Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love's Excellences--The Sonnets X

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,
Let temple burn, or flax; and equal light
Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed:
And love is fire. And when I say at need
I love thee ... mark! ... I love thee---in thy sight
I stand transfigured, glorified aright,
With conscience of the new rays that proceed
Out of my face toward thine. There's nothing low
In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
Who love God, God accepts while loving so.
And what I feel, across the inferior features
Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show
How that great work of Love enhances Nature's.

We continue to wander, slowly, through The Sonnets from the Portuguese.  And I would venture to guess that if you are the average reader, the pace at which we progress is probably just right--not too much poetry to have to deal with in a day.  But one a day (or less as it has been) seems a good pace.  And this one alone is worth a day.

While this works just fine as a straightforward love poem, there is so much loveliness here.  "Fire is bright, //Let temple burn [Robert] or flax [Elizabeth]."  The "equal light//Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed."  If something burns, it burns, whether noble or low.  And love is the fire that ignites. The theme of the lover making the beloved worthy of that love is as old as the Song of Songs. "O love thee. . . mark!. . . I love thee--in thy sight//I stand transfigured, glorified aright. . ."  Because I love a worthy object, I am ennobled and perhaps brought close to being worthy of both loving and being loved.

"There's nothing low // In love when love the meanest. . ."  The least worthy being that exhibits love is exalted by that exhibition.  Love is not low no matter how lowly the one giving the love: "meanest creatures//Who love God, God accepts while loving so."  No matter how low, when love is shown, love is accepted and enhances the donor.  And so, Elizabeth is able to say that while I love, I am made better by being able to feel and show this to all.

Read it again and put it all together--witness an artist at work and see how nimbly she works her wonders.

Apple's E-reader

The Reading Ape discusses the new iPhone as eReader

I Loved This List of Most Read Authors

The Bizarre Ranks of the Most Read

Look for something similar in the near future.

The Ghost Finder

I thought I was the last remaining person to have read and know about William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki.  I have the books in collectable Arkham House editions, and while Hodgson is not generally high on my list of readable fantasists--some of these stories are quite good.

Prize Winners and Prize Not-in-the-Runnings

Books that win prizes, genres that don't

Petrona touches on one, but those of us who are longtime fans of SF wonder why the likes of Doris Lessing gets praise for the Canopus in Argos archives (Middling books, and as science fiction, nothing thrilling) whereas Mary Doria Russell's The Swallow gets virtually ignored despite the compelling "universal" things it has to say.  It's an old gripe, but one that never loses its validity.  Let us hope that it will in the future.

Freshman Disorientation

A list of pre-admission reading for various colleges

What is most disheartening about this list is that while it includes some worthwhile books, it certainly does not include much, if anything, that I would consider foundational for an understanding of literature.  Certainly it may include things that a hundred years in the future might provide that foundation, but it points to the essential rootlessness and thoughtlessness of the way students are educated today.  It makes me glad to embrace our decision to homeschool.  The colleges may not require Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Austen, or Woolf, but our house (with the possible exception of the last, which is probably a bit advanced for upper high-school) certainly shall.

Now, for a little music theory

Links following links following links, led me to an interesting, if dense paper on music theory touching on one of my least favorite composers of the twentieth century--Pierre Boulez.  Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems--Fred Lerdahl


Unaccountably, this post on blackberries put me in mind of my first foray into the land of Finnegans Wake during which time I composed the following bon mot and felt something like Little Jack Horner--it was the first time I had composed a pun in a language other than my own.

Les mûrs mûres murmurent sur la mûr mur.

In fact, the phrase, particularly the latter part can be read in a number of different ways--worn wall, or, my preferred given that it was Wakeian, drunken (plastered) wall.

Difficult Books--A Descriptive List

The same post mentioned in the previous entry, gives us a link to this wonderful discussion at The Millions of difficult books and why to attempt them.

I should note that some of the books on the list don't strike me as particularly difficult (To the Lighthouse) but then not all users experience the same results.

More on Difficult Books

I was going to link to each article separately--and as a matter of record may do so--but in all fairness, I should send you to the delightful commentary of the Blogkeeper at Times Flow Stemmed who, while probably not intending to, expresses my mind on the matter well.

See there some interesting comments on reading Finnegans Wake.  You hear a lot about the Wake from me, but you won't hear me telling others to pick it up and read it--not because it isn't worth it, nor because it is not good, but because it requires a certain mindset, a certain ability to let go of wanting to understand everything about it to read it successfully.  To fully understand it, one would have to be be Joyce's Guardian Angel and Muse, because, like most authors, I suspect that his true comprehension of his own work was like the tip of an iceberg.

WSJ--Too complicated for words
Conversational Reading

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet--David Mitchell

Up until now I have not read any David Mitchell.  From other reviews I have read, I started with one that is not "typical" Mitchell, although, from what I've seen of his books through reviews, I rather doubt that there is a "typical" Mitchell--which is a good thing.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an odd book that resists categorization.  The plot swings from the mundane historical into the hysterical (not in the amusing sense) by strange and vast turns.  As with Beatrice and Virgil, I think what we have in this book is an interesting, but largely failed literary experiment.  The writing is alternatively fluid and terse--some sections are like settings of linked verse, very haiku and tanka-like.  Other pieces more closely resemble normal narrative, but there is a tendency to extremely short paragraphs--a kind of stylization of the prose.

In fact, thinking hard about the book overall, I wondered whether Mitchell had planned this kind of deliberate, Japanese delivery.  Reading the interviews, there is no sense of that from him; however, I couldn't help but think of the whole book as something of a mugen noh cycle featuring at a minimum three of the traditional five categories.  And I suppose that an argument could be made for all five.

There is certainly category two--Man, in which a tormented man, often a soldier--but not in this case--seeks redemption and forgiveness.  The torment, in this case, is fidelity to the memory of one left behind in the face of temptation present right now.

The third category--Woman--is also featured.  Again, the elements are not exact, because the plays often feature the ghost of a woman wandering the world, trapped by the love she feels.

The fourth category--crazed--is less evident, but perhaps there are plot elements surrounding Aibagawa which could be seen as featuring a woman alienated from her society.  In this case the alienation is both chosen (attempting to be a person of learning and skill in a society that does not value women for those attributes) and unchosen--the disfigurement from which she suffers.

And as to the fifth category--demon, there can be no doubt at all because a goodly portion of the book suddenly plunges into an elaborate exposition of this category.  Characterized by intense dance, drumming, and music, this category of Noh features ghosts, demons, and other supernatural element that propel events along to their conclusion.

The only category I'm completely uncertain about is God.  The God play often features Gods as promises of peace, joy, prosperity, and hope.

Of course, if Mitchell were completely ignorant of the conventions of Noh theatre, all of this is bootless speculation and a construction I have forced upon an otherwise unexceptional work.  I cannot say, not knowing the man, and not aware of any indications he may have given of this kind of elaborate working of traditional Japanese theatre and themes into the work.

What I can say is that I came away from the book impressed by what I took to be an interesting and elaborate experiment, but not impressed by story, plot, characters, or even by descriptions of a very interesting place in a most interesting time in Japanese history.  Dejima  possibly one of the first of the Dubai-like artificial islands, built as a residence to keep the European contamination away from the purity of the Japanese mainland is a place worth coming to know--and if this book is your only experience with it, you could do worse.

Interesting, with some worthwhile parts and pieces, but ultimately not as fulfilling as I had hoped.


For more on Noh, check out this site.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Another View of Mitchell

The Mookse and the Gripes reviews The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Ford Madox Ford

Hemingway's favorite writer--a review of The Good Soldier.

Muriel Spark

From Catholic Fiction, a consideration of Muriel Spark

Known primarily for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Ms. Spark authored many, many interesting and challenging books, not at all like Miss Brodie.  Among the quirkiest, Not to Disturb--an exceedingly black comedy about what the "below-stairs" servants do while the master and the mistress of the house are discovering unpleasant truths about their relationship; The Abbess of Crewe is another interesting work, featuring a walk through a garden in an abbey where everything is monitored, bugged, and watched--written as a means of exploring the Watergate events; The Girls of Slender Means, Memento Mori and A Far Cry from Kensington round out some of my favorite of her works.  All of them are deeply cynical, bitter, and entirely distrustful of humanity and motive.  She has a way of twisting the knife, as it were.

Thucydides Online

Via Underbelly, we are linked to Thomas Hobbes's translation of Thucydides

I have read only the excerpt posted, but my knowledge of Hobbesian viscosity leads me to shudder at the thought of an entire Thucydides.  But, this is perhaps one of those occasions I mention below, when I would benefit from the challenge of taking on a "Tome." 

Pious Impiousness

A reading of St. Augustine's Confessions

(via Times Flow Stemmed)

Just as in reading the Bible as literature, one never knows where such "impious" reading might lead.  Would that more would find themselves intrigued by the prose and stay for the book.

Hitchens v. Hitchens

Theodore Dalrymple reviews the Hitchens Brother's books in "The Brothers Grim"

To Read or Not to Read: Is It A Question

On the Reading of Difficult Tomes.


But perhaps I'm just making up reasons to excuse my own laziness, using an anti-canonical argument to justify not bothering to read anything mind-widening. Am I ignoring the challenging books that I know would bore me, or just ignoring anything that challenges? Anything truly innovative requires an adjustment of taste from its audience. If I hadn't been a wide-eyed, hideously pretentious teenager then I'd have never realised the music of Xenakis wasn't just noise. I'd have never taken the time to adjust my head to Middle English and been able to enjoy Chaucer.

R.T. has recently decided that reading Finnegans Wake is not worth his time or effort; however, to leap from that individual and even laudable decision to the conclusion that it is therefore a waste of time for anyone of sense is perhaps too wide a leap.  There is a great deal of room to determine that a given work is not really worth one's time.  I've decided that about most post-modern works in which footnotes play a heavier role that the text itself.  I'm not keen on experimental works that eschew story, or that imply that story is made by the reader and therefore random pages can be strewn together in whatever order appeals.  I don't think much of most modern works of scholarly criticism, and I can't be much bothered with some authors who have been widely acclaimed.  But I recognize that those delineate my shortcomings as a reader, not necessarily difficulties with the works themselves (although, even here there is room for some shared respnsibility.)

Thus, when it comes to the question of whether difficult tomes are worth the effort, my experience has been--absolutely--they are worth all the time and energy you put into them for one reason or another.  You may learn to appreciate a writer you've never cared for, as in the last few years I have done with Hawthorne and Henry James, or you may discover that as lauded as they are, some authors a simply not to your taste--as I'm beginning to suspect with Updike, Pynchon, and DeLillo--though I must say, there is always room to change one's mind if one remains open to the idea of reading difficult works.

Poem of the Week: Irish Cholera

Peter Didsbury:"A Fire Shared"

Fine and oh, so sad.

Friday, June 25, 2010

More Free Movies--Orwell

Animal Farm (via Open Culture)

Double Award Winner

And a darn fine book--Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book receives the Carnegie Medal, making it the first book to take both the Carnegie and the Newbery Award.

The Publicity Blitz Begins

An interview with David Mitchell

Mr. Mitchell's new book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is due out next week.

Caveat Lector: Some "spoilers" in the interview. Nothing major--but they are present.

Manute Bol and the Meaning of Redemption

WSJ has a beautiful profile of Manute Bol--a man who spent his fortune helping the refugees of the Sudan.  One of the loveliest stories of the day--my thanks to Frank at Books Inq.

Grandmother of the Confessional Poets: Sonnet IX

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Can it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Re-sighing on my lips renunciative
Through those infrequent smiles which fail to live
For all thy adjurations? O my fears,
That this can scarce be right! We are not peers,
So to be lovers; and I own, and grieve,
That givers of such gifts as mine are, must
Be counted with the ungenerous. Out, alas!
I will not soil thy purple with my dust,
Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass,
Nor give thee any love --- which were unjust.
Belovèd, I love only thee! let it pass.

One could probably make a case for Elizabeth Barrett Browning being the ancestor of the 20th Century confessional poets.  It's true that poetry has often been the most intimate of the arts and self-revelation--or concealment within apparent revelation has been a common element.  But in poems like these we hear such obvious details of the emotional trial and battle that ring out of the personal and autobiographical.  More, we have intimate details of what is probably the very real psychology of Mrs. Browning's approach to life, "That givers of such gifts as mine are, must//Be counted with the ungenerous."  Modern self-help lingo would tell us that we have here a crisis of self-esteem.  But then it rolls over into hyperbole that is so overblown that out of context it would be ludicrous.  But with the surroundings such statements as "I will not soil thy purple with my dust" and "Nor breathe my poison on they Venice-glass," result in a portrait of a woman terribly afraid of rejection even as she knows she has been accepted.

But we miss something if we do not take the time to examine that last image carefully because it echoes a theme from sonnet V.  It was widely thought in the Middle ages that drinking glasses (commonly made in Venice) would shatter if poison were put into them.  So Mrs. Browning is here concerned not only with her own unworthiness but with the possible effects of that unworthiness on the one that she loves--it isn't merely making unfit ("soil thy purple with my dust"), but it is potentially destructive and deadly.  And so, Mrs. Browning prophetically proceeds the Tuff Darts in declaring, "My love is like nuclear waste."  And so, the natural concomitant of that is that because I love you I cannot give you any love because it would destroy you.

Once again we see that surface simplicity belies a delicate and sinewy complexity that rewards close reading with paradoxes and a depth greater than that often experienced amongst the confessional poets.

An Appreciation of Russell Kirk

Via my good friend TSO--an article on Russell Kirk Palaeoconservative--Portrait of a Conservative Convert

I don't really know how one should spell palaeoconservative, but given that we are discussing one, it seemed appropriate to employ the more conservative "ae" spelling.  If I could easily smash them together, I'd probably opt for that.

Richard Feynman's Lectures Online

Feynman's lectures online--also a good way to become familiar with Silverlight, if you are not already.

Also from Open Culture--Reading List(s)

A Summer Metareading List

Einstein--Get Your Ticket for the Infinitely Long Train

An hour-long introduction to Einstein's thought.

Leave your physics book behind, just bring your ears and brain.

Revisiting Fatherhood

Netherland 4

If I had had any doubts or questions, any thoughts about turning aside, this discussion of fatherhood in Netherland certainly makes the book more tempting to me.  But, as it turns out, I was hooked with the first review, so I needn't worry about missing it.

More Myth

Margaret Atwood The Penelopiad

I note this because of the personal synchronicity.  Just a couple of days ago, I picked this up in the library to read.  So, having read the review, I'm ready to jump in especially after the mythic reading time I've been having this year.

David Shields on Hamlet

Reality Hunger and why it will remain hungry

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Norman Mailer

Those interested in Norman Mailer should consider this delicately limned and heartfelt appreciation


Until he is forgotten, Mailer should be remembered not only in a fool’s cap and bells but also in a scoundrel’s midnight black. For in an age crawling with intellectual folly, he was one of the reigning dunces, even his best works were shot through with adolescent fatuities, while the worst of his words and deeds were stupid and vicious without bottom. One is torn between wishing that his memory would disappear immediately and wanting his remains to hang at the crossroads as a lasting reminder to others.

For Admirers of Sir Arthur

The Complete Works of Arthur Conan Doyle Reviewed

A Little Knowledge. . .

All you wanted to know and more about Tea.  (via UD)

Jim Thompson Redux

(via Books Inq.) Jim Thompson Was No Genius. . .

. . . the reviewer avers, nevertheless, he goes on to describe a sort of genius.  Fascinating.  What's most wonderful about Thompson is that while much of what is written in the article is true, the reader most reads right by it.

That Least Waughian of Waugh Books

But nevertheless a masterpiece of its own kind--a review of Helena

"Public, meet the slushpile. . . slushpile meet your Public."

Electronic publishing holds much promise--but Laura Miller emphasizes an essential weakness--a lack of any filter at all.

I'm not keen on some of the ways books get published and some of the writers who remain long excluded because they can't find an in.  But I'm also not certain that I want to wade through the slush piles that have long been a lowly editor's work.

Resisting the Pull

Do I have a problem with this?

from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring: drill, prick, saw, sting.

Hanzaburo snores in the cubby-hole outside Jacob's door.

Jacob lies awake clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.

Ai, mouth opens; ba lips meet; ga, tongue's root; wa, lips.

Involuntarily, he re-enacts today's scene over and over.

He cringes at the boorish figure he cut, and vainly edits the script.

He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.

The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.

A watchman smacks his wooden clapper to mark the Japanese hour.

The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese half-Dutch window. . .

. . . Glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust.

Day break must be near. 1796"s ledgers are waiting in Warehouse Doorn.

Is is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.

Beneath his glaze of sweat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.

Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture. . .

Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsichord.

. . . spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon once in a lifetime. . .

The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.

Jacob can hear a harpsichord: it is the doctor playing in his long attic.

Night silence and a freak of conductivity permits Jacob this privilege: Marinus rejects all requests to play, even for scholar friends or visiting nobility.

The music provokes a sharp longing the music soothes.

How can such a prig, wonders Jacob, play with such divinity?

Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring: drill prick, saw, sting. . .

There are elements that work in a poetry-like fashion--and from my reading these elements recur periodically through the structure of the book. But there are anachronisms creeping in--"vainly edits the script," that are more distressing than they probably should be.

The whole creates a kind of static movement--a haiku-like stuttering in the prose--and as it punctuates the novel, gives it that kind of stylized Noh-theatre-like feeling.

I suppose I must see what purpose these passages serve before I can decide if they are ornaments or distractions--effective or defective.  That they draw attention to themselves suggests that they are a problem.  But perhaps not. . .only a fair reading of the whole will tell.

I should note the the title bar should be taken with a grain of salt.  I find myself resisting many new works that ultimately I come to love.  See reviews of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, among others for examples of books I felt that I might dislike or more toward disliking. I don't know where this perverse impulse comes from, but I can say that it is these sorts of books, whether I end up liking them or not, that I often most enjoy reading.

The book is due out 29 June and the copy I am reading is a review copy.


from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


What can I give thee back, O liberal
And princely giver, who hast brought the gold
And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold,
And laid them on the outside of the wall
For such as I to take or leave withal,
In unexpected largesse? am I cold,
Ungrateful, that for these most mainfold
High gifts, I render nothing back at all?
Not so; not cold, --- but very poor instead.
Ask God who knows. For frequent tears have run
The colours from my life, and left so dead
And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done
To give the same as pillow to thy head.
Go farther! let it serve to trample on.

This one is very straightforward with little in the way of difficulty of expression to require explication.  And yet for all of its straightforward simplicity--perhaps because of it--it flows beautifully and the logical sense of the plaint is clear.  Because of this strike-to-the-heart clarity, the startling shift in the sestet is made all the more piquant.  

Gorgeous and Fascinating Surrealism

Oh, and disturbing: alienation is alive and well--more pages for the Codex Seraphinianus--then return to the root to read the blog and see the intense and disturbing imagery of Tetsuya Ishida

Anne McCaffrey Revisited

A review of Dragonsong--if you are not familiar with her, you would do yourself a great favor by becoming acquainted with Ms. McCaffrey's work.  It isn't always to my taste, but the Dragon books are reliable and at this point, vintage fare.

Beatrice and Virgil Redux

Another review of Beatrice and Virgil that eerily echoes my own review--it's good to know that I'm not the only one who feels this way about the book.  I'm glad I read it, but like Yann Martel's short stories, it does not rise to the height of Life of Pi.

New Zealand Literature

Finalists for the NZ Post Book Award

I know New Zealand as a stronghold of interesting film (I just watched a little ditty called The Tatooist--not everyone's cup of tea, and I recall with great fondness The Quiet Earth--a film from New Zealand that packs a wallop.  And while Peter Jackson is Australian, through his filmwork, we see enough of New Zealand--and we mustn't forget the lovely scene in Endless Summer II of surfing in New Zealand on Christmas Day) I have relatively little acquaintance (that I'm aware of) with New Zealand literature--excluding, of course, Dame Ngaio.  So it's nice to see a list that could comprise recommendations.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Series Continues

Book discussion--Netherland part 3

Mrs. Browning's Seventh

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art or shall be, there or here;
And this . . . this lute and song . . . loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear
Because thy name moves right in what they say.

We continue the theme of the salvation that love has wrought.  This salvation makes itself known in a complete transformation of life--"The face of all the world is changed, I think. . . "  But it is a salvation with uncertainty.  The addition of "I think" at the end of this line is a particularly poignant reminder of the author's own uncertainty about herself and her experience.

But about the time of the transformation, there is little doubt "Since first I hear the footsteps of they soul//Move still, o still, beside me." Again the sheer artistry here of still movement--the paradox that is the unexpected salvation that leaps into mind is emphasized again.  Also, it is instructive to think long about how the word "still" might mean in this line.  Certainly there is the obvious meaning of "motionless," but there is also the meaning of still that means "as yet," the present door opening into the eternal. 

Then we move again--"as they stole//Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink//Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink. . ."  And again this thought is powerful.  These footsteps "stole" and the word again has the double intent of moving stealthily, but also the undertones of "took away from me."  Death had been desired, and these footsteps stole away that desire and transformed the world in such a way that the poet could see "the dreadful outer brink//Of obvious death."  Thus we are back to the first line-"the face of all the world is changed" indeed.

Perhaps it is better to leave the further reading of this very intricate and beautiful sonnet to the reader.  If you desire, I can approach the second half later.

The Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln's Poetry discussed by Robert Pinsky

Technology and the Fear Thereof

The Nook--take a look

The endless google digitizing lawsuit

Tom Stoppard against the flood

A Festival for The Man in the High Castle

One of the oddest minds in SF Philip K. Dick gets his own festival.

Hard Boiled v. Hard Boiled, or Are They?

Hammett v. Chandler

An Essay on Fiction

Lee Seigel on fiction

About Hunger

An interesting review of David Shields's Reality Hunger.

Perhaps more interesting than the book.  Reading the review, I felt like I had gotten the highlight reel and could do without further exposure.

Martial Views

Nice translations of a couple of Martial's more safe-for-work epigrams.

Reading Genji

The Tale of Genji, recommended reading for all, our reviewer mentions two translations.  I have not read the one he/she seems to favor

Nice-to-See Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee auditions for the role of the Green Hornet

Talks about his son (Brandon, I assume) and life in Hong Kong among other things.

John Banville Considered

A review of The Sea, which I note because it is on my TBR list.

Neil Gaiman on Story and Stories

A brief consideration of theory and reviews of two collections--Gaiman and Chabon

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

H. Rider Haggard

A quotation posted on Books Inq. today, which I copy below, reminds us of H. Rider Haggard's Birthday.

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die, though they blend and change, and change again for ever.--H Rider Haggard

Always something of a spiritualist/pantheist, H. Rider Haggard's books still make for some of the finest adventure reading your ever likely to encounter.  Inventing the "Lost Race" novel (or if not inventing it, at least pursuing it with unmatched vigor) Haggard gave us the classic King Solomon's Mines and She. In addition he gave us Allan Quatermain novels, beginning the eponymous Allan Quatermain and continuing through She and Allan, Allan and the Ice Gods, and King Solomon's Mines itself.   While undoubtedly a westerner, in several stories and novels Haggard  shows himself enlightened beyond his time with regard to race relations and the if not equality at least the dignity of all people.

My thanks to Frank for reminding me of the great pleasure I have had in reading Mr. Haggard's great many wonderful adventure novels.  All recommended.

See this article for a bibliography of H. Rider Haggard Novels, nearly all of which are available in e-book format, too few of which (save for the most prominent) remain in print.  And anything after 1923 which might never enter public domain (oh, don't get me started!  People who have read here and in the previous blog will tell you that the rants I can rant on that subject have no end.)

To Begin Your Summer--Travelogues

A list of amusing travelogues

Fast is Good, Slow is Better?

Advocates of a slow reader movement.

Only problem is that there seems to be an equation of slow reading and deep reading, and I'm not sure that is borne out.  My son reads extremely quickly and seems to be able to fasten on to symbols, meanings, and typologies that are well beyond his years. 

Archives, We Have Archives

A foretaste of the John Updike Archive

Problems of Attachment and Grief

At Maverick Philosopher, a wonderful exploration of this question

Book Reviews: Tobias Wolff

A review of Tobias Wolff's Our Story Begins

More from Horace

The Epistles of Horace
tr. David Ferry

from To Numicius (Book I)

When you have a pain in your belly or in your side,
You work on getting rid of it, don't you? Therefore,
If you want to live right (and who doesn't) and if
You agree that the only way to do it is
To learn to be good, then patiently settle down
To the work of getting rid of the faults you have.
But if you think tht goodness is nothing more
Than a matter of words, no more than that, and if
When you look at a forest, all you see is the wood,
Be very careful lest a competitor
Make it to port before you, taking away
The custom you had hoped for for your lumber.

While this is an interesting excerpt, the more interesting thing (an exercise left for the student) is to see how this passage compares to the whole and on what side Horace emerges at the end of his argument.

Excerpt from an E-mail--Evelyn Waugh on being a Catholic

In writing an e-mail this morning I had cause to find this anecdote, and because this blog serves as a back-up for my deplorably poor memory, I post it here to find it once again.

According to a literary anecdote, the author Nancy Mitford had asked Waugh how he could behave so abominably and yet still consider himself a practicing Catholic. "You have no idea," had Waugh replied, "how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being."

William Wordsworth--One Long Poetic Paragraph

I paused, hesitated as I considered this next excerpt, but could think of no way to break it up and make it smaller without also fragmenting the understanding and so I post what has to be one of the most beautiful poetic paragraphs encountered thus far, both from imagery and the intensity of feeling and experience that it conveys.  Bear with it.  Read it slowly.  Read it twice.  Read it out loud if you are in a place you can do so.  Hear and revel in the words and in the images that Wordsworth brings forth.

from The Prelude Book IV
William Wordsworth

As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving boat, upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make
Beneath him in the bottom of the deep,
Sees many beauteous sights—weeds, fishes, flowers.
Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more,
Yet often is perplexed and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth
Of the clear flood, from things which there abide
In their true dwelling; now is crossed by gleam
Of his own image, by a sun-beam now,
And wavering motions sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet;
Such pleasant office have we long pursued
Incumbent o'er the surface of past time
With like success, nor often have appeared
Shapes fairer or less doubtfully discerned
Than these to which the Tale, indulgent Friend!
Would now direct thy notice. Yet in spite
Of pleasure won, and knowledge not withheld,
There was an inner falling off—I loved,
Loved deeply all that had been loved before,
More deeply even than ever: but a swarm
Of heady schemes jostling each other, gawds,
And feast and dance, and public revelry,
And sports and games (too grateful in themselves,
Yet in themselves less grateful, I believe,
Than as they were a badge glossy and fresh
Of manliness and freedom) all conspired
To lure my mind from firm habitual quest
Of feeding pleasures, to depress the zeal
And damp those yearnings which had once been mine—
A wild, unworldly-minded youth, given up
To his own eager thoughts. It would demand
Some skill, and longer time than may be spared,
To paint these vanities, and how they wrought
In haunts where they, till now, had been unknown.
It seemed the very garments that I wore
Preyed on my strength, and stopped the quiet stream
Of self-forgetfulness.

Let's take it a little at a time.  Wordsworth seems to recount at once a real experience--looking down into the wonders of the water world and a metaphor for the inability of the artist to separate what he creates from what is real--becoming so immersed in the creation that the difference between the two is at best uncertain.

Yet often is perplexed and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth
Of the clear flood, from things which there abide
In their true dwelling

The metaphor continues--as this befuddled creator gazes downward what he sees is often crossed with other things--things that while beautiful in themselves are at once distracting and perhaps in some sense create depth and perspective:

now is crossed by gleam
Of his own image, by a sun-beam now,
And wavering motions sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet;

And one must ask oneself what task it is that is here referred--certainly gazing into the depths is not a task in itself--and so the poet demonstrates himself wrapped in his own metaphor and inviting the reader to participate with him, to come into an understanding of what it is to become so wrapped up in the world that you are seeing that it becomes part of the real world--so much a part that what you are doing there is understood without spelling it out.

With like success, nor often have appeared
Shapes fairer or less doubtfully discerned
Than these to which the Tale, indulgent Friend!
Would now direct thy notice.

The poet will now direct our attention to his point which is, that as pleasurable as all of this is--as wonderful as becoming lost in the world of one's own making, there are those things that pull one away.

Yet in spite
Of pleasure won, and knowledge not withheld,
There was an inner falling off—I loved,
Loved deeply all that had been loved before,
More deeply even than ever: but a swarm
Of heady schemes jostling each other, gawds,
And feast and dance, and public revelry,
And sports and games. . . all conspired
To lure my mind from firm habitual quest
Of feeding pleasures, to depress the zeal
And damp those yearnings which had once been mine—
A wild, unworldly-minded youth, given up
To his own eager thoughts.
 While the poet still loves these reflective cruises and these times spent within the embrace of the dream that makes the poetry--a "swarm of heady schemes" conspire to push all thought of such effort and such reflection away.  They push the thought of the beautiful and perfect out of mind and crowd the mind so full that there is little way to pull from their impulse.  The poetry stops and the revelry begins and so long as the revelry is dominant, the poetry is in abeyance.

To paint these vanities, and how they wrought
In haunts where they, till now, had been unknown.
It seemed the very garments that I wore
Preyed on my strength, and stopped the quiet stream
Of self-forgetfulness.

So, we come to the end of an admittedly long excerpt, but one central, I think to Wordsworth's thought and purpose.  We are to join in the artistic journey and if so, we need to know along the way that there will be Cyclops and Scylla and Charybdis--it is a journey filled with wonders and beauties--but one that is hard to take when the world with all its pomp, ceremony, and let's face it  hard realities press in upon one and distract one from the pursuits that feed the poetic impulse.  It may for this reason that so many poets flower in their youth and in their age produce adamantine verse--polished and high gloss, but often hard to penetrate and not really from the heart, but from the head--wrought as fine as the finest filigree, but filled with thought and not impulse--the emotion drained dry and the imagery perfect but somewhat sere and remote.  Perhaps--at least in Wordsworth's theory.  And it is this self-same theory that gave us a yourhful flourishing and then a long great silence during which the poet produced very little as he worked upon the refinement of this poem.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning--Sonnet VI

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browing

Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forebore---
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

Once again, one is left almost breathless with the depth of feeling exposed here.  The circuit of their love and relationship is once again opened--the approach/avoidance encouraged by Robert on the one hand and her father on the other leave Elizabeth torn.  Here, she turns away again and makes a prophetic statement that turns out to be true: "Yet I feel that I shall stand//Henceforward in thy shadow."  While she wasn't speaking of the realm of poetry, the effect here is to let us think about the relative standing (as poets). 
But Elizabeth goes on to explain that even if Robert should leave here, even if love departs, he will not love, she will never stand alone--there is no "I" anymore even if these advances are rejected and the suitor turned out.   ("Nevermore//Alone upon the threshold of my door//of Individual live. . . without the sense of that which I forebore. . . ")

Most powerful of all the images of the sestet--the double heart and the suit of God which see her with tears of two in her eyes.

There is no denying that these are love poems.  But they are not thin, weedy, etiolated things that one would expect from their common presentation.  These are powerful sonnets that get at the heart of what it is to be truly in love and to be all and hope all and expect all and dream of all.  They get at the heart of torment as two divided loyalties command one's attention.  It is hard to think of a round of sonnets that gets so close to the heart of the matter and dwells on it continuously and in such deep and intimate imagery.

More and More on Ulysses

The Solstice in Circe

Nice to See Ngaio Back in Circulation

A review of Black as He's Painted

Ngaio Marsh isn't my very favorite of the Golden Age writers, there's something in her prose that often derails me.  But she is unquestionably very, very fine, and very produces very enjoyable and often quite humorous stories.  Too much neglected, too much in the shadow of Dame Agatha, she deserves a lasting revival.

Competition for a Limited Share or Market Expansion?

E-book price wars: you be the judge

Another Poem at UD

Mark Strand--"My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer" Poem and Part I of discussion
Part II of discussion

With the usual helpful analysis one has come to expect from these all-too-rare excursions into the literary world.  I would wish for more from UD in this direction, but then I would not have so much of what is normally done, and that would be a shame as well.

And as we're on the subject of summer--I'll post the perennial reminder:

Original Middle English

Svmer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu.
Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteþ after lomb,
lhouþ after calue cu,
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ.
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu,
Wel singes þu cuccu.
ne swik þu nauer nu!
Sing cuccu nu, Sing cuccu!

Summer has come in
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Seeds grow and meadows bloom
and the woods spring anew
Sing cuckoo!

Ewe bleats after lamb,
Calf lows after cow,
Bullock leaps, billygoat farts,
Merrily sing, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!
Well you sing cuckoo,
Nor cease you ever now!
Sing cuckoo now, Sing, cuckoo!

One should seek out the music--it still speaks of the beginning of summer.

Poem of the Week: Thomas Hood

"A Parental Ode to My Son Aged Three Years and Five Months"

An intimate portrait of family life and paternal devotion.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Comencement: Grisham and Kidd

John Grisham and Sue Monk Kidd as commencement speakers

The Sounds and the Smells of Forbidden Japan

from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

Through the palanquin's grille, he smells steamed rice, sewage, incense, lemons, sawdust, yeast, and rotting seaweed. He glimpses gnarled old women, pocked monks, unmarried girls with blackened teeth. Would that I had a sketchbook, the foreigner things, and three days ashore to fill it. Children on a mud wall make owl-eyes with their forefingers and thumbs, chanting 'Oranda-me, Oranda-me, Oranda-me': Jacob realizes they are impersonating 'round' European eyes and remembers a string of urchins following a Chinaman in London: the urchins pulled their eyes into narrow slants and sang 'Chinese, Siamese, if you please, Japanese.'
 Just a couple of comments that are going to sound more negative than intended.  As I read the first sentence I wondered, did he smell these smells sequentially in his progress from dockside to his final destination?  Or, did he smell them all at once and separate these into component smells?  Also, what quantities of rice must have been cooking to be in the open air and smell steamed rice--a subtle scent in a confined space like a kitchen--especially when in juxtapostion against sewage, incense, and the rough iodiny smell of rotting seaweed. 

The second comment centers around anachronism.  Does it make sense that children in 18th century England would know enough about China, Siam, and Japan to have a rhyme regarding them?  It certainly is possible--I suppose, but it is one of those things that make me itch to find some confirmation, so historical source that records such a verse.

As said before, these sound negative.  But they aren't really.  The world is sufficiently rich and fascinating to encourage the reader to pause, savor, and ask these questions.  And ultimately they may weave together into a work that is both fascinating and reflective. As I continue, I'll keep you posted. Perhaps, as you may have discovered ad nauseam.

Film and the Self

Sample Chapters of You Are What You See

The Beginnings of a Series

On Netherland

First this, then back out and read post number 2.  Netherland was a book oft mentioned in the recent past, one that I have considered reading.  And once again a blogger writing is persuading me that I must add it once again to my reading list.

Via Ulysses Seen

Op-Ed The Importance of Reading Ulysses

Oxford Professor of Poetry

Geoffrey Hill is so named.

And it's about time!

Funeral Music--a sequence about (?/ dealing with) The War of the Roses

Yet More Reviews

Oblomov reviewed.

A book I've often seen and thought about reading--it sounds like I should move it up in my list.

The Great (?) Debate

Hitchens v. Haldane

While it is probably ad hominen, my intent in saying it is not.  It would seem that Hitchens's typification of the Christian view of God as "Dear Leader in the sky" point more to profound "daddy issues" on Mr. Hitchens's part than any deep understanding of who God is.  What is remarkable to me is the sustained resistance to any sort of rational engagement with the deeper insight of religion.  Mr. Htichens, for all his erudition, shows himself incapable of actually addressing the matter in any way that reflects an understanding of the viewpoint of his more reasonable opponents.

Although I do have to say that I have a tremendous number of co-religionists who do not make arguing for the validity of the Christian World viewpoint at all easy.

More Forgotten Books

Graham Greene's "Century Library" with some decidedly off-beat choices.

Reviews of Translations

A review of the books of Hans Fallada

My Quirky Reading List

A review of I Am Hutterite

This is the kind of book that appeals to me perfectly.  I'll have to see if I can find it.

An Odd Note on Ulysses

You know, it just occurred to  me, having visited Ireland last year just after Bloomsday--remarkably little of Ulysses takes place in the dark.  During my time there I was out until 10, or 11 o'clock at night taking what look like late-afternoon pictures.  Around 10:30, 11:00 there was a sort of dusk, though it still seemed quite light to me. 

Not that it matters, but it may  (pardon the pun) shed a different light on the later episodes to think of them as being in late afternoon/early evening light rather than full dark.  It is likely that the only "full-dark" part of Ulysses may be "Penelope."

Just a thought that I hope contributes to your appreciation of the work.

Opera Top Ten

Again via UD--a list of the top ten arias as voted by radio 3 listeners.

The surprise winner (not to UD, but certainly to much of the rest of the opera-listening world), to my great surprise and joy, is Henry Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth,"  the final aria of Queen Dido from Dido and Aeneas.  But the remainder of the list contains a number of surprises as well--Russalka, an opera by Korngold and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.  I know I'm mundane, but I do like both "Nessun Dorma" and "Der Holle Rache" (which did make the list)  as well as the entire Alban Berg canon.

And below you can choose your "When I am Laid in Earth,"  clip one featuring the incomparable Janet Baker, clip two Jessye Norman,

Janet Baker

Jessye Norman

And now for something completely different--The Swingle Singers

And with that, it is not difficult to see why those in the know might have chosen such a magnificent aria.

Somewhat more difficult to explain--thought still within reason is the presence of Wagner on the list--although the "Leibestod" from Tristan and Isolde, show in two samples below:

Waltraud Meier

Birgit Nilsson in Concert (Arguably one of the greatest of the Wagnerian performers).

Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of Wagner, have been for a very long time.  But I'm not certain I would place any of his great music among  (even this) among the great arias in all of Opera.  But then, I must also qualify my remarks by saying that I am not very well-versed in Opera.  I just know what I like when I hear it.

And as an aside--isn't You Tube a wonder?  You'll be able to hear nearly all, if not all of these top ten by several different performers all in a matter of moments.  There are many who suggest that the internet is making us stupider.  While I might say that immediate access to all of the information you can find there may have a profound effect on memory (witness the transition from a preliterate society to post Gutenberg), I can't help but think that access to much of the world's artistic beauty is a detriment to our intellects or taste.  (Yes, I know, in addition to Purcell, you can also find an nearly infinite supply of Lady Gaga, but in the overall balance. . . )

Via UD--Comments on Budget

How Does It Rate?

Some interesting thoughts on a book rating system.

The Case for Kids

The WSJ has something interesting to say about having children (Thanks, Julie!)


While the popular and the academic cases against kids have a kernel of truth, both lack perspective. By historical standards, modern parents get a remarkably good deal. When economist Ted Bergstrom of the University of California, Santa Barbara reviewed the anthropological evidence, he found that in traditional societies, kids don't pay. Among hunter-gatherers, children consume more calories than they produce, and grandparents produce more calories than they consume virtually until the day they die. Agricultural societies are much the same. Only in recent decades did people start living long enough to collect much of a "pension" from their kids. While big financial transfers from children to their parents remain rare, only in the modern world can retirees expect to enjoy two decades of their descendents' company and in-kind assistance.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sonnet V

I have so much to say about this poem because it is startling, chilling, and direct.  Facts from Mrs. Browning's biography illuminate it--but the poem speaks for itself powerfully:

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see
What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up, . . . those laurels on thine head,
O my Belovèd, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand farther off then! go.

The first figure the poet chooses here is exactly correct and analogous--Electra with her brother's ashes.  I won't go into great detail, but Elizabeth felt directly responsible for the death of her younger and much cherished younger brother.  It was his death that triggered a crisis in her life that we see at the beginning of the poem where she was gradually sinking into death itself as a respite from her grief.  She was, in no way, responsible for this younger brother's death (he died at sea).

But the poem clearly delineates the hurdle and the threat that exists between the two--the question asked is "Will you be able to stamp out the glowing embers of this continuing grief, or instead will some random breeze fan them once again into a flame that would consume you?"  Her fear is that it is the latter event--that the grief is too strong:

But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up, . . . those laurels on thine head,
O my Belovèd, will not shield thee so,

Read the poem again--how perfectly she evokes this lingering grief and the fear that even this promis of love cannot stamp out the grief she still feels.

While all of this biographical detail adds to the depth of our appreciation of the poem, it is unnecessary to  understanding the central and powerful quandary.  This poem in the sequence also shows how elaborately interrelated these sonnets are, and how one need not expect at every turn another protestation of undying love.  In a curious way, it seems that Mrs. Browning is fleeing this relationship and flinging down in her path as obstacles to some ravening monster every object she can find.  You can imagine her, the heroine in some gothic novel, fleeing down the corridors and throwing down the candlesticks and tapestries as the would-be assailant closes in from behind.

Returning for one final, biographical note--for fifteen years, at least, she proved wrong--their romance is one of those great true love stories that are hardly believable.  But toward the end of her life, it is open to interpretation as to whether this lingering shadow did not lengthen and engulf her.

More Horatian Advice

from The Epistles of Horace Book I
"To Lollius Maximus"
Tr. David Ferry

Take a long, cold, intelligent look at pleasure:
It hurts you if you purchase it with pain;
The avaricious man always feels poor;
Set limits to what your desires make you long for:
When his neighbor grows fat the covetous man grows thin.
The worst Sicilian tyrant couldn't invent
A torment worse than envy.

The letter is filled with wonderful notes like this earlier in the letter we hear:

If your life is governed
By cravings for what you lack, or else by fear
Of losing what you have, then what you have,
Your house and your possessions, give you as much
Pleasure as a picture gives a blind man,
Or an elegant pair of shoes gives a man with gout
Or music gives to an ear stuffed up with wax.
A glass that isn't clean will guarantee
That whatever you pour into it will sour.

What wouldn't I give to have a correspondent who wrote to me in such terms.  And the more I read this selection of the poetry of Horace, the greater the appreciation I have for the skill of the translator, who makes this a very lively, very readable--intensely readable and intensely modern English Version of the poems.  I don't like to use the word translation, because even though they are translations, what Ferry has done in this work is made them come alive for the modern audience.  The don't drip with thys, thous, dost, and other appurtenances of previous "serious" considerations of Latin poetry.  They speak--they speak now as I think they were probably meant to speak then.  Purists probably would decry the eschewing of allusion for a more direct approach to translation that can be found here, but which is not directly substantiated in a literal translation of the Latin text.  But these make the poems live and sing for me today.  And when my Latin is good enough, it makes me want to dive in and enjoy them as they were written.

Cavalier Literary Couture

I received a very nice e-mail informing of the presence of Cavalier Literary Couture--I don't quite know what to make of it, but I figure I owe you all the courtesy of deciding for yourselves.  Some things I saw there were magnificent and some made me wonder what was actually being purveyed.  On that account alone, this is, perhaps, the perfect electronic post-modern, perhaps post-literary, Literary Magazine.  Let me know what you think if you happen to check it out.

What to Read Next?

A reading list of former prize winners

Frankly, I don't see a lot on it that immediately tempts me--but then, I don't consider myself up on much of the nouveau lit.

The Psychology of Writing

All of these things, implying as they do a strident materialist basis for all things, should be taken with a grain of salt, but psychologists think they have found the "neural basis of creative writing."


A story you don't know--the Tin Woodsman--online

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Crime and Punishment

Free Audio book and e-book of Dostoevsky's classic Crime and Punishment

From Horace's Epistles

There is so much genuinely good, wise, and surprising in these that it's hard simply to select.  What comes as great comfort to me is that I'm hearing some two thousand years later exactly the same plaints that I might have made myself last Wednesday.  People simply don't change all that much.  There's a nice fairly archaic, formal, perhaps more literal translation of Horace's epsitles online; however, I want to share from the brilliant work of David Ferry.  It is instructive to compare the two.

from The Epistles of Horace Book I
"To Maecenas"
tr. David Ferry

Different people go in for different things,
For this, for that, or the other; that doesn't mean
They won't change their minds an hour later and
Go in for that, this, anything else instead.
"No place more beautiful that Baiae Bay."
The minute the rich man says it, that minute you know
His pleasure in Baiae Bay has spent itself,
And you know his libido will take him another way:
"Workmen, build me a house inland at Teanum."
Is the bed of the household Genius set up in the hall
Of the married man's house? Why of course he says:
I long for a bachelor's life, the best of all."
But move it out of the hall, and then he says,
"Being married, after all, is best of all."
How do you keep the face of this Proteus
From changing, time and Time again? The poor man?
Just like the rich man on a different budget.

 While there is a certain tedium/depression that emerges from a world in which wants change on a minute by minute basis, there is a certain comfort in knowing that it isn't a "sign of the times."

It is simply as St. Augustine noted:  "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, O Lord."

Adult Books for Kids?

A list of adult books that may be usable with kids--caveat Pater Materque

The Ulysses of. . .

Joshua Cohen nominates a Ulysses for twelve nations

Virginia Woolf would be horrified!

McInerny and Atwood

Commencement speech highlights from Jay McInerny and Margaret Atwood

Portuguese IV

Continuing the them first announced in yesterday's sonnet:

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor,
Most gracious singer of high poems! where
The dancers will break footing, from the care
Of watching up thy pregnant lips for more.
And dost thou lift this house's latch too poor
For hand of thine? and canst thou think and bear
To let thy music drop here unaware
In folds of golden fulness at my door?
Look up and see the casement broken in,
The bats and owlets builders in the roof!
My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.
Hush, call no echo up in further proof
Of desolation! there's a voice within
That weeps . . . as thou must sing . . . alone, aloof.

Because this is more a continuation of a thought, it, lack many sequels, lacks some of the power of the original, and yet there is so much that is striking here.  Her high regard for Robert in noting that cultured people will stumble in their dancing just because they wait for him to speak, and yet he chooses to spend time with her, "to let thy music drop here unaware//in folds of golden fulness at my door?"  He abandons his audience, the audience to which he is entitled and instead spends his poetry in fruitless and "unheard" pleading.  But it is not unheard, nor is it unappreciated, and one of the loveliest lines of this sonnet is the comparison of the two poets--the one representing society and its golden people, the other desolation--"my cricket chirps against thy mandolin. . . "

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Wave of the Future

The Guardian is OnLine

They seem to have a business model for this that will make sense, and from what I see of the coverage on one story, a wealth of information available.  Splendid and splendidly done.  No crouching behind gateways designed to lock people out.  Free access that will drive many to their sites and increase ad revenue and other sales features there.  It may not work, but it is a bold and convincing experiment.  A refreshing breeze from cyberspace.

More on Frankenstein

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein--a review

A book that has intrigued me, but to which I have never gotten in my reading.  This review (warning spoilers) makes me want to reconsider my present line-up.

More on Wordsworth

A short paper on the genesis of The Prelude

String Theory for Beginners

At Open Culture--Brian Greene on String Theory

On the Day of My Favorite Book. . .

a piece by Nicholson Baker about one of my favorite pieces of music--Debussy's La Mer

Joseph O'Connor

A review of Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor.

O'Connor has come recommended to me by friends and colleagues in Ireland.  I haven't yet taken up a book, but this certainly seems an interesting possibility.

A Bloomsday Greeting

Start here to see the posts today at Ulysses Seen for a taste of Bloomsday

And then join Biblioklept for a guide on how NOT to read Ulysses Please pay especially close attention to point 1--critical in actually enjoying the book the first time around.

An appreciation of Ulysses

And one must wonder why Ulysses comes up again and again at the list of top novels of all time.  And it isn't just the academics that list it here.  There are many, like myself, who have not an inkling of Academic interest in the matter (although my first awkward acquaintance was made in the groves of Academe).  To quote the King of Siam, "Is a puzzlement."  And will remain so.  I don't bother to examine why, I just accept the fact that when someone asks for a favorite, this is the novel that leaps to mind and comes sharply into focus.

Via UD an LA Times article on Bloomsday

Our Wordsworthian Interlude

A domestic moment:

from The Prelude Book IV
William Wordsworth

With new delight,
This chiefly, did I note my grey-haired Dame;
Saw her go forth to church or other work
Of state, equipped in monumental trim;
Short velvet cloak, (her bonnet of the like),
A mantle such as Spanish Cavaliers
Wore in old time. Her smooth domestic life,
Affectionate without disquietude,
Her talk, her business, pleased me; and no less
Her clear though shallow stream of piety
That ran on Sabbath days a fresher course;
With thoughts unfelt till now I saw her read
Her Bible on hot Sunday afternoons,
And loved the book, when she had dropped asleep
And made of it a pillow for her head.
I don't think this passage requires any gloss other than why I liked enough to pluck it out and share it with you.  I love the image of the woman who served for so many years as his mother in her finery--a velvet cloak and bonnet, old fashioned and elaborate, but in good repair--the finery for the work of state and the admission into Church.  And particularly the tenderness of the image of loving the Bible she was reading more when it became a pillow for her head.  There is something almost painfully tender in this image of Wordsworth observing his sleeping mother.

Sonnet III

Again, I don't promise or threaten a daily dose of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but I did want to get to this one because of an amusing and striking image.

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
Unlike our uses and our destinies.
Our ministering two angels look surprise
On one another, as they strike athwart
Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art
A guest for queens to social pageantries,
With gages from a hundred brighter eyes
Than tears even can make mine, to play thy part
Of chief musician. What hast thou to do
With looking from the lattice-lights at me,
A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through
The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
The chrism is on thine head,---on mine, the dew,---
And Death must dig the level where these agree.
 In the repertoire, a somewhat standard sonnet theme--"I am not worthy."  And here Ms. Browning emphasizes the strong differences between the two of them.  Robert, an up and coming poet, mingles with the august crowd--literati, glitterati, the figures and notables of his time-- whereas Elizabeth tends to be able to mingle with her family only.   What I liked and find remarkable and amusing here is the image of two stunned guardian angels colliding into one another at this unlikely meeting.  Surely there is and can be no more striking image for the unlikeliness of a proposed match.  And the last image which suggests a more successful Orpheus raising Elizabeth from her death-in-life is also stunning and lovely.

Do you begin to see what I mean when I spoke of the strength of these poems? Not the maudlin or mawkish things one might have concluded from a single line too often used and used out of context, no indeed, these are strong poems, with strong images, richly laced together and brought to a head.  These poems are indeed a "twined crown" that made eternal a moment in time and gave us a rich panoply of images from which to draw our metaphors for unlikely and nevertheless deep love.

Bloomsday--Oh, How to Celebrate?

Perhaps we go to this section from the begingging of "Wandering Rocks"

from Ulysses
James Joyce

THE SUPERIOR, THE VERY REVEREND JOHN CONMEE S. J, RESET HIS smooth watch in his interior pocket as he came down the presbytery steps. Five to three. Just nice time to walk to Artane. What was that boy's name again? Dignam, yes. Vere dignum et justum est. Brother Swan was the person to see. Mr Cunningham's letter. Yes. Oblige him, if possible. Good practical catholic: useful at mission time.

A onelegged sailor, swinging himself onward by lazy jerks of his crutches, growled some notes. He jerked short before the convent of the sisters of charity and held out a peaked cap for aims towards the very reverend John Conmee S. J. Father Conmee blessed him in the sun for his purse held, he knew, one silver crown.

Father Conmee crossed to Mountjoy square. He thought, but not for long, of soldiers and sailors, whose legs had been shot off by cannonballs, ending their days in some pauper ward, and of cardinal Wolsey's words: If I had served my God as I have served my king He would not have abandoned me in my old days. He walked by the treeshade of sunnywinking leaves and towards him came the wife of Mr David Sheehy M. P.

Or perhaps Blooms long walk through the city from the North side of the Liffey to the National Library as recounted in "Laestrygonians" (the first from a statue in front of and to the north of Trinity College and the second from a pub just off Grafton street, perhaps three blocks away.)

from Ulysses
James Joyce 

He crossed under Tommy Moore's roguish finger. They did right to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters. Ought to be places for women. Running into cakeshops. Settle my hat straight. There is not in this wide world a vallee. Great song of Julia Morkan's. Kept her voice up to the very last. Pupil of Michael Balfe's wasn't she?


He backed towards the door. Get a light snack in Davy Byrne's. Stopgap. Keep me going. Had a good breakfast.

-- Roast and mashed here.

-- Pint of stout.

Every fellow for his own, tooth and nail. Gulp. Grub. Gulp. Gobstuff.

He came out into clearer air and turned back towards Grafton street. Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!

Suppose that communal kitchen years to come perhaps. All trotting down with porringers and tommycans to be filled. Devour contents in the street. John Howard Parnell example the provost of Trinity every mother's son don't talk of your provosts and provost of Trinity women and children, cabmen, priests, parsons, fieldmarshals, archbishops. From Ailesbury road, Clyde road, artisans' dwellings, north Dublin union, lord ma in his gingerbread coach, old queen in a bathchair. My plate's empty. After you with our incorporated drinkingcup. Like sir Philip Crampton's fountain. Rub off the microbes with your handkerchief. Next chap rubs on a new batch with his. Father O'Flynn would make hares of them all. Have rows all the same. All for number one. Children fighting for the scrapings of the pot. Want a soup pot as big as the Phoenix Park. Harpooning flitches and hindquarters out of it. Hate people all round you. City Arms hotel table d'hôte she called it. Soup, joint and sweet. Never know whose thoughts you're chewing. Then who'd wash up all the plates and forks? Might be all feeding on tabloids that time. Teeth getting worse and worse.

After all there's a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth garlic, of course, it stinks Italian organgrinders crisp of onions, mushrooms truffles. Pain to animal too. Pluck and draw fowl. Wretched brutes there at the cattlemarket waiting for the poleaxe to split their skulls open. Moo. Poor trembling calves. Meh. Staggering bob. Bubble and squeak. Butchers' buckets wobble lights. Give us that brisket off the hook. Plup. Rawhead and bloody bones. Flayed glasseyed sheep hung from their haunches, sheepsnouts bloodypapered snivelling nosejam on sawdust. Top and lashers going out. Don't maul them pieces, young one.

Hot fresh blood they prescribe for decline. Blood always needed. Insidious. Lick it up, smoking hot, thick sugary. Famished ghosts.

Ah, I'm hungry.

He entered Davy Byrne's. Moral pub. He doesn't chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once.

What will I take now? He drew his watch. Let me see now. Shandygaff?

However you may choose to celebrate, may it be a fine day for you--a good day for walking, for eating, for debating,  for meeting with friends, and for celebrating life in all of its quotidian glory.  And contra Joyce, in some ways, it is helpful to remember, "This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it."  For all of its pain, suffering, and sorrows, life is grand and Ulysses gives us a clearer picture of that than almost any other book I can think of.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Talk About Steampunk

The perfect infusion of the luddite into the modern--see the typewriter extension for the iPad.

I should have noted that this looks like a machine out of Burroughs's Naked Lunch via David Cronenberg.

Award Nominated Stories as Free E-Books

Tor is making four award-nominated stories available for free on iPad, iPod Touch, and Kindle and Sony platforms.

Click Again

Ori Brafman, co-author of Click: The Magic of Instant Connections, interviewed

You can check out one review of the Click here.

Burqa and Niqab

News from Spain

And another article on banning in burqa in public

I'm not so certain about this one.  I think the intent may be good, but the understanding may be weak.  Is it offensive to the dignity of women?  In Western eyes, certainly it is.  But the question is how do the women themselves feel about it?  Of course the argument may be made that women living under systematic oppression cannot say how they REALLY feel about it.

There is a simple aspect to this--the government has the right and responsibility to protect all citizens and ready identification of any person is a reasonable expectation in any government building.  However, there are those who say that this is a half-measure, that to mean anything at all the burqa must be banned in all public locations.  And this I must wonder about.  Must we also ban the wearing of a mantilla?  Is that not also offensive to the dignity of a woman?  Should we eschew and strictly limit any public display of religious artifacts?

I'm not a fan of the burqa myself.  I am sympathetic to the argument that it can be interpreted as demeaning to a woman.  But I also recognize the ingrained prejudice I operate from. And I have read arguents from Muslim women themselves who do not find it either demeaning or oppressive.

I also have to wonder about these blanket statements regarding the dignity of women and wearing the burqa.  They may be true; they may be cultural prejudices.  I just don't know enough to distinguish, and until it is perfectly clear, I'm certainly not willing to restrict the rights of individuals on the basis of my own prejudices.  

I don't know whether my opposition to the burqa is rooted in prejudice or whether it is right-thinking.  Until then--I think the government must act to make every as secure as reasonably possible in government buildings; however, whether that should extend beyond the limited government purview is something that should be examined carefully for echoes and repercussions.

On the other hand, articles like this one about the ascendancy of ultra-nationalist and other fringe politicians, lead one to question motives.  The news is old (2007) but has the trend actually changed?

Approaching the Great Day

UD offers us another beautiful Bloomsday Blogpost

And this summative blogpost by an amateur reader of Ulysses

Some very nice thoughts about Joyce's prose and particularly about the Penelope section of Ulysses is these two posts.  As the amateur reader notes, Penelope is not nearly so difficult as it sounds when described.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Wordsworth

I return us now to the briefly abandoned (so it might seem to you) Wordsworth.  I gave you a respite, but my own progress through the book depends in part on my continued sharing of what I find there.  I find that telling you about its wonders keeps me plowing through them and relishing them.  I will admit that it is not easy to read through a book-length poem--no matter how fine the poetry--I remember my struggle with Paradise Lost, and with other, similar works.  And the less epic, the less mythic, the poem, the more difficult.  The Prelude is an intimate epic--not the expansive expression of a golden age of heroes, but the canny and careful observation of a poet coming into being.

But this next piece I share for the sheer delight of the scene.  It says much about Wordsworth, about poetic composition, and about poetry.  But it also says much about a dog.

from The Prelude Book IV
William Wordsworth

Among the favourites whom it pleased me well
To see again, was one by ancient right
Our inmate, a rough terrier of the hills;
By birth and call of nature pre-ordained
To hunt the badger and unearth the fox
Among the impervious crags, but having been
From youth our own adopted, he had passed
Into a gentler service. And when first
The boyish spirit flagged, and day by day
Along my veins I kindled with the stir,
The fermentation, and the vernal heat
Of poesy, affecting private shades
Like a sick Lover, then this dog was used
To watch me, an attendant and a friend,
Obsequious to my steps early and late,
Though often of such dilatory walk
Tired, and uneasy at the halts I made.
A hundred times when, roving high and low
I have been harassed with the toil of verse,
Much pains and little progress, and at once
Some lovely Image in the song rose up
Full-formed, like Venus rising from the sea;
Then have I darted forwards to let
My hand upon his back with stormy joy,
Caressing him again and yet again.
And when at evening on the public way
I sauntered, like a river murmuring
And talking to itself when all things
Are still, the creature trotted on before;
Such was his custom; but whene'er he met
A passenger approaching, he would turn
To give me timely notice, and straightway,
Grateful for that admonishment, I
My voice, composed my gait, and, with the air
And mien of one whose thoughts are free, advanced
To give and take a greeting that might save
My name from piteous rumours, such as wait
On men suspected to be crazed in brain.

The dog attends the poet.  "the fermentation, and the vernal heat//of poesy, affecting private shades//like a sick lover, then this dog was used//to watch me, an attendant and a friend."  So in the course of the poet's composition, he had with him this unlikely muse and audience--an attendant upon the poet at work as his fevered brain struggled with the words to pull them into shape, and shape them into verse.

The joy of composition is shared. We see the ecstatic reception of the new work on the part of the poet and his companion:

A hundred times when, roving high and low
I have been harassed with the toil of verse,
Much pains and little progress, and at once
Some lovely Image in the song rose up
Full-formed, like Venus rising from the sea;
Then have I darted forwards to let
My hand upon his back with stormy joy,
Caressing him again and yet again.

And finally, the dog as sentinel is just a wonderful image--the poet gadding about, paying no attention to what's going on around him, generally behaving as a madman, and the dog on the lookout to alert Wordsworth to the approach of company that might look upon these activities askance.

And so we continue.  More tomorrow--I love the work that I go through to read the poem--I love the labor of sharing it.  I hope that it encourages some of you to take it up--if even just a little, and enjoy some of the great poetry of any age.

Sonnet II

These are too lovely to gloss once and leave be.  And they're short so they are easily read, more easily skipped.  But each is worth the time it takes to read and reread a short poem in a day.

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


But only three in all God's universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,---Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us . . . that was God, . . . and laid the curse
So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,---that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. 'Nay' is worse
From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;
Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

Read after the first, and in dialogue with it, Mrs. Browning continues the thought that began there when she discovered that she was caught up by love, not death.  The harbinger of this is Robert himself--so we seem to have three, and it is an ambiguous three, but Himself is in all likelihood a reference to God, "beside thee speaking" is Robert who has demanded in the previous poem, "Guess now who holds thee," and Elizabeth.  And one of those three--though it does not say which one, says that the act itself, love holding one in thrall "that was God."  And this seeming blasphemy, this inconceivable thought is so unbearable, so utterly out of all her previous experience that it shuts her off from everything more thoroughly than pennies on a dead woman's eyes "the deathweights placed there, would have signified less absolute exclusion".  And this traces the real experience.  Of the many, many love letters that Robert wrote to Elizabeth, the first, in which he declares his love for her is the only one missing.  One can conjecture--and perhaps biographies bear this out, that the sentiments expressed in the letter were so unthinkable, so like a mockery and a trial, that Elizabeth destroyed the letter. 

A no from God is worse than from all others because if mere human agency should strive to prevent that they should come together, there is much that could be done by mere human agency to avert that end.  But God's nay. . . well, perhaps even that is not insurmountable after all, for "heaven being rolled between us at the end//we should but vow the faster for the stars."  We would need to go beyond heaven to reach the conclusion we desire.  We might vow faster for the stars; however, God, should he choose to do so could still exclude.  It is the uncertain, trembling sort of end that makes the poem so powerful.  We would struggle to our last, but God still has the final say, and we might make our vows and plight our troth, but it is still God who establishes it or washes it away.

Close reading of these poems reveals much about the two (Elizabeth and Robert) and perhaps even more about the world in which we live.  The poems are so intensely personal, so soul-plumbing and so depth-defying, that they become universal.  It is an interesting example of the universal within the personal--meaning arising strictly out of our own experience.

I don't know if I will continue this series, but even if I do not--you all would do well to take up the book yourself and read how interrelated, intertwined, and complex the layering of this series is.  As Robert himself so aptly put it in the letter excerpted yesterday, "Yes, that was a strange, heavy crown, that wreath of Sonnets, put on me one morning, unawares, three years after it had been twined."That twining is more than metaphor to cap a pretty figure of speech--the poems are labyrinthine, carefully constructed and deeply self-referential and recursive, some of the same figures return again and again to achieve new meaning and new depth.  Do yourself a favor and spend the time to read these as a single lovely long poem.  You won't regret it.