February  28,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

How I used to despise those novelists whose paltry fictions it was my misfortune in the early years of my career to be forced to foist upon my students, I mean those northern worshippers of the sun-drenched south, the self-styled pagans--frauds and remittance men all--whose scenes were set on thyme-scented islands, or in pine-shaded hilltop villages, or in that steamy seaport in a disregarded corner of the Mediterranean, where the hero and his sloe-eyed mistress shared their parting dinner in a little restaurant up a side street from the harbour where the tourists never ventured, the anchovies and the bitter olives and the rough local wine, and the restaurant-keeper's wife humming something plangent, and the street arabs wheedling, and the three-legged dog gnawing a knuckle of bone, and the old poet at the next table coughing his life out over a last absinthe.  As if place meant something; as if being somewhere vivid and exotic ensured an automatic intensification of living.  No: give me an anonymous patch of ground, with asphalt, and an oily bonfire smouldering and vague factories in the distance, some rank, exhausted non-place where I can feel safe, where I can feel at home, if I am ever to feel at home, anywhere.

--Shroud by John Banville

[N.B.:  Speaking of people who should smoulder over oily bonfires, a kindly correspondent alerted me that the comments section of this site had been taken over by the purveyors of various dodgy pharmaceuticals alleged to assist men with respect to their, ahem, horizontal performance.  As a result, I've ripped out the comments section root and branch.  You can still contact us via email, but, alas, the comments section is no more.  Let us pause a moment and drop a dewy tear on the rapacious scam artists who, like the tourist of yore, leave no disregarded corner of the internet--or the Mediterranean--untouched.]

February  27,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

I was tired; my mind was tired; it is wearing out, like the rest of me, though not as quickly.  And yet it cannot stop working, even for an instant, even when I am asleep; I can never quite come to terms with this appalling fact.  Repeatedly now, especially at night, I return to the awful possibility that the mind might survive the body's death.  They say that Danton's severed head was heard to heap curses on Robespierre.  To be trapped like that, even for a minute, to feel the system shutting down, to see the light finally failing--ah!

--The Shroud by John Banville

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February  26,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

He stays for the interview, sitting in a corner, watching as his mother transforms herself into the person television wants her to be.  All the quaintnesses she refused to deliver last night are allowed to come out: pungent turns of speech, stories of childhood in the Australian outback ("You have to realize how vast Australia is.  We are only fleas on Australia's backside, we late settlers"), stories about the film world, about actors and actresses she has crossed paths with, about the adaptations of her books and what she thinks of them ("Film is a simplifying medium.  That is its nature; you may as well learn to accept it.  It works in broad strokes").  Followed by a glance at the contemporary world ("It does my heart good to see so many strong young women around who know what they want").  Even bird-watching gets a mention.

--Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee


Reading with Crooked Lines, Part IV

So far my crooked path through literature has lead me from Colm Toibin’s The Master to David Lodge’s Author, Author and The Year of Henry James to Paul West’s The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg and J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello.  At this point, I see a fork in the crooked road—one leading further into the minutiae of Henry James and his life and times as portrayed in Author, Author and The Master, the other into the latest work of fiction by J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man.

I’m tempted to pursue the Author, Author and The Master line, both of which have, as a sort of centerpiece, the dramatic incident in Henry James's otherwise un-dramatic life when James chose to make his fortune in, surprise, surprise, the dramatic theatre.  His play, Guy Domville, was to be his entrée into the world of the theatre and the riches and fame concomitant with it.  Unfortunately, he was booed on stage opening night, the play closed shortly thereafter and, rushed in as a substitute, was none other than Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Interest.  And the rest, as they say, is history (or, in Wilde’s case, misery). 

Anyway, I’m now curious to learn if Guy Domville is still a stinker and have acquired a book edited by Leon Edel, James’s masterful biographer, titled, Guy Domville—A Play in Three Acts with Comments by Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett.  It turns out that on opening night three drama critics, later to become three of the great men of English letters—Shaw, Wells and Bennett—were present and gave favorable reviews of the play.  Hence the kindling of my curiosity. 

As for the Coetzee fork, the curious thing about Slow Man is that in the middle of the book none other than Elizabeth Costello barges into the narrative and begins to instruct the protagonist on how to become a more interesting character in a novel.  This post-modern turn is typically the hallmark of a paucity of imagination, but, in the hands of Coetzee, it’s more in the venerable line of allowing a great character to continue their adventures in spite of literary conventions (think Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Cervantes’ great sequel).   I so enjoyed Elizabeth Costello that I’m eager to follow more of her adventures in Slow Man.

Where will this crooked line of reading eventually end up?  Who knows, but I’ll keep you posted as I continue down this winding path.

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February  25,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

We had a four-course dinner of soup, lobster, chicken and savoury, waited on by a butler.  Lord Fairhaven is served first, before his guests, in the feudal manner which only the son of an oil magnate would adopt.  Presumably the idea is that in the event of the food being poisoned the host would gallantly succumb, and his instant death will be a warning to the rest of the table to abstain.  Port and brandy followed.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Friday, 10th September, 1943

Reading with Crooked Lines, Part III

Having finished Paul West's The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, I then turned to J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello which contains the lecture where Costello, much to her discomfiture, finds Paul West in the audience (reading some kind of comic book—a disconcertingly low blow for Coetzee to throw) and apologizes to him before hand for being the bearer of the ineluctable condemnation that must flow to the author of a book like The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg who dares to use his imagination to describe those things which should remain taboo.   And then Costello launches into her prepared speech:

If this were an ordinary lecture I would at this point read out to you a paragraph or two, to give you the feel of this extraordinary book.  . . .  I ought to read to you from these terrible pages, but I will not, because I do not believe it will be good for you or for me to hear them.  I assert (and here I come to the point) that I do not believe it was good for Mr. West, if he will forgive my saying so, to write those pages.

That is my thesis today: that certain things are not good to read or to write.  To put the point another way: I take seriously the claim that the artist risks a great deal by venturing into forbidden places: risks, specifically, himself; risk, perhaps, all.  I take this claim seriously because I take seriously the forbiddenness of forbidden places.  The cellar in which the July 1944 plotters were hanged is one such forbidden place.  I do not believe Mr West should go there; and, if he chooses to go nevertheless, I believe we should not follow.  On the contrary, I believe that bars should be erected over the cellar mouth, with a bronze memorial plaque saying Here died . . . followed by a list of the dead and their dates, and that should be that.

An interesting viewpoint—as long as one is willing to crown King Coetzee/Costello as the Universal Censor of the Forbidden.  Quaint but not quite.  The point, though, is well taken, that there is literature out there which can corrupt just as there is literature which can enrich—although I think either effect has a lot more to do with the reader than the writer.  Certainly, Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although one of the most delightful characters in all of literature, can have a corrupting influence on those readers who set him up as some kind of exemplar.  I’ll just set him up as a drinking buddy along with a round of sack.  But, goodness gracious, I certainly wouldn't want to censor him.  Let his rascality flow with his merriment; and, as for the self-righteous vegetarian, King Coetzee, I'll paraphrase another of the Bard's lines: "Do you think because you are virtuous, there will be no more steak and ale?"

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February  23,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of a moderate realism.  Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves.  A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe.  Robinson Crusoe, cast up on the beach, looks around for his shipmates.  But there are none.  "I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them," says he, "except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows."  Two shoes, not fellows: by not being fellows, the shoes have ceased to be footwear and become proofs of death, torn by the foaming seas off the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore.  No large words, no despair, just hats and caps and shoes.

--Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee

Reading with Crooked Lines, Part II

            After learning from David Lodge's The Year of Henry James of the literary contretemps stirred up by J. M. Coetzee in his book, Elizabeth Costello, concerning Paul West’s The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, I next turned to that work which, if nothing else, confirmed me in my prejudice that there are quite a few writers alive at any one time who can compose in very good, stylish English—but are still woefully deficient as far as the larger structures of composition are concerned (just like with music composers) [N.B.:  Daniel Green over at The Reading Experience has a great post on this point with respect to creative writing workshops which might turn out—as if from a vat of glop—technically proficient writers, but such writers, although competent craftsmen, lack the artistic talents to make them truly good writers, as opposed to mere journeyman drafters].  Paul West, technically, is a very good writer—I never winced once at some clumsy sentence or infelicitous grammatical error.  But, artistically, I could see Coetzee’s concern, as related in my last post.  West’s overall tone is, well, nauseating.  I’ll give just one sample (trust me, there’s a lot more where this came from):

The flashlight found my hand and I stroked it downward, then held it still, aghast to see three partly dismembered bodies, all female, floating in what must have been alcohol.  Voluptuously built, these women had a flawless poise, and one, with her head far back, in frozen motion seemed to cup her stomach with one hand.  I looked on, awed.  Then I saw that the woman on my left had no head at all and that, afloat between the legs of the one in the middle was a torso with breasts but no legs, no arms, no head.  The skin had a zinc-white cast that seemed to flush as I moved the beam of light to and for, like a schoolboy at some penny peepshow.

These musings are supposedly from the novel’s protagonist, the real life hero, Count von Stauffenberg, who almost single handedly (pun intended) assassinated Hitler and whose failure cost him his life, a consequence he and his fellow conspirators knew would inevitably follow.   Note in West’s rendering that the Count gazes luridly at the naked female corpses which appear to “flush” while he admires their curves as if he were in a “penny peepshow.”  These observations are simply out of character for an aristocratic scion such as the Count—although one senses such is not the case for the consciousness of the author who uses the Count as his hand puppet. 

I suppose we're meant to excuse this excessive lingering on the lurid and vile because this book, as telegraphed by its title, The Very Rich Hours of the Count von Stauffenberg, is meant to echo the great illuminated French Renaissance work, Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, a book of hours for the Duke illustrated by the Limbourg Brothers with an uncanny attention to detail and realism.  I guess all those floating chopped up bodies are just a communing within the Great Tradition of Literature with the Marquis de Sade as guide (as opposed to Virgil).  How provincial of me not to notice, bow my head, and curtsy as the shambling shibboleth slimed by.

A final point: the novel contains a very weird blending of the character “mind set” and omniscient narrator points of view.   Specifically, most of the novel is told from the limited point of view of Count von Stauffenberg while he’s alive but then, once he’s shot the night of the failed assassination, the rest of the book is told from the opened-up omniscient point of view of the now dead Count who is able to, among other things, act as a ghostly, unseen presence able to relate to us in grisly detail the obscene mutterings of the hangman as he eyes the other conspirators for their hangings in his dank cellar.  Look, ma, it's Casper the Spooky Count!

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February  22,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

But I have seen the birth and death of several purely literary periodicals; and I say of all of them that in isolating the concept of literature they destroy the life of literature.  It is not merely that there is not enough good literature, even good second-rate literature, to fill the pages of any review; or that in a purely literary review the work of a man of genius may appear almost side by side with some miserable counterfeit of his own style.  The profounder objection is the impossibility of defining the frontiers, or limiting the context of "literature."

--T. S. Eliot

Reading with Crooked Lines

Usually, I choose which book to read by browsing through the books on my shelves and finding one that catches my fancy.  Hence, I wind up reading a potpourri of whimsy.  As I’ve aged, this potpourri has become dominated by what is traditionally called “fiction”; although, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere in this blog, I don’t think there’s a meaningful distinction between “fiction” and “nonfiction” (which might explain why I prefer Herodotus over Thucydides—I always thought a preference between those two authors was as good a way as any to divide up readers between those who prefer storytelling and character told with gusto and scant attention to “truth” and those who prefer analysis and minute attention to detail told with probity and a more scrupulous attention to veracity).  In any event, my choices of fiction tend to settle upon a stable of pet authors (Dickens, James, Waugh, Greene, Oates, Banville, Coetzee, Amis (both re and fils), Cather and Wharton).  Every once in a while, though, I wind up in some strange and twisting reading path where one book suggests another and then another and so on.  I’m still on one such path which I thought I might share since it has wound up being—at least so far—highly entertaining.

Last year, the book club I’m in read Colm Toibin’s The Master, a fictional retelling of certain fragments of the life of Henry James.  I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the book so I won’t repeat those observations here.  In any event, at about the time that the book club was reading and then chewing on The Master, David Lodge came out with his own fictional treatment of the life of Henry James, Author, Author.  Well, it seemed only natural to read that book for the book club and then discuss how the two compared—no surprise, some preferred The Master and others, Author, Author (I, myself, falling in the latter camp).  I thought Author, Author was much more tightly plotted and created a Henry James character that was more fully rounded, as opposed to Toibin’s Henry James who seemed a wind-up contrivance meant to advance that author’s tendentious thesis regarding Henry James’s sexual proclivities.  No surprise, but the literary critical establishment loved The Master (can’t go wrong—at least in the short term (of course, as Keynes, points out, in the long term all such books will be dead)—by being a child of one’s time) and thought nothing at all of Author, Author which sank into oblivion without nary a ripple. 

And so matters stood, until a few months ago I saw that David Lodge had come out with a new book, The Year of Henry James, where he describes the odd literary phenomenon of having several prominent authors—Toibin and Lodge were not the only ones—who decided at roughly the same time and unbeknownst to one another to write fictionalized treatments of Henry James.  The first half of the book is taken up with this extended narrative of how Lodge chose the subject, how much fun he had in writing the book and then how devastated he was by the result (although he is grateful he finished the book without knowing of Toibin’s work which probably would have spoiled his enjoyment), so devastated, in fact, that he still could not, at least upon the publication of The Year of Henry James, bring himself to read The Master.  Don’t worry Lodge, your book is much better—although such a revelation might be even more disconcerting.   In any event, I’d highly recommend reading these three books together because they create a sort of DIY meta-fictional experiment regarding different fictional approaches to similar subject matter.  Also, it seems to me that this episode, in itself, would make a wonderful work of fiction—perhaps the author in question could be Sylvia Plath, whose life (and death) certainly contained plenty of drama. 

Although the first half of The Year of Henry James contained a breast-beating appraisal of Lodge’s authorial and editorial choices concerning his choice and treatment of Henry James, the second half of the book was bulked out with a collection of Lodge’s journalism, mostly reviews of various works of fiction.  One review in particular, of J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, caught my eye because Lodge discussed how odd it was for Coetzee to deliver, through his character, a writer of fiction, Elizabeth Costello, a scathing attack on an actual writer, Paul West, and his work of fiction, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg.  Apparently, Costello/Coetzee (yes, yes, I realize some people actually think that a consciousness filtered through a character should not be confused with the consciousness of the author—I agree that the two are not identical, but so what; nothing is identical, but, at least, with Coetzee, the views of his character, Elizabeth Costello, at least with respect to those matters—such as vegetarianism—that can be verified, tend not to differ in a material way from the author’s own) condemns Paul West for writing the book because it provides a too lurid and detailed a view of evil—specifically, the loathsome behavior and conversation of Hitler’s executioner just prior to and during the hangings of various conspirators who sought to assassinate Hitler near the end of World War Two. Now that sounds intriguing—I’ll leave the rest of my crooked journey for the next post.

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February  21,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Reed's versions look reassuringly unlike the Italian opposite, more regular, often shorter, solid and compact--they are not translations in the geometrical sense, merely slid across the page.  (In translations where the punctuation is scrupulously mimicked, I tend to fear that a similar attention has been paid to the words).  Reed has re-aligned and rephrased many of the originals, often breaking up sentences into shorter, punchier units.  He has a superb sense of the music and tension of a line, and knows how to pace several lines in succession: this is perhaps the single crucial difference between a translation by a poet and the poetry of a translator.  Take the beginning of Reed's "Mesco Point":

At dawn, unbending flights of partridges

skimmed over the quarry's skyline,

the smoke from explosives lazily puffed

in eddies up the blind rockface.  The ridge

brightened.  The trail of foam left by the pilot boat's

beaked prow settled into illusory

white flowers on the surface of the sea

And that of Arrowsmith's "Cape Mesco":

In the sky over the quarry streaked

at dawn by the partridges' undeviating flight,

the smoke from the blasting thinned,

climbing slowly up the sheer stone face.

From the platform of the piledriver

naiad ripples somersaulted, silent

trumpeters, and sank, melting in the foam

grazed by your step.


--Behind the Lines by Michael Hofmann

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February  20,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

At this moment I would guess that Imitations is more influential than any other aspect of Lowell's poetic practice: the idea of a popular poet with a current style refashioning some body of foreign work in his own way, and in order to reflect his own concerns.  "I have tried to write live English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America."  It remains an attractive blueprint, and one that Jeremy Reed has followed in his own work on Montale: "What I have tried to achieve in this book is a series of poems in which the poet's intentions are placed within a context of late 20th-century values."  Certainly, disdain for the poor conventional translator of poetry is always a strong card to play:  "Most poetic translations come to grief," Lowell says simply.  He calls translators "taxidermists"; Reed describes them as undertakers.

--Behind the Lines by Michael Hofmann

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February  19,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The onset of extreme old age as I am experiencing it is a gradual process of accumulation, a slow settling as of soft grey stuff, like the dust in the untended house, under which the once-sharp edges of my self are blurring.  There is an opposite process, too, by which things grow rigid and immovable, turning my stools into ingots of hot iron, drying out my joints until they grate on each other like pumice stones, making my toenails hard as horn.  Things out in the world, the supposedly inanimate objects, join in the conspiracy against me.  I misplace things, lose things, my spectacles, the book I was reading a minute ago, Mama Vander's redeemed silver box--three is that bibelot again--that I kept as a talisman for more than half a century but that now seems to be gone, fallen into a crevice of time.  Objects topple on me from high shelves, items of furniture plant themselves in my path.  I cut myself repeatedly, with razor, fruit knife, scissors; hardly a week passes when I do not find myself some morning hunched over the handbasin fumblingly trying to unpeel a plaster with my teeth while blood from a sliced finger drips with shocking matter of factness on to the porcelain.  Are these mishaps not of a different order from heretofore?  I was never adroit, even in the quickest years of my youth, but I wonder if my clumsiness now might be something new, not merely a physical unhandiness but a radical form of discontinuity, the outward manifestation of lapses and final closures occurring deep in the brain.  The smallest things are always the surest warning, if one but heeded them.

--Shroud by John Banville

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February  18,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

[W]e notice how people on trains take books out of their bags or their pockets and retreat into solitary worlds.  Each time the book comes out it is like a sign help up.  Leave me alone, I am reading, says the sign.  What I am reading is more interesting than you could possibly be.

--Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee


Me and My Big, Dumb Telescope

In my last post, I quoted Michael Hofmann’s clever epigram about how the publication of a book “deforms a void.”   I must admit that I’m about to deform my own void in the sense that I tend to scribble whatever is on my mind in the heat of, well, to be honest, usually, annoyance, and not to bother about revisiting my tossed-off opinions.  I ’ve come to discover, though, that I’ve been taken to task by a couple of fellow bloggers concerning my supposed misunderstanding of Richard Powers’s authorial apparatus in his recent book, The Echo Maker Mea culpa, mea culpa.   I have a number of faults—indeed, it is quite possible that that number may approach well nigh to infinity—and among them is a tendency to glibness and, where the road forks in my prose, to choose wit over precision.  Such sins I have committed with my post about why I thought Richard Powers lacked imaginative empathy. 

As pointed out by the other bloggers, Powers is not using an omniscient narrator but rather a narrator bounded by the consciousness of the characters portrayed in Powers’s book.   One of the bloggers, Daniel Green (who, by the bye, I think is a wonderful literary blogger and whose blog, The Reading Experience, I highly recommend to your attention), likens this strategy to that employed by one of my fetishes, Henry James.   In other words, Powers is portraying the “mind sets” of his characters—such as their dislike of corporate America and its cynical attempts to curry favor through negligible charitable endeavors—which do not necessarily correspond to the author’s own views in a novel where the chief villain is a real estate developer out to destroy the habitat of a certain type of endangered crane.  Right. 

Certainly, Henry James does a masterful job of pulling this sort of third-person ventriloquism off, most famously, and, in my view, successfully, given that the character is clearly so very different from the author, in his short novel, What Maisie Knew.  But excuse me, in the Steve Martin sense, if I don’t buy that from the likes of Richard Powers.  His prejudices are the prejudices of his characters as reflected in the structure of the book itself, or so closely correspond to them that it’s not worth the effort to try to distinguish one from the other (another telescoped point that I’m not going to waste my short life explaining).   All that the thin viewpoint veil of portraying the characters’ “mindsets,” as opposed to straight-forward commentary through an omniscient narrator, achieves for Powers is the right to plausible deniability.   I ain’t buying it. 

Coincidentally enough, I’m reading a book by a much greater author who also uses this strategy to less than Jamesian effect:  J. M. Coetzee in his “novel,” Elizabeth Costello.  First, let me praise this book.   Although it’s not as good as Coetzee’s Disgrace (then again, nothing in the last decade written by anyone has measured up to that work), it’s still an amazing performance.   Elizabeth Costello is a unique, fully fleshed-out character (oh, and I plead “guilty” to the charge that I am old-fashioned in the sense that I believe character is more important than meta-fiction game playing; Laurence Sterne, the ultimate meta-fictionist, understood that order of priority and gave us the immortal Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy; when another meta-fictionist accomplishes that hat trick, I’ll start to pay attention to them—are you listening Thomas Pynchon?).   I’m telescoping again because I don’t have the time or inclination to tell you why Elizabeth Costello is such a wonderful literary creation—she just is.  Indeed, I think it’s very difficult to say why a Mr. Micawber sticks more in one’s consciousness than any of the flimsy puppets created by the likes of Richard Powers.  

Immortality in fiction is based first and foremost on character.   The Iliad without Achilles would be unknown to us because it would not have survived the ages.   I know some readers find other aspects of literature more interesting—I leave them to their prejudices just as I am more than happy to embrace mine along with Hazlitt.   In any event, regardless of one’s personal prejudices, Elizabeth Costello is a great book, not because of its structure, or its meta-fictional game playing, but because of its eponymous heroine. 

The problem with Elizabeth Costello is, ultimately, one of structure—it’s a gallimaufry of  a novel (indeed, Coetzee seems to want to leave the question open-ended on whether this work should be viewed structurally as something less than a novel, an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin question which I might blog about later or merely note in passing in, you guessed it, this telescoped form), a succession of stitched together short stories and speeches that J. M. Coetzee wrote or presented over several years and which he then spliced together once their length, “like a row of galley slaves,” had grown long enough to fill out a novel-length book.   Coetzee adopted this narrative stance in the character of Elizabeth Costello as a way to make provocative philosophical points while still providing himself with the plausible deniability that his character’s views are not necessarily his own.  Again, right. 

Certainly, with respect to some inconsequential details—perhaps Coetzee would not go quite so far with respect to some assertion by Elizabeth (the wearing of leather, perhaps, perhaps)—the views do differ, but not in dramatic fashion.  Again, one can discern this from the structure of the book.  The heart of the book concerns two chapters offering a spirited defense of, at least by today's standards, a radical view of animal rights.  Leading up to these chapters, Coetzee has sprinkled throughout his prose various allusions and metaphors to animals—most strikingly, one involving king penguins—that serve as a bit of tenderizer for the reader when they are hit full force by Elizabeth’s jeremiad.  This strategy, of course, is what great writers do.  But to somehow believe that Coetzee’s views do not closely coincide with Elizabeth’s is a bit of wishful thinking.  Not surprisingly, Coetzee is on record as being a militant vegetarian [N.B.: the last answer in this link is almost an exact paraphrase of a provocative comment made by Elizabeth].

If he had more courage for his convictions, Coetzee should take a page from David Foster Wallace in his book of essays titled, Consider the Lobster.  There, in the eponymous essay, Wallace tries to confront head on the strongest possible arguments, as he understands them, for killing animals and eating them.  I think he fails in this endeavor, again, for reasons I won’t bother to pursue here.  But at least Wallace is out of the closet with his views and has the temerity to face his antagonists head on, not deigning to hide behind a fiction he may disown at a convenient date to be named later.

As I’ve alluded to twice, my problem with this narrative "mindsets" strategy is that it’s next to impossible to pull off in a convincing way a la Henry James in What Massie Knew and usually is simply no more than a manner of asserting plausible deniability.  An author unwilling to take risks is, at least for me, an author that, in some sense, is not first rate.  J . M. Coetzee has proven to me that he is a first-rate writer through other books he has penned.  But if I came to him only through Elizabeth Costello I would think him of much slighter stature (although, given his wonderful creation of  the character, as opposed to the narrator, of Elizabeth, I would forgive all in any event).

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February  17,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The past is history, and what is history but a story made of air that we tell ourselves?  Nevertheless, there is something miraculous about the past that the future lacks.  What is miraculous about the past is that we have succeeded--God knows how--in making thousands and millions of individual fictions created by individual human beings, lock well enough into one another to give us what looks like a common past, a shared story.

--Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee

[N.B.:  Coetzee has shrunk down an entire book into this brief, partial paragraph.  His is a very rich prose which must be sipped slowly like fine port.]

Slouching Toward Un-Babel

Young ‘uns, come on up here and listen to your old grizzled grampy tell you about the olden days when English publishers used to publish foreign-language books in translation.  It’s all hard to imagine now, even though from time to time the odd bestseller like Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky  pops up to remind us all (or not) what was lost, but back in the olden days of the fifties and sixties, probably as some part of a nefarious cold war plot dreamed up by them Ruskies, there used to be a regular flood of translated prose for the intrepid reader to guzzle down.  Well, you whelps, that time has long since past, as Michael Hofmann in his eloquent elegy from Behind the Lines points out. 

The occasion is the review of a bad, pretentious, middle-brow novel that did manage to get translated for all the wrong reasons, Peter Nadas’ A Book of Memories.   This crime is doubly compounded—given the dearth of translations—because it  necessarily replaces some wondrous work which we English monoglots will never see in our Tower of Un-Babel—or, in Hoffman’s stunning phrase, “[i]t deforms a void.” [N.B.:  I always thought that an interesting work of fiction could be written using the opposite of the Tower of Babel as its central theme—what would the desiccated intellectual life be like if there really was only one language?  Of course, in my mind, the challenge would be how to convey this story using a multiplicity of languages and dialects, since the word choices would necessarily need to be those which do not have a ready translation in the main language in which the work is written.]  Hofmann explains the historical roots of the dilemma:

Houses with venerable names and cosmopolitan traditions seem quite unembarrassed about putting out catalogues that are all-to-wall English-language originals.  Chatto—home of Chekhov, Proust and Joseph Roth—recently went through three or four seasons without any translations at all.  Obviously, publishing isn’t what it was, the bottom line has risen inexorably, there were all the huge and much-bruited takeovers and mergers and acquisitions, but there are reasons more profound—even—than the state of publishing to explain why the number of foreign titles to appear in Britain is so low.  The principal factor is the size and spread of the English language, which offers readers a delusive self-sufficiency.  Why bother with anything else—apart from a handful of nineteenth-century French and Russian novelists, the only things that have ever really caught on—when there is so much to be read in English?  Increasingly, it’s only English that counts, not only in England and other English-speaking territories, but globally.  Scores of English books get translated every year into every language under the sun—thereby wrecking the indigenous writers’ domestic market—while pitifully few come the other way.  English remains both the most highly sought reward and the basic measure of a foreign book, but, more and more, it denies access to itself.

. . .  The loss of the most distinguished, characteristic and classic books from other languages will finally make itself felt, however richly English is able to compensate itself from its multitudinous sources.  There is nothing like the strange bi-authorship of translation; the hapless, resourceful or wooden sense of words not deployed by a single hand according to instructions from a single mind; the demands on vocabulary, and, less predictably, on syntax, that made the reading, for example, of Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude such an enlarging experience.  Translation upsets expectation, it extends the field of comparison, it forces even the sluggardly to re-evaluate and to re-contextualize.  A period of good writing has to be a period of good and abundant translating also.  The fact that we’re not presently living in the latter leads me to qualify the large claims currently being made for British poetry and fiction.  It’s written in a world language, but how much of it is world literature?  The low level of interest in translation prompts the questions.

I agree with Hoffman’s lamentation, but, given that Hoffman is a translator himself, he’s bound to see the problem from a translator’s eyes and so, if anything, tends to understate the problem.  It’s not just that the reader is deprived of the blurred, doubling experience of reading prose filtered through two distinct consciousnesses.  More importantly, the initial creative English writer tends to be a functioning monoglot and hence experiences the world through only one language sensibility: the Tower of Un-Babel.  Earlier English authors (besides being grounded in Latin—and, to some extent, Greek) were also fluent in other European languages, primarily French.  This multiple perspective from the “ground up” of language itself lent to these authors a richness that has made their works seem more complex, more “thick,” than the offerings of English authors today.   In the shadow of the Tower of Un-Babel we may all understand one another but, in the words of Oliver Twist, it is only in order to finish our thin gruel and to ask for more, please.   Where’s our multi-lingual Mr. Bumble (“If that’s the state of English publishing, then the Publishers are an ass!”) when we need him?

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February  16,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The wrong set's like fly-paper: once you're in it you can pull and pull, but you'll never get out of it again.

--The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton


The Gentle Art of Criticism

Michael Hofmann, besides offering a guide to the pleasures and pitfalls of translation, also provides his own rules in the gentle art of criticism in his book, Behind the Lines.   Like Dr. Johnson, Hofmann has certain definite views which he communicates—although perhaps not as forcefully as kicking a stone—in a decisive manner.   Here he is “deploring” the modern habit of rigging up a respected poet’s Collected Poems with all sorts of thingamajigs and whaddayacallits as exemplified by the collected poems of John Berryman edited by one Charles Thornbury:

The Collected Poems of a modern poet should not have an academic turnstile in front of them.  One paragraph in the introduction invokes comparisons with Eliot, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Joyce, Whitman, Coleridge and Keats.  Thornbury has really gone to town (to his home town of Collegeville, Minnesota).  If this is to be a trend, I should like to deplore it.  The more nearly invisible an editor makes himself in such an undertaking, the better: Robert Giroux set a good example with the prose of Bishop and Berryman.  Let a Dream Song (119) have the last word:  “There’s always cruelty of scholarship./ I once was a slip.”

Hofmann finds even more deplorable the curious habit of a biographer choosing a person that the biographer loathes so as to reenact the unfortunate contest between Marsyas and Apollo by taking particular delight in slowing skinning the dead carcass of his subject.   At least Marsyas had the opportunity to give his best performance before his hiding.  Not so the unfortunate Bertolt Brecht as portrayed in John Fuegi’s adolescently titled, The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht:

To call this book one-eyed would be an overstatement.  If Brecht had ever in his life helped an old lady across the road (doubtful, but still), don’t look for an account of the circumstance in Fuegi; but if someone somewhere had accused him of eating babies, it would be there in the index: “babies, B.B. eater of.”  Things are used only inasmuch as they damage Brecht, and with the express purpose of doing so.  There are various objections to this approach.  First, six hundred pages of animus is overdoing it some: it is, to put it no higher, rather undramatic and lacking in variety.  The pamphlet form might have served Fuegi better.  Secondly, a biography, a vita, is a rather strange vehicle for such loathing.  Every so often—actually, all the time—he suspends the narrative to give Brecht another wigging, and then resumes.  Thirdly, this doesn’t actually do what it is supposed to do—namely, persuade the reader of the rightness of its case.  That the reader will unquestioningly believe what he is told, and, if told it enough times, may even carry on on Fuegi’s behalf, telling his friends, “That Brecht was a nasty piece of work, and he didn’t even write his own plays,” assumes a rather naïve view of reading.  It also doesn’t allow for fairness, the English equivalent of dialectic.  Fourth, it wastes its time and the reader’s on a lot of aunt sallies: Brecht the lifelong Communist, Brecht the fair dealer and feminist, Brecht the bold anti-Nazi, Brecht the solitary genius, Brecht the selfless promoter of others’ works, Brecht the champion of alternative or underground theatre.  So far as I know, no one now believes that Brecht was these things, and surely not many ever did.  And yet Fuegi goes around stamping on them in his big boots.  His book is full of detail and research, but on a larger level, it told me nothing I didn’t know, and, needless to say, I couldn’t hear Brecht in it.  It’s only the counsel for the prosecution that ever gets to speak.

Finally, I leave you with Hofmann’s one sentence dissection of a particularly egregious book he was forced to review, Peter Nadas’s A Book of Memories:

It’s hard to say what makes it so prodigiously unsatisfactory; length, long-windedness, evasiveness, over-structuring, mediocre expression, absence of humour, absence of voice, smugness and preachiness, the persistent withholding of such ordinary amenities as names and ages and settings and incidents, a dully and vauntingly cerebral book about bodies (how disgusted D. H. Lawrence would have been with it!), racking up more and more about less and less, semi-colons adrift in bloated and fussy prose.

Well, the book might have been dead on arrival but thank goodness we have Hofmann’s lively prose to keep us entertained.  At his best, Hofmann’s reviews remind me of Macaulay’s vituperative essays where the scorn that great historian heaped upon some forgotten writer is all that remains of their [N.B.: I've adopted Zadie Smith's rule for the conundrum of the masculine gender-neutral pronoun]  vanished reputation.

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February  15,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

They say New Yorkers are always in a hurry; but I can't say as they've hurried much to make our acquaintance.

--The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton


The Gentle Art of Translation

I have been reading lately a collection of reviews published a decade or so ago by Michael Hofmann titled Behind the Lines.   Hofmann is a special kind of second-order craftsman:  a failed poet who has discovered his métier in translating the poetry and prose of German writers into English.  He is probably the premier living craftsman in this field—indeed, he might be the greatest of all time in this small niche (pace Michael Hamburger).  One need look no further than his big new anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology.  If you have any interest at all in this area, this is a must-buy book. 

Given his expertise as a translator, Hofmann’s reviews of various German and Central European writers are of intrinsic value for two reasons:  first, he is reviewing books and authors that no one in our monoglot culture have heard of (Bohumil Hrabel, anyone, anyone? Adam Czerniawski? Jakov Lind? Manes Sperber? George Konrad? Tadeusz Konwicki? Oh well—I hadn’t heard of them either until I read Hofmann’s book—by the bye, the English translations can be picked up quite cheaply on abebooks.com; I recommend starting with Konwicki); and second, Hofmann, as an acclaimed translator, has numerous interesting insights regarding the gentle art of translation.

Here is a thumb-nail sketch of what to look for in a good translator, as Hoffman effuses over Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke (which I highly recommend, too):

To begin with, he passes the negative tests: he writes English, he is accurate, clear and seemly.  He avoids poetizing, the writing of ten deadly lines in the attempt to write a deathless one.  His watchwords are sense and tautness, though he is not afraid to expand a phrase or clause that is too compact.  “For there is no place where we can remain,” he says, for “Denn Bleiben ist nirgends.”   (Leishman and Spender have “For staying is nowhere.”)  The result is that the sound of Rilke’s thinking becomes audible for the first time; that he is heard pleading, reasoning, improving even, a man to men, scooping up arguments and instances wherever he can; and there is an end to the pompous darkness that had previously appeared to be an essential adjunct to Rilke in English, and there is an end too to the whole misprision of Rilke as a weaver of unfathomable opacities round a few untranslatable concepts.  The conscientious infelicities of earlier translations stand revealed as groundless as well, as Mitchell is mostly true and accurate in the bargain.

In other words, the translator has the almost hopeless task of conveying the denotation of the original language along with the connotations surrounding it, all the while maintaining some semblance of scansion—which can come a cropper where the foreign language encompasses a concept not pithily captured in English, a frequent pitfall given that the best poets in another language will be on the ragged fringe of that language’s boundaries, its inherent complexities, those shades and contradictions which make it uniquely German, Japanese or what not. 

            Most translators fail in this task as Hoffman explains in his review of a book of Georg Takl’s poetry which is introduced by Michael Hamburger, another great translator of German into English.  In the review, he explains why the original lines should be reprinted on the facing page so that the English reader can appreciate the difficulty of trying to capture the German poetic line, and condemns the book under review for failing to do this:

This is a bad loss, because, as Hamburger admits in his introduction, “Trakl’s long lines do not translate will into English,” because English lacks the inflections of German, and because “Trakl’s adjectives carry much more weight than English usage allows.”  He might have added, I think, that the generalizing latinity of English is a disadvantage: for “schwarze Verwesung” there is “black corruption,” for “herbstliche Traumerei” there is “autumnal reverie” and for “Untergang” the reversible “Decline.”  The translations are rarely better than lame trots, with a paucity of rhythmic excitement, an absence of grace and clarity in the phrasing, a loss of the unique, echo-less tone of the originals.  They are cautious and inhibited, acting under duress.  . . .  The appendix of five translations by an American poet, the late James Wright, is a lesson to the others in its naturalness:

In the farmyard the white moon of autumn shines.

Fantastic shadows fall from the eaves of the roof.

A silence is living in the empty windows;

Now from it the rats emerge softly

And skitter here and there, squeaking.

         Compare this to Grenier’s version:

            In the courtyard the autumn moon shines white.

From the roof’s edge wild shadows drop.

A silence lives in empty windows,

Easily up into which leap the rats

And flit hissing here and there—



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February  13,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

He always played with the children, and in later life they recalled him as “a grave and sedate gentleman, with white hair, a lofty brow, and large lambent eyes . . . a kind and gentle manner.”  He would take them on his knee and tell them stories, “readily falling in with, and taking part in, their amusements.”  He explained to them how he preferred a cat to a dog “because she was so much more quiet in her expression of attachment.”  Perhaps he told them the true story of the walnut oil: a connoisseur had sent him a sample for some kind of artistic experiment but he “tasted it, and went on tasting, till he had drunk the whole.”  There was to be no artistic experiment at all.  And then there was the story of the lambs.  “The other evening . . . taking a walk, I came to a meadow and, at the farther corner of it, I saw a fold of lambs.  Coming nearer, the ground blushed with flowers; and the wattled cote and its woolly tenants were of an exquisite pastoral beauty.  But I looked again, and it proved to be no living flock, but beautiful sculpture.”  It has been said that “his conversation warmed the listener, kindled his imagination, and almost created in him a new sense . . . His description of some clouds I shall never forget.  He warmed with his subject, and it continued through an evening walk.”  It is no wonder that the children loved him.

--Blake by Peter Ackroyd

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February  12,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Blake anticipates the worst aspects of industrialism in his assault on their reliance upon “Manual Labor” in the production of standard engravings, which is “a work of no Mind.”  That is why he is so intent upon destroying the belief that there is some distinction between conception and execution—“I have heard many People say Give me the Ideas.  It is no matter what Words you put them into & others say Give me the Design it is no matter for the Execution.  These People know Enough of Artifice but Nothing of Art . . . Execution is only the result of Invention.”  It is in this context, also, that he makes two separate attacks.  The first is upon those engravers, such as Woollet of Strange, who employed journeymen for the more mechanical aspects of any engraving before giving it the “finishing” touch themselves.  But he also condemns the more fashionable and recently developed techniques of stipple or mezzotint, which similarly relief upon mechanical execution to attain their effects.  In one of his strokes of genius he relates these techniques to Dryden’s rhymes as opposed to Milton’s blank verse—“Monotonous Sing Song Sing Song.”  Blake in turn wanted to return to the art of “Drawing,” which was the “true Style of Art” comprising the invention and energy of the individual artist—“Painting is Drawing on Canvas & Engraving is Drawing on Copper & Nothing Else.”  In an age that was becoming increasingly uniform and standardized, he tried to affirm the originality of artistic genius.  He realized that, if the division between invention and execution is made, an “Idea” or “Design” can simply be produced on an assembly line.  Art then is turned into a “Good for Nothing Commodity” manufactured by “Ignorant Journeymen” for a society of equally ignorant consumers.  It becomes part of that “destructive Machine” into which all life is presently being turned—“A Machine is not a Man nor a Work of Art it is Destructive of Humanity & of Art.”

--Blake by Peter Ackroyd

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February  11,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"Cut it out, Ma," he called.  "That's enough, now.  You've made your point.  I'll do the rest."  And with uncommon vigor, he set to throwing the loads of snow so that they sent up a fine spray, a second snowstorm across the drive, and she stood awhile staring at this unlikely apparition, pajama bottoms caked with snow, dark curls awry and glistening with flakes, and--forgive her, she couldn't help it--imagining the neighbors too, through their curtains, staring, wondering what had gone wrong with that brainy Tubb boy that he'd fallen so fast from phenomenon to freak; and without a word, she handed him her new, fine shovel and took back the decrepit one, and stomped back onto the porch, knocking snow from her boots and cheeks burning from the cold and the shame, but surely he couldn't, he mustn't see, she went back inside and heard the stiff-springed screen door snap bitterly behind her.

--The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

[N.B.:  I thought this paragraph provided a good sample of Clair Messud's wonderful writing, with its aesthetically pleasing collage of dialogue and description, and short and long sentences--with the last one being almost Jamesian in its length (although it is marred by a comma splice at the end, almost as if she were committed to being Jamesian even at the expense of grammatical homicide).]

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February  10,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

There is always the element of irony or humor in Blake, however, which prompts him to pile horror upon horror in an almost gleeful manner; he takes a delight in terror, and often exploits it in an exaggerated or theatrical way.  Of course this was also an aspect of other verse in the period, but Blake’s attitude has a more popular source.  It is known that he read Gothic fiction, and even copied out some lines from Ann Radcliffe’s bestseller of 1794, The Mysteries of Udolpho, onto the back of one of his prints; one of the few paintings by Catherine Blake depicts Agnes from Matthew Lewis’s Gothic extravaganza of 1796, The Monk.  It is also likely that Blake knew of the Gothic dramas presented in the patent theatres of late eighteenth-century London, since there are occasions when the action of his prophetic books is close to the standard dramaturgy of those productions; fabulous villains such as Abomalique and Sanguino are not so far from Blake’s Ijim and Ololon, while a preface to one volume of Gothic drama invokes “Gigantic Forms, and visionary Gleams of Light.”  So a connection does exist.  It may not appeal to those critics who would prefer Blake to be influence only by the most literary or intellectual sources; but there can be little doubt that he was drawn to the popular Gothic melodramas of his day and borrowed some of their tricks.  He was a Londoner, affected by all forms of London drama and London literature just as he was influenced by topical pamphlets, popular prints and broadside ballads.

--Blake by Peter Ackroyd

[N.B.:  In the last post I mused about the inherent superiority latent in the concept of ebooks if they incorporated intertextuality through internet links and not merely contented themselves with duplicating in electronic format the printed word of the book (a contest the ebook must necessarily lose due to tactile considerations).  Well, I was noodling on the net when I stumbled across an intertextual project for Blake--which I linked to in the last link above.  There's also a description of the theory behind the project which I recommend for your perusal.]

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February  9,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The engravings of Dürer also exerted a strange fascination over the child.  It is not likely that he had seen that artist’s title page for an edition of Theocritus’s Idylls or his drawings in the margins of the Emperor Maximilian’s prayer book, which bear a striking resemblance to some of the images in Songs of Innocence, but Blake would have understood the extraordinary subtlety and strength of Dürer’s line, which achieves complex effects of lights and space without ever losing the balance and drama of composition.  Here the line, the fine and regular line, the “determinate and bounding form,” the “bounding outline,” is everything.  Dürer once said, “a good painter is full of figures within,” by which he meant that it is not at all necessary to draw from nature; but there is also another significance that can be attached to the stray remark, which links Dürer with Raphael and all the other influences of Blake’s youth.  They share an intense spirituality or, rather, a visionary clarity, which is conceived within the strong and formal lines of the engraving; there is no “color,” to use a word of the period that denotes painterly associations and tones, simply the vision of the artist powerfully expressed.  It was the art that inspired him, and that moved him, for the rest of his life. He knew Dürer’s rhinoceros, which became his own Behemoth; he knew “Melancholia,” from which he borrowed certain plangent motifs.  Of the Northern masters he knew the elongated forms, and the drapery that falls upon them in angular folds; he saw the expressive and sometimes grotesque faces, the tapering limbs and the narrow fingers.  There is one great fifteenth-century engraving, “The Infant Christ and the Flower,” which depicts the Saviour walking within a tulip as if he were about to enter the Songs of Innocence.  But the first and finest engraving known to Blake’s contemporaries is that of “St Christopher Bearing the Infant Christ” of 1423; in its depiction of the saint and Saviour, it offers a striking resemblance to the figures upon the frontispiece of Blake’s Songs of Experience

--Blake by Peter Ackroyd


[N.B.:  I’ve always dismissed the notion of an ebook, electronic book or what not because it simply cannot substitute for the tactile richness of the experience of sitting down with a real, honest-to-goodness, book.  How can the backlit bits of ones and zits compete with the crisp page?   Well, above is an example of how such a format, if melded with the internet, would provide a superior reading solution.  The meta-links greatly enrich the reading experience—but I don’t know of anyone proposing to link the internet to the portable electronic book format.  Coming at this problem from the other end, here is a website that already does this for Pepys' diaries.  Shakespeare, anyone?]

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February  8,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

He had first to be trained in draughtsmanship, while at the same time being given rudiments of an artistic education, and so the emphasis was upon the faithful copying of engraved prints and plaster casts from the antique.  Another pupil at the school has described the habit of “copying drawings of Ears, Eyes, Mouths and Noses.”  It was the finest possible tuition he could have received.  Michelangelo himself had once remarked that it was necessary to learn how to draw correctly in early youth in order to adopt the best “manner of study.”  Ingres said that it took thirty years to learn how to draw, three to learn how to paint.  Blake always was a wonderful draughtsman; indeed dexterity and inventiveness in drawing became, for him, the key to all the mysteries of from and composition.

--Blake by Peter Ackroyd


[N.B.:  One of our great living artists, Frank Stella, the so-called “Father of Minimalist Art,” once contemptuously remarked that anyone could become a great draughtsman if he spent twenty years learning the craft, but why bother—as Stella’s work itself demonstrates by eschewing any blot of draughtsmanship.  History bothers, although there will always be a place in the world for Stella’s “bank lobby” art, that being, the lobby of a bank.]

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February  7,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

As he continued northwards past some straggling houses he came to Percy Street and Windmill Street before passing a timber yard on his right; the yard itself abutted onto the fields of Capper’s Farm, which was then occupied by two elderly maidens of that name.  As a contemporary remembered them, “They wore riding-habits and men’s hats; one rode an old grey mare, and it was her spiteful delight to ride with a large pair of shears after boys who were flying their kites purposely to cut their strings . .  .”  (One of Blake’s small emblems shows an old man with shears, cutting the wing from an angel child.)

--Blake by Peter Ackroyd

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February  4,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

As we passed the site of Pennethorne's old Geological Museum [John Betjeman] reminded me of our visits years ago during luncheon breaks.  There was never a soul, either an attendant or a visitor.  We used to insert into the dusty glass cases old chestnuts and pebbles which we labelled with long names in Latin, invented by us amid peals of laughter.  They remained where we put them until the building was pulled down.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Monday, 3rd January, 1944

[N.B.:  I apologize for not updating for a few days but the computer has been acting up and the usual fist whacking did not prove efficacious.  Do not worry, ranting will resume momentarily.]

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