Friday, October 30, 2009

the area was indeed then very poor

Two days ago, dropping off books at the library, I picked up a copy of Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and, that evening, put down the book I'd been reading, and began on David. Omelette is a collection of articles she wrote for various newspapers, journals, and so on, most of them between 1952 and 1979, a miscellany of pieces that never managed to get incorporated into French Provincial Cooking or any of her other books. She has a nice knowledge of old cookbooks, and Omelette was worth reading for her commentary on them alone. Eliza Acton rather than Mrs Beeton, she advises. And let us pay attention to the translated works of the sensible Dr Pomaine, who

passes speedily from the absurdities of haute cuisine to the shortcomings of folk cookery, and deals a swift right and left to those writers whose reverent genuflections before the glory and wonder of every least piece of peasant cookery-lore makes so much journalistic cookery writing so tedious.

Travelling in Provance, David mentions the mistrals. Literary mistrals have been rising off the page at me since Lawrence Durrell's Avignon Quintet a few months ago with its "mistral sky" and "mistral clouds" and mistral-everything-else; as someone said, once a person is pregnant they notice pregnant people everywhere, and once I noticed the word mistral I kept coming across literary mistrals. I began to wonder if David and Durrell ever met. In an essay called Confort Anglais, French Fare, after numbers of mistrals, they did:

Lawrence Durrell, who lives not far away, and who I hadn't seen in a long while, reminded me that many years ago, about 1950, he and I happened to meet in Nîmes and that I complained angrily about the local food, swearing that I would never go back to the region. The area was indeed then very poor.

Confort Anglais, French Fare was published in 1984. Reading her Fruits de Mer, which begins with

Winkles and whelks, cockles and oysters, spider crabs, scallops, shrimps, langoustines, mussels, prawns, the little clams known in France as palourdes and in Italy as vongole

I remembered a time in Arnhem Land when L. was still alive, both of us walking across the black sheets of silt between the mangroves with women who had come to spear crabs there; and one toddler afterwards, holding a peeled crab claw as long as my hand on its fist, fixing its teeth in the boiled meat as if it had been an ice cream.

We were in Yolŋu country. When the Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature was launched in the UK in September, Clive James, introducing it, complained that too much Aboriginal writing had been included, and that this was tokenism. According to the Evening Standard:

James said there were far too many aboriginal writers included (12.6 per cent of the book) when this ethnic minority is not noted for its literary tradition. This tokenism was at the expense of good writers competing on a world stage who should have been included.

I don't know if "writers competing on a world stage" was James' formulation or the journalist's but if that's the standard the anthology was working to then we can knock out most of the writers in there, regardless of ethnicity. Surely, few non-Australians know who Katharine Susannah Prichard is, so away with her, and the rest of the world doesn't, as far as I'm aware, care about Henry Lawson, so we can dump him too, ditto Miles Franklin, and, oh, just about everyone who ever wrote for the Bulletin, under the motto "temper democratic, bias Australian" -- everyone -- except authors and poets who have attracted the attention of foreign publishing houses (which leaves us with who? Patrick White and his Nobel, Peter Carey and his Bookers, Tim Winton, Malouf and his IMPAC, although as Herta Müller has proven, an IMPAC is not enough to stop the English-language newspapers roaring, "Lo, what is this obscurity?" when your name turns up on a press sheet) and, of course, Australian journalists who have bolted to the UK, a category that includes not only Clive James and Robert Hughes, but many forgotten men from the 1800s onward. The whole idea of an anthology of Australian literature is going to look like tokenism to everyone except Australians, James, don't be so silly. No one but an Australian is interested in Barron Field's ludicrous 1819 address to a kangaroo

Kangaroo kangaroo!
Thou spirit of Australia!

If we were going on literary merit alone then Barron Field wouldn't be within a mile of this book, any more than you'd put William Collins or John Dyer's sweetly ambitious georgic The Fleece in a book of important 18th century poems. If the spectacle of a foreign group of people beginning to feel at home, mentally as well as physically, with an unsympathetic and unfamiliar country, is worth following from one example to another, even if those examples aren't always wonderful pieces of writing per se, then surely the spectacle of another group of people coming to grips not only with an alphabetised system of writing, but also an entirely new language, delivered to them by a group of strangers who arrived on their doorsteps with no intention of leaving -- surely that's worth a decent number of examples too, even if those examples aren't always brilliant, per se? It's not as if this is something that happens often.

In The Art of Australia, Robert Hughes describes the trouble British painters encountered early on when they tried to depict Australian landscapes. The countryside their eyes were seeing didn't match the countrysides their minds and hands had been trained to paint.

… soon the homesick [Thomas] Watling [(1762–c.1814)] was lamenting that, "The landscape painter may in vain seek here for that beauty which arises from happy-opposed offscapes. Bold, rising woods, or azure distances would be a kind of phaenomena." But his training in a Claudian schema was too strong to be overcome by nature. And so, ignoring the flat, fly-ridden heat of the Cumberland plain, he started improving its prospects once more.

Thus to a bare and dull view over the west side of Sydney Cove, recorded in his pen sketch in the British Museum, Watling added large feathery repoussoir trees which darkle attractively in the foreground and frame the vista. Other additions of poetic, and excisions of prosaic, material helped to produce the picturesque effect he sought in the final canvas.

Following the same line of thought, Field, in Botany-Bay Flowers, decided that the Australian landscape needed to be brightened up with Shakespeare:

Queen Mab would have no cause to fear
For her respectable approach,
Lest she could not set up her coach.
Here's a fine grub for a coach-maker,
Good as in Fairy-land Long-Acre;

If therefore she and her regalia
Have never yet been in Australia,
I recommend a voyage to us,
On board the Paper Nautilus

In On Visiting the Spot Where Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks First Arrived in Botany Bay it needed classical allusions to give it the right sense of grandeur:

But where's the tree, with the ship's wood-carved fame?
Fix, then, the Ephesian brass—'tis classic ground!

Genuine strangeness was evidently indescribable, or dauntingly difficult to describe. Therefore it was filtered through fairies and other conceits. Fairies were conventionally strange, quaintly, poetically, identifiably, respectably strange. The genuinely strange landscape seemed boring, flat, lacking in grottoes and graceful foreground trees. It was dismissed, downplayed, it didn't conform to the idea of what was interesting and strange (shades of Miles Franklin, looking at Christina Stead's strange style and seeing only obscenity; even people who think of themselves as radicals wear blinders). The kind of nature that Watling referred to is described in British poems like Anne Ingram's 1732 address to her father's garden in Castle Howard:

Lead through the park, where lines of trees unite,
And verdurous lawns the bounding deer delight:
By docile falls the docile ground descends,
Forms a fair plain, then by degrees ascends.
These inequalities delight the eye,
For Nature charms in most variety

The visitors to Australia looked at the countryside and saw the opposite: boring rocks, dull-coloured trees, no fair plain, no dramatic inequalities. The idea that

O'er all designs Nature should still preside;
She is the cheapest and most perfect guide

only obtained when Nature herself lived up to expectations. British explorers described Australia bluntly.

The aspect of the country which lay beneath them much disappointed the travellers: it appeared to consist of sand and small scrubby brushwood, intersected with broken rocky mountains, with streams of water running between them

wrote Gregory Blaxland in his Journal of a tour of discovery across the Blue Mountains.

Today people write about the Blue Mountains like this:

The Blue Mountains is perfect for exploring the best that nature has to offer. Bushwalking, galleries, fine dining, shopping, pampering day spas, golf, and numerous attractions. The Blue Mountains is the ideal destination for that romantic getaway or family escape.

While Elizabeth David's poor Nîmes of the 1950s has become this:

This elegantly grandiose city is jam packed with Roman heritage and offers a sophisticated blend of traditional culture and modern city living. Best of all, as it is surrounded by the magical countryside of Provence, the Camargue and the Cevennes, it is an ideal place to set up base during your holidays in the region. Travelling to Nimes couldn’t be easier with the A9 motorway cutting across its southern flank, an airport serving UK and Belgian destinations, and the TGV link at Avignon just 35 minutes away.

As for Barron Field, he eventually gave up and went home.

Lastly, a ship is poetry to me,
Since piously I trust, in no long space,
Her wings will bear me from this prose-dull land.

She did. He died in Devon.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

dust, swirling beneath me

Last week I discovered a two-dollar copy of David Malouf's An Imaginary Life at the local St Vincent's and felt delighted. This is the same St Vincent's where I found his book of short stories, Dream Stuff, and also a Johnno, parts of the story underlined by a student, and, inside the cover, the name of the student, who might now (I looked him up) be the Head of Mortgage Credit Intelligence at the National Australia Bank. His Facebook profile picture, if this is the same person, suggests that he owns a black wetsuit and a jetski, or would like to.

On one page he has underlined this:

Johnno cared for nothing and nobody. No crime was beyond him. He was a born liar and an elegant shoplifter, who could walk through Woolworths at a steady pace and emerge with his shirt fairly bulging with model cars, pencil sharpeners, rubbers, exercise books, wind-up teddy bears, toy trumpets -- anything you liked to name.

My other Maloufs came from library sales. Remembering Babylon, a piece of prose as beautiful as the day, a book that was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Booker, won the inaugural IMPAC, the Prix Baudelaire, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Best Foreign Novel at the Prix Femina, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and a Best Novel prize from the Los Angeles Times, is underscored, footnoted, the margins crammed with jagged grey pencil remarks:

Fairytale opening opportunity to see something extraordinary

George is inadequate

Everybody language is foreign

The person who wrote in this book has one symbol of their own, like an O with a stroke through it, that I haven't worked out yet. I thought at first it was @, but they don't seem to be using it that way.

In darkness one light shows O hope

On the title page of this Imaginary Life someone has written, Dea Lea, And this is really my favourite book! T, while someone else, possibly Lea, has tucked a clean envelope with "Nancy Joan" on it in curly blue ball-point between pages sixteen and seventeen, leaving me to me wonder if she ever got past that point in the story. Malouf's narrator is dreaming that he has left the building where he is sleeping and walked over the surface of a river "which swirled like smoke under me and I was moonlight.

I came to the further bank. A vast plain stretched away, flat, flat, featureless, it was all dust, swirling beneath me, and out of the dust no creature stirred, not a serpent even. It was original."

He means that it was newly-formed, virgin, unique, but when I read that last line as I was typing it out just then (not suffused in the book but flipping it open casually it at the stiff part where the envelope still sits) I read it in a tone-deaf way, as if it had been written for Kath & Kim, and I saw the narrator by the river, looking at this plain, whining, "It was original, it was noice, it was un-yew-suwul," because "It was original" is a natural Kath & Kim line.

In an instant, without thinking about it, I reconceived the entire book like that, seeing the picture I'd had of it before, elated, thoughtful, submerged, stirring, running concurrently with another picture, brash, noisy, declarative, and the narrator jerking about like a fluorescent light. Just for that moment, I thought: "I had this book wrong when I read it the first time. Of course - Malouf is Australian - so is Kath & Kim - if Imaginary Life is like Kath & Kim then that makes sense. Why couldn't I see it? It's cultural" - and an argument for An Imaginary Life being written in the tone of Kath & Kim assembled itself in my mind. Somehow the bones of the story remained the same but now the narrator, Ovid, approached everything in a changed way. He didn't care that he couldn't speak the language in his exile-village. When he wanted to make someone understand he shouted and enunciated like a bad tourist. He treated everybody as if they were stupid, he wasn't humble for a second, he made an exasperated moue at the story's feral boy and asked him why he had to be so difficult.

Trying to describe this now is like trying to describe a dream, this half-and-half piece of writing that existed solidly in my mind for a few moments, taking shape like a flash of real insight, as if I had finally outfoxed a problem. The world with this centaur-book in it was the world I lived in, and had always lived in without knowing it.

In the next paragraph there is an apparition of men and horses and Ovid believes he is seeing gods.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Possessor Possesses Nothing

Glancing over at Mark Thwaite's ReadySteadyBlog, I saw that someone was starting a new Proust blog called the Cork-Lined Room. The reader of Cork-Lined, who is expected not to have read Proust before, is invited to follow along through the book, learning "nearly all there is to know about love, jealousy, obsession, memory, and time" and generally becoming an object of rare envy to all who meet them, cowed as they will be by the glow of smugness that, the blogger promises, will stream unhindered from every pore like the afterlife of radium. Reading that, I remembered a list of Proust links I started fiddling around with months ago, and so -- well, here they are. Proust websites are not included because they're already in my sidebar under Authors and there's no reason why anyone should have to read these things twice on the same page.


The Kolb-Proust Archive for Research website.

Much of the material in the Archive consists of approximately 40,000 mostly handwritten 3 X 5" cards which Professor Kolb kept in file drawers like those of a card catalog. Different categories of cards are stored in separate file drawers. We are currently in the process of entering the data and tagging relevant structures for Internet distribution. Our goal is to preserve the information (in the tour note the poor condition of some of the cards) and make it more easily accessible.


Welcome Light on Proust, a 1940 essay by Anthony M. Ludovici.

Ever since I closed the last of my nineteen volumes of Proust, which it took me eight years in my leisure hours to read and on the last page of which I wrote the date — February 5th 1938 — I have been looking for just such a book as Mr. Derrick Leon's "Introduction To Proust."


An essay by A. V. Lunacharsky, published in 1934.

Proust really did spoil the French language a little. His followers set less store by laconism, brilliance, logic. But his object as a writer was different and so, therefore, was his style. Proust's style - with its cloudy, colloidal, honeyed consistency and extraordinarily aromatic sweetness - is the only medium fitted to induce tens of thousands of readers to join you enthusiastically in reliving your not particularly significant life, recognising therein some peculiar significance and surrendering themselves to this long drawn out pleasure with undisguised delight.


Proust's Ruined Mirror, by Jonathan Wallace.

He soberly describes the novel as what the Hubble was intended to be: an instrument of profound resolution for examining the universe. But much of the time Proust is obviously enjoying himself too much for his goal to be as simple as it seems; in those instances when Proust is so clearly pulling the rug out from under you ... he is using the mirror not as it is used in a telescope, but in a magician's act. While the Godlike narrator of the nineteenth century novel solemnly promises that everything can be known, Proust does not limit himself to saying that it is not so easy to know everything.


In Search of Marcel. Stuart Jeffries at the Guardian, reviewing Roger Shattuck's Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time, William C Carter's Marcel Proust: A Life, and Jean-Yves Tadié's Marcel Proust: A Biography.

"The most reflective of us are endowed with this antithesis of the Midas touch," writes Shattuck. "It turns the things we want, or want to know, into dross."

Proust knew this as well as anybody, and wrote about it better than anyone else. Elsewhere in the novel, Swann's obsession with Odette results in a lustreless marriage, for "in physical possession . . . the possessor possesses nothing". In A la Recherche, Proust could not envisage love as anything but such possession, an object upon which his characters are nonetheless self-defeatingly bent.

Admittedly, this is hardly new territory for French literature. Montaigne felt oppressed by une erreur d'me: "I attach too little value to things I possess, just because I possess them; and overvalue anything strange, absent, and not mine." This "soul error" was also used by Stendhal to account for a man's sexual failings: sexual possession causes the libido to wane. And such was the unbearable truth of soul error for Rousseau that he suggested the only world worth living in was the realm of fiction.


In fact the Guardian has its own Marcel Proust section: a collection of links to Guardian articles that mention him. So does the New York Times.

What do these men have in common? They have each failed to deliver their books on time. But while Marcel Proust is hailed for his procrastination, P Diddy is facing a lawsuit.


Shattuck (the man being reviewed by the Guardian) writes an article about the difficulty of the book: Proust's Way.

Quite deliberately I have begun with harsh and seriously distorted versions of Proust's stature. I shall rebut these charges in the course of time. Meanwhile, I feel it is wise not simply to affirm his innocence but to ask for a far more illuminating verdict: guilty—but not as charged.


The How Proust can Change Your Life section of Alain de Botton's website, with an extract and reviews.

It should not therefore be Illiers-Combray that we visit: a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes.


The Monstrous Novel - An Essay in Literary History, by Frederik Tygstrup.

There exist a handful of huge novels from the first part of this century which are commonly qualified as unreadable: Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, James Joyce's Ulysses, just to mention some of the most important, and still a couple of others. Most professional readers are immediately able to isolate this group of novels: the monstrous.


The Limits of Human Memory: On Proust and Javier Marías, an article in the Quarterly Conversation.

The writings of Marcel Proust and Javier Marías are concerned with the contrast of finite human memory against nearly infinite time. They lay bare a tragic fact of a human existence: we compare the limitations of our own memories to the ceaseless expanse of time and space surrounding them. Proust’s and Marías’s works also constantly involve deliberation over the extent to which we can understand the past, and they represent that past via language and the degree to which can we know either ourselves or others. Both authors might suggest that what we can know of any of these things is an extremely limited amount, if it is any amount at all.


The Long Proustian Shelf, an article from the Hudson Review.

Tadie examines at length the part played by figures like Carlyle, Emerson, and Henri Bergson (a cousin by marriage) in the formation of Proust's mature art, as well as the crucial role of Ruskin, whose Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies Proust translated-a key step in the development of both the sensibility and the prose style of A la recherche. (As Tadie writes: "The structure of Ruskin's sentences, which were long, rich in incident and imagery, supple and musical, and had been influenced by the Authorized Version of the King James Bible, which British men and women of that period knew by heart, impregnated [Proust's] own style.")


View from the East: Learning from Proust, an article by the composer Greg Sandow, at the New Music Box website.

Scenes that another writer would treat in a single chapter (conversation at a dinner party, a visit with a friend) might, in Proust, go on for 100 pages. Which is why, when I set Proust to music, I found myself writing very long phrases. That, first, is because Proust writes very long sentences.


Dan Schneider's review of Remembrance Of Things Past.

A la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust is not really a novel, by any stretch of the imagination, for it violates the precepts of novel writing- plot, characterization, etc., to an even greater degree than Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick does, and it is not considered an autobiography, because it twists facts, and uses fictive techniques for its nonfiction. In that sense it predates Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood by half a century in the claim to creating a new genre of writing. It might best be called a fictive memoir.


Christopher Hitchens reviews Lydia Davis' translation of Swann's Way.

I can't be the judge of whether Davis is right or wrong in saying that Kilmartin's ear for French is deficient. But as the passage above serves to demonstrate, the laurels may go in the end to the one who has the superior feeling for English.


Christopher Prendergast in the London Review of Books reviews D.J. Enright's revised version of the translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff that was revised by Terence Kilmartin.

This kind of accounting exercise could go on indefinitely, but simply entering debits and credits bypasses the deeper and more interesting questions of Proust in English. These require us to address the body of English translations as a whole in terms of the kinds of assumptions made about the nature of his ‘style’ and the sort of English most appropriate to it, A starting-point here is Kilmartin’s preface, in which he describes that style as basically ‘natural’ and ‘unaffected’. This must be the oddest view of Proust’s style ever.


The Languagehat blog considers the translation of Proust into Russian.

Having learned from a correspondent that there is still no complete translation of Proust in Greek, I decided to find out when the full novel became available in Russian, and was surprised to discover it was not until 1999.


A Times review of Proust's English, by Daniel Karlin.

There was even a tacit link between a taste for things English and homosexuality. By posing as an Englishman, Proust’s Duc de Châtellerault is able to distance his gayness and set it on a level with a foreign accent, a thing noticeable but not threatening. But an appropriate show of English words and manners indicated membership of the “beau monde”, and anglomania was a necessity for those who aspired to enter it.


The Telegraph reviews the same book.

It is unsurprising to learn, therefore, that of the many English words in A la recherche - clubman, doper, fair play, films, flirt… gentleman, gin, globe-trotter, goddam… paddock, patronizing, pianola… toast, tommy, Tory… yachts and yachtswomen - snob is easily the most frequent, at 49 entries. Snobisme has 41. There are two entries for the nonce verb snober (glad to see it in the first conjugation), and one each for snobinettes and antisnobism.


Graham Robb, writing for the New York Review of Books, reviews Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris, by Richard Davenport-Hines.

Two of Proust’s contemporaries, quoted by Davenport-Hines, significantly likened Proust’s syntactical complexities to what were then exclusive, upper-class pursuits. Violet Hunt found that Proust “backed his sentences in and out of garages like a first-class motorist.” E.M. Forster sniffily compared the experience of negotiating Proust’s expansive, flowery phrases to a shooting expedition


Why Proust? And Why Now, an article by Dinita Smith, which includes parts of an interview with the biographer Tadié.

"Proust had written against biography," Mr. Tadié said in a telephone interview from Paris. Indeed, in his essay "Contre Sainte-Beuve," another precursor to his ultimate work, "Proust said that the man does not explain the work, he is not the same man who writes the work."


Le Temps de Proust, a blog "about reading Proust and other books that have to do with In Search of Lost Time." The blogger stopped posting in 2006.

The movement throughout this section of In Search of Lost Time–from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience, from love to indifference, from the name to the thing–describe so many of the crucial parts of Marcel’s development.


The Waggish blogger reads Proust.

... the feeling on finishing is one of satisfaction and completeness. It is the opposite of Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which embraces the world and everything in it only to shatter and fall apart, because Musil's world expanded and mutated faster than his book. But the paradox makes leaving Proust an ambivalent experience. On finishing his work, I did not feel as though I was carrying the entirety of the book with me in my head (though I have assimilated parts of it quite thoroughly). Rather, it was like leaving a cathedral and having the doors shut behind you.


The Literary Kicks blogger describes Swann's Way.

The long, convoluted sentences that span multiple pages are at first difficult to follow, but soon they become something to look forward to.


The Cork-Lined Room, as described above.

Should you need further encouragement, here are ten reasons why you should join in and make Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time your next big literary project.

10. You’ll finally be reading the work of one of the great prose stylists of all time. Long, sensuous sentences that cast a spell like no others: Glorious descriptions of nature, art, music, and fashion, full of witty conversation and aphorisms galore.

9. You will be constantly putting the book down to underline another memorable passage, all the while asking yourself, “How does he know that?”

Reason number three, "You’ll impress your friends," is probably not something you should count on.


Germaine Greer, at the Guardian's blogs, thinks it is a waste of time: "Why do people gush over Proust? I'd rather visit a demented relative". A different Guardian blogger, Agnès Poirier, disagrees with her. "I won't start defending Proust and praise his prose," Poirier writes. "You only need to read him to know that it won't be wasted time."


He relies on commas and semi-colons to do what should be done by full-stops, of which there are far too few, many of them in the wrong place. Sentences run to thousands of words and scores of subordinate clauses, until the reader has no recollection of the main clause or indeed whether there ever was one.


The blogger at i'vebeenreadinglately considers different critics' opinions of Proust and concludes that the book is "deeply moral": "All are sick with some form of the ideal," or, It's time again for Proust.

Few would argue that there are not parts of In Search of Lost Time that could be trimmed or tightened, but Connolly's critique is far, far too broad. In so coolly dismissing the repetitive patterns of the book, he reduces what is in reality recurrence, echo, and commentary to something akin to laziness or failure of imagination. More important, what he identifies as "envy, jealousy, lust, and snobbishness" might more productively be grouped together under the more general--and more important, for far more empathetic--concept of longing ...


A blog called Resemblance - The Portraits, dedicated to the blogger's paintings of Proust's characters, and a youtube slideshow of the same pictures.

Except for Nadar’s photograph of Marcel and his mother, the 56 portraits here are of course imaginative ...

The original portraits are acrylic on balsa, 3x4½ inches each, painted from 6 June to 16 November 2008.


A page at the Essential Vermeer website discusses the "petit pan de mur jaune," that "little patch of yellow wall" in View of Delft.

Two or perhaps three areas are usually taken into consideration. One, to the left of the Rotterdam Gate indicated as area "A", another larger at the extreme right-hand border of the painting indicated as area "C" and a smaller indicated by "B."


The Summarize Proust Competition script, from Episode 31 of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and the sketch itself, on youtube.

Harry: Well I first entered a seaside Summarizing Proust Competition when I was on holiday in Bournemouth, and my doctor encouraged me with it.

Mee: And Harry, what are your hobbies outside summarizing?

Harry: Well, strangling animals, golf and masturbating.


A short youtube documentary called The World of Marcel Proust, narrated in Italian.

Some of the locations that inspired Marcel Proust for the Recherche. A trip through old postcards. Raidue, 1987. By Elsa Milani and Mario Gerosa.


Another youtube video: Alan Rickman -Proust Recitation. The piece he recites can be read here.

bender3010 (3 months ago)
For anyone wondering where this quote comes from, it's not from one of Proust's great works. In the early twenties, while working on In Search of Lost time, Proust sent this short piece of beauty into a magazine that asked its reader's opinions on how people would react if they found out the world was going to end.


More youtube Proust recitation. This time: Morrissey reads Proust. The excerpt is taken from Moncrieff's translation of the second volume. It starts with, "Those few steps from the landing to Albertine's door ..." and ends with "... had belonged to me from all time."

On March 13 1988, Howard Devoto's new band, Luxuria, played the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town, London NW5 to promote the release of their debut album, 'Unanswerable Lust'.

As the band played the opening bars of the song Mlle (Mademoiselle), Howard introduced a very special guest....


Youtube again: a Frenchwoman called Claudine reads an extract in French.

zhoujinquan (3 months ago)
Vous avez le gout de Proust et le lisez tres bien. J'aime ce texte.


In 2005, the BBC broadcast a radio dramatisation of the book, scripted by Michael Butt, with the part of the narrator read by James Wilby. Here it is on youtube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6. Each segment is about nine and a half minutes long.

Aunt Leonie: What's life if you can't dip a cake into tea?


Edmund Levin, a Slate journalist, wonders if the madeleine Proust describes could have existed at all, and concludes that it is an impossible madeleine.

A close analysis of the text yields the following sequence: Marcel 1) breaks off and drops the morsel into the tea. 2) The madeleine piece then wholly or partially disintegrates during its immersion. 3) Marcel then fishes about with his spoon, yielding a spoonful of tea mixed with crumbs.

The question, then: What recipe would deliver this dry, extraordinary crumb-producer?


The Rotten Tomatoes website has links to more than twenty reviews of Raul Ruiz's movie adaptation, Time Regained. Robert Castle at the Bright Lights Film Journal reviews it too, as does John Simon at the National Review, and there are scenes from the movie on youtube. Judgment among the critics ranges from, "Densely layered, demanding and beautiful," to, "I can't think of any individuals I dislike so much as to force them to see this picture."

Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader:

Perhaps the best justification for this movie is the old chestnut that Proust is profoundly cinematic, an idea the film doesn’t so much prove as endlessly play with.


Rotten Tomatoes also links you to reviews of Chantel Akerman's Proust film, La Captive. Then Nick Davis writes about it and someone named Dadachvost posts it on youtube.


Chantal Akerman's elegant and admirably committed updating of Proust disentangles the notion of the controlling, possessive lover from the commercially overworked figures of either the brutish Svengali, throwing his weight around along with his fists, or the imperious hedonist of either gender, wielding a charismatic erotic arrogance that pitifully abjects the lover who just can't seem to say no or cry foul. By contrast to these enduring types, the sexual captor in Akerman's movie is a pale, ageless, rabbit-eyed, neurasthenic male of the Ian Bostridge stripe, whose physical frailty ironically contrasts but hardly neutralizes the vigor of his proprietary impulses.

Ian Bostridge is an English tenor. I came across him for the first time in Michael Nyman's adaptation of The Tempest, Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs. Pale, thin-faced, looks fragile and blossomy in photographs, a bit like a lily.


The imdb page for Céleste, a 1981 film based on the final months of Proust's life. Several newspaper reviews of the film are republished on the website of the director, Percy Adlon.

How this could result in a movie that would appeal to anyone is beyond me.


A page about Harold Pinter's unfilmed adaptation of the book, and a second page about the stage play that came out of it. The 'Production 00' link takes you to two reviews of the original UK production of the play.

Those of us who have only dipped into Proust's deep waters and never had the courage to take the plunge will be unable to judge how far Harold Pinter's theatre version, adapted from his never-filmed 1972 cinema script, is faithful to the author. But that's beside the point. Director Di Trevis, which co-adapted Pinter's script, has created a thrilling three hour reverie, a theatrical dream-scape which drifts between the comic and the sad.


In 1974 the French choreographer (ex-ballet dancer) Roland Petit created a ballet named Proust ou les intermittences du coeur. During the 1980s it travelled to the US where it was reviewed favourably by the New York Times. A 2007 DVD of the ballet was reviewed by the Audiophile Audition website and samples of the ballet have been posted on Youtube.

Petit's stated intention was not to make a faithful adaptation of the novel. Rather, he preferred to capture its essence or flavor through thirteen selected tableaux, featuring the narrator's constant fluctuations between happiness and torment.


The Eccelesiastical Proust Archive.

This website aims to provide an intensive textual and visual experience of the church motif in Marcel Prousts À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). The main component is a searchable database that pairs all church-related passages in the novel with images depicting the original churches or related scenes.


The #proust hashtag at twitter.

librarygirl70 Aw damn left mah Proust at work. Guess i'll start les miserables
about 4 hours ago from txt


A page about his opinion of bonsai.

Proust concisely and accurately identifies the chief aesthetic property of these Japanese arts when he replies to [his good friend and woman of letters Marie] Nordlinger, 'the Japanese dwarf trees at Bing's are trees for the imagination'


A page about Stephane Huet's comic book version, of In Search of Lost Time, with previews.

I have to admit part of what impresses me is that Heuet is trying this at all. I can think of few novels that suggest themselves for comics adaptation less. -Andrew Smith, Scripps-Howard Papers


The New York Times obituary for Proust's housekeeper, Céleste Albaret.

Published: April 28, 1984

Celeste Albaret, the secretary, housekeeper and nurse of the French novelist Marcel Proust for the last nine years of his life, died of emphysema Wednesday, her family announced Thursday. She was 92 years old.


Stare raptly at photographs of Proust's grave, his dead face, and a recreation of his bedroom. If you are in Paris you may take a memorial walk. Then buy the limited edition Mont Blanc commemorative pen.

As a tribute to Marcel Proust’s most popular work, the rhodium-plated 18-karat gold nib bears a delicate engraving of an hourglass.


Three of his poems translated into English by Charles Guenther: Schumann, Antoine Watteau, Paulus Potter. Guenther supplements these with a quick article about the poet.

Meanwhile he had published his first and only book of verse, Les Plaisirs et Les Jours (Calmann-Levy, Paris, 1896), a collection daring from his early youth. Proust's poems in this small volume reveal stylistic and thematic influences of the Parnassian and Symbolist verse of the 1870s and 1890s not unlike those of Paul Valéry (born the same year as Proust) in his first poems (1890-1900).


A consideration of John Ashbery's Proust’s Questionnaire, including the poem itself. Gastón Baquero's poem Marcel Proust Cruises the Bay of Corinth, translated by Mark Weiss. And another poem: Proust, My Grandfather (and Eaton's, God Rot Them), by Don Coles.

Each day old Anaximander
sat beneath the shade of youth in flower.


Two articles from Bloomberg: Proust’s Intimate Letters Will Star in 1.6 Million-Euro Auction and the sequel, Proust Fans Battle to Buy Author’s Letters, Watch in Paris Sale.

Dec. 16 2008 (Bloomberg) -- Marcel Proust’s letters to his housekeeper will go on sale today at Sotheby’s in Paris.

The author of “In Search of Lost Time” sent letters, postcards and telegrams to Celeste Albaret, who worked for him for almost nine years. Sotheby’s, which has its main salerooms in New York, said the 173-lot auction may fetch as much as 1.6 million euros.

It fetched 1.58 million.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Drornin Designs in the Dirt

Sometimes the whole problem of finding something is solved when you work out where to look. I poked around after Kilvert's diary for a while before thinking to check the British History section of one secondhand bookshop, and there it was, green-faced and innocent behind a picture of a man on a horse jigging through foliage. "If you had Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy," I asked the woman behind the counter, "where would you put it?"

She said: "In the window and it would sell in five minutes." There are beautiful copies of the Anatomy, she went on, valued at thousands of dollars: thousands. Everyone who has the book holds on to it. Difficult to find, impossible. And thousands of dollars - think!

When I asked a man behind the counter of a different shop the same question he replied smartly, "Here!" and put his arm out to the shelf behind him, and laid his hand on the spines of three large grey-blue rough-textured hardbacks. I checked the price. It cost two hundred dollars.

When I asked at a third place they asked me to describe it, then, after I tried to explain, recommended the self-help section.

If a stranger told me they were looking for a long book in which a man writes about the causes and cures of depressive sadness I would probably recommend self-help too, or maybe psychology. This third shop has some very exact categories, for example: Naval Fiction, which is three shelves of paperback spines decorated with tall ships, bits of fierce opal-coloured seas, and the disembodied hands of sailors holding swords or flintlocks. These are leftover gesticulations from the wraparound illustrations on the front and back covers. Sometimes a little face comes into it, wearing a hat and straining forward to reach whatever is happening under the title. Somewhere inside the story the counterpart of this man is reaching that event, whatever it is, and getting shot or sliced open with a cutlass, or perhaps surviving, or losing an eye; he probably doesn't even have a name assigned to him, this man with his pink face, brown moustache, and one brisk black dot of an eye, he's nothing but a background character who wants a moment of glory or intelligence, a Rosencrantz or a Guildenstern, always trying to find out what is going on, and never getting to the cover where everything is explained, even the name of his creator, who, given the category, is usually going to be Patrick O'Brian, author of the Aubrey-Maturin series. I own one of O'Brian's books but haven't read it; I picked it up at a library sale for fifty cents.

"The author's use of naval jargon provides another noteworthy stylistic feature, with little or no translation for the "lubberly" reader," says the Aubrey-Maturin Wikipedia page, and I think of Christina Stead, and the baby-slang she invented for Sam Pollitt, although she sometimes gives you translations in brackets, as O'Brian does not:

Henny heard him going past the back veranda with three boys, saying, "See what Megalops donin: he don't say nuffin, maybe he's thinking; wook [look]. Little-Sam, Megalops drornin [drawing] designs in the dirt."

Stead establishes a difference between family-Sam and work-Sam, telling us that when he comes home from a field trip to Malaysia, having spoken to adults for eight months, his private language comes rustily off his tongue. Her slang locates us in this private world, the family, that outsiders never see. We're buried in it, as the children are, we're given its perspective. But after finishing A Little Tea, A Little Chat last night I wonder if Stead's greater immersion technique isn't the repetition she uses, the habit she has of giving a character one or two stock responses and then having him -- in Chat it's a man -- re-use them until the character becomes a monument to those words, cemented in place, as Dickens cements Micawber by having him swear that something will always turn up, so that the character becomes a constellation of its own tropes. The author of Chat is vicious about this, though, in a way that Dickens is not. Stead's circumstances as she was writing the book were not good; she was living in a single room, in Brussels, with her lover but without friends: "She was monumentally bored," writes her biographer Hazel Rowley. She was "subject to low-grade depression," "she was profoundly disillusioned" and "A Little Tea, A Little Chat was Stead's angriest book to date."

The lead character in Chat, Robert Grant, is not funny, not likely to charm a reader, he is self-deluding, a liar, a cheat, not a sweet rogue, but a droning self-absorbed one. He says, pitifully, "I need a 'ooman," then says it again, then again, then speaks for half a page on the subject (a good, sweet 'ooman, who will take care of him) and then, a little while later, resurrects this 'ooman once more, and then gives another wheedling speech, this one lasting for a page. On and on this goes, speech after speech, and if it's not the 'ooman, then it's his plans for a Broadway play that will push 'em into the Atlantic, or some other idea that keeps rotating through his head. We hear about these ideas once, twice, three times, four, five, six. He never changes. There are only three or four notions in his head and he keeps recycling them. Grant is the city-man as machine, so caught up in the forward-moving life of the city that he never pauses to take stock of his ideas; outer progress is inner stasis. The author pushes our noses in his rottenness and holds them there. The only way to get away from him - to come up for air - is to shut the book.

Plenty of writers create characters who are bores, sometimes for comic relief, sometimes in order to make them serious or vicious, but it's not often that an author impresses the character's boringness on the reader by making them bored with him as well. Usually this is something a writer tries to avoid. Mervyn Peake, fretting over Nannie Slagg's long speeches in a letter to a friend, decided to trim her short. Stead would have made her longer - would have fashioned the entire book around her. The weight of her Gormenghast would have been a different weight. Peake gives the reader the idea that life in Gormenghast is heavy, irresponsive, opposed to the light, bright, active life he tells us he prefers, by moving the story along slowly, describing the setting minutely, and making the setting itself large and heavy. Stead, in Chat, works toward a sense of oppressive weight as well, but here the setting is New York city in the 1930s, an active place, full of opportunities to make a profit, get money, get ahead, meet artists, actors, writers - the horrible oppressive weight is inside the characters, not in the setting, and they have no wish to escape it, they can't, or won't, or don't realise that they might. Her idea of human nature here is a kind of internalised castle Gormenghast.

Sam is one of those providential larger-than-life creations, like Falstaff, whom we wonder and laugh at and can't get enough of …

wrote Randall Jarrell in his introduction to the Man Who Loved Children, but by page three hundred of Chat I was thinking: "I wish this book would end. I wish this man would stop, just stop." Robert Grant is Stead at her most reader-punishing.

She sat with her head sunk between her shoulders. Amazed, he got up and came up to the other end of the table. She sat there without a movement. He bent over her shoulder and read,

Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, I can't stand your gassing, oh, what a windbag, what will shut you up, shut up, shut up. And so on ad infinitum.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Certain Respect for an Egg Cup

Here, following on from yesterday's post, are some food-writing links.


1. The Food section from Gertrude Stein's 1914 book Tender Buttons

There is no salmon, there are no tea-cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious. Drink is likely to stir a certain respect for an egg cup and more water melon than was ever eaten yesterday. Beer is neglected and cocoanut is famous.

2. The British Cookery page at the [George] Orwell Prize website links the reader to three Orwell essays (In Defence of English Cooking, A Nice Cup of Tea, The Moon Under Water) and an extract from The Road to Wigan Pier.

There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet.

3. Fayette Robinson's translation of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie du goût, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante (The Physiology of Taste; or, Transcendental Gastronomy).

“Take a raisin—”

“No I thank you; I do not like wine in pills.”

4. Bad Diet a Cause, from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.

All venison is melancholy, and begets bad blood; a pleasant meat: in great esteem with us (for we have more parks in England. than there are in all Europe besides) in our solemn feasts. 'Tis somewhat better hunted than otherwise, and well prepared by cookery; but generally bad, and seldom to be used.

5. Recipes for Pickles from Thomas Browne's Commonplace Books.

And may be made out of the entrails of the mackarel, the liquor that runs from the herrings which may dissolve anchovies, and with a mixture of oysters and limpets and the testaceous fishes, whereof every one makes his own pickle, and varieth the taste of sea water.

6. English Housewifry, by Elizabeth Moxon, published in 1764.

Take a pint of good gravy, a lobster or crab, which you can get, dress and put it into your gravy with a little butter, juice of lemon, shred lemon-peel, and a few shrimps if you have them; thicken it with a little flour, and put it into your bason, set the oysters on one side of the dish and this on the other; lay round the head boiled whitings, or any fried fish; pour over the head a little melted butter.

7. The Forme of Cury along with a number of other cookbooks from the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries at the Society for Creative Anachronism's Medieval and Renaissance Food page. SCA member David Friedman has published translations of several early non-English-language cookbooks on his website, along with scans of seven books that still need to be translated, and there are other old foreign-language cookbooks here.

Forme of Cury,
A Roll
Ancient English Cookery,
Compiled, about A.D. 1390, by the
Master-Cooks of King Richard II,
Presented afterwards to Queen Elizabeth,
by Edward Lord Stafford,
and now in the Possession of Gustavus Brander, Esq.
Illustrated with Notes,
And a copious Index, or Glossary.

A Manuscript of the Editor, of the
same Age and Subject, with other congruous
Matters, are subjoined.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Bower of Aromatic Perfume

I was skipping across food blogs this morning when I came across this post at When My Soup Came Alive. The blogger has set up an Event to commemorate her blog's three-year anniversary (congratulations there: well done). "This event is not about cooking or recipes," she writes, "it’s about food, and quality writing. What I want you to do is share your favourite pieces of food writing with the rest of the world …"

As soon as I saw that I thought of Proust's Françoise in the kitchen. Here, then, is my piece of "quality writing."

At the hour when I usually went downstairs to find out what there was for dinner, its preparation would already have begun, and Françoise, a colonel with all the forces of nature for her subalterns, as in the fairy-tales where giants hire themselves out as scullions, would be stirring the coals, putting the potatoes to steam, and, at the right moment, finishing over the fire those culinary masterpieces which had been first got ready in some of the great array of vessels, triumphs of the potter’s craft, which ranged from tubs and boilers and cauldrons and fish kettles down to jars for game, moulds for pastry, and tiny pannikins for cream, and included an entire collection of pots and pans of every shape and size. I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume.

I read In Search of Lost Time for the first time in Las Vegas perhaps five or six years ago. Last year I read it a second time, and this year, when I read it again, I copied out this passage from the first volume, Swann's Way, and kept it. Why? Not only is it beautiful - beautiful in translation as well as in the original - but it gathers several of Proust's ideas in one place: the mythologising of everyday life, with reference to works of art (Shakespeare), suggesting (as does Joyce's Ulysses) that the present swims in the detritus of the past, that every human being participates in the myth of their own society, that art informs, reflects, and enriches life; it also illustrates a sensuous appreciation of the material world; hints at his fondness for Dickens (the elevation of Françoise into "a colonel with all the forces of nature for her subalterns, as in the fairy-tales where giants hire themselves out as scullions" is very Dickensian), and probably a few other things that I can't think of right now because I woke early today, I'm feeling mildly dopey with dehydration, and I'm still in my pyjamas, which are striped.

The original French text, which is out of copyright, can be found in several places online. Here it is at Project Gutenberg. Lost Time has been translated into English more than once, and the translation I have chosen is the first one, written by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

The Soup blogger, Sra, asks us to "name not just the writers but the publishers, translators, edition, year of publication, all so that it can be easier to find if someone wants to get their hands on it." Here are the details of the edition I read last March:

Publisher: Penguin
Translator: You already know.
Edition: Paperback Penguin Classics
Year Of Publication: First published 1922, my copy published in 2000
Where to find it: Any large bookstore, many secondhand bookstores, and perhaps your local library as well. I haven't checked my library, but I know they have a bad habit of throwing away random bits of series - they used to have all of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time but now they've only got books one and four and what use is that? - so I'm not entirely lambent with hope on the Proust front.

Monday, October 19, 2009

As it Leaves her Open

More published diaries. This time, The Diaries of Miles Franklin. I picked the book off the library shelf on a whim, opened it, saw that she was talking about "C. Stead", who was, I guessed, Christina Stead (for a moment I wondered if she meant the New Zealander C.K. Stead, but he began publishing in 1964, ten years after Franklin died, so no), and borrowed it. The editor Paul Bronton tells us in the introduction that

No one who has had the privilege of working among the literary papers of this indomitable and brave Australian writer could fail to love and admire her.

She hated Dame Mary Gilmore ...

... a most egregious tout and self-booster and politician [who] has also written some verses and undistinguished memoirs (which in all parts I can check are unreliable)

and was critical of The Harp in the South, written by Ruth Park, who, many years later, won the Miles Franklin Award, a literary prize established by Franklin in her will -

My private opinion of 'The Harp' is that it entirely lacks architecture, that there is a withering lack of an independent or able intelligence about it

- and liked Virginia Woolf:

The sensitivity of her writing is delightful as well as its lucidity. It would be nourishing to talk with her over this. She should not have let us who loved her down by committing suicide as it leaves her open to such accusations as detract from the value of the lovely searching behind the veils that she did.

She mentions Stead in connection with three books: The Salzburg Tales, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, and Letty Fox: Her Luck. Salzburg Tales, the first one,

shows an immense talent, industry, scope and vocabulary. The writer is fecund in delightful images of nature & life & people but doesn't escape a great dullness though some of her tales as short stories are equal to the best … If only Miss Stead had known Australia and let loose her combination of talents for sustained fiction in presenting it she might have attained something absorbingly interesting & new

Seven Poor Men:

As in The Salzburg Tales, there is Teutonic massiveness and also therefore there is clumsiness and much dullness but no thinness nor lack of ability. Many attempts to put our bush into novels have suffered from the dressing up in too much bushranger, brutality, etc, in imitation of N. America where they were richer in rougher elements & actual Indian raids … Now there seems to be a tendency to dress up the thin banality of our cities with post-Freudianism -- all the license of the [word indecipherable] of the subconscious under the charter of psycho-analysis & in post-war chaos, take the vomit from Bloomsbury & Washington Square & belch it upon Sydney. This will be commended by overseas intelligentsia … who know nothing of its relation or the contrary to Australia, but who are pleased because they can understand their own idiom.

She complains that the characters are not likable, a complaint regularly made about Stead's fiction. A reviewer in Time called the cast of A Little Tea, A Little Chat "loathsome and amoral" and when Eloise Miller evaluated Letty Fox at the Guardian's bookblog she decided that its people were characterised by "unkindness." A New York Times reviewer named William McFee picked "scabrous." "This novel about Letty Fox and her scabrous collection of relatives and lovers ..." he wrote.

"The book [Seven Poor Men] is modern in its chaos," Franklin writes.

There has been no attempt made to organize the material … It is only saved by the vigorous talent of the author from being mere case observations of the unfit: & the investigation of perverts is only valuable insofar as it helps normality to supernormality in the upward trend of man.

By the time Letty Fox is published years later, she is angry.

This Australian girl has gone abroad and brought her production up to international standards by writing a handbook on whores … I found 'Letty' as repellent as this writer's other books, but not so boring as 'Salzburg Tales' and 'House of All Nations' … C. Stead seems to suffer from neurasthenia of the soul and depicts characters in tune with her state. Not a decent person in her gallery, if one abstracts Jacqueline & the mother - who is merely a poor conventional creature - and Lili Spontini, a fool and hanger-on.

She writes scornfully for two pages about extramarital sex, a thing I think it's fair to say she wasn't keen on -

I deplore the mad waste and degradation of the great power of life-giving in doubtful pleasure which inevitably ends in disease, disillusion, pain and poverty of soul and body.

- then gets back to the book again, finishing weirdly:

[Stead's] vocabulary is unexciting: I did not have to look up any word.

Nowhere else in the Diaries does the diarist get so incandescent about a book's indecency. Mary Gilmore irritates her because Franklin thinks she's a celebrated phony, and various other writers irritate her because she thinks they're too tame - evidence of Australia kowtowing to British tastes, timidly pulling the forelock where she wants her fellow countryfolk to be bold and indigenous - but here she is, faced with one of the more inimitable writers the country has produced and she doesn't know how to handle her because she's not moral. I'll point out here that Letty Fox is not a whore, she's an ambitious young woman who enjoys sex, who forms emotional attachments easily and quickly and sometimes loses them easily and quickly too ("I had had an affair not worth mentioning, with the young Zionist, and now that he had transferred to another girl in the office, I found everything intolerable"), and who, finally, wants to find a man who will marry her. Marriage is a matter of personal pride. To her mind it will legitimise her, it will give her a place in the world. Once she has this bit of stability she can go on and do everything else she wants.

In the last paragraph, after she has finally found her groom, she explains:

It's a question of getting through life, which is quite a siege, with some self-respect. Before I was married I had none; now I respect not only my present position, but also all efforts I made, in every direction, to get here ... I have a freight, I cast off, the journey has begun.

The author's tone is satirical, bitter, frank: rumbling and bubbling. Letty wants things, all sorts of things, and she discusses this with us quite openly.

None of my daydreams was secret. In one of them which I told very often, regiments of men stood before me, dreaming of my favours. I went down the line, selecting one, throwing out another. All kinds of reasons occurred to me. I loaded them with blistering insults. They fell on their faces and howled, or fell backwards and mangled themselves in some juicy way.

Reviewers were scandalised, the book was banned for a while in Australia from mid-1947 onwards.

Letty has some things in common with the lead of Franklin's debut My Brilliant Career; they're both determined people who push ahead with huge energy. But Letty is not nice, not neat, she is not, as Franklin's young woman is, admirably, tomboyishly headstrong, she is not easy for a reader to place. She thrusts herself onwards, eager for betterment - so far so feminist - but she's more full-blooded than young women in novels are expected to be, more earthy, more careless, more selfish, more cruel. Stead writes as if she has somehow managed to short-circuit the part of her brain that makes a novelist afraid of upsetting the reader. "Create a character that people can sympathise with," goes the wisdom of the creative writing course, but if anyone said those words to Stead then she ignored them, or, better: she understood them her own way, which few reviewers seem disposed to share. Her example is one of eccentric and stubborn courage. A quick outline of the book makes it sound like a coming of age novel, for example, "Girl grows into womanhood, discovers an attraction to boys, has boyfriends, loves, is heartbroken, forms a philosophy of life, marries, leaves home," but the likelihood that anyone will read Letty Fox: Her Luck and come away thinking, "This is me, this persevering young woman is a role model," seems slender. "[A] a picturesque novel," suggested Millar at the Guardian, and it has the heartlessness of an old picaresque, the kind in which the hero, a fighting man, charges off on his horse, sword on his hip, duelling with a knight on one page, seducing someone wife on the next, always passing on restlessly, eagerly, to the next adventure.

What I had in me that gave me the most joy were two things: the capacity for an enormous output of work, and the ability to enjoy myself regardless of expense, regardless of others; a healthy trait, if a bit barbaric.

Reading these Diaries, I'm going to suggest that Miles Franklin saw female energy as a potentially elevated power, somehow divorced from lust, and that she was furious when she saw Stead discussing it as if it might be something ambitious, ambiguous, and animal. Franklin never married, despite offers, and, as far as I've been able to find out, never had affairs. Whatever sexual desires she had, she denied. Remembering a time when friends invited her to try their "fevers and experiments in living," she delivers this judgment:

They were revolting to me.

And looking for a way to sum up the female characters in Letty Fox, she decides on this word:


Sunday, October 18, 2009

This + This

Book mashups. I found the idea somewhere and can't remember where. A meme? Someone's private game? If I locate it, I'll link it.

The Getting of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
(Henry Handel Richardson's The Getting of Wisdom + T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom)
A misfit Australian schoolgirl leads the Arabs to freedom while they bully her.

The Street of the Enormous Crocodile
(Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles + Roald Dalhl's The Enormous Crocodile)
The narrator's father turned into a crab and he was yummy yummy yummy!

The Book of Disquiet Flows the Don
(Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet + Mikhail Sholokov's Quiet Flows the Don)
A group of doomed Cossacks moves to Portugal to stare moodily at trams.

Fantastic Mr Letty Fox
(Christina Stead's Letty Fox + Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox)
An ambitious young fox decides to get married to three farmers and eat all their chickens.

The Sorrow of War and Peace
(Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War + Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace)
A Vietnamese man returns from fighting the Americans so that he may marry into Russian high society.

Life and Fate a User's Manual
(Georges Perec's Life a User's Manual + Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate)
A dissident, a Communist, a university professor, a prisoner of war, a Jew, a platoon of Russian soldiers, Stalin, and Hitler, all live in a block of Parisian flats at 11 Rue Simon-Crebellier.

White Oleander Noise
(Don deLillo's White Noise + Janet Fitch's White Oleander)
An obsessive fear of death makes a teenage girl uncommonly artistic.

The Makioka Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants
(Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters + Ann Brashares' Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants)
Four sisters in 1940s Kyoto ease the pain of social and familial upheaval by passing a pair of jeans around.

Finnegans Wake in Fright
(James Joyce's Finnegans Wake + Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright)
A teacher from the big city makes his way to an outback town and is intimidated by the densely allusive language of the local alcoholic kangaroo-hunters.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of the Secrets of Nimh
(J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets + Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH aka The Secret of NIMH)
A group of enterprising rats explains the nature of electricity to a British boy. "It is science, not magic."

And some others that I don't have summaries for:

The Man who Loved Children of a Lesser God
Idylls of King Solomon's Mines
Wise Blood Meridian
Accordion Crimes and Punishment
The Salzburg Tales of Genji
Father and Native Son
Dombey and Sons and Lovers
The Line of Beauty and the Beast
The Death of Witches in Brunswick
The Lord of the Rings of Saturn
The Secret Diary of Francis Kilvert aged 13 3/4
Swann's Way of All Flesh
Bleak Little House on the Prairie
The Portrait of Our Lady of the Flowers

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Dark Hole in the Hovel Roof

I bought a few other books on Sunday as well: Christina Stead's A Little Tea, a Little Chat, Emily Lawrence's The Long Prospect (because, according to the blurb, "Christina Stead describes this book as "Elizabeth Harrower's masterpiece"" and evidently I am a sucker for author recommendations) and Kilvert's Diary: a Selection Edited and Introduced by William Plomer. Francis Kilvert was a mid-Victorian English country pastor and this Selection is full of good things wherever I open it, for instance:

Tuesday, 11 October

Visited Edward Evans in the dark hole in the hovel roof which does duty for a bedroom, and a gaunt black and white ghostly cat was stalking about looking as if she were only waiting for the sick man to die, that she might begin upon him.

To buy the Selection I had to put back an edited edition of Aubrey's Brief Lives, which, when I opened it at random in the shop, gave me this, under the heading, Edward de Vere: Earl of Oxford:

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to lett a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home and sayd, My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.

One day I will buy a copy of the Lives, but not yet. In the middle of the shelf along with these two books sat the diaries of James Woodforde, and it wasn't until I came home that I remembered Woodforde was the first parson in one of my favourite bits of writing by Virginia Woolf, Two Parsons, a short piece that falls somewhere between a book review and a work of empathetic storytelling. Woolf has achieved a reputation as a snob, but in her fiction she was too intelligent to be a straightforward snob -- she had too much invested in the idea that human consciousness, on its own, was valuable, to dismiss the consciousnesses of the different classes in her stories, even if she sniffed and snapped at them in life. She is not Lawrence Durrell who called one of his characters "a lower class ferret," as if ferrety and the lower classes were tied together inextricably. Anyway, in Two Parsons she discusses the published diaries of two parsons, one of them Woodforde, and the other, the Rev. John Skinner. Skinner died in 1839, Woodforde in 1803; she compares their lives. Woodforde was a happy man, she tells us, and Skinner unhappy. Woodforde lived in a bucolic, earlier England, Skinner in a town full of drunkenness and the industrial revolution. He was a bitter old cuss.

She writes:

By the time the diary opens in 1882 he was fixed in his opinion that the mass of men are unjust and malicious, and that the people of Camerton [the town] are more corrupt even than the mass of men.

But Woolf reads his diary and pities him -- and I know that pity is supposed to be an emotion that diminishes its object, but here, I think, her pity is sympathetic and grand. It makes John Skinner, Miserable Cuss, seem larger, deeper, not the cantankerous old man who irritated his sons, but a sad, striving human being struggling forward alone. She gives him (the fictionalised diary-figure, this aftermath of the deceased real man) the attention and love that he lacked (his wife was dead, his daughters died, his sons, he felt, laughed at him).

Remembering this, it occurred to me for the first time that I should look him up online. Skinner had one joy in his life: he was an amateur archaeologist.

Camerton was undoubtedly the Camalodunum of Tacitus. Shut up in his study alone with his documents, copying, comparing, proving indefatigably, he was safe, at rest, even happy.

One day, he thought, he might make a discovery, he might be famous. And he is, just a tiny bit, but he is. And it's a measure of Woolf's empathy that when I saw his name pop up, I said, "John Skinner, you made it!" -- this grouch, who, I know, if I had met in real life, I would have disliked completely, and he would have disliked me. Yet here I was, gleeful because he had his own Wikipedia page.


The Rev. John Skinner's Wikipedia page.


His page at The Diary Junction ("Data and links for over 500 literary and historical diarists").


This is what he looked like: pink-cheeked and soft-featured. I was expecting Scrooge.


Secondhand copies of his Journal of a Somerset Rector, 1803-34 can be found here and there online. It seems to have been published twice, once in a black hardcover, once in paperback.

This page has several short passages from the Journal, and this page contains a brief, prissy quote. See also this article about Jane Austen. There's a line from him almost at the bottom, in the paragraph that starts with, "The large number of prostitutes in Bath …"


The owner of a blog named North Stoke has read the Journal. He quotes the coroner's report on Skinner's death:

The Rev. gentleman's health had been declining for sometime and his mind had latterly been very much affected. On Friday morning, in a state of derangement, he shot himself through the head with a pistol, and was dead in an instant.


A writer named Gillian Garnham has written a Skinner biography called The Good Man of Camerton. The book was launched earlier this year, on August 9th.

A Somerset paper ran an article about the biography. Anyone familiar with Woolf's essay will see that the journalist has paraphrased her last line in the ninth paragraph.


His diaries were turned into a BBC radio play, Parson Skinner of Camerton, written by Kate Withers. Skinner was voiced by Timothy West.


He is mentioned on this archaeological research page at the Somerset County Council website:

Despite criticisms of illegible writing, inaccurate identification of the barrows opened and a lack of supervision of the manual labourers, Skinner’s manuscript remains an important resource in the study of the antiquities of the county. A number of artefacts uncovered by Skinner during investigation of various barrows also survive in museum collections.


A page on the Stoney Littleton Long Barrow mentions his work.


The front page of the Somerset 3D site mentions him, noting that "the Reverend was unfortunate in his personal relationships and was totally unsuited to parish life." Once again, Woolf's last line is borrowed. (Scroll down until you reach the heading, "New location added: Camerton." This may take a while.)


In 2006 Britain's Channel 4 filmed a dig at the site of some Roman ruins at Charterhouse-on-Mendip, "first recognised by the Rev John Skinner, Rector of Camerton and renowned antiquary, on 6 August 1819." There used to be some information about the show on their website but they've taken the page down.

The Western and Somerset Mercury ran an article on the Charterhouse site, scolding Skinner for keeping "no detailed records of the area excavated, or a full list of the finds made."

He is mentioned in passing on this Charterhouse page.

A Charterhouse site publishes several extracts from the diary, all of them related to the dig.

I was constrained to accept the good offer of an amazonian female, who did not disappoint the opinion I had formed of her prowess, and in the course of an hour she turned nearly a bushel of fragments of samian, grey, black, and brown pottery; also scoriae of lead ore, charcoal, glass, bones, and teeth; with pieces of the Temple stone, employed in roofing; cement and mortar; also pieces of tarras flooring with foundation stones, which indicated the site of a habitation.


Finally, Woolf's essay.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Getting into our Bones

On Sunday, in a secondhand bookshop's $1-$2 bin, I found two more books from the old Heinemann African Writers series. One was Peter Abrahams' Mine Boy, the other a book called The Future Leaders by Mwangi Ruheni. Abrahams is South African, Ruheni, Kenyan.

According to the blurb

Mine Boy is an early novel by Peter Abrahams. It tells of the story of Xuma, a countryman, in a large South African industrial city. And the impact on him of new ways and new values […] This was one of the first books which drew attention to the lives of black South Africans in a white-dominated country.

This 1979 edition is a reprint; Mine Boy was published for the first time in 1946.

Ruheni doesn't have a Wikipedia page, or much of a profile online, but a search for his name turned up a forum post that included this:

In my opinion the most underrated [Kenyan] writer is Mwangi Ruheni. He authored books like What a Husband, the Minister's Daughter, the Ivory Merchants etc quite a number of books but he is not as well known as his counterparts.

The opening lines of The Future Leaders are perhaps sarcastic, or else the narrator is very sincere and naive:

The speech was marvellous. It was getting into our bones like no other speech that we could remember. Whoever picked on Sir James Henderson, K.C.M.G., C.B., D.S.O., to deliver this speech today must be congratulated. Sir James definitely knows how to speak at a Graduation Ceremony.

My hope is that the Series is about to hand me another book as good as Daniachew Worku's The Thirteenth Sun. A lot of novels that try to sum up the State Of The Nation (any nation) are fat and panoramic, but Worku, who spends parts of his book riffing off Faulkner, works in a spirit of Modernist compression, boiling different areas of 1960s Ethiopian society down into separate characters and remarking on that society by bringing those people together. At the same time the characters operate as characters, that is, they seem to have independent life, they are not tied down to the symbolic roles the author has given them. The ending is hallucinatory and violent in a way that made me think of José Donoso's The Obscene Bird of Night. Most of the African books English-speaking readers read come from Nigeria or South Africa, and the storytelling is often straightforward, or, at least, restrained, plainspoken (Coetzee 's sentences are simple enough, even when his books aren't), but Thirteenth Sun has a feel I've been taught to expect from South American literature, as if the world is vibrating, transparent, preparing to leak. The author is willing to sound pessimistic and confused, too, he is willing to say, I, the author, am not all-powerful, I am not all-wise, I have many questions and few answers which takes confidence, and intelligence as well, and a regard for the truth that must have compelled him to look into himself and say, I really don't know everything, and it would be dishonest to say that I do, and so I must not.

Worku is never distanced, always earnest, passionate, and when the story ends with the characters trudging ridiculously and hopelessly though mud, his mind seems to be struggling through that same mud as well. This makes him a very different state-of-the-nation author from someone like Tolstoy, who ends War and Peace with an essay telling you what you should have learnt from the book you've just read, and, before that, a little lecture in peasant husbandry.

Worku died in 1994. The Thirteenth Sun was his only book in English. Flipping open a collection of A.A. Gill's travel essays in another secondhand shop on the same day that I discovered Mine Boy and Future Leaders, I found the capital city of his native country described as a huge slum.