January 31, 2015

"Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks."

On the joys of the writerly memoir

Was Pippa Middleton the beginning of the end?

Penguin would have thought it a sure-fire win. An in-law of the royals (and not just any in-law, but the one the press nicknamed "Her Hotness" when she burst onto the scene at her sister's wedding to the second in line) imparts the secret of -- not curing the King's Evil, no, something much more 'of our time': brilliant parties year round. They handed Pippa a £400,000 advance, and she handed them Celebrate: a year of British festivities for family and friends. And it flopped! Only 2000 copies sold in its first week. In a nation of 65 million people! Plus the Commonwealth!

It wasn't the first celebrity title to flop -- earlier, a book by Alec Baldwin on fatherhood failed even more spectacularly, not surprisingly, I think you'll agree -- but maybe because of the personality in question, it was the first time I noticed the word "bubble" being used. When was the bubble going to burst on celebrity titles (most commonly memoirs, naturally, followed by -- you guessed it -- cookbooks)?

Well, it looks as if the answer may be 'Now'. With the 2014 sales figures totted up, and various biggies in the book industry weighing in, including the editor of The Bookseller, whose impeccable adjective they used in their headline, The Guardian reported ‘Exhausted’ readers shun celebrity memoirs as autobiography sales fall. 

I, for one, am not disturbed at the idea that the self-indulgent celebrity memoir (which I once saw described as being either the ghostwritten account of 'How I got to be what I am', or ghostwritten advice on 'How you can get to be what I am') may be going into a tailspin.

The great memoir, on the other hand, is my working week and Sunday rest in this moment of my life. What makes a great memoir? I like what the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said: "Great memoir requires great courage and an appetite for sincere self-skepticism. To do this, you cannot fucking lie."

My appetite for memoir has become such that I'm even reading a book about the appetite for memoir, David Shields's Reality Hunger. Shields maintains that we are living in the Age of Memoir. "Urgency attaches itself now more to the tale taken directly from life than one fashioned by the imagination out of life", says Shields. "Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia." I am not sure it is The age of the memoir - but it surely is My age of the memoir. In the sense of, my age. This was the theory also of Geoff Dyer, who was the first writer who drew my attention to this phenomenon -- he called it "Reader's block", though I learned in this book that he didn't invent the term, David Markson did -- of realising, after many years of gorging on them, that you're not getting excited any more about invented plots and invented characters.

Never say never (and I'm always still up for classics, maybe because characters like Becky Sharp -- Vanity Fair being the next I plan to read -- have by now become real, with quotation marks, pace Nabokov, and I'll be forever grateful to David Shields for bringing Nabokov's line to my attention) but right now, I'll take a good memoir over any other book, any time.

And if you are looking for a good memoir, you can't do better than a writerly memoir. Writers do it better! They know how to write, above all. But also, I am a big fan of how often they write a whole book on an aspect of their lives, rather than attempt to set down the whole shebang.

Here are the writerly memoirs I've got on my table right now:

syndetics-lcOriginal, dreamlike, feminist: Things I don't want to know : a response to George Orwell's 1946 essay 'Why I write'  by Deborah Levy, which ends

I rearranged the chair and sat at the desk. And then I looked at the walls to check out the power points so I could plug in my laptop. The hole in the wall nearest to the desk was placed above the basin, a precarious socket for a gentleman's electric razor. That spring in Majorca, when life was very hard and I simply could not see where there was to get to, it occurred to me that where I had to get to was that socket. Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa. 

syndetics-lcHypnotic, disquieting, hard-boiled: My dark places: an LA crime memoir by James Ellroy, in which "America's greatest crime writer investigates his mother's murder" -- and his obsession with it.

My father put me in a cab at the El Monte depot. He paid the driver and told him to drop me at Bryant and Maple. I didn't want to go back. I didn't want to leave my father. I wanted to blow off El Monte forever. It was hot--maybe ten degrees more than L.A. The driver took Tyler north to Bryant and cut east. He turned on Maple and stopped the cab. I saw police cars and official-type sedans parked at the curb. I saw uniformed men and men in suits standing in my front yard. I knew she was dead. This is not a revised memory or a retrospective hunch. I knew it in the moment--at age ten--on Sunday, June 22nd, 1958. I walked into the yard. Somebody said, "There's the boy." I saw Mr. and Mrs. Krycki standing by their back door. A man took me aside and kneeled down to my level. He said, "Son, your mother's been killed." I knew he meant "murdered."

syndetics-lcOdd, intimate, witty: Revertigo : an off-kilter memoir by Floyd Skloot

I'm actually not sure if the whole book is odd, intimate and witty, as I haven't read it yet, but the last part, which I have read, is. Also touching and heart-breaking. It's about mothers, and memory, intense and intertwining subjects for anyone over a certain age. A family friend, leafing through an old "East End Temple Young Family Set" recipe book from the 1950s discovers that Skloot's mother, who had never cooked a day in her life, had contributed a recipe for Veal Italienne "Sklootini" to it.

From the moment I saw the recipe, I felt I had to cook it. As avid about cooking as my mother was about not cooking, I saw this as a chance to complete something for her. It would be a tribute to her intention, as I understood it, in submitting the recipe, in presenting herself as the kind of person who cooked such a dish. 

syndetics-lcFierce, hilarious, astute: The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle

A whole 300+ pages of "autobiographical writings" which I'm reading for the second time, there's so much to enjoy: the famous "Desperately seeking Susan" recollection of Susan Sontag, "Travels with my mother" about taking her mother (who takes mournful pleasure in noting that Castle is beginning to resemble David Hockney) to see a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition, and "My heroin Christmas", about a holiday spent under the spell of Art Pepper's Straight Life, a book whose Reality Hunger credentials I vouched for in a "What I'm Reading" from 2010. 

Warm, frank, virtuosic: Inside a pearl by Edmund White  syndetics-lc

If you read lots of Edmund White, you may think you've already read this -- a book on Paris, love, sex, and, in general, being "the kind of guy who always wants to be elsewhere". I did. But no, it's new, and he's still in form, as in:

When I broke up with him (I found the rancid smell of menthol cigarettes daunting), all he did was warn me that I was getting old and should settle down before it was too late. "Tu viellies, Edmond," he hissed. If only he'd known how many more decades of gallantry lay before me. Which didn't stop a reporter from the London Times from calling me and asking me politely, with a nice Oxford stutter, what I thought of "intergenerational sex". I answered him sincerely and described my relationship with Michael, who's twenty-five years younger than me. A few days later, as we were about to board a plane to London, Michael opened a newspaper and found an article about ourselves headlined "The Frisky Old Goat Is Still At It". 

syndetics-lcObsessive, personal, loving: Famous builder by Paul Lisicky

I've just noticed the first quote on the back is from none other than the Frisky Old Goat. "This book shows all the vital signs of genius. In Famous builder Paul Lisicky asks the tragic American question: who are you if you've recreated yourself? And he answers it: you are alone, vulnerable and fully loaded."

"Lisicky." What? I try to project my name toward the ridged roof of my mouth. I try to keep my jaw loose, my eyes animated, secure. I think: Smith, Stevens, Bishop. "Li-sick-y," I say again. "Paul Lisicky." How do you spell that? I note the hushed quality of the bank teller's voice, the tender, quizzical lift of her penciled-in brow. She leans in closer to me, palms flattened against the counter as if I've just told her my condition is terminal.

And for those of you who like the classics

syndetics-lcDown and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning. 


January 16, 2015

Fetish-vessels of cash: the world's most expensive books

You may have noticed that I am not a fan of "Best books of the year" lists. Not because I don't enjoy recommending books; it's that "best" that gets me, because "And how should I presume?", to borrow Prufrock's refrain.

syndetics-lcHow should anyone presume to identify the best? Best for whom? One of my most pleasurable book memories is of chuckling my way through The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker's paean to procrastination, but a non-procrastinator would undoubtedly find the book a waste of time (worst possible insult). Or, best for which station on our route? If your parents are still alive and on top of things, Roz Chast's memoir Can't we talk about something more pleasant? may seem a grim read, whereas for me it brimmed with poignancy.  "Best" is so subjective!

Did you know that AbeBooks -- the online marketplace of new and used books whose claims of offering "the greatest selection of books found anywhere" I firmly believe (it's actually a network of bookshop websites) -- produces every year an intriguing booklist based on a totally objective formula? Not "best" but "most", and specifically, most money. Which books did avid collectors spend the most for on AbeBooks?

An example of a Les MaÎtres de L'Affiche poster
For 2014, the list was headed by a five-volume collection of a monthly illustrated French publication Les Maîtres de L'Affiche, or "Masters of the Poster", published between 1895 and 1900, which fetched US$ 43,350. Half the top ten were in fact collections of journals, treatises, or encyclopedias.

The other half, well, who would have thought that Das Kapital itself would one day become some rich capitalist's fine fetish-vessel of cash? An 1867 edition sold for US$ 40,000. The others were a first edition of Call for the dead, John le Carré's first novel and debut of the spy George Smiley (US$ 22,500); a 1969 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Salvador Dali who had also signed it (US$ 20,000); a first-edition A Farewell to Arms inscribed by Ernest Hemingway (US$ 18,000); and a collection of Salman Rushdie first editions (US$ 16,162).

You can see all top 50 titles on the AbeBooks website.

And what is the most expensive book ever sold on AbeBooks? A first edition of ... The Hobbit, which went for US$ 65,000.

Pre-movie dust jacket. (Abebooks)

But of course the really huge sales, the million dollar and more ones, aren't made online. The author of the aforementioned Das Kapital affirmed that private property makes people stupid? Well, not that stupid! When you're spending that kind of money, you want to see what you're getting.

Here's a list of the ten most expensive books ever purchased -- usually at auction, where I expect serious bidders (up to your imagination how the Auction House would determine this) would have been able, duly supervised, to hold the book, as long as they had white gloves on, of course. You might want to imagine you are wearing a pair as you peruse it.

List of the ten most expensive book purchases in the world

1. The Codex Leicester, Leonardo da Vinci - US$ 30.8 million

Bill Gates bought this 72 page notebook filled with Leonardo da Vinci's handwritten scientific musings at an auction in 1994. It seems incredible to me that something like this could be in private hands at all, even though the do-gooding Mr Gates did scan it and turn it into a screensaver anyone could enjoy, as long as they were users of Microsoft windows.

2. St Cuthbert Gospel - US$ 14.3 million
Lots of superlatives here. Described by the British Library as "one of the world's most significant books", the St Cuthbert Gospel could actually be considered the world's most expensive book, as the Codex Leicester is technically a paper document.  This 7th-century pocket gospel book is the earliest known Western bookbinding to survive, and, with a page size of only 138 by 92 mm, one of the smallest surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. From 1979 it was on long-term loan from the British province of the Jesuit order to the British Library, which in July 2011 launched a fundraising campaign to buy the book for £9 million. Less than a year later, in April 2012, it was announced that the purchase had been completed and the book was now British Library. Restores your faith in the world.

3. The Bay Psalm book - US$ 14.2 million

This psalter, or book of psalms, is one of just 11 surviving copies of 1,700 which were printed in 1640 -- the first book printing in what became the United States. It belonged to the Old South Church in Boston and was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $14.2 million in November 2013. It was purchased by financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein who plans to loan it to various libraries across the United States. Well done, David!

4. The Rothschild Prayerbook - US$ 13.4 million 

A 16th century Flemish illuminated manuscript book of hours which was "confiscated" from the Rothschild family immediately after the German annexation of Austria in 1938. The Austrian government finally returned the book to the Rothschilds in 1999, and it was sold by Christie's that same year for £8,580,000 (then US$ 13,400,000), still the world record auction price for an illuminated manuscript. The prayerbook was offered for sale again at Christie's in 2014 and purchased for £8,195,783. The anonymous bidder was eventually revealed as Australian businessman Kerry Stokes, but the Prayerbook remains unrevealed, part of Stokes's private collection in Perth.

5. The Gospels of Henry the Lion, Order of Saint Benedict — US$ 11.7 million

A masterpiece of the 12th century Romanesque illuminated manuscript which the German government purchased from Sotheby’s in 1983.

cover of Birds of America via Wikimedia Commons
6. Birds of America, James Audubon — US$ 11.5 million

One of America's favourite books, and how could it not be, many Birds of America appear on lists of expensive books. This complete first edition sold at Sotheby's in 2010. Many also are the ingenious ways libraries holding copies share them with the public, eg the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has a daily "page turning" event at 3:15 p.m. in the Academy's Ewell Sale Stewart Library. 

7. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer — US$ 7.5 million

Of the dozen known copies of the 1477 first edition, this copy, sold by Christie's in 1998, was the last to be held privately. It was originally purchased for £6 by Earl Fitzwilliam at the sale of the library of John Ratcliffe, a chandler, in 1776. 

cover of First Folio, via Wikimedia commons

8. First Folio, William Shakespeare — US$ 6.1 million

The First Folio’s original price was a single pound (one or two more for a leather-bound copy). Now, only 228 (out of the original 750) survive, and it's one of the most highly prized finds among book collectors. This sale was in 2001, to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Auckland Libraries has the only First Folio in New Zealand (in fact, it has all four folios). Sir George Grey bought it for the library for £85 (after turning down one in perfect condition priced at £255) in 1894. 

9. The Gutenberg Bible — US$ 4.9 million

A then-record price from 1987. Only 48 Gutenberg Bibles — the first books to be printed with movable type — exist in the world.

cover of Traite des arbres fruitiers from Wikimedia commons10. Traité des arbres fruitiers, [Treatise on Fruit Trees] by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau, illustrated by Pierre Antoine Poiteau and Pierre Jean François Turpin — US$ 4 million

There had to be a treatise. This one, dated 1768, is on fruit trees, 16 different varieties.  Only 16? The sale was made in 2006.

The important thing to remember, of course, is that these are not values, but prices. Putting a value on a book... ah, there we are again, back in the subjective! What is your most valuable book? Would it be the one which would fetch the highest price at an auction?

January 07, 2015

"Do I dare to eat a peach?" T.S. Eliot lives!

Photo of TS Eliot
The classic TS Eliot
Starting the new year with a bang and not a whimper, here's to T.S. Eliot! This week marks the 50th anniversary of Eliot's death in 1965; he lived to see the Beatles' first LP, but not a man on the moon. He also lived to see himself an esteemed figure, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he accepted, he said in his speech, "not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry". Of course, that "for a time" was excessively modest, as is demonstrated by the flurry of activity the anniversary is engendering: readings, productions, broadcasts, a Mass or two, a social media shout-out with his own hashtag of #TSEliot, and more.

In a prime example, actor Stephen Dillane, who is described by the event organisers -- and here's where we see what 50 years mean -- with pride rather than offhandedness as "well known for his roles in Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", will read Four Quartets in Bloomsbury, "just metres from the site of the original Faber & Faber offices" where Eliot worked for four decades and where, noted his colleague Frank Morley at Eliot's 60th birthday symposium, he drew attention above all for his talent at writing blurbs. Other tidbits which have come to light include the fact that Eliot rejected Animal Farm because he thought that, well, actually the pigs were the most qualified to run the farm, they just needed to have more public spirit (you can read the rejection letter on the Open Culture website).

Too, the prize money for the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry was increased this year in honour of the anniversary, from £15000 to £20000; the yearly stipend the Bloomsbury group had wanted to put together so that Eliot could quit his earlier job at Lloyd's Bank was £500. Virginia Woolf and Co. were among the first to recognise Eliot's genius, though they also mocked his primness, with Clive Bell recalling, in his essay "How pleasant to know Mr Eliot", an invitation he received from Virginia which read, "Come to lunch on Sunday. Tom is coming and what is more, is coming with a four-piece suit." Eliot turned down the stipend, if not the lunch.

Lacked flamboyance

"Lacked flamboyance" was one of the subheadings in Eliot's obituary in the New York Times, where he is described as a "clerkish type", famed for his bowler and "tightly rolled-up umbrella". A clerkish colossus whose "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" ushered in the modern movement in poetry. In an Eliot 2-for-1, "Prufrock" also has an anniversary this year: its centenary. Its first appearance, in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine, was in 1915 -- the same year that Albert Einstein completed his General Theory of Relativity, ushering the concept of black holes, modernity in another form, into physics.

photo of TS Eliot from http://www.phillwebb.net/
Rarer Prufrock-era image
It's hard to realise now, the extent to which people were put off by "Prufrock" a century ago. I remember reading the story (I think in someone's memoirs -- I've been trying to recall exactly where, to no avail; if anyone knows, I'd love to hear from you) of how a cultured society hostess invited Eliot to read it aloud at a luncheon she was giving, and how after the first lines the guests began dropping to their knees and crawling away, so that their impolite departures would be hidden by the tablecloths.

What was so shocking about "Prufrock"?

Let's hear it from someone who lived through those times. Desmond Hawkins, a disciple and a contributor to Eliot's review "The Criterion", decried in an essay for the 60th birthday symposium the "chumminess" and "sloppier sort of Romanticism" of the then-reigning Georgian poetry. But that was a minority view. By all accounts 1915 was Rupert Brooke's year. His poems were quoted in the TLS, read from pulpits, collected, and published to great acclaim, in coincidence with his death on a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea on his way to Gallipoli, just a month before "Prufrock" was published in Poetry magazine.

Here's a verse from Brooke's collection:

Now that we’ve done our best and worst, and parted,
I would fill my mind with thoughts that will not rend.
(O heart, I do not dare go empty-hearted)
I’ll think of Love in books, Love without end...

And here's what another beloved poet of the period, Walter de la Mare, was writing:

Some one came knocking
At my wee, small door
Some one came knocking
I'm sure, sure, sure...

Here's a taste of John Masefield's famous "Dauber", which came out in 1915 as well:

Then came the cry of “Call all hands on deck!”
The Dauber knew its meaning; it was come:
Cape Horn, that tramples beauty into wreck,
And crumples steel and smites the strong man dumb...

and of Alfred Noyes's "The Lord of Misrule", another 1915 publishing date:

Your God still walks in Eden, between the ancient trees,
Where Youth and Love go wading through pools of primroses

 And then, suddenly, there was this:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table...

the story of an everyday hell, made up of failures, doubts and disappointments, with an epitaph from Dante's Inferno in which Guido da Montefeltro swears to Dante that he will speak the truth, as there is no point in fabricating, given that none of them will make it out of hell alive.

Here is a great recitation of "Prufrock" by Anthony Hopkins, which I highly recommend. I've always found it difficult, as a mere mortal, to be convincing on some of those inflections, even in my head -- "Do I dare to eat a peach?" must be one of the most difficult lines to read aloud in the history of poetry -- so it's nice to have someone take command. He does it at a very fast tempo, which I wasn't sure about then and there, but which turned out to be a masterful intuition (more pain, less pomposity). See if you agree. Text follows so you can read along.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Yep, I'm with Desmond Hawkins who, looking back in 1948, summed it up like this: "Eliot restored the position of poetry as high art and not merely a capricious effusion".

The writer Robert Sward told the story ("All at Sea with T.S.E") of how, around the same time, a US Navy officer expressed what I think is more or less the same concept, though he used slightly different terms:

In 1952, sailing to Korea, a U.S. Navy librarian for Landing Ship Tank 914, I read T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Ill-educated, a product of Chicago's public school system, I was nineteen years old and, awakened by Whitman, Eliot and Williams, had just begun writing poetry. I was also reading all the books I could get my hands on. Eliot had won the Nobel Prize in 1948 and, curious, I was trying to make sense of poems like Prufrock and The Waste Land.

"What do you know about T.S. Eliot?" I asked a young officer who'd been to college and studied English Literature. I knew from earlier conversations that we shared an interest in what he called "modern poetry." A Yeoman Third Class, two weeks at sea and bored, I longed for someone to talk to. "T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but he lives now in England and is studying to become an Englishman," the officer said, tapping tobacco into his pipe. "The 'T.S.' stands for 'tough shit.' You read Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, what one English Prof. called 'the first poem of the modern movement,' and if you don't understand it, 'tough shit.' All I can say is that's some love song."

The officer talks him through the poem and then he says:

"At some level in our hearts, we are all J. Alfred Prufrock, every one of us, and we are all sailing into a war zone from which, as the last line of the poem implies, we will never return."

December 31, 2014

"Was there another Troy for her to burn?"

Beguiled by the testament of a Yeats-loving lover

cover of The Gonne-Yeats LettersMy Book Find of 2014 has to be this collection of the letters of William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne, the Irish nationalist revolutionary who was Yeats's great infatuation, we could even say obsession, and the inspiration for many of his finest poems. And when I say "this", I mean this very one shown here, a book which was anonymously donated to the library for the annual used book sale, where I spied it and made it mine.

It's not because it was a particularly good read. Yeats is one of my gods -- I even plowed through some of his astrological lunacy, albeit at a tender and uncritical age -- but only a handful of the letters in the book are his. In what might be seen as symptomatic of his relationship with Gonne, he seems to have saved all of her letters, whereas she did not find his worth such effort. Even the two letters he received from her just before her marriage (to another! to his immense dismay) were "very crumpled, as if carried around in his pocket and reread many times, then smoothed out to put away with the others", the Editor's Note tells us -- though I am surely not the only one to think it more likely that he had balled them up and thrown them across the room, only to pick them up the next morning and smooth them for keeping. In contrast, Maud Gonne had only kept two of his letters "particularly safe", one being his last letter to her.

No, it's something else which made this book my find of the year. Yeats is the great poet of romantic yearning, and I've noticed on many occasions how the bond that Yeats lovers form with him is very romantic and viscerally personal. In his "bibliomemoir" Outside of a Dog, Rick Gekoski recounts his shock at discovering that his girlfriend had betrayed him with her English professor, with whom she was studying Yeats, using his copy of Yeats which he had lent her. He felt that was "unaccountably wicked". Later, with the book back in his hands, he examines her annotations.

"Her note to 'Leda and the Swan', that tale of the overcoming of innocence by male lust, seemed in retrospect positively prescient: 'Zeus -- passionate. Leda -- helpless and terrified'. So my loved one was overcome by a God-like teacher (the animal!), but it wasn't her fault. That was some consolation, though her notes stressing the purification that comes from the flames of passion in the margin to 'Byzantium' seemed to indicate that much good could, and had, come out of it for them both if not for me."

And long after a zealous janitor had removed it, the Dean of Colby College (and Yeats scholar) still remembered with regret the "Yeats lives!"graffiti which had reigned for many years on the basement wall of the library. Annie Proulx attended Colby College, but somehow I don't think it was her work.

And The Gonne-Yeats letters, or rather the copy of it I am celebrating here, captured my heart the minute I saw this inscription scrawled on the title page:

25 August 2008

In comparison, we only have five more years to go, and, of course, I haven't asked your daughter to marry me...

The love story between William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne lasted 49 years, from the day he met her and was immediately enthralled by her great beauty and fiery spirit, to the day he died. He asked her to marry him a number of times, both before and after she had a child, a son, with a Frenchman who shared her revolutionary politics. She only told Yeats about the child after it had died, perhaps needing to explain her mourning attire, but claimed it was an adopted child. She then conceived another child with this man (the act taking place upon the dead child's mausoleum), a daughter this time, named Iseult. Yeats proposed to Iseult when she was 23, after yet another refusal on Gonne's part (she wanted to devote herself to freeing Ireland, she told him they would be united by love in another life, and anyway she didn't like sex, and she had already suggested he marry Iseult back when she turned 15), with no better luck. Iseult too turned him down.

If my calculations are right, someone was gifting this book to a lover of over 40 years, with "five more years to go", to match Yeats's record. Five years from 2008 would take us to 2013 -- the year the book was donated to the library. To be sold for a dollar! And still uncreased! What happened?

In his great poems inspired by Maud Gonne, Yeats charted the waning, as well as the waxing, of the love story which he once called the troubling of his life. Did the fate of these modern-day lovers reflect one of these?

Had they wearied?

I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

-- Adam's Curse

Had love fled?

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

--When You Are Old

Did this wonderful man not make it?

I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young
And weep because I know all things now:
I have been a hazel tree and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind:
I became a rush that horses tread:
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head
Would not lie on the breast or his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves, until he dies;
Although the rushes and the fowl of the air
Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.

-- Mongan Thinks of his Past Greatness

Or was his beloved, like Maud Gonne, a beautiful troublemaker who would never be his, through no fault of hers, when all was said and done? I love all these Maud Gonne-inspired poems, but this one the most:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

-- No Second Troy

December 15, 2014

Occupy your coffee table with a new book these holidays

Let's hear it for the coffee-table book, the entertainment which asks nothing of you while offering so much! For example...

The perfect time-filler:
The coffee-table book can be enjoyed alone or in company, on a sunny day or a rainy one, you can open it anywhere without having to remember where you'd gotten to, using it does not require a show of wit or talent, and it's always charged up.

cover of book published for Francis Bacon retrospective
The centenary retrospective 
A great conversation starter:
"Mmm... Francis Bacon. Cruelty and splendour..." That's Kate Winslet's character in the wickedly funny movie Carnage (from Yasmina Reza's play), a sort of modern day Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf set in trendy Brooklyn rather than in tweedy academia, coolly appraising the coffee-table books of her hostess. Who faux-casually responds that yes, she picked it up at the MoMA retrospective where she...

A status symbol:
At this year's Association of Book Crafts conference I heard someone moot that perhaps the era of the book as a status symbol is drawing to a close. Are we serious? No more books on coffee tables as a statement of who we are? Only decorative bowls and designer lamps? Or for most of us, phones, iPods, remote controls, DVD cases, and offers from your internet provider you haven't decided what to do about?

Clearly, what's needed here is an Occupy Coffee table movement. Battle cry: No coffee table to be without a coffee-table book!

cover of Michelangelo from Taschen BooksWhat's that? You say you're tired of lugging around books which don't fit nicely into wine boxes with your other books, whenever you move house? Or finding they're too tall for your bookshelves when you want to put them away? And are you really going to get in enough views to make it worth the price tag? And what about when you splurged on a complete Michelangelo and then they went and cleaned the Sistine Chapel?

People, the answer is simple. Get your coffee-table books from the library! Enjoy them for a month or two, and exchange them for others. They won't cost you a cent, your selection will always be new and interesting, and you'll amaze visitors with your eclectic taste, not to mention sophistication.

Here are ten awe-inspiring, eye-catching coffee-table books which will give you an idea of the embarrassment of riches you can find nowadays in the library.

1  Wa: the essence of Japanese design by Rossella Menegazzo
syndetics-lcIf, like me, you find Japanese design amazing, you'll love this book from Phaidon Press, one of the most important "high-end" publishers on the visual arts. We feast on 250 objects, from wooden stools to paper chairs, from "skin" juice boxes to kimonos, in an exploration of Wa. What is Wa? Phaidon Press explains: "Wa – the Japanese character that refers not only to the concept of harmony and peace but to Japan and Japanese culture itself – has evolved into a term to describe that peculiar ‘Japaneseness’ which Western culture finds at the heart of Japanese beauty."

You can see a gallery of pictures from the book on the Phaidon Press website.

2. Egyptian Art by Émile Prisse d'Avennes
syndetics-lcThe first complete collection of the nineteenth-century French Orientalist (40 years passed in the Middle East, or Orient as it was then known), author and artist Émile Prisse d'Avennes's splendid illustrations of Egyptian architecture, sculpture, painting and industrial arts, in facsimile  -- over 400 very large (44 cm) heavy matte pages. Echoing the hyperbolic format, the title page announces in three languages that the book was "Directed and produced by Benedikt Taschen" ie the head of Taschen, a world-renowned publishing house in the area of art and design, described by the impeccable Mr Porter website thusly: "Its carefully bound books, on topics as diverse as vintage advertising and the work of Mr Helmut Newton, are invaluable additions to the stylish coffee table or library". FTW, Karen!

syndetics-lc3. William Blake: The drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy
If ancient art doesn't appeal to you, here's another chance to get the Taschen experience. Again a very large book (41 cm), this one with 14 fold-out spreads "to allow the most delicate of details to dazzle", as Taschen puts it, correctly -- I can vouch as I have the book at home right now. The book collects the 102 illustrations which Romantic poet and artist William Blake produced for Dante's masterwork in the last years of his life. The Taschen blurb concludes, again indisputably, "This is a breathtaking encounter with two of the finest artistic talents in history".

You can see Blake's illustrations for The Divine Comedy file past to the sound of Ed Alleyne-Johnson's version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (it works!) in a short video created by Jane Burden Morris, the famous muse and model of the Pre-Raphaelites (that's she up in the corner), or perhaps a namesake of hers.

4. Proud too be weirrd by Ralph Steadman syndetics-lc
A first person monograph by the British artist fired from The Times in the sixties because his work was "too seditious", best known to most for his close collaboration and friendship with Hunter S. Thompson (eg the crazed, splattered-ink illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
You can see some of the illustrations collected in Proud too be weirrd on the AMMO (American Modern) Books website, including the wonderful two-page spread which opens the book (I have this book at home too), which reads "The Annual All of Us Are Animals, But Some of Us Wear Glasses and There is Always One Who Doesn't Fit In Festival of Culture" (below).

Ralph Steadman: Proud Too Be Weirrd: Spread #3

Other highlights for me are Alice in Wonderland and the wasp, and Steadman's thoughts on chickens, in particular how hard it is to draw unfunny pictures of them.

5. Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings
Whereas most coffee-table books tend to be somewhat triumphant, presenting with a flourish of trumpets, this one is suggestive, unworldly and emotionally charged. It consists of facsimile reproductions of 52 "envelope-poems" by Emily Dickinson -- sentences, stanzas and entire roughed-out poems scribbled on pieces of envelopes -- discovered after her death.
The book closes with a long, intelligent essay by Marta Werner, who describes attempts to discover whether certain kinds of birds possess homing instincts which consist of throwing the birds up into the air and watching whether they drift or find their way. She compares these fragments of poems to distant migrants, saying "Ideally the reader of these writings will assume the role of 'liberator', releasing them high up into the ether, following them until they are out of sight, noting their vanishing points, and, whenever possible, replying to them, counting each brief connection with them as an instant of grace".

6. Building Stories by Chris Ware
Putting my money where my mouth is, arguing that "coffee-table book" does not have to be a disparaging term, implying a book which is all appearance and no substance, I'm declaring this wonderful creation by cartoonist Chris Ware, which has been compared to Ulysses and Joseph Cornell's boxes, a coffee-table book. A coffee-table comics book. Yes, it's technically (and famously, in the world of comics) a box containing (I quote from the Auckland Libraries catalogue record) 1 hardcover vol., 32 cm.; 1 hardcover vol., 24 cm.; 1 newspaper, 56 cm.; 1 booklet, 31 cm.; 2 booklets, 28 cm.; 1 booklet, 20 cm.; 1 booklet, 8 x 25 cm.; 5 printed sheets, ranging in size from 71 x 9 cm. to 56 x 81 cm., all folded; and 1 folded board, 41 x 107 cm., folded to 41 x 27 cm." but it is definitely a book, and one which has been residing on my coffee table this month, and in which, just as with coffee-table books, I've been finding something new and intriguing every time I turn my attention to it. "All components are unpaged and are chiefly col. illustrations. None have titles." we are told. There is no order to the experience, in other words; the stories are there for you to build, in three dimensions as in the imagination, jumbled together, like remembered dreams.

7. The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz

8. Concrete edited by William Hall
syndetics-lcI knew no list of coffee-table books could be complete without a book involving buildings, but wanted something a little bit different. Eureka! It's Concrete! "Presents a visual exploration of the aesthetics of concrete architecture through 180 structures from ancient Rome to the present day. Includes innovative and inspirational projects from monuments and churches to stations and cultural spaces, by some of the best architects of the last 100 years. Concrete is a beautiful and informative visual exploration of a material often considered dull and cold but actually full of spectacular potential" says the blurb.

You can "Look inside" on the Phaidon website.

9. Don Martin: Three decades of his greatest works
syndetics-lcA shining light of my childhood. As soon as my sisters and I would get our allowances, we would head down to our neighborhood store to buy candy (Necco Wafers or Rolos) and the latest issue of Mad magazine. That's how I remember it anyway, although I realise that since our allowances were paid weekly, and Mad was a monthly, we couldn't have bought it every time. But that was the idea, and when Mad wasn't in, we went home with just candy. There wasn't a second choice for magazine. I'm glad to see that the series this book appears in is called "Mad's Greatest Artists", because Don Martin certainly was in this category. He was also "Mad's Maddest Artist", a title he alone held. "Inside are over 200 of Martin's funniest and zaniest works from his lengthy career, along with every 'GOOSH,' ' SPROING' and 'POIT' that made his cartoons great", promises the publisher.

syndetics-lc10. The World of PostSecret by Frank Warren
Do you know what PostSecret is? In the words of its creator, Frank Warren, "PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard". Warren posts the cards, often adorned with expressive artwork as an adjunct to the secret, on the PostSecret website, as well as reproducing them in a series of books, of which this is the latest, so new that as of today, it hasn't even arrived in the library yet, though you can already put yourself on the wait list for it. Reading the postcards was not at all like what I expected. There is no mythologising, no banality, no voyeurism. The flow of secrets has something profound and historical about it, almost holy, as if it were some sort of Book of Hours, whose illuminations are the inventive artwork, as in the original, but also flashes of insight into the human spirit.

Some people tweet their secrets at @postsecret. Here's a secret tweeted today:

December 04, 2014

Throwback Thursday: I Had a Dog AND A CAT

Ah, the wonders of the Dewey Decimal System!

I Had a Dog AND A CAT, by the Czech novelist and playwright Karel Čapek, written as Europe cowered under the shadow, if not yet the jackboot, of Nazi Germany, and containing, as well as humourous stories about his beloved pets, pointed asides on such topics as dog Eugenics and the need to prepare for the birth of a Super-dog; the current vogue for Dobermans and Alsatians; the lack of a Czech national dog (but if this race existed, Čapek opines, its exemplars would undoubtedly be fattish, small and lie behind the stove and bark a lot); this book, I was saying, shares a shelf in the Central City Library's basement with Richard Dawkins's The selfish gene, three memoirs by the good-humoured animal collector Gerald Durrell, and An illustrated guide to common soil animals by H. Pauline McColl, all classified as 591.5, "Behaviour".

For his anti-fascist stance which he shared with his friend Tomáš Masaryk, the Czechoslovak president, the Gestapo declared Karel Čapek "Public Enemy Number 2" in Czechoslovakia, as if to say "Just wait til we get our hands on you". They never did, however, because Čapek died on Christmas Day 1938, a few months after France and England signed the Munich agreement which handed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, but before the actual invasion. Čapek was an Anglophile who visited England often and was friends with George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton, and he seemed to have lost the will to live after Munich. His friends urged him to leave the country, without success. They had no better success at urging him to eat more. When he died, one of them said that the cause of death was "a stab in the heart from Neville Chamberlain's umbrella".

When the Nazis marched in, they didn't actually know Čapek had died, and did indeed go looking for him, and for his brother Josef, a noted writer, poet and artist, who contributed drawings in his trademark playful, primitive style of dogs, cats, and an occasional human, or human legs, to I Had a Dog AND A CAT. Josef was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, and died in Bergen Belsen in 1945.


Before coming across I Had a Dog AND A CAT, I only knew Karel Čapek as the man who brought into the world one of the best purpose-made words ever, "Robot" (he always capitalised it), from the Czech word robota, heavy labour, in his famous anti-utopian comedy R.U.R.; I knew he was considered a sort of non-hardcore Science-Fictiony type, along the lines of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. But then I found another book in the library, published in 1990 on the 100th anniversary of his birth, with a foreword by a big fan of his, Arthur Miller.

Called Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader, it includes such gems as an act from the play "Lives of the Insects", with Mr and Mrs Dung Beetle waxing ecstatic -- "Our little capital! Our golden treasure!"-- over their dung ball (the stage direction is something like "Enter an enormous ball of manure pushed by two dung beetles"); a piece on gardening called "Legs and the Gardener"; one on, well, clumsy people, called "In Praise of Clumsy People"; and the irresistible "In Praise of Idleness". True idleness: not rest, and not repose. Rest is related to work, either recovering from or preparing for, and idleness must bear no relation to work. And repose implies activity, and pleasure. Idleness calls for neither. In fact, "It calls for nothing at all".

"And when a person is through idling", Čapek concludes, "he arises and returns as if from another world. Everything is a little alien and distant, distasteful somehow, and strained; and it is so.. so strange, that... a person has to take a little rest after being idle; and then after resting, lounge around for a while; and then relax a little more, then devote himself to a certain amount of inactivity, and only afterwards is he able to recover his strength and begin to do something completely useless."

You can read all of  "In Praise of Idleness", indeed all of Intimate things, the book where it first appeared in 1936, in the Universal Library of the Internet Archive.

December 01, 2014

"6. The right to mistake a book for real life"

Daniel Pennac turns 70 today, a good excuse to pull out, for your enjoyment or re-enjoyment, his wonderful "Rights of the reader", from his somewhat redundantly titled -- but only in English translation -- The Rights of the Reader. In the original French the book was called Comme un roman, ("Like a novel") and as much as I love Quentin Blake, the Gallimard (the French publisher) cover is my favourite, so I'm going to put it first.

The rights of the reader: 

  1. The right not to read 

  2. The right to skip 

  3. The right not to finish a book 

  4. The right to read it again

  5. The right to read anything

6. The right to mistake a book for real life

7. The right to read anywhere

8. The right to dip in

9. The right to read out loud

10. The right to be quiet

Everyone will have a personal favourite, I'm sure. Mine is "The right to mistake a book for real life", something I have exploited to its fullest. Come to think of it, I might be even better matched to a 6b, "The right to mistake real life for a book". 

syndetics-lcI only knew Daniel Pennac the crime writer -- his crime novels set in the Parisian neighbourhood of Belleville, where Édith Piaf was born under a lamppost, having been recommended to me by Bill Ott (not me personally, it was his review for Booklist, but it certainly spoke to me personally) thusly: "Pennac's novels will appeal to those who find a certain inexplicable joy in spontaneous outbursts of oddity" -- until I came across a book called Au bonheur de lire,"The Happiness of Reading".

It was one of those books publishers put out like record labels do a "Triple Value Soul" -- a line-up of their stars. In this case the stars included Daniel Pennac, and the triple value included a cover with one of the most lascivious images of reading I've ever seen, with ripe jujubes (at least I think that's what they are) peeping from among the pages of a book. That cerebral image on Comme un roman is so last-century in comparison. 

Pennac's piece is about ownership of books. Few objects, he says, so inspire a sense of ownership as books. I loved his reasoning on how easy it is when you've really enjoyed a book, to consider it "yours", even when technically it isn't. So hard to give back to the person who lent it to you! (Libraries are different, of course. Of course.) 

Two great anecdotes: 

1. During World War II, the Italian novelists and anti-fascists Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante had to hide out for several months in a shepherd's hut. They had only been able to grab two books when they had made their getaway: the Bible and The Brothers Karamazov. "From which derived," says Pennac, "a terrible dilemma: which of these two monuments should they use for toilet paper?" He doesn't tell us which they chose. But he assures us they did.

2. The grandfather of novelist Tonino Benacquista went so far as to smoke his Plato. Prisoner of war in Albania (World War II again), he found deep in his pocket a page of Cratylus, and a match... "A new form of Socratic dialogue, via smoke signals."

The cleverest homage to Daniel Pennac, arrived at his eighth decade, came from Feltrinelli Zoom (@FeltrinelliZoom), the digital arm of Italian publishers Feltrinelli, who posted this wonderful taste of Pennac on Twitter:  

"Everyone's good at being born! Even I was born!
But then you have to become! become!
grow, increase, develop,
get bigger (without inflating)
accept changes (but not mutations)
mature (without shrivelling)
evolve (and assess)
progress (without getting senile)
endure (without vegetating)
get old (without a second childhood)
and die without protest, at the end...
an enormous programme, a continual vigilance...
because age, at any age..."

November 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Flaubert in Egypt

When Truman Capote's New York society friends cut him off upon reading the first part of his self-described "Proustian" novel about them, Answered Prayers, he said he couldn't understand why they felt so betrayed. "What did they expect? I'm a writer!" was his line. It's a great line, and it comes back to me now and again, most recently during the reading of a small book with a long title which caught my eye down in the fabled Central City Library basement.

Flaubert in Egypt
A Sensibility on Tour
A Narrative drawn from
Gustave Flaubert's
Travel Notes & Letters 
translated from the French 
& edited by 
Francis Steegmuller

Francis Steegmuller being a noted Flaubert scholar and translator of Madame Bovary, not to mention a friend of Graham Greene and author of a French version of The Owl and the Pussycat, a masterpiece called Le Hibou et la Poussiquette, all of these points featuring in a Books in the City post a few years ago.

The artwork on this jewel was as enticing as the title. The front cover was a plunge into colourful Orientalism, a detail from Delacroix's Women of Algiers, while the back was given over to a period black and white photograph of sunbaked houses, their peeling facades chaotically arrayed with wooden-latticed balconies, a few scruffy acacias in the foreground. Did Flaubert take this photo? I wondered.

To my surprise the jacket flap claimed that it was a photo not by Flaubert, but of Flaubert! Flaubert in garden of the Hotel du Nil, Cairo, photo by Maxime du Camp, it clearly said. But where was he?

The mystery was solved when I got the book home and began reading it. A few pages in, a list of illustrations revealed that Flaubert was also in the Hotel du Nil garden opposite page 40. And sure enough, there he was -- dressed as a Nubian, yet.

The caption reads: Flaubert in Cairo, 1850. 'I would never allow anyone to photograph me. Max did it once but I was in Nubian costume, standing, and seen from a considerable distance, in a garden.' The garden is that of the Hotel du Nil, the name of one of whose proprietors, Bouvaret, Flaubert did not forget.

Yes, because Madame Bovary was still in Flaubert's future. For now, he was 28 years old, with drawers full of unpublished manuscripts in his study at his mother's house, proclaiming in a letter to her how little that mattered:

"Haven't I everything that's most enviable in the world? Independence, the freedom of my fancy, my two hundred trimmed pens, and the art of using them. And then the Orient, especially Egypt, flattens out all the little worldly vanities... The sight of so many ruins destroys any desire to build shanties; all this ancient dust makes one indifferent to fame..."

One of my favourite moments is when his mother suggests that on his return he might get "une petite place", a small job. "Frankly, and without deluding yourself," he replies, "is there a single one that I am capable of filling?" And anyway, "Isn't not to be bored one of the principal goals of life?"

The letters are full of experiences which would keep one from being bored. Flaubert sees dervishes stuck through with iron spikes, he visits a Coptic church and thinks of what Voltaire would have said, he observes the ceremony of the Doseh ('Treading') where a sheik rides on horseback over a human plank of 200 prostrate men, he holds a charmed snake, he gallops off to take in the Sphinx, the sight of which nearly makes him giddy.

A high point of the adventure, perhaps the high point, is convincing the famed dancing girl Kuchuk Hanem to dance "the Bee", the most notorious of the oriental dances, banned by the authorities. The door has to be closed, everyone sent away except for the musicians, who are blindfolded. I expected that "the Bee" would be Kuchuk flitting around as if she were a bee, but no, it is Kuchuk pretending to be fighting off a very pesky bee, shedding her clothing piece by piece. "Finally she was naked except for a fichu which she held in her hands and behind which she pretended to hide, and at the very end she threw down the fichu. That was the Bee." And then to bed, together. "She insisted on keeping the outside."

In a note, Steegmuller tells us that Flaubert's mistress read his travel notes and in her jealousy, seized on a mention of Kuchuk's bedbugs, saying they degraded her. Pas de tout, replied Flaubert. The smell of Kuchuk's bedbugs were "the most enchanting touch of all. Their nauseating odor mingled with the scent of her skin, which was dripping with sandalwood oil. I want a touch of bitterness in everything -- always a jeer in the midst of our triumphs, desolation even in the midst of enthusiasm."

What did I say? A writer!

The most striking passage for me is contained in a letter to his dear friend Louis Bouilhet, sent from Cairo, at the end of his trip, June 1850. Perhaps it was a thought which came to him there among the scruffy acacias of the Hotel du Nil.

"Let's not get lost in archeology -- a widespread and fatal tendency, I think, of the coming generation... the world is going to become bloody stupid and from now on will be a very boring place. Max and I talk constantly about the future of society. For me it is almost certain that at some more or less distant time it will be regulated like a college. Teachers will be the law. Everyone will be in uniform. Humanity will no longer commit barbarisms as it writes its insipid theme, but --- what wretched style! What lack of form, of rhythm, of spirit!"

A year after his return to France, he began Madame Bovary, going off in a new direction from all that he had written before, taking literature ("the old whore" as he calls it in one of his letters) in a new direction as well. But as Steegmuller points out, romantic echoes of Egypt still sounded now and again. In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the Queen of Sheba tempts the saint by telling him "I dance like a bee".

The books:
Flaubert in Egypt ed by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Answered prayers by Truman Capote

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