Thursday, December 22, 2011

Travelling Lit

Today, two more gifts: Jean Genet's Thief's Journal and Evelyn Waugh's When the Going was Good, which is subtitled 'Everything the author wishes to preserve from his pre-war travel books'. This seems revisionary.

It has a fabulous beginning, from 'A Pleasure Cruise in 1929':

In February 1929 London was lifeless and numb, seeming to take its temper from Westminster, where the Government was dragging out the weeks of its last session. Talking films were justbeing introduced, and had set back by twenty years the one vital art of the century. There was not even a good murder case. And besides this it was intolerably cold...People shrank, in those days, from the icy contat of a cocktail glass, like the Duchess of Malfi from the dead hand, and crept stiff as automata from the draughty taxis into the nearest tube-railway station, where they stood, pressed together for warmth, coughing and sneezing among the evening papers.'

In his introduction of 1945 Waugh says pessimistically that 'There is no room for tourists in a world of 'displaced persons'. Never again, I suppose, shall we land on foreign soil with letter of credit and passport...and feel the world wide open before us.'

Simultaneously, I am reading Gulliver's Travels, in which each of his trips (at least so far) are about estrangement, isolation, oddity, partial communication, and exploitation. So is Robinson Crusoe. Travelling is adventure, aventure, chance. It is about the perenially displaced.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I'll be Home for Christmas

My parents still live in George, a small city on the south western South African coast, flat and spreading, named for George III and celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary this year. Provincial and predominantly Afrikaans, George was a pleasant place to grow up, but young adults move to larger cities like Cape Town, Durban, or Johannesburg if they can.

Like many provincial cities, I suppose, it is an intellectual dry-spot. We weren’t taught to relish reading or studies at school; we didn’t have a library of our own, and the school system encouraged parroting, not critical thinking. People here live outdoor lives. The beach is so nearby; the mountain so close. You can drive your bakkie across the pass to the Karoo and to the hot springs.

When I went regularly to the George library as a girl – a flat-roofed, squat building which was trying very hard to be Cape Dutch, but obviously built in the 60s - I’d pick crime novels, science fiction, fantasy, regency romances. I now consider time wasted. Perhaps I shouldn’t. But I wish there had been someone to suggest I try something that hadn’t occurred to me: Hemingway or Tolstoy or graphic novels or non-Romantic poetry. The librarians are slow-moving, shallow-eyed, and bored. Maybe there’s something about the yellowing light indoors and the half-closed curtains which provokes something like Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I now realize that this is not the library’s fault. Its collection is surprisingly generous. One afternoon visit in search of South African fiction yielded two novels by Damon Galgut (the new J.M. Coetzee, a crass but useful tag), short-stories by Nadine Gordimer and Ivan Vladislavic, poetry by Roy Campbell (South Africa’s greatest contribution to modernism, and bête-noire of the Bloomsbury group), and a selection of Olive Schreiner’s letters edited by Richard Rive.

And the R2 library book sale brought forth a bounty: a penguin copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lawrence’s Trespassers, Lucia in London, and a tattered first edition of Nancy Mitford’s Don’t tell Alfred! Whether these will make it back to Oxford in my already corpulent luggage is another matter.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Finally, Fiction

At last! The term is done and I have read a novel. Published in the last thirty years. Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot.

Avoid if you dislike narrative pretension or digressions or books which are not quite clear about their genres. Stay away if you dislike novels which point to themselves and their sisters, and which are called by their admirers post-modern.

[David Hockney's Felicite Sleeping, With Parrot: Illustration of 'A Simple Heart', for Gustave Flaubert, print, 1974]

Based on your qualifications, Flaubert’s Parrot may be only slightly a novel.. It is a pseudo-biography of the author of Madame Bovary, assembled by the narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, as he explores and problematizes literary biography, characterized by his search for the ‘real’ parrot which inspired Un Coeur Simple. It is a primer of how to experimentally collect and whimsically group the data of a literary life: by chronology (Braithwaite/Barnes includes an optimist’s and a pessimist’s chronology), Flaubert and animals, Flaubert and trains, people arranged by alphabet, facts grouped by academic subject. It is a book about France and a love of French things: the light from the view north, cheese, channel crossings, pharmacies, French literary circles, the dance of the language itself.

There are other real people in the book besides Flaubert and his menage: Christopher Ricks, Ted Hughes, and the Oxford academic Enid Starkie. There are also Barnes’ fictional characters which are submerged in Flaubertiana: Geoffrey and his wife Ellen, whose biography he does and does not want to relate (by is told in Chapter 13, ‘Pure Story’).

It is well written if only that it has the good sense to quote from a master stylist. It prompts, above all, the reader to find a copy of Flaubert’s letters, which are prominent in the novel.

The only other book I’ve read by Barnes is his meditation on mortality, Nothing to be Frightened Of, which, like Flaubert’s Parrot, I read nearly in one sitting. I can only conclude (with this evidence at hand) that Barnes is at home musing on the French. And his first-person tone matched Braithwaite’s: it is the measured but self-conscious and authoritative voice of the autumnal narrator, the amateur academic, the relentless reader, men who are interested in the bizarrities of lives and of Life.

Monday, November 21, 2011

I just read the following in George Herbert's Temple -

O let no that of any thing;
Let rather brass,
Or steel, or mountains be thy ring,
And I will pass... ('From The Search')

And thought of this,

the view from Camp Casey on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. This week I find myself missing pine and mountain and salt water.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Just in Time

In much of the secondary reading for my course, I find myself immured in horribly glib words like ‘discourse’, ‘signification’, ‘reified’ etc. in a way that no longer meaningfully refers to structuralist criticism but is a kind of easy way of saying nothing while looking like you went to graduate school. (‘Discourse’ has a particularly bad rep, though it is, I admit, difficult to avoid it.) Reading journal essays and Cambridge Companions one gets the horrible and hollow feeling that these were published out of the desire for tenure and not academic inquiry. And that is why I am so grateful to Helen Cooper, a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature who was at Oxford and is now, alas, at The Other Place.

Her 2004 book The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare has not only saved my essay on romance this week but is proving to be a genuinely interesting read. Romance is one of those genres which can bore you to death, or tantalize with a hybrid of familiarity and strangeness. Cooper’s book – which investigates quests, sea voyages, fairy queens, and magic which doesn’t work – in engaging prose (such a rarity!) is the sort of scholarly work that you can sit in an armchair and read and lose track of time.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Though I frequently lecture people on my feelings about the unhelpfulness of dividing the world into male-things and female-things, I find myself wondering about the existence of the female epic, and what that might look like?

(Image of Penthesilea from the Flemish Tapestry, 'The Triumph of Fortitude', 1525)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

To Camelot

This week we step away from the Renaissance into the world of Medieval Romance. The writing of a romance, a genre almost entirely consisting with arranging and juggling inherited courtly and popular motifs, seems worlds away from a modern conception of the ideal work of literature as original. And yet – the perpetuation of Arthurian-based television programs and movies seems to suggest we’re as susceptible to retellings as our medieval ancestors. G and I confirmed this by spending an inordinate amount of time on youtube watching (generally awful) trailers of King Arthur, Tristan + Isolde, Merlin, the Mists of Avalon, b, Camelot etc. The best – I tried to convince G – is obviously First Knight. It might be light on the adultery and magic, but it has cheese: tinny armour and swords, a misty Round Table montage, dark-haired Richard Gere crying, a leaf turned into a cup for forest rain-water.

I have, however, just become aware of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac and Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois. To watch these would be an excellent repeating of the past, a re-engagement with English Romance as inherited from the French whim for Celtic lore.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Jonsonian Encomium

The man of the week is Ben Jonson: ruddy, large, convivial, viciously witty, convict, convert, pedant, satirist, playwright, poet laureate. How has it taken me so long to meet him? His characters – tricksy, seamy, comic London underbelly figures – seem to be the Jacobean forebears of Dickens’. (Sir Epicure Mammon, Justice Overdo, Dol Common are the easy friends of Bumble, M’Choakumchild and Vholes).

Jonson’s best speeches, however, clearly belong to his puritans. Here is the wonderfully named Zeal-in-the-land Busy (nearly beat by Tribulation Wholesome in The Alchemist, responding to a puppet show in Bartholemew Fair (1614)

Busy: Down with Dagon, down with Dagon! ‘Tis I will no longer endure your profanations...I will remove Dagon there, I say, that idol, that heathenish idol, that remains, as I may say, a beam, a very beam, not a beam of the sun, nor a beam of the moon, nor a beam of a balance, neither a house-beam nor a weaver’s beam, but a beam in the eye, in the eye of the Brethren; a very great beam, a exceeding great beam...Thy profession is damnable, and in pleading for it thou dost plead for Baal. I have long opened my mouth wide and gaped, I have gaped as the oyster for the tide, after thy destruction; but cannot compass it by suit or dispute; so that I look for a bickering ere long, and then a battle.

What rhetoric.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

All aboard

I found Macaulay's 1926 novel at Arcadia on St Michael's St. for 75p. I shall add this to my growing Penguin stash and put it alongside Macaulay's World My Wilderness. If I could find a Penguin edition of the Towers of Trebizond, I would probably dislocate my back in a spasm of glee.

First sentence:

A Mr. Dobie, a clergyman, wearying of his job, reliquished it, ostensibly on the grounds that he did not care to bury dissenters or baptise illegitimate infants, but in reality beacuse he was tired of being so busy, so sociable, and so conversational, of attending parish meetings, of sitting on committees, calling on parishioners and asking them how they did - an inquiry the answer to which he was wholly indifferent.

Wodehouse's letter's published in a new volume. I would buy this if the bank statement was more generous. And this is the most interesting sentence from the review:

'In a superlative run of clichés – "gone with the wind", "one with Nineveh", "in a word" – Wodehouse revels in, and revives, the contained sphere of an exhausted language (a "small world" of its own) and makes it a little larger.'

Incidentally, the editor of the letters, Sophie Ratcliffe, was one of my lecturers last year. She spoke on Victorian poetry and - though this seems ignorant and naive and potentially condescending of me (I hope not) - she seemed too young and pretty to be lecturing to callous freshers.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Michaelmas is nearly halfway through. The trees are reluctant to shed their leaves. Though the temperature rises and falls the hours of daylight announce the deepening of autumn. On Saturday, on the river, I waited for my stroke and watched the geese, ducks, swans, gulls, the riverboats and their winsome crews. I saw Christ Church in the distance.

I have forgotten what I want this blog to be. As I become integrated into life here it’s more difficult to step aside, to romanticize and tie up. British customs have stopped seeming British and just seem expected. The blog was originally meant for book reviews, but I’m not reading enough books, at least the sort that I was practicing for. I have, however, just finished Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 trilogy. I suppose I’ll try to coalesce my thoughts on this in the next two or three days while writing on Chaucer (again) and taking tentative steps towards Milton. And I can’t help feeling that writing one’s opinions on dead authors is fraught with danger. You can’t hope to say anything new, only to add to the pile, another piece of paper in the huge repository of dead books and torn pages and loose broadsheets and there is an apocalyptic furnace.

This last paragraph is full of nots and can’ts. And this confessional tone is irksome. Perhaps this is just autumn melancholia.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tales of the City II

Barcelona as a whole, if taken from the motorway, or by train, is monstrously ugly. Its outskirts have the same shambly, cheap, urine-stained, graffitied, weedy looks of cities which are interchangeable. It could have been Johannesburg. But in the Gothic Quarter it is another city: a city of terraced balconies that jut like stiff mantillas above the streets, the damp stone tiles and the tickly smell of sewage. Clothes are strung from balconies or extended wires; ferns and spiked plants explore or gingerly poke out from between the bars; pigeons and noisy green parrot-like birds shoot up to the roofs or are keep in domed iron cages; doors of vehement graffiti overlaid by political posters or advertisements or slogans. But the rhythm of the city is exhausting, continual wearing alleviated by the home one makes in it, no refuge for tourists.

And still, we are fortunate. When winding around the streets of the Quarter, we stumble across the front of a church in a small plaza. There are well-dressed men and women milling around with flower petals in their hands, looking at the fortressed doors expectantly. In one of the terraced buildings overlooking the square, in the window on a balcony, there is a large plastic horse waiting also. The lights from the cafés in the plaza throw up beams on his muzzle and back. I beg to stay. Within a few moments the doors open, the couple emerges, the flowers are thrown, everyone – the friends, the priest, the tourists who have stopped, charmed – cheers. Beside the couple a man in a brimmed hat strikes a furious guitar and a proud Spanish babushka in folk dress and white mantilla – within arms length of the bride – begins to sing in an unwavering, gut-punching nasal alto that can be heard in all of the alleyways.  

Tales of the City

It’s been an embarrassing lapse of time. Spain was so vivid that it’s been almost entirely bleached out in the past weeks, from over-exposure. We were the least experienced, least prepared visitors, crippled linguistically and clinging to the dictionary and phrasebook. We tried, in order to offer some degree of cultural respect, gesture of friendship. We looked foolish.

In Barcelona, on a searingly hot day, I sought an iced mocha. We went, exhausted, into the Hotel Zurich, a rather posh place (we discovered too late) near the Place de Catalunya. I’d like an iced mocha, I said, embarrassed, flustered, thirsty. The waiter, a distinguished man of impeccable carriage, said a reluctant ‘si’ and began slowly fumbling around for the espresso machine. All of the waiters eyed me up in a tut-tut manner before a younger man approached me in order to tell me it wasn’t possible. No, no, no, said all the others, relieved that the truth had been told at last, that they could leave iced mochas to Starbucks. So I cobbled together more hesitant Spanish to suggest an iced coffee with milk instead. SI! Said the distinguished waiter with pleasure and threw himself into the creation of the coffee. Ah, said the faces of the waiters, she does it the right way, the Spanish way. This is what we drink now, in Barcelona, in the Café Zurich, on the terrace, in summer. There we go, the waiter said, handing me a cup with coffee, milk, ice, sugar, the plastic-stirrer; You have beautiful Spanish.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Claro, hablo castellano!

Tomorrow I start for Spain; a week in Catalonia. As one of my favourite parts of going on holiday is planning which books to take.

This is what’s accompanying me (you might notice a curious lack of Medieval and Renaissance titles):

As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee

A birthday gift from a friend. Lee’s autobiography from his journeys in Spain in 1934.

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell

A classic of the Spanish Civil War. Long overdue.

The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing - W. Somerset Maugham

The part of which concerns Spain. Trips to China for reading variation.

After the Death of Don Juan - Sylvia Townsend Warner

An accidental find. I’m a fan of Sylvia’s, and this was written during the Civil War and apparently reflects some of the turmoil in against the backdrop of eighteenth century Spain.

Hemingway’s For whom the Bell Tolls I read in Oxford. Am very much considering – as an antidote to overindulgence – Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, but we’ll see what the good ole bags can hold. Sadly missing from the cache is Don Quixote and Federico Garcia Lorca, but perhaps I will find English books in Barcelona…

I've never been to the Mediterranean and so will be taking notes. Back in a week.

Summering in Somerset

The Archers is real. I walked into the midst of it in Milverton a few weeks ago. A and I went with our friend L to visit her home in a village in Somerset. L’s mother is a popular children’s author and, even coming from Oxford, A and I acknowledged the utter unreality of life in a manor hour in Somerset during a week of fete-ing and festivities.

The Old House, as the Milvertonians call it, was once the house of the bishops of Taunton and Deane, including Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury from – to – during the reigns of Henry VIII and his son Edward, and executed under Mary. The house has recently come into some excitement as, during a remodelling, a rare mural of Henry – somewhat caricatured and perhaps hastily covered up when the political climate rapidly changed - was discovered behind the plastering in the hall. For the 10 Parishes festival and in tribute to the presence of Henry, L’s mother wrote a play dramatizing the King’s Great Matter, starring the village Amateur Dramatic Society and exhibiting it in the Hall, under Henry’s wary, challenging and somewhat syphilis-y eyes.

To walk into the hall, to look up to see Henry throned and imperious, one feels under the influence. All who walk into the hall, staring at the ruddy tints and curlicues and half uncovered evangelists, admit it.

The house was gorgeously anachronistic bric-a-brac of Tudor and modern, aesthetic and utilitarian. We arrived while the marquee was being set-up on the ‘tennis-court’ and were introduced to the locals, who had pitched in enthusiastically. A and I were Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, introduced in medias res to the vividness of village life. And having dream-sequence hours where the sounds of a harp floated through the air as we sit beside the fire in the library eating smores and strawberries and cream, watching the Brit cult classic Withnail & I.

On Saturday we greeted the sun, attended an African dance workshop, walked through a bean field and through an apple orchard, visited local artists, and met a Lady who sold antiques and said ‘chukken’ to describe the domestic fowl.

It culminated in a fantasy ball in the local assembly hall to the surprisingly groovy sounds of Louis & the Iguanas. I have this to say about Milvertonians: they can rock. Every person attending from ten to sixty years of age was dancing with all their might to funk, jazz, and R n’ B, without any self-consciousness or reticence. The actor from the King’s Great Matter, still in his padded Henry costume, meandered over to us around ‘Superstitious’ and waggled his feathered hat and pointed his buckled and festooned shoes. This same actor could not put off his costume, or his newly discovered Henryisms.

On Sunday the nearby village of Wivilescombe (or ‘Wivey’, to locals) was hosting a parade.

Without question, and with great desire for tea cosies, cream tea, luxurious antiques, bacon baps, local ciders, and little children dressed up like Vikings, St. George (and his dragon), and Darth Vader, we went.

And this is a tribute to Somerset village life: I recognized many people at the fair from Milverton, from Louis & the Iguanas, from African dance class, from putting up the marquee (I'm looking at you crazy curly-haired lady all in orange, dancing hard to ska on Saturday and at the head of the English dragon posse in turquoise on Sunday.) These are people who do things, who find village life and the community it offers significant. So they show up. Of course, many Milvertonians are newcomers. They have intentionally chosen to live here, and as such, are committed to making the most of it.

On Sunday evening we watched the play from the back of a very crowded hall full of people with double-barrelled names and arch accents and Midsomer Murders faces. One woman who couldn’t get a seat (tickets had been sold out for three weeks) walked to see the mural of Henry and said ‘One feels something when one looks at him, doesn’t one?’

And after the play, when the cast and guests were mingling and enjoying the thrill of victory, we huddled in the kitchen with tea and red wine and heard an impromptu concert from the magnificent local duo of violin and double bass from teenage brothers who had scored ‘The King’s Great Matter’ with the wonderful ‘God & My Conscience’. Ben and Alfie Weedon will go places.

And so suddenly, with a gust of wind, we were back in Taunton and onto a train. Back to reality - for today.

Spain to come.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Finally finished David Foster Wallace's Pale King and my review is up on the Cherwell website here . DFW has become something of a summer obsession, so this conclusion is satisfying.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Contrary Gardening

The British film director Mike Leigh, as I understand it, has a reputation for depressing British naturalistic dramas (at least in HMC discourse). Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), with its ebullient heroine, Poppy, traversing a shabby London accompanied by wind instruments, had its frightening moments (Poppy in a car with a mentally unstable driving instructor) but resolved itself with Poppy and her friend swanning around in a rowboat.
Another Year (2010) seemed more of a gamble.

We were promised a cheerful movie with a bit of melancholy. It began hopefully. As the title suggests, the film is structured by the seasons. Spring begins - after a medical interview with a grim-faced woman (Imelda Staunton) who has trouble sleeping and cannot remember ever being happy - with a long-married couple working peacefully in an allotment. The gardening threads through the film and provides a competent metaphor for a script dealing with the relations between people. At the nexus of the web of relationship is Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist, and his stork-eyed counsellor wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and it is a happy marriage. Their home seems a happy beacon of light and warmth as they offer hospitality to friends whose lives require, one might say, pruning. Mary, a single woman who works with Gerri, talks and drinks too much, and vibrates with bizarre anxious energy. She falls asleep, maudlin, in Tom and Gerri’s son’s room, with the couple looking on, sharing pregnant glances. Tom’s friend Ken from Yorkshire drinks and eats too much and cries into his hands.

But towards the end of the film the couple’s influence, which seems benign and bettering at the beginning, seems ennabling and manipulative. In the last scene of the last section, Winter, Mary intrudes uninvited after offending the family, and shivering, blinking, and spiritually disintegrated, begs Gerre for a former friendship. Gerri withholds austerely and Mary looks like less of an inconvenience than a housedog. She has been trained to rely on Gerri and Tom and, without their benevolence, is lost and utterly alone. Mary, insomniac and unhappy, is the Staunton-character, and the narrative has come full-circle. Only, instead of Gerri as healer (she treated ‘Staunton’), she is an enabler, a sanctimonious observer who speaks calmly and parentally: ‘I’m not angry with you, Mary. Just disappointed.’ The film ends with Mary’s weary and wary face twitching imperturbably as the family discusses their traveling adventures, leaving Mary outside the enchanted circle, to look on with – no longer envy – but a dying, wintering, reiterated sense of aloneness.

The possible romanticism present in Happy-Go-Lucky was undone in Another Year. The former trumpeted the enchanted freedom of an energetic single in Camden; the latter featured a single – and other (self-)marginalized characters – obliterated by the happy exclusion of a couple whose influence wavers uncomfortably between friendship and condescension. Leigh’s film didn’t leave me comforted, but sad, cold, melancholic, and impressed.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A bit of night-poetry

Maybe it’s the coffee, but there’s something owl-like and night-birdish about tonight. A night for contemplating one’s mortality; your ghostly reflection in a window. When the summer began, it seemed to stretch forward limitlessly. Now there’s just a month to go and half of that will be spent abroad or with family.

In preparation for Michaelmas we’ve been attacking (or rather slogging through) our lists of Middle English romance & the Renaissance. My vote is all for the latter: I may have started off wrongly by reading the most exciting: the plays of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Kyd, and John Marston. That leather-and-sweat world of the playhouses and the pox, Walsingham’s spies, the censors and the uneasy hand of royal favour. Elizabeth & Mary, James and Charles. The age of cross and conquest, the stake and ship. (The best line so far goes to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: ‘I will confuse those blind geographers/ That make a triple region in the world…’) And now it’s on to Sir Philip Sidney. I’m afraid to say, Sir Sidney, that though your Defence of Poesy was spirited and colourful, Astrophil & Stella’s 108 consecutive sonnets seem a bit of a snooze.

The problem is that you can’t fly through poetry. And poets would be horrified, I think, by the suggestion you should. But perhaps one reads the Metaphysical poets at night. Love is present, yes, but it is always Death which pervades, the endless unravelling the alchemy of being.

And that dear pastoral clergyman George Herbert – who should be read in bits and not all at once, because he repeats himself – has near perfect poems:

Jordan (1)

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding star?
May no lines pass, except when the do their duty
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s lines?
Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envy no man’s nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

England in August

Friday was my first English birthday, my golden birthday, and the day was as thoroughly English as I could have hoped. It began in a shower of rain. Disappointment tempered with the promise of Wellies. A and I went up the road, clinging to each other beneath my gaudy umbrella, to the Jericho café for a delicious English breakfast. There is nothing like being indoors and eating beans on toast with hot coffee and seeing all the poor passersby miserable and beans-on-toast-less.

From thence we braved the buckets of rain on a dirge-march to the train station, our launching pad to the morning outing to Gloucestershire. A had been to Stroud for a wedding a month before and her praise of the Cotwolds village’s sweetness and many virtues made for an excellent excuse to get out of Oxford. And who can avoid the pleasures of a train? (So fast, so transportative.) And who can deny themselves the experience of waiting at Didcot Parkway? (Or Didders, as insiders assure.)

We arrived in Stroud at mid-morning to a brief cessation of rain, and were greeted by a market with odd teacups and saucers for which we’d been hungering. Inside the Shambles, the indoor market, I found two of Vita Sackville-West’s gardening books which have recently been expensively printed. The titles, In Your Garden, and In Your Garden Again, drew snickers (especially given the relationship Sackville-West had with Virginia Woolf). I’m not a gardener myself – in fact I’ve just killed the basil plant I had high hopes for – but gardening literature, like culinary literature, is addictive. (Perhaps because of the gnostic knowledge within?)

Stroud is a treasure trove of china, books, prints, and fresh produce. The streets are narrow and steep. Though we never reached a lookout, its position within a valley promised sloping views. And sheep are never far behind. Perhaps it is on one of these hills that Gloucestershire natives chase wheels of cheese. We hiked up and down the high street visiting bookshops and antique shops and print shops. Lunch was an investigation in British cuisine with Gloucestershire beef, gravy and bubble and squeak.

We returned to Oxford – A showing me true English culture from the inside by a commentary on Heat and Closer magazines - to find the city still under a deluge. By the time I set off for a walk to Port Meadow with the Other A the rain had stopped and wellies were only barely necessary (but still worn). Along the river we spent far too long trying to photograph the Queen’s favourite bird, and then to the Perch, a pub in the minute three-house village of Binsey, for coffee & Guinness & apple-thievery.

But the slow and steady late afternoon pace was all a ruse. We reached the house near seven and I opened the door to the lounge to an eruption of friends from behind sofas and out of crevices and under blankets and the surprise Birthday Barbecue (jointly arranged by the two A’s) commenced! We had no idea our Cranham terrace house could hold up to eight in the lounge, but we were all more or less coamfortable and spent the evening eating, drinking, and dancing. If you'll excuse my sentimentality: It's hard to believe you can move to a new country and within a year have such a group of people around you, on a night like this, that you can't remember arriving, and you can't imagine leaving. Went to bed, delighted and thankful.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


An apt diptych from last week: the mornings were spent teaching the elements of plot to German high school students; the evening spent indulging in HBO's new fantasy series, Game of Thrones (indulging my respect for stoic Sean Bean with a ponytail, and and my perving over the Northern English accent).

In brief, Game of Thrones is about a kingdom on the brink of internal war. Destined for conflict are those loyal to the King and his family, and those loyal to his right-hand man, Lord Stark, Lord of the North, and his clan. The King's wife's family, the Lanisters, are gold-laden schemers, and the King, considered a usurper by some, faces another family contesting his right to hold the throne.

Game of Thrones offers nothing to the viewer tiring of convention. There is little evidence of originality in the plot (aside from the interesting concept of a winter which comes not yearly but without much warning, and after years of summer, to devastating effect), and no 'realistic' character development. We are re-engaging a medieval approach to character where all is visible and emblematic. In medieval literature the reader knows the character of a knight, for example, because of the symbol on his shield or because of his actions. In Game of Thrones we know the character because of a knowing smirk, a toss of the hair, a killing blow, or the consumption of a bloody horse heart. Game of Thrones produces a cast which is a variation on a theme of archetypes: Lancelot and Guineverish illicit lovers (the Queen and her brother), the King's loyal retainer (Sean Bean's Becket-like Lord Stark to Mark Addy's Henry II-like King Robert), and the girl who wants to be a boy (Stark's daughter Arly).
The most obviously ambivalent character is Tyrian Lanister (played by Peter Dinklage). The dwarf, brother to the queen, is sassy and likes whores, and operates strictly in his own interests (reminding us perhaps of 'The dwarves are for the dwarves' in Lewis' Last Battle).

There are savage horse-lord people, beautiful albino-blondes with Elvish hairdos, and jousting tournaments, all accompanied by a combative martial opening theme with a celtic fiddle and hooflike counterpoint. (This musical theme has been stuck in my head all weekend and makes doing the dishes epic.)

So, despite all these obviously generic conventions, dressed up in armour and dirty leather tunics and sweeping hems and peaked cloaks, the question is why we - viewers not much hoodwinked by its familiar fare - become so involved in a well-worn plot which derives its energy, like a Victorian three volume novel, from its multiple plotting?

To be continued...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Back to the Garden

I watched Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World twice in one day when I had the flu. A historical drama retelling the Pocahontas legend, the film submerges the viewer in natural images and sounds, recreating a landscape in the last stages of its innocence. Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, shares with its predecessor an obsession with origins, guilt and grace, and a sensuous cinematographic style which intoxicates through fragments.

In attempting to stage the story of one mid-century American family against the creation and development of the planet, the film revives an old method of Epic: the nuclear family as a metaphor for the drama of all natural existence. The film begins with news of a son’s death, a grief still present as the adult Jack (played by Sean Penn) remembers his childhood in Texas. These are memories are lush snapshots of a southern boyhood which seesaws between domination by an authoritarian father (Brad Pitt), who asks his sons to kiss him and to call him sir, and the radiant grace of a mother (Jessica Chastain) whose whispered voiceovers haunt the film (‘Light of my life, I search for you, my hope, my child’). Split between nature and grace, the boy Jack struggles beneath his father’s oppressive discipline, praying to be good but acknowledging his tendency towards misbehaviour.

Though the Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, the reviews have been divided. Two complaints have caused the film to be heralded as a masterpiece that is inescapably flawed: its form, and its visual overindulgence. The splitting of the narrative by the Big Bang and slow development of planetary life lushly reminiscent of an Attenborough documentary, complete with dinosaurs (which caused several in the Phoenix Picture House to snigger and walk out), is almost unfathomable. The beauty of the actors and the caress of the cinematic lens prompted Michael Newton to liken the film (at its worst) in the Guardian Review to certain ‘perfume ads’, with the film’s good-looking actors as the southern equivalent of the Drapers, the central family in AMC’s Mad Men.

While I agree with Newton’s reservations and admit that the film is flawed, the film is also resonantly masterful. From the epigraph taking from Job, Malick proves that regardless of one’s personal orientation to faith, the Old Testament is still a potent source of mythmaking in a post-Christian age. The Tree of Life is a Genesis story: a tribute to innocence and fall, the family as a seed of love and life, evil, death and grief.

The camera-work is – and it is hard to avoid this word – transcendent. Paired with the soundtrack’s continuous wave-like musical cadences, the cinematography focuses on fragments of an ordinary and ecstatic life: a baby’s foot cupped in adult hands, sunlight in auburn hair, rivulets, magnolias, a toad strapped to a rocket, a ladder in the desert, a tree in the metropolis.

I believe this is a film which succeeds more than any other I have seen in fully realising the dimensions of what cinema does. In 1926 Virginia Woolf suggested that cinema ‘has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression’, The Tree of Life holds the key to the solution. In a supple working of what Wagner called ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, the unification of all the arts, Malick has produced a film relentlessly alert to microscopic beauty, to a life aesthetic which is attuned to the connection between things, between mankind and the planet, between fathers, mothers, and sons.

Friday, July 8, 2011

It is a truth universally (but mostly presently) acknowledged that reading Dostoyevsky and red wine is the best thing to do at the end of the week. Sitting in the kitchen, on the third glass, with a happy heart. (Somewhere down Walton Street my friend A, wrapped up in bed with a cold, is also reading the Brothers Karamazov.)

The sudden changes of mode – from philosophical to slapstick, from passionate to comedic – are a delightful jolt. Here’s a paragraph during the dramatic (but mostly blustering) trial of Dmitry Karamazov which, with all its paranoid specificity, makes me think of Bolano and a host of East-European twentieth century writers:

‘Moreover, he himself hated his feet; for some reason he had all his life found his big toes unsightly, especially one thick, flat toenail on his right foot that curved down awkwardly like a hook and would now be exposed for all to see. Utterly ashamed, he became ever more arrogant and intentionally provocative. He ripped off his shirt.’

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Picture at an Exhibition

I went to the Ashmolean with a friend yesterday to see the Macedonian exhibit (was largely underwhelmed). Afterwards we strolled through a few Western art displays. Though I love museums, I find them tiring. I feel like I must see everything, but one can only ever run through and experience the whole effect (the museum as a collage of people and places and periods) or focus on several pieces but try to just stay in front of them and see them. I am bad at practicing the latter approach, and tend towards the former. But yesterday J and I took our time and it was not unrewarding if only for this piece.

This is Barna de Siena’s mid 14th century Crucifixion and Lamentation which used to be a part of a diptych. The accompanying plaque said that it is rare to find the crucifixion and lamentation as a part of a single scene, and this makes it a powerful devotional image.

I am quite unresponsive to the Crucifixion (I find the blood rather comic in it’s energetic arching), and Mary Magdalene is a bit like a Wild Thing in the right-hand corner. But I found the depiction of the lamentation of Mary over Christ moving: their cheeks pressed together with some intensity (Christ’s dead, pallid, and unresponsive), Mary’s open eyes staring with grieving accusation at Christ’s closed lids.

She looks like she’s trying to consume him, to restore him to life by the pressure of her arms. There is an intimacy to this grief that reminds me of a wounded sorrow which I think is felt commonly in moments of betrayal.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Mods (and Rockers)

I write this - ejected from my well-beloved room in the eves of Rathmel – from Jericho, the trendy wine-barred Victorian bricked suburb of Oxford, overlooking a narrow overgrown garden tumescent from today’s grim humidity.

Its ninth week and most first-years have started their prelims today. The ritual begins with the layers of subfusc, the pinning of the carnation, and the mortar-board carried (never worn) into the exam hall. Once you arrive at the place of examination, you’re directed to a marquee where candidates mill around like animals awaiting slaughter, black-and-white dressed penguins with marvelously English faces who tear through notes, select the correct amount of highlighters, assume superiority (if you take PPE) or exaggerate the expectation of certain failure (English). You delay nervousness (or increase it) by looking at the large seating chart. Then there are the announcements: no bottled water with screw caps, no carbonated water, no cellphones. There are more announcements inside: only one male and one female to the bathroom at any given moment. Invigilators swan about looking alternately like severe police officers and happy sadists who delight in the misery of the young(er). And three hours later you’re forced out blinking and nauseous, paranoid and exhausted, only to know exactly what lays in store for you the following day. And knowing that prelims are just a drop in the bucket compared to the rigor of three year Finals, which might require three times as many exams, and aren’t simply pass-fail.

There is the illusion that one feels like a day and night of debauchery following the last exam. Perhaps this only evolves in Finalists. I was glad for the confetti, but was ready to fall asleep before we hit the Turf. In re-reading this I become aware of how – and everyone says it – boring exams truly are. One forgets this fact in the rush of nerves, terror, and adrenalin, becoming a hand which tries to be an immediate extension of the brain, recalling facts, data, and quotes through the medium of automatic writing. And on the long walk home, tourists take pictures of you, and you walk in front of Young Literary Men who trade ingenious arguments (made up on the spot, of course) of what Beckett really accomplished in Godot.

But then summer begins: punting with a boat of Germans who speak about Hume (in English), and making plans to read Russians, and learn Anglo-Saxon (however much your tutors believe this is not something you are likely to accomplish), and the possibility of being a barista.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June ends

Yesterday was Midsummer, the longest day of the year; over sixteen hours of light mostly masked by the rain. In coming to England I imagined that the day before, Midsummer Eve, would be my high festival. We’d go into the woods to do the rites with twigs and herbs and light a fire and dance around it wildly and yell full-throated, and drink nettle-tea, or sweet wine, and watch the smoke rise. Out on the meadow, or in a copse. Instead I was preparing for Mods. Yesterday, Midsummer’s Day, was spent writing theory in a post-apocalyptic hellhole in Summertown.

I’m going to pretend today is Midsummer’s Eve. There’s a garden party in the quad, and the wind turns a fierce corner. The sky is alternately sullen and gleeful. We might be rained out, or hear the night birds.

I will midsummer-ly console myself with my favourite part of my favourite book: Midsummer’s Eve in I Capture the Castle, which is pure indulgence to include here (but which I will do anyhow):

There wasn’t a breath of wind as I climbed the mound. The sun was down – usually I begin the rites by watching it sink, but trying the scent had taken longer than I realized. The sky beyond Belmotte Tower was a watery yellow with one streak of green across it – vivid green, most magically beautiful. But it faded quickly…

When the fire was blazing high again I felt we had better get the rites over. My self-consciousness about them had come back a little so I was as matter-of-fact as possible; I must say leaving out the verses made things rather dull. We burnt the salt and the herbs…and shared the cake with Heloise; Simon only had a very small piece because he was full of dinner. Then we drank the Vicar’s port…I hoped we could leave things at that, but Simon firmly reminded me about dancing round the fire. In the end, we just ran round seven times, with Heloise after us, barking madly. It was the smallest bit as if Simon were playing with the children, but I know he didn’t mean it, and he was so very kind that I felt I had to pretend I was enjoying it myself – I even managed a few wild leaps. Topaz is the girl for leaping; last year she nearly shook the mound.

And suddenly knew that I had been right in fearing this might be my last year for the rites – that if I ever held them again I should be ‘playing with the children.’ I only felt the smallest pang of sadness, because the glory of supper at Scoatney was stretching ahead of me; but I said to myself that, Simon or no Simon, I was going to give the farewell call – a farewell for ever this time, not just for a year….I called – and it echoed back from the castle walls as I knew it would. Then Heloise raised her head and howled – and that echoed, too. Simon was fascinated; he said it was the best moment of the rites.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sober sub fuscing

‘It is farely easy to be topp in English and sometimes you may find yourself even getting interested. If that happens of course you can always draw junctions and railway lines on your desk
- ‘How to be topp in English’, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, How to be Topp

The culmination of three terms: Mods, my first-year examinations, begin this afternoon. I am to take a taxi north to Summertown – we are taking them at Ewert House rather than the Exam Schools – for the next four days until we finish in victory, or at least exhaustion, on Friday. Intro to literature, Victorian, Twentieth Century, Medieval, finis.

Wearing, as per instruction:

(for women) white blouse, black ribbon tie, dark skirt, dark tights, both mortar board (or soft cap) and gown are worn

with the white carnation that signifies today's the first exam.

Most important is my wall of secular saints above my desk, watching me suspiciously to see if justice will be done to their work. I must say that Beckett looks the most suspicious, but Woolf looks a bit wistful, as though she rather likes the idea of timed handwritten essays.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Just learned of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor's death. Am somewhat heartbroken, though death at the age of 96 is not, I imagine, unexpected. I have been waiting for the third volume of his autobiography, and the news that he had decided to learn to type a few years ago just encouraged the possibility that it might appear. And now never got the chance to crash his Grecian villa. A sad day.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fragments of Woolf

Yesterday at my tutorial on Virginia Woolf, I stopped and thought how funny it was – (embarrassing, sentimental to note how cyclical) – that a year and a half ago I sat in a bookstore office at 6.30 in the morning with the phone pressed against my ear, listening as some person in an imaginary ivoried city read the first page of Mrs Dalloway to me and asked me to respond. And J was in the room listening to my answer on speakerphone, sitting against the same backdrop of books, the prints of the Brontës, Lawrence. And now I sit opposite him, reading my essay, quoting those same lines back to him.

(copyright Frederic Lefebvre)

It was a day for Woolf: not only did the rain thunder down, vanish, and play havoc with the light (very Between the Acts), but I saw James Wood speak on Woolf and mysticism at St. Anne’s. I’m a long-time Wood fan and found his discussion of To the Lighthouse in the light of Woolf's religious and secular mysticism engaging (if not shattering). I hadn’t thought of the connection to the Psalms, to ‘Dover Beach’, Moby Dick, or Krapp's Last Tape. And very thankful to Wood for quoting Walter Benjamin on attentiveness as the ‘natural prayer of the soul’: an elegant idea, and one that will come in handy in discussing David Foster Wallace’s Pale King.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The - it seems - infinite delay: essays and mealtimes and sleep. Skating backwards, losing at croquet.

And sometimes a little something else: I saw Tom Stoppard speak at the Sheldonian ten days ago and wrote a sliver for the Cherwell here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Audenary Afternoon

I so clearly remember being moved by Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ in grade 10 English with Miss Scott and that uncomfortable corrugated iron prefabricated building next to the cricket pitch, the cheaply wrinkled photocopied handouts, it being one of the four poems we read a year (our ambitious syllabus) – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s Day?’, ‘God’s Grandeur’, and something else (we didn’t care, poetry was an inscrutable equation every now lit up by a phrase or a word that was likeable for its own sake, but there was no meaning transferred).

The immediacy of the poem, the grief (‘Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead/ scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead’). I spent years trying to remember whether it was W.B. Yeats who wrote it, or W.H. Auden (same number of letters, etc). Now, I suppose this gives evidence of the development of personal taste, because I find it cloying (‘I thought love would last forever: ‘I was wrong'), coloured perhaps by the poem’s popularity, in the way that Pachelbel’s Canon in D was diminished by learning that it was played at nearly every American wedding.

Now reading Auden in preparation for the essay on Thursday, I find myself poking at the knots in his other poems. His 1928 charade ‘Paid on Both Sides’ for example, a blood feud which combines the inheritance of Norse sagas and schoolboy mythology (those wonderful lines ‘Though heart fears all heart cries for, rebuffs with mortal beat/ Skyfall, the legs sucked under, adder’s bite…’), and also his ‘Lullaby’, which Edward Mendelsohn (Auden’s literary executor) said was the ‘first English poem in which a lover proclaims, in moral terms and during a shared night of love, his own faithlessness.’

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful...

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost...’

A day of poetry. Geoffrey Hill at the exam schools tonight on ‘Poetry and Disproportion’.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Sudden Mania for Mallets

Though last night brought the first proper rain in the last six weeks, the Trinity term has begun and that means croquet. The college rule that forbids sports on the quad lawns – except for croquet, in Trinity – was the reason I moved here.

So, suitably wooed with the promise of Pimm’s on the green, but without any functioning knowledge of the sport (and, let’s get this straight, it is a sport), I joined a college team. Our first practice was on Thursday afternoon in the University Parks, with our first match against Somerville on Friday afternoon, leaving the team, all relatively inexperienced, with little promise of success.

O Croquet: the idiosyncrasies of your handbook, the polite but anguished repression of your players (and instructors) upon the fertile grounds of flirtation, the pun-ability of nearly all your terminology. One is required to know when to roquet, when to croquet, and how to do a rush, a stop-shot, and a stab. This is no easy clipping of the ball through the hoop (which is only marginally, the size of a pound coin on its side, larger than the balls) with flamingos, but a ‘tactical struggle’ for mastery of the course. When the instructor told us to make sure to ‘stalk’ over to the ball so as to properly align, I heard ‘stork’ and subsequently spent the rest of the session swinging my mallet between my legs in the manner of a wading water fowl.

So it was with great trepidation and no knowledge of the rules or how the game operated that we arrived at Somerville yesterday to play two hour-long games two-by-two. And the intensity; the insidiousness debate over whether lifting the hoop was cheating or not; the contributed opinions of nearly every passer-by; A’s grave face pale with anxiety when it appeared we might lose. Our last-minute breaking success ensured that we remain in the Cuppers tournament, that Somerville has been annihilated, and demanded an instant and ostentatious celebration.

Croquet may look like a blasé hobby of horse-faced aristocrats, but it’s a cold-blooded exercise in precision. I may have a new obsession. A game tonight on the quad to perfect the roquet, croquet, continuation! It’s like pool, but better. (There’s infinitely more room for sabotage.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Revived Passions

Al men that walkis by waye or strete,
Take tentes yoe schalle no tauayle tyne.
Beholde myn heede, myn handis, and myne feete,
And fully feele nowe, or yoe fyne,
Yf any mournyng may be meete,
Or myscheue mesured vnto myne.
- Jesus, Crucifixion, York Cycle

It’s appropriate that Passion week has just finished and as I attempt to study for my collections, one of the things about Middle English Literature I’m currently most interested in are the mystery plays, those immense cycles put on by cities in Yorkshire and East Anglia, which culminate in the Passion. The cycle plays chronicle salvation history from Creation to Doomsday with individual pageants – chapters in the story of salvation narrative – written by guilds and performed on wagons traveling through the city streets.

Historically critics have treated the mystery plays as crude precursors to Shakespeare and modern drama, but there’s been a resurgence of interest in these plays (jagged, inventive, irreverent, boisterous) as national gems in their own right. The plays functioned as festival, as a display of civic pride, as a means of educating the laity, and an aid to devotion. Mystery plays were also a way for epic biblical history to condense and fuse with temporal history in a way which made the story of salvation local and particular.

There’s been a lot of coverage of Michael Sheen’s performance in National Theatre Wales’ 72-hour Port Talbot Passion, written by Welsh poet and novelist Owen Sheers. Apparently six thousand people participated as the news spread by word of mouth. It’s not strictly, theologically, a passion play (more in the spirit of the thing); but reviews are enthusiastic. The idea that interactive, local, communal street theatre is as vital and moving in the twenty-first century as it was in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries indicates that the anonymous playwrights of the Wakefield/Towneley and York plays were onto something.

Read what Sheers had to say here

Sunday, April 24, 2011

‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?’

- Eliot, The Waste Land

This April, the cruelest month has been fine and temperate. Today, the day after Shakespeare’s birthday and St. George’s Day, a day of hot cross buns and new leaves, the sacrifice is completed, the Waste Land renewed.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

(failed) Day in the Life of an English Student

Today I:

Checked the weather, facebook, emails, various purposeless google searches
Watched episodes of three television shows & the beginning of one 90s film
Listened to internet radio and napped
Posting here. Ashamed of myself.

Slightly atoned for by dipping into Guardian review, hilarious letters of Philip Larkin (see picture, he obviously disapproves of my lifestyle) & cookies, after which I realize that life was more easily literary pre-internet – not an original thought admittedly – and that I am crippling myself with this laptop and Ethernet cable. Ways to change this? (Besides obvious and unpleasant unplugging of Ethernet cable.)

Friday is collections. On the upside - so's the Royal Wedding. No one can stop talking about it; the papers are buzzing. Thursday evening the British monarchy caused at least three separate conversations.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lady Novelists

Apologies for anyone who’s talked to me about gender differences at all before, but this is perhaps hanging over from last night’s wine-heated kitchen conversation about gender and language (big surprise).

From The Voyage Out:

Persuasion,’ announced Richard, examining the volume:
‘That’s for Miss Vinrace,’ said Clarissa. ‘She can’t bear our beloved Jane.’
‘That – if I may say so – is because you have not read her,’ said Richard. ‘She is incomparably the greatest female writer we possess.’
‘She is the greatest,’ he continued, ‘and for this reason: she does not attempt to write like a man. Every other woman does; on that account, I don’t read ‘em.’

Of course, I’m not sure what I think about the ‘female sentence’, which writers like Dorothy Richardson, who I enjoy, sought to discover and perfect. I think I have less sympathy for it than I once did, because I’m not much a supporter of essentialism. I don’t think there is such a thing as an essentially female anything.

But this reminded me of this wonderful antique store in Woodstock, near Blenheim, which offers a great selection of early twentieth century writers. But – strangely the books are shelved by gender. The novels written by women oppose a shelf where all the novels by men are kept. I can’t imagine the reason for this. It makes the books seem prude.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I’ve loved Virginia Woolf for a long time, and this vacation has sparkled because of her prominence on my reading list. But I’ve never found her funny, have never laughed out loud while reading, though I know she was supposed to have been a wit, a great impersonator and gossip.

I'm reading The Voyage Out, Woolf's first novel, for the first time, & I've just reached the scene of the engagement ball in a South American hotel where the awkward and inexperienced protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, seizes the piano to prevent the dancing from breaking up. At first the dancers protest that they can’t dance to her music, when her aunt Helen cries ‘This is the dance for people who don’t know how to dance!’ and all the characters who have until now been priggish snobs begin to cavort:

‘St. John hopped with incredible swiftness first on his left leg, then on his right…Hewet, swaying his arms and holding out the tails of his coat, swan down the room in imitation of the voluptuous dreamy dance of an Indian maiden dancing before her Rajah…Mr. Pepper executed an ingenious pointed step derived from figure-skating…’

This kind of undignified noisy comedy seems like nothing else in Woolf and begging for Baz Luhrman to take a crack at it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Postcards from Kerry

Arrived back in Oxford from Kerry yesterday in time to catch the new flowers blooming, the sun out (and the city in an unexpected state of undress and joie de vivre), and the tail end of the Oxford Literary festival. In the space of the month in Ireland we missed the death of Liz Taylor and the publishing of David Foster Wallace’s Pale Kings (on my immediate to-read list) and had to catch stray headlines about Japan’s post-disaster recuperation and the Libyan situation on visits to the shop for milk and to the Lobster bar for the rare pool game, Guinness or glass o’ wine.

The house was in Kerry, in the tiny Charlie Chaplain-championed coastal town of Waterville. Waterville lies on the Inis Lough peninsula on the Ring of Kerry; the town is wrapped around the Banskellig bay (skelligs are, I believe, early Christian settlements on rocky outcroppings only reached by boat), surrounded by cow-and-sheep farming land, and touching Lough Currane.

Drives to Killarney and Kinsale involved deathly (and I mean deathly) Irish country roads, being trapped by slurry trucks or tractors, crossing mountains, bogland, peat, gorse, moor, and sheep country.

We became fans of Derelicte architecture.

Listened to Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King, & the Eurythmics.

Days of food, tea, scrabble, cards, tea, next term’s reading list (Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Pinter, Yeats), watching the ponies on the hill, an amateur production of Importance of Being Earnest attended by cows, short walks, and tea.

The weather was unseasonably sunny on either side of the trip, but in the centre was several days of rough water, howling wind, rain, and the whole town sinking into silence.

The quiet was the best of it. Doing without much internet. Doing tasks slowly. Eating silently.

But it’s time to come back to the rattle of suitcases and clicking of smart heels on Holywell street, and the tourist-humming streets. Back to the books.