Thursday, September 27, 2007

Proposed Reading List

A Charmed Circle - Anna Kavan (completed, 9/15-9/20/07)
The Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen (9/20- )
The Small Room - May Sarton (9/27- )
A Perfect Hoax - Italo Svevo
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall

I wish to thank Imani for organizing this unique reading challenge, which allows me to read authors that otherwise I would have never encountered. Bowen’s crisp, emotionally charged style is very similar to Anna Kavan. It’s interesting how they cross path via this reading challenge and I happen to pick both of them.

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

I made it through and I found the last two-thirds progressed much more quickly, and were more involving, than the first 150 or so pages. I'm sure this has a lot to do with the fact that after ambling lazily until that point, I finished the rest in only a couple of sittings.

It also helped that the book moved from its lengthy scene setting, through a protracted and vaguely pointless quest sequence, and onto the real warfare and battles. I found myself very caught up in these later scenes, genuinely wanting the Demons to kick the Witches the hell out Demonland. I was quite upset when Brandoch Daha's palace at Krothering was comprehensibly trashed by the drunken, objectionable Witches, and I almost cheered when Lady Mevrian escaped the foul attentions of Lord Corinius. In order to describe one of the huge battles, Eddison employs a literary device of delayed narrative, and introduces a couple of humble, country folk to be the recipient of the story. These are, I think, the only non-noble characters who get an identity and a purpose other than being slain in combat.

Eddison is straightforward in his characterisation. Although the Witches are described in just such gorgeous detail as the Demons, they are just a little less perfect all around, and a little too ready to intrigue. The Demon court stands for all that is civilised, august, just, honourable, virtuous, beautiful, chivalrous, lofty, intelligent, benevolent etc, and its lords are correspondingly inhumanly good. They are not much individualised, although Brandoch Daha has a good line in cynical, drawling wit, like a knightly Scarlet Pimpernel. The Witches, in contrast, backstab, fight, scheme, drink and womanise, and are almost indistinguishable from each other. Corvus drinks but Corvinius doesn't, or perhaps it's the other way round? They may temporarily get the upper hand, but this is just to allow them the opportunity to prove their unworthiness by acts of rapine and looting, thereby rendering their eventual defeat and destruction all the more satisfactory.

I think no one should come to The Worm Ouroboros expecting there to be a point to it. There is none and some of the plot devices are so obvious you can hear them creaking. The quest, for example, exists solely to get the Demon lords out of the way so the Witches can invade, and to set up the ending, yet it occupies about two years of the overall timeline of the book. And at the end of it, the heroes find they have to return home! In some ways, the story is stitched together from a series of one-off incidents that exist solely to move that part of the story along and then are never returned to or mentioned again.

Yet, somehow, when by all rights it should collapse, the whole thing works. The story exists for the sake of the story alone, for what seems to me the author's fascination with the language, culture, dress, habits of some fabulous golden age. The setting is incredibly well maintained; Eddison's invention never falters, there was never (at least to my ear) a wrong note sounded. The book is true to itself, if that makes any sense, and within that self-contained universe Eddison somehow holds it all together: the layer upon layer of adjectives, the lengthy similes, the involved sentence structure and unusual verb placement, the bravery and chivalry that are almost frivolous in their extremes. I get the impression that the author took his work very seriously, and at the same time took care slyly to undercut his own bombast.

It is not to everyone's taste, I'll warrant, but to those that are minded for a folly, 'tis a sweet one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake

So in the midst of all of this month’s chaos, I’ve managed to find time to read one outmoded author. It helps that it was poetry, rather than some dense, 700-page novel or something.

"I was never a dunce, nor thought to be so,” he writes of himself, “but an
incorrigibly idle imp, who was always longing to do something else than what was
enjoined him.” (Sir Walter Scott and Florus A. Barbour, ed., The Lady of the
Lake, New York: Rand McNally and Co., 1910, p. 194)

“My appetite for books,” he adds, was as ample and indiscriminating as it was
indefatigable, and I sense have had too frequently to repent that few ever read
so much and to so little purpose.” (p. 195)

These quotes come from the biographical sketch included in the wonderful edition of this work I found. I had already developed a massive crush on Scott while reading his incredibly romantic and beautifully-crafted poem. These two quotes were enough to transform crush into full-blown love affair. Will someone please lend me a time machine, so I can go visit my object of desire (preferably during the heyday of his Abbotsford Castle)?

I have to admit that when I first chose to read this poem for the Outmoded Authors challenge, I thought it was going to be Scott’s take on the “other” Lady of the Lake, the one made so famous by King Arthur and his comrades. If you haven’t yet figured this out about me, I’m a sucker for all those old tales of knights, damsels, castles, and danger. So, at first I was a little disappointed when exploration beyond the title of the work revealed that this was merely a poem about King James V of Scotland (whom I vaguely remember from my history course at an English secondary school was, from that teacher’s point of view – who couldn’t possibly have been biased, no more so than Scott, of course -- a particularly cruel monarch).

Well, this “mere poem” teemed with knights, castles, damsels, and danger. And let’s not forget the wonderful hunting dogs, or the king prone to dressing up in disguise. I have no idea how artists like Scott manage to produce page after page of so many well-chosen and well-combined words to ignite my imagination. I can certainly understand someone who may be able to start off with gusto, so that at line 28, we have

The stag at eve had drunk his full
Where danced the moon on Moran’s rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney’s hazel shade,
But when the sun his beacon red
Had kindled on Benvoirlich’s head,
The deep-mouthed bloodhound’s heavy bay
Resounded up the rocky way,
And faint, from farther distance home,
Were heard the clanging hoof and horn.

(Can’t you just see that stag, majestic in the Scottish highlands, the moon dancing, the sun rising, those bloodhounds eagerly pursuing their prey?)

But we might expect some waning by line 4366, and yet, this is where we get,

Then, from a rusted room hook,
A bunch of ponderous keys he took,
Lighted a torch, and Allan led
Through gated arch and passage dread.
Portals they passed, where, deep within,
Spoke prisoner’s moan, and fetters’ din;
Through rugged vaults, where, loosely stored,
Lay wheel, and axe, and headman’s sword,
And many a hideous engine grim,
For wrenching joint and crushing limb,
By artists formed who deemed it shame
And sin to give their work a name.

(A visit to that little passage is far more dreadful than Madame Tussaud’s torture chamber, wouldn’t you say? And with none of the gruesome details today’s authors would deem it necessary to include.)

He never wanes.

I couldn’t have been more fortunate in reading the aforementioned “wonderful edition.” Apparently, Rand McNally published a series of books called The Canterbury Classics, of which this is one. According to the foreword, the series “aims to bear its share in acquainting school children with literature suited to their needs.” So the book opens with color plates of tartans, and there are black and white photographs throughout of the places described in the poem, and of such things as a highland piper. Then there’s sheet music to “Hail to the Chief.” What fun, huh?

The best parts of this special edition, however, can be found in the back matter. Here is where we find an excerpt from Scott’s own Tales of a Grandfather describing the Highlanders and Borderers, as well as James V. This excerpt, along with the poem itself, made me highly aware of the fact that, despite being something like 95.5% Scottish, I am woefully lacking in my knowledge of Scottish history. Now I want to read Tales of a Grandfather in its entirety. The biographical sketch which followed painted Scott nearly as beautifully as his poem painted King James, and this is where I learned, among many other things, that Scott felt threatened by Byron, which is why he abandoned poetry and moved on to writing novels. Then there were all the “Notes” for the poem, followed by this endearing section called, “Suggestions to Teachers.” Listen to this great little piece of advice, “On the side of formal instruction, an earnest word to the teacher, lest, in her attempt to do exhaustive or critical work, she destroy the flavor of the poem. Let not the romantic interest be lost through grammatical or rhetorical questions or through deadly paraphrase.” (p. 252) Don’t you wish people had given such “earnest word” to your former teachers?

All right, I’m beginning to realize that maybe the object of my desire is this particular edition of Scott’s work and not Scott at all. But I doubt it. All-in-all, though, this was a wonderful reading experience from cover-to-cover. I’m ready to go back to read the poem that preceded this one The Lay of the Last Minstrel (perhaps there’s a Canterbury edition of it as well?), which is apparently based on the legend of a hobgoblin named Gilpin Horner. Scott and hobgoblins? That’s even better than Scott and kings in disguises. I’m a goner!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jill's List

Imani is patient with many of us, I think. I'm terribly late in publishing this list of authors I mean to sample over the next six months. I've already dipped into Longfellow, one of the Fireside Poets, and will have more to offer soon on Jewett and Chesterton.
  • The Country of Pointed Firs - Sarah Orne Jewett
  • The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton
  • The Man of Property - John Galsworthy (first volume in a series of novels that would be collected into The Forsyte Saga)
  • Bowens Court - Elizabeth Bowen (You can have no idea how long this book has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, I suspect longer than fifteen years.)
  • The Fireside Poets - Sampling of works by Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant and Wendell Holmes, Sr.
  • The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall
Digression: Do students still memorize poetry? I was thinking of this as I read some of Longfellow's work. How many novels I read growing up where some wayward child was assigned the task of memorizing and declaiming for an audience, "The Wreck of the Hesperus"!

I only had to memorize a few pieces when I was in high school back in the '70's, but nothing from the Fireside Poets. (Specifically, I recall having to learn by heart some twelve lines or so of Portia's "Quality of Mercy" speech from The Merchant of Venice, but I don't think I ever did much past that. And even now, I think I can only really remember the first six...)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bonnie's list

There are at least four authors on the list that I'd like to read: Sarah Orne Jewett, D. H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, and May Sarton.

My choices:
Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs, 1896
D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1928
Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, 1947
May Sarton, The Fur Person, 1957

Bookeywookey's List

I've been remiss about showing up here so thanks, Imani, for persistently sending me invitations until I got my ass in gear. I won't post yet, having not gotten to even crack open any of my selections, but here is my list:

John Galsworthy - Fraternity
May Sarton - Faithful are the Wounds
Ivy Compton-Burnett - Manservant and Maidservant
Olivia Manning
- The Balkan Trilogy

I hope six books during the fall semester isn't pushing it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw

I own a vague memory of reading this play in grade 9 but I may as well have come to it for the first time for this second read. In a rare turn of events the preface, written by Shaw, is as energetic and memorable a piece as the play. He displayed dissatisfaction with previous historical and fictional accounts of Joan of Arc's life; exhibited a Protestant take on the saint's actions while rejecting (what he described as) the virulent anti-Catholicism in the Victorian Protestant perspective; briefly elucidated religious, historical and political aspects of medieval Catholic Christendom, often by comparing it to his modern times; and tops it off by concurrently explaining certain authorial decisions and puncturing shallow, fashionable interest in theatre. It may seem like quite a lot to take in but Shaw deals with his many points in only one or two pages, often less, and revealed a wonderful capability of treating serious ideas both sombrely and with humour, one that is reflected in the play.

He makes some very good points on how an understanding of Joan is often hindered by the typical mistakes people make by confusing the middle ages with the dark ages, the blanket assumption the participants in the Vatican's Inquisition were morally dark monsters, engaging in the most heinous acts at the slightest provocation, and the modern persons smug assurance that the human race has only been on a steady, wholesale march to improvement from then on.
As to the assessor's [at Joan d'Arc's trial], the objection to them is not that they were a row of uniform rascals, but that they were political partisans of Joan's enemies. This is a valid objection to all such trials; but in the absence of neutral tribunals they are unavoidable. A trial by Joan's French partisans would have been as unfair as the trial by her French opponents; an an equally mixed tribunal would have produced a deadlock. Such recent rials as Edith Cavell by a German tribunal and Roger Casement by an English one were open to the same objection; but they went forward to the death nevertheless, because neutral tribunals were not available. Edith, like Joan, was an arch heretic: in the middle of the war she declared before the world that 'Patriotism is not enough'. She nursed enemies back to health, and assisted their prisoners to escape, making it abundantly clear that she would help any fugitive or distressed person without asking whose side he was on, and acknowledging no distinction before Christ between Tommy and Jerry and Pitou the poilu. Well might Edith have wished that she could bring the Middle Ages back, and have fifty civilians, learned in the law or vowed to the service of God, to support two skilled judges in trying her case according to the Catholic law of Christendom, and to argue it out with her at sitting after sitting for many weeks. The modern military Inquisition was not so squeamish. It shot her out of hand; and her countrymen, seeing in this a good opportunity for lecturing the enemy on his intolerance, put up a statue to her, but took particular care not to inscribe on the pedestal 'Patriotism is not enough', for which omission, and the lie it implies, they will need Edith's intercession when they are themselves brought to judgment, if any heavenly power think such moral cowards capable of pleading to an intelligible indictment.

The point need be no further laboured. Joan was persecuted essentially a she would be persecuted today. The change from burning to hanging or shooting may strikes us as a change for the better. The change from careful trial under ordinary to recklessly summary military terrorism may strike us as a change for the worse. But as far as toleration is concerned the trail and execution in Rouen in 1431 might have been an event of today; and we may charge our consciences accordingly. If Joan had to be dealt with by us in London she would be treated with no more toleration that Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, or the Peculiar People, or the parents who keep their children from the elementary school, or any of the others who cross the line we have to draw, rightly or wrongly, between the tolerable and the intolerable.
Shaw wrote the preface in 1924 and I do not find the core of his remarks less salient close to a century later. As a reader I found myself stubbornly holding on to my assumptions as Shaw did his best to wrest them away in his criticism of the Catholic church at the time with his dedicated stance to analysing the situation as any proper historian would -- in the context of the times, with an eye to the moral, philosophical, social, and practical constraints of the time rather than with the hindsight of the 20th century values. (In other words, I was looking for comfortable blanket condemnation and was presented with something more complex. How awful of him.) His criticism of scientists and the scientific community I found to be considerably weaker. He rightly mocked, in an almost merciless manner, how the general public takes as gospel any new piece of information scientists provide without being able to even attempt a simple explanation of any of it.
In the Middle Ages people believed that the earth was flat, for which they had at least the evidence of their senses: we believe it to be round, not because as many as one percent of us could give the physical reasons for so quaint a belief, but because modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true, and that everything that is magical, improbably, extraordinary, gigantic, microscopic, heartless, or outrageous is scientific.
He was quick to assert that he only wishes to defend his "own age against the charge of being less imaginative than the Middle Ages" but I could not shake the impression that he held something more than a healthy scepticism about the existence of atoms. He presented the differences between the ages in too simplified a difference for my taste, and does it throughout, perhaps in an admittedly acknowledged attempt and knocking down assumptions we hold about the past and the present. In any case, it was only 1924.

From the quotes one can see that Shaw is pretty in-your-face about his ideas and Saint Joan, while a more subtle work in comparison the preface, is not so to a remarkable difference. Words like "Nationalism" and "Protestantism" are sprinkled into the script, and Shaw's ideas about English patriotism, as mentioned in the preface, are easily discerned in the actions and lines of certain characters. My disappointment at the ideas being so readily discernible, at least superficially not being under the impression that I've understood the book inside out, did not significantly impede on the play's quality until the horrid epilogue. (Is there a good one in existence, I'd like to know.) Shaw damns subtlety and goes for an all out maudlin reunion of Joan d'Arc's and all her colleagues' ghosts in the bedroom of King Charles, the man she crowned King. They are even visited by a Vatican official from the future who lets her know that she became a saint.

The play's plot charts selected major moments of Joan's life, from her fateful meeting with Robert de Baudricourt in order to gain access to the Dauphin to her excommunication by the Catholic church and burning by the "secular arm" of rule. To my delight Shaw did not skimp on stage directions, and the reader is able to imagine the actors moving on stage and intoning lines as the writer intended. (Perhaps this is how it is with modern plays?) In fact, I would often re-read lines because I did not think that my mind's reading voice matched Shaw's direction.

Joan as a character on the page did make the deep impression Shaw intended, particularly during her brief speeches in which she expressed the most fervour. With her and with other characters Shaw, as in his preface, is able to combine humour satisfactorily with weighty issues, which makes his thinly veiled ideas a lot easier to swallow. No character was written without given some breadth or hint of multi-dimensions, not even the spoiled, cowardly Dauphin who complained when his army was losing, when he was crowned, and when his stance had been made secure by a rehabilitation of Joan's reputation after her death.

All in all it's a quick read and makes me eager to read not only more of Shaw's plays but more from the genre, in general. I changed my mind about a few of the authors I was going to read. I found my picks too conventional. I've started Andrew Salkey's, a Jamaican author, A Quality of Violence, but will pick up a Jesse Hill Ford book instead, along with one or two of Rosalyn Drexler's. At some point, I wouldn't mind getting around to something of Violette Leduc's.

The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

E R Eddison was an English civil servant who wrote Ouroboros in 1922. My 1952 copy of the book was published by Dutton in a series called The Xanadu Library, 'A new series of paperback classics of imaginative writing...' and includes an introduction by Orville Prescott. His introduction, which is excerpted for the blurb, puts the novel in the ranks of Homer, Icelandic sagas and the Morte d'Arthur. A quick Google search revealed that Mr Prescott was, at the time, a reviewer for the New York Times and for Time magazine, and thus presumably lends an air of literary validity to the reprint of Ouroboros. There must surely be a reprint in the works with a foreword by Neil Gaiman.

I'm just under half way into the book, and I feel I've settled into its rhythms now. It is not a book that I can pick up and put down, because I don't find the romantic epic style immediately accessible. The language repays careful, wakeful reading of the sort that has been a little at a premium lately, so I'm making slow progress.

The action of Ouroboros takes place on the planet Mercury, which is inhabited by warring peoples called Witches and Demons, along with Ghouls, Goblins and Imps, but Eddison uses only the names and none of their usual accompanying characteristics. That in itself muddies the waters; the Demons are the good guys, for example, and the Witches are the bad guys, with the Goblins in an uncertain position as unhappy underlings to the Witches, which makes then unreliable allies to the Demons. The theme of the story is the epic struggle between the Demons and the Witches. The Demon lord Goldry Bluszco won a one-on-one 'wrastling' match with the Witch king Gorice XI, which was supposed to settle the whole affair but Witchy treachery ensued. As the Demons sailed home victorious, the mighty worm Ouroboros, sent at the bidding of Gorice's successor (helpfully named Gorice XII), blasted the fleet and stole away Goldry Bluszco who is now held in durance vile somewhere in Impland. The Demon lords have already suffered one failed campaign against Witchland, and are now questing in Impland to recover Goldry Bluszco, their forces severely diminished by the truly Homeric shipwreck that beset them on the way. It's not that either side is fielding thousands of men, but in fact, if after the shipwreck only 3,000 are left from 30,000, the figures seem much more imaginable and therefore affecting. So far, all the heroes have made it but I wouldn't be surprised if there is some Achillean-style tragedy ahead.

Eddison delights in description, and takes the opportunity to lard his prose even more than usual. This is his description of the Demon Lord Juss, one of the heroes:

Turn thy gaze first on him who walks in majesty in the midst, his tunic of olive-green velvet ornamented with devices of hidden meaning in thread of gold and beads of chrysolite. Mark how the buskins, clasping his stalwart calves, glitter with gold and amber. Mark the dusky cloak streamed with gold and lined with blood-red silk:a charmed cloak, made by the sylphs in forgotten days, and bringing good hap to the wearer, so he be true of heart and no dastard. Mark him that weareth it, his sweet dark countenance, the violet fire in his eyes, the sombre warmth of his smile, like autumn woods in late sunshine. This is Lord Juss, lord of this age-remembering castle, than whom none hath more worship in wide Demonland

I love that simile '...his smile, like autumn woods in late sunshine', and that compound adjective 'age-remembering', and there have been plenty of other examples that have made me smile. Like this one: 'I can see pat up his nostrils a summer's day journey into his head'. Eddison took obvious delight in the world and the characters he created, and the novel is saved from collapsing under the weight of its over-stately prose by that sense of joy and the leavening of humour that run through it.

That said, I can completely see why it fell out of favour. It's almost a literary folly, I think, and I get the impression that Eddison wrote it to please himself above all, perhaps to cheer himself up after a long day of pushing dry papers around his desk.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

I'm about fifty pages into The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen, and so far I'm absolutely loving it! It rather reminds me of an interwar Jane Austen so far, and it also evokes Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding. I think I may have a new favourite author on my hands. :)

The reason I'm posting now is that I just had to share the great preface in my edition (a 1964 Knopf hardcover I bookmooched). She discusses writing the book, and she just seems so graceful and classy. I'd like to share some of her thoughts on writing. While I'm not a writer, these seemed full of insight.
One may perceive that, generally, in the novel the characters are held in the same orbit by some sort of situation which sets, as it were, a trap-some central device, devilmen, search or passion. My own solution, however, was a more childish one: again in The Last September, as in The Hotel, I used the device of grouping my men and women actually under the same roof, and of keeping them thus located, whether by choice or chance, for such time as the story should need to run its course. The Italian resort hotel of my first venture was, for the second, replaced by the Irish country house. I recognise that I am, and was bound to be, a writer intensely subject to scence and time: both do more than figure, they play their parts in my plots. The approaching close of the visitors' winter season adds edge to the little drama of The Hotel. The Last September, even more, takes its pitch from that lovely, too mortal month which gives the novel its name.

The writer is like the swimmer caught by an undertow; he is borne by it back to those scenes of his own life most steeped in subjective experience which he did not know of. Sensation accumulates where it is least sought; meaning flows in, retrospectively, where we were blind to any. One is captured by the mysterious, the imperious hauntedness of a pariod not understood in its own time.

I was very much struck by her observations on being young. I turned twenty-one in April, and I feel as if she put her finger on where I am right now. It's reassuring to know that I'm not the only one!
In "real" life, my early girhood in the County Cork, in the house which is the "Danielstown" of the story was, though accented from time to time by aspiration, passing romance or pleasure, mainly a period of impatience, frivolity, lassitude or boredome. I endlessly asked myself what I should be, and when? The young (who are, ironically, so much envied) do all, I suspect, face those patches of barren worry.

When one is young, years are longer; each one one has lived seems dynamic and fraught with a conquest. In most lives (and mine conformed to the shape) the years between twnety and twenty-eight are often important, decisive ones.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Dorothy's post on Scott's Waverley has encouraged me to start my reading of Ivinghoe. I've never read Scott before and didn't really know what to expect. So far Ivanhoe has had me chuckling. I'm delighted to find it so entertaining and thinking I wish I'd read this before. My copy was published by the Odhams Press Ltd in the 1930s and has this line drawing of Sir Walter Scott as a frontispiece. From the Foreword:

"Certainly there have been few more lovable, more unselfish figures than the lame Laird of Abbotsfield."

It continues promising a enthralling tale of the "triangular love drama of Ivanhoe, Rowena and Rebecca, the pomp and chivalry of the Lists and the adventures of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and the merry gangsters of Sherwood Forest."

So, a complete change of mood from Poe and modern fantasy novels.

Ivanhoe is set in the time of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart (1157 - 1199), over 100 years after the Norman Conquest of England, when there was still opposition between the conquering Normans and the native Anglo-Saxons. Scott's introduction(dated 1830) to the novel (written in 1819) follows the foreword in which he explains why he has decided to write a novel based on English history instead of Scottish - he felt he was "likely to weary out the indulgence of his readers, but also greatly to limit his own power of affording them pleasure", as, "when men and horses, cattle, camels and dromedaries, have poached the spring into mud, it becomes loathsome to those who first drank of it with rapture." In other words he didn't want to bore his readers with more of the same and he fancied a change himself.

Scott called his novel Ivanhoe, as it has "an ancient English sound" and because it didn't convey anything at all about the nature of the story. A rhyme including the name had come to his mind "according three names of the manors forfeited by the ancestor of the celebrated Hampden, for striking the Black Prince a blow with his racket, when they quarrelled at tennis."

After the Introduction there is a "Dedicatory Epistle to the Rev Dr. Dryasdust, F.A.S.", which Scott uses to expand his reasons for writing an English historical romance and apologises in advance should the antiquarian think "that, by thus intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age in which I describe."

The novel eventually starts on page 29, where follows long and detailed descriptions of the location of the story; of the continuing hostility between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons; and of the first two characters that we meet.

To some extent this reminded me of the rustic characters in Shakespeare's plays, provided for comic relief, but as I've only just got on to Chapter Two perhaps I shouldn't be too hasty in my views. Anyway, so far I'm finding this book refreshingly very different from the books I've read recently, although that's not to say that I haven't enjoyed those, because I have enormously. But it's a relief to find that I'm enjoying Ivanhoe, as I had thought it might be a bit dry. If I start to write in long, complicated sentences, with detailed descriptions I can blame it all on Scott.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I forgive you Walter Scott

Remember how I was complaining that the opening of Waverley is a bit slow? Well, Walter Scott has read my thoughts and kindly apologized:

I beg pardon, once and for all, of those readers who take up novels merely for amusement, for plaguing them so long with old-fashioned politics, and Whig and Tory, and Hanoverians and Jacobites. The truth is, I cannot promise them that this story shall be intelligible, not to say probable, without it … Those who are contented to remain with me will be occasionally exposed to the dulness inseparable from heavy roads, steep hills, sloughs, and other terrestrial retardations; but, with tolerable horses and a civil driver … I engage to get as soon as possible into a more picturesque and romantic country, if my passengers incline to have some patience with me during my first stages.

Thank you for the warning! I’m not quite to the “picturesque and romantic country” yet, but I’m certain I’ll get there and this novel will be fun — it surely was so popular for a reason. Can you imagine a contemporary author asking for the reader’s patience in this way? Yes, the novel will be dull in places, but bear with me; I promise there’ll be good bits.

Actually, there are good bits even in the introductory chapters; the very first chapter doesn’t begin the story at all but is a discussion of the novel’s title, and if you know me, you’ll know I can’t resist this kind of novelistic navel-gazing. What he’s doing in discussing the title is placing his novel in its context amongst other novels of the period. He found the choice of “Waverley” relatively simple, but his subtitle plagued him for a while. He considered “Waverley, a Tale of Other Days,” but that sounded too Radcliffean; if he had used that subtitle:

… must not every novel-reader have anticipated a castle scarce less than that of Udolpho, of which the eastern wing had long been uninhabited, and the keys either lost, or consigned to the care of some aged butler or housekeeper, whose trembling steps, about the middle of the second volume, were doomed to guide the hero, or heroine, to the ruinous precincts?

He considered “Waverley, a Romance from the German,” but then readers would have expected:

a profligate abbot, an oppressive duke, a secret and mysterious association of Rosycrucians and Illuminati, with all their properties of black cowls, caverns, daggers, electrical machines, trap-doors, and dark-lanterns.

“Waverley, A Sentimental Tale” would have meant (this one is particularly good):

a heroine with a profusion of auburn hair, and a harp, the soft solace of her solitary hours, which she fortunately finds always the means of transporting from castle to cottage, although she herself be sometimes obliged to jump out of a two-pair-of-stairs window, and is more than once bewildered on her journey, alone and on foot, without any guide but a blowzy peasant girl, whose jargon she hardly can understand.

And the last one, “Waverley, A Tale of the Times,” which must have involved:

a dashing sketch of the fashionable world, a few anecdotes of private scandal thinly veiled, and if lusciously painted, so much the better.

Sorry for all the quotations, but I find them irresistible. Scott gets away with both establishing what his own work does and doesn’t do, and making fun of the stereotypes of the fiction of his time. What he settles on is “Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since,” a time not so long ago as to be exotic nor so recent as to make people think they are reading a commentary on modern times. Instead, the time period allows him to put the focus on his characters and on their passions, instead of on their context. He wants characters likely to be seen as universal types, and he decides this is the best way to achieve them.

So, yes, after that wonderful opening chapter and with the promise of excitement to come, I’m willing to put up with a little dullness.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Introduction to Walter Scott's Waverley

I have very mixed feelings about the introduction to my edition of Walter Scott’s Waverley; I’ve read only part of it, as I don’t like to hear an editor’s thoughts on the plot and characters until I’ve finished the novel, but I do like to read about the author’s life and context, so from that section of the introduction, I can quote a bit I found immensely annoying:

Scott’s triumph became a triumph for the form he wrote in. The novel gained a new authority and prestige, and even more important perhaps, a new masculinity. After Scott the novel was no longer in danger of becoming the preserve of the woman writer and the woman reader. Instead it became the appropriate form for writers’ richest and deepest imaginative explorations of human experience.

Yes, it’s the idea that women’s concerns are narrow and small, things that no man need worry about, but men’s concerns are wide and rich and universal. And heaven save us from those ubiquitous women writers and readers who are always threatening to take over everything. What the hell? The introduction was published in 1972, which is not to excuse it because of its relatively early date, but to wonder why Penguin couldn’t bother to get a less sexist editor in all that time.

The editor somewhat redeems himself with his discussion of Scott’s faded reputation. Scott was immensely, hugely popular in his time and was surely one of the most influential novelists of the 19C, so what happened? The editor claims that the 20C’s reaction against Victorianism and especially against Romanticism is to blame. His comparison of Scott and Austen is useful; he describes how his fortunes fell as hers rose:

Where Jane Austen is strong, Scott is weak: her careful sense of form and structure against his slack and slow-moving narrative procedures; her superb control of the complexities of tone against his pedestrian heavy-footedness; her profoundly ironic vision of human nature and human society against his complacent conventionality of attitude; her flexibility of language and style against his stilted, formal rhetoric.

I’ve been trying to imagine a world where Scott is valued more highly than Austen, and I can’t quite do it; it’s very hard for me to see why not everyone in all times and all places would see the genius of Austen and the lesser light of Scott as I do, but maybe that’s just me. Oh, wait — I haven’t actually read Scott yet. Mustn’t rush to judgment.

I’ve begun the first few chapters, and … well … they aren’t that good. I found them kind of obscure and hard to follow. But I know things will get improve and I fully expect to enjoy the book. As Sandra has rather wonderfully pointed out, 19C novels don’t tend to begin with a bang.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

obooki's reading list

This is just my sort of thing. I seem to spend half my life tracking down obscure writers to read (mostly foreign). Just today I bought Ramon del Valle-Inclan's Autumn and Winter Sonatas and Harry Mulisch's The Assault - but no, however much I want to I can't read them now, I have to do this challenge instead.

My reading list:
  • Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1947). I was actually in the middle of his short story collection Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy DwellingPlace (he had a way with titles), so I'll post on the ones I haven't read yet. - I read Ultramarine a long time ago, which I remember being only OK.
  • Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno (1923). I've read As A Man Grows Older and A Life already (in fact, I read A Life this year), so Svevo isn't exactly unknown to me. I recommend A Life, though it may not be easy to come by.
  • Djuna Barnes' Nightwood (1936). I've had it on my shelf for a while.
  • Anna Kavan's Sleep has his House (1948). I've never read any of her books. People have recommended Ice before.
(Now those were the ones already on my shelf, but due to a tube strike this week, I wandered a different way home from work and - as usual with such things - discovered a charming ramshackle secondhand bookshop full of outmoded authors - all weathered orange penguins and virago modern classics).
  • Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819). I tried reading what I think is his first novel, Old Mortality, once and swore never to read any Scott again; but I'll give him one last chance.
  • Dawn Powell's The Golden Spur (1962). I'd never heard of her, but this sounds fascinating. A Virago book with an introduction by that arch-feminist Gore Vidal: "Powell was always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion ... in her lifetime she should have been as widely read as, say, Hemingway or the early Fitzgerald or the mid O'Hara ... that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less a final, down payment on Love or the Family; she saw life with a bright Petronian neutrality".
  • Christina Stead's The Salzburg Tales (1934). I keep buying her books, leaving them on my shelves and then giving them away without reading them. This is her first book, and seems to be a long Decameron-style festival of tales.
  • May Sarton's Kinds of Love (1970). This looks like the kind of book I would never buy and never read. A truly awful cover. The blurb: "Now in her seventies - with a disabled husband to care for - Christina has decided to spend her first winter in their summer holiday home". So it should be interesting.
  • Violette Leduc's La Batarde (1964). "You will be shocked and thrilled by her candour as she reveals the anguish of her illegitimate, poverty-stricken childhood", says the blurb.
I used to read books to the end whether I liked them or not, but as I've grown older (and a bit more frightened at the ever-increasing number of unread books on my bookshelves) I now tend to give up on anything that doesn't interest me within about the first 70 pages.

I think I'll start with Dawn Powell.

(p.s. I haven't read The Obscene Bird of Night, but I've been reading other books by Jose Donoso recently and he's quickly become one of my favourite writers).

Addendum: I do have one of the most extraordinary local library services in my borough and, from my investigations on their website, I reckon I should be able to track down Andrew Salkey, C L R James, E R Eddison, Freya Stark and maybe Orlando Patterson. (C L R James' book on Toussaint Louverture sounds really fascinating). So I may replace a few of the above with them. (They had Merce Rodoreda too, but only in Spanish).

Sunday, September 2, 2007

My Picks For The Challenge (Bybee)

This is a challenge near and dear to my heart. It's like a treasure hunt, finding authors who are undeservedly underread or out of fashion or favor. Plus, there's something ornery in me that doesn't like to read what is popular at the moment.

For this challenge, I plan to read:
Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead (I read The Man Who Loved Children, and enjoyed it, but surely there is not a more irritating character in fiction than Sam.)

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. (I've had a copy of this for a while, and this gives me a good excuse to get it off the shelf. I got a kick out of the 1934 movie based on this novel. Leslie Howard was just right as Philip, and Bette Davis was a perfect Mildred -- what a bitch!)

I also hope to find and read a novel or short story collection by Elizabeth Taylor.

Anna Kavan is on the list! I'm so pleased. I read Let Me Alone a few years ago, and loved it. I hope I can squeeze in a read by her, maybe Julia And The Bazooka.

Thanks, Imani, for starting this challenge. You've put a lot of time and thought into this!

Letters from a prisoner by James Blake

Ever since I started this challenge some of the selected authors have been popping out at me. Elizabeth Bowen was apparently a friend with Ivy Compton-Burnett and I spied a J.B. Priestly book (a nominee who didn't quite make the cut) on a used book store's shelf. James Blake mentioned Bowen and a more popular author, D.H. Lawrence, in two out of series of letters published in the 13th issue of the Paris Review in 1956. I've posted excerpts of each below.

"...James Blake, a night club pianist by profession, was a convict in a southern county jail. The Mr. X to whom a number of the letters are addressed is a well-known American author."

DEC.9, 1951
Dear X:
This week I finished a book that Jack O. sent me, Elizabeth Bowen's Heat of the Day, and for a couple of days, impressionable ass that I am, I was clipped in my speech and moodily English. That kind of performance needs a discerning audience, though, and if my colleagues noticed it at all, it was to give me a brief, dimly suspicious glance and dismiss the matter, the way a cow does when she looks at you.

--My work out on the road has brought me into contact with quite a number of cows lately, and I've never seen anything to beat the way they can convey quiet contempt. It may be that one brief glance tells them I'm not a bull and therefore beneath notice -- Still, you can't tell. A number of the funloving lads on the gang give vivid and explicit accounts of illicit relations with cows, and it may be that the harrassed and confused animals have put down the whole human race as warped, or inconstant, or at the very least impotent... I think I shall leave all that to the admirable Kinsey.

Thank you ever so much for the deuce and the stamps and postcards. I was able to get a haircut, buy some tobacco and writing paper, and some food that wasn't drowning in glutinous gravy. Our cook is a con who was a merchant mariner and he seems to believe that if it ain't afloat it ain't digestible. As a result, I am awash most of the time.

I have the published versions of four plays I'd like to send you, if you care to send me about forty cents in stamps, and if you're interested. Not hawking anything, I just would like to reciprocate in any way I can. They are Rose Tattoo, King and I, Moon is Blue and Gioconda Smile. If you don't read plays yourself, you might know someone who does.

JAN. 13, 1952
Dear X.:
Of the books you sent, I've enjoyed re-reading Huck Finn very much and D.H. Lawrence's hotsy-totsty opus The Lost Girl, new to me. Some rather shrewd and delightful humor in this Lawrence book, though, something I've encountered in his other things.

One thing I have noticed about Lawrence, though (said the mountain, proudly bringing forth a mouse). I ran across Lady Chatterly not long ago and re-read it. To my intense disappointment, most of the "hot parts" were deleted, and it was spangled with asterisks -- but in both books, it seemed to me that his descriptions of scenes of passion, or bedroom bouts, were almost womanishly fervent. That is, the viewpoint seemed to be female. Curious.

However, maybe it is all "in the eye of the beholder", and instead of being penetrating, I am merely tipping my mitt. The hell with it.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

50 underrated novels

The Guardian's Observer does like its lists, and it brings another one with a list of 50 underrated novels compiled from selected "celebrated writers". None of our noble selections were included -- Elizabeth Bowen is mentioned-- but on a first browse I spotted some eye-catching suggestions.

Elizabeth Taylor received 3 mentions: Angel, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and Blaming -- woo, go Virago! -- suggested by Charlotte Mendelson, Jane Rogers and Jenny Diski respectively. This proves that they are all in sync with many litbloggers. I never knew that the name belonged to anyone other than the Hollywood actress before I started reading book blogs. At first I wondered a) since when did Taylor write novels and b) why would anyone care enough to waste time reading them. It took me a while to figure out there were two very different persons. ;)

I have The Obscene Bird of Night by Jose Donoso, recommended by a Nicola Barker, which I got because I wanted more translated literature and decided to browse the Verba Mundi backlist. I only had a vague idea of what it was about but Barker's description sounds promising.
It would be a crass understatement to say that this book is a challenging read; it's totally and unapologetically psychotic. It's also insanely gothic, brilliantly engaging, exquisitely written, filthy, sick, terrifying, supremely perplexing, and somehow connives to make the brave reader feel like a tiny, sleeping gnat being sucked down a fabulously kaleidoscopic dream plughole.
Who doesn't like dream plugholes? (Does anyone recognise any of the "celebrated writers" yet? I don't.)

Here's one author I recognise. John Banville recommends Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins, describing it as a "elegiac, bittersweet" book that "probably did not suit the mad mood of the [60s]". Based on my small sampling of 60s fiction I'd have to agree that "bittersweet" was not the predominant tone, so the contrast alone makes it worth a look. A.S. Byatt (to whom The Observer unfortunately gives the first name "As") gives heady praise to a collection of Ford Madox Ford novels called Parade's End -- that Amazon edition is published by Carcanet who also offers two Djuna Barnes books -- ranking it above Howard's End and Mrs Dalloway. I am both pleased that one of my absolute favourite writers likes Ford, for I hold The Good Soldier as about the closest one can get to a perfect novel, and that she considers his other work worth pursuing. Based on the Broadview edition I read the introduction gave the impression that The Good Soldier was the only interesting thing Ford ever wrote.

I don't expect that I'll ever read an Ian Rankin book, but his very concise description of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg piqued my interest in his taste.
Barmy and scary and predating Jekyll and Hyde. And written by a shepherd who barely read any books. A Scottish classic, a world classic, yet hardly anyone, writers excepted, has actually read it.
Besides who can resist reading about someone's hopefully spicy account of his sins? I did like that one James Hogg poem I read in The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien. More importantly there's a NYRB classic edition (an Outmoded favourite) which boasts a detail from a William Blake painting. Sold!