December 10, 2008

Hamish Keith's artistic crush

Hamish Keith will be at Central Library tomorrow evening to present his memoir Native Wit. I really enjoyed reading this book. As you would expect, it’s got great style that carries you right along; and as you would also expect, it’s full of wonderful stories. The one I’m about to share comes from when he was in art school in Christchurch. It follows a paean to the old Penguin paperbacks which touches on the literary crush, and involves instead the artistic crush:

My first artistic passion was for Amedeo Modigliani. Not a great leap forward from the leggy nymphs of Petty and Vargas, but at least his nudes had pubic hair. I suspect that I was as much attracted by the little I could glean about his life as I was by his painting. He seemed to have much more fun than Gulley Jimson and was entirely more sexy. Had my sleep-out had the Mecca Dairy mirror, I might well have tried out a few Modigliani routines and adopted his arms-akimbo stance as my own. I rather fancied I did look just a little bit like him. (If I had had his corduroy suit I could have really pissed my father off.) I adopted the one aphorism of Modigliani I had read as my own: une vie brève mais intense (a short but intense life). What a wanker!

Just before the Library’s bargain book sale last month I was trying to find some books that I could donate to the sale to make room on our shelves for the books piled all over our window seat, where by now only the cat can fit, and only if curled up. I spotted an old, hardcover biography of Modigliani which I hadn’t looked at for years, and I thought I might have found one – already a great success rate for me. But as soon as I opened it I knew it would never go. All I had to do was reread the death scene, the two death scenes, actually, because his lover and model Jeanne Hebuterne threw herself out of a window the next morning at dawn, nine months pregnant.

Jeanne Modigliani, their first child, is the author of the book, which from a look at the dates might have been published just after Hamish Keith had had to make do with gleaning the odd aphorism. He would have known so much more, like the fact that if for him “une vie brève mais intense” was a laudable stand against monotony, for Modigliani dying young had always been the only possible outcome; he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis when he was only sixteen. This is not to say that his lifestyle (a friend drops in near the end to find him and Jeanne in bed, surrounded by empty wine bottles and open sardine tins) helped, but maybe this is where the intensity comes in. Jeanne the daughter recalls how her grandparents always mentioned Modigliani's drug use, rather than his drinking, she thinks because they rather admired Baudelaire.

So last night upon reading that passage in Native wit I got the book back down and there as a frontispiece is the photo in the corduroy suit! What a suit it is. It brings to mind the dress Scarlett O’Hara makes out of her green velvet curtains. Three piece, thick, the ribs gleaming, worn over a light-coloured necktie and a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar. The chair leg rests on a piece of rubbish, the hand dangles a cigarette. The gaze is lovely dark and deep.

I’m hoping tomorrow evening to get a chance to show the book to Hamish: yes, the library has a copy, just as old and yellowed as mine, down in our marvellous basement stack. It’s called Modigliani: man and myth.

Hamish Keith on “Hamish Keith: man and myth” is tomorrow evening at Central Library. Come at 5:30 PM for a glass of wine thanks to Glengarry Wines; the talk starts at 6:00. For more information, see our What’s on pages.

December 01, 2008

Let's be mad! Romantic heroes from Heathcliff to Zhivago

It’s been really fun to read the literary love confessions which people have been posting here, not least for the introductions to some romantic heroes I hadn't encountered, such as William, described by Wikipedia in its exhaustive way as "adventurous, imaginative, romanticising, irrepressible, optimistic, and lovable”. My only doubt is about the irrepressible, a fine character trait for a best friend but a bit worrisome in a soulmate you'd be planning to glue yourself to.

Yuri Zhivago was on a lot of people’s lists and he came to my mind as well, but I wasn't sure if I were in love with him or with his love story. “But to go to Varykino now, in winter, that would be madness. But why not, my love, let’s be mad if there is nothing but madness left to us!” I quote this line from memory so cannot vouch for it exactly, but this is what it is all about. Revolution, civil war, the lovers' desperation, the snow, always the snow, the candle flame.

Heathcliff was another name which came up, problematical as always. Not long ago I read, I think in the TLS, someone's opinion that Wuthering Heights is the only instance of "L'amour fou", mad love, in English literature. In notes on Abismos de pasión, Bunuel's fantastically named film version of the novel, Kevin Hagopian tells how what fascinated the surrealist was precisely this, the book's portrait of mad love, “a tempest of rage and self-indulgence.” Despite the call to madness, Dr. Zhivago is not about mad love which leaves devastation in its wake. It is the world which is mad, and which devastates the lovers.

Boris Pasternak made his name in Russia as a great poet during the first World War. At the time of the Revolution, he was 27 and optimistic about its idealism, unlike Anna Akhmatova who, just a year older but evidently tougher, was “neither young enough to believe in it nor old enough to justify it”, as Joseph Brodsky put it with his usual acumen. Forty years on, in 1957, there was Dr Zhivago.

Knowing it could not be published in Russia, Pasternak had the manuscript delivered to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher who is still famous today in Italy for defying pressure from Russia and being the first to publish this great work, as well as for dying while setting explosives on a Milanese electricity pylon in guerilla warfare against the Italian state in the 1970s.

In the midst of all this, a book came in on reserve for me which I have no recollection of having requested. It’s about Russia’s poets of the Silver Age: Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Pasternak, and the rest. The author, Elaine Feinstein, is a poet and a translator of Tsvetaeva, and her grandparents were Russian Jews, as were so many of these writers, including Pasternak. She goes to St. Petersburg to write this book, "for the ghosts" she says.

She tells the story of Pasternak's anguish over the Nobel Prize, which he at first accepted and later refused, possibly under threat of exile. He was a somewhat Hamlet-like character, as was his hero Yuri Zhivago. When he had to look for something else to do during the Stalin years, not a good time for poets, he translated Shakespeare. His banned poem Hamlet, included in Dr. Zhivago, was recited by his friends at his funeral.


The rumbling has grown quiet. I walk out on the stage.
Leaning against a door jamb,
I try to catch in a distant echo
What will happen in my lifetime.

At me is aimed the murkiness of night;
I'm pinned by a thousand opera glasses.
If only it is possible, Abba, Father,
May this cup be carried past me.

I cherish your stubborn design
And am agreed to play this role.
But now a different drama is underway;
This time, release me.

But the order of the acts has been determined,
And the ending of the journey cannot be averted...

The books:

  • Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • The Russian Jerusalem by Elaine Feinstein

  • November 15, 2008

    Literary crushes

    The other day I came across a great post from Alison Flood in The Guardian books blog. Having heard about a petition launched in Japan to allow people to marry cartoon characters (hey, don't laugh, Fox News is convinced Donald Duck could vote in the US Presidential Election), she was inspired to think about what fictional character she would marry. A few, it turns out, from Georgette Heyer heroes to Jay Gatsby, by way of Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables. Who are your literary crushes, she asks?

    This is the kind of question that could probably keep me alive a few extra days while waiting to be rescued at the bottom of a ravine. Say I was precocious, but when I was still being read aloud to I can remember hanging on my mother’s words as she read to us about mysterious, one-armed Freckles in Girl of the Limberlost. Although, since I remember that the other high point of the book for me was the description of Elvira’s lunchbox with its cunning little compartments, maybe I wasn’t that bad.

    Later – that would be puberty – there was the Louisa May Alcott book Eight cousins and its sequel Rose in bloom, about an orphan named Rose and her seven boy cousins, one of whom she is of course destined to marry. The main players are the oldest cousin, Archie, the natural-leader type; Charlie, nicknamed “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, talented, charming and fatally flawed; and bookish, absent-minded Mac. I think I was a little bit in love with all of them -- well, maybe not Archie!

    I was pleased to see just now on The Literature Network site that readers are discovering and gushing over this sweet, romantic and proto-feminist book in 2008.

    In high school I fell in love with Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun also Rises and spent many nights picking out a sophisticated, androgynous one-syllable name that I would change my name to as soon as I moved out of my parents’ house. With my best friend, I shared a crush on Mercutio, the melting point being established in Franco Zeffirelli's film version of Romeo and Juliet. And of course there was Dean Moriarty.

    But my biggest literary crush of all is my high school Honours English teacher. He had beautiful blue eyes, a romantic limp, a passionate soul and he interpreted poetry so sublimely. The day he read us "Ode on Melancholy," when he got to the part about he whose strenuous tongue can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine, I was, if not his, John Keats’s forever.

    So, who are your literary crushes?

    November 04, 2008

    Bargain Book Sale

    This month at Central Library we’ll be holding one of our twice-yearly bargain book sales, so be sure to come in and rifle through the hundreds of older items we take off our shelves every year to make room for all the new purchases. And a used book gave me an amazing book moment today, an unexpected post-script to last month’s post about Banned Books.

    It happened like this. The announcement of the sale set me to remembering some of the secondhand books I’ve owned. I have an acute memory of a book I bought when I was nineteen, somewhere in Europe. I like to think a bookstall along the Seine and perhaps it was. This book, Les premieres illusions ("First illusions") by an unknown to me Michel del Castillo, I chose for the title but nearly as much for the cover, its blotting paper texture, the words in red capitals centered and boxed in the plain white field, so serviceable, so elegant. The classic Gallimard design, I realise now.

    Reading this book turned out to be like diving into someone’s dream. It was a story of a childhood passed in a world in which it was impossible to know what was real and what was false, where the ordinary was extraordinary and vice-versa. I read it two or three times before it passed out of my hands somehow somewhere along the way.

    Having never come across the book or the author again, I decided to have a look on the internet, expecting if I were lucky a listing on Alibris. Instead I was amazed to find that Michel del Castillo is still alive, has written twenty or thirty books (one on Amazon rated 4,723,410 in sales), has a website, a blog and a rare and intense biography.

    He was a child living in Madrid with his mother Candida Isabel, a personality as extravagant as her name, when the Civil War broke out. Despite her bourgeois origins, she threw her lot in with the Communists, writing articles and transmitting as “Isabelita’ every night on Radio Madrid and having a couple of tragic liaisons with officers from the International Brigades etc. who would be killed in the war. Just before Franco’s troops entered the city, they fled Madrid for France, where they reunited with her French husband  (Michel's father), who “fou de rage” (crazy with anger) denounced her to the Commissariat as “susceptible de troubler l’ordre” (likely to disturb the order).

     It goes on and gets worse. His mother deserted him, he was deported and interned in Mauthausen until the end of the war, when he was repatriated to Spain where as the son of a "Red” he spends four years in a sort of penal camp.

    And then I read this: “Four years of hell which he evokes in many of his books; but also, in this prison, there came the revelation which will transform his existence: Dostoevsky.”


    I go looking in his blog for more. It's Dostoevsky above all, but there's Miguel de Unamuno, Thomas Mann, Thomas Bernhard and also Celine, of whom he praises his “epoustouflante” inventiveness (I have to look it up in the dictionary. it’s… it’s ... “mind-blowing”? Are we sure?)

    "Je n’ai pas d’autre biographie que les livres, ceux qui m’ont fait et ceux que j’ai faits."
     ("I have no other biography besides books, those which made me and those which I have made.”)
    Yes, it is in French, for English (sort of) try this:

    October 31, 2008

    A funny story about censorship

    I missed my bus stop today because I was reading a new Primo Levi book which I came across at the Glen Innes Community Library. I had gone there for a meeting, but wherever I go I have to sneak a look at the book titles (this includes houses I go to parties at, doctors’ examining rooms, etc.). I didn’t even know that there was a new book out by Primo Levi, who died 21 years ago, an “apparent suicide", as they say.

    It turns out that it was published last year to mark the 20th anniversary of that sad event, and only appeared to be brand-new from needing to be better known, this small, darkly beautiful book with a starry sky on the cover, called A tranquil star: unpublished stories despite a list in the back showing where and when each story was published – in Italy. I think Primo Levi, with his fine appreciation for the ironies of the human condition, would not have minded.

    As with all “unpublished stories”, this is not the book to read if you are just discovering this extraordinary writer. Primo Levi’s great works are his two Auschwitz memoirs If this is a man and The truce. I strongly feel that every thinking person should read If this is a man before getting too far along in life, before the jelling of their world view. Wondering how to convey economically the uniqueness of this book, it occurs to me that the subjunctive wording of the title already reveals much.

    Primo Levi was a chemist by training, in the Italian sense of scientist (which saved his life at Auschwitz where he was put to work in a paint laboratory from which he was able to steal a bar of cerium and make cigarette lighter flints to exchange for bread, a story he tells in The periodic table, his affecting autobiographical tour of a life entwined with chemistry).

     I always remember something I overheard once during a summer job in a research lab studying meteorites. Two scientists were walking down the hallway in front of me. They were discussing crystalline structure, and one of them was saying with fervour, “If they are both real, and yet they are different, why are they different?” Primo Levi wanted to know the answer to this and many other riddles of life, and the tools he used were intelligence and precision, but also compassion and humour.

    A Tranquil Star contains this funny story about censorship, which I am passing along to you hot on the heels of Banned Books Week. It is set in a fictional country with a strict, ie very busy, censorship office. Finding that too many censors develop psychological “anomalies and perversions” as a result of their jobs, a computer is employed, but this too proves inadequate when an eminent military historian is hanged for having used the word “brigadier”, fuzzily close to “brassiere”. What to do? A physiologist comes up with an exciting new solution. Domestic animals, given the right conditioning, can not only perform simple tasks but actually make decisions!

    The finish of the story:

    Curiously, the mammals closest to humans were found to be least useful for the task. Dogs, monkeys, and horses who underwent the conditioning proved to be poor judges precisely because they were too intelligent and sensitive. According to our anonymous scholar, they act far too passionately; they respond in unpredictable ways to the slightest foreign stimuli, which are inevitable in every workplace; they exhibit strange preferences, perhaps congenital but still inexplicable, for certain mental categories; and their own memories are uncontrollable and excessive. In sum, they reveal in these circumstances an esprit de finesse that would be detrimental to the goals of censorship.

    “Surprising results, on the other hand, were obtained with the common barnyard chicken: this animal’s success is such that, as is common knowledge, four experimental offices have already been entrusted to teams of hens, under the control and supervision of experienced functionaries, naturally. The hens, besides being easily procured and costing little, both as an initial investment and for their subsequent maintenance, are capable of making rapid and definitive decisions. They stick scrupulously to the prescribed mental programs, and, given their cold, calm nature and their evanescent memory, they are not subject to distractions.
    “The general opinion around here is that in a few years the method will be extended to all the censorship offices in the country.

    Under the last line of the story appears the phrase “Approved by the censor” and a chicken's clawprint.

    The books:

  • A tranquil star: unpublished stories
  • If this is a man, and The truce 

  • October 22, 2008

    Banned Books

    Every time I visit the US, I find there’s a new baseball team and a new raise-awareness date. On my arrival there last month these were the Reno Aces, and Invisible Illness Week. I thought the new team name an inspired choice; Invisible Illness Week grabbed me somewhat less, although I did enjoy noting how it had been calendared in next to good old Banned Books Week. Was narrow-mindedness one of the invisible illnesses, I wondered.

    I was proud to learn last year that I am a direct descendant of the author of the first banned book in America. In 1650 William Pynchon, who is also Thomas Pynchon’s ancestor, wrote a treatise called The Meritorious Price of our Redemption, Iustification, &c which argued a point of Puritan doctrine. It was suppressed and burned on the Boston Common, where my father rollerskated as a boy. A respected magistrate and scholar, Pynchon himself was not burned, not immediately at least. He was given time to reconsider his views and make a retraction, but he said to hell with this (my sister’s words), transferred his land to his son and went back to England, where he continued to write his tracts until his death.

    syndetics-lcPerhaps this bloodline is the reason why I’m so intrigued by banned books, the books which subvert authority because they make people think. “Ana,” I ask my Madrilenan friend with the family portrait of the mantilla-wearing countess, “What was the book again your father took away when you were growing up? Was it Crime and Punishment?” “Ah no” she says, “It was The Brothers Karamathov, he burned it in the bath.” Of course, The Brothers Karamazov, "a world filled with greed, passion, depravity, and complex moral issues” as the library catalogue record has it. I think of it as the greatest of those books that everyone who has read them can still recall, sometimes a few lifetimes later, the emotion they felt then.

    “Does fiction matter?”

    We had Iain Sharp, Gordon McLauchlan and Paula Morris in for New Zealand Book Month to answer this question and the answer was yes, for many different mischievous, thoughtful and fantastic reasons. And here is an amazing revelation which shows why we need to ask. Paula told us that at Tulane University, where she teaches, every year all the undergraduates are assigned one book – the same book -- which they all must read, discuss, etc. And she said they have to pick a non-fiction book because too many students are afraid of reading fiction!

    The poet Joseph Brodsky wrote movingly of Nadezdha Mandelstam who, when her husband Osip was sent to the Gulag where he perished, committed to memory all his poems “as they could not be committed to paper”, repeating them day and night for 18 years – “it was them, not his memory, she was trying to keep alive”; and did his own stint in the Gulag before being exiled from Russia. From his new home in the West he said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them”.

    The books:

  • The brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Less than one by Joseph Brodksy

  • September 06, 2008

    Sea of Many Returns

    “In Acland Street, St Kilda, there stands a café called Scheherazade. As to how it came to have such a name, therein lies a story. Many stories in fact, recounted at a table in the back room where the proprietors, Mr and Mrs Zeleznikow, Avram and Masha, sit most nights of the week and eat, hold court, greet customers, check accounts, argue and reminisce. What else is there to do on this rain-sodden Melbourne night, as pedestrians rugged in overcoats stroll on pavements glistening grey… this is how it is in Acland Street, an avenue of old-world dreams.”

    Arnold Zable lives in Melbourne, but he was born here in New Zealand which earned him the right to appear at Auckland City Libraries’ first New Zealand Book Month event, “Lounge around the Library on a Sunday morning” , happening - guess when - this Sunday morning, Sept. 7th at 10:30 am. In anticipation of this event, over the last couple of weeks I have been bringing his books over to my desk whenever I run into one, and tonight I opened the one called Café Scheherazade and was blown away by realising that Scheherazade - my Scheherazade - was not just a catchy title but the whole point of the book.

    Arnold Zable is a child of Polish-Jewish refugees who writes and performs stories which he invents, or rather elaborates, out of his travels and his knowledge of Yiddish culture absorbed from listening to people like Avram and Masha, who really exist. David Roskies called Yiddish storytelling a “politics of rescue” for successive generations of displaced Jewish artists, I think because it is a traditional art which however is able to transcend the limits of geography, a portable tradition, if you will. And if the Yiddish culture was practically wiped out in Europe in the Holocaust, the last and greatest attack made on it but only one of many over two or three centuries, new shoots have come forth in the New World. Good for the New World!

    Zable’s new book, which he just presented at the Christchurch Writers’ Festival before coming up to Auckland, is set in Ithaca and is called The Sea of Many Returns and has as its theme displacement, again, but also exile and nostalgia, what he calls the “ancient longing welling up from the sea”. He will be talking about his book with Denys Trussell, the poet who deemed Auckland the city of transience “rising / sinking on the isthmus shallows / that change forever with the sea”.

    "To Melbourne’s first storytellers: the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people. And to all those who are still in search of a haven, a place they can call home."       -- Café Scheherazade, the dedication

    September 03, 2008

    Does fiction matter?

    Who is the most famous storyteller in history? It has to be Scheherezade. And one of the most famous of the tales which she told for one thousand nights and one night is the story of the doctor who comes to the court of a Greek king and cures him of leprosy. Of course the vizier is jealous and tells the king all kinds of lies about the doctor, ultimately convincing him to sentence the doctor to death. Just before he is about to have his head cut off, the doctor tells the king that he has a book with a magic spell in it which will make his head, after it has been severed, answer any question the king asks. The king has the book brought to him, the doctor is beheaded, and the head tells the king to start reading. The king starts turning the pages to get to the spell which can reanimate the dead; the pages are stuck together and he has to lick his finger to turn them. “Where is it?” “Keep turning the pages.” The king's mouth begins to foam and he falls down dead. The doctor had poisoned the book.

    syndetics-lcIf you thought, what a smart doctor, that’s what I always thought as well. But the mythologically surprising Marina Warner, in the July 11 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, offers the idea that the story is a parable about the power of literature: the book as a deadly weapon.

     New Zealand Book Month has arrived for its third annual visit, like a comet it appeared at sunset last night, low over the city, with a shimmering long tail of books trailing behind. To be exact, seventy-five tasty, succulent and meaty New Zealand books. Authors, publishers, booksellers and at least two librarians gathered to observe it at the opening ceremony which was magnificently orchestrated to put everyone in a good mood, certainly me who won a raffle prize and even, eventually, the friend of mine who had reacted a bit grumpily to being reminded of New Zealand's outsized fixation on a violent game by a performance of an excerpt from Foreskin's lament.

    syndetics-lcGordon McLauchlan was at the Library the other day and I told him about my idea to have a New Zealand Book Month event that asks a question, something like “Is there a New Zealand literature?”. He told me that back when he reviewed books for the Listener, he could read every book published in New Zealand easily, without it putting any particular pressure on his time. Now of course it would be impossible, even if he didn’t take time out for the Finnish national radio’s news bulletin in Latin. We mused about whether we could ask “Is there a Great New Zealand Novel?”. He dangled The God Boy; I recalled how enraptured I was when I read The Godwits Fly. I wondered if it were true that narrative and fiction determine a country’s character as much as its laws and economy and politics do, as Marina Warner claims. We took a moment to chew this over and then Gordon said, "Maybe the question could simply be 'Does fiction matter?'"

    "The sky behind the flat houses and the taller brick shape of the Old Men’s Home, dipped softly down, a perfect round. It was pale blue, not shiny, not cloudy, but shot with streams of tiny bubble, all moving upwards in an unending stream. Suddenly Eliza felt awed and happy. She thought, ‘Isn’t it big… isn’t it big…’ She tried to imagine anything bigger than the sky, and failed. The blue curve dipped down far away, just a little beyond shops and houses, and the foam-daisied harbour, and the brown hills. Because it was so big, there was nothing in the world unhappy or uncomforted; they were all streaming and shining up toward it, like the bubbles."

    --Robin Hyde, The Godwits Fly, 1938

    Does fiction matter?

    August 22, 2008

    Ezra Pound's Bel Esprit

    Thanks to all those people who answered the call I sent out in my last post and contributed dedications. Have a look at the comments, everyone! I liked Moocho's leap into the realm of poetry which started me thinking about how back during the snows of yesteryear entire poems were dedications, "To Lucasta, going to the wars", the noble Lovelace's riddle, or the gorgeous ripe fruit which is Andrew Marvell’s “To his coy mistress”, with that once-in-a-lifetime line “Had we but world enough, and time”.

    That revolutionary poet TS Eliot loved classical citations and the epigraph Moocho quotes from "The Waste Land" is from the Satyricon. It is followed by a simple “to Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro”. This phrase from Dante's Purgatory does not mean “the better craftsman” as I have seen in notes. It means “The best craftsman” .

    You can view Pound's enormous contribution to the Ars Wastelandia by requesting The Waste Land: a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts including the annotations of Ezra Pound from the library. The reproduction is so good that it's almost spooky to hold it in your hands, especially my copy, which I was able to get at a library bargain book sale because of its coffee stains. "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" it whispers to me.

    I am one of the many who prefer Eliot to Pound as a poet, although I want a dedicated minority of Pound fanatics, just like I want there to be Mac users around. For personality, Pound has it all over Eliot. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s belles-lettres memoir about being young and poor and eager in Paris in the 1920’s, there is a great piece about Pound founding Bel Esprit, in partnership with an American expat who has a little Greek temple in her garden. Through Bel Esprit, Pound is going to solicit money from artistic souls in order to spring "Mr Eliot" from his job at the bank so he can concentrate on writing poetry.

    Hemingway campaigns enthusiastically for Bel Esprit because it is so important to Ezra, although, with that streak of meanness noted by many of his contemporaries (but not Ezra), he makes a point of annoying Ezra by pretending to confuse Mr Eliot the poet with Major Eliot, a radical economist Pound admired. Then Eliot unexpectedly wins a literary prize and gets out of the bank by himself. Hemingway writes tenderly “It was always a disappointment to me that we had not been able to get the Major out of the bank by Bel Esprit alone, as in my dreams I had pictured him as coming, perhaps, to live in the small Greek temple and that maybe I could go with Ezra when we would drop in to crown him with laurel.”

    Ezra Pound’s grave, which I saw in the San Michele Cemetery in Venice, is marked by a slab of marble with nothing on it but his name in a plain Roman font. Ivy grows all around and visitors have left arrangements of pebbles, possibly representing the stepping stones in Japanese gardens. It would be good to place a rice cake there too, and a nightingale singing above.

    "I wrapped my tears in an ellum leaf
    and left them under a stone
    And now men call me mad because I have thrown
    all folly from me, putting it aside
    To leave the old barren ways of man."

    August 05, 2008

    Dedicated to the one I love

    syndetics-lc syndetics-lc

    I had an unexpected treat last night when I stopped off to pick up my reserves before leaving the library and found that two spanking new books were waiting for me: James Keldon’s Kieron Smith, boy, and Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones.

    It was the first time I had ever reserved books from reading reviews in the TLS and there was something serendipitous in the way they arrived together, both British, both hefty, both beige, one announcing “the greatest British novelist of our times” and the other “twice named one of Granta’s best of young British novelists”, and both tales about boyhood. It was like having two new friends drop round, sent by some old and distinguished acquaintance but who promised a certain raffishness for all of that.

    I puzzled therefore when I started turning the pages of James Kelman’s book and something seemed wrong. I had to look twice. No dedication!! I hastily grabbed Pilcrow. Surely Adam Mars-Jones with that portentous name, at once biblical and mythological, will have something good!

    "Dedicated to the Patient Ones, Holly, Keith and Lisa”. Having heard Mars-Jones described as waspish, not to mention brilliant and gay, I don’t believe that this is a variation on that most boring of all dedications used by so many male authors "To my wife, who put up with my – slot in two cute things-- far longer than anyone should have". But if not that, what? A clue, we need a clue!

    Don't these people realise how important dedications are? Even if authors' livelihoods don't depend on them anymore, a dedication is an artistic ritual. It’s a drop of blood, a distillation of something important, which the author invites us – poised on the brink – to imagine, and if we’re so inclined, even to share. Here are two of my cult dedications:

    from Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey 

    "To my mother and father-
     Who told me songs were for the birds
    Then taught me all the tunes I know
     And a good deal of the words."

    and this from The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems by Diane Wakoski 

    "This book is dedicated to all those men who betrayed me at one time or another, in hopes they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks."

    How many of you out there have a dedication or two locked away in your heart of bibliohearts? This is dedicated to you.

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