Saturday, April 10, 2021



Simon's amusing graphic

Monday is start of Kaggsy and Simon's biannual year reading project; this year it's 1936 we'll be time-traveling to. Immediately after they announced the upcoming year, I created a gigantic list of books I had read, could read, might conceivably read. I've pared down, but still have more candidates than I actually will read:

That's (from top to bottom):

Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps

John P. Marquand's Thank You, Mr. Moto

Noel Coward's Tonight at 8:30 (in a collection with other plays)

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper

James T. Farrell's A World I Never Made

Karel Čapek's War With The Newts

The bottom two would be rereads. In fact it would be the fourth (fifth?) time I've read War With The Newts, but that would be OK, it's worth it. I read Čapek's R.U.R. for the 1920 club a year ago, and I've been thinking about rereading War With The Newts since then. I'm unlikely to read them all, but I might! I'm better than halfway through the Stevie Smith currently. There are a few other things that might slip in in their place.

James T. Farrell is likely the obscure one, which makes that particularly tempting. He should be better known. He's a Irish Catholic Chicago novelist (though he later moved to New York in a fit of pique with Chicago.) He died in 1979. A World I Never Made is the first of his Danny O'Neill series, though Farrell is more famous, as much as he is, for his Studs Lonigan novels, which got the Library of America treatment a few years back. They're very good and he really oughtn't be so little-known.

I've read one 1936 novel since I started blogging: Graham Greene's A Gun For Sale. It's reviewed here.

But I definitely will *not* be reading John Maynard Keynes' General Theory, despite having read some Keynes and Keynes-related things recently and the temptation to do so...

Have you read any of these? Which look good to you? Do you have plans for the 1936 club?

What I actually did read (most likely different from above):


Thursday, April 8, 2021

George Starbuck (#NationalPoetryMonth)


Last Straw


-George Starbuck

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: the condensed version.

I'm showing it in Courier, a monospace font, to emphasize the lines. Starbuck wrote a series of poems like this, called SLABS, Standard Length And Breadth Sonnets. He wrote a number of other shaped poems ("Sonnet In The Shape of A Potted Christmas Tree") and light verse. And maybe some serious poems, too...

Annoyingly the editors did not actually include this in my selected Starbuck shown above; I have no idea where I first came across it; it's written in an old commonplace book of mine. In googling to check the text, I found it difficult to come by on-line. (Googling "Starbuck Last Straw" turns up worthwhile initiatives about plastic. I had to include a line to get anywhere. And the last few lines I couldn't find at all.) But it seems it appeared in his final collection, Visible Ink, 2002, after his death in 1996.

Bonus Poem: this *is* from The Works and is one of my favorite double dactyls:

High Renaissance

"Nomine Domini,
None of these prelates can
Manage your name.

Change it. Appeal to their
Sign it 'El Greco.' I'll
Slap on a frame."

It's National Poetry Month in the Canada and the U.S.!

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Sexta Aprilis: Day Fatality, or Some Observations of Days Lucky and Unlucky

From John Aubrey's Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects

"Upon the sixth of April, Alexander the Great was born. Upon the same day he conquered Darius, won a great victory at sea, and died the same day.

Neither was this day less fortunate to his father Philip; for on the same day he took Potidea; Parmenio, his general, gave a great overthrow to the Illyrians; and his horse was victor at the Olympic games. Therefore, his prophets foretold to him, 'Filium cujus natalis,' &c. That a son whose birthday was accompanied with three victories, should prove invincible.

At the hour of prime, April 6, 1327, Petrarch first saw his mistress Laura in the church of Saint Clara in Avignon. In the same city, same month, same hour, 1348, she died."

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow

 "We needed quite some time to pull ourselves together after the battles, to climb down off our horses, and reenter the dull Bulgarian world."

The Physics of Sorrow (2011, 2015 in the English translation by Angela Rodel) is Georgi Gospodinov's second novel. In it, the main character, whose name is Georgi Gospodinov, has the ability to enter the thoughts, the consciousness, the soul of other figures, human, but also not just human, a snail, a fruit fly, a cloud.

A metaphor for what a writer does?

The final paragraph of the Prologue reads, "We am." (Though in an interview I read, Gospodinov says it's more like 'I are' in Bulgarian, but that he preferred 'We am' in English.)

But most of the figures, whose consciousness our narrator inhabits, are members of the Gospodinov family: the father, a veterinarian, is born in the closing days of World War II; his grandfather, also Georgi Gospodinov, just before the beginning of the first world war. The book wanders pretty freely, but at its core, it's family history as novel.

There are other Georgi Gospodinovs in the novel, not just the ones in the family; in the book (maybe in real life, too?--but I don't know) the name turns out to be the John Smith of Bulgaria. 

This capacity to suddenly be inside someone else's thoughts first manifests itself when he's a child, and it alarms narrator Georgi, as well it might, when suddenly you see the events of World War I as if through your three-year-old grandfather's eyes. As a young man he goes to a doctor where he's given the comic diagnosis of 'pathological empathy or obsessive empathetic-somatic syndrome.' The doctor tells narrator Georgi it's OK, it's usually something people grow out of, and narrator Georgi does, at least partly. Though this entails a sense of loss, too. 

The Minotaur (that's a stylized minotaur on the cover, though I did wonder at first if it was an ungeheueren Ungeziefer) serves as a leitmotif. In the communist era, narrator Georgi is a latchkey kid in a basement; which makes him the Minotaur; but others are as well. A sympathetic minotaur, who's internalized that sense of monsterhood.
"We bang around like Minotaurs in these basements."
"We're talking about the abandonment and forcible confinement of a child, branded by his origins, for which he is not to blame."

The novel is also interested in the nature and purpose of stories:

"I can't offer a linear story, because no labyrinth and no story is ever linear."

"...stories always end in one of two ways--with a child or with a death."

"Researchers believe that the conscious cultivation of empathy, including through the reading of novels (see S. Keen), will make communication far easier and will save us from future world cataclysms." 

The novel is essayistic and episodic in the way of W. G. Sebald or Olga Tokarczuk's Flights. If you like that sort of thing. I do, and I did in this case--quite a lot, in fact. I was on a bit of Gospodinov bender the last month. This was the third of his I read--pretty much all of him in English--and I thought the best. The others were his first novel Natural Novel and a collection of stories And Other Stories. (But kind of schematic titles, don't you think?) He's also a poet, which should probably be published under the title, Some Poetry, but I don't know that any has made it into English. My visit to Bulgaria for the European Reading Challenge at Rose City Reader:

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Seamus Heaney (#BrianMooreAt100)

Brian and Jean Moore's home in Malibu

Remembering Malibu

for Brian Moore

The Pacific at your door was wilder and colder
than my notion of the Pacific

and that was perfect, for I would have rotted
beside the luke-warm ocean I imagined.

Yet no way was its cold ascetic
as our monk-fished, snowed-into Atlantic;

no beehive hut for you
on the abstract sands of Malibu --

it was early Mondrian and his dunes
misting towards the ideal forms

though the wind and sea neighed loud
as wind and sea noise amplified.

I was there in the flesh
where I'd imagined I might be

and underwent the bluster of the day:
but why would it not come home to me?

Atlantic storms have flensed the cells
on the Great Skellig, the steps cut in the rock

I never climbed
between the graveyard and the boatslip

are welted solid to my instep.
But to rear and kick and cast that shoe --

beside that other western sea
far from the Skelligs, and far, far

from the suck of puddled, wintry ground
our footsteps filled with blowing sand.

Via Wikipedia I came across this lovely reminiscence (by Scott Bradfield for the LA Times) of Brian and Jean Moore and their house in Malibu. The house was sadly destroyed in the Woolsey fire. And via that I realized there was a Seamus Heaney poem for Brian Moore set at the house. It's from Station Island (1985)

which was likely the first collection of Heaney's poems I read.