November 27, 2009

Larkin in the Library

We found a fantastic Have-Your-Say in the library suggestion box.

Here is what someone had written under the library's invitation to
Please share your thoughts with us

Morning at last: there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show.
Not the candle, half-drunk wine,
Or touching joys; only this sign
of your life walking into mine.
But when they vanish with the rain
What morning woke to will remain,
Whether as happiness or pain.

-- Philip Larkin

Did the person who left this know - of course they did, they must have - that Philip Larkin worked his entire adult life as a librarian in Hull, a city in Yorkshire so off-side that its only other claim to fame, that I know of, is being the hometown of the great Mick Ronson. It's one of the few things I knew about him. The others are that he wrote a poem which started with the remarkable lines "They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to but they do" and that in letters to his friends he used disparaging terms about a number of ethnic groups and women. I pictured him reclusive, crabby, funny, English, unemotional. But as often happens, there were many more things to know once I took the time, inspired by this anonymous donation.

Philip Larkin - older than I realised - started writing poetry in the thirties and got his first job as a librarian during World War II, in Shropshire, in a library so small that he was the only employee. One of his duties was to light the library's gas lamps. The librarian he replaced was over 70, which means, if my calculations are right, that he would have been born about the same year as Charles Dickens died. And Philip Larkin stopped writing poetry in the 1970s, just as Mick Ronson, dubbed "The Pride of Hull", was playing guitar for David Bowie on the mountaintops of Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust.

During those forty years, this man who described himself as looking like an egg, with a bald head and black plastic glasses, this man who was not actually a recluse but certainly solitary, who replied when asked if he wouldn't like to visit China "I wouldn't mind going if I could come back the same day", lived three long, contemporaneous love stories -- the three women proffering hostile stares over his deathbed -- and published no more than a few slim volumes of poetry. He was reputed to be the most costive of artists, according to John Banville in the New York Review of Books. Rarely can I not make even an educated guess at the meaning of a word, but costive was beyond me. It turned out to mean constipated.

Luckily, like most librarians Philip Larkin couldn't bear to throw anything away, and after his death over a hundred poems were found and published in the Collected Poems, all of them works any less perfectionist of a poet would have published without a qualm. For one particularly fine love poem it was noted that he might not have published it to avoid one of his lovers asking for whom he had written it.

You can read John Banville's  "Homage to Philip Larkin"  in the New York Review of Books online

and Richard Goodman's essay on Philip Larkin, librarian from About Larkin.

Then get Philip Larkin's Collected poems at the library

November 21, 2009

Bolaño, el gaucho insufrible

syndetics-lcI stopped reading Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives at about page 80, exasperated with experiencing in real time the lengthy, rambling thoughts of young literary poseurs that I kept mixing up so every few pages I'd have to flip back ten pages to try to remember who they were. Or actually, no. To identify them, not to remember who they were. I remembered who they were. They were that late-seventies phenomenon, the freaks, travelling around Europe, India, North Africa with their embroidered bags full of Caran d’Ache watercolour pencils, shiny things and dope, this last tending to make their conversations boring and pointless, although if you had partaken too you noticed this less.

Roberto Bolaño had come over from Mexico in those years and was travelling around Europe, perhaps with an embroidered bag, or possibly with one of those brown, black and white Inca woven bags. In Europe in those years South American was sexy. Where I had gone to live, in Florence, Iranian students at the University used to try to pass themselves off as South American to get laid. There were barricades in South America and barricades were an important theme back then. I had someone say to me, seriously, "When the Revolution comes, we know what side of the barricades you'll be on, but we're not sure about him", "him" being a newly come-out gay friend of mine who was living an endearing enthusiasm for Barry White music and disco-dancing.

So when I read in The New York Times, as I was waiting for my copy of The Savage Detectives, that Roberto Bolaño, Chilean who had lived in Mexico since he was young, had probably not in fact gone back to Chile to join the struggle against Pinochet and then been arrested and freed only by the miraculous coincidence of having been at school with one of the guards (A Chilean Writer’s Fictions Might Include His Own Colorful Past), I was okay with cutting him some slack. Someone misunderstood and thought so, he didn’t correct the story right away, and afterwards it was too hard. Or maybe he wanted to construct a narrative for himself which he felt expressed him better than the real circumstances. After all, didn’t Hemingway do the same thing with his World War?

But the problem turned out to be, I didn’t like the book anyway.  I wonder who made it into such a myth; it must be either people who missed out sociologically on the whole phenomenon, or people from a later generation, even better if young and uncritical,as I was when I managed to make my way through seven - or was it nine - volumes of Anais Nin's diaries in high school. I asked a friend of mine, who, like me, had known in her time not a few characters like the ones in the book, if she understood why someone wanting to write a “love letter to his generation“, as he apparently called it, would choose to describe a time when they were so young and so full of themselves? There was a pause and then she said, “Well, perhaps if you were dying of liver disease you would.”

The savage detectives by Roberto Bolaño

November 12, 2009

Graphic Fahrenheit 451

syndetics-lcJust out and much praised, Tim Hamilton's graphic adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, authorised by Ray Bradbury, the man who just over fifty years ago wrote the original novel about a book-burning future where rebellious souls pick books and memorise them to keep them alive, has now arrived at the Library.

It's very pleasing: the cover shiny and sharp-cornered, the pages that when you flip through them smell like vanilla and cream, the drawings going along all dark and then exploding into flame and then dying down again.

And a great dedication:

To David Passalacqua
Whose voice is still in my head every day
And I would like to thank the following:
Ray Bradbury, Thomas LeBien, Deep6 Studios,
Chris Sinderson, Tory Sica,
Howard Zimmerman, Dean Motter,
My mom, and Jean lee.

And then there was a passionate introduction by the big man, Ray Bradbury himself:

"... so what you have here, now, is a pastiche of my former lives, my former fears, my inhibitions, and my strange and mysterious and unrecognised predictions of the future. I say all this to inform any teachers or students reading this book that what I did was name a metaphor and let myself run free, following my subconscious to surface with all kinds of wild ideas.

Similarly, in the future, if some teacher suggests to his or her students that they conceive metaphors and write essays or stories about them, the young writers should take care not to intellectualise or be self-conscious or overanalyse their metaphors; they should let the metaphors race as fast and furious and freely as possible so that what is stirred up are all the hidden truths at the bottom of the writer's mind...

Finally, may I suggest that anyone reading this introduction should take the time to name the one book that he or she would most want to memorise and protect from any censors or "firemen" and not only name the book, but give the reasons why they would wish to memorise it and why it would be a valuable asset to be recited and remembered in the future. I think this would make for a lively session when my readers meet and tell the books they named and memorised, and why."

I am sure some of you out there will already be thinking of your choice. Me, I thought first of Macbeth, because you do tend to think of Shakespeare, or I do, and it's my favourite of the plays. Then I thought oh I should leave it for Paul Reynolds, he's much better suited, with that sublime Scots speaking voice.

Next I came up with Stuart Little. It's perfect for me: funny, sentimental, heroic and with a final message I really love, ie that even though Stuart hasn't accomplished what he hoped to do when he set out, which was to find his lovely lost Margalo, it's a happy ending.

"That's the way I look at it," said Stuart. "I rather expect that from now on I shall be traveling north until the end of my days."
"Worse things than that could happen to a person," said the repairman.

And then I thought, actually, even better, I might do the Odyssey, Stuart Little being a sort of starter Odyssey, if you think about it, the hero with more brain than brawn, the journey which becomes its own end.  For dessert, I could recite the final lines of Tennyson's Ulysses, which I already know by heart:

Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.

On the publisher's website you can see a video of an interview with Ray Bradbury ‌in which he talks about the genesis of the novel and the graphic adaptation.

Fahrenheit 451: the authorised adaptation by Tim Hamilton, Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury's original Fahrenheit 451

November 01, 2009

Critterati at The New Yorker

The New Yorker is rightly famous for its cartoons (available in anthologies at the library) but it is not just its Roz Chasts and Charles Barsottis which can brighten your day. For instance, I've always gotten a good laugh out of the little advertisements in the margins of the last pages.  I think the first time I would have read them by chance, maybe nothing left to read but those, but I was hooked right away. They are like haiku versions of John Cheever's beautiful stories saluting, with tenderness and irony, the gods of 1960s New England suburbia.

I'll just flip through a withdrawn library New Yorker which I happen to have at hand so you can see what I mean:

Specialty Bow Ties
Handmade silk ties
by Beau Ties Ltd of Vermont.

The original brass Blo-Poke
The Essential Fireplace Tool
Handcrafted in New England since 1941.

The "I" in College Admission Essay
Your teen finds his/her truth, and gets noticed
By writing the personal essay of a lifetime.

The Pavilion at McLean Hospital
Unparalleled psychiatric evaluation and treatment
Unsurpassed discretion and service.

'Tis an unusual world.
Hendrick’s. A Most Unusual Gin
“Voted Best Gin in the World.” The Wall St. Journal

And now my adored New Yorkers have outdone themselves with the Critterati “Dress your pets like literary characters” contest.  Off they went, having great ideas and rustling up little outfits for their cats and dogs, where do they get the time, I wondered, with those long hours they work, and then dropping by that deli where everyone has to go or you’re not a real New Yorker, not to mention a run or a game of squash and getting sushi and watching The Wire (is it still on?) and David Letterman?

There must be a department at FAO Schwarz with funny pet clothes; they could not possibly have had that stuff on hand in their apartments. Myself, I wouldn’t have gotten further than “We could photoshop a black bob on a picture of the cat and call her Kat Mansfield” – but that’s why I’m not a New Yorker. New Yorkers, je vous salue.

See them all: the Critterati contest winners on The New Yorker online.

My favourites are the dry French couple; you’ll know why when you see them.

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