Friday, March 26, 2021

Brian Moore's Fergus (#BrianMooreAt100)


Hubert and Fergus and weather that looks more Ireland than LA

A couple of weeks ago I read Brian Moore's The Color of Blood and enjoyed that so much I thought I should try another Moore. Cathy at 746Books and Brian Moore At 100 are hosting a readalong of Moore's novels and this month's book is Fergus, his novel of 1970. I saw I could get it from my library, so I did.

Fergus Fadden is a novelist and scriptwriter living in the LA area. He's 39, recently divorced and is short of money for alimony and child support; he's taken a purportedly lucrative Hollywood job scriptwriting for the team of Redshields (director) and Boweri (producer). He's living with Dani, 21, and is more interested in marrying her than she is him. He's haunted by his Irish past.

And when I say haunted, that's more literal than metaphorical. His father, who is long since dead, is the first to show up. Page 2, in my edition:

"Fergus was afraid. He looked away as a child looks away when it sees something which upsets it. Then, uneasily, he looked back at the yellow sofa. His father was still there."

Fergus quite rightly wonders if he's losing it. And we're allowed to wonder for a while, too. But when his sister Maeve shows up, who's living in Ireland and not in LA, and at an age younger than she would be in life, she eats a plum. Fergus later finds the pit and deduces only Maeve could have eaten it. Hmm.

Other figures than Fergus' parents and siblings show up as well. Aunts and uncles. A couple of priests from Fergus' youth. The married neighbor Fergus once lusted after, and her dentist husband. Ex-girlfriends. Friends from the places he's lived--Ireland, New York. He talks to them, wants to talk to them, feels they're real enough he has to talk to them, even though other (likely real) people might be in the room and seem unable to see whom it is he's talking to. This leads to comic complications.

Various factions accuse him of terrible things: the priests, the neighbor's husband; others stand up for him, his parents at times, his friends, though often ironically. It's an odd setup, but actually fairly successful. It gives a real picture of a man going through a personal crisis. Not that I'm now necessarily all that sympathetic--any more at least--to someone who's worried his life is already over at 39... ;-)

The Boweri/Redshields episodes, though, I have to say, I liked less. They're a bit background to the main personal crisis, but I wish they had been further in the background. The pair are a bit too much stock Hollywood movie-producing villains. And, what's especially disappointing, as I learned from Cathy's review of the book, this is based on an actual episode in Moore's life as a scriptwriter for Alfred Hitchcock. Whatever one may think of Hitchcock, he should at least make for a more interesting figure than these two. 

Having previously noted Moore's failure in 1987 to predict the fall of the Iron Curtain, I was also amused by this:

"...twenty years from now, when birth control will be permitted for Catholics..."

This, in 1970. It's a good thing Moore didn't hang up his shingle as a pundit.

All in all, though, quite a good novel, funny and poignant both, even if this one didn't quite rocket up to be among my favorite Brian Moore novels. Next month's book in the year-long readalong is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, undoubtedly one of Moore's most celebrated. I have a copy, which I read something like twenty-plus years ago, not too long after emigrating to Canada. I remember it as pretty great, but terribly sad. We'll see whether I have the emotional wherewithal to reread it next month...

For more information on Moore, I definitely recommend the pages from Cathy's blog and University of Exeter Brian Moore at 100 blog linked above.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Thomas Wyatt



Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
  But as for me, alas, I may no more.
  The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
  I am of them that farthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
  Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
  Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt
  As well as I may spend his time in vain;
  And, graven with diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
  Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am
  And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

-Sir Thomas Wyatt

The very first sonnet in that Oxford Book of [English-language] Sonnets.

For the moment this is standing in for the fact that I finished rereading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. While nobody really knows for sure who slept with whom in the 1500s, the hind of this poem is generally taken to be Anne Boleyn. Mantel certainly assumes this poem is about Anne, and alludes to it, though she also has Wyatt tell Thomas Cromwell he had not slept with her. In fact, for Hilary Mantel, Anne Boleyn is still a virgin the first time she sleeps with Henry.

If indeed this poem is about Anne Boleyn, then Caesar is Henry the VIIIth. Noli me tangere is 'Hands off!' or more literally, 'Don't touch me.'

I am intending to try to say something about Wolf Hall, which I reread recently because Brona is hosting a readalong.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Brian Moore's The Color of Blood (#BrianMooreAt100)

"It is a reminder that there are times when resistance, violence, even death, are preferable to tyranny...I am an inadequate leader. I have allowed my people to come to the brink of such violence, to a confusion between the wrongs that some have done to us and the wrongs that some among us now advocate that we do in return...Remember that, no matter which government rules us, we remain a free people, free in our minds, free in an unfree state."

That's from a speech Cardinal Stephen Bem gives at a religious celebration near the end of the novel. Bem is the leader of the Church in an unnamed Catholic country in Eastern Europe. (Call it Orsinia or Ruritania if you like.) The time is before the fall of the Iron Curtain (the novel comes out in 1987) and the country is still under the thumb of Russia. The cardinal is being driven to the Residence when, on the second page, someone tries to assassinate him. It's a novel that doesn't mess around. It's a swift 180 pages in my edition.

Moore's earliest publications were pseudonymous thrillers. This isn't a thriller (or not just, because it does thrill) but I'd say his training from those early books shows up well in this.

The cardinal survives, but neither his chauffeur nor the man holding the gun pointed at him do. The gunman was a passenger in another car, and the driver of that car, a woman, disappears. Who was he, who was she, who was behind the assassination attempt, who can the cardinal trust? And what is the right thing for a genuine, though not perfect, man of God to do in this troubled situation?

A few pages later he's taken into custody. He's told it's protective custody, but is it? And just who is it they are they protecting him against?

A popular blurb on Moore's novels declares he was Graham Greene's favorite living novelist; of the half-dozen Moores I've read this is easily the most Greene-ean. There is nothing wrong with that by me. Cardinal Bem has to make sense of various factions, all with their own agenda: unions, Security Police, church officials of at least three different political stripes, Communist officials of the state--the Prime Minister is an old schoolmate--but also those officials' Russian minders. Some of them want violence, and some of them want to avoid it at any cost. But as Bem notes in his speech above, sometimes avoiding violence at any cost is, in fact, a cost too high. But I don't want to give away Cardinal Bem's final choices.

Moore did not foresee how close the fall of the Iron Curtain actually was in 1987, but then almost nobody did.  

'...the tyranny of an age when religious beliefs have become inextricably entwined with political hatreds...'

I thought: which age isn't that? But of course Moore was from Northern Ireland. He may very well have known that to be a problem that wasn't ever entirely going away.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker its year, but lost out to Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger. I quite liked Moon Tiger, but I probably would have picked this. I thought The Color of Blood was very good. This may very well have just rocketed up to be my favorite Moore, though such comparisons are always silly and it's been twenty years since I read Judith Hearne and Ginger Coffey so I might rethink that if I reread them. Highly recommended.

This year would be Brian Moore's hundredth birthday and Cathy at 746 Books (with help) is hosting a celebration.

And while Moore emigrated to Canada, became a citizen, was living in the US when he wrote this book, and it's a book about somewhere in Eastern Europe, he *was* born in Northern Ireland, so...I think we get to count it! 

Reading Ireland Month

Friday, March 5, 2021

February Wrapup

Hmm. Am I going to be a person who now writes monthly wrapup posts? I doubt it, but I'm trying it on for size.


Michael Pollan's How To Change Your Mind

About recent research into, and experimentation with, psychedelics. A friend's been recommending this for a while. (Who has acted on it.) It was also, through the weird channels in which my brain works, related to a project I was reading on. When I got it from the library, I wasn't actually sure I would read it, but then the first chapter was full of people I knew, and so I was hooked. I worked, as a computer programmer, for the pharmacology department at the University of Chicago in the mid to late 80s. All those people were no longer researching psychedelics by then, for reasons expounded by Pollan, but they had been.

Pollan strikes me as a pretty good writer of non-fiction, and while LSD and mushrooms aren't really my thing, I'm now inclined to read The Omnivore's Dilemma. Eating meat, while maybe feeling you shouldn't, is my thing, and now I'm curious to see what Pollan has to say.

Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell

Unsurprisingly this is an important book in Pollan. It didn't do much for me when I first read it thirty years ago, and it still didn't. I have loved Brave New World on each of several readings, and I keep thinking that some other Huxley book will mean as much. None has yet. I was surprised how much art criticism was in this; that probably all went over my head the first time.


Cees Nooteboom's Venice

Visiting Venice. Important living Dutch writer and this was really very good. More here.

Donna Leon's Death at La Fenice

That sent me off to Donna Leon. The first Commissario Brunetti story. The mystery was so-so, but the characters and setting are fun. I might also read/reread some Michael Dibdins at some point.


Megha Majdumar's A Burning

I really ought to have written about this one at length, but it arrived from the library after a long wait and I wasn't going to be able to renew it. Molotov cocktails are thrown into a commuter train in India, and what happens to various characters peripherally associated with this terror attack. Her debut novel, there's been some buzz, and I definitely enjoyed it. I read somewhere that it has done better in North America than in India. That makes sense to me. Her politics are well-intentioned, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that an Indian found them shallow while a North American thought them insightful. It's the voice that interested me. It's possible the same criticism could be made (felt shallow there, but impressive here) but I was impressed. I'd read another of hers.

Susanna M. Smith (#ReadIndies)

Susanna M. Smith's How The Blessed Live

It was #ReadIndies month hosted by Kaggsy and I really should have blogged about these on time. I already had the idea of digging into a couple of small Canadian publishers and had these when I saw her announcement. How The Blessed Live is about two fraternal twins and their father. The daughter goes to Vancouver and hangs out with artists; the son goes to Montreal to university. The mother died at their birth, and the father lives in lamentation on an island in Lake Ontario. Isis and Osiris are mentioned. There may have been brother/sister incest.

I mention that mostly because I tend to dislike it in a novel and still I liked this novel. Brother/sister incest goes back to Egypt, to Greece; anything after about Malory starts to feel derivative. I was willing to forgive it here, so that means it must have been pretty well done. A fairly poetic style. This came out with Coach House books in 2002. If I'd written that Coach House books post (this one came from the public library, but I have several other of their books here already) I would also have mentioned how I love, love, love the paper stock they use.

Susanna M. Smith's The Fairy Tale Museum

This book (her second and only other book I believe) came out with Invisible Publishing in 2018, the press I was more interested in (and knew less about) when I ordered them up from the library. A collection of stories on similar somewhat magical themes: a fairy tale museum. (Truth in advertising.) I liked this even better. She retells various fairy tales with a twist and in different contexts. Think, I suppose, Angela Carter.

More stuff related only in my own mind to Propertius

Shakespeare's Henry V

I started it looking for that speech about tennis balls and mockery--and found I had misremembered the line I was looking for. That speech is in Act I and I could have stopped there, but it is Henry V. The second act is weird, but otherwise such a great play. I carried on. We few, we happy few. We are the makers of manners.

Robert Herrick's Poems

Herrick has a more obvious connection to Propertius, maybe not just in my mind. ("Come, I will drink a tun/To my Propertius.") My edition is not complete, a compact thing from Blackie and Son that I probably bought in the U.K. years ago. But it does have a good couple hundred of his (mostly short) poems. Reading it this time, though I was supposed to be thinking about Propertius, the pandemic kept coming to mind:

Stay then at home, and do not go,
Or fly abroad, and seek for woe.

I ask you: could I help it? And, Ted Cruz, were you listening?


Antonio Tabucchi's Indian Nocturne

Another book I should have blogged about. Novella length. Pretty great. A character much like Tabucchi himself travels to India, both for academic reasons, but also to hunt up an old friend who may be in trouble. We learn about the back story with the friend; we learn about the writing of books. Does he find the friend? Well. Tabucchi was a professor of Portuguese and the story ends in Goa. It's not the equal of his Sostiene Pereira, but then, so very few things are.

Trixie Belden

Julie Campbell's The Secret of the Mansion

I found this in a Little Free Library a few months ago, and thought, wow, I could recapture my childhood. It hung around my reading chair for those few months and then, one night, when nothing else was working, I reread it. I was surprised how well it held up.

I had not yet read Little Women when I read these as a child--I only read that as an adult--and I was surprised at how much this owes to Little Women. Julie Campbell likes the poor little rich kid next door motif so much she uses it twice. It's Honey Wheeler in this one; Diana Lynch is only mentioned in the second book and joins the gang still later. Oh, the chores! And is that Moms? Or Marmee?

Just who is it living in the old Frayne mansion next door? And is there treasure hidden in there? Sleepyside-on-Hudson...not so sleepy any more!

Julie Campbell's The Red Trailer Mystery

I enjoyed that one so much, I ordered up the next several from the library. The Red Trailer Mystery is practically one novel with the The Secret of the Mansion. Jim Frayne disappears at the end of the first; Trixie and Honey and the ever-competent Miss Trask hunt him down--in order to tell him he's inherited a million bucks--in the second. And find some trailer thieves. And help a poor family, who aren't yet dying of tuberculosis, but could be.

More of these to come!


Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus

Let us continue the I-should-have-blogged-about theme. Maybe I even did so, though pretty danged obliquely.

Two Australian orphan sisters, Grace and Caroline, move to England. Their lives. Grace, the sweeter and blonder one, marries the son of an astronomer. Caro leads a life with more detours. This is a novel one needs to read several times before saying anything, but it is a novel one wants to read several times, so maybe that's OK.


E. M. Cioran's On The Heights of Despair

Cioran's first book, (1934, tr. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, 1992) originally written in Romanian.

Ha. My heading is probably not entirely fair. Oh, wait, of course it is. I mean, look at the title. "On the heights of despair," the introduction suggests, was a stock phrase from Romanian suicide notices of the time. 

Cioran is an essayist/aphorist in the Nietzschean/Schopenhauerian pessimist tradition.

By no means his best. It felt a little windy. While it's his themes, his later writing in French forced him to pare down. (I suppose. Or maybe he just learned to.) This is also more clearly derivative. Nietzsche is never very far from Cioran, but this reeks of it. Though, correspondingly, there is more appreciation of the Dionysiac in this, it's not all gloom and doom, more than in later Cioran. Nevertheless Cioran strikes me as standing more on his own feet afterwards. It wasn't bad--if you like Cioran--but The Trouble With Being Born remains my favorite. If favorite is quite the right word to use...

That's a month's worth of reading. Actually, for me, probably more than a month's worth under normal circumstances, but what else can you do these days? I'm also in the middle of rereading Wolf Hall and The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Well, when I say middle, that's appropriate enough to Wolf Hall, somewhat less so to Nickleby.

The books that are still around the house

How was your February reading?

Thursday, March 4, 2021



from Canzoniere, Number 7

Gluttony, sleep, pillows of idleness,
have banished every virtue from the world
whereby our nature, conquered by its habits,
has almost lost its way along the road;

so spent is every good light from the heavens
which should inform our human life that he
is pointed out as some remarkable thing
who would make water flow from Helicon.

Who wishes for the laurel, or for myrtle!
"In poverty and naked goes Philosophy,"
the masses bent on making money say.

You will have few companions on that road,
so all the more I beg you, noble spirit,
do not abandon your magnanimous task.

-Petrarch, tr. Mark Musa

Petrarch to a friend thinking of abandoning the writing of poetry.

This edition is from University of Indiana Press, translated and annotated by Mark Musa, with an introduction by Musa and Barbara Manfredi. This edition a bit overdoes the notes, I feel, but still, perhaps useful: the friend to whom this poem is addressed would seem to be unknown. Helicon is the spring sacred to the Muses. 

I also am not sure what Warhol's Liz Taylor is doing on the cover.

My knowledge of Italian from the 1300s is strictly limited, but I do think magnanimous is probably not well-chosen, though it fits his blank verse scheme. The Italian is magnanima, it looks alike, but magnanimous has a very specific meaning in English these days. At the very least I think the force of the original Latin words in magnanima would be much more present for Petrarch's audience, more than we sense in magnanimous now. Think 'great-souled.'

The Italian, for whom it's useful:

La gola e 'l sonno et l'oziose piume
ànno del mondo ogni vertù sbandita
onde' è dal corso suo quasi smarrita
nostra natura vinta dal costume

et è si spento ogni benigno lume
del ciel per cui s'informa umana vita
che per cosa mirabile s'addita
chi vol far d'Elicona nascer fiume.

Qual vaghezza di lauro, qual di mirto?
"Povera et nuda vai, Filosofia,"
dice la turba al vil guadagno intesa.

Pochi compagni avrai per l'altra via:
tanto ti prego più, gentile spirto,
non lassar la magnanima tua impresa.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Dance of the Intellect among Words, or Thinking about Propertius

 Round, round, the roof does run;
  And being ravished thus,
Come, I will drink a tun
  To my Propertius.

-Robert Herrick, from 'To Live Merrily, and to Trust to Good Verses'

The only literary celebration of the spins that I know of.

But anyway, Propertius:

The word around town these days is that I've become lazy
  and that Cynthia must be the reason. Alas, not so.
She is as far away from my bed as the River Po
  is from...What's out there, remote and exotic? The Bug!
Cynthia hasn't been feeding my passion lately. My soul
  is starved for her kisses. My ear thirsts for her whispers.
It's not the way it was when we pleased each other, defying
  Envy itself. It's as if some god had decided
I was in need of a little refresher course in human
  pain. Or is it some herb from Prometheus' peaks
that Medea kept in her kit to interfere with lovers?
  Whatever it is, I'm sadly diminished. Distance
changes a woman's heart, and the great strength of our passion
  is undermined. I spend my nights alone,
morose and full of self-pity. (I begin to bore myself.)
  That man who, in his pain, can complain to his mistress
who is there with him in the room, ought to be
counting his blessings,
  for love, when it's sprinkled with tears, will grow like a weed.
At the worst, he can work himself up to a kind
of righteous anger,
  enough to give him the nerve to break it off
and look somewhere else for love. I'm unable to do that.
  For me, it's Cynthia, first, last, and always.

That's Ode 12, from Book I, translated by David Slavitt. W. A. Camps, Pembroke College, Cambridge, writes, "Very little is known of Propertius' life beyond what he tells us himself in his works." What Propertius tells us, the last line of that ode, is, "Cynthia prima fuit, Cynthia finis erit." He was in love with a girl. Cynthia. First, last, and always. (Though more literally: Cynthia was first, Cynthia will be the end.)

We can piece together a few other details. Propertius was born around 57 BC, in Umbria, probably close to Assisi. The Roman civil wars were ongoing and this was a region not yet fully absorbed into the Roman state; Propertius' family lands were confiscated for the benefit of Augustus' (still Octavian and not yet Augustus) veterans in 41 BC. His father died while Propertius was in his teens, his mother somewhat later. Still there was money enough left for him to go to Rome where he was no doubt supposed to study law or oratory or something useful, but spent his time writing poetry instead. He meets Cynthia around 30 BC.

In fact, poetry could be a paying gig at the time. His poems, all written in the elegiac meter, are divided into four books. The first, called the Monobiblos, is the one most absorbed with Cynthia, and seems to have become famous already while Propertius was still young. Which meant he caught the ear of Maecenas, Augustus' cultural commissar, and voilá, Propertius' fortune was made. Once you were in with the new hegemony...

There's not much evidence, and anyway, I'm probably entirely wrong, but I imagine Maecenas as having good taste in literature, not necessarily political, but feeling obligated to support the new way of things. By 27 B.C.--when Octavian becomes Augustus--Rome has suffered fifty, almost a hundred, years of civil war, and everyone is just so damned tired. Sure, Augustus is a square, daddy-o, but he's got the money, and he's fixed everything up real sweet, and if you just would write a few poems about how things now are cool, like it was a return the good old days, know, it would help...Vergil did it, Horace did it, too. So it's OK for you, too. Propertius does appreciate the new calm, writes some 'Roman odes' in honor of the new politics, but can't quite pull it off, or maybe doesn't entirely want to. He just wants to write about a girl.

Anyhoo, that's a bit what I like about Propertius. There's a whole world there you can only get glimpses of; real people, half seen, half filled out by your imagination; people interacting with the events of the day, but not enslaved by them, still living their own romantic lives. These characters feel like real people, well, they are real people, but characters, too: Propertius himself, and Cynthia, that learned girl, but also Lygdamus, Propertius' slave--we all know about tricky servants, the Leporello type--his poetry-writing friends show up here and there, maybe some rivals in his worship of Cynthia, of whom he could be jealous--should he be jealous?--, other romantically possible girls. A whole circle. It goes on until it fades; some die; some just abandon poetry. It's Bolaño telling the story of the Visceral Realists in The Savage Detectives.

Enough for now. I've slogged at this post a while. And still I didn't get to Dante or Goethe and Ezra Pound is no more than an allusion in the title of the post. Housman. Housman remains to be considered. Imagery. Ears and boats. Maybe more Highet. I also didn't babble on about elegiacs, Goethe or Schiller or Coleridge or Clough, though I had every intention of doing so...

Thinking about Propertius:

Dates, and other 'facts', taken from the introduction to Propertius' Elegies, Book I, edited by W. A. Camps, Cambridge University Press, 1961, shown above. They're reasonable, but not to but to be taken as gospel truth. The year of his birth is particularly doubtful.