Thursday, February 25, 2021

At Castle Boterel


At Castle Boterel

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
  And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
  And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
    Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
  In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
  To ease the sturdy pony's load
    When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
  Matters not much, nor to what it led,--
Something that life will not be balked of
  Without rude reason till hope is dead,
    And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
  A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill's story? To one mind never,
  Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore
    By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road's steep border,
  And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth's long order;
  But what they record in colour and cast
    Is--that we two passed.

And to me, though Time's unflinching rigour,
  In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
  Remains on the slope, as when that night
    Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
  I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
  And I shall traverse old love's domain
    Never again.

In March of 1913, Thomas Hardy took a trip to Cornwall and visited the places he'd been with his first wife, Emma, when they were young. Emma had died the previous year, and while the marriage had been difficult, it would seem there had been at least some good times in it. (Whatever it was that filled but a minute...) Castle Boterel (Cornish: Kastel Boterel; English, Boscastle) is a picturesque fishing village on the northern Cornish coast. 

This is probably standing in for anything I might say of Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, which I read recently. The novel takes place among a set that read and quote poetry: Kipling, Yeats, Nicanor Parra, Beaumont and Fletcher, Hardy. Caroline Bell reads the stanza that begins 'Primaeval rocks...' to her husband Adam, and weeps. The novel is pretty great, subtle, with intricate, half-hidden plotting, and I'm probably not up to writing about it. Francis Steegmuller, the novelist and Flaubert scholar, wrote, "No one should have to read The Transit of Venus for the first time." But since he was Shirley Hazzard's husband, he may very well have been the only one who didn't have to.

But how about that Ted Tice? I'm not sure whether that's romantic or excessively heroic torch-carrying.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Cees Nooteboom's Venice

" Venice, too, it is not difficult to lose your way, something to which, if I am not in a hurry, I do not actually object,..." 

Cees Nooteboom's book is not the product of a single visit to Venice, but of a lifetime of visiting: his first visit he tells us was in 1964; the book came out in Dutch in 2019, and was translated into English by Laura Watkinson. He had just been there, it would seem. It's formed of a long series of impressions, engaging, not systematic.

Nooteboom's Venice is a melancholic place, fed by ruminative recollections that circle around literary tropes and return again. What is it about Venice that brings this out? Thomas Mann's Death In Venice, Joseph Brodsky's Watermark, Valeria Luiselli's Sidewalks, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway--all of whom are mentioned by Nooteboom.

It may be that connoisseurs of Venice go in winter when it's dark, grey and cold, but there are fewer tourists. It seems that's Nooteboom's approach (as it was Brodsky's, at least on the evidence of Watermark.)

But the book isn't entirely occupied with the high-falutin'. Nooteboom is much taken with the mystery series set in Venice by Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin; at one point he goes around looking for the police office that would serve as headquarters for Commissari Aurelio Zen and Guido Brunetti. He tells us, "Those who do not believe in books have no business being here."

Commissario Aurelio Zen--I had long assumed it was just a fanciful name, but, as I learned from Nooteboom, it's not. It's a good Venetian family name--there was a doge Renieri Zen, who died in 1268. Zen in standard Italian would be Zeno, as in he with la coscienza in the novel by Svevo, but in Venetian dialect the name Zen is ordinary enough. Who knew? 

It made me want to go to Venice (go back to Venice in fact, though I haven't been there since 1984) and what more can a travel book do? 

Cees Nooteboom (pronunciation) is a Dutch writer (born 1933) of novels, poetry, books of travel. He's sometimes mentioned as a Nobel prize contender. This is the first thing I've read by him, but I will certainly be looking out for others.

The book is accompanied by lovely views of Venice taken by his wife, the photographer Simone Sassen:

And, pretty clearly, I was the first person to read this copy from the library. Nothing quite like the freshness of an unread library book!