Wednesday, February 03, 2010

lit ephem

Because I'm busy these days, it's now mainly impossible to write properly about the things I've read. Tony Lopez will eventually get written about in IS, and Oliver Strange S U D D E N : The Marshal of Lawless will show up in Brief Hist, but what about the rest?

At least I can list them here: Bill Griffiths Collected Earlier Poems, Brian Clough My Autobiography, Yevgeny Yevtushenko Stolen Apples, J.E. Lousley Wild Flowers of Chalk and Limestone, Alan Jenkins A Shorter Life, Treasure Island, Shelley and Blake (leaflets stolen from the canteen Guardian), M.K. Hume King Arthur. Not much reading time, but more time than I want in the car, so I guess I'll be listening instead - so far Galsworthy Man of Property and Charlotte Bronte Villette, both drastically shortened, a treatment that the lesser novel thrived on, but Villette merely expired like a sheep in a battery pen. (This is why there have never been battery sheep - clever animals.) Also on the recently-listened-to list: Britten Plymouth Town and Nocturne and cello suites, Beethoven 59 No. 3 and 132 (Emersons), Chopin's Preludes (Argerich), Identifying Garden Birdsong, Goldfrapp 7th Tree, Heads Hands and Feet Soldiers, Elgar Enigma Variations, Satie piano pieces, Neil Young Cowgirl in the Sand, Rimsky Scheherezade, Schoenberg Wind Band Variations, Labelle, OJays, Sly (Family Affair), Bad Plus, Mozart Harp and Flute, Charlie Parr. Some of these books and CDs I don't particularly like. But I don't really like sticking to what I like, either, so I guess it satisfies me on a different level.

Since writing this I've borrowed Little Dorrit, unabridged on 26 CDs (Naxos/Anton Lesser), from the library (£2 - that's an amazing bargain isn't it?). The unabridged exposure is a totally different experience, both from reading the novel silently to yourself and from listening to a drastic abridgement like the Villette above. Marseilles stares for an appreciable morning length. The prisoners in Chapter 1 walk wearily about the cell in real time; you're made to feel e.g. how long the gaoler's daughter visits them for, how long it takes to eat sausage of Lyon or smoke a cigarette. To enter the grandest of grand novels like this is a total revelation, reminding me of how fresh it felt when I first read Bleak House at the age of 16 and with the consciousness that nearly all of literature still lay before me..

Still, I've spent most of my time, pedantically, wondering about this passage:

'I am obliged to you,' she returned, 'but my arrangements are made, and I prefer to go my own way in my own manner.'

'Do you?' said Mr Meagles to himself, as he surveyed her with a puzzled look. 'Well! There's character in that, too.'

'I am not much used to the society of young ladies, and I am afraid I may not show my appreciation of it as others might. A pleasant journey to you. Good-bye!'

She would not have put out her hand, it seemed, but that Mr Meagles put out his so straight before her that she could not pass it. She put hers in it, and it lay there just as it had lain upon the couch.

'Good-bye!' said Mr Meagles. 'This is the last good-bye upon the list, for Mother and I have just said it to Mr Clennam here, and he only waits to say it to Pet. Good-bye! We may never meet again.'

The crux concerns the paragraph beginning "I am not much used to the society of young ladies". Anton Lesser reads this in the voice of Mr Meagles, but it is certainly Miss Wade's remark, particularly in view of the self-consciousness of not showing appreciation as mere normals do, quite apart from all the other indications.

Still, the confusion is understandable. Why would Miss Wade claim that she is unused to the society of young ladies? Isn't she a young lady herself? Well, it seems not. She is young and she is a lady but she is not a "young lady", which implies a genteel juvenile such as the childish Pet is supposed to be. Indeed it implies a domestic, familial frame of reference, such as Miss Wade has placed herself entirely outside, or claims to have done. Even with this much explained, it would be quite forgiveable to assume that anyone who said "I am not much used to the society of young ladies" was either male or elderly. Miss Wade deliberately transgresses a sociolinguistic gender-boundary. At the same time, she gives vent to a strong uneasy love/hate emotion in Pet's vicinity.

In Ch X there's a surprise appearance of John Cage in the garb of Circumlocution:

Then would he keep one eye upon a coach or crammer from the Circumlocution Office sitting below the bar, and smash the honourable gentleman with the Circumlocution Office account of this matter. And although one of two things always happened; namely, either that the Circumlocution Office had nothing to say and said it, or that it had something to say of which the noble lord, or right honourable gentleman, blundered one half and forgot the other; the Circumlocution Office was always voted immaculate by an accommodating majority.

Actually - however much this might seem to be an invitation to a Daily-Mail-style attack on all modern art - Dickens himself can be unnervingly Daily-Mail-like in the lesser parts of Little Dorrit - this has little to do with the beautiful strophes of the Lecture on Nothing (1959):

                                     I have nothing to say
       and I am saying it                         and that is
poetry                   as I need it        .  

But leave aside the strophes, there's some paradoxical flaunting and some populist comedy in the lecture, e.g. the fun with Kansas. Dickens' phrase, if he was the first to come up with it, is an ancient kind of comedy based on turning Nothing into a positive - as per that Seasick Steve title, "I started out with nothing and I've still got most of it left". For Dickens it was a way of insulting the empty vessel, the orotund and vacuous, that which lacked substance. Later others would use this witticism off the peg:

the critics found Berlioz ''lacking in true eloquence" or alternatively "having nothing to say and saying it wonderfully."

(Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and the Romantic century, quoting US criticism of the music of Berlioz up to around the time of WW1).

You can imagine the young Cage overhearing that kind of smugness and wanting to turn it on its head. But when Cage's beautiful expression (he also said: "We need not destroy the past. It is gone.") is reduced to a worn tag that is passed around the many communities for whom Cage is an automatic hero, then unnervingly it all starts to sound a bit like the Circumlocution Office after all...

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