ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR
The question of a writer who is attacked by
another writer in print is not merely a specialized one. The
same rule must apply in all regions of public life. Private
people, to be sure, must be left in privacy; but people who set
themselves up in public, whether as rulers, entertainers, law-givers
or leaders of fashion, must accept the public or printed criticism
which their performances invite. They are after great rewards;
they are often accorded great deference: they must therefore endure,
with a good grace, the occasional rotten egg. Even if the
missile is unmerited, they must remember that they themselves have
sought and relished the prominence which has made them targets.
They stuck themselves up in the first place; so let them wipe up the
mess and get on with their job--or take themselves off to the decent
shelter of a private life. But let us, in no case at all, hear
any more of their sanctimonious wailing in the Courts.
--The Serpent in Happy Valley from the
World of Simon Raven by Simon Raven
Yet so terrified are people these days of 'giving
offense' that most reviewing now consists merely of reshuffling
harmless clichés. A straightforward attack, particularly if it
is conducted in salty language, arouses a great wail of protest from
publishers and authors alike: 'prejudiced', 'uncouth',
'insensitive'--these are the labels applied to plain speaking.
I was once rebuked by Mr. Frederick Warburg for saying that
Moravia's Two Women, a translation of which he had just
published in this country, was a dull book. I thought so then,
and I think so now, and I'll say it again: Two Women, with
all respect to Mr. Warburg and his firm, is slow, prolix and dull.
Surely this is just the sort of thing reviewers should tell the
public? And just the sort of thing they did tell the public
before English letters turned into a conspiracy of mealy-mouthed
mutual approbation. If Mr. Warburg is shocked by what I wrote
of Moravia, let him turn to reviews and essays of a hundred years
go. No quarter was asked or given; even personal abuse was
allowed; they gave blow for blow in those days, put lead in their
cudgels and took the buttons off their sabres, and if they got hurt,
they picked themselves up as best they might and made ready to fight
another day. Only one thing was barred: no one--no one who
valued his honour--could go whining off to the Courts.
--The Serpent in Happy Valley from the
World of Simon Raven by Simon Raven
[N.B.: Needless to say, things have gotten
worse since Simon Raven's time--just witness the witless performance
Queen of Snarks. As Raven knows, the vast majority of
books are not worth reading. That is to say, they are merely
mediocre. A good example is the Queen of Snarks who writes
what passes as well-wrought writer's workshop wiction which we weep
wover wooday while tossing tomorrow. Instead of giving some
warning of the banality ahead as we readers recklessly swerve
towards the literary fiction section of the bookstore, critics
instead slicken the spot with a slippery puddle of pablum.
The prospect of a grand marriage for one of her
children always guaranteed Catherine's wholehearted attention and
energy. She immediately put forward her own solution,
proposing Margot, her youngest daughter, be promised to Don Carlos
instead of the Queen of Scots. Don Carlos, a short, frail
epileptic who weighed less than six stone, had a hunched back and
twisted shoulders. He was severely brain-damaged since
tumbling head first down a stone staircase in pursuit of a servant
girl whom he particularly enjoyed flagellating. The fall had
almost killed him. Philip's doctors operated to save his life
and drilled a hole in Don Carlos's skull to relieve the pressure
that had built up on his brain. The operation seemed a
success, but for good measure Philip put the shrivelled corpse of a
pious Franciscan monk into his bed, and insisted that is was this 'odour
of sanctity' and not the doctors that had saved the Infante's life.
Though he made a partial physical recovery, the accident left Don
Carlos prone to periods of sadism that progressed to homicidal
mania. Prevented from embracing opportunities to murder human
beings, he sought light relief in roasting live rabbits and
torturing horses for the pleasure of hearing them scream.
There was thus little to commend him as a husband, apart from the
huge inheritance he stood to receive when his father died.
--Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of
France by Leonie Frieda
[N.B.: The fate of this book is a good
example of the whims of book reviewing, and, hopefully, the ability
of blogs to overcome the traditional print reviewers' cabal.
This book was published in 2003 and received ecstatic reviews in
England from the likes of Amanda Foreman, the author of
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Ms. Foreman's book was
a huge hit in the United States (as well as England) where it also
received ecstatic reviews. I've read Georgiana and
highly recommend it. But, the whims of book reviewers here
decided not to give the Georgiana treatment to
Catherine and, indeed, simply ignored it (one wonders how many
other good books have received the "silent treatment."). So,
the book languished and died. 'Tis a pity since it is just as
delightful as Georgiana, and, if anything, is full of much
more color and interest given that the book is a biography of that
old Italian bug-a-bear, Catherine de Medici, considered the prime
force behind the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Fight the
reviewers that be, and hie the hence to a used book seller's and
purchase yourself a copy.]
The attitudes of the ghetto survive emancipation,
and I had only to enter a strange house or talk to a stranger to
make a complete fool of myself. From excessive shyness I
always talked too much, usually lost control of myself, and heard
myself say things that were ridiculous, false, or base, and
afterwards remained awake, raging and sobbing by turns as I
remembered every detail of my own awkwardness, lying, and treachery.
Years later, when I was earning money, I never went to a strange
house without first taking a drink or two to brace me for the
ordeal. Whether that was much help or not I do not know.
It is enough that the things I said when I was slightly intoxicated
were never quite as bad as the things I said when I wasn't
--An Only Child by Frank O'Connor
Blake's use of language was not guided by the
ordinarily accepted rules of writing; he allowed himself to be
trammelled neither by prosody nor by grammar; he wrote, with an
extraordinary audacity, according to the mysterious dictates of his
own strange and intimate conception of the beautiful and the just.
Thus his compositions, amenable to no other laws than those of his
own making, fill a unique place in the poetry of the world.
They are the rebels and atheists of literature, or rather, they are
the sanctuaries of an Unknown God; and to invoke that deity by means
of orthodox incantations is to run the risk of hell fire.
--The Poetry of Blake from Books &
Characters by Lytton Strachey
Lucifer blazing in superb effigies
Among the world's ambitious tragedies,
Heaven-sent gift to the dark ages,
Now, in the finest-possible light,
We approach you; can estimate
Your not unnatural height.
Though the discrete progeny,
Out of their swim, go deflated and dry,
We know the feel of you, archaic beauty,
Between the tombs, where the tombs still extrude,
Overshadowing the sun-struck world:
(The shadow-god envisaged in no cloud).
--Collected Poems by Geoffrey Hill
Doctor Lao said: "Madam, the role of skeptic
becomes you not; there are things in the world not even the
experience of a whole life spent in Abalone, Arizona could conceive
--The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G.
This morning stayed late in my room trying to
burn myself for A's sake at my window. I don't really like it.
Sunbathing is a modern craze. The Ancients would never have
by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch),
entry for Thursday, 21st July, 1949
For some reason, the sight of snow descending
on fire always makes me think of the ancient world--legionaries in
sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where
offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches
cantering beside a frozen sea--scattered, uncoordinated shapes from
a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with
them memories of things real and imagined. These classical
projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men
themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested
Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing
outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged
and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts
of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons,
moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly,
methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take
recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless
gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once
more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody,
unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
--A Question of Upbringing by Anthony
[N.B.: The excerpt above is from the
second paragraph of the first volume of Powell's magisterial (a word
not to be used lightly) undertaking, the twelve-volume series
titled, A Dance to the Music of Time. I just
finished the cycle last night and can wholeheartedly recommend it.
Indeed, I'll change my book recommendations and put it at the top.
What a wonderful experience! I have not yet embarked on
Proust's A Remembrance of Things Past (I know that's now
considered not as accurate a title as could be achieved--but it is
far the more literary and aesthetically pleasing, which is what
Proust would have wanted) but I think I now understand a bit of the
pleasure experienced by those initiates who have taken that journey.
My main reason for not yet attempting Proust is that, being a
monoglot, I am well aware of the sorry state of translation in the
English-Speaking World and do not want to be put off of Proust
because of the infelicities his prose suffers under the hands of his
translators--particularly given that his is considered a very
difficult style of French, which, in and of itself, is considered a
subtle language full of fine shades of distinction. Instead, I
believe I'll start on another difficult work which was born in
glorious English and turns out to be a key work in A Dance to
the Music of Time: Robert Burton's
The Anatomy of Melancholy.]
'Personally I applaud that great enemy of the
Old School Tie, the Emperor Septimius Severus, who had a man
scourged merely for drawing attention to the fact that they had been
at school together.
--Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony
They were one man, not thirty. For as the
one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all
contrasting things--oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch,
and hemp--yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete
hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long
central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this
man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties
were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal
which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.
--Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I am aware that people often have completely
distorted general ideas of what they are like. Men truly
manifest themselves in the long patterns of their acts, and not in
any nutshell of self-theory. This is supremely true of the
artist, who appears, however much he may imagine that he hides, in
the revealed extension of his work. And so am I here
exhibited, whose pitiful instinct is alas still for a concealment
quite at odds with my trade. Under this cautionary rubric I
shall however now attempt a general description of myself. And
now I am speaking, as I explained, in the persona of the
self of several years ago, the often inglorious "hero" of the tale
that follows. I am fifty-eight years old. I am a writer.
"A writer" is indeed the simplest and also the most accurate general
description of me. In so far as I am also a psychologist, an
amateur philosopher, a student of human affairs, I am so because
these things are a part of being the kind of writer that I am.
I have always been a seeker. And my seeking has taken the form
of that attempt to tell truth of which I have just spoken. I
have, I hope and I believe, kept my gift pure. This means,
among other things, that I have never been a successful writer.
I have never tried to please at the expense of truth. I have
known, for long periods, the torture of a life without
self-expression. The most potent and sacred command which can
be laid upon any artist is the command: wait. Art has its
martyrs, not least those who have preserved their silence.
There are, I hazard, saints of art who have simply waited mutely all
their lives rather than profane the purity of a single page with
anything less than what is perfectly appropriate and beautiful, that
is to say, with anything less than what is true.
--The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
About the museum phrase, "attributed to," who
really cares if Sebastiano did it, or someone else? We
benefit, and another attribution does not change the sitter, or his
portrait, or its original plan at last to please the viewer.
--I Like What I Know by Vincent Price
He was aware that at thirty he stretched the
limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor
might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike away: from charming
wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short
--The Emperor's Children by Claire
In the past, Howard had drifted into
involvements with women that had begun with a certain lighthearted
tone and progressed through periods of deep, intense sympathy, of
serious, lengthy conversations, and then, declining sharply,
inexplicably, to muffled accusations and tears, finally bitterness
and tedium. A mysterious process. He had always felt
himself apart from it, baffled and unable to control it. He
could have loved and married any number of women, he supposed: he
had never taken himself too seriously.
--The Sacred Marriage from Marriages
and Infidelities by Joyce Carol Oates
"How old is he?" the policeman asked Mrs.
"I am thirty," Ignatius said condescendingly.
"You got a job?"
"Ignatius hasta help me at home," Mrs. Reilly
said. Her initial courage was failing a little, and she began
to twist the lute string with the cord on the cake boxes. "I
got terrible arthuritis."
"I dust a bit," Ignatius told the policeman.
"In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment
against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my
literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip."
"Ignatius makes delicious cheese dips," Mrs.
--A Confederacy of Dunces by John
The following passage from a letter to Walpole
une musique charmante, une dame qui joue de la harpe
à merveille ; elle me fit tant
de plaisir que j'eus du regret que vous ne l'entendissiez pas ;
c'est un instrument admirable. Nous eûmes
aussi un clavecin, mais quoiqu'il fût
touché avec une grande
perfection, ce n'est rien en comparaison de la harpe. Je fus
fort triste toute la soirée ;
j'avais appris en partant que Mme. de Luxembourg, qui
samedi à Montmorency pour y
passer quinze jours, s'était
trouvée si mal qu'on avait fait
venir Tronchin, et qu'on l'avait ramenée
le dimance à huit heures de soir,
qu'on lui croyait de l'eau dans la poitrine. L'ancienneté
de la connaissance ; une habitude qui a l'air de l'amitié
; voir disparaître ceux avec qui
l'on vit ; un retour sur soi-même
; sentir que l'on ne tient à
rein, que tout fuit, que tout échappe,
qu'on reste seule dans l'univers, et que malgré
cela on craint de le quitter ; voilà
ce qui m'occupa pendant la musique.
Here are no coloured words, no fine
phrases--only the most flat and ordinary expressions--'un instrument
admirable'--'une grande perfection'--'fort triste.' Nothing is
described ; and yet how much is suggested! The whole scene is
conjured up--one does not know how ; one's imagination is witched on
to the right rails, as it were, by a look, by a gesture, and then
left to run of itself. In the simple, faultless rhythm of that
closing sentence, the trembling melancholy of the old harp seems to
be lingering still.
--Madame de Deffand from Books &
Characters by Lytton Strachey
[N.B.: Yesterday I bemoaned the lost art
of translation, but it isn't really lost as much as it is still in
its infancy. In the old days--i.e., about three
generations ago--people regarded as "educated" spoke and read in
several different languages. There was no need for translation
except for those languages--such as Russian--that no one bothered to
learn (our ancestors were right about that, too, as Putin is busily
elucidating for us). Oh well, I'm a poor monoglot, too, so I
have no basis for sniggering where the one-language man is king.]
It was a principle of his that no campaign or
battle should ever be fought unless more could clearly be gained by
victory than lost by defeat; and he would compare those who took
great risks in the hope of gaining some small advantage to a man who
fishes with a golden hook, though aware that nothing he could catch
will be valuable enough to justify its loss.
--Augustus from The Twelve Caesars
by Suetonius (tr. Robert Graves).
[N.B.: Robert Graves, of course, is the
great World War One poet who is chiefly remembered today for the
Sandals and Vandals extravaganza, I, Claudius. Robert
Graves was also a gifted translator, as indicated by these
perspicacious notes regarding the translator's art:
This version of The Twelve Caesars
is not intended as a school crib; the genius of Latin and the
genius of English being so dissimilar that a literal rendering
would be almost unreadable. For English readers,
Suetonius's sentences, and sometimes even groups of sentences,
must often be turned inside-out. Wherever his references
are incomprehensible to anyone not closely familiar with the
Roman scene, I have also brought up into the text a few words of
explanation that would normally have appeared in a footnote.
Dates have been everywhere changed from the pagan to the
Christian era; modern names of cities used whenever they are
more familiar to the common reader than the classical ones; and
sums in sesterces reduced to gold pieces, at 100 to a gold piece
(of twenty denarii), which resembled a British sovereign.
The problem of finding suitable English equivalents for Latin
technical words is exemplified in Imperator. This,
at first, meant simply 'army commander'; next it became a title
of honour which a general might earn by an important victory;
then it was placed as a title of honour after, or (more
flatteringly) before the name of one of the ruling Caesars,
whether or not he had won any victories; finally, it was used in
an absolute sense to mean 'Emperor.'
Translation is an art, just as the original act
of writing, whether fiction, or its sub-genre, so-called
"non-fiction" is an art. Therefore, I am mystified that people
flock to the latest foreign writer being flogged without
ascertaining who the translator might be. A good example is
the contemporary Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami.
Graves comments about the dissimilarities between Latin and English
are even more apposite regarding Japanese and English.
And yet, all the usual suspects praise Murakami with nary a word
about his translators. I, quite frankly, have found the
translations of his work banal--typically written in that flat
international translatese that is the sure hallmark of mediocrity.
Murakami may, indeed, be a great writer, but those ineffable
qualities of greatness--tone, color, rhythm, shape--are currently
lost or obscured within the rough contours of the workmanlike
translations of his prose. When will the golden age of
translation for Japanese arrive as it has for
Russian? By the bye, if you want a short list of excellent
translations from the original languages into English, go
One day in September of that year I was in
class, as usual, when one of the Jesuits called me out. That
was unusual; normally, nothing broke the monastic routine of silent
study. Out I went, into the long colonnade of sandstone
arches, and down at the end, near the vanishing point, I saw my
twenty-three-year old brother Geoffrey. As I looked at him his
face, uncannily, came apart like tissue paper. He was weeping
uncontrollably. Then I knew. Ever since, I have
associated colonnades and their bars of shadow with memory and loss,
and a miserable sort of shattered yearning: an image cluster that,
long before I went to Italy, helped me to understand Giorgio de
--Things I didn't know by Robert Hughes
'Hullo, Reggie,' he said, and I froze in my
chair, stunned by the revelation that Jeeves's first name was
Reginald. It had never occurred to me before that he had a
first name. I couldn't help thinking what embarrassment would
have been caused if it had been Bertie.
--Much Obliged, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse