Archive for November 15th, 2019

A November prospectus

In traditional Indian music, each raga is associated with a time of day, or season of year, and I wonder sometimes whether the same can apply to books. A Blandings Castle story by Wodehouse, say, or Fielding’s Tom Jones, really needs to be read on a lazy summer afternoon, whereas creepy ghost stories or the turbulent novels of Dostoyevsky need ideally to be read on long, dark winter nights, preferably with the wind howling outside. Similarly, when the month of December comes round – seemingly more quickly with each passing year – I find myself, with dreary predictability, reaching for my Dickens. It’s not just the Christmas stories, or the seasonal celebration at Dingley Dell: even in his other works, even in his gloomiest writings, there is something about the human warmth he provides in the midst of enveloping darkness – a warmth perceptible even in the rich plum-pudding texture of his prose – that makes it ideal for this time of year.

But be that as it may, I rather fancy revisiting Little Dorrit soon. It is certainly one of his very finest novels, but, like so much of his later work, it is decidedly gloomy. That is not intended as a criticism:  I must admit I never did understand those who turn away from darker works because they find them “too depressing”. Art does not need to look at darkness if it doesn’t want to – Wodehouse never did, for instance – but when it does, and when it gives form to that darkness, then even the most depressing of content becomes transformed into something that can exhilarate. But let us keep that paradox for a later post. (Or I may have addressed it already: after so many years, it’s difficult to keep track with all I’ve spouted on here.) Let us, for now, concede that Little Dorrit is indeed a gloomy novel, with little in it (other than the richness of its prose) that may be considered conducive to Christmas cheer. But it provides cheer of a different sort – the cheer felt by those who love literature when they encounter and recognise literary value. And I want to read this now, while the season is right, so all my other reading plans can go hang.

Not that I am planning to give up on Dante – far from it. I recently read Prue Shaw’s excellent and illuminating book Reading Dante, and am reading through the Penguin collection Dante in English, edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, which traces the presence and influence of Dante in English verse from Geoffrey Chaucer right down to Seamus Heaney. The introduction, some 14 pages long, is a book in itself, and is alone worth the admission fee. Of course, I have long been aware of Dante presence in just about all European literature that followed: that in itself is hardly an eye-opener. What I want to know is what all those subsequent poets found in Dante that clearly fascinated them so, and why they chose to make themselves Dante’s heirs. And in conjunction with this, I am continuing reading through Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation, and looking into two other translations I recently purchased – one by Peter Dale, in rhyming terza rima, and the more recent translation, in rhyming quatrains rather than in tercets, by Clive James. Different translators obviously have different ideas, and so, from my own position of relative ignorance,  it makes sense to try out a variety. Both Dale and James agree that rhyme is important, but James feels that terza rima simply doesn’t work in English, whereas quatrains do. (The  only  example  I can  think of where terza rima has been successfully used in English is Shelley’s The Triumph of Life.) Dale’s rendition in rhymed terza rima does seem a tour de force, but to what extent he (and James too, for that matter) has had to compromise in order to get those rhymes I’m not really in a position to say. Kirkpatrck preserves the tercets, but not the rhymes that both Dale and James consider vital. And his edition is a dual-language edition, so I can glance over to the original, and get a feel of how it sounds. (And there are a surprising number of Italian words that I can actually understand!)

So do I like Dante now? I am asked. I am postponing answering that question. Any opinion formed without judgement to support it is, quite literally, pre judice, prejudice; and judgement requires at least a modicum of understanding. So my aim for now is, quite simply, to gain that modicum of understanding, and not worry about opinions till I have done so. There are, after all, worse things than not having an opinion.

After dividing the next few weeks between Dante and Dickens, I think I’ll focus a bit more on poetry. Like, I imagine, most readers of my generation, I have focussed far more on prose than I have on verse, and I feel I am at a stage where I have read a fair range of prose works, but nowhere near enough of poetry. Which will probably mean a slowing down, at best, of my rate of blogging: I have a reasonable idea now of how I want to write about novels and such, but have never really got my head around how I should be writing about poetry. Well, one can but try, I suppose. There will no doubt be a few bad posts to begin with, but maybe,  after a while, I could find a way of writing about poetry that may not be entirely worthless.  Maybe a change of direction is just what this blog needs.

I doubt I’ll be posting too much between now and the New Year. ’Tis the season to get drunk, after all: what with alcohol, and with Dickens and Dante, I expect to have a fine end to the decade, despite the various bits of political madness that appear to have so much of the world (the country I live in included) in its fearsome grip.

Between now and the end of the year, I’d like to progress a bit on the series of posts I have embarked upon on the plays of Ibsen (they don’t get too many readers, but as I keep saying,  I am writing these primarily for myself); and I may treat myself to an occasional rant (there haven’t been too many of those lately).

But for the moment, let us progress with Dante and Dickens: an unlikely pair, perhaps, but they should keep me  going for a bit.