Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Strained Similes, Heroism and Wonderful DC George

What a huge relief it is to receive from George this memorandum written by other Proust readers - there is great comfort in the discovery that there are others in the world who find almost as little to recommend in the 'great work' as I do, (thus far):

Crawling Up Everest

Russell Baker

On July 18 the two of us set out together to read Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. We have been reading it fairly steadily ever since, thanks to our stocked kits of smelling salts, and are determined to keep on reading until we either finish or die in the attempt.

Our first diary entries--of a Shackleton's expedition in literature--are presented below because this is a moment that cries out for public examples of heroism to remind us again of the greatness of which Americans are capable.

Few deeds can be more heroic than an attempt to read Remembrance of Things Past from beginning to end. Some persons will quarrel with this. Some will argue that true heroism lies in sitting through all of Wagner's Die Valkyrie. Others will hold that it consists in enduring a festival of Andy Hardy films. Every man has his Everest. None is so formidable as Remembrance of Things Past.

Remembrance of Things Past is longer than Everest is tall. When all seven volumes are piled together the stack is more than six miles tall. This great length is due not only to the incredible number of strained similes contained in the novel's seven voluimes, but also to the dense layers of tedium packed into almost every paragraph.

Reading it is a feat to test Hercules, Washington, Lindbergh, John Glenn or John Wayne. "Life is too short and Proust is too long," Anatole French is said to have explained when asked why he had not read it. Perhaps so.

To help in the struggle I have retained a Sherpa reader who is highly praised among his countrymen for his ability to read anything. His name is Tenzing. Once Tenzing read the inaugural address of Warren G. Harding in its entirety, and, to show that this was not a fluke, went on to read The Last of the Mohicans almost halfway through.

To protect ourselves against the temptation to cheat by skipping several volumes, we are reading aloud, every last word. The opening diary entries follow:

July 18: Would anyone believe 12,000 words about a man who had a hard time going to sleep when he was a boy? We read twenty-two pages of this before Tenzing gets ugles and say I have betrayed him by not telling him that this is a plot to bore him to death. Fortunately, I am asleep by this time and cannot take offense.

July19: Another twenty pages today. The narrator--Proust, I suppose--still couldn't get to sleep. In a sudden flurry of narrative action Proust drinks a cup of tea and eats a cookie, which remind him of his boyhood, especially an aunt and a church he associates with that age, and an inability to go to sleep.

July 20: Only six pages tonight. Proust remembers the church again and, in a plot complication, recalls a stained glass window. Tenzing revives my heartbeat with brandy after seven hours of reading the paragraph on pages forty-nine, fifty, and fifty-one. Our medical team pleads with us to turn back.

July 22: Our first crisis tonight. Lifting the book to begin, I was seized with acute indolence, which the doctors say is common in the tertiary stage of tedium gravis. It was brought on by my conviction that Proust was going to remember the church's steeple while my life ebbed away.

Recovered enough tonight to read again. Proust tells absolutely everything about a meal that was prepared when he was a boy--asparagus, chicken, potatoes, marrow, spinach, apricots, roast leg of mutton, biscuits, preserves, coffee, cream, pepper and salt, bread, butter, knives, forks, spoons, table cloth ... Tenzing says I must get a grip on myself.

July 23: Tonight we read for three weeks and finish nine pages. Proust reads in his garden and remembers veal.

July 24: Hurrah! Seventeen pages in just thirty-two hours tonight! Proust thinks of an invalid aunt and a musician who rather thinks he would like to play for some guests but is too shy to mention it.

July 25: Tenzing is in a deep depression. "That rotten Proust is going to think of the church again," he predicts at dinner. "Compared to Proust," he tells me, "Uncas, Chingachgook and Warren Harding are as much fun as Mae West." I take Tenzing to see an old Terry Thomas movie, which reminds both of us of brussels sprouts.

July 26: Refreshed by our night off, we plunge through twenty-seven pages about Proust's boyhood passion for hawthorn blossoms. Tenzing collapses in hysteria, cursing hawthorn blossoms, spinach, church steeple and stained glass windows.

Our medical team order us to take a week off. With 60,000 words behind us we have barely dented the book, but we feel heroic and American. Next week, says Tenzing, who has peeked ahead, the plot will thicken. He believes Proust is about to take a walk in the country. I already begin to look forward to it. Or is it merely anticpation of the ticker tape parade up Broadway?

Monday, 8 February 2016

Plodding on with Proust

Inspired by this post at The Millions blog, I returned to my attempt to listen to the whole of Proust in French. I have now reached the end of Combray, which is not very good going, considering I've been at it, on and off, (mostly off, admittedly), since 2014.

What is wrong with me? I am not falling under the Proustian spell. I think he has some interesting things to reveal about memory, about individual perception, about the evanescent richness of each moment. I recognise that his attempt to articulate the whole of one individual's consciousness is, in a way, heroic, even though, or perhaps partly because, it is doomed. I presume, perhaps inspired by moving pictures, he is after what he refers to as:

la conquête de la vérité.

the conquest of truth

I recognise that he has rather bleak but not uninteresting views about the loneliness of individual existence:

On cherche à retrouver dans les choses, devenues par là précieuses, le reflet que notre âme a projeté sur elles ; on est déçu en constatant qu’elles semblent dépourvues dans la nature du charme qu’elles devaient, dans notre pensée, au voisinage de certaines idées ; parfois on convertit toutes les forces de cette âme en habileté, en splendeur pour agir sur des êtres dont nous sentons bien qu’ils sont situés en dehors de nous et que nous ne les atteindrons jamais.

We try to discover in things, endeared to us on that account, the spiritual glamour which we ourselves have cast upon them; we are disillusioned, and learn that they are in themselves barren and devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array so as to influence and subjugate other human beings who, as we very well know, are situated outside ourselves, where we can never reach them.

I find an intriguing link with the modern fad of mindfulness in his conclusion that the senses are a pleasure in themselves:

... en continuant à suivre du dedans au dehors les états simultanément juxtaposés dans ma conscience, et avant d’arriver jusqu’à l’horizon réel qui les enveloppait, je trouve des plaisirs d’un autre genre, celui d’être bien assis, de sentir la bonne odeur de l’air

... I continue to trace the outward course of these impressions from their close-packed intimate source in my consciousness, and before I come to the horizon of reality which envelops them, I discover pleasures of another kind, those of being comfortably seated, of tasting the good scent on the air,

All the same, as I've complained before, he does goes on so. Also, I find him cloying. 

It is a matter of taste, of course, and perhaps I am misguided to find so much of the book overblown. Nevertheless, a writer who refers to beams of light having "golden wings" may not be my kind of writer:

un reflet de jour avait pourtant trouvé moyen de faire passer ses ailes jaunes, 

a reflection of the sunlight had contrived to slip in on its golden wings, 

If this were an isolated incident, I might be able to overlook it but the next two passages, also Proust, also from Swann's Way are for me among the most revoltingly cloying passages I have ever had to read, (or listen to) - and they are only two examples from among many:

mon ravissement était devant les asperges, trempées d’outre-mer et de rose et dont l’épi, finement pignoché de mauve et d’azur, se dégrade insensiblement jusqu’au pied — encore souillé pourtant du sol de leur plant — par des irisations qui ne sont pas de la terre. Il me semblait que ces nuances célestes trahissaient les délicieuses créatures qui s’étaient amusées à se métamorphoser en légumes et qui, à travers le déguisement de leur chair comestible et ferme, laissaient apercevoir en ces couleurs naissantes d’aurore, en ces ébauches d’arc-en-ciel, en cette extinction de soirs bleus, cette essence précieuse que je reconnaissais encore quand, toute la nuit qui suivait un dîner où j’en avais mangé, elles jouaient, dans leur farces poétiques et grossières comme une féerie de Shakespeare, à changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum.

... what fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume.

Hélas, c’était en vain que j’implorais le donjon de Roussainville, que je lui demandais de faire venir auprès de moi quelque enfant de son village, comme au seul confident que j’avais eu de mes premiers désirs, quand au haut de notre maison de Combray, dans le petit cabinet sentant l’iris, je ne voyais que sa tour au milieu du carreau de la fenêtre entr’ouverte, pendant qu’avec les hésitations héroïques du voyageur qui entreprend une exploration ou du désespéré qui se suicide, défaillant, je me frayais en moi-même une route inconnue et que je croyais mortelle, jusqu’au moment où une trace naturelle comme celle d’un colimaçon s’ajoutait aux feuilles du cassis sauvage qui se penchaient jusqu’à moi. En vain je suppliais maintenant. 

Alas, it was in vain that I implored the dungeon-keep of Roussainville, that I begged it to send out to meet me some daughter of its village, appealing to it as to the sole confidant to whom I had disclosed my earliest desire when, from the top floor of our house at Combray, from the little room that smelt of orris-root, I had peered out and seen nothing but its tower, framed in the square of the half-opened window, while, with the heroic scruples of a traveller setting forth for unknown climes, or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which, I believed, might lead me to my death, even—until passion spent itself and left me shuddering among the sprays of flowering currant which, creeping in through the window, tumbled all about my body. In vain I called upon it now.

I would like to think the asparagus passage is actually a kind of joke. Proust is capable of being vaguely amusing, as when describing his grandmother's attitude towards sea air:

Ma grand’mère ... trouvait qu’aux bains de mer il faut être du matin au soir sur la plage à humer le sel et qu’on n’y doit connaître personne, parce que les visites, les promenades sont autant de pris sur l’air marin

My grandmother ... held that, when one went to the seaside, one ought to be on the beach from morning to night, to taste the salt breezes, and that one should not know anyone in the place, because calls and parties and excursions were so much time stolen from what belonged, by rights, to the sea-air.

Another problem for me is that I do not find Proust's apercus particularly revealing. In fact, they often puzzle me. For instance, is he right in what he says about very good people:

Quand, plus tard, j’ai eu l’occasion de rencontrer, au cours de ma vie, dans des couvents par exemple, des incarnations vraiment saintes de la charité active, elles avaient généralement un air allègre, positif, indifférent et brusque de chirurgien pressé, ce visage où ne se lit aucune commisération, aucun attendrissement devant la souffrance humaine, aucune crainte de la heurter, et qui est le visage sans douceur, le visage antipathique et sublime de la vraie bonté.

Later on, when, in the course of my life, I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for instance, literally saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed, and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which one can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.

Similarly, is it true that:

nous ne connaissons jamais que les passions des autres

it is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar

And, even when I do recognise that Proust has a point - the idea of flies as a kind of chamber music of summer appeals to me here for instance - I end up exasperated, because he labours his point until it is flogged to death:

... les mouches qui exécutaient devant moi, dans leur petit concert, comme la musique de chambre de l’été : elle ne l’évoque pas à la façon d’un air de musique humaine, qui, entendu par hasard à la belle saison, vous la rappelle ensuite ; elle est unie à l’été par un lien plus nécessaire : née des beaux jours, ne renaissant qu’avec eux, contenant un peu de leur essence, elle n’en réveille pas seulement l’image dans notre mémoire, elle en certifie le retour, la présence effective, ambiante, immédiatement accessible.

... the flies who performed for my benefit, in their small concert, as it might be the chamber music of summer; evoking heat and light quite differently from an air of human music which, if you happen to have heard it during a fine summer, will always bring that summer back to your mind, the flies' music is bound to the season by a closer, a more vital tie—born of sunny days, and not to be reborn but with them, containing something of their essential nature, it not merely calls up their image in our memory, but gives us a guarantee that they do really exist, that they are close around us, immediately accessible.

In addition, Proust is capable of statements that sound quite good but, when you grapple with them, reveal very little meaning. For instance, at one point he says:

...ainsi notre cœur change, dans la vie, et c’est la pire douleur 

 ...the heart changes, and that is our worst misfortune

What does he mean by heart and why is it the worst pain, (or misfortune as the translator, interestingly, has chosen to give it in English).

Despite all this, I am strangely protective of Proust's legacy. Thus, when I read in the New York Times recently the claim that David Foster Wallace had been the first writer to observe reality and note it down in intense detail, I couldn't help feeling that Proust was being pushed out of his rightful place:

Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose. 

I think to an extent it may have been Proust's intention and purpose to help the reader towards a more intense observation of their own existence and thus the title of literary innovator in this respect belongs to him. Sadly, he was also inclined to an overblown windy romanticism, a sentimentality that I cannot warm to - yet, at least. The concept of In Search of Lost Time was, of course, hugely original - although being original is not necessarily always a positive; if a trail has not been blazed, it might be because others have rejected it as dull or a dead end. I am not yet convinced that the execution of the concept was successful, but I will keep trying. Perhaps I should call my next post on the subject, "In search of enjoyment in the Search for Lost Time".

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Four Tops Back in Vogue

'Reaching out' was the most recent of the many ghastly afflictions visited on the English language, but it seems to have been overtaken by 'journey', used to describe an experience and 'experience', used to dress up a perfectly ordinary event or state of affairs.

These things creep up. If one isn't vigilant, they even creep into one's speech and writing. It must not happen. We must always be alert to the danger.

On a lighter note, here are the Four Tops, in their heyday, using 'reach out' in a perfectly acceptable manner - that is, via the medium of song:

To take my mind off the modern world and its abuse of language - not to mention tales of banal indignity like this one:

(What will those three children feel, when they are old enough to consider the manner of their father's death, I wonder) - I have been catching up on old copies of The London Review of Books. I learned from the one dated 21 January, 2016:

1. That the question most frequently asked by visitors, according to the guards in the Prado, is:

"Was Velasquez married?"

This cheers me up so much, as it is just the kind of idiotic, irrelevant thing that I would want to know.

2. O. Henry is reported, when nearing death, to have been lying so still that nobody could be sure if he was still alive. Some bright spark in the room then said, "I know - touch his feet. No-one ever died with warm feet", at which point O.Henry is reported to have slowly raised his head and replied, "Joan of Arc did." The storyteller claims that he then died immediately, but this is apparently untrue. It doesn't mean the incident didn't happen though.

Meanwhile in a review of a book about crying in the LRB of 15 December 2015, Ferdinand Mount provides evidence for those still unconvinced that Freudian psychology is not entirely to be trusted:

"Phyllis Greenacre, an influential American Freudian, argued in the 1940s that weeping was a displacement of urination. In women, she said, it was a hangover from infantile penis envy: fits of female weeping were attempts to emulate the glories of male pissing. Breuer and Freud thought that tears could be a healthy channel for flushing out repressed memories."

I mean to say.

Or rather, someone should reach out to Phyllis. But it won't be me. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

2016 - Month One

The months fly by and suddenly a year has disappeared, and then another. Therefore, in an effort to get some kind of grip, in 2016 I'm going to round up each month for myself, before it completely vanishes from sight.

Back at home for a bit in Australia, I made the acquaintance of my daughter's cat, and now I wish he'd been able to come back with me to Brussels:

 He's highly intellectual, don't you know:

 I also reacquainted myself with my favourite mountain walk:
 and received a lovely bunch of flowers from a clever friend's garden:
But then I had to come back to the town of rain and bureaucrats and chips. To cheer myself up - and to give both daughters lifts to where they needed to be, I immediately leapt into my car and headed for the Eurotunnel and England.

Once there, I went to the Royal Academy and saw an exhibition of pictures by a man called Liotard. I liked his drawings best. As no pictures were allowed, I'll have to make do with this publicity one, which is of a very young Marie Antoinette: .

 Pastels were Liotard's speciality. Rather too many of his sitters seemed to have chosen clothes that were made of material dyed a dirty turqoise. Perhaps it was the fashion of the time. I became intrigued by a patron of Liotard called Lord Fawkener, who I think I will do some research on, with the view to a blog post at a later date, (if I don't forget).

I also dropped in at the National Portrait Gallery, where this caught my eye, because I hadn't thought about the men in the picture for years, (what a relief):
 Perhaps as a result, Cecil Parkinson promptly died.

I particularly liked this picture which, it turned out, was painted by an Australian, (Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, Oi, Oi, Oi). His name was Henry Lamb and I think he was really only 'Australian born', but that's good enough for me:

 I did not like the look of this sandwich creation, on offer at Bristol Airport, (after Eurotunnel, I also went back again, but this time by plane, to Bristol):

Back in Brussels, where blue skies are at a premium, I went to BRAFA, a kind of Belgian sub-Frieze Masters art and antiques fair. I saw a few things I quite liked, including these:

Adrieaen van Ostade, Harlem 1610-1685, Tavern Scene, Oil on Panel

I got a taste for painted wood reliefs in Warsaw in the summer - one day I'll post my pictures from the museum there of all the ones I saw. This, together with the next picture, is called: Two Writing Bishops, it is oak, 50cm high, 34 cm wide, and is from the Antwerp School, early 16th century 

David Teniers the Younger, Farmer Family picnicking during the Harvest, Oil on Canvas, Teniers was born in Antwerp in 1610 and died in Brussels in 1690

I think this is sheep dipping, just like they do at home, all these centuries later

I love the way Teniers does not idealise people, making me feel such a bond with these figures from the past

I love the ghostly quality to this landscape background

James Ensor intrigues me - he lived most of his life in Ostend

We went down there a while back to go to his museum

The museum was closed by the time we got there, because we got sidetracked by the wonderful unchanged cafe, where Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig used to while away their time

I'm going to go back to Ostend and go to the museum and that lovely cafe. Another blog post may or may not emerge from the trip, depending on my organisational skills

This grisly sequence gives us five of the deadly sins, 'dominated by death'

The ones on sale were Laziness, Anger, Pride, Greed, Envy and one that I can't quite think how to translate: La Luxure - oh, looked it up: Lust, of course

This really is most unappetising. One reason I find Ensor intriguing is that his work predates the First World War. These were all made in 1904. I'd always thought his horrific vision had been provoked by the disastrous early years of the 20th century, but it is almost as if he prefigured what was to happen. The obsession with death and the lack of respect for humanity was typical of artists who came later - and fully understandable in a Europe ruined by WWI, but Ensor seems to have sensed something coming - or simply been a misanthrope.

This is the Rue du Bon Secours in Brussels. I must go to see if I can find it. I wonder if some EU grandee had the whole thing knocked down so that Jacque Delors House could be built - or Willy Brandt conference hall or whatever, eurgh

Typical Ensor - 'Skeletons Trying to Get Warm', 1895, signed and dated in pencil, the caption helpfully tells us in English, but only gives the medium in French: 'eau-forte', which, it turns out is 'etching'

This is 'The Soldiers', and so is the next one. Both are etchings, both made in 1888. I was intrigued by being able to make a comparisonbetween the black one and the hand-coloured one

This and the next two are of a building in a street called Anspacht in Brussels. I think it is a big hotel on the corner of what is at the moment, courtesy of the Green Party, a pedestrianised street. Ths is dry point engraving, made in 1888, and again I was interested by the varying colour treatments

This is titled simply The Cathedral and was made in 1886. It is startlingly detailed. Ensor must have had a very steady hand, if a rather peculiar imagination. It is very strange that these, which remind me of George Grosz a bit, were made so much earlier than his things. 

 I also went to a concert at Flagey. It was one of those rare concerts where they don't make you swallow something awful, like musical medicine, before you're allowed to hear the things you love. Instead, we had Haydn, followed by Mendelssohn and ending with Beethoven. We did have to endure the conductor explaining everything to us beforehand, but they did give us, amazingly, food and drink at interval - which, given the tickets were 26 Euro, was extremely good value, and meant I didn't have to cook a meal when we got home:
What an exciting month that was. These are, of course, but a few highlights - and I haven't even got on to films and plays and things. Enough, though, I think, is enough, for now.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Egg and Ajax

If I say I was more upset to hear that Terry Wogan had died than to hear that David Bowie had, I suppose I will lose any shred of street cred I may ever have had, (as I never had any anyway, that doesn't really matter, of course)*.

But Wogan appealed to me more. I think that was probably because he was funny. Humour is never as highly valued as it should be - if it were, Peter Cook and Shelley Berman might have shared a Nobel Prize.

Anyway, for some reason the broadcast I always remember from Terry Wogan was nothing especially outstanding, just one episode in a running sequence in which male listeners' shared their tips for coping with life whenever the wife went away and they had to fend for themselves, (and, in describing this set up, I am struck by the loss of innocence that has come about since - where was the outrage at the assumptions built into that scenario: assumptions about wives, about gender and  cooking arangements, and, indeed, about gender and marriage [and on and on and on, swing wide the floodgates, let the rage begin]).

Anyway, the anecdotes weren't all that funny, but it was the way they were told -  the tone of Wogan's voice, the inflection and rhythm he gave to the sentences and so forth - that made them appealing. Thanks to these qualities, I've never forgotten how one gentleman claimed that he always mixed in a bit of ajax to the scrambled egg mixture so as to make the horrible job of scouring the saucepan easier at the end of the cooking process, (no, I don't think he really did this either, but there was a nice absurd illogical logic to the proposition), while another, who had one of those ovens they used to make that had a grill section above the stove top, would put the toast into the griller and then a saucepan containing milk for his cup of coffee on top of the griller. The milk would warm up there, as the top of the griller always got hot because of the flame on its underside. Anyway, the listener claimed he did this because, when, as inevitably happened, he forgot the toast and it began to burn and then burst into flame, at the same moment the milk would boil over and dowse the fire.

No, it doesn't actually sound all that funny. It wasn't, on the face of it. But that just goes to show how gifted Wogan was.

There was something very comforting in Wogan's wry and seemingly unaggressive attitude to the world. He was definitely comical - I like the way he clowns falling over here, (not to mention the idiotic hat):

and, judging by appearances at least, he was a most likeable man. Sadly, the likeable do not necessarily last the longest. What a very great shame.

*I should add, by the way, that I am not at all happy that David Bowie died - in fact, annoyingly, it is his death that has led me to look at some videos about him and realise, too late, that he was a pretty interesting man.


I went to two plays in London the other day. One was As You Like It at the National Theatre. I thought it was a really good production.

I also went to Waste, which I'm still thinking about.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Duchess Was Right

Assailed as we are with health messages of the 'bacon will kill you', 'fat is bad for you', 'fat is good for you', 'kim chee is a wonder food, 'quinoa tastes disgusting but is magnificently healthy' et cetera, et cetera kind, it was with some surprise that my husband realised quite suddenly yesterday evening that pepper is something no-one has ever warned us against.

Salt, yes; cream, certainly, (or possibly not after all, judging by very recent reports, hurray); salami, practically poison really; sausages, ditto, (well they are salami in English almost aren't they?); cream buns, horrifying lurking dangers - well, I could go on.

But pepper has never, so far as I know, been spoken of in disapproving tones by health authorities. Which is something to rejoice about - or, at the very least, breathe a sigh of relief about, while thinking of how we can join the baby belonging to the Alice in Wonderland Duchess and 'thoroughly enjoy the pepper when he [we] pleases [please]'.

And, since we are on the subject of pepper, let us not forget Peter Piper, the most well-known pepper picker of all time. He gets a  mention at the end of this very clever and funny little piece about his wife, who sells seashells, (by the seashore). It comes from episode 2 of the series now running on BBC Radio 4 of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme:

Monday, 25 January 2016

Calling Professor Branestawm

As a non-inventor but a regular attender of parties full of Eurocrats who talk to me at great length about things I am not interested in and do not understand, I should be very grateful if somebody would invent a tiny contraption that I could place inside my ear before outings. This contraption, although minute, would contain a number of audio programmes - recordings of EL Wisty and Shelley Berman, the ramblings of Adam Buxton, old episodes of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, cheerful things of that kind. These programmes could be activated whenever a Eurocrat went on talking for more than a minute and a half - oh all right for more than two seconds; why pretend I have any patience. No one but me would be aware of what was happening. I would still nod and smile and even ask the occasional question - not that Eurocrats ever need the encouragement of a question. Simultaneously, I would be listening to more entertaining - but hidden - voices, murmuring soothingly into my ear.

As well as this wonderful device, I'd be grateful if someone else - or the same person, I'm not picky - could come up with an App that would work in a sort of periscopic manner so that, in galleries where you aren't allowed to take photographs, you could hold your telephone in the position you hold it when reading emails et cetera, but somehow the telephone's camera would, from that angle, be able to take a picture of whatever was on the wall.

Thank you in advance, dear inventors, for your wonderful ingenuity.

Warmest wishes from ZMKC

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Repetitive Televisual Syndrome

Last night on the television, a programme called (something like) DCI Banks came on.

"Ooh", I thought, "I saw that once, and I rather liked it. How exciting."

(Well, "exciting" might be pushing it, but "how mildly pleasing" is not even "mildly interesting", so I'll stick with the exaggeration).

Anyway, the programme began, and I realised that the thing that has happened to me with countless television series was happening - that is, the episode they were screening was the same one I'd seen before on more than one occasion (not that I've sat right through it more than once, I hasten to add - I do have some standards, if not very many.)

What I would like to know though is this: is it just me or  does this happen to anyone else - I mean not just with that particular episode of DCI Banks, but with all sorts of different television series; and not just police things but comedies and documentaries and other stuff as well? It does not matter where I am in the world, (as long as they have television), I will turn on a television set and the only episode of Silent Witness or I Love  Lucy or Attenborough's Africa (or the DCI Banks thing, whatever it is really called) that I am ever going to be allowed to see will swim up out of the screen's darkness, and I will think, " Not that one again," and turn the thing straight off (except the I Love Lucy one, of course).

Sometimes though I wonder if I shouldn't turn off but should instead watch each of these programmes very, very carefully. Perhaps collectively they contain an important message from the universe that I am meant to pay close attention to.

But of course that is a completely deranged way of thinking. The universe does not send signals to individuals, and certainly not through the medium of mediocre TV programmes.

Or does it?

Thursday, 31 December 2015

I Heard That - A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara

Having finished listening to A Little Life, I recommend it as bed time reading for all wealthy New York upper east siders with children thinking of flying the nest. What a perfect cautionary tale.

As a result of getting through the novel, I now understand that, if you live in New York - or, at a pinch, Cambridge, Massachusetts - you will be astoundingly successful & gather around you a number of extraordinarily (unbelievably?) generous & successful friends. However, if you stray into the rest of America, you will be faced with gangs of sadistic monks; exploitative paedophiles who can operate out of motels all across the country without anyone doing anything about it for months; care homes staffed by sadistic rapists; highways littered by weirdoes who have basement rooms permanently at the ready in their remote houses, perfect for false imprisonment for the purposes of secretive serial rape - & on and on and on. It’s clearly a very dangerous place, America. If you are a foreigner & still feel that you must go there, for heaven’s sake, stick to Manhattan. Mind you, even there take care who you pick as a boyfriend - there are a few sadists in Manhattan too, waiting for their opportunity to hurl you down a stairwell, should you let down your defences for an instant.

It is interesting to think about whether success can ever make up for childhood trauma, whether psychological wounds can ever be properly healed. This I think is what the author set out to explore. She did not succeed though. One reason for this is that the book heaps so many atrocities on the main character that it would be quite impossible for anyone to recover (& it strikes me that this is in a way an insult to survivors of abuse - the author seems to think being systematically beaten for the first years of his life is not enough, that even that plus being pimped for another long period won’t cut it as genuinely damaging, & so adds more & more atrocities that are so peculiar, unlikely & vile that you can’t help beginning to wonder what kind of sick imagination you are dealing with - I felt the same about Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, so perhaps I just have led a sheltered life).
The second reason the book does not succeed as an examination of the mind’s ability to heal is that the central character, who has suffered such a great deal in youth, never at any point accepts any real medical treatment for his mental injuries. As he has a fairytale doctor friend available at any hour - including weekends & public holidays - he is able to avoid the medical system & proper support. The doctor friend who, miraculously, appears to ask for no payment, might also be seen as just one more abuser, aiding & abetting his friend in his wilful refusal to get help.

But the author anyway is too busy imagining rather second rate sounding visual art to worry too much about really deep, believable characterisation or whether the demands she is putting on the poor reader/listener are too great in the suspension of disbelief department. Pages are devoted to the paintings she imagines, so I can only assume she has taken to novel writing because she has no talent for her first choice - the visual arts. If writing had been her actual talent, I might have forgiven much more in the book, but so few sentences or moments of real perception leapt out at me that the work was unredeemed by its author’s skill with words, at least for me.

I pushed on to the end - that is the beauty of audiobooks; you have to keep going, as you can’t skip through the pages to find out roughly how things turn out and then hurl the book across the room.
One thing I found particularly objectionable,apart from the tendency to revel in the filth of what happens to the child in the first half - I think a lot can be conjured without getting explicit & my objection to a great deal of detail is that a) the line between description & straight out porn, intended for titillation, is a fine one & b) after the first sense of shock, the reader actually accepts that what they have just visualised so clearly in their mind is possible & consequently comes fractionally nearer to being capable of committing such acts themselves - was the snobbery. No one in this book is allowed to be ordinary. Our cast of characters end up as celebrated painter; movie star; jet setting architect; hot shot corporate lawyer; and retired Harvard law professor with an emeritus spot at Columbia. Their lives are led between New York, London & a few other Peter Stuyvesant destinations.

'Why not?', you might ask. After all there must be people who do live these gilded lives. True. Perhaps it is me who is the snob. All I can say is I felt I’d been kidnapped and locked in a $17 million Park Avenue apartment & it was dull & airless in there, with all these out-of-touch shallow, careless gilded men who allowed their friend to go on wilfully refusing to address his problems (which, anyway, I didn’t believe in because they were so exaggerated). None of these people ever truly existed in my imagination - most shadowy of all, a cypher really, was Malcolm, allegedly part of the gang of four devoted friends but never given an instant of his own in the novel, merely shuffled about to provide building advice & an opportunity for the author to share her vapid ideas about architecture now and then. Given the lack of any proper development of Malcolm’s character or of his relationship with the others - only an extreme version of the lack of realisation of anything much beyond violent paedophiles in this novel - the argument that it is a work that examines friendship or love does not stand up.

Without the irony that Jarvis Cocker intended & despite the warnings carried in the first part of A Little Life about the perils of existence outside the mega rich bits of Manhattan, by the end all I wanted to do was yell the chorus from Cocker’s most famous song*, press the button for the elevator and skedaddle back to the Plaza and good old Nahnee.**

The book is preposterous.

(*I want to live like common people/
I want to do whatever common people do)
**Apologies to Eloise

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Drilling a Yawning Hole

With the approach of Christmas comes the annual ritual of office Christmas lunches. Up at the local shops, the season is in full swing. Each day, from about midday onwards, troupes of middle ranking public servants trail into the pub or the restaurant up there, displaying the same wild excitement shown by dairy cattle entering the milking parlour. Once inside, they arrange themselves with the thrilled anticipation of people choosing seats in a doctor's waiting room.

I glance through the windows on my way to the post office, and it all comes back to me, that terrible creeping misery as it dawns on you that for the next hour - at the very minimum - you are going to be trapped at a table with nothing to do but play with your cutlery or the salt cellar, (some bright spark has even deprived you of the distraction of reading the menu, by bulk-ordering the set Christmas special 3-course meal), surrounded by people who appear to have determined quite early on in life that small talk is the realm of the devil and proper, intense talk about the meaning of life is even more outrageously wicked, while wit is the eighth deadly sin

Which is where they are so wrong - the eighth deadly sin is being unable to tolerate boredom, and on this count I am an irredeemable failure. I always promise myself that my eyes won't glaze over when the minutiae of the childhood and family background of my interlocutor's plumber or removal man are relayed to me, in slow, painful detail, or when the full, blow-by-blow description of the course of a family pet's gum disease is recounted, complete with the unedited edition of the remarks made at the time by the vet in charge of its treatment. I resolve over and again to keep my head still, instead of tossing it about like a demented racehorse, eyes darting round in search of an exit from its stall, as the complexities of someone's second cousin's father's mobile telephone contract are explained or the advantages of shopping at Aldi are outlined, (with lengthy mention of the spectacular value represented by the catalogue specials, available on a weekly basis, apparently).  

Boredom. Terrible, suffocating, maddening, unbearable boredom. How you react to boredom is the true test of whether you are a good person. 

I am not a good person.

Or - and this amazing thought has only just struck me - could it be possible that I am viewing things from the wrong end of the barrel? Is there any faint chance that I have had completely the wrong perspective all along?

What if it is not the person subjected to boredom who is at fault but the people who are doing the boring? Are they actually the truly wicked souls among us, and not intolerant swine like me and my ilk?

If the answer is yes, then perhaps I even have the right to take a leaf out of the bible and abandon all restraint and smite them? Oh please, tell me that it is my righteous duty. Oh please, oh please, do, please, let it be so.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Denis Wright - Still Missed

Two years ago, Denis Wright left this world, and the world is poorer for his absence. I never met him, but knowing him via the Internet made me certain that all those who are doomsayers about the Internet and what it does to social relationships are wrong

I wrote this on the day Denis died and I still stand by it:

"Not fair, not fair, not fair. It was the catchcry of my childhood. And always the same reply - life's not fair, darling.

Today more proof of that repeated piece of wisdom: Denis Wright died at 5.10 p.m. Australian Eastern time. I have never encountered anyone who faced down unfair fate with such resourcefulness and such determination to remain part of life. He was an inspiration.

My thoughts go out to his family."

My thoughts go to Denis's family today as well. I miss him. Lord knows what it is like for them.

For those interested in Denis's blog, there is a link to it at the right of this page.)

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Everything Was Illuminated

I know nothing about manuscript illumination, except that, when I was a child I planned to be either a gargoyle carver or an illuminator when I grew up. Both ambitions were doomed, needless to say, because I was born at the wrong time - and, had I been born at a time when either of these occupations were growth industries, I don't suppose I'd have had a look in anyway, since I am, chiz, a gurl. Also I'm left handed so I imagine all my manuscripts - had I been allowed to produce any -  would have been horribly smudged, since moving left to right with a left hand generally produces this result.

But, to quote the ever useful adage, "I know what I like" when it comes to illuminations, and I liked almost all the ones I saw at Frieze Masters. I was also very grateful when the dealers from Basel -www.guenther-rarebooks.com - noticing my interest, kindly gave me two of their catalogues. I plan to read them and thus become someone who actually knows something about illuminated manuscripts.

Compendium made for Juan II of Spain, 1425

Hofmann prayer book in German, illustrated by Nikolaus Glockendon, 1513-14, Nurnberg

Book of Hours, (use of Rome), Austria, Salzburg, 1450-60

Book of Hours, in Dutch (use of Utrecht), illustrated by the Masters of the Zwolle bible and the Masters of  Margriet Uutenham, Netherlands, Arnhem and Zwolle, c. 1470

Gagne book of hours, illuminted by the Masters of the Burgundian Prelates, Autun or Dijon, 1480-90

Book of Hours, use of Tours, illuminated by Master of Claude of France & workshop, Tours, 1500-08

Ludolphus Cartusiensis, Vita Christi, translated by Guillaume Lemenand, Vol. II, illustrated by the Master of the Chronique Scandaleuse, 1506-08, Paris

Book of Hours, use of Cambrai, illuminated by Charles V & a second artist, Hainaut, Valenciennes/Cambrai (?) c.1520

Book of Hours, use of Rome, in Latin, French calendar, illuminated by Master of Petrarch's Triumphs, Tours, 1490-1500

House of Charles V, use of Rome, illuminated by Gerard Horenbout, Flanders, Malines (?), 1515-1520

Giovanni Bocaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, French translation by Laurent de Premierfait, illuminated in the circle of Maitre Francois, Paris, 1470 

Book of Hours, for the use of Troyes, in Latin, with French calendar, illuminated by the Master of Grand Heures de Rohan, Troyes, 1415-1420

Book of Hours, use of Paris, illuminated by the Mazarine master, the Boethius master & two other artists, Paris, c.1405-15

This plus next two pictures: Titus Livius, Les Decades, translated into French by Pierre Bersuire, illuminated by Henri d'Orquevaulz, written by the scribe Jeannin de Rouen, Metz, dated 1410

This picture, plus next four: from the Zwolle Bible, illuminated by the Masters of the Zwolle Bible, Zwolle, 21st December, 1474

St John, historiated initial I from a leaf of The Homilies of St Augustine, at Octave of St John, Italy, 1150

This, plus next three pictures: The Adoration of the Magi, from an illuminated antiphonal, Tournai, (?), 1400-10, tempera & gold leaf on vellum 

This & next: also from an illuminated antiphonal, as above

This picture, plus next two: Leaves from an annotated pontifical for Roman use, illuminated within the circle of St Marco, Barcelona, 1350-1360

Biblia Latina, pocket Bible, with the prologues ascribed to St Jerome, calendar & the interpretation of Hebrew names, Paris, c.1250

Beauchamp-Corbet hours, Book of Hours, use of Sarum, in Latin & Anglo-Norman, illuminated by the Milimete workshop, (de Bois master), London, c.1328

This picture, plus next: Biblia Latina, illuminated by the workshop of the "Bible Moralisee", Paris, 1220-30

This picture plus next three: Despite the fact that this was one of the star attractions, I've lost all details of it, except that the illuminator was the Master of the Toison d'Or, I think (hopeless of me, I know)

The Moneypenny Hours with 49 images by the Master of the Chronique Scandeleuse, use of Paris, in Latin & French, 1490 

The Guyenet- Lardanchet Hours, with 19 miniatures by the Master of the Troyes missal, use of Paris, Troyes, 1460

Book of Hours from Lyon with 14 miniatures by Guillaume II Le Roy, Lyons, 1495-1510

The Villeneuve Hours with 22 miniatures by the Masters of the Gold Scrolls, Bruges, 1450 

A book of hours for export to England, with 47 miniatures by Willem de Vrelant of Bruges,  Bruges, c.1450-75

The Bliss Hours, with 15 miniatures by the Master of the Geneva Latini, Rouen, c1465

The Ovray Hours, for export to England with signed miniatures by the Master of Otto van Mordrecht, likely Bruges, c-1430 to before 1449

Book of Hours with 15 miniatures by an early Netherlandish artist, Paris, 1415-20

The only known manuscript of Philippe de Vigneuilles's La Chanson de Geste de Garin Le Loherain, Metz, 1515-1527/8

Astronomical handbook on the planets, in the tradition of Ptolemy, Verona, c.1580-1600

Gawain & His Nine Companions in Search of Lancelot, Dunois Master, possibly Jean Haincelin, active in Paris, c.1435-1450s

Gawain Fighting Gloadain the Seneschal, artist as above

Mocking of Christ, Maestro dei Fondi Giallini, active in Cremona c.1450-1482

Monks Singing, Nicolo di Giacomo, active Bologna, documented from 1349- c.1403

St Catherine of Alexandria, German artist, perhaps Cologne, c.1450

Joseph of Arimathea & Nicodemus in the Passion of Christ, from the Prayerbook of the Enriquez de Ribera family, artist Simon Bening, born 1483 Ghent; died 1561 Bruges)

The long lost first volume of the bible of Louis de Harcourt, patriarch of Jerusalem and Bishop of Bayeux, Paris, 1260-80

The book of Sydrac of Joan of France, Queen of Navarre, Paris, c.1325-50

Barbet Book of Hours, use of Paris, illuminated by at least three masters, Paris c.1400-10

Prayer book written in the local vernacular, Cologne, c.1486

This, plus next three pictures: Book of Hours, use of Paris, in Latin, early 15th century