Cats, monkeys, parrots and a pelican

Shylock-Tubal

https://shakespeareillustration.org/2016/08/13/shylock-and-tubal/

‘Though I had to run to London several times’, Edward Fitzgerald wrote to Frederick Tennyson on 8 June 1852, ‘I generally ran back as fast as I could; much preferring the fresh air and the fields to the smoke and ‘“the wilderness of monkeys”’ in London.’

That last phrase comes from The Merchant of Venice—by the dramatist of whom Fitzgerald wrote, ‘What astonishes me is, Shakespeare: when I look into him, it is not a Book, but People talking all round me.’[1] Tubal tells Shylock he has been shown a ring that one of Antonio’s creditors ‘had of your daughter for a monkey.’ Shylock is hugely upset by the news since the ring was a turquoise given to him by Leah, before she became his wife: ‘I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys’ (III.i).

My Arden edition, so wedded to extensive and detailed footnotes, has nothing to add here. But recurrences of the phrase, with embellishments, or near misses or oblique references, have offered other editors and annotators hours of fun.

‘Excuse these moans’, Ivor Gurney wrote to Mrs Voynich in April 1916. ‘But I am as a bottle in the smoke, a mouldy pelican in a howling wilderness of monkeys.’ A footnote here points to the Book of Common Prayer, Psalm cxix (bottle in the smoke) and the pelican ‘(not mouldy)’ in Psalm cii, while commenting on Gurney’s ‘also mixing in the “wilderness of monkeys” from Shylock’s valuing of his ring in The Merchant of Venice, III, i.’[2]

Ten years later, C. E. Montague wrote in Rough Justice of his characters, ‘Molly and Auberon too, making no show among parrots and monkeys, but still somehow right’.[3] Parrots and monkeys now? An Army phrase meaning goods and chattels, personal possessions, Eric Partridge tells us, citing a later catchphrase: ‘All right! Pick up your parrots and monkeys, and get mobile’.[4]

Newton-Long-John-Silver

(Robert Newton as Long John Silver – with parrot)

Pelicans, parrots, monkeys. Something missing? Ah. In Some Do Not. . ., the first volume of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, he has Christopher Tietjens remember ‘the words of some Russian: “Cats and monkeys. Monkeys and cats. All humanity is there.”’ ‘Some Russian’, forsooth! It was the New Yorker Henry James, as Ford’s editor, Max Saunders, documents in a footnote: ‘See Henry James, “The Madonna of the Future” (1873), which repeats the sentence: “Cats and monkeys, monkeys and cats; all human life is there!”: The Tales of Henry James, ed. Maqbool Aziz, vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 202–32 (226, 232).’[5] Fordian numerologists will savour the publication date of James’s story (the year of Ford’s birth).

Nor is this the volume’s only dealings with these furry constituents of ‘all humanity’. Less than fifty pages later, Mrs Wannop, writer and mother of Valentine, addresses Christopher Tietjens. ‘“My dear boy,” she said. “Life’s a bitter thing. I’m an old novelist and know it. There you are working yourself to death to save the nation with a wilderness of cats and monkeys howling and squalling your personal reputation away. . . ”’ This further twist engages the editor again: ‘While “cats and monkeys” echoes the phrase noted on 100 above, the addition of “wilderness” here adds another echo, to The Merchant of Venice, III.i.112–14, when Shylock says to his friend: “Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”’ Four more pages and the stalwart Mrs Wannop remarks, ‘“Of course, I back my daughter against the cats and monkeys.”’[6] As who would not?

Valentine-in-Parades-End-008

(Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop in the BBC/HBO series of Parade’s End)

A decade before Some Do Not. . ., Ford had devoted an entire book to Henry James, in the course of which he quoted that final sentence of ‘The Madonna of the Future’ twice, the second time while he was comparing aspects of James and another of Ford’s most admired confrères, Turgenev: ‘For the Russian could never have written The Turn of the Screw; and, if he could have given us Daisy Miller, he certainly could not have written “Cats and monkeys, monkeys and cats – all human life is there. . .”’[7]

Not that it’s all literary larks. Jaap Goudsmit’s 1997 study, Viral Sex, discussed the possible lines of descent of HIV and SIV (Simian immunodeficiency, a virus found in primates), mentioning that monkeys and cats ‘in the same household might sometimes become companions and groom each other.’ That they would also fight is shown in tomb paintings dating from the reigns of Amenhotep III and Horemheb, both fourteenth century BC. ‘So more than three thousand years ago, Egyptian domestic culture gave cat viruses the chance to infect monkeys.’[8]

Cats and monkeys. Monkeys and cats.

References

[1] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), II 56, 372.

[2] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 78 and fn.

[3] C. E. Montague, Rough Justice (London: Chatto & Windus 1926), 204.

[4] Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th edition, edited by Paul Beale (London: Routledge, 1984), 856.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 100 and fn.

[6] Ford, Some Do Not. . ., 148 and fn., 152.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Henry James: A Critical Study (London: Martin Secker, 1914), 140, 143. As the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations points out, from the late 1950s, ‘All human life is there’ became the slogan of the News of the World. They may not have come across it in their studies of Henry James, of course. Chapter Five of Fred Kaplan’s 1992 biography of James is entitled ‘“Cats and Monkeys”’.

[8] Jaap Goudsmit, Viral Sex: The Nature of AIDS (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 129.

Larking about

Henry, George, 1858-1943; The Lark
(George Henry, The Lark: Newport Museum and Art Gallery)

After last week, when the rain drenched and draggled so doggedly that I was reminded of Louis MacNeice’s comment on ‘those April showers which in Ireland persist for twelve months’,[1] we are back to more settled unsettled weather, veering from sunshine to rain in the merest jiffy. We’re even promised a heat wave soon.

In a cool room, anyway, inching my eyes down the page, I encounter this:

Can vei la lauzeta mover
De joi sas alas contral ray,
Que s · oblida e · s layssa cazer
Per la doussor qu · al cor li vai
,
O my!’

Hmm. Yet it seems faintly familiar. The next lines are: ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’.[2] I recalled Guy Davenport outlining his initial version of Ezra Pound, ‘first of all a man who had written a rich, barely comprehensible poem, a man whose portrait bust had been chiselled by Gaudier. My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education is such unconscious seduction.’[3]

henri gaudier-brzeska hieratic head of ezra pound 1914
(Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914: Tate)

I myself have signally failed to learn Provençal and must blunder along as best I can. Perhaps not Arnaut Daniel, and not Bertran de Born. I rummage in teetering piles. In Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, I find, ah yes, Bernard de Ventadour’s poem, translated there as prose: ‘When I see the lark beating with joy its wings against the ray of the sun until, oblivious, it swoons and drops for the sweetness which enters its heart’.[4] Ah, ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’ – so larks, like swifts, mate on the wing? Elsewhere, the poet W. D. Snodgrass offers rhymes:

‘Now when I see the skylark lift
His wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
Then let himself, oblivious, drift
For all his heart is glad and gay’.[5]

And, of course, the path snakes back to Pound: ‘When I see the lark a-moving / For joy his wings against the sunlight, / Who forgets himself and lets himself fall / For the sweetness which goes into his heart’.[6] That must be where I first saw it, thirty years back, probably more. So early in Pound’s career; but, very late in that career, in one of the last scraps of Cantos, the fragment ending ‘To be men not destroyers’, we find this:

“es laissa cader”
so high toward the sun and then falling,
“de joi sas alas”
to set here the roads of France.

In fact, the third line of Bernard’s verse has appeared in the first of the Pisan Cantos; the line about the roads of France, two cantos later.[7] And, apart from the sources of a Bible and an anthology of poetry, the Pisan Cantos are, of course, primarily memories—fragmentary, often imperfect, no doubt, adhering in odd patterns and permutations—mixed with observation of the day-to-day life of the camp. In retrospect, among Pound’s glimpses of paradise were life in pre-war London and his great ventures into Provence, in 1912, 1919 and 1924, but particularly the first. ‘Or, again, a man may walk the hill roads and river roads from Limoges and Charente to Dordogne and Narbonne and learn a little, or more than a little, of what the country meant to the wandering singers, he may learn, or think he learns, why so many canzos open with speech of the weather; or why such a man made war on such and such castles.’[8]

Layng, Mabel Frances, 1881-1937; The Gypsy
(Mabyl Frances Lang, The Gypsy: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Or a man might write ‘The Gypsy’ or ‘Provincia Deserta’—or ‘Near Perigord’:

Take the whole man and ravel out the story.
He loved this lady in castle Montaignac?
The castle flanked him—he had need of it.
You read to-day, how long the overlords of Perigord,
The Talleyrands, have held the place, it was no transient fiction.
And Maent failed him? Or saw through the scheme?[9]

The lark is, I gather, ‘one of the most popular birds in post-classical Europeans poetry.’ I am directed to Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton. Tennyson, Dante, Goethe, Shelley and Blake, among others.[10] It was George Meredith’s poem that gave Vaughan Williams the title of his ‘tone poem’, The Lark Ascending. It sometimes seems that this piece has been damned by its widespread popularity, though I don’t tire of it any more than I tire of, say, the several points on Somerset and Dorset roads where you breast a rise between trees and the world suddenly opens up, with great sweeps of country on either side and the clear sky fled endlessly away—or, in bookish vein, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or yes (I’ve just confirmed) Hergé’s adventures of Tintin. A sweetness entering the heart – more or less.

References

[1] Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, edited E. R. Dodds (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 216.

[2] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 56.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound, 1885-1972’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174.

[4] Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, edited and translated by Alan R. Press (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press, 1971), 77.

[5] W. D. Snodgrass, ‘The Skylark’, in Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, edited by Robert Kehew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 75.

[6] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 41.

[7] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802, 431, 455. In fact, Bernard’s poem crops up in Canto VI (22) as well.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Troubadours – Their Sorts and Conditions’ (1913), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 95.

[9] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 304.

[10] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 104, 105.

 

‘Feed the brutes’: Rupert Brooke

Brooke

In Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona, Jessica Vye tells Florence Bonne about one of the books given to her by Miss Philemon: it includes ‘some poems by a heavenly-looking man (there’s a photo) called Rupert Brooke, but he only seems to write about fish.’[1] ‘Heaven’ is certainly concerned with fish, as is—unsurprisingly—‘The Fish’ but Jessica probably suffered from the oddities of an anthologist’s choices. That ‘heavenly-looking man’, though, was attested to by many, certainly more than the famously smitten, such as Henry James and Sir Edward Marsh. ‘It was in 1913, I think, and I sitting in the Café Royal feeling amazingly grand, when a young man came in who had a great air of beauty and walked like a panther—and the person I was with said, There’s Rupert Brooke. The only time I set eyes on him. [ . . . ] It was a year when everything was happening [ . . . ] but nothing ever got between me and my impression of the young man walking like a panther.’[2]

On this date in 1915 (a popular anniversary: Shakespeare! Wordsworth! Prokofiev! Lee Miller!) Rupert Brooke died of septicaemia aboard a hospital ship in the Aegean, at the age of twenty-seven, and was buried on Skyros. His legacy often seems to have dwindled to a selection of brooding photographs, a few quotations from besotted admirers, occasional ‘iconoclastic’ versions of the life, pointing out that he wasn’t always as nice as he should have been, and a handful of poems loved by a certain kind of reader and dismissed with a sniff by another kind of reader.

Three years ago, in the Times Literary Supplement (24 April, 2015, 13-15), William Wootten, wrote about Brooke’s afterlives, not least those envisaged by Brooke himself, though generally in terms of dust and scuffed earth rather than heavenly light or adoring readers. He traced a line connecting Brooke’s literary interests with those of T. S. Eliot a few years later. Brooke was deeply read in the work of John Webster (the subject of his dissertation) and other Jacobean dramatists, and recognised immediately the significance of Herbert Grierson’s landmark 1912 edition of Donne’s poems. ‘Had Brooke survived the war,’ Wootten commented, ‘he might well have made the gap between Georgian and Modernist seem far smaller than it has been made to appear.’ Of course, Brooke didn’t survive—but would, I suspect, not have made the case for such writers, often by practical demonstration in original poems, as Eliot did.

grantchester

https://dmdujour.wordpress.com/2016/06/02/rupert-brooke-the-old-vicarage-grantchester/

In November 1912, Brooke went to Berlin to stay with his Cambridge friend Dudley Ward. A few days later, T. E. Hulme arrived and Brooke met him at the station. They had several conversations about aesthetics, sitting outside the Café des Westens, though the ten days they spent often together didn’t lead to a friendship. In the following year, Hulme was one of the members of the jury that chose Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ as the best poem to have appeared in The Poetry Review that year, netting Hulme £30.[3] Edward Thomas, though friendly with Brooke and also on the jury, voted for Wilfrid Gibson.[4] The implied place and date of composition—or conception—of the poem, given in parentheses after the title, is ‘Café des Westens, Berlin, May 1912: this was the second of his four trips to Germany that year.

‘[Edward] Marsh gave me a book of English poems [Georgian Poetry]’, Stanley Spencer wrote to his friends, Jacques and Gwen Raverat. ‘I like Rupert Brooke because he knows what teatime is’.[5] ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?’ These are not only two of the best-known lines in British poetry; they are two of the most deceptive, in that they’re often quoted as if comprising almost the entire poem. But that poem contains one hundred and forty lines; and eleven questions precede these two. There is also a lot more humour in the poem than is sometimes allowed for, ‘poor Brooke—he was wittier than I thought’, as Elizabeth Bishop remarked.[6]

I only know that you may lie
Day-long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .

Before the outbreak of war, Brooke would travel to North America and the Pacific (which produced some of his most interesting work). In 1913, he wrote to Edward Thomas to explain that he hadn’t been able to get down to Hampshire to visit because ‘London gripped me too firmly by the ankle.’ Might Thomas be in the capital the following week? If so, he could charge Brooke with some message for the United States. ‘And I could leave the muses of England in your keeping—I do that anyhow. Feed the brutes. If I don’t see you, farewell.’[7]

Self-Portrait 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait, 1914, Tate © Estate of Stanley Spencer)

On the last day of July 1914, Brooke wrote to Stanley Spencer (‘Dear Cookham’), ‘But this damned war business. . . . If fighting starts, I shall have to enlist, or go as a correspondent. I don’t know. It will be Hell to be in it: and Hell to be out of it.’[8] Brooke was not really a war poet: his five sonnets are essentially the total of his ‘war poetry’. But he saw the effects of war closely enough, in Antwerp, writing to Leonard Bacon on11 November 1914, ‘That was like Hell, a Dantesque Hell, terrible. But there—and later—I saw what was a truer Hell. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, their goods on barrows and hand-carts and perambulators and waggons, moving with infinite slowness out into the night, two unending lines of them, the old men mostly weeping, the women with hard white drawn faces, the children playing or crying or sleeping.’ And, later in the same letter: ‘It’s a great life, fighting, while it lasts, The eyes grows clearer and the heart. But it’s a bloody thing, half the youth of Europe blown through pain to nothingness, in the incessant mechanical slaughter of these modern battles. I can only marvel at human endurance.’[9]

skyros-brooke-grave

Brooke’s poetic reputation has often struggled to stay alive among ‘serious’ readers, the established image of him and the symbolic burdens he’s been made to bear tending to obscure his writing and the few good poems to be found there. That figure of the naively patriotic, sentimental pastoralist of Edwardian England was not quite him. The narrator of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel writes of Hugo Macmillan, Vesey’s uncle: ‘He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war – a tremendous achievement – and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices’.[10] The ironic thrust of this (‘all through the war’) is that Brooke’s death was indispensable to his dazzling afterlife, that celebrity in turn often obscuring what was authentic in his work.

References

[1] Jane Gardam, A Long Way from Verona (Penguin Books, 1973), 74,

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner to Leonard Bacon, 23 August 1952, in Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 136.

[3] Robert Ferguson, The Short Sharp Life of T. E. Hulme (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 134-136; Alun R. Jones, The Life and Opinions of T. E. Hulme (London: Gollancz, 1960), 99.

[4] Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 202.

[5] Kenneth Pople. Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 52.

[6] Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, 30 July 1964, in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 548.

[7] The Letters of Rupert Brooke, edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 459.

[8] Letters of Rupert Brooke, 601.

[9] Letters of Rupert Brooke, 632, 633.

[10] Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek (1951; New York: New York Review of Books, 2012), 12.

Books, music-hall, lovers, cats, Colette

Colette-3

This week’s Times Literary Supplement reprinted a 1985 review of Deep into Mani: Journey to the southern tip of Greece by Peter Greenhalgh and Edward Eliopoulos. The reviewer was Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose evident delight in the book was based on an intimate knowledge of the region described and the existing literature about it (his own Mani had appeared almost thirty years before). He was, then, in his accustomed context. A slightly less familiar one is as translator on the title page of Julie de Carneilhan and Chance Acquaintances by Colette, two novellas written and published during the Nazi occupation of France, which appeared in English in 1952. He ‘usually enjoyed her writing but having to correct the proofs in a rush soured him for Colette.’ Still, the money was useful.[1]

Colette-4

(Via http://www.musee-colette.com/)

Novelist, autobiographer, journalist and short-story writer (and actress and dancer) Colette was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette on 28 January 1873, in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a village in Burgundy. ‘To those who live in the country and use their eyes everything becomes alike miraculous and simple.’[2] She was allowed, she remembered, to go out at 3.30 in the morning, walking towards the kitchen-gardens. ‘I went alone, for there were no dangers in that free-thinking countryside. It was on that road and at that hour that I first became aware of my own self, experienced an inexpressible state of grace, and felt one with the first breath of air that stirred, the first bird, and the sun so newly born that it still looked not quite round.’[3] As a teenager, she wanted to be a doctor, ‘an ambition all the more extraordinary’ since there were only seven woman doctors in the whole of France at that time.[4]

Famously, Colette’s earliest books were credited to Henri Gauthier-Villars, ‘Willy’, whom she had married when she was 20 (he was fifteen years older): his part in them seems, rather, to have been that of editing, suggesting and prompting. Colette left him in 1906 and worked as a music-hall performer to earn a living. For many years, she was involved with the stage, with literary journals, with music.

‘The opening, last night, was epic. The orchestra conductor, as we saw too late, was not an orchestra conductor but a wine merchant. Musically, the evening was a disaster, for the other numbers as well as our own. Backstage everyone was howling, and the audience booed the conductor. It was stunning!’[5]

She published nearly eighty volumes, which is one point of affinity with another writer whose birth year she shared, Ford Madox Ford—there are perhaps two others: a deep love of France and a complex, mutable relationship between fiction and autobiography.

A wonderfully sensuous writer, she powerfully evokes her early years, her relationship with her mother, her schooldays, the smells, sights and sounds not only of her childhood and girlhood but also of the Paris and Provence of her adult life. She was a mass of contradictions but had a wonderful eye for detail, an ear for tone and feeling, a fiercely intimate relationship with the physical world. ‘We do not look, we never look enough, never attentively enough, never excitedly enough.’[6]

Colette2

Some of her remarks about the South ultimately conquering its conquerors recall similar statements from Ford and Joseph Roth: ‘The barbarians from the north parcel out the land, speculate and deforest, and that is certainly a great pity. But during the course of the centuries how many ravishers have not fallen in love with such a captive? They arrive plotting to ruin her, stop suddenly and listen to her breathing in her sleep, and then, turning silent and respectful, they softly shut the gate in the fence.’[7] She wrote lyrically too about Brittany: ‘I wish you could see Rozven, with its cove of green sea, its complicated rocks, the little woods, the old and new trees, the warm terrace, the rosebushes, my yellow room, and the beach to which the tides bring treasures—mauve coral, polished shells, and sometimes casks of whale oil or benzine, from far-off shipwrecks. And I have a rocky perch, between the sky and the sea . . . ’[8]

Colette’s father, Le Capitaine (Jules-Joseph Colette), died in 1905. He was an ex-captain of the select Zouave infantry, born in Toulon and trained at Saint-Cyr, and had lost his left leg in Italy in 1859. She recalled the row of volumes well-bound in boards, covered in marble paper, on the highest shelves of the family library. The titles, handwritten in Gothic lettering, were, she remarked, not tempting: My Campaigns, The Lessons of ’70, Elegant Algebra, Zouave Songs and others. After the Captain’s death, Colette’s brother went through those books. ‘The dozen volumes bound in boards revealed to us their secret, a secret so long disdained by us, accessible though it was. Two hundred, three hundred, one hundred and fifty pages to a volume: beautiful, cream-laid paper, or thick “foolscap” carefully trimmed, hundreds and hundreds of blank pages. Imaginary works, the mirage of a writer’s career.’[9]

She was divorced from Willy in 1910 and her beloved, maddening mother died two years later. Colette’s daughter Bel-Gazou was born in 1913. the year after her second marriage to Henry de Jouvenel. In the first winter of the war, she managed to get through the lines and join Henri at Verdun.[10] She wrote extensively about that war (and the next one): her reports for Le Matin were later collected as Les Heures Longues, sections of which are translated in Earthly Paradise.

Gigi-film-poster

Admired by Edith Wharton, Cocteau, André Gide, W. H. Auden, Somerset Maugham, she crops up constantly in the literary history of the first half of the twentieth-century. In 1921, she writes to Marcel Proust in response to his sending her an inscribed copy, ‘If I were to tell you that I burrow in its pages every night before going to sleep, you would think I was merely offering you a hollow compliment. But the fact is, Jouvenel gets into bed every night to find me, your book, and my glasses. “I am jealous but resigned,” he says.’[11] As editor, in the office of Le Matin, she advises Georges Simenon to ‘Suppress all the literature and it will work’.[12] In November 1952, when François Mauriac wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘one of the first things he did was to call on Colette, who should have had it, he felt, in his place.’[13]

Chéri and The Last of Chéri, Break of Day, The Vagabond, the other more frankly autobiographical volumes, the stories, the letters: there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had; with the added attraction that she often makes me laugh.

‘It’s curious that the hat which is too small creates an impression of lunacy much more than does the hat that is too large. A lunatic hardly ever puts on his head a hat which is too big. He readily covers himself with a bottle-top, an empty matchbox, a child’s boat turned upside-down, a jampot.’[14]

A jampot is tempting but I’m currently opting for the bottle-top.

References

[1] Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (London: John Murray, 2012), 263-264; see also the letter to Joan Rayner [January 1952], in Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, selected and edited by Adam Sisman (London: John Murray, 2016), 60.

[2] Colette, My Mother’s House, translated by Una Vincenzo Troubridge and Enid McLeod, in My Mother’s House & Sido (Penguin, 1966), 61.

[3] Colette, Sido, translated by Enid McLeod, in My Mother’s House & Sido, 147.

[4] Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 54.

[5] To Léon Hamel, Dijon, 22 September 1910: Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps (London: Virago Press, 1982), 17.

[6] Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975), 149.

[7] Colette, Break of Day [La Naissance du Jour], translated by Enid McLeod (1928; London: The Women’s Press, 1979), 14.

[8] To Louis de Robert, early April 1911: Letters from Colette, 22.

[9] Colette, Sido, in My Mother’s House & Sido, 182.

[10] Colette, Earthly Paradise: An autobiography drawn from her lifetime writing by Robert Phelps (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 18.

[11] Letters from Colette, 63.

[12] Patrick Marnham, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1994), 112.

[13] Robert Phelps, Belles Saisons: A Colette Scrapbook (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978), 269.

[14] Looking Backwards, 138.

Odysseys: man—and woman—of many devices

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Ulysses deriding Polyphemus- Homer's Odyssey

(J. M. W. Turner, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus
Photo credit: National Gallery)

Standing in the bright kitchen, darkness still pressing closely against the windows, waiting for the coffee to brew, I turn the pages of The Odyssey, the first published translation into English of Homer’s epic by a woman, Emily Wilson, (British) Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thinking of the beginning of the poem in English, the phrase I usually have in my head is ‘Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices’. I can’t now be sure of precisely where that came from. The closest is the old Loeb edition, translated by Murray, except that he seems to have ‘O Muse’. I thought it might be E. V. Rieu’s prose translation from 1946, the first-ever Penguin Classic, later revised by his son. That was certainly the first version I ever read but the copy I now have begins: ‘Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man’.[1]

‘Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns’, Robert Fagles has it.[2] And Emily Wilson? ‘Tell me about a complicated man.’ The next line begins ‘Muse’—I’d thought at first the opening line ended with a comma but it doesn’t.

Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.[3]

Not having the Greek for purposes of comparison, I go by ear as, I presume, the vast majority of readers must. Or I simply trust Guy Davenport, who did know Greek and translated Sappho, Herondas, Archilocos and Herakleitos, among others. In his essay ‘Another Odyssey’, he discusses translations by Richmond Lattimore (the ostensible occasion for the essay), Butcher and Lang, Robert Fitzgerald, William Cullen Bryant, William Morris, T. E. Lawrence, Chapman, Pope, Christopher Logue and Samuel Butler—opening with the poet Salvatore Quasimodo’s rendering of the opening lines of the third book of The Odyssey into Italian. Davenport mentions ‘the two most exciting translations from Homer in recent years’—Robert Fitzgerald’s and Christopher Logue’s—and quotes an extract from the nineteenth book of The Iliad as translated first by Lattimore, then by Logue. ‘We have all been taught,’ Davenport comments, ‘to prefer the former, out of a shy dread before Homer’s great original; we instinctively, if we have ever felt a line of poetry before, prefer the latter.’[4] Davenport was writing in 1968 and estimated that there had been at least fifty versions in English of Homer’s second epic poem. There have been around twenty since then, with three just in the past year (Emily Wilson, Peter Green and Anthony Verity).

Wilson-Odyssey

Wilson’s version goes with a swing because she’s opted to use iambic pentameter, the traditional metre of English narrative poetry (she also matches the poems line by line). ‘The original’, she points out, ‘is written in a highly rhythmical form of verse. It reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse.’ The Odyssey, she argues, ‘needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud.’[5] True enough; I can vouch for the efficacy of that rhythm, having begun reading her Odyssey aloud to the Librarian.

The beginning of the poem is a very obvious point of comparison: the address to the muse, which seems straightforward but is, apparently, not. As far as my fingertip decipherings in Liddell and Scott’s dictionary go, Odysseus could be described as ‘much-turned, i.e. much-travelled, wandering’, turning many ways, versatile, ingenious, changeful or manifold. Plenty of scope there, then.

(Emily Wilson discusses the decisions to be made about that single word, polytropos, here:
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/magazine/the-first-woman-to-translate-the-odyssey-into-english.html )

I’m reminded of the debate over the ‘correct’ rendering of Camus’ ‘maman’ in the first line of The Outsider (or The Stranger, as it’s always been known to the far west of me). I always remember that line as ‘Mother died today’, probably from Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 translation, which was followed only after a long interval by Joseph Laredo’s version, then by translations from Kate Griffith, Matthew Ward and Sandra Smith. ‘Mother’ seems to have shifted only as far as ‘my mother’, with the exception of Ward’s reversion to maman.

It’s a question of relative formality (mother, mum, mummy, mom) but there are obvious cultural differences too, French retaining certain formalities or faint memories of a courtliness which English and American speakers have largely shed. The issue was discussed by Ryan Bloom in The New Yorker (11 May 2012), where, reviewing Camus’ opening sentence—‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’­—he concluded: ‘The ordering of words in Camus’s first sentence is no accident: today is interrupted by Maman’s death. The sentence, the one we have yet to see correctly rendered in an English translation of “L’Étranger,” should read: “Today, Maman died.”’
(See: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lost-in-translation-what-the-first-line-of-the-stranger-should-be )

‘He observed, that all works which describe manners, require notes in sixty or seventy years, or less’, Boswell remarks of Samuel Johnson.[6] Cultural habits, cultural assumptions, such things change constantly, in both small and fundamental ways. So do expectations of who might read a literary work: their gender, their social class, their level of education. But as to who might read this Odyssey, it’s pretty safe to venture ‘anyone at all’.

References

[1] Homer, The Odyssey, revised translation by D. C. H. Rieu, in consultation with Peter V. Jones (London: Penguin, 1991), 3.

[2] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (London: Penguin, 1997), 77.

[3] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson (New York: Norton, 2017), 105. Caroline Alexander’s The Iliad: A New Translation (Vintage, 2016) is, apparently, the first published version in English of that poem by a woman. See A. E. Stallings’ review of Alexander in The Spectator (9 April 2016).

[4] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 29-44; 36, 37.

[5] Wilson, ‘Translator’s Note’, 81, 82.

[6] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 509.

Sleep and his brother

Archer, James, 1823-1904; La mort d'Arthur

(James Archer, La mort d’Arthur: Manchester Art Gallery)

Commanded by ‘Zeus the cloud-gatherer’, Apollo ‘did exactly as he was told’.

He carried Sarpedon out of the line of fire,
Washed him properly in a stream, in running water,
And rubbed supernatural preservative over him
And wrapped him up in imperishable fabrics
And handed him over to the speedy chaperons,
Sleep and his twin brother Death, who brought him
In no time at all to Lycia’s abundant farmland.’[1]

Michael Longley is rendering here a part of Homer’s Book XVI of the Iliad. What Zeus says to his son Apollo about another of his sons, Sarpedon, almost exactly repeats what Zeus’s wife Hera has earlier said to her husband when he expressed his wish to rescue Sarpedon from the murderous attention of Patroclus. Hera, reasonably enough, pointed out that, were he to save Sarpedon from his battlefield death, then other gods and goddesses might feel a little aggrieved, since many ‘sons of the immortals’ were engaged in the fight. Essentially, she says, while Zeus has the power to reprieve Sarpedon, to do so ‘would upset the balance of the world’.[2]

Running soldiers, vase, 6th century BC Attic (Greek) (detail)

Sleep and death. With characteristic elegance, Alice Oswald writes:

Sarpedon the son of Zeus
Came to this unseen ungrowing ground
Came from his cornfields from his leafy river
From his kingdom of paths and apple groves
And was killed by a spear
Then for a long time he lay crumpled as linen
Until two soft-voiced servants Sleep and Death
Carried him home again[3]

Richmond Lattimore has them as ‘swift messengers’[4] but I rather like that explicit characterisation of them as servants rather than masters. Given the acceptance of fate and its workings, what could be more natural than sleep or, indeed, death?

In Finland, I gather, 27th July is Sleepy Head Day, when the last person sleeping in the house tends to be doused with water. The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and is supposedly related to the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid in a cave to escape religious persecution and woke centuries later. There are long sleeps, absurdly long sleeps—and mythical sleeps. Legend insists that King Arthur and his knights are not dead but only sleeping until they are needed again. Malory wrote: ‘Yet som men say in many p[art]ys of Inglonde that kynge Arthur ys nat dede but h[ad] by the wyll of oure Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse.’[5] Tracing the ways in which Arthur’s memory was kept alive, through oral tradition, folk tales and ballads, to flourish in Victorian Britain, in Morris, Swinburne and most evidently in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Peter Ackroyd suggests that this is ‘the true significance of Arthur: by not dying, by being perpetually reborn, he represents the ideas of the English imagination.’[6]

Marguerite_Yourcenar

(Marguerite Yourcenar)

Some are deprived of the sleep they desire: Alethea Hayter writes of the opium addict that: ‘He is unable to sleep, and sometimes seems to be waiting for someone who never comes.’[7] For others, sleep is not wanted at all. The narrator of Michael Ondaatje’s novel remarks that ‘Sleep is a prison for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night, up before sunrise surrounded the ship.’[8] Sleep has its risks and dangers, its shifting borders. ‘But what interests me here’, Marguerite Yourcenar has her emperor Hadrian say, ‘is the specific mystery of sleep partaken of for itself alone, the inevitable plunge risked each night by the naked man, solitary and unarmed, into an ocean where everything changes, the colors, the densities, and even the rhythm of breathing, and where we meet the dead.’[9] And the Old Gypsy Woman says to the narrator of Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem, ‘Listen, my dear, this can’t go on, you can’t live in two worlds at once, in the world of reality and the world of dreams, that kind of thing leads to hallucinations, you’re like a sleepwalker walking with your arms outstretched, and everything you touch becomes part of your dream’.[10]

One of my favourite sleeping anecdotes occurs in a Sylvia Townsend Warner letter to her friend George Plank. ‘I will sit down to tell you about two very old & distant cousins of mine, brother & sister, who live together. She is in her nineties: he is a trifle younger. They were sitting together, he reading, she knitting. Presently she wanted something, and crossed the room to get it. She tripped, & fell on her back. So she presently said: Charlie, I’ve fallen & I can’t get up. He put down his book, turned his head, looked at her, and fell asleep.’[11]

So there’s that to look forward to.
References

[1] Michael Longley, ‘Sleep & Death’, Snow Water (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 42.

[2] Malcolm M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 185.

[3] Alice Oswald, Memorial (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 61.

[4] Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 348, line 671.

[5] The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Eugène Vinaver (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 873.

[6] Peter Ackroyd, Albion (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), 118.

[7] Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber, 1971), 69.

[8] Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 30.

[9] Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; Penguin Books, 2000), 26.

[10] Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (London: Harvill, 1994), 25.

[11] Letter of 14 February, 1960: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 180.

 

Slouching towards Bedlam

JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/joan-didion-the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

I was struck by an exchange in the recently printed Guardian interview with the BBC journalist and news presenter Clive Myrie:

You’ve worked all over the world. Which posting do you have the fondest memories of?
Being based in Los Angeles during the Clinton years. The USA, pre-9/11, was a much more carefree place and the Clinton White House was incredible to cover. Because I was based in Los Angeles, I wasn’t just covering hard news; I covered Central America, hurricanes in Honduras, the Oscars, three times, so there was a breadth of story-telling. Strangely enough, I would say America is the most alien place I have ever reported from. I think we have far more in common with northern Europeans than we will ever have with Americans.
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/dec/03/clive-myrie-bbc-should-be-treasured-interview-bbc-yemen

Yes, that, ‘strangely enough’ and ‘the most alien place’. Recently, in the wake of President Trump’s offensive response to Theresa May’s characteristically restrained criticism of his irresponsible re-tweeting of extremist videos, a number of British politicians and commentators are finally interrogating the lazy platitudes surrounding ‘the special relationship’. It has dawned on some people that the relationship was always rather more ‘special’ in one direction than in the other.

In the United Kingdom, we watch a great deal of American film and television; some of us read a lot of American literature; and the language we speak is, in some regards, broadly similar. And yes, apart from my US cultural consumption, I have American friends and acquaintances. I even follow, with increasingly appalled fascination, American politics. But I also never quite lose that sense of distance, of strangeness, of great stretches of material never touched on, better left aside and not embarked upon. Two continents separated by divergent categories of insupportable weirdness, perhaps.

I recall Guy Davenport recounting a visit to Ezra Pound, when the latter was confined in St Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington. Pound had given Davenport a book by Leo Frobenius and asked how he was travelling. Learning that he was returning home by train, Pound reversed the dust jacket so that the title would be invisible to those likely to be ‘driven to fury that learning was being freely transported about the Republic.’ Having himself been born in Anderson, South Carolina, Davenport merely commented that ‘Southerners take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted’.[1] And ‘unhinged’, yes, seems to be le mot juste, a fracturing of defences, a throwing open of doors to disorder and worse—much worse, as we see now.

(Leo Frobenius; Ezra Pound)

I’ve unsettled myself in an American context several times this year—I mean, apart from reading or watching the news in stark disbelief that such behaviour and such pronouncements can be tolerated in a Western democracy. What else has unsettled me? The Raoul Peck documentary, centring on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, for one, mostly in the yawning space of time between now and then set against the—in many ways—pitiful progress made since the events that the film deals with. Then the ten-part documentary series on The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: the political duplicity and deceitfulness, the casualness of the decision-making that doomed hundreds of thousands to unnecessary deaths, decisions in which the Vietnamese civilians weighed nothing at all, a blueprint for much that followed.

Tallent

On the printed page, in various ways and to varying degrees: rereading Flannery O’Connor, though I note her comment that, ‘of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’[2] Catching up on other titles, I finally read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I was already embarked upon when O’Brien cropped up in the Burns/Novick series; and A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching. Of newer books, Mary Gaitskill’s book of stories, Don’t Cry, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and, perhaps in particular, Gabriel Tallent’s risky, brave and disturbing novel, My Absolute Darling.

And then, noting that today is Joan Didion’s eighty-third birthday, I should mention South and West: From a Notebook, dating to the summer of 1970 and largely comprising material for a piece on the South that was never written. I’ve just read this book, and also watched the documentary, The Center Cannot Hold, directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently available on Netflix, a film which will, of course, send me back to reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

Didion has long been admired for her prose style and her ability to write the history of her time through the medium of the essay, as David Hare remarks in Dunne’s documentary. I know people who have always resisted her work, largely on political grounds—a child of conservative Republicans parents, she apparently voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election but would subsequently describe, in Political Fictions, ‘the abduction of American democracy’.[3] The political pieces that she gravitated towards, with the encouragement of Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books, including Salvador, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, about the notorious trial and conviction of the five black boys accused of the rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park, and ‘Cheney: The Fatal Touch’, complicate that picture.

South-and-West

There are details and comments in South and West that seem to connect with the present time with startling directness, as if by underground cable. In Biloxi, Didion noted: ‘[t]he isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.’ And, ‘[i]t occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?’[4]

In Alabama, she sees signs supporting George Wallace’s campaign: he would serve two consecutive terms as governor from 1971-1979. The thought occurs to Didion that ‘the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.’[5] That question of explicability came up several times in Naomi Klein’s recent book. Looking back at some of the destructive trends that she’d researched over many years, she observed that, as she began to research Donald Trump, ‘he started to seem like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together out the body parts of all these and many other dangerous trends.’ She added that, though Trump ‘breaks the mold in some ways, his shock tactics follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.’[6]

Joan Didion was also struck by ‘[t]he time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.’[7] As Nathaniel Rich observes, ‘An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.’ In such a view, he adds, ‘the past’ can in many ways be relegated to the ‘aesthetic realm’.[8] But, evidently, it is not safely dead: in fact, a great many people have never left it.

Not, of course, that such symptoms are confined to the United States. Alas.

References

[1] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174-175.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 815.

[3] John Leonard, ‘Introduction’ to Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), xv.

[4] Didion, South and West: From a Notebook, foreword by Nathaniel Rich (London: 4th Estate, 2017), 34, 55.

[5] South and West, 71.

[6] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 2.

[7] South and West, 104.

[8] Rich, ‘Foreword’, South and West, xviii.