Books, music-hall, lovers, cats, Colette


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]



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]


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.


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.


[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’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: )

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: )

‘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’.


[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)

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.

[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 via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here:

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.

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.


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.


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.


[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.





Finished sentences, tied shoelaces

(Sylvia Townsend Warner in her garden: via the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society)

‘We have just come back from Theodore Powys’s funeral’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to William Maxwell on 28 November 1953. ‘He died sooner, and with less misery than any of us dared expect, probably because he had made up his whole mind to it. I do not mean that he was resigned; but he was resolved. There was a great deal about the funeral that he would have approved of. To begin with, because of the lay-out of his front door, the coffin came out upright, as though it were walking out on its own volition, or rather, as though he were walking it out to its burial. It was a mild grey-skied day, the doors of the village church were open during the service, and while the parson was reading the lesson from St. Paul a flock of starlings descended on the churchyard and brabbled with their watery voices, almost drowning the solitary cawing rook inside the building. The parson, an old man, and a friend of Theodore’s, must have believed every word he said, and after the blessing he stood for some time at the foot of the grave in an oddly conversational attitude, as though, for this once, he had got the better of an argument.’[1]

A longish extract – but why settle for anything less?


(Theodore Francis Powys, by Howard Coster, 1934 © National Portrait Gallery)

Sylvia had met Powys (whose brothers included John Cowper and Llewellyn; his sisters the writer Philippa, the painter Gertrude, and the authority on lace and lace-making Marian) in March 1922—annus mirabilis for a good many writers other than James Joyce and T. S. Eliot—after a brief correspondence. Her friend Stephen Tomlin (‘Tommy’) had conveyed his strong interest in Powys, finally prompting Sylvia to read The Soliloquy of a Hermit (1916). Having visited him in East Chaldon—or Chaldon Herring, ‘as it is properly called in the Ordnance map though the postal name is East Chaldon’[2]—Sylvia was given the task of finding a publisher for a Powys manuscript and found her way to Tommy’s ‘only influential acquaintance in the literary world’. This was David Garnett, co-founder of the Nonesuch Press and currently a bookseller, whose novel, Lady into Fox would appear in October, with tremendous success. Garnett sent the story on to Chatto and Windus, who published The Left Leg (1923) when Powys added the title story and one more. The stories were dedicated to Tommy, Garnett and Sylvia.[3] Mr Tasker’s Gods (1925), Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927) and Unclay (1931) followed in the next few years, as did several further collections of stories. Douglas Goldring commented in Odd Man Out that ‘The Dorsetshire stories of T. F. Powys, which suburban critics find so morbid and unreal, seem to me to give an entirely truthful picture of peasant life as I observed it in Somerset.’[4]


(David Garnett)

In 1930, Sylvia bought a cottage opposite the inn called The Sailors Return in East Chaldon and, soon afterwards, began the relationship with Valentine Ackland which would last until Valentine’s death nearly forty years later.[5] Garnett, who had first visited the village in the summer of 1922, published his novel, The Sailor’s Return, in 1925.[6] Set in the late 1850s, it concerns an English sailor returning home with his black African wife to rent a Dorset village inn and the prejudice and hostility they encounter from local people. It’s been reprinted by Dorset publisher The Sundial Press:
who also publish books by Powys brothers Theodore, Llewellyn and John Cowper, including Theodore’s Unclay and Kindness in a Corner.

Garnett was instrumental in getting Sylvia Townsend Warner’s early work published and their close friendship produced scores of superb letters. There was a long, slightly mysterious hiatus in their contact, probably due to Valentine’s jealousy, but it resumed and continued until Sylvia’s death.

Near the end of her life, Warner wrote to Garnett: ‘You enjoy my letters, I enjoy yours. We are like those Etruscan couples who sit conversing on their tomb. We belong to an earlier and more conversational world, and tend to finish our sentences and tie up our shoelaces.’ And Garnett, on his travels, sent her vibrant reports filled with tantalising details, such as this from Campeche, Mexico: ‘In the square there is a bust to the lifelong mistress of Porfirio Diaz, the dictator, Señora Romero. He gave her a villa and had the railway line diverted to run in front of the windows because she liked watching trains.’[7] 


[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 44-45.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘T. F. Powys and Chaldon Herring’, in With the Hunted: Selected Writings, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2012), 54.

[3] Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989), 48-51.

[4] Douglas Goldring, Odd Man Out: The Autobiography of a “Propaganda Novelist” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1935), 47.

[5] Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner, 96-97.

[6] Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 23-25.

[7] Garnett, Sylvia and David, 213, 114.

‘The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin’


(Robert Phelps via Narrative)

‘As for credos, Monroe Wheeler, Glenway, and I were once walking along the gentle ridge above his house and I asked how each would summarise his philosophy. Monroe’s answer was straightforward, prompt: “I never want to be left out of the dance.” After a slow, foxy smile, Glenway reached down and picked up a stone. “I believe everything breathes; even this stone must utter a blissful sigh every millennium.”’

This is Robert Phelps, in the third of ‘three miniature portraits’ which he believed combined to offer a view of the writer Glenway Wescott, whose The Pilgrim Hawk (1940) and An Apartment in Athens (1945) I’ve read and admired.


Glenway Wescott, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936: Via the Beinecke Library, Yale University:

Phelps (born 16 November 1922) did publish one novel, though it was not successful: ‘a serious new writer like Robert Phelps produces in Heroes and Orators (1958) a complex and troubling study of homosexual love that goes unnoticed’, Leslie Fiedler commented.[1] Phelps was one of the co-founders of Grove Press, though he sold his share in it and turned to freelance writing. He’s best remembered now as the editor and translator of, particularly, Colette, introducing a great many readers to her work, primarily through his wonderful compilation of her own writings, superbly fitted together to form an autobiography, Earthly Paradise. He also edited her Collected Stories and worked the same sort of editorial magic on the writings of Jean Cocteau. His other major editing job was the journal of Glenway Wescott or rather, drawn from memos, newspaper clipping and carbon copies of letters, Phelps remarked, ‘in substance as well as appearance it is closer to a scrapbook.’[2] To James Salter, he wrote of his work on this volume: ‘It’s like walking for days along the English coast after the wreck of the Armada. The beach is strewn. You keep running back and forth. Everything glitters, even the eyes of dead men.’[3]



Phelps died in 1989, aged 66. I’d read a few books by Colette over the years but read quite a few more, especially the Phelps-related ones, after coming across the letters between Phelps and James Salter: two superb writers in love with other writers, in love with each other’s being in the world, to talk and write about books and weather and France and the look of things, the touch and smell of things. ‘Your stories pour over me’, Salter wrote, ‘I am in a different world, one where I recognize myself’ (12). Phelps intensely admired Salter’s writing and, what is less common, was able to articulate the reasons for that admiration. Of Salter’s story, ‘The Cinema’, he observed: ‘The thing that most gratifies me (and I mean gratify literally, as good cheese gratifies me, or a well-hung line of laundry snapping in the wind, or a Cavafy poem) is that if I stop at the end of almost any given sentence, I cannot guess what will come next—neither substance nor syntax. With most writers, there is maximum predictability. You can skim whole paragraphs’ (30). After noting that Salter was ‘a minority of one’ and ‘a new herb in the cabinet’, he remarked that, with ‘wholly different temperaments, Genet and Pasolini do something of the same thing. But you are tender, and unperverse. You are pure, and in the European sense of the word, American’ (31).

He told Salter about Erik Satie: ‘Did you know that after he died, his friends found one hundred unused umbrellas in his room? There was also a piano, which was unplayable and which Braque bought as a souvenir’ (47). He mentioned his hostess at Pound Ridge, in upstate New York, where he was staying. She was ‘an old friend of Philip Roth’ and told Phelps how Roth ‘puts the ms. of his current book in the refrigerator every day—in case of a fire’ (51).

Salter wrote to him, with more than a little urgency, ‘We must catch the train, Robert, we must move, otherwise life takes you, makes you soggy. We’re wearing cheap shoes, we must stay ahead of it’ (53).


So much fascinating, mysterious, stimulating, alluring, irresistible stuff in the world—‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them’ (38)—to which he brought an insatiable curiosity and in which he took an evident delight: he asks Salter, ‘Did you know that St. Francis of Assisi thought of God “as a melody so sweet it could just be borne”? One of his best friars, Giles, when attacked by theologians, answered their arguments on the flute’ (111).

Just reminding myself of Phelps and his work has prompted me—wanting more of such melodies—to order two books that I found I didn’t have.

There’s a very fine 2009 piece on Phelps in American Scholar by Michael Dirda (who contributed the ‘Foreword’ to Memorable Days:


[1] Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960; revised edition, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 477.

[2] Continual Lessons: The Journals of Glenway Wescott, edited by Robert Phelps with Jerry Rosco (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990), vii.

[3] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 71: other page references to this book in parentheses.


Forty-four: a number to remember


(Robert Louis Stevenson)

Here’s a quiz question: what do the following have in common? Henry Thoreau, Billie Holiday, Arshile Gorky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maya Deren, Joseph Roth, Anton Chekhov, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, J. G. Farrell, D. H. Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Louis Stevenson?

Answer: they all died at the age of forty-four. (Mathematicians – you must have a theory.)  A few by accident or suicide, not surprisingly, but mostly from natural causes, though exacerbated in several cases by alcohol or other drugs. But so short a life doesn’t rule out extraordinary productivity, as witness the cases of Chekhov, Lawrence – or Stevenson.

Stevenson (born 13 November 1850) is the sort of writer whom a lot of bookish people read when they were younger but, if they go back to him later, are apt to murmur about ‘guilty pleasures’. In fact, he’s one of those rare beasts who manages to combine huge popularity with admiration from fellow-writers—Borges, Henry James, Kipling, Proust, Nabokov—(along with some stern dismissals, it has to be said) and who has survived to become the focus of a great deal of critical and scholarly attention. A dozen novels; half a dozen volumes each of stories, essays and travel writing, books of poems—for adults and for children—and letters that fill eight volumes in the Yale University Press edition. Irresistibly attractive to cultural critics, psychoanalytical critics, specialists in Scottish literature, sexual politics and others. The stage and screen adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde run to some one hundred and twenty; there have been over two hundred biographies of Stevenson.

It wasn’t that long ago that I read through my fat copy of The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. Eleven hundred and twenty pages in all, New Arabian Nights, The Dynamiter, The Beach of Falesá, and much more; I had a whale of a time.


Stevenson at his writing desk 1885

‘“Listen,” said the young man; “this is the age of conveniences, and I have to tell you of the last perfection of the sort. We have affairs in different places; and hence railways were invented. Railways separated us infallibly from our friends; and so telegraphs were made that we might communicate speedily at great distances. Even in hotels we have lifts to spare us a climb of some hundred steps. Now, we know that life is only a stage to play the fool upon as long as the part amuses us. There was one more convenience lacking to modern comfort; a decent easy way to quit that stage; the back stairs to liberty; or, as I said this moment, Death’s private door. This, my two fellow-rebels, is supplied by the Suicide Club.’”[1]

Or this, from John Wiltshire: ‘I was dreaming England, which is, after all, a nasty, cold, muddy hole, with not enough light to see to read by’. And, of the priest: ‘He was a good-natured old soul to look at, gone a little grizzled, and so dirty you could have written with him on a piece of paper.’[2]

‘Now, to be properly enjoyed,’ Stevenson wrote, in Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes, ‘a walking tour should be gone upon alone. If you go in a company, or even in pairs, it is no longer a walking tour in anything but name; it is something else and more in the nature of a picnic.’[3]

And again: ‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.’[4]

Here’s the wonderful John Singer Sargent portrait (he did three in all) of Stevenson and Fanny:


John Singer Sargent, Robert Louis Stevenson (Private collection )

Stevenson crops up in an astonishing range of contexts, not least in the customary use of the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ without reference to, and usually without thought of, the story’s author. In Bristol—the city Jim Hawkins made his way to in order to sign on as a sea cook on the Hispaniola—it’s not uncommon to see groups of eager children taken on tours of Treasure Island–related points about the city by pirate captains armed to the teeth. I recall that, in John Buchan’s novel The Three Hostages (1924), Sandy Arbuthnot’s notes are signed in the names of supposed Derby winners. The first is ‘Buchan’ and the third, genuine this time, is ‘Spion Kop’ (named after the Boer War battle). In between these two came ‘Alan Breck’, which had been the name of Buchan’s own horse when he was in South Africa c.1902; but it was also, more famously, the name of the Jacobite hero of Stevenson’s Kidnapped.[5]

Stevenson was buried on the summit of Mount Vaea, Samoa. The Samoans, led by Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, had cleared a path to the top of the mountain overnight, to be able to bury Stevenson.
(That detail is taken from the very impressive Robert Louis Stevenson website here: )

Why does that remind me of the burial of Ernest Fenollosa? Answers on a million pound note to. . . No, but certainly that sort of respect shown to a figure from quite another culture is a striking image.


Ernest Fenollosa is best known now as the author of the two-volume Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art (1912) and as the source of the literal translations from Japanese Noh plays and the Chinese poetry from which Ezra Pound brilliantly fashioned the poems of Cathay (1915). Fenollosa died in London in September 1908 and his ashes were interred in Highgate Cemetery but, on the first anniversary of his death, they were reburied, as he had wished, in Uyeno Park, Tokyo, the hills overlooking Lake Biwa and the gardens of Miidera temple. The legend inscribed on the Fenollosa monument reads: ‘To the merit of our Sensei, high like the mountains and eternal like the water.’[6]

In the closing lines of Pound’s long Canto LXXXIX, we read:

I want Frémont looking at mountains
or, if you like, Reck at Lake Biwa.[7]

Frémont was an explorer who, with four others, climbed the loftiest peak in the Rockies in August 1842. One leading Pound critic remarked that Frémont and Fenollosa are here ‘made to stand at the threshold of the “mountainous” heaven’ of Cantos XC to XCV.[8] Michael Reck wrote of visiting Fenollosa’s grave at a temple overlooking Lake Biwa in June 1954 and describing that visit in a letter to Pound, who ‘recorded it in the last line of his Canto 89.’[9]


[1] The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Victor Gollancz, 1928), 19-20.

[2] ‘The Beach of Falésa’, The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, 620, 621.

[3] Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 256.

[4] Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, 163.

[5] Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924; edited by Karl Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 106, 126, 120. For Buchan’s horse, see plate 3, in Andrew Lownie, John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier, London: Constable, 1995), 128-129.

[6] Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa, the Far East and American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 35.

[7] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 604.

[8] Massimo Bacigalupo, The Forméd Trace: The Later Poetry of Ezra Pound (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 257.

[9] Michael Reck, Ezra Pound: A Close-Up (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968), 174-175.