Commonplace Book: William Trevor

Reading William Trevor’s After Rain, had avoided the late Irish short story writer and novelist, as he was often paired with Chekhov, something which seemed overblown to me. (When any writer gets heaps of adulation, and friends clutch your elbow and say “you must read this” my default reaction is resistance. )

But the Chekhov comparison is not overblown. Trevor explores similar themes, subtle but devastating moments of personal choice, and the cadence of the his prose, (also like Chekhov’s or at least Constant Garnett’s translation thereof) is quiet, but musical in its restraint. No detail is extra. Here’s family dinner at the Leesons in “Lost Ground,”

after_rainHaving paused while the others were served– that, too, being a tradition in the family– Milton began to eat again. He liked the champ best when it was fried. You could warm it in the oven or in a saucepan, but it wasn’t the same. He liked crispness in his food– fingers of a soda farl fried,  the spicy skin of a milk pudding,  fried champ. His mother always remembered that. Milton sometimes thought that his mother knew everything about him and he didn’t mind: it made him fond of her that she bothered. He felt affection for her when she sat by the Esse on winter’s evenings or by the open back door in the summer, sewing and darning. She never read the paper and only glanced up at the television occasionally. His father read the paper from cover to cover and never missed the television News. When Milton was younger he’d been afraid of his father, although he’d since realized that you knew where you were with him, which came from the experience of working with him in the fields and the orchards. ‘He’s fair,’ Mrs. Leeson used to repeat when Milton was younger, “Always remember that.” 


Trevor was also a master of crafting a  deft, quietly devastating last move in a short story. Novels mostly need ‘finales’; short stories can end with a stab to the heart. (Nothing better in this line than the end of “The Lottery.” Annie Proulx is no slouch either, “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”)

Part of what makes these endings possible is that stories are quick glances, not synoptic panoramas. From the obit for him in the Guardian.

“…In a 1989 interview, Trevor compared writing short stories to impressionist art. “I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art,”

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Commonplace Book: Dinu Lipatti’s last concert

Today, an excerpt From Paul Bailey’s quiet, moving and beautifully controlled novel Uncle Rudolf. The narrator recollects being taken to a life-changing concert the pianist Dinu Lipatti. (The uncle in question, a fellow Romanian, is a successful tenor in light music, and rueful for an operatic career that never quite arrived.)

 

It was no spectre who began to play Bach’s First Partita. The apparition became on the instant radiantly animated. Were we aware of the perseverance, and superhuman fortitude, that propelled him that September afternoon? If we were, that would have been our sentimental illusion, since his undoubted fortitude was kept hidden by the pianist behind a necessary mask of civility. It was afterwards – after we had listened in coughless silence to the Mozart Sonata in A minor, two Schubert sonatas and a captivating string of Chopin waltzes – that we realized what an Olympian event we had been privileged to attend. We had not been watching a showman display his skills, nothing so predictable or commonplace. Lipatti was above display and superficial cleverness. He had played for us exactly what the composers had intended us to hear.

Uncle Rudolf was too moved to speak, and so was I. In the years to come, he would often refer to the miracle that had taken place in Besançon, for Lipatti never performed again in public, and died on the second of December that same year.

Lipatti is, at least to music lovers of a certain age, a cult figure of the piano–a transcendent talent, who died young, and left recordings that like Callas’s are instantly recognizable, The word NYTimes critic Harold Schonberg used to sum up his playing was virility, but an aristocratic virility, not brawn rather a strength in reserve inbued with sovereign elegance.

Uncle Rudolf and his nephew are not wrong…and Paul Bailey has written an unusual thing, a novel about a life in music that has a sotto voce ring of truth. (Perhaps because it is shot through with regret…)

Commonplace Book: Rabih Alameddine’s “An Unnecessary Woman”

Tipped by a NYPL blog entry on world literature, I’m engrossed in An an-unncessary-womanUnnecessary Woman, a novel in the first-person about a reclusive reader and translator, Aaliya, holed away in an old apartment building in Beirut who starts out every Jan 1 on her new translation project. Something, when complete, she just shoves in a box and stores.

The novel is a love letter to reading and listening: full of references to books, writers, composers and musicians whose works make up Aaliya’s real world.  In this passage, she has just put on an LP of Bruckner’s Third Symphony:

Here’s a charming tale about Bruckner that I love, though I believe it

Anton Bruckner
Anton Bruckner

must be apocryphal. When he conducted the premier of this same third symphony, the audience abhorred it. Personally, I can’t imagine why. Not only is it beautiful, but if it has a flaw, it may be that it’s a little melodramatic and kitschy, two attributes that audiences tend to love. But who can account for tastes? The audience booed violently and stormed out of the hall. I imagine the composer looking back in abject sorrow at the honeycomb of heads in the theater before exiting and locking himself in the conductor’s room, alone as he would always be. Forlorn and forsaken. Bruckner remained by himself until everyone had left the building, at which point he returned to the pit for a last farewell. He saw a young man still sitting in his seat, a young composer so overcome that he’d been unable to move a muscle since the symphony began, not a twitch. The young Mahler had been cemented in his seat for more than two hours, weeping.

I am not a young Mahler. Today the music doesn’t move me, and I do not find it soothing.

Wave after wave of anxiety batters the sandy beaches of my nerves. Oh, that’s a bad metaphor if there ever was one. Just horrible.

Nothing is working. Nothing in my life is working.

Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote—dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps.

I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck. I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I though I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant—I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant—but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget.

I could have been a midget.

All our dreams of glory are but manure in the end.

I used to imagine that one day a writer would show up at my door, someone whose book I had translated, maybe the wonderful Danilo Kiš (The Encyclopedia of the Dead), before he died, of course. He the giant, me the speck with midget dreams, but he would come to thank me for caring about his work, or maybe Marguerite Yourcenar would knock on my door. I haven’t translated her, of course, because she writes in French. And what French. In 1981 she was the first woman inducted into L’Académie française because of her impeccable language. She would appear to encourage me, to show solidarity, us against the world. I, like you, isolated myself. You in this apartment in this lovely but bitter city of Beirut, I on an island off the coast of Maine. You’re a forsaken, penniless translator who’s able to remain in your home by the grace of your landlord, Fadia, while I am an incredible writer whose girlfriend, heir to the Frick fortune, owns the entire island. I am respected by the world while you are mocked by it. Yet we have much in common.

 I had dreams. …

 

 

 

Quotable Words: Arnold Weinstein

Nice essay on the value of the humanities by the lit prof, Arnold Weinstein, with this gem,

“How much do you know about Shakespeare,” I once asked a friend who has committed much of her life to studying the Bard. She replied, “Not as much as he knows about me.” Remember this the next time someone tells you literature is useless.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/opinion/dont-turn-away-from-the-art-of-life.html. The whole essay is worth a read.

MisMidsummer_sized
The first quarto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the Folger collection.

Shakespeariana

Lots of observances of the 400th anniversary of WS’s death (so long ago, so recent!)

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 3.03.57 PMTwo web destinations I particularly liked: Neil MacGregor “Shakespeare’s Restless World,” a BBC Radio and podcast series akin to his “History of the World in 100 Objects.” In 20 short episodes, he takes an object as a means to glimpse what the experience of playwright, players, and audiences might have been like. (For instance, the simple Protestant chalice in the church where Shakespeare was baptized provides a lens into the roiling drama of Catholic v. Protestant politics and power and the fears relating to the successor to Elizabeth).

Wonderful scholarly Shakespeare websites abound, but some the main repositories of primary docs have come together to put up an exhibit that gives you a chance to see for yourself the printed legacy of Shakespeare’s age.

Shakespeare Documented is a quick trip to those rare Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 3.09.32 PMbook collections in these great libraries, and from your armchair, you can follow links for the full texts, and ‘page’ through the versions of the plays that were first published as well as many contextual docs.

Reasonable Words: Banging My Own Drum Edition

iwl2Some nice words from fellow blogger David Murphy about an online educational course and TV series I co-executive produced, Invitation to World Literature.

“The 13 works are well-chosen, clearly reflecting the aims of the producers. I won’t list them, as if you click on the pic of the interface you’ll get a more easily readable version. I suspect that, like me, you have a passing knowledge of a few titles (The Odyssey, Candide, The Thousand and One Nights), but what do you know about Popol Vuh? Quite a fascinating mixture across the ages, I’m sure you’ll agree. Always tricky to choose something contemporary, of course, but a goodly sample of bibliophiles would at least grudgingly agree with The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy), I would claim. The other recent title, My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk), is likely less well known (unless you’re Turkish!), but maybe here I’m just displaying my appalling ignorance of world literature.

The interface is clean and inviting, and the material and background resources well-chosen and lovingly presented. You can delve via the ‘Watch’, ‘Read’ or ‘Explore’ menus, each simple to navigate.”

Deep thanks, David!

A few additional tidbits to note: all the videos are online, but they are also sometimes on public television in North America (granted, they probably air at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, that’s sort of the story of my producing life, but you can TiVo it people!).

Also, there is lots more, a college degree’s worth of courses and then some, at Learner.org from Annenberg. They have a two-fold aim, provide well-produced media-based online courses for college students (and life-long learners), and provide materials for teaching training. I have worked on many projects in both categories, and they were great experiences.

And back to World Literature–truly one of the great things, one of those “before and after” moments in my reading life–was reading Monkey, for the project, a book I didn’t know. It’s a Buddhist parable, an insight into Chinese history and culture, wacky and funny, and also profound. For me, finished on a bitterly cold night on Cape Cod six New Year’s Eves ago, it was an invitation to think about my being as both monkey and monk in a way that has kept me company ever since.

 

 

 

Commonplace book: Jacques Bonnet channels Pessoa

From a memoir of reading, book collecting, and libraries, Phantoms of the Bookshelves, that I, appropriately enough, picked up at the Bethesda Library.

BonnetOn 1 September 1932, the Portuguese newspaper O Século carried an advertisement for the post of librarian-curator at the Condes de Castro Guimarães Museum, in Cascais a little town on the coast about thirty kilometers from Lisbon. On 16 September, the poet Fernando Pessoa sent the local authority a letter applying for the post. The six-page document was later reproduced in a book by Maria José de Lancastre, Fernando Pessoa, una fotobiografia (Fernando Pessoa: photographic documentation), published in 1981 by Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda and the Centro de Estudios Pessoanos, which I bought for 500 escudos in a bookshop in Coimbra in November 1983. It was the only copy they had. In the town’s cafés in those days there was still a ledge under the table where you could put your hat, and I remember seeing a woman go past in the street with a sewing machine balanced on her head. The Portuguese text of the letter is reproduced in Fernando Pessoa in characters far too tiny for anyone without good Portuguese to decipher.

Pessoa, who was tired of translating commercial correspondence for import-export firms in Lisbon, on a wage that scarcely allowed him to survive and get (moderately) drunk every day, felt the urge to change his way of life and leave his flat at 16, Coelho da Rocha Street for a small town near Lisbon. In my copy of the book, a few pages before the letter, there is a photograph of Pessoa drinking a glass of red wine in the shop owned by the wine merchant Abel Ferreira da Fonseca. Behind him you can see casks of Clairette, Abafado, Moscatel, Ginginha and so on. This was the snapshot which Pessoa sent in September 1929 to Ophelia Queiroz, the only romantic relationship he is known to have had. The dedication reads: “Fernando Pessoa, em flagrante delitro”, or “Fernando Pessoa in flagrante with a litre”. Sending the photograph had marked the renewal of a connection broken off nine years earlier, and which would end, permanently this time, six months later. At least, it ended materially. Ophelia never married, and she recounted that shortly before his death, Pessoa, on meeting his nephew Carlos, had asked him, “How is Ophelia?”, then, his eyes filled with tears, had grasped his hands and added: “Oh what a fine soul, a fine soul!”

The lovely opening…evocative of Pessoa himself, a lyrical mysterious spirit.

Reading On Screen Part 2

Further to the vexatious topic of reading on screen versus paper (oddly enough, subject of the most popular post on this blog). Fast Company has a piece by Annie Sneed that rounds up some recent findings on the trade-off: Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens.

She cites a speculative, but plausible, view that screens are less congenial to deep, attentive reading:

Nonlinear reading might especially hurt what researchers call “deep-reading”—our in-depth reading of text that requires intense focus to fully understand it, like the works of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. “Skimming is fine for our emails, but it’s not fine for some of the important forms of reading,” says Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. “If you word-spot James Joyce, you’ll miss the entire experience.”

I’ll mostly pass over the mild paradox that “linear” is not a word I would apply to such paragons of literary modernism as Joyce & Woolf. One can imagine Joyce happilyflipping his wig over a hypertext Ulysses, a book which he famously said people would still be trying to decode  centuries later. If ever there were a book you go “in” rather than through it’s that one.

But I take the point; there is a quietness and materiality to reading on paper (and writing on paper) as well as a slowing down, and perhaps a bit more intentionality. When you are using a digital device, all kinds of processes & gizmos beckon, and instead of a reader, you are a bartender with a bunch of obstreperous patrons. (FB message? email, that long download that was supposed to be finished, and “oops, where is that power cable again? I’m down to 5%”). None of these particular distractions plague books. Also–and I think, though simple, this is key–a book has a self-evident way of telling you where you are, and how to find things without need of digital search. A book is a book-shaped thing and we know how it works intrinsically, because how it works is what it is. That perhaps transcends the many  comparative advantages digital offers. A minor practical example: there’s something delicious about peeking ahead to see whether there are 5 or 20 pages left in the chapter, and whether you should wait to make your tea or not. (A vision into the kinds of exciting questions that animate my daredevil lit’rery life.)

381px-William_Morris_age_53
William Morris says, “put that laptop away, young man.”

Given that I work all day on screen, it’s probably not surprising that my book reading is on paper.  (Although perversely, I did read News from Nowhere on my iPad, something I can’t imagine William Morris would heap approbation on.) I have been on a Trollope tear recently and can’t imagine reading him except on paper. But he’d probably be ridiculously enjoyable in any format, he’s also drolly wise, so gets tonight’s last word:

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.” – Anthony Trollope

Commonplace Book: The Books We Read as Teenagers

More commonplace book entries from the recent LRB (an exceptional issue, even by their high standard).

This bit from Adam Phillips “Against Self-Criticism

"Donquixote". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donquixote.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Donquixote.JPG
“Don Quixote” by Picasso. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donquixote.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Donquixote.JPG

The books we read in adolescence often have an extraordinary effect on our lives. They are, among other things, an attempt at regime change. In Freud’s language we could say that we free ourselves of our parents’ ideals for us by using the available culture to make up our own ego-ideals, to evolve a sense of our own affinities beyond the family, to speak a language that is more our own. In the self-fashioning of adolescence, books (or music or films) begin really to take, to acquire a subtle but far-reaching effect that lasts throughout a person’s life. We should, therefore, take seriously Freud’s adolescent passion for Don Quixote, a story about a ‘madman’ – as he is frequently referred to in the book – whose life is eventually entirely formed by his reading, in his case the reading of chivalric romances. He is a man who inhabits, lives in and through, the fictions about knights errant that he has consumed, a fictional character who makes himself out of fictional characters.

Rings true to me that what you do in those years has a resonance that lasts (although the ability to respond with such intensity does fade, on the whole a relief, I’m glad not to be undone by a song or a poem any more.)  My adolescent self was formed by a hodgepodge of often not very great music or books (I was in love with Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which, though fun, is hardly Cervantes) but the idea of fashioning yourself out of those materials does seem part of what that age is about, and perhaps why it’s so unavoidable that you always measure the music (poetry, art…) that you encounter later against the template set by that ardent first discovery.

Phillips goes on to make a remarkable point about what Don Q means in the context of Freud’s theory, with the advice that we might all be a little more easy going and conversational with our super-ego.

Boxing Day Drollery

Happy Boxing Day! Here is the report from Reginald, a creation of the satirist Saki (H.H. Munro) whose perspective on life rival’s Maggie Smith’s on Downtown.

REGINALD’S CHRISTMAS REVEL

They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying. I shall never forget putting in a Christmas at the Babwolds’. Mrs. Babwold is some relation of my father’s–a sort of to-be-left-till-called-for cousin–and that was considered sufficient reason for my having to accept her invitation at about the sixth time of asking; though why the sins of the father should be visited by the children–you won’t find any notepaper in that drawer; that’s where I keep old menus and first-night programmes.

Mrs. Babwold wears a rather solemn personality, and has never been known to smile, even when saying disagreeable things to her friends or making out the Stores list. She takes her pleasures sadly. A state elephant at a Durbar gives one a very similar impression. Her husband gardens in all weathers. When a man goes out in the pouring rain to brush caterpillars off rose-trees, I generally imagine his life indoors leaves something to be desired; anyway, it must be very unsettling for the caterpillars.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fens. The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that colour), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me. Mrs. Babwold put on a first-aid-to-the-injured expression, and asked him why he didn’t publish a book of his sporting reminiscences; it would be SO interesting. She didn’t remember till afterwards that he had given her two fat volumes on the subject, with his portrait and autograph as a frontispiece and an appendix on the habits of the Arctic mussel.

It was in the evening that we cast aside the cares and distractions of the day and really lived. Cards were thought to be too frivolous and empty a way of passing the time, so most of them played what they called a book game. You went out into the hall–to get an inspiration, I

Wee MacGreegor was a creation of John Joy Bell, a concoction too sweet for Saki.
Wee MacGreegor was a creation of John Joy Bell, and no doubt a concoction too sweet for Saki.

suppose–then you came in again with a muffler tied round your neck and looked silly, and the others were supposed to guess that you were “Wee MacGreegor.” I held out against the inanity as long as I decently could, but at last, in a lapse of good-nature, I consented to masquerade as a book, only I warned them that it would take some time to carry out. They waited for the best part of forty minutes, while I went and played wineglass skittles with the page-boy in the pantry; you play it with a champagne cork, you know, and the one who knocks down the most glasses without breaking them wins. I won, with four unbroken out of seven; I think William suffered from over-anxiousness. They were rather mad in the drawing-room at my not having come back, and they weren’t a bit pacified when I told them afterwards that I was “At the end of the passage.”

“I never did like Kipling,” was Mrs. Babwold’s comment, when the situation dawned upon her. “I couldn’t see anything clever in Earthworms out of Tuscany–or is that by Darwin?”

Of course these games are very educational, but, personally, I prefer bridge.

On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English fashion. The hall was horribly draughty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect. A young lady with a confidential voice favoured us with a long recitation about a little girl who died or did something equally hackneyed, and then the Major gave us a graphic account of a struggle he had with a wounded bear. I privately wished that the bears would win sometimes on these occasions; at least they wouldn’t go vapouring about it afterwards. Before we had time to recover our spirits, we were indulged with some thought-reading by a young man whom one knew instinctively had a good mother and an indifferent tailor–the sort of young man who talks unflaggingly through the thickest soup, and smooths his hair dubiously as though he thought it might hit back. The thought-reading was rather a success; he announced that the hostess was thinking about poetry, and she admitted that her mind was dwelling on one of Austin’s odes. Which was near enough. I fancy she had been really wondering whether a scrag-end of mutton and some cold plum-pudding would do for the kitchen dinner next day. As a crowning dissipation, they all sat down to play progressive halma, with milk-chocolate for prizes. I’ve been carefully brought up, and I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air- filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

I hate travelling on Boxing Day, but one must occasionally do things that one dislikes.

You can find more Reginald stories on project Gutenberg.