Sunday, April 20, 2008

my haul

Comfortably secured from anything like real poverty, the extreme parsimony of one who has merely over-extended himself is more of a luxury than a constraint. While my friend at work treated himself to a shotgun, ninety quid's worth of cartridges, an iPod Nano G3 and a KFC Variety Bucket, we window-shopped for a bar of chocolate.

So there was a book sale in the reference library near where I work. There is something pleasing about the mere act of taking books away from a reference library, but in my present state of indigence I did not indulge myself very much. I bought, for 20p, a book about Henri Michaux which abundantly conveyed (or rather, reiterated) the author's enthusiasm for Michaux, and there matters stayed. It seemed that the book sale was not a great success. These, of course, are the books that no-one wants to read any more, but that doesn't bother me much, a lot of my lifelong tastes (e.g. for Scott) have been determined by what I could pick up for almost nothing. A few weeks went by, and then appeared an offer that I really couldn't refuse. For the last few days of the sale, we were encouraged to fill an ample plastic bag to the brim and to pay only a pound for the whole lot.

So vast an influx of literature could not, of course, be entirely read through, and perhaps I scarcely intended it. What follows therefore is in the spirit of Pierre Bayard, the result as much of surveying as of reading.

The Oxford Book of Verse 1945-1980, Chosen by D.J. Enright. "For reasons hinted at above, the anthology may be considered reactionary. It could with equal justice be reckoned revolutionary - and with equal senselessness, since neither adjective has any certain or central place in this domain" (from the editor's introduction). In other words, he knew it would be called reactionary and no-one would ever dream of calling it revolutionary - I'm quite impressed by the underlying attempt, hopeless as it is, to taint the former charge with the evident absurdity of the latter. I've yet to hit on a poem I liked, though I know there are some.

Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism ed. John Shawcross, 1909. The editor had no excessive admiration for Shelley's prose, but felt compelled to issue a selection that expurgated his political and atheistic work - the mature Shelley was not even very interested in politics, Shawcross claims. Here's something I just read in Saarikoski's Edge of Europe (a fantastic book, which I'll review as soon as I can get it together): "I went to Helsinki, spent three days there and met a lot of people, but none of them said anything memorable because all the people I met were intellectuals, and intellectuals always say what they mean without meaning what they say, and this makes it hard to have conversations with them." Shelley in his prose, the poems I'm not sure about, but what appeals in the prose is a willingness to stand by what he says. You think of Shelley as idealistic, but he's more dangerous than that. He says of Jesus Christ and of Rousseau (this is the Essay on Christianity) that they didn't really mean that one should literally give away all one's possessions or return to nature: "Nothing is more obviously false than that the remedy for the inequality among men consists in their return to the condition of savages and beasts". Most poets of a radical type would be tempted to assert the doctrines in their literal form - it would come over a lot sexier. But Shelley was political in his very bones; he was interested in the implementation of justice. So of the idealistic early church in the first generation after Jesus, "It was a circumstance of no moment that the first adherents of the system of Jesus Christ cast their property into a common stock. The same degree of community of property could have subsisted without this formality, which served only to extend a temptation of dishonesty to the treasurers..." This formality - that's where I hear the Shelley that takes my breath away. This could be misconstrued perhaps as timidly prudential or self-serving - not at all. Shelley believes in a distinct path to equality: the spread of knowledge brings individuals to moral maturity and results in a just society which results in equality. The final sentence of the Defence of Poetry is there not for the glory of poetry but to concentrate attention on effecting material change.

Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classic). I never get very far with his poetry, but I really enjoyed the early and unfinished Platonic dialogue about the leaf of the horse-chestnut tree, which involves itself ever deeper in imponderable difficulties.

Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz - two volumes of selected poems in English translation. I've only glanced at the introductions - these two poets who came of age during the German occupation and who drew from it such different ideas for their art. This reminds me that Enright wrote scornfully of the dire influence of all such translations of foreign poetry into English, with the sole exception of Cavafy. I like translationese. Reading it certainly breaks you out of that sad conception of "verse". It probably doesn't even matter much whether the poetry being translated is "good" or not. Venuti and all those currently fashionable protestations about allowing the foreignness to come through are just variations of Enright. As if you could possibly prevent it! As if you are even in a position to know what is foreign!

Phaedrus - like the Hopkins, this is a book I've owned and read once or twice before. I don't hold on to these kind of books, I let them go knowing they'll come by again. "It's lucky I came out without shoes. You, of course, never wear them. Our easiest way is to get our feet wet and walk in the stream" - this walk by the Ilissus might contribute unduly to my fondness for this dialogue - though Socrates is shown as a thorough urbanite. It's only quite recently that I've understood that both Plato and Aristotle represent quite a conservative line within the broader context of Athenian culture.

The Rise of the Greek Epic, by Gilbert Murray. This irresistible book would have helped with that. (This was the one book in my haul that I immediately read from cover to cover.) It was mostly written around 1906, and gives the most comprehensive explanation I've ever seen of what "Homer" is (and by the way of the conditions of Athenian Tragedy). The subsequent history of these theories I do not know - to what extent later scholars have rejected or accepted them. What's enthralling is the quality of the searching questions that are addressed here - Murray begins with the uniqueness of the Homeric poems as a datum and as something that demands explanation; he ends up with a detailed image of the "ancient book" as a collaborative evolution that is even more unique than we supposed - it was fascinating to read this back to back with

Teach Yourself Postmodernism, by Glenn Ward (1997). I suppose a lot of people get their postmodernism from primers rather than primary sources; I certainly do, and even so these contacts are fleeting, I remain quite ignorant. It seems that my conception of Baudrillard's hyperreality (drawn as I recall from another primer) was largely mistaken, if this one is to be believed. Now I have two conceptions, both with explanatory potential, and I'm not really bothered about resolving them. It's sobering to find that a lot of what I imagined to be my more original ideas are in fact just part of the zeitgeist, the kind of things that everyone is thinking these days.

Romeo and Juliet, Arden 2nd Series, ed. Brian Gibbons, 1980. Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars! There is a tragic point at which all common sense says: it's a million to one against, so you might as well give up. This is the moment when love has to depart from common sense, whose negative conclusions are death warrants. When only a miracle can restore what you love, it becomes necessary to set about creating the conditions for a miracle. And "Nede hath no lawe".

Two hundred poems from the Greek Anthology, trans. Robin Skelton (1971). This selection mainly represents (in spicy tetrameters) the gentlemen-authors among the whores and boys, giving vent to every fantasy in prospect and every cynicism in retrospect.

I wish I were a nodding rose
for you to watch me bud and blow,
and pluck me with that slender hand
and press me to your breasts of snow.

Balzac's Comédie Humaine, by Herbert J. Hunt, 1959. Balzac's work is so vast that being a Balzacian scholar is necessarily a way of life - Hunt has absorbed certain qualities of Balzac's aesthetic into his prose style, where they do more harm than good; it's rough going, (tougher still if your French isn't perfect, books on French Lit were at this time language-mosaics; it was then assumed that the reader of literature knew a basic toolkit of four or five languages), - and Hunt doesn't seem to want to think very much about what he is reading (contrast Gilbert Murray, above) - "Grandmother Tonsard is one of Balzac's most colourful old hags..." etc. Clearly the book contains a vast quantity of information, but it strikes me the only way to know what this information means is to read the whole of the Comédie humaine first. Balzac is one of my very favourite writers, but the idea of ever doing that is monstrous, it would be suicide.

Sir Walter Scott on novelists and fiction, ed. Ioan Williams, 1968. And here's another favourite author, but I would rather die than read through these 500-odd pages; obviously, this compilation was intended solely for ease of scholarly reference. Scott's review of his own Old Mortality (published anonymously) is an uncomfortable performance; and getting chunks of the Prefaces without the accompanying novels leaves me feeling horribly cheated. Still, I suppose I'll withhold it from the charity shop for a while. It could just possibly be that one evening I'll like to immerse in one of Scott's long reviews of, say, Richard Cumberland or The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan.

The Plays of Roswitha, trans. Christopher St. John (1923). More commonly known as Hroswitha, she was a tenth-century nun in the convent of Gandersheim in Saxony. These are quite exciting. Hroswitha is an auteur who loves the quick dissolve, chiaroscuro, multiple viewpoints and 30-year jump-cuts. She knew the Roman dramatists, but she didn't find any of this in Terence. What she did find, and systematically inverted, were plays in which women were compliant: her own plays are fierce celebrations of militant chastity. DIOCLETIAN. Enough of this presumptuous chatter. The rack shall put an end to it. IRENA. That is what we desire. We ask nothing better than to suffer the most cruel tortures for the love of Christ. ..... CHIONIA. Your Emperor has ordered you to put us to death, and you must obey, as we scorn his decree. If you were to spare us out of pity, you also would die.

This takes me to nearly the bottom of my first shopping-bag. Oh, didn't I mention? - on the last day of the sale I went and filled up another one. More to follow when the feast of gloating has finally calmed down.

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At 6:32 am, Blogger rb said...

haha, we're much alike you and i.... even to how we acquire our books

looking forward to reading the thoughts on the rest of your haul


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