Tuesday 30 December 2014

Driving Rhythm

My previous work situation (aka ‘job’) obliged me – for the first time in my life – to drive a considerable distance several times a week.  The subsequent enforced intimacy with the A1(M) entailed by this necessity was made far less tedious by the repeated playing of a double cd of narrative verse, featuring, among others, Goblin Market, The Wreck of the Hesperus and The Pied Piper of Hamelin.  Nestled alongside the tremendous pleasure these poems gave me, (powerful enough to counteract the malign influence of The Black Cat Roundabout) was a sense of embarrassment over how little I knew some of these literary landmarks, my ignorance including being unaware of the origin of the phrase, taken by H.E. Bates as the title for a Larkin novel, ‘Fair stood the wind for France’ in the poem Agincourt by Michael Drayton (1563–1631).

One of the selected poems with which I at least used to be reasonably familiar was The Eve of St Agnes, and I began to pay particular attention - as Peterborough alternately reeled me in and flung me back home – to the themes of music and sound in this stunning work.  I offer below a few observations (which I certainly would not dignify by presenting as anything like cogent analysis) that may stimulate you to re-read the poem, and responses to which I’d be delighted to see.

Let’s start with the owl who (to purloin and entirely misuse a Keatsian phrase) practices a little negative capability, in that it is described at the poem’s opening as being ‘a-cold’ despite ‘all his feathers’.  As literature in general and poetry in particular usually dwell upon the sound rather than appearance of owls, Keats’ unusual perspective emphases the eerie silence of his scene, which is also expressed in the mute sheep which next take the stage: ‘And silent was the flock in woolly fold’.

A little later, when the wretched Beadsman, having already demonstrated his chronically inflated sense of empathy by imagining how cold ‘the sculptur’d dead’ must be feeling, is ‘Flatter'd to tears’ by the sound of music, an invitation to gaiety which he must ignore, in order to pursue his literally mortifying ascetic vocation.  ‘Music’s golden tongue’ is therefore an at least equivocal phrase here, and the negative connotations of music and sound are reinforced by Keats observing of the poor deranged chap that: ‘already had his deathbell rung; The joys of all his life were said and sung.’

The ‘golden tongue’ is nicely echoed in what I think is one of Keats’ most powerful and successful lines. ‘The silver, snarling trumpets 'gan to chide’ is extraordinary. The precision of ‘snarling’, to both evoke the timbre of the trumpets and enhance the ominous quality of the setting, is hugely pleasing.  If medieval trumpets were not literally silver, the line also contains an excellent piece of synaesthesia. If they were, I apologise. A subsequent simile that never fails to send voluptuous chills through my soul occurs as Keats describes how Madeline does not hear ‘The music, yearning like a God in pain’, another matchless evocation of how music (and all art) is most powerful when expressing suffering.

On a somewhat lighter note (ahem), Keats drops in a cosy piece of self-reference when he describes the song that Madeline’s suitor plays to the former while she sleeps as: ‘an ancient ditty, long since mute, In Provence call'd, "La belle dame sans mercy”’. But even this has a mournful undertone, with the assertion that the weight of time and history have buried the song.

There is, I am sure, a lot more to observe, and better joined-up-thinking to be done. I’m sure there are racks-full of brilliant theses on the use of music in this poem and Keats’ poetry as a whole, but the joys of this little contribution are said and sung.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

A loan again

I need to define a new literary genre, so if anyone has the postal address of the executive in charge of such matters, I'd be grateful if they would share this information; (I'm quite sure this is too sombre a procedure to be conducted by e-mail).  The genre in question is - and, yes, I fully realise it is in need of somewhat snappier nomenclature - 'Quite Short Books About Libraries'.

I've already mentioned in these blog pages, albeit in passing, the excellent The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, in which Her Majesty is stirred to bibliophilia by the accidental discovery of a mobile library van in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. To swell the genre by 100%, I've just finished reading The Library of Unrequited Love, by Sophie Divry, which comprises a monologue by a disaffected, hopelessly lovelorn female French librarian (in France), delivered to a library user who has (apparently) been locked into the library overnight. This is a charming and piquant amouse-bouche, 'though not without a pleasing insight into and compassion for the human spirit when it is shackled by the routine frustrations of work and love. The narrator offers us various descriptions, eulogies and diatribes - some of which directly contradict others - concerning, among other subjects: the Dewey Decimal system; the internal politics of provincial French libraries and the major figures in French military and political history.  The Librarian's mixture of irascibility and erudition is beautifully captured (by the translator and, I assume, the author before that) and - when she turns to the titular theme (represented by an attractive young male student) - comically poignant.

Running through the Librarian's delivery is a passionate love for books and libraries, often comically couched in her own very Gallic brand of hyperbole and metaphor...

The reader is a virgin. . . And I like to see people losing their library virginity. . If the librarian comes charging at you like a bull, no kindness, no foreplay, that's it. You'll never come back. Divorced from culture. Lifelong abstinence. and one could certainly find worse rallying-calls for the defence of libraries, as places of cultural and social necessity, than this little book and its quirky protagonist.

This first novel is a surprising, unusual and satisfying read, like many I've collected from, and returned to my local library (the quite splendid Hitchin public lending emporium), whose staff I may never see in quite the same light again.  In the meantime, your suggestions for additions to this genre of two would be most welcome.

Recommended for: Librarians; Francophiles; people with very limited leisure time and dislikers of crowd scenes.

Monday 27 January 2014

Another Twisted Spoonful

Twisted Spoon Press not only heads the league table of publishers named after transformed cutlery, but is a fine house of letters by any measure.  They kindly sent me for review their recent publication Miruna, a Tale, a Romanian novella by Bogdan Suceavă which continues the mission of the press to introduce Anglophone readers to excellent and overlooked literature from Central and Eastern Europe.

I hesitate to say Miruna is a story about stories, because that description can invoke notions of a rather dry, smugly self-regarding kind of writing which does not engage on any personal or emotional levels.  Perhaps I should offer it as a beautifully-drawn map, which describes the borders where stories meet people and which charts some of the phenomena that arise from those encounters. The most basic description of the book would be that it is a collection of autobiographical and folk tales told by a grandparent to two young children (a brother and the titular sister), but the layering of the stories, of the different chronologies and histories involved and of the effects that story-telling and stories have on people and society is so beautifully and subtly executed that any such bare outline would be an injustice.  The soft blurring of memory, legend and fact begins early, when we are told that the grandfather with whom the children are being sent to stay was prone to cursing:
so fiercely that little tornadoes would whirl the object of his curse up into the air and cast him ten paces yonder.
a passage which typifies the humour and elegance of the book's prose.  Miruna deals with mysticism and magic very deftly, as rich Romanian legends are interwoven with and blend into factual matter, and the local priest struggles to stem the flow of superstition and spell-casting which pervade his flock. This conflation of the quotidian and the fabulous is symbolised by the description of the entrance to a secret, miraculous underground chamber which is central to the book; it is guarded by
a pair of cherubim armed with broadswords and old bandit pistols, of the kind that can crack open the padlock of heaven with a single, well-aimed bullet.
This sentence, not uniquely in the book, sent shivers of pleasure through me and lay fresh and vivid in my mind for some time after reading it. Another prism through which Suceavă blends fact and fiction and the responses to them is the political - when, for instance, the grandfather wonders about the legitimacy and relevance of stories in the official communist newspaper and when the commander of an occupying army unit is harried to distraction by the search for a bandit leader who is either long dead, or legendary, or both.

The people of the Carpathian village in which the book is set are beautifully evoked, and the relationship between the grandparents and the children tenderly and well-observed, with an especially moving and mystical denouement which involves a harmonious and transcendent summation of the book's themes without ever straying into pretentiousness or mawkishness.

This may not be the most conventionally reliable guide to Carpathian history and culture, but I suspect it is one of the truest you are likely ever to read.

Friday 27 December 2013

Clue dunnit

Inspired by years of grappling with cryptic crosswords, I've fashioned a few literary questions in this mode, which I offer in the spirit of end-of-year festivity.  Each answer is either (a) the title of a well-known work of fiction or (b) the name of a character within an (a) or (c) an author who would be recognised in most households whose inhabitants would have read or heard of any or all of the foregoing. There are no prizes, excepting that warm glow of satisfaction derived from reaching solutions, which is beyond monetary value, but not declarable against tax.

Bad, bad sign, o frog, for hairy carrier (5, 7)

The dynasty, the hills - the ring's between for romance (9,7)

Short actor my whole dove follows crookedly for thriller (3,3,3,5,2)

Scribe made Iran's lush arrangement (6,7)

Moor poor outside poor mat's a fearful novelist (4, 6)

Sounds like a horse? The circle's back for children's favourite (6,3,4)

Wishing you all a happy and interesting new year, (despite the Chinese blessing) - David

Sunday 15 December 2013

Yule blog

Our advent calendar this year was selected by my wife, and very thoughtfully so, as it is based on a book of which she knows I am very fond, Tolkien's charming Letters from Father Christmas. The eponymous epistles describe, in the author's own understated comic prose and accomplished illustrations, the trials and triumphs of Mr. Christmas as he prepares for his annual quest while beset by, among other phenomena, accident-prone guests (principally a polar bear with very limited spatial awareness) natural disasters and ill-intentioned goblins. The book blends slapstick, gentle morality, myth, folk-tale and humour expertly, and is compiled from the letters which Tolkien contrived to arrive in his children's bedrooms each Christmas.  It would make, as they almost say, an ideal gift for a child of all ages.

Branching away from books for a moment, although words are certainly involved, I've just unearthed a festive CD that we have relatively neglected, and am as I write being very pleasantly reminded of how excellent it is, and of how many points for being self-consciously esoteric in one's cultural choices it confers.  It's called A Celtic Christmas, and contains many interesting noises from Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales and Scotland.  It illustrates the cheerfully diverse ways in which Ye Ancient Celtic Types droned, danced, sang and celebrated in this sacred season. My wife and I forbid, during the month of December, the reproduction of any music which is not in some way related to Christmas. Imbued with the generosity of spirit which characterises this time of year, however, we graciously confine this prohibition to our house.

This post leaves you with a few more books (see Puns in Royal David's City) which, alas, will not grace bookshop tables and annual best-read round-ups this Christmas:

Sleigh Misérables
Antlers Shrugged
Stocking Lear
The Noel-Shaped Room
Kane and Stable

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas -   David.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Games people don't play

It may not have escaped the attention of those of you possessing antennae tuned to popular culture that there exists a phenomenon called FIFA Manager.  For those not so calibrated, let me inform you that this is a series of electronic games which have modelled and reproduced the experience of managing a football team, and that such is the level of detail and accuracy that has been accreted to the product as the years have passed, that it is now possible to incur several forms of stress-related illness while playing the game, all of which are recognised by the medical establishment as legitimate reasons for being unable to work and receiving full sick pay.

This has naturally caused me to puzzle over why, among the plethora of scenarios and settings against which console games are placed, the world of publishing and books is not present.  Where is Librarian's Creed IV, for example, or Grand Copyright Theft VI (in which a band of plucky literary agents plunge themselves into the murky and dangerous underworld of pirated texts).  My latest cast-iron, guaranteed fortune-earner, is, therefore, Independent Bookshop Manager (I), soon to be available on the Y-Cube, Joy Platform and in many other formats.  Among other features, the game will:

  • Allocate you a budget to divide between overheads, stock and staff - (do you pay out big money for the brilliant but unpredictable Senior Bookseller who will either earn you a fortune with their mercurial sales technique and encyclopedic literary knowledge, or will alienate your customers by staring haughtily at anyone who asks for insufficiently- challenging books?)
  • Present you with tantalisingly fiendish puzzles - (can you solve The Christmas Rota without causing most of your staff to feel disaffected and exploited; is your mind prepared for balancing reductions from the recommended retail price against gross profit margins?)
  • Require you to predict the surprise seasonal best-sellers - (will it be the autobiography of the three-legged juggling cat, or the compendium of obscure facts about medieval armour-polishing?  The wrong choice could see sales plummet and the January sale tables tortured by tottering piles of un-returnable, ruinously-reduced stock)

Also featured will be pseudo-randomly-generated events, which will challenge your mental agility and literary awareness:

  • A local author arrives unannounced offering stock of their books - are they a nuisance peddling a badly-photocopied and stapled guide to their own kitchen, or do they offer an undiscovered jewel of local history?
  • Thanks to an obscure satellite TV channel, Macrame suddenly seizes hold of the popular imagination: do you order in every book you can obtain on the subject, at minimal discount from obscure publishers, or decide it's a temporary phenomenon and remain loyal to baking?

All this and more, including a special Battle Extension Module, in which you go to war against a new branch of a national chain, will enable the feeling that YOU are at the helm of that glorious but precarious vessel that is The Independent Bookshop.

***** Special offer on pre-orders for Christmas 2014 *****

Monday 18 November 2013

Fabulously beastly

I've just finished reading T.H. White's translation of and commentary on a medieval bestiary, The Book of Beasts, which pleased and charmed on many levels.  There is, most obviously, the accidental humour of historical mistakes, as what - to modern readers - are obviously bizarre and fantastical behaviours and creatures are described with a deadpan certainty in their existence, with frequent appeals made to apparently unimpeachable eye-witness or documentary accounts. For example, of stags:

When they feel themselves to be weighed down by illness, they suck snakes from their holes with a snort of the nostrils and the danger of their venom having been survived, the stags are restored to health by a meal of them.
and furthermore: 
We read that many people who have been accustomed to eat venison from their early days have been immortal, and immune to fevers, but it fails them in the end if they happen to get killed by a single wound.

In terms of mythical beasts, the usual and some lower-profile suspects leap, fly and swim through the pages (it is a very busy and noisy book), but the level of detail provided against the entries of creatures like the phoenix go far beyond (for this reader, at least) the commonly-known register.

The range of reference and allusion brought to bear by the original writers and White himself provide another layer of fascination, as etymologies, myths and legends are slotted in to wider perspectives.  Adding another attraction, White's writing oozes with the same humour, compassion and erudition which characterise his other work (much of which is animal-focused).  In fact White's Appendix, in which he defends and explains the bestiarists' approach, is a superb example of the  sympathetic understanding of history and past beliefs and cultures, of getting away from thinking that past generations were simply 'wrong' or somehow not blessed with the same faculties for thought and reason as we are (Larkin summarises this attitude beautifully with fools in old-style hats and coats).  This includes a very positive commentary on the extended sections in the bestiary where the behaviours of the creatures are said to symbolise various aspects of Christian behaviour and belief.

For those who know and love the Arthurian books, The Goshawk, and others, this is a very worthwhile extension to the House of White.  For first-time buyers, it would be an eccentric but nonetheless rewarding place to begin.