Archive for September, 2019

Completing the set

“Why seems it so particular with thee?”

Poor Gertrude never could understand. Why is someone else so bothered by something when it doesn’t bother me? We are all like that, if we’re honest with ourselves. Our own hobbyhorses we take seriously, but other peoples’ are … well, they’re a bit silly, aren’t they? There’s our boy getting worked up because he has got the tiniest dent in his trombone. Look, I explain to him, the dent is so small one can hardly see it with the naked eye; and what’s more, it doesn’t affect the sound. Why seems it so particular with thee? Or there’s my wife worrying about some pot plant that, despite all the care and attention and watering it could possibly ask for, seems quite clearly to be on its last legs. It’s only a pot plant, I explain sagely; why seems it so particular with thee? Get another bloody pot plant when this one dies!

Well, actually, no – I don’t say that. I’m not quite the insensitive yob I sometimes make myself out to be. But I’d be lying if I were to say I didn’t think it. However, regardless of what I may or may not have said, my wife knows me well enough by now to know that I was thinking it. And …

But let’s not go there. The point, I think, has been amply demonstrated: if something doesn’t particularly bother us, we think it unreasonable that it should bother anyone else.

When I was a lad, I remember, we – that is, all the other boys in my class, the girls being too sensible for this sort of thing – used to collect football cards. Small packets containing a bit of bubble gum, and three pictures of footballers then playing in the league. And it was vitally important to get the whole set. I remember still the disappointment when I opened a newly purchased packet, and found that I already had the cards it contained. Of course, I could try to swap them for others I didn’t have, but it wasn’t always easy to get the ones I was missing. And my mother, I remember, was a bit nonplussed by all this. “Why seems it so particular with thee?” she asked. Or she would have done had she affected a Shakespearean diction.

Or take what happened to me recently. We were out shopping, when I happened to chance upon a reflection of myself in a shop window, and found, to my horror, that I had a few grey hairs in my moustache all congregated together right under my left nostril, and making it look for all the world as if I had forgotten to blow my nose. And I couldn’t get this thought out of my mind. Passers-by, I imagined, were all staring at me, and, I’m sure, shunning me, not wishing, understandably, to come close to some dirty bugger with semi-liquid snot dribbling all down his moustache. And it is not vanity that made me want to go home immediately and apply the scissors to the offending grey hairs. My wife told me I was being too sensitive, and that no-one was thinking what I thought they were thinking. But I could tell by the look in their eyes that they did. Once again, why seemed it so particular with me?

More recently – to return this post to a suitably literary theme – I reported on my failure to appreciate Dante. Fine, people told me. We can’t all like everything. Shrug your shoulders and move on. But once again, I can’t. Over the years, I have come into contact with many of the major pillars of the Western literary traditions. Shakespeare I guess I’m a bit obsessed with; Cervantes I love; I have a healthy respect and admiration for Homer and for Virgil; and I now need Dante to complete the set. Don’t ask why: I just do.

Well, tomorrow we go to Florence. Tickets are already booked for the Uffizi and the Pitti, the Accademia, San Marco, The Medici Chapel, the Brancacci Chapel, the Duomo museum, the Bargello … each costing a bloody fortune, I know, but it has to be done. And, given many of these places are closed in the afternoons, I think I’ll be spending quite a bit of time sitting in Florentine cafes. And what better place to try once again to get to grips with Dante?

Following some advice after putting up the last post, I have bought myself Prue Shaw’s introduction to the CommediaReading Dante; and I have bought (and thoroughly enjoyed) a witty comic strip rendition of Inferno, illustrated by Hunt Emerson, and with a text by Kevin Jackson. This latter purchase may not, perhaps, have enhanced my understanding as such, but it was a genuine pleasure to encounter erudition so lightly-worn, and such affection and respect displayed without a trace of pomposity or hushed-tone reverence. And as for the former, I have been glued to this all last weekend. Enthusiasm is such an infectious thing! I find myself happy just to see someone’s enthusiasm, even enthusiasms I may happen not to share.

Dante

With football cards, I never did get the whole lot. It is now my belief that they used deliberately to withhold a few footballers to encourage kids to spend more pennies trying to complete the set. Bastards. But this is a different matter entirely. Tomorrow morning, we fly to Florence, and damned if I don’t get Dante this time. Why seems it so particular with me? Nay, it is – I know not seems.

Notes on a failure

If one is given to speaking in clichés, I suppose one could say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s even worse than that with me: I love my old tricks so much that I see little reason these days to put myself to the trouble of learning new ones. But I do keep trying, really I do.

Until a few years ago, I had not read anything by Dante. Then, feeling (quite rightly) that someone claiming to be interested in literary culture – especially the literary culture of the Western world, in which I live and in which I have grown up – really should have some acquaintance at least with one of the major pillars of that culture, I bought myself Robin Kirkpatrick’s very highly rated translation of the Commedia. It came with copious and scholarly notes (which I read avidly); and it was a dual language edition, so I could look across to the other page and discover for myself at least something of Dante’s verbal music.

First of all, I read the Inferno. Naturally. And I even wrote a post about it here on this blog, pretending – or, maybe, trying to convince myself – that I got something out of it. Reading that post over, it was a fine attempt: I think I really did manage to convince myself, at least up to a point, that I was getting something of that literary exaltation that I never doubted the Commedia could inspire in its readers. However, that was eight years ago, and only recently have I returned to fulfil that promise I had then made to myself to read the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. And I did so in the hope that in those eight years, I may have matured sufficiently to respond to this work. So once again I picked Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation, once again I pored over those splendid introductory essays and long and detailed notes; once again I glanced across to the Italian text to hear some of Dante’s verbal music. And once again, I am sorry to report, I failed.

Let me make it clear right away that I am not commenting here on Dante, but on myself. I had hoped to raise the intellectual profile of this blog by writing a few posts on the Commedia, but there is little point in pretending I have anything to say about the work that could possibly be of interest to anyone: so I find myself reporting instead on my own failure. I am sure that, even in translation, the Commedia can strike rich, powerful, and resonant chords in the minds of readers. The problem is that I seem to be lacking many of the notes that make up these chords. And I really am curious to know what those notes may be that I am missing. Such knowledge probably won’t, it is true, enhance my appreciation of Dante, but it may perhaps enhance my understanding of myself.

In the meantime, I am wondering how best to spend my reading time. Should I go back to those immense masterworks that are already permanent fixtures in my mind – King Lear, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and the like – but where I know there are even greater depths to plumb? Or should I force this old dog to learn a few new tricks, and immerse myself in Dante in the hope that it may eventually penetrate through my thick skull? Or, maybe, I should just say “to hell with it all”, and settle back in my armchair with a warming dram of whisky in one hand, and a volume of the kind of good, creepy ghost stories that I so love in the other. I’d like to do all three, to be honest. The problem is not really finding the time, as such: the problem is striking a reasonable balance.

In the meantime, if there is anyone out there who dearly loves the Commedia, and can give me, not necessarily a scholarly exegesis (there is no shortage on that score), but, better, a personal account of what this great poem means to them, and why, then I shall be extremely grateful. I do know there are, and have been across the ages, a great many extremely intelligent and discerning people for whom Dante’s Commedia is, and has been, life-enhancing. In one of the most moving and unforgettable passages of If This is a Man, Primo Levi tells us how, even in the death camp of Auschwitz, a few lines of Dante suddenly seemed to him to be of inestimable value. And I find myself thinking: whatever it is that admirers get from the Commedia, I want some of it.

“The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” by M. R. James

Although dreams can terrify even the most rational and down-to-earth people, they haven’t really featured in ghost stories as much as might have been expected; and when they do feature, the effect, to my mind at least, is often less than satisfactory. This is perhaps because we feel reassured if the author tells us beforehand that what we are reading is but a dream; and if the author only reveals that fact to us afterwards, we feel cheated. The trick, of course, is to blur the distinction between dream and reality, but this is a difficult trick to pull off. And I cannot think of a better instance of an author “pulling it off” than one of M. R. James’ lesser-known stories, the rather prosaically, and, indeed, some may argue, clumsily titled “A Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”.

James made a virtue of the prosaic. The narrative voice is solid and low key, matter-of-fact, eschewing any sense of fantasy or flight of fancy, linguistic or otherwise. A voice belonging to a man whose feet are so firmly planted on the ground that it is inconceivable that he could be taken in by that which is not. Such a narrator may not inspire much affection, but he inspires trust. And he presents a world that is solid, that is very recognisable – perhaps drearily recognisable – as the world that we, the readers, inhabit. Edgar Allan Poe famously started one of his stories with “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief”. But James promises us no wildness, and certainly both expects and solicits belief. For some readers, this makes James’ stories somewhat dry; but for aficionados (such as myself), it lures us into a world so solid that when the cracks in reality do appear, they shock. Our sense of equilibrium is all the more disturbed because James has gone to such lengths to establish that sense of equilibrium in the first place.

Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of this particular story:

The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of question.

The only point which they do not make clear is the identity of the writer. He signs with initials only, and as none of the envelopes of the letters are preserved, the surname of his correspondent—obviously a married brother—is as obscure as his own. No further preliminary explanation is needed, I think. Luckily the first letter supplies all that could be expected.

Yes, a ghost story is promised, but that’s a minor concession since readers are expecting one anyway. As for the rest, it reads like a professional note that might have been written by an accountant or a solicitor.

But if James does not promise us wildness, he promises no homeliness either. Of course, that is in part due to expectations: we all come to an M. R. James story expecting the supernatural, and one can’t unexpect that. Indeed, much of the pleasure lies in noting how insidiously the supernatural makes its presence felt, first glimpsed, in James’ own words, in “the corner of the retina”, but then, increasingly more insistently to the fore. True, he never quite takes us all the way, but then again, he doesn’t need to. For instance, at the climactic point of this story (without giving too much away), a corpse is discovered, and James gives us the following:

[The] body was found, with a sack over the head, the throat horribly mangled. It was a peaked corner of the sack sticking out of the soil that attracted attention. I cannot bring myself to write in greater detail.

I can, of course, speak only for myself, but I cannot imagine even the most explicit description being more unsettling than James’ finely judged reticence.

In any case, it is the journey, not the end, that most menaces the mind. And, to make its full effect, this journey needs to be immaculately paced. And it is in the pacing that James, for me, was in a class of his own. Others may have equalled or even surpassed him in ingenuity of plotting, or intensity of imagination; others have certainly written more memorable prose. But when it comes to pacing out the material for maximum effect, for knowing when precisely to drop hints and when, as it were, to open the gates, James seems to me unsurpassed.

This story, after its terse introductory paragraphs, consists of four letters written by an unnamed writer, and dated from December 22nd to December 26th, 1837. The first letter is almost as terse and as matter-of-fact as the opening paragraphs: it lays out the expository facts as clearly and as succinctly as possible. The writer, unnamed, has come to an unnamed town or village, after his uncle, the rector of the local church, has mysteriously disappeared. The second letter is somewhat longer, and, as well as giving us a bit more expository information, unobtrusively conveys the atmosphere of the grey winter countryside, and of the provincial inn in which the narrator stays, deserted (we assume, since no other guest is mentioned) over Christmas.

It is in the third and fourth letters that the elements of supernatural terror, only hinted at earlier, start making their presence felt ever more insistently. The third letter is mostly taken up with the description of a nightmare the narrator has on Christmas Eve, and I can think of nothing I have read, wither within or without genre literature, that more vividly captures the unreal and disembodied ambience of a dream. The narrator finds himself watching a traditional Punch and Judy Show, but the setting isn’t described – not because the narrator hasn’t noticed it, but because it isn’t there: there is no setting.

It began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness…

As the puppet show proceeds, it becomes increasingly violent. Of course, Punch and Judy Shows were (as far as I am aware) violent anyway, but the violence here, far from being slapstick, or in the mode of black comedy, begins to seem all too real:

The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

Once again, I can speak only for myself, but I find these lines as unsettling as anything I have read in supernatural literature. That detail of the victims “quivering and kicking” seems all the more horrible given the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone. Whatever else this may be, this is no mere puppet show, and nor is this merely a dream.

Soon, we seem not to be in a dream at all, but in real life. The partition between the oneiric and the real, never too solid to begin with, seems all of a sudden to disappear. Once again, I cannot claim to speak for any other reader: all I can say is that I, as a reader, find this whole passage uniquely disturbing.

If the dream sequence in the third letter tells of a dream that seems to slip into the real, in the fourth and final letter, the narrator witnesses a real puppet show that seems to slip into the regions of dream. Or, more accurately, into nightmare. But it would be unfair to reveal more: I fear I have revealed too much as it is.

There is much in this story that, in terms of plot, isn’t clear. But it doesn’t need to be. The interest is not in the mechanics of plot: James was little concerned with that. It is not a story that yields much to the reasoning mind: it is, quite deliberately, enigmatic to a degree that is unusual even in James’ output. But what I think it does convey is a sense of creeping dread, a sense of the presence of something too hideous to be apprehended, too horrific to be articulated, that is just beyond our field of vision.

This is not one of James’ better-known stories, but it is one that perhaps haunts my mind more than most others. While others convey what James himself termed a “pleasing terror” – and I am not averse to pleasing terrors at all: far from it – this one, in particular, seems to convey something else, something that I find genuinely unsettling.

Or maybe it’s just me.

A challenge

I have picked out two passages from an article which appeared in today’s edition of The Guardian. And I would like to set a challenge for readers of this blog:

Could you pack more patronising nonsense into fewer words?

A virtual pint for anyone who can.

For others, such as early years writer Juliet Mickelburgh, there is a worry that more “middle-class” art forms, such as classical music, could be over-emphasised at the expense of, say, rap music. “Is there a danger that working-class culture could be seen as inferior to middle-class culture?” Mickelburgh asks.

 

The teacher blogger Jen Beaton has written that “cultural capital” suggests “white, middle-class paternalism” and an older generation looking down its nose at Stormzy in favour of Mozart. The reality is that students bring their own cultural capital to lessons and that teachers can learn from them, too, she says.