't enough you shall lose your ears, so that you can never wear a crown! Is this language you can understand?
ERIK. The law of succession . . .
KING. I arrange my successions as I please! Now you know! -- That's all! Get out!

(from Act III)


*

Gustav Vasa is the first of Strindberg's later historical plays.* He began writing them in 1899, after his recovery from the Inferno period. He turned out the new history plays in quick succession, partly with the intention of establishing himself once for all as Sweden's national author.

[*Some sources say Folkungasagan was written before it, in 1898.]

It's taken me a little while to get accustomed to the way these later history plays go about things. Strindberg is as cavalier about accurate dates and details as Shakespeare was.  He isn't concerned with the elegant plotting of a well-made play. He shows us people talking in modern Swedish, he doesn't trouble himself with archaism or period trappings; he's not very interested in bringing us the flavour of a historical place and time, in the way that e.g. Scott is. At the same time, he does want to tell a story; backgrounds are filled in, with relish, when this arises naturally. The scenes are all dramatic, but not naturalistic. Typically there's some kind of conflict between the actors on stage, not necessarily an open or full-blooded one. There are no moral signposts; people who behave well at one time behave badly at another. The ruthless action of Gustav Vasa is just there. It's uncomfortable that characters we would like to sympathize with often have blood on their hands.

Despite this, Strindberg's hopes were realized, at any rate so far as Gustav Vasa was concerned. While his other late history plays are rather neglected, this one was enthusiastically embraced as a national drama suitable for "blue-yellow" (blå-gula)  occasions. The titanic figure of the King, in his very weaknesses, was a suitable symbol of a heroic past, and the play's wide-flung scenes gave glorious opportunities for a celebration of Merrie Sweden.  Only more recently has the play been seen to have the potential for quite other kinds of treatment.

*

The images below are sourced from: https://www.malmostadsteater.se/arkiv/storan-70-71/gustav-vasa . They come from a production of Gustav Vasa at Malmö Stadsteater in 1970-1971.]


The king Gustav I (Gustav Vasa)


A drunk Prince Erik (right) quarrels with Jakob Israel; Erik's friend Göran Persson in the background (Act II, Scene 2)


Prince Erik is arrested (Act II, Scene 2)

Herman Israel and his son Jakob, with Gustav Vasa in the background (Act III)

Prince Erik "crowns" the flower-seller Karin (Act IV, Scene 1)

Agda talking to Prince Erik's Secretary Göran Persson (Act IV, Scene 1)

Olaus Petri in his study (right), with his son Reginald and wife Kristina (Act IV, Scene 2)

*


"I took as my task, following my master Shakespeare, to depict people both in large and small [i.e. in great matters of state, and in intimate life], not to mince words, to let the history be in the background and to compress historical lengths of time,  in line with the modern theatre's demands to avoid the undramatic form of chronicles and historical narratives .... I've never committed undue violence to historical fidelity, where it concerned things that are common knowledge, because I dislike that way of fabricating historical data and facts. But to compress historical events in a distant period, after the great examples [of Shakespeare, etc], this I have always permitted myself."  (Öppna brev till Intima teatern)


*


Strindberg's plays about Swedish history:

Mäster Olof (1872)
Gillets hemlighet (The Secret of the Guild) (1880)

Gustav Vasa (1899)
Erik XIV (1899)
Folkungasagan (The Saga of the Folkungs) (1899  -- written 1898?)
Gustav Adolf  (1900)
Engelbrekt (1901)
Kristina (1901)
Karl XII (1901)
Gustav III (1902)

A century ago it was a commonplace that Gustav Vasa was the best of the later histories, the others in differing degrees inferior. But that view has gradually shifted. Erik XIV, a brilliant play, has proved the most popular on mainland Europe and in Russia. Some claim Folkungasagan as one of the author's masterpieces. And each of the other plays now has its admirers, with perhaps the exception of Engelbrekt.

*

Joan Bulman, in her 1933 book Strindberg and Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Influence on Strindberg's Historical Drama, said that when it came to history plays Strindberg was Shakespeare's undisputed heir. It's an interesting thought.

Strindberg knew Shakespeare's plays well, and Shakespeare's influence is all over Strindberg's history enterprise: for example, the whole conception of a sequence of plays named after successive kings; the range of characters and settings; the mingling of solemnity and comedy. In the case of Gustav Vasa, Strindberg said that one of his models was the domestic scenes in Julius Caesar; you might also be reminded of Henry IV (e.g. in Gustav's interview with Erik, quoted above), or Henry V (Henry's resolute sentencing of Scroop, Cambridge and Grey, his erstwhile friends). Yet the effect is different too. Shakespeare's plays contain a lot of quiet normative signposts, persuading us in what light to regard the various characters and their actions. Strindberg largely eliminates those. His characters retain the capacity to do both good and evil, in the future as well as in the past. (To be fair, you might claim that this is also Shakespearean, if you think of Hamlet.)

*

Vilhelm Moberg wrote:

The Swedish public's view of Gusta Vasa has been deeply influenced by Strindberg's play about this king. The finest of all Strindberg's historical plays, it is my belief that even historians have been swayed by it. The strong man who appears on the stage with a hammer in his hand had a certain basis in reality, and his utterances are cast in the authentic style of the king's own letters. It all sounds thoroughly genuine. Gustav, in his lifetime, may well have spoken just like this. But in one respect this kingly figure is utterly unhistorical. He thanks the All Highest for having punished him; and this is something utterly untypical of the real Gustav. In none of the sources are we told that he ever felt the least remorse for any of his actions, or regarded himself as deserving to be punished for them. None of his broken oaths, none of his sacred promises or solemn assurances, seem ever to have caused him the least twinge of conscience. And indeed on one occasion he expressly defended his actions when he wrote: 'Necessity knows (bryter - lit. 'breaks') no law; not the law of man and at times not even the law of God'. That is to say, he did not even acknowledge God as his judge or as having the right to punish him.

Even on his deathbed there was nothing of the remorseful penitent about Gustav. When his private chaplain and confessor Master Hans came to his death bed and required him to confess his sins, Gustav sent him packing.   ...

A History of the Swedish People, Volume Two translated by Paul Britten Austin (1973; original Swedish publication 1971)

*

August Strindberg, guitarist


[Image source: https://www.wannart.com/ruhunu-kalemine-akitan-yazar-august-strindberg/ ]

Labels: , , ,

Powered by Blogger