Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Invisible plot twists...

Last night I read Stefan Zweig’s short story, ‘The Invisible Collection’, prompted in part by the mini ‘Zweig Controversy’ that seems to have broken out in the wake of Michael Hofmann’s splendidly vituperous attack a couple of months ago in the London Review of Books. There’s a pretty lazy article by Nicholas Lezard on the Guardian referring to this and pretending to make some sort of rather watery rebuttal of Hofmann’s argument (why are the Guardian's 'culture' pages so consistently shoddy?). I haven’t read enough Zweig to lean either way. Reading ‘The Invisible Collection’, though, I had the sense that there was a particular twist in the plot missing, and that as a result of its absence the story fell flat.

Subtitled ‘An Episode of the Inflation Period in Germany’, the story is framed by an encounter on a train, and recounts how a dealer in art and antiques journeys into the countryside of Saxony to visit a former customer, a collector of old prints, in the hope of purchasing from him some wares for his near-empty shop. Upon the dealer’s arrival, the old man, who is now blind, offers to show the dealer his wonderful collection, flattered by his interest. The old man’s wife, however, extremely flustered, intervenes, suggesting that the dealer may have other engagements and should come back after lunch. The dealer, picking up something of the intent of her piteous glances, agrees. While he is in the dining room of his hotel, the couple’s elderly daughter comes to him and explains that the family have had to sell the old man’s prints one by one in order to feed both him and themselves, substituting them, each time, with sheets of cartridge paper of equivalent size and weight. This they have done so that when, as is his wont, he pulls out the folders and runs his fingers over the prints, recalling their clarity and beauty, he will not realize that his beloved collection is dispersed. On her mother’s behalf, the daughter begs the dealer to go along with the deception. This he agrees to do, and, when he returns to their simple dwelling in the afternoon, he seconds the old man’s praise of prints by Dürer and Rembrandt on what are in fact blank sheets of paper. The deception goes off without a hitch, the old man drinks up the dealer’s words of praise for his collection, and the old women are delighted to see him in a state of near-ecstasy. The dealer leaves as, in his own words, ‘a sort of angel of good-luck, lying like a trooper in order to assist in a fraud which kept the old man happy’ (35). And so the story ends, with the dealer setting out for home and old man wishing him on his way in reinvigorated tones.

The twist I was expecting which never came was that of the old man having been fully aware of the deception being practiced upon him from the start, but going along with it for the sake of his family and their desire not to cause him pain. There is nothing in the story that explicitly makes such an interpretation impossible, although it’s a reading that has no support in the text - it is undoubtedly an ‘improper’ reading, even an ‘inadmissable’ one, yet now that it has once come into my head, I find it impossible to let go of the conviction that the cheerful face with which the old man sees the dealer in art and antiques on his way is a mask, perhaps concealing a truer joy at having successfully gone along with a deception that keeps his family happy in their conviction of not having shattered a happiness of his own.

As for what is to be done with such idiosyncratic readings, and what in this case it means for the/my evaluation of Zweig, I’ve not much of an idea. On the one hand, my perverse reading seems to point to a coming short in the tale, but on the other, the tale itself suggested it. I’m not sure this is what Simon Jarvis means when he says the following, but Jarvis’s essay on ‘Prosody as Cognition’, from which this is taken, is so interesting that I’m happy to crowbar it in anyhow. Jarvis is interested in ‘a rethinking of the place of idiosyncrasy in the experience of poetry’:

the truth about such experience cannot be reached by trimming off what are thought of as the merely private extras. This kind of route to supposed objectivity starts with some individual shudder of experience – as when the thought that I should have been a pair of ragged claws | Scuttling across the floor of silent seas flits half-noticed across the cerebral cortex of one participating in some grim festival of functions – and then deletes the contingent, the accidental, or the merely personal. It thus deletes, in the event, everything about that experience which makes it an experience: in bracketing out the festival of functions, the functions themselves, and whatever else in the moment should be thought to pertain only to this single point in space-time, it presents a mutilated rump known as ‘the effect of the metre upon the reader’. Here is the experience ‘the’ ‘reader’ as mechanical doll, in which the range of experiences which readers historically have had, are having, and might have, much know themselves for their own silly and quite private idiocies, and so must measure their lack against this timeless, placeless zombie.

More on Jarvis’s line of thought here to follow soon, probably…

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


Jerome McGann has written admiringly of Kathy Acker’s argument that ‘The demand for an adequate mode of expression is senseless’, identifying it as a less polite version of Laura Riding’s representatively modernist lapse of faith in poetry as art. ‘Adequate’, as he points out, reaches right back to Matthew Arnold’s inaugural lecture in the Poetry Chair at Oxford (1857), throughout which forms of the word ‘adequate’ recur. There it defines the determinate characteristic for Arnold of ‘the Modern Element in Literature’: ‘adequacy, and the “intellectual deliverance” it is supposed to bring’ (McGann 2009: 131). Both Riding and Acker (from positions, as it were, respectively above and below normative cultural institutions) judge the demand for an adequate mode of expression to be problematic ab initio. So far, so good. But the notion that this is something new and revolutionary seems to me extremely dubious. It’s there implicitly in Petrarchan poetry, to name just one place. It is perhaps most evident in the use of adynaton, the rhetorical figure which draws attention to the failure of expression in order to express strong emotion. As Huw Griffiths notes, in the England of Elizabeth’s ‘second reign’, one of the genres that makes habitual use of adynaton is lyric verse, and in particular Petrarchan poetry. Griffiths cites a witty example from the third book of Sidney’s Old Arcadia. This opens, bawdily enough:

What tongue can her perfections tell
In whose each part all pens may dwell?

before proceeding over 140 lines to give an extended, comprehensive blazon of every ‘part’ of the woman’s beauty, concluding

As I began, so must I end:
No tongue can her perfections tell,
In whose each part all pens may dwell

Griffiths argues that Sidney’s use of adynaton here serves to comment ironically on the inadequacies of language and the impoverishment of the Petrarchan tradition, claiming more broadly that as a rhetorical figure it can offer the reader a critique of the language being used, exploring its limitations. Its users can deploy it to indicate their scepticism about their own rhetorical strategies. Adynaton clearly has relatively localized rhetorical uses, but in Petrarch, the best Petrarchists - and perhaps, sticking my neck out, implicitly wherever it is used – it points to the ultimate incommensurability of language with the real. Of course, it remains to be shown that this is so, and I’m still not sure that pushing together these two fragments from my recent reading for teaching and for the thesis respectively isn’t wholly missing the/a point. Ah well, if nothing else I’ve added to my shamefully limited lexicon of rhetorical terms.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


This is something I started to write for the blog last year, and abandoned. Perhaps rightly.


I’ve been trying to snatch moments between coaxing the thesis along and working on the journal to read up more on Cezanne. Our deadline for submissions for the next issue having just passed, bringing with it a rush of tasks, this hasn’t been easy, especially when combined with making urgent decisions about moving or not moving house. I have at least worked out what I want to read when I can, though. More so than Courtauld’s (see blog entries below) the true modernist encounter with Cezanne (leaving aside actual painters, of course) was perhaps that of Rilke. As for Courtauld (and for me, nel mio piccolo), Cezanne’s art seems to have revealed itself to Rilke in a kind of epiphany, only after he had already been grappling with it for some time. When that moment came, Rilke believed himself able at last to see Cezanne's paintings because, as he put it, “I had just reached it [the turning point] in my own work or had at least come close to it somehow, after having been ready for a long time, for the one thing which so much depends upon”. For Rilke, Cezanne was starting afresh from the bottom up, clearing away the sentimental stylisations of the visible that clogged so much contemporary art. There is an interesting, more detailed discussion of Rilke’s engagement with Cezanne by Michael Heller, here.

Cezanne's favourite poem was Baudelaire's ‘La charogne’ (‘Carrion’), where dead flesh is made beautiful. Rilke dwells on this in one of his letters.

Here are the first three stanzas of Baudelaire’s poem:

Rappelez-vous l'objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d'été si doux:
Au détour d'un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux,
Les jambes en l'air, comme une femme lubrique,
Brûlante et suant les poisons,
Ouvrait d'une façon nonchalante et cynique
Son ventre plein d'exhalaisons.

Le soleil rayonnait sur cette pourriture,
Comme afin de la cuire à point,
Et de rendre au centuple à la grande Nature
Tout ce qu'ensemble elle avait joint

And here’s Roy Campbell’s translation of those stanzas:

The object that we saw, let us recall,
This summer morn when warmth and beauty mingle —
At the path's turn, a carcase lay asprawl
Upon a bed of shingle.
Legs raised, like some old whore far-gone in passion,
The burning, deadly, poison-sweating mass
Opened its paunch in careless, cynic fashion,
Ballooned with evil gas.
On this putrescence the sun blazed in gold,
Cooking it to a turn with eager care —
So to repay to Nature, hundredfold,
What she had mingled there.
There have been at least four translations into English of this poem (you can see them here) and
probably many more. Of the four I looked at, Roy Campbell’s was the only one I could go for once I got to line five. The other translations of “Les jambes en l'air, comme une femme lubrique” are “Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman” (William Aggeler); “Its legs raised like a whore's in lubric play” (Jacques LeClercq); and “Legs in the air, like a lascivious woman” (Geoffrey Wagner). The first is hopelessly colourless, and the third is similarly anaemic and lacking in any emulation of the rhythmic thrust of the original. The second is better. Does ‘lubric’ sound overly medical-scientific? Would ‘lubricious’ be better, and has he gone for lubric to keep meter? Reading it again, perhaps I’m being unfair – maybe ‘lubric’ works well precisely because of the coupling of its vicinity to ‘ludic’ with its coldblooded gynaecological feel. But what I really like about Campbell’s, and what the others throw into relief, is how the very fall of the line contains and communicates an excess of wearied comprehension that cannot overwrite physical shock. This is prosody as cognition: the shorter, obscenely jutting phrase before the comma, then the drawn-out, far-gone after, stretching the line out to a hendecasyllable. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

I know how hard this is to get right – I had to go back and look at my own translation of Elsa Morante’s poetry the other day, and it is painfully poor, full of moments as bad as any of these, and others far worse: I really repent of having let myself be persuaded into going ahead with publishing it before I was happy with it, or even properly knew why we were doing so. That said, the decision was entirely my own – I don’t want to give the impression I was bounced into anything. But even back then, though I knew it wasn’t ready, I wasn’t aware of how clunking it was: and on the other hand it’s probably true that I might never have let it be published at all if not then. And different kinds of translation serve different purposes: I suppose the LeClercq translation of ‘La charogne’ might perhaps be best for someone such as myself, with extremely dubious French, trying to grapple with the original. But as a poem in English that also gives you something of an idea of how the French might be, the Campbell stands out. It’s the only one that sounds remotely English. The Morante translation I think now, is not really a translation at all; at best it’s a useful crib for the reader with shaky Italian.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

on the flyleaves of inexistent tomes

Following on from my last entry, a couple of people have suggested their dream books, to sit on the shelf alongside Baxandall's On Memory: Tottel's Miscellany and G. K. Chesterton's introductory guide to Lacan. And then I thought of Ken Cockburn's poem 'On the Flyleaf of Jack Kerouac's Kidnapped', which imagines Kerouac in Scotland with Norman MacCaig:

Kerouac took to the Rose Street scene
like a duck to water, except water
was the last thing on anybody's mind.

But he quickly tired of the confines of 'Auld Reekie'.

It was MacCaig who opened him up to the mountains
on those legendary drives to the far north-west
on endless late-June nights [...]

A note to the poem refers the reader to Thomas A. Clark's 'The University of Pittenweem, Library of Scottish Culture', in Alec Finlay's The Libraries of Thought & Imagination. I'm going to look this up at the library in the next few days (if this stinking cold eases up). But wherever the idea comes from, the poem's presence in a collection of poems all written (so their titles assure us) 'on the flyleaf' of real books, such as Stendhal's La Chartreuse de Parma or a monograph on Yves Klein, throws those works too into a shimmering fictional - or at least factitious - realm.

Anyway, if anyone else has good made-up tomes of either sort (that is, books never written by real authors, or 'what-ifs' combining authors and titles along the lines of Cockburn's poem/Clark's library) I'd love to hear them - if I get enough I'll try to put them together in a post (all attributed, of course!).

Saturday, 27 February 2010

A Declaration of Intent, and lines from Chartres/Dunfermline

I hereby declare this blog open for business again. Perhaps having an even more ludicrous amount to do (by my own procrastinatory, layabout standards, anyway) will actually get me writing here again. I had a few posts drafted and ready to go when I drifted into silence after that crashing victory for Spurs at Wigan, but was never quite happy with them, so held back. The anxiety of publishing, and a rabid, doomed perfectionism (doomed given my lethargic nature) - just what I started this blog to get over. So, nothing much for this post, but more, I hope, to come.

And in fact, so as not to begin again with a complete lack of anything remotely stimulating, a few lines read a few days ago in Dunfermline, with snow driving horizontally outside and my anvil eyelids propped up:

I went to Chartres for windows: angled my neck
to the stained light.
You did your cathedral thing: merged with the oak pew;
Lowered your lids over eyes as blue as the glass.

They stood out enough then for me to jot them down, but now seem like nothing special, banal even. But perhaps putting them up here again I'll see it again, if not now then later; or perhaps someone elsewe'll see something in them. They're by Dorothy Molloy, from a poem called 'Chacun à son goût' - they might even be the whole poem, now I can't remember, and the book was my father's, a Bloodaxe (?) anthology of new Irish poets, so right now I can't check.

If there's anything worth saying here (and I doubt there is, or at least that I'm saying it) it's how little time we tend to spend thinking - or at least writing - about this kind of reading experience, the text that seizes us at a particular moment, that assumes a luminosity as we drop into sleep that seems quite gone when we awake.

That reminds me of something else. The other night, in a particularly fevered state of anxiety over the thesis (although nothing like pre-Berlin days) I dreamed a whole library shelf of phantasmagorical titles of books I must look up and read. When I woke up I could only remember one: Michael Baxandall, On Memory: Tottel's Miscellany. If only it existed. And then, a day or so later, I had the urge to call my thesis something like Sonnet Sequences and Aesthetic Distinction, as a sort of antagonistic homage to Christopher Warley's Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction. He has a great piece on his blog, which takes Italian email addresses (specifically the '@', the chiocciola, or snail) as its slithering-off point - although it's perhaps not ideal reading for a timid blogger tentatively sticking his antlers back out into the pseudo-public blogosphere for the first time in months. Still, his idea of a slog - a slow-reading blog - is one I like. And I like too what he says about what English professors are for. I'm extrapolating from that to what GTAs - in what ought to be the final throes of writing-up - are for, too.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Hull 1 - 5 Tottenham Hotspurs

Philip Larkin! David Whitfield! John Prescott! Maureen Lipman! Andrew Marvell! Can you hear me, Andy Marvell! Your boys took one hell of a beating! Your boys took one hell of a beating!

Defoe (10, 45, 90+4)
Palacios (14)
Keane (78)

(I know almost no one likely to read this will appreciate it, but just couldn't help myself....)

Friday, 7 August 2009

L'Etang des Soeurs Osny

Visiting the Coutauld Gallery over the weekend (a couple of weekends ago now - this should have gone up before) I 'got' Cezanne, or felt like I did, for the first time. Cezanne, for me, has always had an aura about him as the philosopher's artist (specifically, Merleau-Ponty's). As a philosophy undergraduate who knew only this, but couldn't get any visceral purchase on his work, even after reading Merleau-Ponty's essay 'Cezanne's Doubt', I always felt intimidated by it, and this probably obscured it from me even further. The short, grouped, sloping brush strokes in a lot of the paintings didn't cohere, yet at the same time were too solid, not gesticulatory enough to leave the eye free to impart movement to the images, as paintings by other impressionists and post-impressionists did. I was so frustrated by my sense of wholly missing something, and something important, that I nearly chose to write my undergraduate thesis on M-P and Cezanne, in order to get at what it was I wasn't getting. Walking into the second room of the Courtauld, though, not yet really properly tuned in to looking at pictures, this one grabbed hold of me before I'd had a chance to think about it.

The painting shows a view of a footpath running along the banks of a wooded pond, and was painted while Cezanne was visiting Pissarro in Osny. This reproduction inevitably doesn't do the painting justice, but what is especially muddied is the deep glittering clarity of the water, and the weight of the shadows in the foreground, which give the painting much more of a layered property than is clear here. The depth - as I wandered into the room, I dropped into the painting's planes, and didn't want to clamber out. Now I shall have to go back and read Merleau-Ponty again. I know that probably nothing I've written here suggests that I've 'got' Cezanne at all: it would be better to say that a Cezanne got me.

The Courtauld is my favourite gallery in London, despite its being next door to King's. Samuel Courtauld played a vital role in the reception of Cezanne in Britain. Cezanne was controversial in England in the 1920s. In May 1922 the Burlington Fine Arts Club mounted an exhibition, 'The French School of the Last Hundred Years', which brought about a significant change in attitudes towards the post-impressionists, and Cezanne in particular. It was here, apparently, that Courtauld was 'converted' to Cezanne's art, describing how 'at that moment I felt the magic, and I have felt it in Cezanne's work ever since'. It was uncanny reading of Courtauld's conversion just after experiencing my own. Another modernist encounter (Courtauld's, not mine), perhaps not quite up there with Eliot's poking at people with his umbrella during the premier of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, but still telling.

Much much more to be said on this, and much better, but as ever, the thesis calls.