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.