Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sunday Salon

Earlier This Week

Two Daisy books reviewed! R. K. Narayan's The Painter of Signs and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels.

I also reviewed Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw from my Classics Club list.

Top of the Stack

I declared for Fanda's Zoladdiction2019 with the idea I'd read Nana, which I own and haven't read.

The rest of the books are #1965Club candidates, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy, at the end of the month. That pile is rather aspirational (and still not all of the 1965 books around here...) and in particular I suspect Miss MacIntosh, My Darling will fall by the wayside. Certainly not both that and The Magus. Though if not now, when?

Which of these look good to you?

Discussion: Computers While Reading

These days I'm always hearing about how computers are distracting--and they can be!--but it's also worth mentioning they can be useful. I wonder even if they change the nature of reading.

Earlier this week when I was reading The Gate of Angels, there was a scene where Fred Fairly was defending the existence of the soul, even though he himself was a non-believer. That's the nature of the (fictional) Disobliger's Society in the book: a question is proposed and the two people who argue the different sides are compelled to argue the side they would not normally favor.

In his presentation, Fred says, (it's in quotes in the book) "we should have spoken earlier, prayed for another world absolutely" and I wondered if that was a real quote, and I had a tablet sitting next to me, so I typed it in to Google and yes, it is. It's from William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. Now that's fascinating: it's believable that Fred knew this book and it tells us something about Fred. James' book was new at the time the novel was supposed to take place; it was originally a lecture series James gave at the University of Edinburgh. James, like Fred, was raised by a religious father but lost his faith; Varieties of Religious Experience is James' attempt to scientifically investigate the ecstatic religious experience without taking sides on whether God exists. It fits the theme of Fitzgerald's novel (in which a miracle may have occurred, but we don't know).

Now Varieties of Religious Experience is a book I've read. Years ago, in a more serious mindset. (Though if you're a list reader it's right up there near the top of that Modern Library best non-fiction list and I recall it as a fascinating read.) But I didn't recognize the quote, which comes from a footnote, and I doubt very many of Penelope Fitzgerald's original readers would. And in 1990, before Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, and the digitization of books by Google, you would have to be a very special kind of reader to do so, I think. It's a strange sort of Easter Egg Penelope Fitzgerald buried in her book, but a fun one.

Anyway, I don't quite know what to make of it, or what her intentions were, but I throw it out there for discussion... ;-)

Where I Am

A sloppy snowy day, but that didn't stop these intrepid drummers from their March for Music Therapy. March is going out like a lion, even if a wet, bedraggled one. But I think it came in like a lion, too. I've been cheated!

How is it where you are?

Check out the other Sunday Salon posts (and add yours!) at DebNance's home for Sunday Salon.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

I'm a good girl, I am

"I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play, both on stage and screen, all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that great art can never be anything else."
What with the movie versions (especially My Fair Lady)Pygmalion is too well known in one form or another to need any summary from me. You know what happens: Liza learns "English."

What I will say is how good a read I found it. (Not so dry a subject as all that.) I'm usually a little doubtful about reading plays--all dialog and no description make them harder for me to sink into--but I didn't find that a problem with Pygmalion at all. Of course, Shaw's stage directions are so very extensive, it is practically a novel, albeit a bit dialog-heavy by most novel standards. I've never seen a stage version, but the set descriptions, with the amount of the furniture specified for numerous sets, would seem to make it rather a challenge to put on, at least adhering to Shaw's intentions. It may be more like what he wanted as a movie anyway. (Though he's supposed to have hated Hollywood, and disdained the Oscar he got for his screenplay.)

I will also say, Shaw clearly has some opinions about apostrophes, but I couldn't figure out what they were. "Dont," "havnt," "lets," but "he'd" and "I'm." I could not figure out what his rule is. I almost accused my version of being badly proofread, but it's probably not true. I'm sure the information is available somewhere, but it wasn't evident to me.

Some quotes:
"Nonsense! Time enough to think of the future when you havnt any future to think of."
"Oh, if only I'd known what a dreadful thing it is to be clean I'd never have come..."
and for you #Dewithon19 readers:
"Sentimental rhetoric! That's the Welsh strain in him. It also accounts for his mendacity and dishonesty."
I'd also say, Oh, George. Never explain. The afterword tells us who Liza Doolittle marries and everything that happens afterwards. But the play proper ends with the question of who Liza marries (if anyone) up in the air. (As does My Fair Lady, though as for that, does anyone really doubt Audrey Hepburn's about to marry Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins?) Shaw's afterword (from 1942) was mostly a disappointment.

But, on the whole, what an incredible hoot.

This is so very London a play with the opening scene in Covent Garden and much discussion of the Cockney accent, but Shaw was born in Dublin, so it will be my contribution to #ReadingIrelandMonth2019. I had higher hopes for doing a bit more Irish this month, but it didn't happen. It's also a book off my Classics Club list:

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Poem For A Thursday

One more Welsh divine for #Dewithon19...


Why do I languish thus, drooping and dull,
     As if I were all earth?
O give me quickness, that I may with mirth
          Praise thee brim-full! 
The wanton lover in a curious strain
     Can praise his fairest fair;
And with quaint metaphors her curled hair
          Curl o're again. 
Thou art my loveliness, my life, my light,
     Beauty alone to me:
Thy bloody death and undeserv'd makes thee
          Pure red and white. 
When all perfections as but one appear,
     That those thy form doth show,
The very dust, where thou dost tread and go,
          Makes beauties here. 
Where are my lines then? my approaches? views?
     Where are my window songs?
Lovers are still pretending, and ev'n wrongs
          Sharpen their muse: 
But I am lost in flesh, whose sugared lies
     Still mock me, and grow bold:
Sure thou didst put a mind there, if I could
          Find where it lies. 
Lord, clear thy gift, that with a constant wit
     I may but look towards thee:
Look only, for to love thee, who can be,
          What angel fit?
-George Herbert

George Herbert was born in Montgomery, in Wales, in 1593, and even briefly represented it in Parliament, but then took orders, before dying of consumption at age 39.

I have to admit that "Sure thou didst put a mind there, if I could/find where it lies" has always somehow spoken to me...

Jennifer is featuring a lovely poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, an author entirely new to me.

The Gate of Angels

"I can't live without Daisy, Fred thought. There is no God, no spiritual authority, no design, there are no causes and no effects--there is no purpose in the universe, but if there were, it could be shown that there was an intention, throughout recorded and unrecorded time, to give me Daisy." 

Really, I just want to fangirl now: it's so good, it's so good, it's so very, very good!

And since it's the one I've just finished, just now it's my favorite Penelope Fitzgerald. I might change my mind next week, though, because they're *all* so very good. 

Whew. OK. I've got that out of my system.

The Gate of Angels is Penelope Fitzgerald's next to last novel; it came out in 1990. It takes place in 1912, in Cambridge, where Fred Fairly has a junior fellowship at the fictional St. Angelicus, better known as Angels. It's the smallest of Cambridge's colleges, and 'as on Mount Athos, no female animals capable of reproduction were allowed on the college premises.' Well, since we're told that on the third page, we have a strong suspicion how that will go...

The other major character is Daisy Saunders who's grown up poor in London; her mother has died just before the opening of the novel (we see the event in a flashback) and Daisy gets into a training program as a nurse. Men are always after her, but only to make her a kept woman, or possibly a less exalted status even than that. One of them is Kelly, a newspaper publisher, and out of desperation she agrees, but before anything can happen...

Fred and Daisy are involved in an accident when an unlit wagon runs into their bicycles. They're knocked unconscious and carried off to a neighboring house and put to bed. The same bed, and both naked. (The owner of that neighboring house assumes, incorrectly, they were married and bicycling together.)

You can see the outlines of the romcom plot at the heart of this. But the quote at the top also highlights another aspect of this short, but packed novel: Fred's loss of his Christian faith. (He's the son of a small-town rector.) Cambridge at this point is a hotbed of research into the new physics that will later be more thoroughly codified by Einstein. The Michelson-Morley experiment is a topic of discussion and the Nobel laureate J. J. Thomson is on campus. Can one do science and believe in the soul? Fred decides no. But Fred's mentor, Professor Flowerdew, tells him that "to base one's calculations on unobservables--such as God, such as the soul, such as the atom, such as the elementary particle--was nothing more than a comforting weakness. 'I don't deny that all human beings need comfort. But scientists should not indulge themselves on quite this scale.'" Thus lumping together the soul and the atom. Modern science is no better. Is love such an unobservable?

The ending of the novel is deliberately uncertain. Nobody walks down the aisle to be wed at the end, at least within the frame of the book. But I, for one, am pretty sure it's going to happen, and that yes, there is an intention, a purpose in the universe.

The second in a short series of Daisy novels.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Painter of Signs

"Living on the river, he occasionally entertained himself by watching the bathers, and was fairly accustomed to the sight of the human figure in the wet; but it always ended in self-criticism. He wanted to get away from sex thoughts, minimize their importance, just as he wished to reduce the importance of money. Money and sex, he reflected, obsessive thoughts, too much everywhere - literature, magazines, drama, or cinema deal with nothing but sex all the time, but the female figure, water-soaked, is enchanting."
Those are the free indirect thoughts of Raman, our titular protagonist, from early in R. K. Narayan's The Painter of Signs. He's about as successful with that renunciation as you might imagine.

The novel came out in 1976 and is set during the years of Indira Gandhi's prime ministership. Raman lives with an aunt who does his housekeeping; he's an independent businessman--if that's not too exalted a term--painting shop and office signs; he's literate, has an education, collects books, but has to drum up customers and chase down payments. 

Into this picture comes Daisy, a field agent for the controversial population control program India adopted at that time. We learn she refused a marriage arranged by her family, ran away, and discarded her more traditional name to become Daisy. She needs a sign painter, first for her own office in the town of Malgudi, then for branch offices and even public informational billboards. It's a big opportunity for Raman, and they're much thrown together.

Raman had earlier turned down a marriage that came with a substantial dowry, but he falls in love with Daisy almost immediately; Daisy seems interested in Raman for more than his sign-painting, and though neither of them think they're interested in marriage they start stumbling closer to it. Does it happen? Well. You'll just have to read it and find out, won't you? ;-) It is a short novel.

Graham Greene says in a review of a different, earlier Narayan novel, "All Mr. Narayan's comedies have had this undertone of sadness." It's true of this one, too.

Most of Narayan's novels are set in the imaginary town of Malgudi; this is a late entry in his series, which by the time this one came out had been going on for forty years. It's the first I've read. Not the last.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Sunday Salon

Earlier this week

I read Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics for Roof Beam Reader's TBR challenge. That's my third!

Reading a review of the new collected letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport sent me off to reread Davenport's translation of the poems of Archilochos (with an introduction by Hugh Kenner).

Briefly Noted

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield.

I guess I'm late to the party on this one, but that's OK, it was still quite a party. Very entertaining.

Googling for images shows that there are lots of cool covers for the book, but this is the one the library sent me...

The Fall At Home by Don Paterson

Aphorisms by the Scottish poet and musician. With a collection of aphorisms one expects only to like some. But I had hoped for a higher percentage of hits. Still there are some good ones:

"'Not reaching one's full potential' need be no disaster, speaking as a failed mass murderer..."

Top of the Stack

I'm nearly finished with R. K. Narayan's The Painter of Signs (very good!). In it Raman, the painter of signs, falls in love with the practical, medically-minded Daisy. (Daisy runs the local population control clinic in Indira Gandhi's India.) That got me thinking about Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels in which Fred Fairly falls in love with a practical, medically-minded Daisy. (His Daisy is in training to be a nurse.) Both men are kind of hapless ditherers. I think Narayan's ending will be quite different from Fitzgerald's, but anything that brings Penelope Fitzgerald to mind can't be bad....

It's all about a girl named Daisy, almost drives me crazy

Saturday Baking

Sunday Salon seems to require Saturday baking. Madame de Stael had servants to provide her interlocutors with petit fours, I assume. Around here it's me. But what's a salon without a piece of pecan pie:

I wanna see stars!

How is it with you?

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Fragments of Archilochos (Browsing my shelves)

I'm sure I've seen interest in my blogging world in the new collection of letters between Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner; I'm not sure I'm quite prepared to read them myself--the two volume set is over 2000 pages and Amazon tells me it weighs seven and a half pounds. I'd probably end up with tendinitis just holding the book. But I've been reading reviews (and thinking about reading the whole thing) and one of said reviews is the always excellent Jeet Heer's at the New Republic. And that made me realize I actually had a work he mentioned: The Fragments of Archilochos, translated by Guy Davenport with a foreword by Hugh Kenner. A good enough reason to pull it off the shelf.

Archilochos is an Archaic Greek poet; his dates are pretty vague, but somewhere in the early to middle 7th century BC. He was a member of an aristocratic family and a soldier. What we have of his poetry is in no better shape than what we have of Sappho; there are two complete poems--maybe--and a number of fragments that either come from quotations in later authors or were pulled from the wrappings of less-well-off mummified Egyptians. Davenport translates all the fragments he had at the time, from the Budé edition of 1958.

I'd forgotten how charming this volume is. Here's his version of what's probably Archilochos' best known poem:
Some Saian mountaineer
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield.
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round.
Archilochos is also famous for the contrast between the hedgehog and the fox, used by Isaiah Berlin as a title and epigraph to his essay on the nature of writers, particularly Tolstoy. Here's Davenport:
Fox knows many,
Hegehog one
Solid trick.
Another fun one:
What breaks me,
Young friend,
Is tasteless desire,
Dead iambics,
Boring dinners.
And I know how to lead off
The sprightly dance
Of the lord Dionysus,
     the dithyramb.
I do it thunderstruck
With wine.
Davenport doesn't hide the fact that these are fragments, but he does clean up a bit.

The other charming thing about the volume is the illustrations done in a modernization of Greek black-figure drawing. My edition doesn't name the artist, but I saw in the review Davenport was also an illustrator, and I suspect they must be his. (Does anybody know for sure?)

Those dresses strike me as more proto-Mod than Archaic, but still...
The girls are clothed but the boy naked. Oh, Mr. Davenport!

Anyway, a fun volume I'd half forgotten I owned. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Poem For A Thursday

Now sing to tarnish and good weathering
The praise of wrinkles which sustain us
Savory as apples whose heaps in attics
Keep many alive through old winter wars
-Samuel Menashe

Samuel Menashe was an American poet, born in New York City in 1935, who died in 2011. I've had this one in mind since Jennifer featured a lovely and new-to-me poem by John Drinkwater about apples a few weeks ago. This week she's featuring a Ted Kooser poem.

Brona also has a poem in the voice of Patroclus (looking at Achilles) this week.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Marisha Pessl's Special Topics In Calamity Physics

We first see Blue van Meer, the narrator and heroine of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) as a Harvard undergraduate. Her opening sentence is "Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it." But Blue has cause now.

I told the Other Reader the narrator was a Harvard undergraduate, and the Other Reader said, "So, it's a tragedy, is it?"

(The Other Reader is a Yalie.)

It's not a tragedy exactly, and it's a funny one if it is, but definitely some tragic things happen. Blue sets out to tell us about finding the body of her (private prep) high school teacher, but flashes back first to tell us about the death of her mother. For six years or so after her mother's death, Blue and her father bounce around from one school to another; her father accepts any four-month appointment as a visiting professor he can find; Blue wonders if this is because he couldn't face up to the death of his wife.

But then she decides that wasn't the full explanation.

They pitch up in the fictional Stockton, NC, where she will attend the St. Gallway School for the entirety of her senior year. She's drawn into a circle of students around the film teacher Hannah Schneider, a circle she doesn't entirely seem to belong in because Blue is an egghead-y reader type and the other students in the circle are not. It's Hannah Schneider's body Blue stumbles across on a camping trip.

Was Schneider murdered or did she commit suicide? And in any case why? We learn something about the why by the end, but the basic question of what exactly happened is left somewhat uncertain. But the real relationship in the story is that of Blue and her father. The ending is definitely a surprise and has a real payoff, though, for my money, it took a little long to get there and then skimmed a bit what should be the emotional heart of the story.

But the reason to read the book is the prose. Blue is a voracious reader with a professor father who seems to half imagine he's raising a second J. S. Mill. Blue structures her story around a reading list and she can scarcely get through a sentence without citing a book, some of which are real and some of which are, well, not:
In that instant, the dining room became nail-bitingly unbearable (see Midday Face-Off at Sioux Falls: A Mohave Dan Western, Lone Star Publishers, Bendley, 1992).
There was, too, the supremely itchy feeling I'd seen her somewhere before, when she had a similar eggshell haircut--a feeling so persistent, the next day, sunny and freezing, when Leulah dropped me off at home, I found myself weeding through some of the contemporary biographies in Dad's library, Fuzzy Man: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (Benson, 1990), Margaret Thatcher: The Woman, The Myth (Scott, 1999), Mikhail Gorbachev: The Lost Prince of Moscow (Vadivarich, 1999), flipping to the centers and inspecting the photographs.  
It strikes me as a suitable enough style for who the narrator is--a hyper-literate undergraduate--but your mileage may vary, and the jokiness of the titles is uneven. (The idea of Andy Warhol as Fuzzy Man works for me, but not all of them do.)

She also uses a lot of similes in her style, mostly successfully, I'd say: "The question hung in the air like a national flag with no wind." Or, of a sometime boyfriend: "...the kid who was like a cafeteria, so rectangular and brightly lit there wasn't a millimeter of exciting murk..."

Anyway, fun and with substance, too. Another book I could and should have read a while ago, but better late than never..., prompted by Adam's #TBR2019RBR challenge:

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Poem For A Thursday

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by,
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie,
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And oaths were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived,
To carry on without a break thus far,--
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay

I was going to pick a different Millay poem, but in looking at the history of Holds Upon Happiness posts, posts from before I stumbled upon her series, I find Jennifer had already picked my first choice. So I was forced indulge my reprehensible taste for cynical light verse instead...can Dorothy Parker be far away?

She's featuring a lovely Elizabeth Bishop poem this week.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sunday Salon

Briefly Noted

Hey, if the New Yorker can get away with it, then so can I.

Tremontaine, by Ellen Kushner, and others.

I'm a fan of Ellen Kushner's Riverside fantasy novels. This has a rather experimental provenance: a company called Serial Box is publishing stories on an app; their model is modern literate TV series such as The Wire or Game of Thrones. The first 'season' also was printed as a book, which was at my library, but there are three more 'seasons' of Tremontaine available on their app.

I think I'd have preferred a new novel just by Kushner, but there wasn't one, and this was definitely fun.

Ellen Kushner is insufficiently prolific as far as I'm concerned.

Found Audio, by N. J. Campbell

Found Audio is by a new-to-me small press called Two Dollar Radio based in Columbus, OH. This is the story of a journalist who freelances for extreme adventure/travel magazines. This unnamed journalist has three encounters in extreme situations. He can't document them upon his return to civilization and leave him questioning his own sanity. Religious experiences?

The stories are embedded in a frame tale that indicates that everybody who's heard these stories has died or disappeared. Well, I'm not. Yet. Or am I?

Quite well done, I thought. A blurb cites Borges and Jeff VanderMeer. Good cites, but I'd mention Philip Dick's novels of gnostic revelation, Ubik or Valis.

Where I Am

We were off to see a movie at TIFF Lightbox theatre the other day when it was sunny. It's not today, alas. But here's Toronto on a nice (though cold) late afternoon.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Poem For A Thursday

Something Welsh for #Dewithon19...

Children's Song
We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And though you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play,
Where life is still asleep
Under the closed flower,
Under the smooth shell
Of eggs in the cupped nest
That mock the faded blue
Of your remoter heaven.
-R. S. Thomas

Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000) was a priest in the Church of Wales. "Children's Song" is from a volume of 1955, Song At The Year's Turning.

Jennifer (my model in all things Thursday-poemy) at Holds Upon Happiness has picked a lovely seasonal Emily Dickinson poem that was new to me.