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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR NOVEMBER 2007

November  30,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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

November  29,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Yet so terrified are people these days of 'giving offense' that most reviewing now consists merely of reshuffling harmless clichs.  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 of the 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.  Thanks, Dad.]

November  28,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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.]

November  27,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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

November  26,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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

November  22,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The Bibliographers

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

November  21,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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 of."

--The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney

November  20,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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 done it.

--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Thursday, 21st July, 1949

November  19,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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 Powell

[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.]

November  18,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

'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 Powell

November  17,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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

November  16,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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

November  15,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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

November  14,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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 steps.

--The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

November  8,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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

November  7,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"How old is he?" the policeman asked Mrs. Reilly.

"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. Reilly said.

--A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

November  6,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The following passage from a letter to Walpole is characteristic:

Nous emes une musique charmante, une dame qui joue de la harpe merveille ; elle me fit tant de plaisir que j'eus du regret que vous ne l'entendissiez pas ; c'est un instrument admirable.  Nous emes aussi un clavecin, mais quoiqu'il ft touch avec une grande perfection, ce n'est rien en comparaison de la harpe.  Je fus fort triste toute la soire ; j'avais appris en partant que Mme. de Luxembourg, qui tait alle samedi Montmorency pour y passer quinze jours, s'tait trouve si mal qu'on avait fait venir Tronchin, et qu'on l'avait ramene le dimance huit heures de soir, qu'on lui croyait de l'eau dans la poitrine.  L'anciennet de la connaissance ; une habitude qui a l'air de l'amiti ; voir disparatre ceux avec qui l'on vit ; un retour sur soi-mme ; sentir que l'on ne tient rein, que tout fuit, que tout chappe, qu'on reste seule dans l'univers, et que malgr cela on craint de le quitter ; voil 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.]

November  6,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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 here.]

November  5,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

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 Chirico.

--Things I didn't know by Robert Hughes

November  1,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

'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