The sneezer as hero – is it ok?

Greek-chorus

(The Bacchai at the National Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton via The Guardian)

The back page ‘N.B.’ column in last week’s Times Literary Supplement (2 August 2019) discussed, not without irony, the question of what is ‘ok’ to read in these days of widespread outrage, citing the recent report that a Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London had refused to teach in the lecture theatre named after Francis Galton, whose name is ‘linked with racist, misogynist and hierarchical ideologies’. Galton was indeed a pioneer in eugenics and psychometrics. He also developed a method of classifying fingerprints, initiated scientific meteorology, devised the first weather map and invented a means of testing differential hearing ability. He died in 1911. The First International Eugenics Congress, held in London the following year, was dedicated to Galton. Attendees included the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Chief Justice, the ambassadors of France, Greece and Norway, and Winston Churchill who, two years earlier, had written to the Prime Minister: ‘I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a very terrible danger to the race.’

Is it ok, J. C. goes on to ask, to read Vladimir Nabokov (Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape has said that he wouldn’t publish Lolita now)? Or T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin, William Faulkner? Burroughs, Chester Himes, Mailer, Miller? Mention is made of a recent (very good) TLS piece by Claire Lowdon, which concluded that yes, it is okay to read Updike and, ‘in the course of the article, also cast forgiving glances in the direction of Bellow, Roth and other big male beasts.’ Then how about Maupassant, Flaubert, Kipling, Camus? Céline could certainly have been added, probably Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis too. ‘Perhaps it’s safer not to read at all’, J. C. concludes, ‘which is what lots of people are doing anyway.’

I know there are some complex questions about commemoration, statuary, flags, the names of buildings, the placement of pictures and poems. Our local example is the Colston Hall, named (but not for much longer) after the philanthropist and member of parliament – who was also a slave trader. But pulling down statues, changing names, I’ve always been uneasy with, preferring less ignorance to more. If it’s really news that human beings do both good and bad things and that people in earlier historical periods seem, from our perspective, to have done more bad things than good, then add plaques and placards, pile on the contextual information, enlighten, educate.

When it comes to policing reading – then no, I have a more definite line and it’s not a complex question. I’ve had my share of people rolling their eyes at my reading Ezra Pound. ‘How can you–?’ Well, I’d think, with a good deal of effort and concentration, reference works and, frankly, cribs of various kinds. But that may not be what they meant.

It’s okay for me to read absolutely anything and anyone I want to since, being an adult, I can make up my own mind about such matters. I don’t read modern literature for political pointers or an ethical framework or tips on manners. And, alas, perhaps a hangover from younger days, any suggestion that it might not be ‘ok’ to read certain authors sends me straight back to them, most recently Philip Roth, whom I’ve been rereading in the Library of America edition. Whenever I don’t read Roth for a while, I forget how funny he is. Today, I enjoyed again The Anatomy Lesson’s Dr Kotler, formerly of Newark, now living in retirement in New York, detailing his current activities to Nathan Zuckerman in the bank queue, beginning with his study of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, ‘a foot at a time’:

Anatomy-Lesson-DrNicolaesTulp

(Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp: Mauritshuis, The Hague)

‘Also studying Holy Scriptures. Delving into all the translations. Amazing what’s in there. Yet the writing I don’t like. The Jews in the Bible were always involved in highly dramatic moments, but they never learned to write good drama. Not like the Greeks, in my estimation. The Greeks heard a sneeze and they took off. The sneezer becomes the hero, the one who reported the sneeze becomes the messenger, the ones who overheard the sneeze, they became the chorus. Lots of pity, lots of terror, lots of cliff-hanging and suspense. You don’t get that with the Jews in the Bible. There it’s all round-the-clock negotiation with God.’

The ones who overheard the sneeze becoming the chorus. Yes, a pretty neat summary of Greek drama, I thought.

Perhaps one more: ‘Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.’

In a world of perplexed and infuriated people, imaginative writing may not be the only culprit, of course.

 

 

Ending up or ending down

Crows

Do the crows know something that we don’t? Maybe –­ or perhaps we all know the same damned thing.

‘Family customs should not be kept up after they decompose.’—Sylvia Townsend Warner to William Maxwell, 31 December 1975.

Almost there – and yet there’s no great feeling of relief as there often has been in the past when we’re finally shot of a dreadful year. It’s as if, when Philippides arrived at the assembly with news of the Battle of Marathon, he wasn’t even given time to collapse and die but told: ‘Sorry, mate, didn’t we tell you? You have to turn round and run all the way back again now.’

As for the next one, there’s little likelihood of it being any better, a strong chance of it being measurably worse, given the levels of mendacity and cowardice among our leading politicians. I suspect that the recent case of the lucrative ferry contract given to a company that has never run a ferry service and has, in fact, no ships is accurately representative of the levels of intelligence and competence among the governmental ranks.
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/dec/30/no-deal-brexit-ferry-company-owns-no-ships-and-has-never-run-ferry-service

I was reading about Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson, finally translated – by Damion Searls – in its entirety, two volumes totalling 2000 pages.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/30/uwe-johnson-anniversaries-review

The only book by Johnson that I’ve read, forty years ago, is An Absence, which was a novella, short enough, I think, to appear in the small, pocket-sized Cape editions. Anniversaries sounds fascinating but I’ve not yet finished navigating my current two-volume, 2000-page opus, Questioning Minds, Edward Burns’ superb edition of the Kenner-Davenport letters, let alone two or three other colossi, longer-term tenants, combining to crowd Johnson out of my particular landscape.

HighlandSteer copy

(Highland Steer by Walter G. Poole)

I seem to be constitutionally opposed to the whole idea of New Year resolutions – if it’s really worth doing or changing, you’ll probably do it or change it anyway – but I do entertain reading intentions, probably because I just like making booklists. More poetry for sure, now that I have the books up on shelves and can actually see what we have. The Patrick White and Penelope Fitzgerald re-reads were such a blast that I’ll have a couple more next year: Henry Green definitely; Eudora Welty and Olivia Manning are certainly in the frame; and, of course, I have some Ford Madox Fords to revisit. Then too, some history—a more widespread ability to distinguish history from myth might have saved us all some pain—and particularly local history, this city. Read, walk, ask, listen.

2019’s pleasures, positives and signs of intelligent life will, I think, be firmly located in private, personal spaces. But – always – there just might turn out to be cracks in the wall. O optimist!

No one’s reading

Routledge-Companion small  Melmoth

I saw a recent Guardian interview with Robin Robertson, the poet whose The Long Take was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and also won the Goldsmiths prize. Asked, ‘What was the last great book you read?’, he replied: ‘There are so few great books. I don’t suppose I’m allowed to mention one of my authors [Robertson works for the publisher Jonathan Cape], but Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is extraordinary. I love Patrick White, but no one reads him these days. He’s very politically incorrect.’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/08/poet-robin-robertson-interview-the-long-take
I too thought Warlight was tremendously good but it was a little odd to see that comment on Patrick White in a year when I read or reread eighteen of White’s books plus a 600-page biography of him. ‘No one reads him’ – I must then be no one, ου τις, ou tis, the name Odysseus gave himself in the Cyclops’ cave, so that Polyphemus, when his neighbours asked why he cried out, answered, ‘No one is hurting me!’ The ghost of Patrick White can now exclaim: ‘No one is reading me!’

I’ve browsed or skipped briskly through at least half a dozen selections of ‘Books of the Year’ already. Geared almost exclusively towards new books—some not even published yet—such lists always used to look utterly unlike my own because I’d often read nothing at all published that year. In 2018 I did actually read titles published in 2018, about a dozen of them. Some have dropped out of my head already, others seem in no particular hurry to leave. But to summarise a whole year’s travelling through books? ‘There is no end to what I have to say’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty in December 1989, ‘but then you would have to read it.’

SignsForLostChildren

So apart from White – and my other major re-read, the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald – and a few of the usual suspects that cropped up in many lists, I’d pick out Melissa Harrison, whose novel All Among the Barley, as well as her short book Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, greatly impressed me, and Sarah Moss, whose The Tidal Zone I read last year but whose other books, six of them, I’ve read in the last few months, all novels apart from Names for the Sea, which is about her family’s year in Iceland. She writes beautifully, accurately and inventively about place, about human relations, particularly about young women confronted by prejudices, constraints and barriers, in this and earlier ages, being an expert and seasoned traveller in both time and space. Ghost Wall is the latest novel, a short, concentrated and powerful book. The others, all accomplished and hard to choose between, are Bodies of Light, Cold Earth, Night Waking and, perhaps a personal favourite by a narrow margin, Signs for Lost Children. Then, after the notable sureness and confidence of Sarah Perry’s first two books—After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent—I am being impressed all over again by her Melmoth. I’m also halfway through the big new Routledge Research Companion to Ford Madox Ford—but it’s hardly surprising that I should be.

 

Hugging the alphabetical

Shelves Shelves.2

‘No person with an avocational or professional interest in books seems immune to the joys of developing his or her own classification scheme. Paul Banks reports that on a recent trip to New Orleans, he visited a bookshop which shelved Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History in the Mythology section; while in the section on Skilled Arts and Crafts could be found a book entitled Sex After Sixty. Patricia Flavin was once in a bookshop which shelved a copy of The Voyages of Magellan under Yachting. And Robert Nikirk reminds me that, in touring Dr. Martin Bodmer’s great library in Geneva in the early 1970s, members of the Grolier Club discovered copies of Alice in Wonderland and Das Kapital shelved in close juxtaposition. These books were grouped together, Dr. Bodmer explained, “because they are both fantasies.”’—Terry Belanger, Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2003), 12-13.

The Librarian’s father is a dab hand at building bookshelves; the Librarian herself a dab hand at painting them. A fervent admirer of those who build and paint them, I’m also well-practised at arranging books on shelves, once they’re ready to receive them. As to their order, radically, they hug the alphabetical in a loving embrace.

 

Fizz – or beer?

Moet

There’s a bottle of fizz in the fridge and discussions are ongoing about whether there’s any justification for opening it this evening. There are, after all, three bottles of beer sharing those chilled quarters. Pros and – what cons? Item: two successful trips to the Household Waste Recycling Centre yesterday to clear the pavement outside our house – and avoid possible reputational damage among the neighbours – of the stuff left after the recent installation of a new gas stove. Item: the Librarian finished painting the new shelves on Thursday and last night they were dry enough for me to spend two or three carefree hours filling them up. Are we there yet? Taken together, this seems a solid basis but maybe something more is needed to clinch it.

‘Hang ideas! They are tramps, vagabonds, knocking at the back-door of your mind’, Conrad wrote in Lord Jim. But wait – this encouraging noise was at the front door. The postman hands me a package. I scrabble at sticky tape and cardboard. Yes! Should I declare an interest? I’m tremendously interested.

Routledge-Companion small

The Routledge Research Companion to Ford Madox Ford is, as they say, ‘an invaluable resource for students and scholars in Ford Studies, in modernism, and in the literary world that Ford helped shape in the early years of the twentieth century.’ Is it expensive? Lord, yes. Still, more than two dozen contributors cover the entire range of Ford’s work, both fictional and non-fictional, and the relevant contextual and critical areas, including reception history, life-writing, literary histories, gender and comedy. And it has, after all, been coming for quite some time.

Fizz, then.

 

Mayday, or Mayday!

Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776; Mayday (The Milkmaids' Garland)

Mayday (‘The Milkmaids’ Garland’): Studio of Francis Hayman. English Heritage: Marble Hill House, Twickenham.

‘To Westminster, in the way meeting many milkmaids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly standing at her lodgings door in Drury lane in her smock-sleeves and bodice, looking upon one – she seemed a mighty pretty creature.’ Samuel Pepys makes a Mayday note, 1667.

Nell_gwyn_peter_lely_c_1675

(Nell Gwynn by Sir Peter Lely)

May Day! Or, given the state we’re in: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Although—newsflash—the cavalry will not be coming. It’s up to us, which may be good news or bad, depending on your perspective.

The cavalry often didn’t arrive in the past, or almost not. ‘And suppose the cavalry had not been able to ford that river? They almost did not, almost, almost. It is in the region of Almost that the blood sings.’[1] So Anthony Burgess, alluding, surely, to the conversation between his most admired author, James Joyce, and one of the best writers on that author, Frank Budgen, to whom Joyce is reading:

“After he woke me up last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke . . .”
“Almosting!” I said.
“Yes,” said Joyce. “That’s all in the Protean character of the thing. Everything changes: land, water, dog, time of day. Parts of speech change, too. Adverb becomes verb.”[2]

Budgen-Joyce

The settled conviction that the cavalry were, and would continue to be, the trump card in the British land army was slow to recede; and sceptics were regarded with wariness or hostility. Barbara Tuchman recorded that, ‘In the Russo-Japanese War an English observer, the future General Sir Ian Hamilton, reported that the only thing the cavalry could do in the face of entrenched machine guns was to cook rice for the infantry, causing the War Office to wonder if his months in the Orient had not affected his mind.’[3] In the event, of course, ‘The first and last British cavalry charge on the western front took place at Audreques on 24 August 1914.’[4]

By the Second World War, the cavalry had fled the scene but heroes were still in evidence, riding—or sailing—to the rescue: ‘There was high drama in May 1941 when a parachute mine went through the roof of the London Palladium, and hung entangled and unexploded in the flies. The Naval officer who successfully defused the mine (since these were sea-mines they were the responsibility of the Navy) was given free tickets to the Palladium for life.’

The envy of his colleagues, no doubt. Elsewhere on the cultural spectrum, ‘The Tate Gallery was hit in September, October and December, and again once a month from January to May 1941, but the only painting damaged was Richard Wilson’s Destruction of the Children of Niobe, which had been brought to London to be cleaned. The British Museum suffered damage to the Pediment Hall in November, and much more serious damage in May 1941, when 150,000 books in the Library were destroyed.’[5]

In fact, the cavalry occasionally call here, to take away a few boxes of books, sift them for items of personal interest, then pass the rest on to Good Causes. Against such occasional and partial thinning, logic demands that we set occasions like this last weekend, when the Librarian, glimpsing a few days off on the horizon, made a compelling argument for the whole of the 2018 Women’s Prize shortlist.

NewBks-290418

A few rogue titles have evidently slipped in here: there’s probably a reasonable explanation for that but I’m unable to access it just at the moment.

References

[1] Anthony Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London, Jonathan Cape, 1974), 24.

[2] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 55. Joyce is reading from the third chapter of Ulysses, ‘Proteus’.

[3] Barbara Tuchman, in The Guns of August (1962; edited by Margaret MacMillan, New York: Library of America, 2012), 214.

[4] Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (London: Penguin Books, 1980), 289.

[5] Robert Hewison, Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939-45 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 29.

 

Writing, healing and the First World War at The Authors’ Club

(Vivien Whelpton’s biography; Louisa Garrett Anderson:
https://www.londonremembers.com/subjects/dr-louisa-garrett-anderson )

Yesterday, pausing from doggedly extracting nails and staples from the newly exposed floorboards in the old kitchen, I took a crowded train to London, in the company of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy—always impressive but we’ll never be close friends.

I went to the Authors’ Club in London for an event entitled ‘Writing, Healing and the First World War’. There were three panellists: Sara Haslam, Chair of the Ford Madox Ford Society and author of—among other things—Fragmenting modernism: Ford Madox Ford, the novel and the Great War; Vivien Whelpton, who published a recent biography of poet, novelist, translator and biographer Richard Aldington; and Sunny Singh, novelist and lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature.

Sara Haslam talked about her recent research: first, into the Endell Street Military Hospital started by Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, doctors and suffragettes, run and staffed entirely by women and dealing almost exclusively with male patients, revolutionary facts in the context of that time; then into the War Library started by Helen Mary Gaskell to distribute free books to wounded servicemen, a scheme that produced a staggering number of volumes donated by the public, with one individual contribution of 35,000 titles and huge deliveries of new stock that often brought traffic to a standstill.

Vivien Whelpton talked very knowledgeably and engagingly about Aldington, particularly his poetry and his 1929 novel, Death of a Hero; also his marriage to H. D., and association with Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, T. S. Eliot and others, damaged, as was so much else in Aldington’s life, by his experience of war. His 1955 book on T. E. Lawrence, then still idolised by many, effectively wrecked Aldington’s standing with the literary establishment in this country and his autobiography, Life for Life’s Sake, published in the United States in 1941, finally emerged here in 1968.

Sunny Singh discussed a tale by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri, later translated as ‘The Troth’—famous among a domestic audience though little known in this country—apparently the first short story in Hindi, published early in the war (1915) and highly suggestive in its handling of the complex issues around Imperial subjects fighting in a war which did not directly affect them, highlighting too the often degrading treatment suffered by the Indian troops. Perhaps as many as a million and a quarter Indian soldiers served on the Western Front and in Africa, a huge majority of those in combat roles, almost 75,000 of whom were killed.

A fascinating – and informative – evening.

Sara Haslam talking about Endell Street Military Hospital: A Suffragette story, in a short Open University film, is here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEDRAv9NlY0

Her recent essay, ‘Reading, Trauma and Literary Caregiving 1914-1918: Helen Mary Gaskell and the War Library’, appeared in the Journal of Medical Humanities: http://oro.open.ac.uk/54285/