Sunday, 31 August 2014

She Loved Talk

I've mentioned my best friend before, but I feel she needs further commemoration. She was a better friend to me than I ever was to her: perhaps because I'm an introvert or, more likely, if I'm honest, simply lazy, sometimes my energy flagged when she wanted to talk, and I will regret that forever.

Anyway, in two days time it will be ten years since she died. Although it is not entirely accurate in some of its details, this obituary captures something of her vivid personality. I will never understand why the brightest, most vital personalities are often the ones to be snuffed out first. 

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Me and Sunny Jim

I read somewhere that James Joyce was known to his family as Sunny Jim. I also once went to a hotel in Pula where he had supposedly spent some time. Since Joyce's day, an unnamed but quite possibly demented hotelier had decided to cover the walls in glossy, red, shag-pile carpet, punctuated with huge macrame sculptures, (or maybe that was the decorative order of the place even when Joyce was in residence - I hadn't thought of that before; perhaps the oddness of Finnegan's Wake is at last explained).

When asked which room James Joyce had occupied, the hotel staff were confounded. 'James who?', they asked. One of them produced the hopeful, if not particularly helpful, information that a reporter from Time magazine had stayed a night a few months earlier. Could that have been him? Umm, no.

Anyway, I'm not actually hugely fond of Joyce's books - an encounter with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at too tender an age may have coloured my reactions - but I love his views, (which can be found in a reprint in the New Republic of an article from 1931, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon thanks to that fount of interesting article links, Frank Wilson's Books Inq.) on one of my favourite parts of the world and my absolute all-time favourite empire:

'The state for which he has the highest esteem was the old Hapsburg Empire. "They called it a ramshackle empire,” he says, "I wish there were more such ramshackle empires in the world." What he liked about old Austria was not only the mellowness of life there, but the fact that the state tried to impose so little upon its own or upon other people. It was not warlike, it was not efficient, and its bureaucracy was not strict; it was the country for a peaceful man.'

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pure English

In my last post I mentioned a letter about London clubs that my husband tore out of the UK Daily Telegraph some years ago. It is something that could only have been written for, about and by the English. The study of nuance is what underpins the class system in England, I think. The finely honed skills needed to detect all the subtle differences between each gradation on the social table cannot, I suspect, ever be mastered fully by foreigners - thank heavens:

To the Daily Telegraph

It was charitable of your leader writer to accept Iain Duncan Smith's convoluted justification for his decision to decline membership of the Carlton Club while remaining a member of the all-male Beefsteak. I can't help wondering if there might be a simpler explanation.

Put crudely, membership of the Beefsteak is infinitely harder to obtain - and therefore more desirable - than that of the Carlton. The former is in clubland's Division One; the latter at the bottom of Division Two. Clubs are terrifyingly snobbish places in their relations with one another. No one disputes that Division One is headed by White's, followed by (in no particular order) Brooks's, Pratt's and Boodle's. The ethos of these clubs is that of the threadbare aristocracy and country gentry: the uniform is an exquisitely cut Huntsman suit that has gone shiny at the elbows.

The Beefsteak, like the Garrick, does not quite conform to this stereotype; but it counts as Division One because its members are so distinguished, and the waiting list correspondingly long. Division Two is headed by the Athenaeum, followed by the Travellers, the Carlton and (just) the Reform. It is a world of pomposity, pinstripe suits and business cards heavily inscribed with professional qualifications. Division Three consists of a melancholy tranche of clubs that advertise for members and that, as a result, attract self-selecting bores in bow ties. Anyone who has visited the Oxford and Cambridge, East India or Savile clubs will know what I mean.

By one of those little ironies so typical of the English class sytem, it is these last clubs that tend to make the most noise about clubland. If you hear a claret-faced fogey boasting about "my club", the chances are he is a Division Three man. And Duncan Smith? He may be clever and amiable, but he is also starchy and straitlaced: quintessentially Division Two.

Andrew McBride, London

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

What About Towelling Hats

If Gardeners' Question Time is covertly racist, then what do the dress codes of Pall Mall clubs conceal? The question occurred to me because someone told me recently that, if you are a member of the Australian National University's convocation, you're allowed to stay at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, (sadly the club only belongs to what someone called Andrew McBride described in a letter to the Telegraph some years ago [I'll copy the letter out here tomorrow, or next time I have a moment - it's worth a read] as the "melancholy tranche of clubs that advertise for members".

Having learnt that I am entitled to this privilege, however dismal it might be, I naturally decided to have a look at the club's website. Its startlingly comprehensive dress code made the digital trip worthwhile.

What class terrors and repressed libidinous flutterings were at play as the members of the committee drew up their rules, which include the prohibition of:

Strapless, very flimsy, transparent and very low-cut tops/shirts/blouses
Midriff, crop and bandeau tops (or equivalent)
(Oh what is that noise? It sounds a lot like old men panting)

as well as:

Roll- and polo-neck jerseys and pullovers (except for Ladies)
Cargo/combat pants
Ponchos and kaftans
Flipflops and casual boots (including hiking shoes and boots, and uggs)
Leisure wear, such as shorts, tracksuits, t-shirts and training shoes (except in the squash courts and changing rooms)
Jodhpur-style trousers  - are jodhpurs themselves all right, do you suppose?
 Leather and suede clothing (except as noted below) - I wonder if this rule extends to leather shoes, given that "plimsolls" are also verboten

Suede, leather and denim skirts, dresses, blouses, and jackets (for either sex), are permitted at any time when the garments are tailored and otherwise indistinguishable from attire considered appropriate, except with regard to fabric. Jackets, coats and other items incorporating distressed, torn, or heavily studded fabrics are not appropriate at any time.

Less stringent standards may be applied to children under 14 years of age than to those aged 14 and above -
as children under 10 are not allowed into the club, this only leaves a window of four years in which to really enjoy the run of the club while wearing distressed denim shorts and trainers.

There is also a surprising fetishisation of carried items in all their glorious variants:

Luggage (including hand-luggage, but excluding small handbags), carrier bags, “outdoor” coats, and umbrellas must be deposited in the lockers, cloakrooms, or at the front desk; they may under no circumstances be brought in to the public spaces of the Club house including the library, or left in the corridors or stairways. Exceptionally, briefcases may be taken to the business centre.

I love the thought of the endless meetings in which every outfit possibility and portable container type was envisioned and described. I shall remain forever puzzled about why an outdoor coat needs to be framed with inverted commas. I note that no attempt has been made to address the question of religious headgear or, indeed, any form of national dress. 

Monday, 18 August 2014

That Ineluctable Binary

I have lots to say and no time to say it, (I heard that loud, unanimous 'Phew', blast all those who sailed in her). However, if only to keep a link to it for my own future pleasure, I cannot resist passing on the fact that King Lear with Sheep was performed recently in Sussex. It is something everyone should be allowed to know. I love things that can be described as bonkers and so I regret very much missing out on this.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Not Bad

A post at First Known When Lost included a poem that I first read thirty or more years ago. Reading it again, I found myself transported back there, (perhaps all this Proust is affecting me more than I'd realised), to the day when I did first encounter it, sitting on an uncomfortable metal and plastic chair in a small room belonging to a professor of English at the Australian National University.

There were several of us in the room, all fresh from school, all - I suspect, although I can only really talk for myself with certainty - rather in awe of the elderly man whose room it was. Each week he spent an hour making it clear that we bored him.

He did this wordlessly, but very efficiently. Using his armoury of barely noticeable gestures and minute changes of expression, he conveyed the weary knowledge that he had seen - or perhaps seen off? - wave upon wave of new students just like us. Year after year they had entered the university, fresh and excited, and passed through his classroom. Not a single one of them had ever ruffled his infinite self-regard. The reason for this, of course, was that they were all, like us, dumb. That was the problem in his view. He didn't need to engage with us to know that we were irremediably superficial.

He, on the other hand, was wise. Which was why it was not his job to engage in an exchange of ideas. That was not the function of a tutorial, apparently. No, the function of a tutorial was to gather us together so that we could sit at his feet and receive the benefit of his wisdom. Whether any of it would remain with us was a different matter. If it didn't, well, at least he'd tried.

Looking back, I'm amazed at my own meekness. I never objected to this state of affairs. I never questioned the proposition that this teacher was our superior and that engaging, discussing, encouraging us to form our ideas into words was not his job. I read what I was supposed to read, I thought about it, I had my own impressions, but I never questioned that the professor was the one with the answers.

Possibly he was, but after the particular day I'm thinking of, I was never certain about him again. We were reading Wordsworth's ballads at the time, and that morning we came to the poem, quoted by First Known When Lost, that begins 'A slumber did my spirit seal'. The professor read it out to us - he loved the sound of his own voice, I realise now; how funny that it's taken me all this time to recognise, or at least to articulate the fact, that vanity was one of his dominant features - and then he looked around the room. Unusually, he invited us to comment on the poem. 'Does anything strike any of you about those lines?' he asked.

One or two brave souls produced their tentative observations. The professor did not reply. Clearly what they'd said was feeble. Then, as if he were a matador flourishing his cape, he made his own pronouncement. 'The striking thing about this poem', he told us, 'the really striking thing, is that it is very, very bad.'

I think his intention was to shock, and he did - at least he shocked me. What shocked me most was that he was clearly enjoying the feeling that he had tricked us. He'd made us think that we should treat the poem seriously when really it was unworthy of our attention.

I have rarely felt so confused - and that confusion has remained with me to this day. After all this man was the scholar. He was the professor. He knew about these things. That meant he must be right. If he said the poem was bad, then it must be.

'It's just doggerel', he insisted, 'it's utterly banal- just look at that final line, "with rocks and stones and trees". That line is quite beyond redemption.'

I looked at it. It was the line that had stood out for me, but I hadn't realised it was terrible. While it certainly lacked lushness - as First Known When Lost points out it relies almost entirely on single syllable words - I thought that lack of lushness was part of what made it odd and interesting, or, at the very least, arresting.

The line had strangeness, it seemed to me, and, in its bald statement of a terrifying fundamental truth, it seemed very modern. The stark image of someone who had once been a living being who had been able to provoke love from another, now rendered inanimate, a thing amongst many, part of the undifferentiated clutter of the earth, the rocks and stones and trees, struck me forcefully. I had thought it was not banal but powerful.

Sadly, ever since, whenever I've read that poem, I've been quite unable to read it unhindered. That professor from all that time ago is still at my shoulder. 'It's dreadful', he whispers, 'it's a really bad poem.' I will never now be able to make a proper judgment about it. His vehemence and the authority I attributed to him has erased my ability to see the poem clearly. With his airy dismissal, that teacher poisoned that poem once and for all for me.

Which means, I suppose, that he did manage to teach me one thing, if only unwittingly. He taught me that unsupported value judgments of the kind he made that day, backed up by nothing but personal opinion, are worse than useless; they can actually be destructive. On that day he took a good poem, ("No, ZMKC, it isn't a good poem, it's a terrible poem" - can you hear him, he's still at it, damn the man), and, in the interest of making himself feel just one skerrick more superior, he vandalised it. It wasn't what I expected from a university and I don't think it's what higher education - or indeed any education - is supposed to be for.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Story So Far - Proust Chapter One

I'm going to live for a while in Belgium and have decided the perfect way to get my conversational skills up to scratch is to listen to the free audio version of Proust that I found recently on the Internet, (plus enrolling in Duolingo's new Dutch course at the same time - no partisanship re Belgian nationalities from me).

I've completed Chapter One of Swann's Way so far and consequently feel well-prepared to regale all my new acquaintance with tales of my - and Proust's - childhood bedtime anxieties. I should be a tremendous social hit, I'm sure.

More worryingly - or perhaps equally worryingly - I've discovered that I am not one hundred per cent in awe of Proust. Rather - and perhaps this is inevitable given the size of the work - from what I've heard so far, the narrative is something of a curate's egg.

Of course, there is so much that is so good. In the first chapter the things that stood out most for me were:

a) the evocation of a traveller setting out in the dark:

"... j'entendais le sifflement des trains qui, plus ou moins éloigné, comme le chant d'un oiseau dans une forêt, relevant les distances, me décrivait l'étendue de la campagne déserte où le voyageur se hâte vers la station prochaine; et le petit chemin qu'il suit va être gravé dans son souvenir par l'excitation qu'il doit à des lieux nouveaux, à des actes inaccoutumés, à la causerie récente et aux adieux sous la lampe étrangère qui le suivent encore dans le silence de la nuit, à la douceur prochaine du retour."

"I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home."

b) the image of a person alone, unwell, in a country inn, thinking the ray of light under the door may be daylight and then realising, with great disappointment, that it is still actually the middle of the night and no comfort will come for hours:

" Bientôt minuit. C'est l'instant où le malade, qui a été obligé de partir en voyage et a dû coucher dans un hôtel inconnu, réveillé par une crise, se réjouit en apercevant sous la porte une raie de jour. Quel bonheur, c'est déjà le matin! Dans un moment les domestiques seront levés, il pourra sonner, on viendra lui porter secours. L'espérance d'être soulagé lui donne du courage pour souffrir. Justement il a cru entendre des pas; les pas se rapprochent, puis s'éloignent. Et la raie de jour qui était sous sa porte a disparu. C'est minuit; on vient d'éteindre le gaz; le dernier domestique est parti et il faudra rester toute la nuit à souffrir sans remède."

"Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under his bedroom door. Oh, joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help."

c) the comments about the grandmother's choice of artworks - preferring photographs of works of art depicting Venice to mere photographs of Venice et cetera - and generally the details of an old bourgeois household with Bohemian glass nightlights and Siena marble fireplaces is wonderfully evocative:

"En réalité, elle ne se résignait jamais à rien acheter dont on ne pût tirer un profit intellectuel, et surtout celui que nous procurent les belles choses en nous apprenant à chercher notre plaisir ailleurs que dans les satisfactions du bien-être et de la vanité. Même quand elle avait à faire à quelqu'un un cadeau dit utile, quand elle avait à donner un fauteuil, des couverts, une canne, elle les cherchait «anciens», comme si leur longue désuétude ayant effacé leur caractère d'utilité, ils paraissaient plutôt disposés pour nous raconter la vie des hommes d'autrefois que pour servir aux besoins de la nôtre. Elle eût aimé que j'eusse dans ma chambre des photographies des monuments ou des paysages les plus beaux. Mais au moment d'en faire l'emplette, et bien que la chose représentée eût une valeur esthétique, elle trouvait que la vulgarité, l'utilité reprenaient trop vite leur place dans le mode mécanique de représentation, la photographie. Elle essayait de ruser et sinon d'éliminer entièrement la banalité commerciale, du moins de la réduire, d'y substituer pour la plus grande partie de l'art encore, d'y introduire comme plusieurs «épaisseurs» d'art: au lieu de photographies de la Cathédrale de Chartres, des Grandes Eaux de Saint-Cloud, du Vésuve, elle se renseignait auprès de Swann si quelque grand peintre ne les avait pas représentés, et préférait me donner des photographies de la Cathédrale de Chartres par Corot, des Grandes Eaux de Saint-Cloud par Hubert Robert, du Vésuve par Turner, ce qui faisait un degré d'art de plus. Mais si le photographe avait été écarté de la représentation du chef-d'œuvre ou de la nature et remplacé par un grand artiste, il reprenait ses droits pour reproduire cette interprétation même. Arrivée à l'échéance de la vulgarité, ma grand'mère tâchait de la reculer encore. Elle demandait à Swann si l'œuvre n'avait pas été gravée, préférant, quand c'était possible, des gravures anciennes et ayant encore un intérêt au delà d'elles-mêmes, par exemple celles qui représentent un chef-d'œuvre dans un état où nous ne pouvons plus le voir aujourd'hui (comme la gravure de la Cène de Léonard avant sa dégradation, par Morgan). Il faut dire que les résultats de cette manière de comprendre l'art de faire un cadeau ne furent pas toujours très brillants. L'idée que je pris de Venise d'après un dessin du Titien qui est censé avoir pour fond la lagune, était certainement beaucoup moins exacte que celle que m'eussent donnée de simples photographies. On ne pouvait plus faire le compte à la maison, quand ma grand'tante voulait dresser un réquisitoire contre ma grand'mère, des fauteuils offerts par elle à de jeunes fiancés ou à de vieux époux, qui, à la première tentative qu'on avait faite pour s'en servir, s'étaient immédiatement effondrés sous le poids d'un des destinataires. Mais ma grand'mère aurait cru mesquin de trop s'occuper de la solidité d'une boiserie où se distinguaient encore une fleurette, un sourire, quelquefois une belle imagination du passé. Même ce qui dans ces meubles répondait à un besoin, comme c'était d'une façon à laquelle nous ne sommes plus habitués, la charmait comme les vieilles manières de dire où nous voyons une métaphore, effacée, dans notre moderne langage, par l'usure de l'habitude. Or, justement, les romans champêtres de George Sand qu'elle me donnait pour ma fête, étaient pleins ainsi qu'un mobilier ancien, d'expressions tombées en désuétude et redevenues imagées, comme on n'en trouve plus qu'à la campagne. Et ma grand'mère les avait achetés de préférence à d'autres comme elle eût loué plus volontiers une propriété où il y aurait eu un pigeonnier gothique ou quelqu'une de ces vieilles choses qui exercent sur l'esprit une heureuse influence en lui donnant la nostalgie d'impossibles voyages dans le temps."

"The truth was that she could never make up her mind to purchase anything from which no intellectual profit was to be derived, and, above all, that profit which good things bestowed on us by teaching us to seek our pleasures elsewhere than in the barren satisfaction of worldly wealth. Even when she had to make some one a present of the kind called 'useful,' when she had to give an armchair or some table-silver or a walking-stick, she would choose 'antiques,' as though their long desuetude had effaced from them any semblance of utility and fitted them rather to instruct us in the lives of the men of other days than to serve the common requirements of our own. She would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or of beautiful places. But at the moment of buying them, and for all that the subject of the picture had an aesthetic value of its own, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography. She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether their commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to substitute for the bulk of it what was art still, to introduce, as it might be, several 'thicknesses' of art; instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius she would inquire of Swann whether some great painter had not made pictures of them, and preferred to give me photographs of 'Chartres Cathedral' after Corot, of the 'Fountains of Saint-Cloud' after Hubert Robert, and of 'Vesuvius' after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art. But although the photographer had been prevented from reproducing directly the masterpieces or the beauties of nature, and had there been replaced by a great artist, he resumed his odious position when it came to reproducing the artist's interpretation. Accordingly, having to reckon again with vulgarity, my grandmother would endeavour to postpone the moment of contact still further. She would ask Swann if the picture had not been engraved, preferring, when possible, old engravings with some interest of association apart from themselves, such, for example, as shew us a masterpiece in a state in which we can no longer see it to-day, as Morghen's print of the 'Cenacolo' of Leonardo before it was spoiled by restoration. It must be admitted that the results of this method of interpreting the art of making presents were not always happy. The idea which I formed of Venice, from a drawing by Titian which is supposed to have the lagoon in the background, was certainly far less accurate than what I have since derived from ordinary photographs. We could no longer keep count in the family (when my great-aunt tried to frame an indictment of my grandmother) of all the armchairs she had presented to married couples, young and old, which on a first attempt to sit down upon them had at once collapsed beneath the weight of their recipient. But my grandmother would have thought it sordid to concern herself too closely with the solidity of any piece of furniture in which could still be discerned a flourish, a smile, a brave conceit of the past. And even what in such pieces supplied a material need, since it did so in a manner to which we are no longer accustomed, was as charming to her as one of those old forms of speech in which we can still see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by the rough usage of our modern tongue. In precisely the same way the pastoral novels of George Sand, which she was giving me for my birthday, were regular lumber-rooms of antique furniture, full of expressions that have fallen out of use and returned as imagery, such as one finds now only in country dialects. And my grandmother had bought them in preference to other books, just as she would have preferred to take a house that had a gothic dovecot, or some other such piece of antiquity as would have a pleasant effect on the mind, filling it with a nostalgic longing for impossible journeys through the realms of time."

On the other hand the bit about half waking and imagining a woman is possibly there in the bed - "une femme naissait pendant mon sommeil d'une fausse position de ma cuisse" - didn't work for me and reminded me of Auden's comments on dishonesty in writing.

Also, the statement that "un homme qui dort tient en cercle autour de lui le fil des heures, l'ordre des annees et des mondes" seems to me questionable and possibly meaningless.

Finally, the mention of "la narine retive", in the context of waking in the dark, strained me a bit. It is translated as "nostrils sniffing uneasily", but it strikes me as an awkward phrase that seems more applicable to the behaviour of rabbits than humans.

All the same, I stand in awe of the concentration of detail Proust gathers together to represent an individual perception of reality. Has anyone ever paid such attention to being?

When I finish another chapter I will report back on further marvels - and any little infelicities my nitpicking meanspirited nature insists on leaving unignored.