Saturday, May 17, 2008

my haul -2

[The second of three parts. The first one was here.]

The Literature of the Highlands, by Magnus Maclean (new and extended edn, 1925). "After receiving a fair classical education, and while yet a student, this wayward fondling of the Muse fell in love with a Glen Etive damsel, Jane Macdonald of Dalness, or Sine bheag nam brogan buidhe (Little Jean with the yellow shoes), as she was locally called, and this winsome maid he married..." (this is about Alexander Macdonald). Not much of whatever may be interesting in the subject (Scots Gaelic poetry, 18th-19th century) is still interesting when it's been translated into sweet Victorian parlour-lyric. Besides, there's a filtering process at work so we hear nothing of what would shock us in Alexander Macdonald's "Praise of Morag" ("His amorous language, indeed, needs frequent asterisks at the hands of publishers and translators"), nor of his 1735 pamphlet with the promising title "An Essay upon Improving and Adding to the Strength of Great Britain and Ireland by Fornication". The terms of critical language create their own story, in this case entirely distinct from the story I think I want to hear. "'William Ross,' says Pattison, 'is a graceful poet, perhaps the most polished of any of the Highland minstrels; although he is certainly inferior to more than one of them in point of strength and energy. He is tender and easy and plaintive.' He delighted in pastoral poetry, of which he seized the true and genuine spirit, and in his descriptions of nature is very sweet and pretty. His 'Praise of the Highland Maid' is a masterpiece of its kind..."

Tres pasos en falso, by E. Jarnés Bergua (1970) - detective novel for students of Basic Spanish; very fascinating. I spent about half my time speculating about the intended audience, apparently good enough at Spanish to negotiate the astoundingly ingenious reasoning of the investigator, yet sufficiently unacquainted with Spanish life to benefit from laborious explanations of eg. cigarettes, nerves, facts, saying goodbye, and even smiling (to laugh without noise). It was only just now that the penny dropped, that the book being designed for readers from any country cannot translate any of its unknown words but only indicate the meaning by using Basic Spanish itself. The other half of my time was spent admiring the darkly intricate story and the bizarre perspectives of the illustrations - e.g. of falling masonry as seen from overhead. Reading a story in another language massively intensifies its effect; what would be beneath notice in English disturbed my dreams for several nights with an impression of desolate sadness.

The Works of Sir George Etherege, vol. 1 - containing a lively account of the author's scandalous life (most of it comes after his brief dalliance with the theatre), and also The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub (1664), - the first real Restoration Comedy, though still partly intermixed with heroick love in couplets. It's difficult to read it without thinking of the brilliant new genre that would solidify immediately afterwards and as a direct result of this play (but from which such transitional vestiges as e.g. a dejected lover falling on his sword would be utterly sloughed off).

Land in Bloom, by V. Safonov. This won the Stalin Prize in 1949. Pentti Saarikoski (I am still reading Saarikoski in the midst of all this), struggling with Le breton sans peine, reflected: "Lenin's method of language study was brutal: he read his way through a dictionary and a grammar book, then proceeded to construct sentences. He was equally impatient in his construction of the Soviet state. Never would he have put up with this idea of proceeding in daily twenty-minute increments. Everything had to be done now, not on the fifteenth." Safonov's Lysenko is also like this. "Perhaps it was only his perseverance, his extraordinary thirst for knowledge and his undeviating pursuit of the road he had chosen that distinguished him from the rest. And one other very characteristic feature: for him, knowledge was something that was immediately put into practice... The fact that, having arrived in Ganja in the autumn, he did not wait until the spring to commence work on his legumes, already revealed the 'Lysenko style'." The result was a demolition of the fallacious "laws" of the spluttering Morganist Mendelists, representatives of the science of the West in its terminal decline. For, as Michurin said: "We cannot wait for favours from Nature: we must wrest them from her." Johann Eichfeld, interviewed by Safonov, explained: "One must not mark time in science. Not on anything, not on any theory - like the theory of intraspecific struggle. Ossification means death for the researcher." He held a book in his hand, "one that he, evidently, was constantly consulting, for its margins were heavily annotated and numerous passages were underscored... He put on his spectacles and read the following: 'Content is impossible without form, but the point is that a given form, since it lags behind its content, never fully corresponds to this content; and so the new content is obliged to clothe itself for a time in the old form, and this causes a conflict between them.' These words, the utterance of a genius, sum up the dialectics of the development of the science that casts aside the old, that seeks the new, and pushes ever forward. They are the words of Stalin..." (Robert M. Young shared my fascination .... )

Soil Biotechnology, by J. M. Lynch (1983). This does not, for the most part, mean genetic engineering (then a technology in its infancy) - it means, more generally, "manipulation of soil micro-organisms and their metabolic processes to optimize plant productivity". In that sense cultivation, straw mulching and burning, fertilizers and pesticides are also biotechnology. The two irritants of the proponents of a "sound scientific basis" are snake-oil salesmen selling miracle preparations and emotive, inaccurate, environmentalists. But the author is reasonably fair: "it is interesting that organic farmers using composts as a basis for their system seldom encounter major pathogen problems... Organic systems include the composting of plants and animal wastes, the science of which is generally poorly understood." More generally an adequate grasp of the entire ecology of what one is manipulating seems not to have been attained: the science has tended to be funded where significant money is at stake, i.e. to treat specific problems of current conventional methods, a kind of patching-up. Facts thus drift in a void, but some of the facts in the book catch my eye, e.g.: "Most plants form non-pathogenic associations between their roots and fungi (mycorrhiza): the sedges, crucifers, some chenopodiaceae (e.g. sugar-beet) and certain aquatics are the exceptions".

Rubens, by Kristin Lohse Belkin (Phaidon, 1998), who writes persuasively of the linked themes of peace and women in his later allegories. But basically, this is the kind of art book you get for the illustrations; a large and excellent selection, though of course there's no shortage of material - it doesn't show e.g. the National Gallery Judgement of Paris. When I want to read about Rubens - or Van Eyck, Rembrandt, or Cuyp, - I'll always drift back to Eugène Fromentin, but it's even better to read him with this book open at e.g. the Antwerp altarpieces. The only time I ever wept in an art gallery was in front of the Chateau de Steen landscape, much to my own surprise. Hysteria, I thought as I hid my face. Must be a bit over-wrought. Nothing to do with the stupid painting. Which to a large extent was true, but somehow Rubens has happened to punctuate my life at important moments. His paintings, therefore, become portals to an inrush of memory. What do these private associations have to do with the character of an art? Nothing worth public discussion - ?

Diplomat, by Gunnar Hagglof. Memoirs of distinguished service as a Swedish Envoy, including during the second World War. This golden era of diplomacy depended on an upper-class cultivation of non-specialist hunches, in turn on the conception of national types - "I have never found it rewarding to try to define the 'character' of a nation," Hagglof remarks, but his zeitgeist was too strong for him, so he spent the next couple of pages doing exactly that about Germany. The book slips down easily - Hagglof, of course, knew "everyone" - the usual anecdotes of Goering, Roosevelt, Gide, Eliot... the raison d'être of memoirs is to lay bare what was confidential at the time, but something makes this less than arresting - a feeling that the author's temperament remains innately diplomatic...

Our Lady of the Sewers: And other Adventures in Deep Spain, by Paul Richardson, 1998. Of all the books in my pile of treasures, this was the one that, before opening it, afflicted me with a feeling that it didn't fit; it looked like the kind of book that sells to casual passers-by and keeps the book trade alive. The author, columnist for Harpers, the Sunday Times, etc seems to meet in Spain a sort of analogue of his own media conceptions; searching for "Deep Spain", the disappearing Spain that still resists homogenization, he keeps finding media events. For authenticity is itself an imaginative projection of media culture (this is Baudrillard's hyperrealism in one of the senses I've learnt to give it) - inexplicable search for a lost paradise. (This reminds me that Richardson speaks of "shiny happy po-mo Barcelona" - in contrast to Vigo, "rough-edged Atlantic port city,... rusty, musty, sad...") - This is bookmaking, rich with facts, not because anyone will ever seek them here, but because facts go into the mix. Richardson uses words like "unfazed", "downside" and probably "into the mix" - perhaps I have a snobbish problem with finding these chatty contemporary Islington Barcelona words in my books? - Still, I learnt a few things. "The downside of whitewashing is that it leaves your hands feeling like dried-up bits of leather, But for this, too, deep Spain has a solution. A leaf of the aloe cactus, which grows wild all over the south, is broken and the jelly inside is smeared on the skin, for near-instant healing.... The dog barked and bared its teeth at her... she reached inside her dress and discreetly rubbed her right hand under her left arm, holding out this hand for the dog to sniff. Instant recognition, instant respect..." To be honest the more I quarrel with the book the more I begin to discover a friendly feeling towards it. Isn't this, too, a diverting concoction of facts?

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