Monday, July 26, 2010

Goodbye to All That

Change defines the present: movings, weddings, births. This is the season of clean carpets and filthy fingernails, ants in the cupboards, spiders under the toilet. The only good thing about today (K & I agreed) is that it means that yesterday - and its hours of shuffling, restacking, packing, boxing, cleaning, swiping, scrubbing, daubing - is over. Like a tortoise, all my possessions are now in boxes and in my car. And dismantling the house K & I shared has been difficult. As I was selling my library I came across The Fellowship of the Ring (in the wake of its Hollywoodization I'd forgotten how good it is) and as I read the beginning I was struck by Frodo's leaving of the Shire. Of course we know it's a small thing compared to how he will be involved with the fate of the Ring, but still. Something about it made me feel sad, and also understood: "Frodo walked round the familiar rooms and saw the light of the sunset fade on the walls, and shadows creep out of the corners. It grew slowly dark indoors."

Friday, July 16, 2010

So are the days of our lives

The disassembling is in early stages of earnestness now. My walls are bare - I thought that white walls would prompt my subconscious to disengage - and the battle-axe desk is gone. All its contents have been disgorged and are in piles on the floor: pens, papers, plastic folders, piles of sheet music to be put in boxes, photographs, electric cords. All my sins heaped on a pile in the middle of the floor - things I've held onto for necessity or want or laziness or for lack of a better place to put it.

And then the bookshelves are moving out next Wednesday so I must get rid of those dear friends in droves. It's hopeless. Just as I start to wean myself from the herd, I look down and pick up a book and think But I never READ this one. The fact is that once they're out of the house it'll be better. I look forward to this paring down of possessions as a simplification of the spirit.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wishing for the Road

When K & I read the beginning part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, the part where Gilbert is asked to cover a story in Bali and she goes (of course), we expressed our sense of the unfairness of it all and the desirability of a job where you are paid (even minimally) to both write and travel. K moved on with her life but this thought – to be a travel writer! - fermented in my brain.

Following Spain’s psychic-octopus-predicted World Cup Win on Sunday I put together a list of books on Spain for a bookstore blog post. I was prepared for this ever since watching Vicky Christina Barcelona several months ago and developing a one-day Spanish literature fever, running around the store putting together a list. I didn’t actually read any of these books. But when a couple asked me for Spanish literature to take with them on a trip to Spain, I knew it had all been worth it. To these novels, I added a history book and a travel book, the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s book on Santiago and his pilgrimage through modern-day Spain. As I picked it up, the white walls and designs on the sun-drenched front cover struck me and I had pin-wheeling visions of fountains and donkey-rides and guitar music. Touché, jacket artist.

I imagine Mr. Nooteboom (whose full name I’m delighted to share is Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom) traveling through Spain with his practical Dutch temperament, his wry leathery face with the slightly eagle-ish nose and no small resemblance to Inspector Morse. I’m sure novelists make the best travel writers. They already do character sketches. And good novelists are practiced watchers: they keep a sharp eye out for incident and occupy themselves with accurate and telling descriptions.

I imagine Mr. Nooteboom in a khaki hat somewhere in the bowels of a medieval church, or in the Moorish courtyards of Granada listening to someone recite Lorca. That sounds fun, I say licking my lips. Somebody send me to Spain. However, I do know from experience that international travel is more often than not sleeping through a guide’s informative answer to an interesting question, becoming irascible from hunger, and never feeling at the right temperature.

With my new passion for travel writing and my fresh desire to practice it, I must find a model. Luckily, Everyman’s Library has just published The Skeptical Romancer, selected travel writing by W. Somerset Maugham.

(The first time I heard of Somerset Maugham, at Oxford, when reading the exquisite Painted Veil, I had no earthly idea how to pronounce his last name, absolutely unsure of which vowels and which consonants to leave out. When someone asked me who I was reading I had to mutter M-(cough)-mhmmm-ham to their utter mystification. I later learned the name has a disadvantage to the American who can’t pronounce it as “Mohm” as the British do, but must content himself with “Mawm.”)

The Skeptical Romancer’s selections begin with – what else – Somerset Maugham’s writings on Spain.

In Pico Iyer’s introduction to the book (Iyer is also a well known travel-writer), Iyer ponders the perfect traveling companion: “The ideal companion should be open to every person and encounter that comes his way, perhaps – but not too ready to be taken in by them. She should be worldly, shrewd, her feet firmly on the ground; and yet she should be ready to surrender, if only for a moment, to the magic and excitement of what she could never do or see at home.”

This description, I believe, fits the travel writer. Only several abilities must be added:

a) friends and contacts in high places
b) years of previous writing experience/ a steady readership
c) an independent fortune
d) a well-developed voice
e) a preternatural attention to commonly overlooked details
f) a pervading curiosity in local landscape and society
g) becoming a geographer, historian, and anthropologist
h) the ability to make friends with anybody

I’m not stupid enough to believe that this is an easy market to break into. There are thousands of eager youngsters who want to travel the world and make their name writing about it. And as Mary McCarthy says in Venice Observed, anyone who thinks he will come to Venice and parade about a small forgotten church, an ignored fresco, or a jewel of a café he discovered is much mistaken. It has all been done.

And yet, travel writing is often more about the writer than the subject. It allows for a uniqueness of vision, for the writer’s personal history and voice to filter place through the self. And that cannot stop interesting me.

I am dying to sink my teeth into foreign travel. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been on an international flight and my legs are starting to fidget. I have my October ticket, so for now I’ll content myself with C’s stories of his brief young romance in Italy and E’s adventures at the Biennale in Venice and A’s trip to Athens.

Image of pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago care of IndigoGuide. Many thanks to Javier who told me about this pilgrimage. I hope you do it, J.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


There are many reasons to read Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy. One reason is to experience the 17th century diagnostic mind, which gives medical information that we in the post-enlightenment, scientific twenty-first century find arcane and humorous. Take this for example: Burton discusses lycanthropy, the disease of the brain by which men are convinced they are wolves. “This malady, says Avicenna, troubleth most men in February.”

A second reason to read the Anatomy is to laugh at Burton’s fanatic citations. In some of parts of the book, I can barely finish a sentence as it is so tangled with references to classical thinkers, philosophers, artists, historians with snippets of Greek and Latin which are sometimes translated and sometimes left to my own powers of deduction. Here’s an example: “In eo pleraque perniciosa, saith the same Fabius, many childish tracts and sentences he hath, sermo illaboratus, too negligent often and remiss, as A. Gellius observes, oratio vulgaris et protrita, dicaces etc ineptae sententiae, erudition plebia…

Thirdly, read Burton for his (English) language. “For, from the fall of our first parent Adam, they have been changed, the earth accursed, the influence of stars altered, the four elements, beasts, birds, plants, are ready to offend us.” This sentence resounds with meaning. You are making your way through a dimly lit room and suddenly the window is illuminated; we are struck by the effect 17th century theology has on the psyche: as a result of original sin, the world is “ready to offend us.” Burton’s world (and even universe) is a mapped one, but still vast and threatening. Yet he recommends travel as an antidote to the melancholy he wrestled against.

When I was in Oxford a few years ago I bought James Atlee’s Isolarion. I hoped this book, which was about Oxford, would be what I wanted to read about: secret gardens, botanical marvels, life on the river, and the history of the buildings, streets, colleges and graveyards. Instead, to my gradual disappointment, his book was about East Oxford: the Cowley road, the immigrants and shops and international eateries and hostels from which manuscripts were stolen. I tried to be open-minded but was just not interested; much like the way I once preferred Edith Wharton to Dickens, because Dickens was grimier and homelier and peopled with characters who spoke in dialect.

A few weeks ago, I remembered that Atlee’s companion on the road, in his pilgrimage around his hometown, was the melancholy ecclesiastic/librarian, Robert Burton, who lived and wrote his book in Oxford. So I hauled out Isolarion again and this time I am thankful to Atlee for enlarging the city and giving voice to its residents, and apologetic for my earlier ignorance. I’m grateful for his sideways introduction to Burton.

This book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, is the biggest book on my shelf. I know I’ll be reading it for quite some time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Multa Nocte

There was never a chance of me learning Greek or Latin at my primary or high school, and New Testament Greek was offered at college for Religion majors not Music students. When I graduated and began working at the bookstore one of the first books I bought myself was a Wheelock's workbook. From time to time I am struck anew with the inclination to teach myself and begin again at the First Declension, but I paddle against the tide. I need a teacher and I need fellow students.

The poet and translator Anne Carson fills me with envy. "She translates and teaches Greek for a living," her bio says. To stand up and stretch back thousands of years and publicly acknowledge that though we think them obsolete, they are us.

Carson's newest publication is called Nox. Published by New Directions, Nox is housed in a box designed as an epitaph, and reminds me of an assignment K once had to do for her Wisdom Literature class. The gray lid opens like a chocolate box and the "book" can be read by stretching out the folded paper like an accordion.

Constructed as a tribute to her brother, Michael, who died in Copenhagen after a nearly 22 year silence, Nox is both visually and verbally moving. The book, a facsimile of the epitaph she made in 2000 after his death, is entwined with the Roman poet Catullus' 101, a poem Catullus supposedly wrote after traveling some distance to stand above his brother's grave. Each word of the Latin poem is parsed like a Latin dictionary on the verso, and these entries go from the linguistic to the personal, always ending with some mention of the night. On the recto, Carson constructs her narrative, a collage of histories ancient and personal. She writes of Herodotus, of the historian's probe, of the phoenix burying his father every seven years. She writes sparely of her brother's widow and his missing years.

Accompanying the text are blurry gray photographs in strips, rumpled paper, shredded letters, blurred type.

Nox is bleak and distant, and so all the more desolately revealing. I read it by weak lamplight on my bed last night and when I put it away I dreamed of death.

Friday, July 2, 2010

On the River

I have just finished the first book on my Victorian reading list, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I read Middlemarch last year and enjoyed it – it reminded me of a provincial forerunner to A Portrait of a Lady. I loved Dorothea Brooke’s intelligence and idealism, even in the face of a stupendously foolish marriage.

I preferred Middlemarch to Mill on the Floss, but enjoyed Eliot’s portrayal of a sister and a brother at odds with each other and, in the sister’s case, with herself. Of course, as A.S. Byatt said, Maggie Tulliver, the novel’s impulsive, passionate and feeling young protagonist, deserves a better ending. I was impressed by the psychological sensitivity of Eliot’s characters, the battles of wills and of conscience, the conflict between self and community, between love and duty, between experience and renunciation.

I think Maggie’s stumbling self-doubt is largely a result of the cruel strictures historically placed on young women. From a young age she is denigrated by female relatives who see her imaginative playfulness and independence as wickedness and subversion; her judicial brother sees her mischief as moral laxity and punishes her by withholding the affection she needs. Where has she to go but renunciation?

I am impressed not only by Eliot’s unruffled realism and sensitive probing, but also her evident education – her knowledge of Greek and Latin, the Bible, theology, the natural sciences, the ways of mills and farmers and lawyers and clergymen and businessmen. Her stage is much broader and her ideas and themes wider than Austen’s or the Bröntes’ and I am excited to discover what Adam Bede holds…